The first thing to hit us in Malaysia (after the weather elements...) is its diversity: the people first, and with the people, their religion, their culture, their food, their writing, etc... Indians, Malays, Chinese and Urang Asli live together to form the Malaysian identitiy/identities?... On the surface, the cohabitation seems peaceful - in the background, there are some issues, but still, they all managed to live their daily lives together. As the lovely Indian man who served us naans tonight said "it is so easy here, they (the Malays) even eat and like our naans..." Cohabitation does not necessarily mean integration and we were taken by surprise, as Yvoine was trying her best malay in a small street restaurant, to realise that the chinese owner could not speak a word of malay!
The economy seems run, as often, by the Chinese - the shops, the warehouses on the side of the road, the bigger restaurants... What we understand is that politics is then left to the Malays. Both Chinese and Indians were first brought to the country by Mother England, coloniser of the country at the time, to exploit the tin that had just been discovered.
Malaysia is a strange country, full of contrasts: while a part of the country seems to be living in very simple, even precarious conditions, the road we have been riding on has been more than good (better than Sydney roads!), and signs of industrialisation is everywhere: buildings, industrial estates built in the middle of nowhere (with low restrictions on gas emissions it seems), huge residential developments cut on the side of the hills or in the heart of the tropical forest, sometimes finished, sometimes half finished and left to themselves... The later proves to be wonderful campsites though, as they are usually a bit away from the road and main habitations, and flat!
Education seems to be a major priority if we are to believe the amount of schools we pass. Apparently the first budget of the government (just before defense, so we were told - to be checked), education is compulsory and free from age 6 to 18. University is not free but loans readily accessible with a minimal 1% interest rate a year over 4 years once you are working. Public healthcare is close to free (1 ringgit for admission).
With diversity, sounds and noise are what will deeply remain in our memories of Malaysia - is it a sign of industrialisation and modern times as well? From mid morning to midnight, it is up to the one who can make most noise, the winners usually among the numerous riders of mopeds, vespas or other home-made motorbikes. They usually ride these with a minimum of 2 people, up to 4 or 5, and some have been extremely creative in making sure their exhaust is loud enough. This concert is interrupted throughout the day by the songs of the muezzin - mosques are everywhere, and the muezzin's songs can be really good - Malaysia is certainly thus far showing us an open and welcoming face of Islam. In contrast to the noise the Malaysians can make in their vehicle or with their TVs - and did we mention the roosters as well who start anytime after sunset and stop whenever ?! -, they are not a noisy society when gathered at the market, at a table for a meal, or in the park - in fact, most of the time, as we stop, it is rather quiet, if it weren't for the good old engine sounds...
Communicating is often made harder by the problem of language, but we manage. The people are certainly extremely welcoming, and look at us with big smiles and interested looks as we go by. The male population usually honks their horn and wave at us as we go pass - the stars of the moment! The women are more shy, but their smiles tell a lot and when they overcome their shyness (social or not), are the most interested. We have set up a world map on our bikes, with the itinerary, which makes it easier to explain our project.
As we finish this first week in Malaysia (and on the bikes), we are taking a day off in Cherating, by the South China sea, to give our sore bumps and bodies a break, to make sure they can last the year...
you can see more photos by visiting the photolibrary.