by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Director, Ovation Global DMC
There’s so much more to Malaysia than Nasi Goreng, Langkawi, Proton cars and politicians wearing funny hats. A week in Kuala Lumpur on Peninsular Malaysia and Kuching in Sarawak, East Malaysia leaves you feeling you’re only scratching the surface of this fascinating territory which, incredibly, traces its independence only back as far as 1957. It’s a country of intriguing contrasts where a miraculous feat of contemporary engineering such as the awe-inspiring Petronas twin towers is as intrinsically and essentially “Malaysian” as a primordial Iban long-house in Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
Malaysia comprises Peninsular Malaysia – which is located immediately north of Singapore and directly south of Thailand – and East Malaysia which is made up of Sarawak and Sabah, situated to the west and north west of the island of Borneo and bordering Kalimantan, which is part of Indonesia. It’s capital Kuala Lumpur or KL as it’s commonly known – is a bustling metropolis with MICE infrastructure to rival most EU capital cities. The Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (KLCC) was founded by state energy company Petronas and nestles between the stunning green parkland and civic park that occupies the space immediately in front of the Petronas Tower and a crescent of international 4 and 5 star hotels, at the heart of downtown KL.
Kuala Lumpur was founded at the confluence of two muddy rivers and its name derives from this. Today KL continues to be a meeting point for ethnic, social and cultural diversity and this fact alone generates an edgy buzz about the place. It’s also a place of stark contrasts. Go around the corner from the upscale but sanitised shopping mall at the base of the Petronas Towers and you’re in a warren a street markets where Chinese, Indian and Malay food stalls catch you unexpectedly in a full frontal sensory assault! And night life is in great and vibrant abundance in KL under the watchful tolerance of a Muslim political administration.
The airport at Kuala Lumpur features regularly on lists of people’s favourite airports. It’s on a vast scale, aesthetically pleasing and logistically intuitive. The flight from KL to Sarawak in Borneo might be short in real time but it takes you to radically different chronological, social and cultural reference points.Sarawak is located somewhere in the past, still wired in to its tribal social context and teetering between ancient and less ancient belief systems. All in all it’s a fascinating place which certainly merits a time investment.
The capital Kuching is a typical oriental provincial city with one foot in a technologically advanced future and the other firmly in a rural, almost feudal past. The Hilton and Crowne Plaza Hotels offer high speed broadband connectivity while, 100m away, toothless rural types tie up their home made canoes on the riverbank and ply their farm fresh wares. Funky restaurants like The Junk Room and Havana serve trendy fusion food around the corner from street traders gutting fish and crushing spices “al fresco”.
The Borneo Highlands Resort is another striking contrast. About a hour’s drive from Kuching and set astride the Sarawak /Kalimantan border this resort offers a stunningly manicured golf course, state of the art resort lodges for wealthy investors, a wonderful spa facility and organic vegetarian cuisine in the middle of a verdant and luscious jungle, teaming with all manner of flora and fauna. Except for orang utangs. The “men of the forest” have been sadly depleted but can still be visited in their natural habitat at the Orang Utang sanctuary where a special rehabilitation programme has been very successful in re-introducing into the wild orang utangs who had been abused or mistreated.
A kayaking expedition down the Sarawak river will bring you into direct contact with many of the indigenous tribes of Borneo. Thankfully, their headhunting exploits of the past have been replaced by a range of interesting outreach programmes which immerse visitors in the social, artistic and, indeed, culinary traditions of the various tribes. Many of these tribes are now Christian due, in part, to the missionary zeal of the Irish Christian brothers and, in part, to the tribes’ partiality to pork, a meat forbidden within the traditions of Islam, the majority religion in Malaysia!
For corporate meetings and incentive programmes Malaysia has much to offer: easy connectivity via KL International Airport, great infrastructure for small, large and very large groups, pleasant year round climate, stunning beaches, majestic mountains, interesting cultural connections with Europe and finally all the exoticism and palpable excitement of an ethnic melting pot where Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim, Chinese, Indian, indigenous Malay and Ex Pat all co-exist in healthy, harmonious tension.
Special Note: I would like to make special mention Chew Chang Guan of the Sarawak Convention Bureau [[email protected]] who accompanied me and my MCI colleagues Patrick Delaney and Guy Bigwood on our Borneo adventure. He is a true ambassador of this wonderful destination but, above all, a great human being who enriched us with his lessons on cultural diversity.