Last week I traveled to Malaysia, leaving the familiarity and comfort of India for the first time in six months.My first stop was Singapore, which in spite of its large Indian population is the antithesis of all things Indian.
In Singapore I had one of the best sushi meals of my life (thanks, Mike), but on the whole, I found the place boring and soulless–not unlike walking through downtown Seattle. Between bouts of exhaustion I found myself comparing Singapore’s oppressive logic to the exuberance, noise, foul smells unimaginable chaos of India and feeling proud of having lived in Bangalore and adjusted over time. Walking around (and around, and around) Raffles Place, I saw a small pile of trash bags and instantly seized on the opportunity to snap a photo, almost as though I had uncovered some hidden flaw in Singapore’s grand plan.
The next stop was Kuala Lumpur, for some Saturday night revelry. Tired and smelly, I arrived in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur’s backpacker epicenter, an hour after sundown. Choc-a-block full of hostels, bars and restaurants, Bukit Bintang was perfectly insulated island of travelers from across Europe and South America. Here I met Italians, Belgians, Argentines and a study abroad student from Tanzania. With so many tourists shuffling from one watering hole to another, we could have been in Beijing, New Orleans or New York.
However, the most interesting group of foreigners I encountered were the Sudanese engineering exchange students who were hanging out in late night front of McDonald’s in a pack of twenty. from Islamic countries who live in Kuala Lumpur. Although I was taken aback, I shouldn’t have been. In a metropolis as large and diverse as KL, it’s possible to find people from just about any country, but I always enjoy it when the depths of my ignorance are revealed. There is that much more of the world left to discover. Also, groups of people chose to immigrate to specific places for specific reasons. So, why Kuala Lumpur? I asked to a group of nearly 20 dudes hanging in front of the McDonald’s at 3:30am on a Sunday. The assembled group told me they had come from Sudan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia to study engineering at a local college.
As it turns out, Malaysia is a top destination for tourists and exchange student from across the Islamic world. In my short stay, I met Sudanase, Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudi’s, but precious few Americans.
Though much smaller than neighboring Indonesia, Malaysia is a strict and observant Islamic nation, where religion is actively promoted by the federal government. I got the impression that people from strict Muslim communities would feel that their children had returned home both religiously and morally pure as long as they were in Malaysia. The country’s reputation in the West may have a dip after it was announced that Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno would be caned for drinking in public, in accordance with Sharia law, but I can imagine it won points with observant, worried parents.
That said, Kuala Lumpur was rife with contradiction. While religious observance is a very public part of life, especially for women, the wages of sin were never far off. Premarital sex is supposedly against the law for Muslims, but in 7/11 markets throughout Bukit Bintang, the variety of condoms, and lubricant next to the cash register was impressive. Although alcohol is taboo as well, I never had look very hard to find a bar or some shop that was selling beer, wine and liquor. Even if vice and virtue were smooshed together in an ungodly alliance, my first night in KL was a blast.
The highlight of the trip came mid-week when we trooped off to Langkawi, an island 50 minutes from Malaysia’s border with Thailand. To reach the tropical island, we rode a bus for six hours, took a taxi 30 minutes to the ferry terminal, then boarded a boat that carried us another hour and a half out to sea.
Before relocating to Asia, I was never much of a beach person, but that has all changed. Langkawi is supposed to have some of the world’s best beaches, but I have little for comparison. What I can say, however, is that the beaches were superb, nearly empty and within a short drive from virgin rainforest. Langakawi was heaven.
For the next four days, we zipped around on motor scooters, gorged on Thai seafood and even hiked into the jungle in search of clear quartz crystals. As much as the experience deserves to be documented in photos, no pictures could truly do justice to what I witnessed. More importantly though, I was able to get out of my zone and relax as I have been unable to do for quite some time.
Coming back to India was not as hard as I thought. Though just four hours’ flight from Bangalore, Malaysia and Singapore are a world apart. Their order, cleanliness and attitude are very different from India’s simultaneous arrogance and extreme insecurity–much like an 18-year-old child.
However, after living abroad and traveling, I feel at home pretty much anywhere I am. I’m back and I recognize the place. Life here is how it is. Life there is how it is.