As we look back on our month in Malaysia, we see peaks and valleys. It’s been a wild ride.

We didn’t exactly start on the right foot. Just 2 days into our relaxing beach/diving/snorkeling time in Borneo, Ken got sick with a fever. That’s 10 days I would prefer not to relive.

Travel started to feel brighter after that, even if the the scenery didn’t look so bright. This was our first time in true Southeast Asia. Yes, we had been to Singapore; however, we think of that as Asia Lite. Borneo, and soon we would learn most of Malaysia, was hot, dusty, dirty and strewn with garbage. So much garbage. It gives me pause to think of a culture so uncaring or poor or perhaps at peace with all their garbage. Unless the land is a Unesco World Heritage Site, garbage is a constant part of the scenery.

Being a tourist in Borneo is an odd experience. The best way to sum it up is indifference from the locals. If you don’t sign up with an expensive tour (as Ken and I usually don’t), you get a lesser experience. People are willing to get you there and point you in the direction of the site, yet there is little else in the way of information. It’s too bad, because when I really get to know a place or an animal, I have much more empathy for it. I may have more incentive to learn more or donate.

If you want the full experience, you’ll get it by paying for it. On full-blown tours or at places like Mulu caves (where paid tours are the only option), you will get a better, more informative experience. We did manage to visit some decent museums with helpful information, the best being the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur. One major upside to indifference is that very few touts will bug you. They don’t badger you to buy their products. If they even ask, they actually listen to a “no” response. That is refreshing.

Speaking of shopping, items are pretty cheap in Malaysia. You can get new clothes for as low as $3 US a piece. However, the cheaper clothes always have the sign, “No Trying”. As in, no heading to the fitting room to make sure it fits. Malaysians tend to be smaller people, so that might work for them. Amazon Americans like me have to try things on first. Ken and I came up with a standard response: “No trying, no buying”.

After having a few indifferent experiences, we started to count the number of nice Malaysian people we met. Thankfully, we ran out of fingers. Many people started a conversation with, “Where are you from?” When that was the extent of their English, the conversation ended there, but sometimes we could go further. All were surprised that we were from the US; they expected us to say that we were from Australia, since Malaysia does not get many American travelers. Too far to fly for a one week vacation, too inaccessible to some Americanized minds. Some Malaysians were very kind, helping us with directions, telling us to change buses on a long distance trip, teaching us about new foods, talking to us about their home lives. And don’t forget about our lovely afternoon with Rozi in Putrajaya.

Malaysia’s population is comprised of four distinct groups: Malaysian, Chinese, Indian and Indigenous. These people have mixed to form all sorts of sub-groups, like Baba Nyonya (Chinese women who married local Malaysians a century ago). It makes for wonderful cuisine, varied cultural influences and tons of holidays. Yet is there harmony? The government started an interesting marketing campaign in the country called 1Malaysia. Recently launched, it promotes the idea that all people of Malaysia are one, with equal treatment and access. When we asked locals about this, most laughed. One said that “1Malaysia is a joke” and that citizens of Chinese heritage are not treated fairly. Others said the campaign was unnecessary, as there are no racial issues.

1Malaysia... or is it?

The varied people are actually a good reason for friends from the US to come here. For the cost of one flight, you can be immersed in Chinese, Hindu and Muslim Malay culture. Hoikken mee for breakfast, roti cani for lunch and asam laska for dinner. No need for the same meal from the same culture twice! (Although I could probably eat roti cani for most meals.)

We finished our Malaysia trip on a much higher note than we began it, by learning how hospitable Malaysians can truly be. We finally managed to connect with some CouchSurfers and met the Kang family of Penang. Penang is a small island off of the northwest corner of Peninsular Malaysia. Built up by the British over 150 years ago, its main city, George Town, contains the most colonial architecture in all of Southeast Asia. Awarded Unesco World Heritage City in 2000, it’s a popular tourist destination.

The Kang family

The Kangs hosted us for our last three nights in Malaysia. Both Sherilyn and Sam have Chinese heritage. They embody the Malaysian spirit by speaking three languages, eating various hawker stall foods and embracing all cultures. Like us, they recently sold off their larger home and a car, so they could be freer to travel (in their case, with their 10 and 8 year old children). Keeping a home base in Penang, they hit the road when the kids have a school holiday. When they can’t travel, they bring cultures to them by hosting CouchSurfers. We enjoyed talking travel and politics, eating huge, family style meals and playing with the kids. Who knew Littlest Pet Shop was the new, hot toy in Asia? Second to Angry Birds, of course.

Angry Birds everywhere

Curious cats scrounge for scraps

We marveled at Sherilyn’s travel photos. A budding photographer and blogger, her photos of Mongolia were outstanding. While her blog is written in Chinese, it’s worth checking out just for the images.

Should you choose to visit Malaysia, contrasts await. Conservation vs. private profits. Blistering heat vs. constant downpours. Delectable eats vs. disgusting tastes. Indifference vs. joyful hospitality. In the end, we left Malaysia healthy, happy… and well-fed!