Sailing into the beautiful islands in the bay off Kuching, we talk about what seems new and different in Malaysia compared to Indonesia. It’s impossible to resist making comparisons like this when we arrive in a new country. The transition from Papua New Guinea to Indonesia was particularly stark. The shift as we travel Indonesia to Malaysia is more subtle, but still markedly different considering we’ve only just moved a little way around the same big island.
The immediately obvious observation is how much cleaner the water is. There’s hardly any plastic floating around. It’s shifted back to a pretty aqua: less river runoff, from better managed timber/palm plantations? Who knows, but it’s easy on the eyes.
It’s clearly wealthier: there is a higher standard of living, and it is immediately apparent that the baseline quality of life is much more comfortable. On the ride into Kuching from our anchorage in the Santubong River, the road winds past progressively planned development: wide boulevards planted with trees, business parks, residential neighborhoods. It is an entirely different vibe from the relatively chaotic clusters of construction in Indonesian towns. There are services for waste management, and you don’t have to watch every step on a sidewalk for fear of falling through into a sewage ditch.
The kids chime in that they love the new food we’ve been able to try: new flavors, new styles of cooking, and pretty much everything absolutely delicious (we won’t talk about the dried sweet chili cuttlefish debacle). We will have to restrain ourselves not to put on pounds of laksa and roti canai, and I have some new cooking lessons to seek out.
The Islamic faith is dominant, but it’s expressed differently. There seem to be more headscarves on the street, but we rarely hear the call to prayer. At the same time, it feels more stridently diverse. The Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultures stands out – we’re also exposed to a number of indigenous cultures in Borneo. A day at a cultural center blows us all away with the vibrant differences. It makes me realize that for all the incredible diversity of Indonesia, within individual islands or regions it’s comparably homogeneous. I’ve always thought of Indonesia as such a cultural kaleidoscope that it surprises me. Meanwhile, I find myself missing the sounds of the muezzin floating over the anchorage.
None of these are fair generalizations, of course, because we’ve spent 180 days and crossed thousands of miles in Indonesia… and here we’ve just scratched the surface of a single Malaysian province. It’s just the beginning of months in Malaysia, a first taste we can’t wait to explore further.