The Other Malaysia: A travelogue series showcasing little-known places and people of Malaysia

In broad strokes, Malaysia may appear to be a land of squabbling politicians and communities obsessed with turf wars over ethnic and religious rights. But there's more to the country than this. There is another Malaysia, one that is too often lost behind the headlines but no less real and far richer in its diversity.

Writer CAROLYN HONG brings you this nine-part series that brings to life the places and people of Malaysia many of us know little about.


Malay village in Penang under threat from rapid development

The old pakcik in a sarong cycled slowly by the madrasah, or Islamic religious school, nodding a brief hello to a young woman cycling past.

Their bicycle wheels threw up sand from the path that runs alongside the wooden houses. It was a typical scene from a typical seaside fishing village in Malaysia, except that this was in George Town in Penang.

Kampung Tanjung Tokong is one of the oldest Malay villages in Penang and its survival is deeply important to the Malay community. It was one of the many traditional fishing villages that lined the shores of the cape of Tanjung Tokong that juts into the Strait of Malacca.

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Living alone on a mountaintop

She heaved up her rattan basket, supporting its weight with a rope belt strapped around her forehead, and made her way slowly up the steep path.

"Another 700 steps to go," she said as she reached the last stretch, which would lead to a village at Bung Jagoi, atop a mountain in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo island.

Most people would find it hard to walk up this jungle path even if they were empty-handed. Ms Jema ak Nopis has been doing it with a full load for more than half a century. She now lives alone at the village. Once, it was thriving, but since the 1990s, other residents have left, finding lowland towns more convenient.

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Fighting to preserve diversity

Darting lightly on her feet as she threw swift, hard punches, Ms Ann Osman suddenly lunged to toss her opponent to the floor. It was all over in a minute.

Graceful yet powerful, she grinned as her opponent picked herself off the mat. The two women were in training at a martial arts gym in a suburb of Kota Kinabalu, capital of Malaysia's Sabah state, where Ms Ann also works as a trainer.

The photogenic Ms Ann, 29, is a prominent face in Malaysia's mixed martial arts fight scene, not just because she is a professional female fighter but also because she is Muslim in an increasingly conservative country.

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Seeking God in peak pilgrimage

There is no way to describe the jungle path up Mount Murud, Sarawak's highest mountain, except for tough and tougher.

It is relentlessly steep, with numerous fallen trees blocking the way, forcing walkers to climb over or crawl under them.

It is made even tougher by the slushy mud and so many tree roots littering the path that walking becomes more of an exercise of skipping than a steady one foot in front of the other.

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The Peranakans of Terengganu

If Penang and Malacca are famed for their Baba and Nonya, Terengganu can lay claim to its own Mek and Awang.

Not many people know that this East Coast state also has a substantial Peranakan Chinese community whose women are called Mek and men Awang.

Peranakan, meaning locally born, refers to migrant communities who have assimilated with the Malays over many generations, often through inter-marriage.

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A trek through forest to reach school

The suspension bridge high over the rushing Papar River sways and rocks alarmingly but to the children of the jungle school, it is as stable as a paved road in the city.

They run across, stopping to lean over to see the river, tease each other and race on to class. The bridge is part of their daily route to school through the rainforest in Malaysia's Sabah state. 

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Straits Muslims show diversity within Malays

The island of Penang is virtually synonymous with the Peranakan community, or Straits Chinese.

From their furniture to dress and especially food, the Baba Nonya culture is a highly visible aspect of Penang heritage.

But the Jawi Peranakan, or Straits Muslims? Fewer people know about them, even those of Straits Muslim descent themselves, who often identify themselves as Malay. But things are changing.

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Life over the waves in Sabah

A 10-minute boat ride and it was another world. Children scampered along narrow wooden planks between village houses built on stilts just offshore from a small, forested island.

Women sat on benches outside their homes chatting or cooking meals for sale. Below, fishing boats rocked slowly on the waves in a gentle rhythm that seemed to match the peaceful pace of life. Across the water lay the modern city of Kota Kinabalu. The contrast couldn't be starker with life in the water village off the island, known locally as Pulau Gaya. 

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Sabah villagers lure back the fish

It is not often wild fish are so tame they feed from your hands and swim at your feet.

Their fearlessness is all the more amazing when you realise these fish are highly prized for their silky flesh. Called pelian in Sabah, or mahseer in English, the fish sell for RM80 to RM100 (S$30 to S$38) per kg in town.

Not surprisingly, its numbers soon declined as this slow-growing species takes up to three years to mature. Attempts to rear the fish in farms have not been very successful.

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