At the heart of Southeast Asia lies a melting pot of a myriad cultures and contradictions. Malaysia, with a total population of 20 million, is home to three main ethnic races – Malay (68%), Chinese (25%) and Indians (7%). And a haven for gourmands, beach lovers and shopping fanatics who appreciate the contrasting sights of the old and new, concrete jungle and lush rainforests, seaside and nightlife. All of which are short hours away from each other by car, thanks to its advanced infrastructure.
Kuala Lumpur, the financial and administrative centre of Malaysia, is as modern as the Twin Towers and the 5-star hotels it boasts and as traditional as the night markets you bump into on the streets of its Chinatown, where chinese medicinal halls still peddle century-old herbs. And cobblers still mend tattered soles with homemade tools. Come nightfall, Kuala Lumpur – or KL, as it is fondly known – transforms into a glitzy and vibrant entertainment centre with plenty of distractions available for self-professed nocturnal creatures.
Visitors to Malaysia may fall in love first with its year-round sunny climate, having escaped the dreary cold of their own homes. Indeed, with temperatures hovering between 25 and 31 degrees, they may well relish it. But they rarely leave without remembering first, their first taste of local delicacies like satay, nasi lemak or durian. Yet for the less adventurous tourist, western staples can be found in the widely available multitude of fine dining restaurants.
English is widely spoken although Bahasa Malaysia is the national language. Blessed with a multi-ethnic society, Malaysia is often a country whereby food orders are made in Cantonese or Bahasa Malaysia, depending on whether you're at a five-foot-way Chinese coffee shop or "Mamak" (Indian Muslim food stall). And Mandarin or Tamil may be the language of choice for proprietors of sundry shops.
The monetary unit of the country is Ringgit Malaysia and is written as RM. The exchange rate is valued at USD1 = RM3.34. Foreign currencies can be exchanged at banks and money changers.
Malaysia has some of the best infrastructure in the region with sophisticated expressways linking its Eastern and Western as well as Northern and Southern corridors. Meanwhile, an elaborate Light Rail Transit system as well as elevated highways, ring roads and Smart Tunnels make daily commute between downtown and outlying suburbs a much more pleasant experience in the bustling capital city that is Kuala Lumpur.
Primary, secondary and tertiary education are available in Malaysia. Parents have a choice of government schools and vernacular schools (Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan) whereby Chinese or Tamil are the medium of instruction. There is also a good variety of private and international schools that cater to the sizable expatriate community that has taken up residence here.
Malaysia generally has an efficient and widespread system of health care. It implements a universal healthcare system, and co-exists with private healthcare system, offering quality hospitals and specialist centres with comprehensive services. The Malaysian government places importance on the expansion and development of health care, putting 5% of the government social sector development budget into public health care – an increase of more than 47% over the previous figure which translates to an overall increase of more than RM2 billion.
Islam is the official religion of Malaysia. But freedom of worship is guaranteed in the Malaysian Constitution and other religions are widely practised on the island. You are likely to find a mosque nestled next to a Hindu temple which itself is a stone's throw from a historic church.
Malaysia is truly the heart of the region with Singapore only an hour's plane ride away, and Thailand quite literally a short hop to the north by road, rail, sea or air. Meanwhile, the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak are just as easy to get to, not to mention the Philippines and the Indonesian islands of Sumatera and Java. As a base for exploring the varied cultures, landscapes and cities across Southeast Asia and Asia, no other country comes close to Malaysia as being the hub of the region. What's more, its low-cost living standard makes it a second home one would not only fall in love with, but stay in love with.