The other year I was privileged to post a Show Your Neighbourhood article on living in Astana, the fascinating and beautiful capital of Kazakhstan. When we left there we moved to Malaysia where we spent 18 months, 9 in Miri, Sarawak in Eastern Malaysia and 9 months in Ipoh, Perak on the Peninsula. Both of them are fairly typical mid size towns - big enough to have everything you need but smaller than the large commercial centres of KL and Penang. Our life in the two towns was very different but rather than do two separate posts I thought I would combine them into a single (but perhaps a little lengthy) post.
Malaysia is, of course, a world famous tourist destination and, as a place to holiday it has it all, caves, modern metropolises, old towns, varied food and beautiful scenery. We enjoyed all of that in our time in the country but, of course, day to day life is about so much more than and very different to a tourist experience. With that in mind here is my ‘tour’ of day to day life in Miri and Ipoh.
Malaysia does playgrounds really well, at least for the people who can afford them. Most neighbourhoods will have one although the quality of these varies greatly. High end developments will have good set ups whereas children in less affluent areas have, of course far less luxurious equipment or even nothing at all. Most larger towns will also have playgrounds in public parks that are freely accessible to all children.
|A typical playground in a high end development in Ipoh
|And in a smaller, less affluent town.
Our favourite public park was the imaginatively named Tamam Awam (Public garden) in Miri. Set between the town and the airport this garden had an aerial walkway, a dry playground and a water playground. Our children used to love to bring their swimming costumes and water pistols to the park and could happily play for hours, making new friends in the process. The park was also fitted out with many barbecue spots and, on weekends, would be filled with groups of family and friends enjoying a convivial evening.
|Skywalk in the Miri Public Gardens
|Public Waterpark In Miri Park
In Miri and in Sarawak as a whole there was very little in the way of public transport other than buses. Most people drive cars (Proton and Perodua, the two Malaysian car manufacturers having a near monopoly on the non 4x4 market) or the ubiquitous mopeds and the standards of driving are generally poor. The city roads are well maintained but outside Miri, with the exception of the plantation roads, they become rather ramshackle and poorly maintained. The state is crossed by many rivers so boat traffic is popular. Some of the boats are gigantic, closed and air-conditioned to give a comfortable ride.
|Mopeds, Motorbikes, Perodua Myvi and Proton Saga Cars are everywhere
On the peninsula there are wider options available. There are still local and long distance buses and a very good train service that connects the length of the country. Driving standards are a little better and the roads are well maintained. Malaysia has one of the best motorway systems in the world, it is tolled but the prices are not expensive, at least for expats and foreigners. For average wage Malaysians who live in KL and need to use a minimum of two toll roads twice a day on their commute the price can become a drain.
|In Sarawak anything that is not a main road is still an adventure to drive down.
|Sometimes the road just...ends and you have to get a boat instead.
With so many people relying on private transport parking can become a nightmare with double parked cars being the norm in some commercial centres.
A Typical House/Building and Streets
There is no such thing as a typical house in Malaysia. The housing in a chic condo or high end housing development in any main town will be very different to that in the kampongs (villages).
In Sarawak the traditional house is a long-house where the whole village will live under one roof. Traditionally made from wood and palm they are now made from concrete and tin and look rather like terraces. In the kampongs all over Malaysia you will still see houses raised on stilts.
|A Sarawak long house - modern in build but traditional in outlook
the whole village lives under one roof.
|Wooden houses in kampongs are often raised on stilts
|Modern housing built in the interior of Sarawak
Large housing developments are now the norm in many towns, ranging from terraced one story homes to detached bungalows (while a bungalow is a single story house in the UK it is a stand-alone house of any number of floors in Malaysia). Many of the developments are soulless and built without reference to the environmental pressures of the area, one modern development near the Miri airport seemed to flood up to knee height or more in any period of heavy rain – not ideal in a tropical country. We lived in an independent house in a garden suburb in Miri but moved to a detached bungalow on a development in Ipoh. We were very lucky to live in a development where a lot of attention had been paid to the communal gardens and areas and while the house was not ideal the environment, next to a lake, was stunning.
|A typical suburban row of terraces in Ipoh
|A development of 3 story 3 bedroom town-houses
Houses will often have large verandas where people can relax in the shade and with enough space to park the car underneath. This has the dual advantage of keeping it out of the sun and out of the rain making it easier to load and unload. Many Malaysian homes will have a double kitchen which can take some time for expats to adjust to. The wet kitchen is usually outside and a connecting door will lead to the indoors, dry, kitchen. I think the idea is to do all the messy prep and cleaning in the wet kitchen (many Malaysians buy food fresh daily) but I made sure that our houses had an integrated modern kitchen.
|Our development in Ipoh - a little greener than most.
|More houses are being built all the time.
Schools and Nursery’s
Most towns have a profusion of ‘Tadikas’ or nursery facilities. These cater to all groups with specialist nurseries ranging from ‘Little Caliphs’ Islamic Nurseries to Chinese language nurseries or those who seek to educate in English to give children a head start in that language (one we saw claimed that it could have your child reading English confidently age 2 – I want to know how as I wish my native English speaking children could do that!). Montessori nurseries are very popular although how true they are to the Montessori principals varies from one to another.
|A typical nursery
Schools are housed in specially built compounds, because of the weather they tend to be in 2 or more story buildings with classrooms set along an open air corridor and set around the playing fields. Most classrooms will have open windows along at least one wall to promote air flow.
Education is a political hot potato in Malaysia at the moment. Of course it is difficult for an expat to comment insightfully on domestic politics but my understanding is as follows. Vernacular schools for Chinese and Indian Malaysians are guaranteed under the constitution. These tend to be more academically rigorous than the Malay language state schools and as such the children tend to get much better exam results. As a result there are some sections of society that wish to do away with the vernacular schools while others, of course want to keep them. The vernacular schools are not exclusive, however, and it is not unknown for children of other ethnicities to go to, for example, to a Chinese school.
International schools, often teaching the iGCSE and offering either A Levels or the IB are very popular with more wealthy parents as these are seen as giving a smother entry into high class universities worldwide.
Markets and Supermarkets
Many Malaysians still prefer to buy their food at the markets and a bewildering array of high quality produce is available, particularly if you go early in the morning. In Miri where we were by to the sea the seafood was particularly fresh – being loaded into the markets straight from the boats. Even in Ipoh which was a little way in land it was possible to get good fresh sea food. In Ipoh we were also lucky to be close to the Cameron Highlands were a lot of temperate vegetables were grown meaning that we could purchase locally grown varieties instead of expensive imports.
|Beautiful fresh fruit from the market
|And pigs - you could make your own brawn
if you like that sort of thing!
Malaysian supermarkets, particularly on the peninsula, are excellent. They stock a full range of fresh and dried goods and it is possible to find the ingredients to cook just about any type of meal from Indian to Mexican, Chinese to Western. The only thing that is hard to find in Malaysia is good quality meat. The meat that is available is very expensive and sold in small portions and the quality is dire.
|Supermarkets are excellent and stock most things
I hope you have enjoyed this whistle-stop taster tour of what it is like to live in Miri and Ipoh. For more posts on life in Malaysia you can click on the button below or any of the relevant ones in the side bar!