Note: Supplemented with photos not found in the print edition.
Flags are a-flutter all over Kuala Lumpur these days. Malaysia is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence from British rule this August, and the word "Merdeka!" (Freedom), emblazoned on banners, buntings, posters and public spaces big and small, is once more on the march across the Malay peninsula.
In August 1957, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first prime minister, had shouted that very same word three times before a thunderous throng, to mark his nation's final break from centuries of European domination and colonialism.
From the British occupiers, Rahman's generation of Malaysians had inherited a country devastated by the Japanese during World War II and riven by racial and ethnic tensions. Waves of Chinese, Indian and Western migrants had made the peninsula their home, alongside the native Malays. The country was a rural, agricultural economy known in the world mostly for its exports of rubber and tin.
Great leap forward
A walk through KL and its prosperous neighboring states today brings into high relief just how much Malaysia has transformed from its troubled beginnings to a nation now a few beats shy of First World living standards. The famous Petronas Towers, currently the world's tallest twin structures, are more than the crown jewels of the KL skyline: They have become an emblem, a visual shorthand, for the success of Malaysia's great leap forward.
With the entire country in a fiesta mood all-year round, now is the best time to visit Malaysia and sample its kaleidoscopic attractions. This is a country, after all, that counts a heritage drawn from all over the globe, from Arabia to Holland--a dazzling mix reflected in its crafts, cuisine, dress and architecture.
"Visit Malaysia 2007" has some 50 major events lined up for visitors, the grandest of them this August (visit www.tourismmalaysia.gov.my).
The culture is rich and ancient, but the modern embellishments are just as arresting. In KL, the Moorish splendor of the Sultan Abdul Samad building (built in 1897 and home to the High Court that heard Anwar Ibrahim's trial in 1997) blends quite gracefully with the contemporary edifices all around it.
Much of KL, in fact, looks spanking new, but the vestiges of its colonial past have been meticulously preserved, and now serve as points of historical interest in the sprawling glass-and-steel metropolis.
Among these are the Istana Negara, the gilded residence of the King of Malaysia, with its own Buckingham Palace-style changing of the guards; the KL Railway Station, a magnificent building of Indian-mogul arches and minarets, once the country's rail transport hub; Merdeka Square, where the Union Jack was lowered in 1957; and various other important mosques, temples and memorials.
Cheek by jowl with these heritage sites is the vibrant, sophisticated side of KL. Upscale malls can be found in Bukit Bintang, with its mix of local shops and global brands. At the base of the Petronas Towers is Suria KLCC, another vast shopping arcade. Everywhere are bars, restaurants and nightspots of every stripe, from the ubiquitous Starbucks to Indian dives with multi-colored hookah. (Even Planet Hollywood, that quaint relic of '90s celebrity excess, is still alive here.)
Malaysians are also into themed attractions big time, whether outdoor or indoor. Aquaria KLCC boasts a fascinating collection of water fauna, including several species indigenous to the country. At Sunway Resort Hotel & Spa, visitors frolic in what can only be described as a gigantic version of Splash Island, with faux waterfalls, cavernous pools, hanging bridges, water-soaked rides and thrills, and posh villas for accommodations.
This 800-acre leisure destination also reaffirms Malaysia's eagerness to gun for world records, starting with the Petronas Towers. Sunway's Surf Beach is said to be the world's largest manmade beach, with 6,000 tons of sand recreating a tropical paradise within a much larger resort.
More firsts are proudly broadcast in one of the country's premiere mountain resorts, Genting Highlands. At 1,800 meters above sea level, this complex of hotels, malls and theme parks has year-round cool winds, cable cars and panoramic views of Malaysia's great expanse of rain forests.
Demanding attention in this nippy perch is the First World Hotel, not only for its Lego-like facade--almost a surreal sight in the foggy landscape--but also for its 6,001 rooms, making it the biggest in the world. The five hotels in the complex account for over 10,000 rooms in all.
Delivering guests to Genting are cable cars that skim the forest canopy in trips that run for 3.4 km and take about 12-15 minutes-the longest cable-car system in Southeast Asia and the fastest in the world, they say.
This urge to build reaches its apotheosis in Putrajaya, a brand-new, full-scale city created from forest and wetland in the state of Selangor. A brainchild of the former prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, Putrajaya was envisioned to be the country's new nerve center, the seat of political, religious and bureaucratic power in the country.
Putrajaya's splendid green-domed Perdana Putra building is now the office of the Malaysian prime minister and his government. All government offices are also located in the city, and it is here where Malaysians have to go for everything from getting passports to renewing driving licenses. Beside Perdana Putra is the imposing Putra Mosque with its rose-colored granite dome, a breathtaking beacon of faith in this largely Moslem country.
The freedom to conjure a city from scratch allowed Putrajaya's planners the leeway for strikingly detailed, even playful, urban design. The lampposts, for instance, change whimsical shape from boulevard to boulevard, while the bridges are visual marvels on their own.
There is, of course, more to the Malaysian character than these flashy constructions. But for a glimpse of the grit, industriousness and vision that have lifted their country to new heights, one need only marvel at the clean, well-run and sparkling hubs of community that Malaysia has built for itself.
In KL, despite the new chic, the old Malay soul remains. You can find it in corners like Jalan Alor, where, a mere hop away from KL's skyscrapers, locals and tourists alike devour street food amid the sweat, smoke, dust and din of the city.
If you do you find yourself digging into satay and laksa in Jalan Alor this year, raise a glass to Malaysia and wish it long life. That old word will do: "Merdeka!"
Cebu Pacific flies to KL every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Return flights to Manila are every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Call 7020888 or visit www.cebupacificair.com
PLUS: A couple of personal photos, with atrocious captions.
Pausing for a pose in Putra [jaya]
Singkit in Bukit [Bintang]
[photos 1 & 7: Erik Lacson]