I was invited to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to be a resource speaker at the Asian Bloggers & Social Media Conference, which was held from 28 to 29 July 2010. The flight itinerary that the event organizers arranged had me traveling on my birthday! But that was OK — I gladly sacrificed my birthday celebration for the chance to see Kuala Lumpur for the first time.
I had already met three Malaysians on my trips to Hong Kong, at BlogFest.Asia and at the Asia-Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum. Two of them, Sean and Siew Eng, went out of their way to show me around the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur. The first thing on my mind was Malaysian cuisine, so Sean brought me to Jalan Alor. That place is well-known for street fare, and is populated by Chinese food outlets mostly. It’s a lively place, with plenty of foreigners and locals mixed in to form a cacophony of languages and cultures.
During my stay, Muslims around the world were celebrating Eid ul-Fitr (the Islamic celebration that marks the end of Ramadan). Sean was explaining to me that Malaysia enjoys good relations with Middle Eastern countries, that’s why there were so many Arabs in KL when I was there. Women in burqa or abaya were everywhere to be seen — that was my first time to see so many Arabs in one place, which made for a novel experience for me.
Speaking of Islam, Siew Eng brought me to Muzium Kesenian Islam (Islamic Arts Museum). The museum has a huge collection of artifacts dating to early Islamic periods. Of particular interest to me was the assembly of Arabic calligraphy. Many of the calligraphic artifacts — pottery, scrolls, Qur’an tomes — were from the period when China had a heavy influence on the art. It was a feast for the eyes! There was also a piece of ancient history that came from Mindanao: a betel-nut box cast from bronze and inlaid with silver, dating back from the middle of the 19th century.
Malaysian cuisine did not disappoint. From native Malay dishes to Chinese food, my palate has never been so satisfied! When I wrote about Taste of Malaysia, a restaurant in Davao City, I was already looking forward to the gastronomic experience in KL. The food offerings around Bukit Bintang (a.k.a. “Star Hill”) alone were enough to please any foodie, but there was more! Even the humble offerings of Wan Tan Mee Jln Sg Besi (which is something like Colasa’s in Davao) blew my mind. At that place I had wild boar curry, and a soup of vegetables stuffed with fish paste, washed down with calamansi juice that had kiamoy (plum preserves) in it. I considered the gastronomic treats my belated birthday celebration!
One other thing that made my Kuala Lumpur trip a memorable one was the people. I’ve already mentioned the two Malaysian friends who took the time to accommodate me. There were also the conference participants who made the effort to express their appreciation of my WordPress presentation. (I even got tentative offers to come back for more!)
Then there were the strangers I met — and there were quite a few. The most engaging acquaintance that I made was a half-Filipino Malaysian, with whom I had the pleasure of spending my last few hours in the city. He was on his way to his hometown in Sabah. I had an early flight, so I’d already checked out and was brought to the train/bus station by Siew Eng at midnight. I was anticipating several hours of loneliness ahead of me… but, thanks to a simple act of kindness, was able to meet Ramli, whose mother is Tausug, and who turns out to share a hobby of mine. It’s always a delight for me to meet people who have the same love of languages as I do. Ramli and I spent the next few hours talking about Bahasa Melayu, Tagalog, Dabawenyo and Tausug (the last two of which are very similar linguistically).
At the airport (the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal), I also had a brief encounter with a Malaysian who spoke passable Tagalog. As soon as he found out I was Filipino, he used all the usual Filipino greetings on me. I found Malaysians to be like that during my stay: accommodating and polite. Which makes me look forward to my next visit to this truly Asian country.
What didn’t I like about KL? The traffic? Nope — Manila’s is much worse. The prices? Hmmm… There are lots of inexpensive places for meals and shopping, right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
There’s one thing, actually. Malaysia’s government, ruled by the Barisan Nasional political party since independence, does not seem to look upon freedom of expression very favorably. Coming from an advocacy that upholds just that, I felt a persistent low-intensity buzz while I was there. Not that I feared being jailed anytime during my stay, but it’s a kind of feeling you don’t have in countries where you know there’s complete freedom of expression. I was warned that there are regulations in place against “illegal assembly” (but who defines what is legal and what is illegal?) and against improper behavior (such as two unmarried people being together at night in public parks). Being warned of such things does not sit well with many people, I would imagine.
Just when I arrived back in the Philippines, one of my Malaysian friends told me about the arrests that were made among those who participated in a candlelight vigil last Sunday. The vigil was a peaceful protest to let the Malaysian government know that they were calling for the abolition of the Internal Security Act (ISA). For more information on this and other issues brewing in Malaysia, please visit Malaysiakini.com.
I hope that the Malaysian government will listen more intently to these calls for more freedom and openness. Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and other places in Malaysia are truly beautiful and worth visiting — Malaysian tourism promotions abroad are among the best in the world — so, in my opinion, it would be a great boon to the country if the Malaysian people did enjoy the freedoms for which they have been clamoring.
On the whole, though, the trip to Malaysia was one of the best journeys I’ve had so far: gastronomically, socially and professionally.