by Chris Leadbeater from The Telegraph, August 31, 2017
Hang out the bunting, light a few candles on the freshly-iced cake and prepare some sort of tickertape shower in a civic context - today (August 31) is Independence Day in Malaysia. In tribute, here are a few facts and thoughts - reasons for travel, if you will - about a country which offers sunshine, scenery and seaside in equal measure...
1. Today is a round-number anniversary
A big 60, in fact. It marks a precise six decades since the modern Malaysia came into being - emerging from Britain's heaving colonial bosom into the fragrant blossom of nationhood on August 31 1957.
It had been tied to London, partially at least, since 1786 – when the Sultan of Kedah leased the island of Penang to the East India Company. UK influence in the region quickly grew, with the foundation of the Straits Settlements enclave in 1826 - and its upgrading to crown-colony status in 1867.
An independence movement flowered after the Second World War. Today marks 60 years since the apron strings were cut, although it would take a further six years - until September 16 1963 - for the present-day Malaysia to take a recognised shape.*
2. It used to include Singapore
* With one notable exception. Singapore was part of the new Malaysian jigsaw. In fact, it was one of the country's 14 states between 1963 and 1965, but was expelled on August 9 following two fraught years of disagreements over economics and politics, and a smattering of race-related riots. From that point onward, Singapore became a city-state in its own right. One theory about the name "Malaysia" is that the "si" refers to Singapore, although the word has remained unchanged since the divorce.
3. It is a little like Westminster
In terms of government system. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, bearing in mind that its connection with the UK endured for almost two centuries, Malaysia's national administration is largely structured along British lines - a constitutional monarchy, with power largely invested in parliament.
The largest difference is that the role of monarch ("Yang di-Pertuan Agong", which translates literally as "he who was made lord") is rotated every five years between the nine Malay states which have hereditary rulers. Currently on the throne is Sultan Muhammad V - a 47-year-old who took the top job in his state, Kelantan, in 2010, and slipped on the Malay crown in December of last year.
4. It is divided into two main chunks
Few places can be described as "a country of two halves" quite like Malaysia. It does beaches and metropolitan gleam on the Malay Peninsula (also known as "West Malaysia") – which is home to the capital Kuala Lumpur. It also offers rainforest and the call of the wild on Borneo - which it shares with Indonesia and Brunei. Specifically, Malaysia claims some 26 per cent of the island, in the shape of the states of Sabah and Sarawak.
5. Borneo is really rather huge
That quarter-plus-one-per cent of Borneo amounts to 74,620 square miles of Malaysian territory - which means that, combined, Sabah and Sarawak are bigger than Ireland, and around the same size as the Czech Republic. This is because Borneo is very big indeed, the third largest island on the planet, behind only Greenland and New Guinea.
6. You could take a road-trip of extremes from Norway to Malaysia
Tanjung Piai, at the lower tip of the Malay Peninsula, is the southernmost point on the Eurasian landmass. So in theory, you could drive all the way from Nordkapp in Norway - the northernmost location on the shoulder of western Europe - to this far-flung Malaysian cape without ever having to take a ferry. OK, so it would take a while - the distance is 5,867 miles as the crow flies. But you could do it by passing through only five countries other than Norway and Malaysia - Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Burma and Thailand. If that isn't an excuse for a TV series involving a pair of minor-league celebrities getting into wild scrapes in Murmansk and Astana, we don't know what is.
7. It's a pretty diverse place
Malaysia is home to some 31 million people, but only half this head-count is Malay. There are Chinese and Indian swirls to this melting pot - as well as indigenous tribal groups, particularly on Borneo.
These include the Bidayuh people of southern Sarawak, and the Iban of the same state - many of whom live according to ingrained traditions, speaking their own languages. They are a side of Malaysia that can seem unchanged by the centuries - but it is not impossible to meet them, nor to do so on an ethical basis. For example, Responsible Travel (01273 823 700; responsibletravel.com) sells a three-day "Iban longhouse experience in Sarawak" that lets travellers sample rainforest existence first-hand - from a basic £595 per person.
8. The capital tells tall stories
Kuala Lumpur is, of course, home to the Petronas Towers - the twin architectural titans which, together, were ranked as the world's tallest building between 1998 and 2004. How tall? Very tall - they each reach 1,483ft (451.9m) at their uppermost pinnacles.
True, they have been knocked from their elongated throne - by the Taipei 101 tower in Taiwan, and then by the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai (which, as a matter of comparison, raises its hat at 2,717ft/828m). But the views they offers are still remarkable - particularly if you stand on the famous Skybridge which links the two structures between the 41st and 42nd floors, 558ft (170m) above the ground. Tickets from 85 Malaysian Ringitts (£15.30; petronastwintowers.com.my ).
Langkawi // Photo by ErmakovaElena/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
9. It has a Unesco-listed mountain…
Mount Kinabalu is an explorer’s dream. The tallest mountain in the country towers above Sabah’s rural landscape to a height of 13,435ft (4,095m) – and yet, is about as accessible as peaks of such stature can be, with the summit obtainable via two plausible routes.
Those who tackle it do not need extensive climbing skills – although they do need a registered guide and a permit (which should be purchased via Sabah Parks; MR50/£9 via sabahparks.org.my), and should be able to cope with potential altitude sickness. Unesco considers the peak – and Kinabalu Park which frames it – a World Heritage Site, describing it as “the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea”, and praising it for its “wide range of habitats, from rich tropical lowland and hill rainforest to tropical mountain forest, sub-alpine forest and scrub on the higher elevations.”
10. …and the world’s biggest cave
Unesco has also directed its admiration towards Gunung Mulu National Park (mulupark.com) – another unmissable portion of Borneo where "at least 295km of explored caves provide a spectacular sight, and are home to millions of cave swiftlets and bats." In truth, this maze of caverns and chasms, in the far north of Sarawak, should be on every traveller's to-do list. It includes the Sarawak Chamber – the largest known cave chamber on the planet; a space so vast that, according to rough mathematics, it could accommodate 40 Boeing 747s without the planes having to overlap their wings. The nearby Deer Cave is similarly colossal.
11. There is exotic wildlife…
Malaysia has its own species of stripey orange big cat, the Malayan Tiger – which is found on the Malay Peninsula. It is slightly smaller than its Indian cousin, but there have been sightings in states such as Kelantan, Pahang and Johor. That’s the good news. The bad is that only around 350 of the animals are believed to exist in the wild – a statistic which leaves them “critically endangered”. You can, however, definitely see them at the National Zoo in Selangor (zoonegaramalaysia.my).
12. …especially in Borneo
Rather easier to glimpse is the Bornean Orangutan – although purely in terms of numbers. There are estimated to about 55,000 of the creatures on Borneo, in Sarawak and Sabah, as well as on the Indonesian side of the border. However, this great ape is also deemed to be critically endangered, with one study at Harvard University suggesting they could be extinct in the next 20 years if no serious attempts are made to tackle habitat destruction.
If you want to see them swing from the branches on an ethical basis, you can do so at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (see sabahtourism.com/destination/sepilok-orangutan-rehabilitation-centre) in Sabah.
13. It’s a jungle at the airport
Kuala Lumpur has a state-of-the-art airport. A replacement for Subang International Airport, it opened in 1998 a week before Hong Kong unveiled a new hub of similar grandiosity. Many an airline now flies into this mini-metropolis, which sits some 28 miles south of the city centre. But the big draw, perhaps, is the glass bowl in the middle of Satellite Terminal A which contains a potted slab of local rainforest – designed to showcase the country’s biodiversity. Something to look at while you wait for your delayed connection to Heathrow.
14. You can go to the beach
Malaysia can boast some 2,900 miles of coastline – the sort of impressive figure you would expect of a country which is built on a quarter of Borneo and a long peninsula. This means it has more seafront than the likes of Cuba, Thailand, Sweden and Colombia. That’s a lot of seafront.
But the focal point, in terms of tourism, tends to be Penang – the sun-kissed island off the west coast of the peninsula where the beaches are soft and the hotels are inviting. Options are plentiful. Kuoni (0800 044 8377; kuoni.co.uk) sells seven-night breaks at the five-star Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa from £1,372, including flights. Virgin Holidays (0344 739 6208; virginholidays.co.uk) offers week-long breaks at the four-star Hard Rock Hotel Penang from around £999 per person, including flights.
15. Langkawi is lovely
A similar proposition – a tropical island off the west coast of the peninsula – Langkawi is another Malaysian holiday hotspot. It sits so far to the north of the country that you can see Thailand from its upper-edge beaches – but a stay here can also be a chance to slip away from the sand and peer at flamboyant feathers and perfect plumage. The Datai (0060 4 950 0500; thedatai.com), a luxury retreat in the north-west corner of the isle, offers double rooms from MR1485 (£269) per night – as well as guided nature walks which dip into the surrounding rainforest for glimpses of great hornbills and other beautiful birds. Cleveland Collection (020 7843 3531; clevelandcollection.co.uk) can arrange a seven-night stay from £1,495 per person, including flights.
16. You can see big chunks of it in one go
Malaysia also lends itself to grand tours and multi-week odysseys. Cox & Kings (020 3813 6952; coxandkings.co.uk) offers a 13-day “Journey through Malaysia” which dissects the peninsula in detail, before flopping onto the beach in Penang – from £2995 per person, with flights. Steppes Travel (01285 601 784; steppestravel.com) offers a 15-day “Best of Malaysian Borneo” package which gazes at the wildlife of Sabah and Sarawak from £3,995 per person (including flights). For those thinking ahead, Explore (01252 883 992; explore.co.uk) has a 15-day “Borneo & Eclipse” group tour scheduled for December 14-30 2019 – just in time for the solar spectacular which will burn across Sarawak on Boxing Day of that year. From £3,699 per person, including flights. More details and tips at malaysia.travel.