The mix of cultural influences in Malaysia is the result of centuries of immigration and trade with the outside world, particularly with Arab nations, China, and India. Early groups of incoming foreigners brought wealth from around the world, plus their own unique cultural heritages and religions. Furthermore, once imported, each culture remained largely intact; that is, none has truly been homogenized. Traditional temples and churches exist side by side with mosques.
Likewise, traditional art forms of various cultures are still practiced in Malaysia, most notably in the areas of dance and performance art. Chinese opera, Indian dance, and Malay martial arts are all very popular cultural activities. Silat, originating from a martial arts form (and still practiced as such by many), is a dance performed by men and women. Religious and cultural festivals are open for everyone to appreciate and enjoy. Unique arts and traditions of indigenous people distinguish Sabah and Sarawak from the rest of the country.
Traditional Malaysian music is very similar to Indonesian music. Heavy on rhythms, its constant drum beats underneath the light repetitive melodies of the stringed gamelan (no relation at all to the Indonesian metallophone gamelan, with its gongs and xylophones) will entrance you with its simple beauty.
The Harmony Silk Factory, by Tash Aw (Riverhead Trade). One of Malaysia's most talented novelists, Aw spins a tale about a Chinese businessman in Malaysia at the start of the Japanese Occupation.
A History of Malaysia, by Barbara Watson Andaya (Palgrave Macmillan). This easy-to-read book explores some of the most important themes in Malaysia's history, from prehistory to present day.
Into the Heart of Borneo, by Redmond O'Hanlon (Vintage). This funny travelogue follows two inexperienced travelers as they attempt a rugged trek into the deepest forests of Sarawak.
Kalimantaan, by C. S. Godshalk (Abacus). This is a well-researched fictional account of a colonial adventurer who attempts to rule Borneo, loosely based on the life of Sir James Brooke.
The Long Day Wanes: A Malaysian Trilogy, by Anthony Burgess (W. W. Norton & Co). Written by the author of A Clockwork Orange, these three novels mirror the author's experiences as a British civil servant during Malaysia's transition to independence.
Malaysia: A Pictorial History, by Wendy Khadija Moore (Editions Didier Millet). A gorgeous coffee table book, this fantastic collection of illustrations, photographs, and artwork makes reading about history a joy.
Anna and the King (1999). A Hollywood blockbuster, this remake starring Chow Yun Fatt and Jodie Foster was filmed on Langkawi, after the Thai government refused to let them film in Thailand. The Thais are not fans of the Western fairytale that claims that one of their most revered monarchs was "civilized" by a simple English teacher.
Entrapment (1999). This thriller starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones has its climax in Kuala Lumpur, with a stunt-filled heist at the top of the Petronas Twin Towers.
Sandokan (1976). Based on the epic novels of Emilio Salgari, this miniseries captures the danger and mystery of colonial Malaya.
South Pacific (1958). Bali Hai is Tioman Island, at least for the cast and crew of South Pacific, who shot parts of the film there in the 1950s, most notably the scenes that accompany the song "Happy Talk."
Zoolander (2001). This low-brow comedy, starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, is banned from Malaysia because of a plot that includes an assassination plan of a so-called prime minister of Malaysia. However, footage of a ridiculously fictional Malaysia has absolutely no resemblance to the country at all.