My vantage point is a beach on Penang Island, off the Malaysian Peninsula's west coast. The sun has set over the Indian Ocean, leaving behind a watercolor display. At first, subtle pink, peach, and lavender colors wash lightly over the sky. Then the huge white clouds take on stains of deep gold and orange. Malaysia is showing off. British novelist and playwright Somerset Maugham, who stayed in Penang when Malaysia played its part in the regal days of the empire, said: ``If you haven't seen this place, you haven't seen the world.''
But to see this place is one thing; to get here from the United States is another. It took me 21 hours in a 747 jetliner before hometown Boston had spun around to the other side of the world and Malaysia's capital city, Kuala Lumpur, was underfoot.
The map makes it look deceptively simple. The Malaysian Peninsula stretches out south of Thailand and north of Singapore on a long, thin chunk of land that fattens out like one of Popeye's arms. That, together with two states on the north coast of Borneo (400 miles to the southeast, across the South China Sea), makes up the 13-state federation of Malaysia.
But here on the scene, Malaysia turns out to be more tropical and diverse than I had envisioned -- a land of friendly people from simple villages and cosmopolitan cities -- surrounded by green mountains and wild jungle and all wrapped in a ribbon of white, sandy beach.
The population of 15 million is a potpourri of Asian culture. With 52 percent of the people Malay, 35 percent Chinese, and 10 percent Indian, the result is a rich variety of life styles, foods, entertainment, arts, and religions.
This is also a country with a knack for operating in different decades at the same time. I watched a Penang fisherman in his tiny wooden boat hauling in a small catch with his net. Yet a few miles away, an electronics plant was spitting out state-of-the-art computer chips from an assembly line. Intel, Texas Instruments, and National Semiconductor are a few of the American companies that operate here.
On the mainland, in Kuala Lumpur (KL, as locals refer to it), the juxtapositions can be boggling. On an afternoon stroll you might see an old Muslim mosque near a spanking new 50-story office tower; a woman wrapped in an Islamic veil alongside a woman in a smart, gray business suit carrying a briefcase; a wooden shantytown just a short walk from a mirror-walled skyscraper in the business district. Malaysia has one foot planted in the mid-20th century, the other giant-stepping into the 21st. So far it has managed to keep its balance. East coast
In the sunny life of the fishing villages that stretch the length of the peninsula's east coast, I felt I was peering through an open window on a country's traditional way of life.
In a village north of Kuantan the fishermen, back from their morning's run, dry out their silvery catch under a hot afternoon sun. Their wives boil up some of the fish in large, kiln-like ovens. The children play on rope swings and gawk at the Western tourists who have invaded their village.
Here the population is mostly Malay and Muslim. Even the rooms in the modern, air-conditioned Hyatt Kuantan Hotel have small arrows on the ceiling pointing to Mecca so that the faithful will know instantly in which direction to pray.
All the villages we visited on this coast were similar in many respects. Tiny wooden houses shaded by coconut palms sit within 100 feet of the ocean. The huts are propped about 10 feet off the ground on stilts to keep monsoon floods from invading their living rooms. Outside the front door, just down the stairs, lay piles of coconut husks -- the Malay version of insect repellent. While fishing is the dominant trade here, there is some farming of rice, pineapple, and nutmeg.
But the east coast is not all work. It also can show a visitor Malaysia at play. Pastimes such as top-spinning, kite-flying, shadow play, and folk dancing are must-see attractions.
The tops in use here, made of tin and hardwood, resemble flying saucers 10 inches in diameter. At Cherating, a small coastal village, I watched an elderly Malaysian man wind one end of the thick rope around the top and the other around his wrist, then hurl the top to the ground, where it landed spinning. Top-spinning is a fine art, and older Malays take the game very seriously. One record spin in the fierce village competitions here was recorded at an astounding 1 hour, 47 minutes.
Shadow plays -- shows in which flat puppets, usually made of leather, are manipulated out of view of the audience in front of a spotlight that casts shadows onto a white cloth or screen -- are a popular form of entertainment. The audience, in front of the screen, watches the shadow characters play out their moral tales. The shows we saw were enchanting.
On the east coast, as well as throughout the Malay Peninsula, there are plenty of modern resort hotels. Most have air conditioning and room service, as well as tennis courts, pools, and sometimes even small workout rooms complete with Nautilus equipment, whirlpools, and saunas. The village of Cherating, however, offers an interesting and inexpensive alternative to city hotels. Here one can live amid Malaysians, just as they do, in locally owned guesthouses that rent for $5 per day (including three meals).
About 25 miles north of Kuantan, one finds a 20-mile stretch of beach (one of only two such in the world) where visitors can observe giant leatherback turtles (some 11 feet long) laying their eggs. Turtle-watching is a nighttime activity from May through September. Penang Island
Back on Penang Island, where the sunning, swimming, and beachcombing are idyllic, other attractions include the capital city, George Town. One can take a ``trishaw'' -- a tricycle pedaled by a driver with the passenger seat mounted up front -- to the lively waterfront and watch the freighters and steamers glide in and out of the harbor. Then one strolls through Jalan Penang, the main shopping bazaar, where electronic gadgets, plastic toys, silks from Thailand and India, fabrics from England, cameras from Germany and Japan, and brocade and sarongs from Malaysia are available at bargain prices.
George Town is also the home of what is said to be the world's third-largest reclining Buddha, measuring 108 feet long and 35 feet high. The Buddha, situated in the Thai Buddhist Monastery, is overlaid in gold, and its giant fingernails are mother-of-pearl.
The Temple of Azure Cloud here is a curious mix: a center of Taoist religious worship and a home for poisonous snakes. The snakes moved in from the outlying jungle long ago, or so the story goes, and have been coming back ever since. Visitors should beware when walking inside the temple, as the snakes have free access to the temple and slither across the floor, on the altar, overhead, and on tabletops. It is said that the fog of incense from the altar keeps them in a drugged state -- a story our group desperately wanted to believe. Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur got its start as a small tin mining town in 1859. Today it's the center of the nation's government and business. First-class hotels are plentiful, so abundant, in fact, that last year only slightly more than half of the 33,000 rooms were filled. Undaunted, the city is planning to double the number of rooms by the end this year.
Interesting sightseeing attractions are not quite as common here as throughout other parts of Malaysia, but some are worth noting. Although Malaysia is an Islamic state, not only Buddhists and Taoists, but also Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians, are represented by a variety of shrines, churches, and temples. Kuala Lumpur has two fine mosques: the Jame Mosque, with traditional Arab minarets and domes, and the modern National Mosque, whose marbled hallways can hold 8,000 people.
For a sampling of the nation's history and heritage, the National Museum is a good place to visit. Among its displays are lifelike representations of the Malaysian tiger, the flying fox, snakes like the cobra and pit viper, and other fauna, along with flora.
About eight miles north of Kuala Lumpur are the Batu Caves. These huge, cool limestone caverns make a good hike -- provided you can pay the steep entry price -- 272 grueling steps to the top. Shopping and dining
A popular Malaysian handicraft is Selangor pewter, made from 97 percent tin and 3 percent copper. Vases, mugs, coffee cups, tea sets, and trays are some of the popular pewter items for sale. In Kuala Lumpur, quality and price are regulated by the government, but elsewhere the buyer should beware.
Fairly early in my visit, I reached my limits with the Malay taste for spicy food -- chicken curry , beef curry, and crab curry. I sought refuge in a blander Malaysian dish called satay, composed of slivers of chicken or beef barbecued on skewers and dipped in a sweet peanut sauce. Satay can be found at restaurants and open-air food stalls throughout Kuala Lumpur.
Our group also tried a traditional New Year's Chinese steamboat dinner. Ten of us sat around a bubbling pewter bowl filled with a variety of savory fish, accompanied by individual servings of rice. Practical information
Philippine Airlines flies to Malaysia from California. Northwest Orient Airlines has excellent air service to Kuala Lumpur from major American cities. For more information contact the Malaysia National Tourist Office, 600 Montgomery Street, 5th floor, San Francisco, Calif. 94111, or call (415) 788-3344.
In Kuala Lumpur, the new Shangri-La Hotel is excellent. First-class hotels in this city run $75 to $100 per night. Hotels throughout the country have restaurants in-house and modern facilities.
Christopher L. Tyner's trip was partially sponsored by Northwest Orient Airlines and the government of Malaysia.