RECENTLY I returned from one of my frequent trips to Malaysia to present at a conference and discuss research issues with my colleagues.
It is always a good feeling to land at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and make my way to my hotel, knowing that if tiredness does not take over I can get out and enjoy a nice late night meal in the warm evening night and enjoy what, to me, is one of the most important reasons for coming to Malaysia: the food.
I know I have written on this before (Learning Curve, July 17, 2011; Dec 18, 2011; and Jan 8) and my regular readers are well aware that I consider the culinary culture of the country a particular point of joy.
On my latest trip I managed to visit both Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and enjoyed many good dinners, sometimes very late in the evening, with friends whom I always seek out if I am in town.
The depth and complexity of the fare on offer in all the myriad of stalls and restaurants is always something that impresses and astounds me. As always, I reflect on the culinary experience and hope that the many visitors to Malaysia share in and enjoy the experience of dining that I find so attractive.
On my visit to Penang, I stayed in my usual hotel and ate at my favourite Indian curry restaurant, which I have mentioned before in my writings.
As always the food is simply scrumptious. Ghee rice, garlic nan, chicken Hyderabadi, I could go on and on about the food. However, it was not the food that caught my attention during my stay in Penang and my sojourns eating out.
One of the things that struck me, which must strike anyone who has visited a Malaysian hotel lately, is the diversity of tourists and guests who frequent Malaysia.
Let me provide one example. As I caught the lift to go to the Indian restaurant, I could not help but notice all the guests who got on and off the lift as we proceeded to the lobby.
Of course there were Chinese, Malays and Indians, as you would expect. However, there were also people from the Middle East, Europe, the United States and, yes, you guessed it -- Australia.
On so many occasions as I caught the lift in my hotel, I would stand and chat to such a wide range of happy guests and tourists that it struck me that not only is Malaysia a melting pot of diverse ethnicities and cultures, but that the tourists in Malaysia are also equally diverse. In my lift, on one occasion, I counted six nationalities and at the pool, I counted many more.
On the whole, people were polite to each other and the hotel staff were jovial and welcoming to the guests. I watched as the employees dealt with the mixed range of guests with equal friendliness and good humour.
I wondered if the reason for the staff's ability to handle such a culturally diverse group of guests lay in the habits formed living in a multicultural and multi-ethnic society.
Of course, it may have been professionalism and good training that was on show. However, my sense was that the ability of the workers to engage with such varied guests also stemmed from a deeper source.
Even in the Indian restaurant, the diversity was clear to see, with locals and foreigners enjoying the food in good spirit and equal relish.
Indeed, when I ate at a kedai nasi ayam, I continued to observe not simply a diverse array of locals but also an equally mixed group of tourists and foreigners.
I will confess right away that the nasi ayam was fantastic, affordable and delicious. From the looks of the locals and tourists who ate at the wide range of eating establishments near me, they too were equally happy.
So what did I learn from my recent trip to Malaysia? Well, I could tell you about the interesting conversations on politics and education that I had with my colleagues. However, I cannot escape the feeling that my observations in the restaurants, lifts, buses and by the pool in my hotel also taught me much that was significant.
The slogan Malaysia Truly Asia rings true every time I visit. However, what I noticed in terms of tourism is that Malaysia is truly the world! Malaysia is now a beacon for the world's tourists, and this is obvious any time you take a look at the range of guests in any hotel.
What I felt was that the diversity the tourists brought added to an already fascinating and engaging mix, which characterises Malaysia.
Indeed, Malaysia's plurality is such an asset when we consider the international tourist market.
Sometimes, we may take many things for granted and not notice the simple things that occur on our way somewhere else.
In my case, I noticed the interactions in the lift, the sharing of a smile on the bus and the common joy in a restaurant.
Not only were Malaysians enjoying the diversity that characterises so much of Malaysian culture, but the tourists were also adding their diversity and their enjoyment to a culture that is welcoming and warm. As a visitor to Malaysia, this picture of a culture that is genuinely open and warm is how I experience my trips and, from what I see, it is the way many other tourists also experience their time in the country.
This picture that I paint is real and, despite all the ups and downs of politics and what we read in the media, it is an abiding experience that many visitors to Malaysia can attest to.
My advice, for what it's worth, is do not underestimate this. There is much value in such diversity and much that is attractive in it as well.