Blending into the Malay world

KUALA LUMPUR – It’s seven in the morning and the sun is yet to rise in this Southeast Asian country, where the sight of skyscrapers is free from the grayish thin clouds of pollution we see in Manila. “Selamat pagi” is the morning greeting locals would greet you, matched with a smile reaching ear-to-ear.

We arrived Kuala Lumpur last July, with us are fellow Mindanaoans, Saudi Gandisa and Rahima Panondiongan, contestants of the International Quran reading competition, who by the way placed top five, beating some 70 other contestants around the world in reciting the Islamic book at the Putra World Trade Center. Officials of the National Commission of Muslim Filipinos and another writer from Davao City also joined us.

Mornings are relaxed and easygoing in the Malaysian capital, as early-morning shows on TV, with hosts sharing its viewers a new breakfast recipe each day, tell us. What a sweet respite for those sick and tired of waking up on daybreak and deal with heavy traffic on their way to work. Here, office hours usually begin at 9, my long lost Malaysian friend Ayumi, who for 14 years I haven’t seen, told me.

Kuala Lumpur is a four-hour travel from Manila. But for us living in the South, traveling to a country that could have been so near to us takes two flights just to get there.

Six hours of connecting flight, if combined, is worth it. The Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), touted to be one of the world’s modern airports in Asia according to an in-flight Malaysia Airlines video, proved to be true when we first arrived. And the airport, itself, was already a tourist attraction, with people starting to take pictures at the arrival area.

Quite interesting though, KLIA is located in Sepang, Selangor – around 50 kilometers or an hour-long drive to capital.

Arriving at midday, our tour guide brought us to a restaurant that served Malay cuisine where we gathered for lunch, conversing with fellow Filipinos who were with us to attend the Islamic event – over a bountiful array of moderately spicy Malaysian dishes.

We made a stop at Putrajaya, a planned city located halfway from the airport to Kuala Lumpur, to walk around the federal administrative center of their government. The Putrajaya International Convention Centre (PICC), located on the top of Taman Puncak Selatan, is where Vina Morales and Kjwan performed their winning performance in the first IKON ASEAN competition in 2007. This is also where one could take a breathtaking view of public buildings located in the planned city, including the man-made Putrajaya Lake.

Malaysia seemed to build countless of structures and monuments for tourists to visit. I could go on writing this travelogue where we had been but I’d rather make it short. When in Kuala Lumpur, don’t leave the country without checking out the Petronas Towers and the KL Tower, two of Malaysia’ skyscrapers the world has known it for.

Being in Malaysia, for Filipinos like me living in the south, is like reaching homeland. Their food, often served spicy, makes it a factor why we call Malaysia our home. Nasi lemak: rice steamed with coconut milk and served with fried anchovies, peanuts, sliced cucumber, hard boiled eggs and a spicy chilli paste is a favorite, along with rendang, also a specialty of the Maranao tribe in Mindanao. Because Islam is the official religion, restaurants serve halal meals, making dining really convenient for Filipino Muslims, who may have had a hard time looking for Halal restaurants in the Philippines.

For those Filipinos who have learned to speak their language, Bahasa Melayu, would often be regarded as Malays, the majority race that inhabits along with the Indians, Chinese and other ethnic groups in Malaysia. My Bahasa Indonesia, on the other hand, helped me converse in daily chat – although there are some words Malaysians do not understand. That, too, made the locals think I am from Indonesia. English is widely spoken although the locals would be happy to chat with foreigners who speak their language well enough for a conversation.

And because two from our group knew how to speak Malay, our tour guide, who is said to be English-speaking as our Manila travel agent said, became too comfortable to speak Malay. That made Randy Usman, a deputy mayor in Davao City, and I, interpreters for our Filipino colleagues for the entire trip. We didn’t mind anyway.

With how we Filipinos look similar to our neighbor Malaysians, and sharing some similarities in culture, religion and language, blending into the Malay world is felt like a jump of blood – an estranged soul traveling back to his homeland, reunited with his siblings he has never met before.

Terima kasih, Tourism Malaysia, for the wonderful experience.

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