Saturday, August 13, 2011

Memorable five-day Malaysian tour combines bits of history, culture, and even adventure

By Nancy T. Lu

Malaysia, truly Asia in its offer of a blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, entices as a travel destination. It is indeed a land of many charms.

A tour package lasting five days and four nights worth considering kicks off with the Malaysian Airlines plane touching down in Kuala Lumpur. From the modern airport, the tour group is taken straight to Malacca. The ride requires about two hours.

Rambutan and mangosteen are tropical fruits worth tasting at the first stop. The lisuruly drive continues to the heart of the historical city on the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

Malacca was once a powerful nerve center of trade between the East and the West. The trading of spice, gold, silk, tea, opium, tobacco and perfumes here led to the great interest of the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the British colonial powers in Malacca.

Vestiges of the Dutch period can be seen in the 17th century Stadhuys featuring the heavy wooden doors, the thick and red walls as well as the wrought-iron hinges. The Dutch governors of old used it as residence. The Malacca historical, ethnographic and literature museums are today housed in the Stadhuys.

At the main square near the Stadhuys is the 18th century Dutch Reformed Church called Christ Church. It replaced at one point St. Paul’s Church as principal place of worship. The red bricks were brought to Malaysia from Holland. The handmade pews inside have a history of 200 years.

From the Stadhuys, there are steps leading to the top of St. Paul’s Hill. Here can be found the ruins of St. Paul’s Church, originally intended by the Portuguese to be the leading Catholic church in the city. St. Francis Xavier, who visited this house of worship regularly, was buried here in 1553. But his remains were later moved to Goa, India.

The steps from St. Paul’s Church lead down to A’Famosa (Porta de Santiago) or what is left of the fortress built in 1511. Not far from here is the wooden replica of a 15th century Malacca sultan’s palace with the Cultural Museum.

Certainly not to be missed is a British villa, circa 1912, from where Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, proclaimed the country’s independence. The museum building now houses the manuscripts, videotapes, films and slides depicting the events leading to independence in 1957. The Tunku is depicted inside the Malaysian Independence Memorial as waving while riding on a convertible after his arrival from negotiations in London, during a parade down the crowded street.

The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, another sightseeing stop, is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia. It has a marker commemorating the first visit of Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He), the Ming Dynasty Emperor’s ambassador to Malacca.

Meanwhile the Sam Po Kong Temple is where Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) is venerated. He was believed to have visited Malacca five times during his seven voyages. Legend has it that on one of his trips, his ship sprang a leak but a fish got stuck in the hole, preventing it from sinking. The temple built in 1795 was named after the fish.

A stay at the Legend Water Chalets in Port Dickson is unforgettable. Accommodation units on the beach are built right above the water. A guest enters his room through a huge bathroom. Floor openings covered with glass enable him to look at the water below.

A tourist bent on bringing back from Malaysia an unusual souvenir – not just batik clothes and pewter items – can try to earn a very special certificate from the Ostrich Farm in Port Dickson. The text on it reads: “The bearer of this award has been judged by our fun-loving trainers to be full of bravado, stuffed with fun and certainly a little crazy in even considering riding a big brainless ostrich.”

The fun visit to the Ostrich Farm in Port Dickson, Malacca, begins with the guide asking: “Have you ever thought of riding an ostrich? You can do it in Malaysia.”

The farm tour starts with a lengthy introduction of the feathered creature said to have a brain smaller than its pupil in size. The guide explains that the productive ostrich at 18 months begins to lay eggs, as many as 40 to 70 per year.

The feeding of the animals is encouraged at the farm. The friendly birds, in fact, rush to meet visitors at every turn, naughtily pecking the outsiders and even snatching their hats without warning.

Before a guided tour is over, everyone is herded around a pen. Two trainers hold back a hooded ostrich to enable an adventurous volunteer to climb the railings and get on the bird’s back. And then they are off for a walk inside the fenced area.

The rider holds tightly in his grip a silk cloth entwined around the neck of the ostrich to guard against sliding off the back of the animal. The fun ride is over in just a few minutes.

After a trip to the Ostrich Farm, it is time to head for an orchard for an introduction to Malaysia’s tropical fruits as well as herbs.

The Putrajaya, seat of the national government just outside Kuala Lumpur, calls for a visit, too. The Prime Minister’s Department or the Perdana Putra is viewed from a distance. Its Islamic-Mogul architecture stands out. Within sight is the impressive mosque with pink domes.

The modern city with parks, gardens and wetlands, has an area for visitors to learn about Malaysia’s diverse flora and fauna. Besides a stroll, the Putrajaya lake cruise is another option for tourists.

Kuala Lumpur, the capital, beckons with the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers. The buildings used as backdrop in the Hollywood film “The Entrapment” are connected by a bridge high above the ground.

The Istana Negara, the official residence of His Majesty, the King of Malaysia, is another tourist attraction. Traffic is usually heavy in this neighborhood. Guards appear on horseback. Motorcycle escorts are on standby, too.

The Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square) with the world’s tallest flagpole flying the Malaysian flag is where Malaysians gather every year to celebrate their independence. On August 31, 1957, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time at this historical place.

Near the Railway Station is the National Mosque built along modern lines. Modest dressing is emphasized especially for the non-Muslim women seeking to enter. A relaxing spa treatment at the Berjaya Times Square is arranged before the end of the short stay in Kuala Lumpur. Accommodation is at the Palace of Golden Horses, where some floors are often blocked off for use by state visitors.

The Genting Highlands, the popular playground in the sky, is 2,000 meters above sea level. Therefore, it stays pleasantly cool the whole year round. The cable car ride of about 20 minutes is said to be the longest in the world. The casino complex features indoor and outdoor theme parks to keep the entire family entertained. The resort is only an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur.

Before heading for the airport on the last day, the group makes a brief stop at the Batu Caves, famous for the annual Thaipusam Festival of the Hindu Indian community in late January or early February. Devotees to Lord Subramaniam on this occasion carry around kavadis with hooks or spikes extending to parts of their bodies. Climb 272 steps to reach the main cave decorated with Hindu shrines. Birds’ nest delight can be savored down below after the climb. Indian roti canai, a crispy food specialty, can also be tried.

The tour package covers a lot of ground at a leisurely pace. The Malaysian Airlines brings the happy tourist home after a truly relaxing holiday.

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