Running amok in Malaysia

Running amok in Malaysia
Photo Credit: Prashant Panjiar

In the gloriously multicultural country of the Malays, Chinese, Chettiars and Chindians

Anand Vivek Taneja
September 14 , 2015
14 Min Read

Amuck or Amok (as in ‘to run amok’): A species of semi-voluntary insanity which is peculiar to the Malays… violent and indiscriminate anger… rushes out to slay or be slain.” (From Curiosities of Popular Customs by William S. Walsh, c. 1897.)

At the back of my head, on a four-day speed-junket through Malaysia was a desire to see someone, anyone, running amok. The original article, as it were. Malaysia’s most recognisable contribution to the English language along with orangutan, satay and currency meltdown.

The back of my head was in for a sore disappointment. Malaysians are polite, laidback, and funny; they smile a lot and speak English with a delightful singsong slurring that just cannot lend itself to aggression, lah. It’s a nice country, lah, as a Malaysian Sikh said to me, very nice country ladiesandgennlemen. The only aggressive people you’re likely to find are the shopkeepers in KL’s Chinatown, who aggressively drop their prices, as if daring you to move to the next shop. “What do you wanna do, eat me alive?” and then the price drops by five more ringgits. That sort of aggression one can live with…

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So what happened to good old running amok. Where has all that frenzy gone? Or was it all ever just an Orientalist, Imperialist construct?

I don’t know, lah. But there is something the matter with Malaysians, something under that relaxed exterior that has to be responsible for the mind-boggling feats they pull off. Like an economy that’s booming despite being hit by the East Asian financial crisis not so long ago, and yet having prices cheap enough to compare to Delhi. Like being an ‘Islamic’ country and yet having three major, and majorly different, ethnic, linguistic and religious groups come together in harmony. It’s as if there is a collective Malaysian will--“Don’t go amok, just get astounding!”

… burn, burn , burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…

Not just yellow, but the whole vibgyor spectrum, not just spiders, but sea urchins, jellyfish and whole galaxies, spiraling, blazing down their welcome arms to earth--as visiting Indians are inspired to write the purplest of prose, and the crowd oohs and aahs at each mindbending explosion of light. The spectacular fireworks come towards the end of a spectacular evening. The celebration of the Chinese New Year Open House at Seremban, Negeri Sembilan. To where a Sikh guide has led us, in a ceremonial field in the heart of town, next to a Hindu temple that would seem right at home in Tamil Nadu. People come out for the big night dressed as informally as only Malaysians can. (Formal wear often means colorful Batik shirts that would make Mandela blush.) It is crowded but no one pushes and shoves. Chinese girls have tikas on their foreheads, probably from the nearby temple. The opening act is a heady percussion mix that Trilok Gurtu would have been proud of; Chinese, Malay and Indian drums melding different rhythms into a harmony. As the evening progresses, a lion dance is followed by a rendition of Asha Bhonsle’s ‘Yeh samaa, samaa hai yeh pyaar ka’ with Malay and Chinese boys and girls doing the tango in the background, dressed in bolero costumes…

The ‘Open House’ is a recent initiative of the Malaysian government, to celebrate the diversity of the country; and its many different ethnic groups. Every year, one province is selected to host the festival of one community. So last year, Penang hosted the Diwali Open House. This year, Seremban hosted the Chinese New Year.

Malaysia is a historical land, but a very new country. Bahasa Malaysia was born out of local languages interacting with Arabic, Sanskrit and Chinese as they came in with the Indian Ocean trade a long time before Europeans sailed to this part of the world. But the modern Malaysian nation was born out of the melting pot created, perhaps unintentionally, by the politics and trade of the 19th-century British empire; the coming of Chinese traders and Indian plantation workers. In Malaysia today, Malays make up a simple majority of the population at just over 50 percent, and monopolise the government and administration. The Chinese are about 30 percent, and dominate business and trade. Indians, largely Tamil, make up 10 percent of the population, and have cornered the plantation business. To create a modern nation out of such disparate elements could not have happened without strife and tension, but that is remarkably absent from what the visitor sees. The visitor sees a society gloriously, obviously multicultural and tolerant. A society where mixed marriages are common enough for their offspring to have specific labels. Mixed Malay-Chinese children are ‘Nyonya’ (female) and ‘Baba’. Malay-Indians are ‘Chettiars.’ And Indians and Chinese are ‘Chindians’. One of Malaysia’s most famous designers, Bernard Chandran, is a Chindian.

Bernard Chandran’s store, Sutra, is in Bukit Bintang, the most hip and happening street in KL. It is the place to see and be seen on a Saturday night, as impromptu breakdance competitions break out on the street corners, under the tall shadow of the Petronas towers. The street parallel to the global hipness of Bukit Bintang is Jalan Alor, which is lined with endless stalls of street food, where you can get the most exotic seafood for as little as one ringgit (about 12 rupees.). The great thing about KL is the way in which absolutely contradictory things coexist in close proximity, with no one getting hot and bothered about it. So Jalan Alor next to Bukit Bintang, and all within walking distance from the KL City Centre and the Petronas Towers. So right at the base of the KL Tower, the world’s fourth tallest TV tower, is a protected rainforest, Bukit Nanas, the pineapple hill. And this in the heart of the city.

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From ultramodern KL Tower a five-minute walk through a back alley full of crazy graffiti takes you to the sloping shingle roofs of ‘Little India’. Here you can eat tosais, chapatti and birriyani, catch Tamil movies at a beautiful old colonial theatre called the Coliseum, read Tamil newspapers published in KL, and see signs like the one that advertises Sachdeva Skin Clinic in Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English. You can walk past the big stores on Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman for a few minutes till you reach the very heart of old KL, the Masjid Jamek and Merdeka Square.

Kuala Lumpur means ‘muddy confluence’. At the muddy confluence of two streams, in the middle of the 19th century, the Malays and Chinese fought over tin mining claims, at the beginning of the settlement. But the muddy confluence of cultures and people outgrew the squabbling into modern bustling, multicultural KL, at the heart of which, at the confluence of the above mentioned streams, lies the Masjid Jamek, with beautiful white dome, and an elegant, cool, colonnaded marble courtyard. The Masjid was built in 1909, by a British engineer, A.E. Hubbock, who was inspired by the designs of Mughal mosques in India. This lovely mosque, now surrounded by high-rises, a British version of Indian mosques, realised in the heart of Malaysia, is strangely reminiscent of the Granada…

Wonders never cease. The Chinatown of KL is probably the only China Town in the world to have a Hindu temple in the midst of it all, along with two spectacular Chinese temples. But religion should be the last thing on your mind as you walk through Petaling Street here, an arcaded pirate market where you can buy convincing designer watch knockoffs for as low as 10 ringgits, and just about everything else--from shoes to branded clothes to DVDs. This is where not the Malaysian, but you, the visitor are likely to run amok.

Running amok is also a hazard in Genting Highlands which is a place where all that well-hidden Malaysian frenzy has burst forth in all its true glory…

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Imagine, say Mussourie. Now convert all of it into one huge covered shopping mall/and entertainment complex on top of a hill. A complex of interconnected shopping malls, video game arcades, casinos, hotels and amusement parks which employs over 10,000 people. A complex where you can walk and take escalators for miles without ever coming out into the cool mountain air. Genting is an hour’s drive from KL, a city shining upon a hill, a favourite weekend destination for people all the way from Singapore, and claims divine inspiration.

Back in the 1960s, a Chinese entrepreneur who had made his fortune in the construction business, decided to build his retirement home here in Genting, to enjoy the salubrious weather. Then, once he actually started work on it, his retirement plans were abandoned, and he put all his money into developing Genting into a resort. At one point, nearly broke, he was planning to abandon his grandiose dream when his family deity appeared to him in a dream, and asked him to finish the project. And hence, we have Genting, this bizarre resort city built atop a hill. A city where you can gamble away your fortune, take really scary amusement park rides, do sky-diving inside the Skyventure vertical wind tunnel, and toboggan down artificial indoor ice slopes. In its own way, if you suspend judgement, Genting is pretty exhilarating.

But the visionary amokness of Malaysia also has a gentle side to it. Like Langkawi. Till the 1980s, it was a sad little island, which had never quite recovered from an 18th-century sacking by the neighbouring Siamese. Until the Malaysian government decided to exploit its naturally beautiful beaches, lagoons and legends, and turned the entire island into a duty-free shopping zone. So now what you have is a laidback island with white sand beaches fronting calm lagoons, where you can buy really cheap, really good beer by the carton, and sit and enjoy drinks on the moonlit beach. After a day of seeing sharks being fed at the Underwater World, and the huge beautiful aviary of the Bird Park, where birds of paradise fly past your face, close enough to touch; and where you can get a sea eagle to perch on you arm.

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How do they do it? Creating a wonderfully diverse nation, and insanely alluring destinations out of the most disparate elements? It’s amok, I tell you. That’s their big secret. Turning all that frenzy into wildly creative and smart ideas. They tend to overdo it sometimes, of course. But by and large, they have so got it right.

Truly Asia? I don’t know, lah. They’re a hard act to follow for the rest of us.

The information

Getting there
Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia offers Delhi-Kuala Lumpur economy return for approx. Rs 22,000 plus taxes.
Getting around
Kuala Lumpur has an efficient and very well-connected monorail and commuter rail system. It has abundant signage and is very easy to figure out. It’s also one of the best ways, with the elevation, to get a sense of the city.
Genting: Kuala Lumpur to Genting is an hour’s drive. It is also possible to take a bus from near KL Central Station, and then to take a cable car upto Genting.
Langkawi: There are daily flights to Langkawi from KL. Flight time is approximately 45 minutes. Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia both fly this route.    

Where to stay
In Kuala Lumpur: The best places to stay are, of course, in the ‘Golden Triangle’ region of KL which is the happening downtown area. Luxury hotels like the Berjaya Times Square cost about 400RM a night but discounts are a standard 60% if you book through a tour group (603-2142-9611, www.berjayaresorts.com). Also in the Golden Triangle, on Jalan Alor, parallel to Bukit Bintang you can find good budget hotels with a bit of bargaining. Slightly cheaper deals can be struck in China Town.        
In Genting: There’s the massive, many-thousand-roomed First World Hotel (603-2718-1118), which has 22 check-in desks in a row. This is among the cheapest places to stay. More-high end is the neighbouring Genting Hotel (603-271801188)  also subject to the 60% tour group discount.  
In Langkawi: For a feel of Goa you have to live out on Cenang Beach, close to the airport on the south west coast of the Island. This is where the beachfront budget hotels are. Cheaper hotels are to be had in Kuah Town, in the southeast, and without a beach-front view. The really, really upmarket hotels are out on Tanjung Road, on the north of the island, from where, across the white sand, and the blue, blue sea you can see Thailand. One of the best five-star properties is the Langkawi Lagoon. This is 3km from the airport, and on the shores of a beautiful lagoon. Very close to Cenang also. If you’re going in the peak season (November-February), remember to book three months in advance. 

Where to eat
Kuala Lumpur has a great food culture. Like the roadside stalls of Jalan Alor at night. This is where the seafood is. Shop after shop. Octopus, squid and whatever else you care to eat. A good meal can be had for anywhere between 5-15 RM. Another interesting option is Little India. Don’t go in expecting Indian food, though. It’s been transformed by a century in Malyasia into something quite different, but very, very delicious. Little India is also convenient for vegetarians, because at least you still find idli dosa here. Otherwise, being vegetarian is a slight problem in Malaysia. Alcohol is available, but being an Islamic country, is more expensive compared to everything else.

Adventure sports
In Langkawi you can go water-skiing, jet-skiing, parasailing and canoeing on Cenang Beach, as also on Tanjung Beach. You can also go for guided mangrove tours, which take you from the northern beaches into the mangrove forests.
The Underwater World and Bird Park in Langkawi, though not strictly adventure, come close. Especially if you go to the former at 3.30pm, when the sharks are being fed (right over your head)!
In Genting you can sky-dive in a 193kmph wind tunnel (Skyventure, First World Plaza, 38RM) do rock climbing, and feel your heart falling into the pit of your stomach on really, really scary rides in the Outdoor Theme Park.

What to buy
The local currency is the Ringgit, or RM (1RM converts to about Rs 15.38). Dollars can be converted at the best rate right at the airport. There is much here that makes for interesting buys: batik sarongs and shirts in KL, in Little India or in Central Market. Even department stores have separate batik sections. You can buy DVDs, branded shoes, watches, and the kitchen sink on Jalan Petaling in China Town. Indonesian and Malaysian handicrafts can be bought in the Central Market. Bargain heavily.  
In Langkawi, you don’t even need to bargain, because everything is so ridiculously cheap. In the big department stores of duty-free Kuah Town, stock up on liquor, cigarettes, electronic goods, handicrafts. Bargain slightly on the electronics. Everything else is throwaway.


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