So that was Malaysia, a very different country to the one I'd conjured up in my imagination after reading the guidebook. I spent a full 25 days on the western side of Peninsular Malaysia (as the eastern coast gets very wet during the monsoon) and it was surprisingly interesting. As with Indonesia, Malaysia is a country of contradictions, but the opposing values aren't quite as disparate as in its crazy neighbour. There are, however, some interesting observations to be made about Mahathir's Madhouse.
Malaysia is modern, but still developing. Individuals have cars and houses, but there are still open sewers and rubbish dumps in every town, with their characteristically rancid smells; there are huge – nay, immense – skyscrapers in the capital, but beggars on every street corner; and although Malaysia's health system is pretty good – you can drink the tap water, and malaria is rare on the mainland – it's still got some way to go to match the West.
Malaysia is mainly Muslim, but it's not extremist. The muezzins don't wake you up with their wailing every morning, but the women all wear tudung (a scarf covering the head, also known as a hijab), though they don't tend to practise full purdah; women are allowed out of the house, and don't cover their entire faces or wear full burqas. Although the Prime Minister has a bee in his bonnet about the spoiling effects of capitalism, the general public is more interested in the spoils of capitalism; the Christmas adverts are as intense here as anywhere else on the planet, and the country grinds to a halt over the year end, even if Christ's birthday is pretty irrelevant as a religious concept to most Malaysians. Still, business is a religion, if Singapore is anything to go by.
Malaysia has got some of the most wonderful National Parks in the world – especially in Sarawak, which I unfortunately didn't get to, as it was monsoon season there at the time of my visit – but the ecological record of the government is pretty shoddy. Malaysia's rainforest is the oldest in the world, but the indigenous inhabitants are being kicked out of their homes as the chainsaws do their worst; Mahathir's plans to dam one of the biggest rivers in Sarawak and flood a large area of natural wilderness were over-budget and egotistical, until his deputy pulled the plug on it while the PM was on holiday; and there's a major inconsistency between blaming everything on overpopulation, and wanting to increase the population by 350 per cent by 2020.
Malaysia has a wonderful bus network, but it suffers from overuse. In Indonesia there was no such thing as a full bus – there was always room for another body, chicken, whatever – but quite a few times in Malaysia I had to take a later bus because the one I wanted was fully booked. Public transport is still the choice of the masses – the motorways are pleasantly empty, and it's not down to the toll, I'm sure – but whereas in Indonesia it's pretty much the only option, and is therefore not bad, in Malaysia it's slowly moving towards being the poor man's option as cars become more and more common, and it's starting to show.
Malaysia has a larger proportion of privately owned vehicles than in Indonesia, but that doesn't mean the people know how to drive. Red lights are still regarded as pretty decorations rather than traffic controllers; biker gangs roar down the street, or should I say 'phut' down the streets, seeing as they all drive crappy little mopeds; and although there must be some kind of legislation controlling the condition of the old bangers on the roads, the amount of pollution choking out of the exhaust pipes is astounding, especially from the pink public buses in KL.
Malaysia has a language identity crisis. In Malaysia, you really don't need to know any language except English; non-Malays (like the Chinese and Indians) speak their own languages among themselves, and English is the lingua franca for business, with Bahasa Malaysia coming in third. Indonesia, of course, was quite different, even on the main tourist trails; the English was generally very poor there, but Malaysians speak it amazingly well. If there's one reason that Malaysia will develop into a big Southeast Asian success story, like Singapore, Taiwan and – until the recent crash – South Korea, it's because the population speaks the international language of business. Even Mahathir speaks excellent English, despite hating those who invented it.
Malaysia purports to be a free country, but it has draconian censorship. The newspapers are full, but they're full of irrelevant trivia and tirades against the Americans, and contain nothing at all about contentious or anti-Malaysian events; the television is distressingly tame, but most of the movies on TV and in the cinema are subtitled American flicks, and you've never seen so many films where they shout, 'Forget you!' and 'Freaking hell!' while mouthing something somewhat more vernacular; and if a foreign magazine happens to carry an article that criticises the government – be it Time, Newsweek or whatever – it mysteriously doesn't appear on the newsstands that month. Funny, that.
But, despite the inherent contradictions, Malaysia is a coherent, united entity, and there's precious little unrest or dissatisfaction among the majority. Malaysians are proud of their country, and unlike Singapore, the youth isn't floating off nonchalantly to other countries to evade the stuffy atmosphere. It's an easy place in which to travel, the people are very friendly without being the incessant salesmen of Indonesia, and with the currency crisis affecting the dollar rate, it's a phenomenally cheap place to visit. I'm extremely glad I came, and I'm pretty sure I'll be back one day.