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Mythical Malaysia

February 15, 2007 By:
Silke Schmidt, JE Feature
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Deities line the wall of the Indian Temple, in Kuantan, Malaysia.

Westerners may never understand why Malaysians call the green soccer ball-sized durian the "Queen of Fruits." Its outer shell is as huggable as a hedgehog and, piled up in pyramids under the hot Malaysian sun, the fruits tend to develop an unpleasant odor.

"Tastes like vanilla," the young durian seller at the market in Terengganu at Malaysia's East Coast says, smiling warmly. It is a friendly smile and well-meant, but a deceiving one: The group of Westerners who have just put big chunks of white, soft durian pulp in their mouths almost instantly start making funny faces, much to the pleasure of bystanding locals.

Nope -- vanilla's not it. Mushy onion sauce might describe the taste more accurately.

Luckily, not far from Terengganu in the village of Cherating lives Mamat, who plucks something tastier than durian from palm trees: coconuts. Mamat is a short-tailed makak, and this monkey loves coconut juice, which he drinks directly from the nuts with a straw.

"He's the only monkey here on the East Coast that knows how to drink with a straw," says Pa Ali, Mamat's owner. He is proud of Mamat, even though at times the monkey develops an odd sense of humor and throws coconuts at people oblivious of him sitting high up in the palm fronds.

Malaysian people are usually more peaceful: Tolerance is held high not only by the government. Though most Malaysians -- especially at the touristically less developed East Coast -- are Muslims, religious freedom is one of the most important Malaysian values. Christian churches can be found right next to mosques, and mosques right next to Hindu or Buddhist temples. Penang Island, off the country's West Coast, is home to Malaysia's only Jewish community.

Ezekiel Menassah, a Jewish emigrant from Baghdad, is said to have been the first Jew to come to Penang in 1895 -- though headstones on the local Jewish cemetery seem to prove that there was already a Jewish community at Penang in 1805. Supposedly, Menassah was the only Jew in Malaysia for about 30 years, where he observed Jewish holidays and kept up with kashrut.

From Russia, With Emigration
Today, there are about 100 Jews residing in all of Malaysia, most of them refugees from Russia.

Besides religion, nature is something Malaysians treasure. And there is hardly a better place to experience South East Asian nature than on small islands like Redang.

Arriving at Redang is like coming to paradise. Turquoise water, a clear blue sky, white sand -- a perfect tropical-island cliché. Directly behind the simple, TV-free huts that are Coral Redang Resort, the jungle begins -- and its inhabitants may come really close.

"That squirrel is in the room again!" and the British woman next door sounds almost hysterical. "I used to think they are cute, but, oh, I've come to hate them! They eat everything!"

Except, possibly, mosquitoes. Geckos take care of them -- and the big-eyed, perfectly harmless lizards are at home in just about any of the hotel rooms. At night, as soon as the lights go out, tiny feet dribble above sleepers' heads.

Heavy showers and jungle thunderstorms rain down outside in the middle of the night; in the morning, the air is humid, but clear. Monitor lizards lie at the banks of the small jungle creek close to the resort, warming themselves up for the day.

The first snorkelers are out at the house reef directly after breakfast. Finding Nemo is not a problem there, though you may also encounter a shark not far from the shore.

"The sharks are harmless," says the guy from the resort's diving base. He says the same of the grimly grinning moraines. Obviously, the animals agree: There have been no shark attacks in Malaysia so far -- none that have become known, anyway.

The only village at Redang can be reached either by boat or by taking a narrow footpath through the jungle. Exotic colorful flowers line the path; every now and then the chitchat of monkeys is heard high up in the trees.

At a small roadside shop in the village, children greet visitors, who are soon served baked bananas and cool drinks. Selamat datang -- these Malaysian words, meaning "welcome," will greet guests to the country everywhere.

Speechless? No way

And though it might happen that in the towns and villages on the East Coast, where there are still only a few hotels, people do not speak English, they will never be speechless, offering their hospitality to everyone respecting local culture.

Unless, of course, you happen to run across the monkey Mamat. Remember: You might just have found him if a coconut drops to the ground right next to where you're standing.

To learn more about Malaysian travel, log on to: www. tourism.gov.my.

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