Malaysia can be a beguiling prospect for foreigners, especially Westerners. Split between Peninsular Malaysia, where it borders Thailand at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula, and East Malaysia, where it borders Brunei and Indonesia on the island of Borneo, Malaysia contains a population the size of Canada’s but with a tenth of the land area. Since the 14th and 15th centuries, Islam has been Malaysia’s dominant religion, and it remains the country’s official faith to this day. Human settlement and regional empires, however, have occupied Malaysia and the broader area for many millennia.
The state and city of Malacca, or Melaka, south of Kuala Lumpur on the west coast of the Malaysian Peninsula, served as the center of the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century, an influential economic, religious, and cultural force in the region.
In 1511, the Portuguese arrived and took control of Malacca by force, diminishing the influence of this vibrant city, which is still home to almost a million people and hosts an expanding tourism industry. A colonial legacy with signs of Portuguese and later Dutch and British rule, plus evidence of Malay Muslim, Hindu, and Chinese cultures all coexisting peacefully, makes for an electrifying experience. Innumerable historic sites and museums from Malacca’s illustrious history provide rich intellectual stimulation, with all of the accommodations, eateries, and modern cultural attractions to go with them.
The Dutch ousted the Portuguese from Malaysia about a century later, and were followed by the British in the 17th century, who came hungry for resources. One of the primary temptations for the British Empire in Malaysia was tin, which was used to make containers in which to store wildly popular Asian tea. Kuala Lumpur, also on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, was founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a supply point for a new tin mine. The city’s history has been turbulent, often tied to the price of tin and marked by criminal strife, war, imperial invasion, and racial tensions between the Chinese and Malay communities. Today, a metropolitan population of over 7 million thrives in a massive nest of skyscrapers, temples of many faiths, impressive colonial structures, and more delicious food than even the most experienced traveler could imagine. Kuala Lumpur is easily Malaysia’s top must-visit destination.
Another hallmark of the British colonial presence lies north up the coast of the peninsula on the nearby island of Penang. Penang’s capital, George Town, was founded by the British in 1786 and sports gorgeous colonial architecture and a fabulous range of food. Beach resorts and cruise trips, meanwhile, find a home at Langkawi Island, even further north. For those who make it far east to Borneo, the city of Kuching and its nearby natural attractions make for an excellent visit.
All in all, Malaysia features an incredible mix of cultural, natural, urban, and culinary attractions. It’s diverse, bustling, history-filled cities, world-class beaches, and lush ecology make for an exhilarating and alluring combination for anyone who can take the heat and vast array of cultural practices, tastes, and attitudes.
The biggest city in Malaysia and the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur aspires to, and largely achieves, a sleek, modernized future. Its motto, “Progress and Prosper,” says it all, though like many cities that were once frontier towns, that sounds much more pie-in-the-sky than its humble origins. Kuala Lumpur was founded as a supply point for tin mines in the mid-nineteenth century. Its beginnings were more Wild West than Far East, featuring gang violence, brothels, casinos, and bars. But by the end of the century, the outpost was becoming a city, and it had begun to take a completely different tack.
British colonial rule had modernized the city to a large extent, giving it a fair share of attractive structures and increasing the diverse nature of what had always been a mixed-ethnicity, mixed-religion settlement. In the 1950s, Malaysia became independent, and Kuala Lumpur’s true distinctiveness was unleashed. Over the decades, it has become a regional and global magnet for wealth and finance as well as low-skilled workers from various countries. Today, Kuala Lumpur is a truly global city, an economic as well as political capital with an increasing buzz among travelers. From excellent street food and lovely high-end shopping malls, to unique history in the midst of electrifying change, Kuala Lumpur is any adventurer’s dream.
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