To know the ‘real’ Malaysia is to love the country… and its food

Cheryl Dorall

The alluring marketing hype is just a little deceptive so it’s worth getting the local know-how – especially where food is concerned – directly from the people you bump into.

Recently, as I arrived in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian immigration official took one look at my Malaysian passport and instantly burst into song with the catchy jingle ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’.

No doubt it’s thanks to CNN that the marketing of this intriguing South-east Asian country has penetrated so far and wide – with the help of images of lovely women and that other saccharine slogan, ‘To Know Malaysia is to Love Malaysia’.

Selling Malaysia is one thing but delivering it is another, and visitors sometimes have to work hard to dig out the jewels from the dross – lovely ladies or not. All the usual ingredients are there: sun, sandy beaches, five-star hotels, stunning dive sites, great shopping, the Petronas Twin Towers – once the tallest building in the world. Most start by indulging in the last two on the list before buzzing off to the first four. So far, so 1990s.

For many visitors, the great Malaysian passion – eating – risks being just a little passé too, just because it tends to be in the air-conditioned comfort of hotel buffet tables. Ask any Malaysian and they will agree that the hotels’ satay can be good, their chicken rice flavoursome and their curries hot, but they cannot compare with the same dishes prepared and sold, at a fifth of the cost, at stalls under a certain tree, by the pavement or over in the next town.

The best tip for visiting foodies is to throw away the guidebook, chat to locals about the great local cuisine and go with them to eat. Malaysians will happily talk about food, are naturally friendly and hospitable, and love showing off their favourite eating places.

Even the most dedicated gourmet has to have something to do between mealtimes, but this does not have to be all beaches, diving or shopping. In the jungles of Sarawak and Sabah, Malaysia’s largest states, are two stunning locations: the Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its massive cave systems; and the Sepilok orang-utan rehabilitation centre.

At the Mulu cave system in Sarawak, you can watch millions of fruit bats emerge at dusk, gradually unfolding in gentle spirals in the sky, as they begin their quest for food. You can walk the treetop canopy bridge and gaze at the razor-sharp pinnacles of the nearby mountain, Gunung Api. You fly in by propeller aircraft and take a longboat up the Melinau River, inches above the water, to your accommodation, which includes an international five-star hotel. At night, you may hear the local young blades whooping as they race their boats down the river after an evening of hard drinking with nothing but the stars to guide them.

Sabah’s orang-utan rehabilitation centre offers a very different experience. Here, highly trained personnel care for these unusual apes whose very existence is being threatened by illegal trade and human encroachment into their living spaces. As a lesson in how we harm our fellow creatures on earth, there can be no better example. The centre is a 41-kilometre drive from the nearest town, Sandakan.

Not all of Malaysia’s 23 million visitors a year get to combine the beaches, shopping, eating, jungles, diving and all, but it could be well worth trying to do the whole lot.

About the author:

Cheryl Dorall is a former newspaper editor in Malaysia.


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