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Malaysia has fervently embraced modern technology—it boasts two of the world's tallest skyscrapers and a super multimedia/cyber corridor.
But Malaysia still has some of the world's most remote rain forests (in Sabah and Sarawak); one of Southeast Asia's most vibrant old ports (George Town, Penang); and an atmospheric, colonial hill station (the Cameron Highlands). Even in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, which bristles with ambitious new building projects, you can still find exotic markets and plenty of local color. As a result, travelers to Malaysia can easily ratchet up or down the levels of adventure and comfort they want to experience.
Although Malaysia is predominantly an Islamic country, most Muslims there practice a more moderate form of Islam. Muslim women who choose to wear headscarves and modest clothing usually do so with bright and cheerful flair. More conservative followers prevail along the east coast of the peninsula, particularly in Kelantan and Terengganu, where alcohol is strictly controlled and women there find increased restrictions on their clothing and activity choices. These things will have little impact on visitors; however, respecting local customs and practicing modesty in clothing and attitude will go a long way in winning favor there.
Like many of its neighbors, Malaysia suffered damage and loss of life from the tsunamis that struck Southeast Asia in December 2004, but because much of the nation was shielded from the impact of the waves by Sumatra, only the northern regions, especially the islands of Penang and Langkawi, suffered considerable damage.
History books have made note of Malaysia since the Srivijaya Empire, which controlled much of the region from the seventh century to the 10th century. Afterward, the first kingdom centered on the Malay Peninsula was founded in Melaka (also often spelled Malacca) in the early 15th century. Melaka soon became a sultanate with close ties to both China and India. The increase in the spice trade turned Melaka into one of Southeast Asia's leading ports. Subsequent alliances with China and Arabia brought Chinese and Arab traders together in Malaysia, initiating a unique Chinese-Muslim cultural blend.
Local control of the peninsula, however, was short-lived. Portuguese traders and soldiers took over Melaka in 1571, adding yet another influence to the cultural mix, and remained until the Dutch took over in 1641. In time, the Dutch were gradually supplanted by the British, who also turned Penang into a thriving port and eventually brought all of Malaysia into their colonial empire. Three generations of "White Rajahs" ruled in Sarawak until the independent state was finally ceded to the British Crown after World War II. Malaysia agitated for and won its independence in 1957. Until it was rocked by the economic crash in 1997-98 that affected most of Asia, the country's increasing commitment to modernization continued to pay off. Today it appears to be back on the path to prosperity.
Malaysia's chief attractions are a mix of cultures (predominantly Malay, Chinese and Indian), Muslim and Western influences, indigenous tribal people, ancient rain forests, tropical beaches, coral reefs, ecotourism and adventure tours, exciting bazaars, wildlife, handicrafts, exotic food and world-class luxury resorts.
Malaysia will appeal most to experienced, somewhat adventurous travelers who have a strong interest in Asian cultures. Don't go unless you have a high tolerance for heat and humidity.
The 1999 film Anna and the King, based on the fictional romance of a young English schoolteacher in the court of a Siamese king, was shot on Langkawi Island because the Thai authorities refused to allow the production company to film in Thailand. Thailand's King Mongkut, depicted in the story as a proud and backward buffoon, was actually, by all accurate records, a brilliant leader.
The largest cave in Malaysia is the Sarawak Chamber in Gunung Mulu National Park. Several Boeing 747s could easily fit inside.
Sabah is home to the rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. This rare parasitic plant's flower can be 3 ft/1 m in diameter and weigh 15 lbs/7 kg, but it emits a repulsive odor, similar to that of rotting meat. Hence it is referred to as the "corpse flower."
The indigenous people of peninsular Malaysia are called collectively "Orang Asli" (original people). On Borneo they are known as Dayak, and they were once feared headhunters. Malays are also known as "Bumiputra," or "sons of the soil," a title that affords them some special privileges in the federation (other people such as the Orang Asli, Sabahans, Sarawakians and Peranakans, are also classified as Bumiputra).
The national language of Malaysia is Bahasa and is commonly spoken. However, many people, especially in Kuala Lumpur, speak English fluently. The government has encouraged English as the language of business, but it continues to thrive for other reasons. For instance, the Chinese of Malaysia do not share a common tongue and often speak English to one another. The same applies to Indians.
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