Kedah Darul Aman

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Malaysia - Riding in Kedah

The occasion is the first International Endurance ride in the northwest state of Kedah held in conjunction with the celebration 'Malaysia 2007' the 50th year of independence, and in celebratoin of the 79th birthday of the Sultan of Kedah, Tuanku Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah.

|| Settling In || Kedah - Malaysia - Endurance || The Ride Story

This was my fourth trip to Malaysia. With each visit I learn a little more about this unique nation, a little more about the individuals involved with the sport of Endurance, and a little more about their culture, and the characteristics of this complex country.

I never grow tired of the visual richness - the blast of color that greets me as soon as I step off the plane. The women are ofen dressed head to toe in every imaginable color and pattern - silks and cottons and linens and rayon - solids and patterns - flowers, whimsical combinations of color and shape. This is a very muslim country and most of the women wear head scarves which match or contrast their dresses or loose pants. The scarves are pinned above the shoulder with jeweled clips. The scarves are beautiful on these women, surrounding their soft featured faces - the dark skin and dark eyes perfectly framed.

The men are not shy with color either. They dress in silk or cotten shirts, colorful prints, and the formal dress of the men is a long sleeve batik silk shirt - yellows and oranges, greens and aquas, purples and pinks - all the colors of the rainbow, the colors of the jungle and the ocean and the flowers.

I'm also discovering a fierce pride in these people. They are warm and generous, quick to smile, quick to please, very soft in their manner, but they have persisted and survived centuries of invasion and occupation. There is a great sense of nationalism and great pride in their country. I think this sustains them, keeps the traditions strong, and gives structure to the conformity that a functional society needs. People seem content with their lot. I don't sense the anger and desperation that I've seen in many other countries. The street vendors don't heckle tourists or strangers like they do in much of the middle east and africa, there is poverty, but it doesn't seem desperate. There's a fairly strong police presence, not obvious or intimidating, but it is there. The nationals have a mandatory military service - I think they're required to spend 6 months serving their country, though university deferments are available.

Throughout its history Malaysia has always been vulnerable simply because of its geography - Thailand to the north, Singapore to the south, and open water to the east and west of peninsular Malaysia. The states of Sabah and Serawak are on the northwest side of Borneo, sharing land boundary with Indonesia, and ocean side to the South China Sea. The western waterways of Malaysia, the Straights of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia, are renowned with stories of pirates and sunken vessels. There are still pirates in the waters (so they say), but Malaysia's sovereignty has been secure for 50 years. Malaysia was a British colony for years, partially occupied by Thailand for years, and fully occupied by Japan during WWII, but eventually Thailand returned the land, the Japanese retreated, and Great Britain said thank you very much we're going home now. 1958 was the year of Malaysia's independence.

2008 is a celebration of Malaysia's 50th year of Independence. As a result of the years of British colonial rule, Malaysians are fluent in 'western' ways. English is a national language, and several regions which are strongly tied to international business and commerce (Kuala Lumpur, Penang - Kedah) have Monday-Friday work week and Saturday/Sunday holiday as opposed to the traditional work week which ends on Thursday, with Friday being the muslim holy day. Malaysia produces the highest percentage of university graduates in the region. The country has applied for developed nation status, and is on track for acceptance in 2012.

I still feel the urge to put an exclamation point after the word - Malaysia! - every time I think about being here, about the sport of Endurance in this tropical nation, a tropical island (almost) people, a culture strongly tied to the ocean. Rice and rubber and tropical fruits. But of course the British would have their horse sports, and polo and racing and jumping and various horse sports were introduced to the culture, regardless of the climate.

The sultanate of Kedah (where the most recent event took place) started a gymkana program in the 1950's, due to the interest and patronage of the Sultan and his younger brother. And as a whole, the malaysians who do ride, ride well. They take lessons at an early age and many started with jumping and dressage before moving to endurance. The farrier work is quite good and the horses are well groomed and well kept. They are largely housed in stables, and spend most of their time (when not sporting) in stalls - but the introduction of Endurance into the horse sport culture has also introduced the need and desire for more natural stabling, turnout and grass paddocks. This is not a terribly crowded nation, only 24 million population, so there is space. The culture of the horse here is more related to sport than to work or transportation. There is a native breed, the malaysian pony, which seems to be a tough ornery little creature, and surprisingly suited to Endurance.

Endurance... yes, that's why I'm here. Eleven years now and Malaysia is fully committed to the sport. Since the first event in Sabah (Borneo) land of the orangutan, where the riders could see tiger tracks on the trail, and monkeys chattered at them from the trees canopies, where the jungle heat was so intense that they swam the horses into the ocean to cool them down before continuing down the trail. From Borneo in 1997 to hosts of the 2008 World Endurance Championship, a small nation with enormous ambition, a new sport on a fast track learning curve. Travelling outside the country to learn the sport, and inviting riders into the country to learn more - and to introduce the world to their version of the sport. It is a slower sport here.

The heat and humidity demand respect and restraint, and with the proper respect and restraint it seems to be a viable sport. The horses are kept leaner, to help dissipate the heat buildup from the working muscles, and though the larger bodied horses rarely compete in the longer distances, they do surprisingly in the 40 and 80km rides. Big thoroughbreds and little ponies - as long as the rider takes care, and doesn't ask too much of the horse, they do well. And in Malaysia they ride in the cool of the night. Starting in late afternoon, riding through the night, finishing at or before dawn... a unique but successful version of the sport.

Malaysia's newly annointed King, HRH Mizan Zainal Abidin, is an endurance rider. Fairly new to Endurance, but a lifetime equestrian, he has joined the 'hooked on Endurance' ranks, and largely as a result of his support, the sport is growing - rapidly - across the nation. The ride I was invited to attend, the 'Kedah Royal International Invitational Ride 2007' was a direct result of the royal mandate to expand the sport. It was a huge event, a grand celebration. The Endurance ride was the central theme, but the entire event encompassed much more. Malaysia 2008 is the celebration theme for acknowleging 50 years of independence. Celebration of Malaysia's nationhood.

The entire country is involved in promoting tourism and awareness of Malaysia. In addition, the Sultan of Kedah is celebrating his 79th birthday. He was Malaysia's 5th King after becoming a sovereign nation, and in keeping with the system of rotation - each of the 9 state sultans takes a turn at being King, he could potentially become Malaysia's 14th king too! he looked pretty spry and healthy...

It was a most spectacular weekend, absolutely amazing. The Kedah Sultan is very revered, and the International flavor of the event was strong - from the field of foreign riders invited to participate in the race, to the foreign dignitaries that attended the ceremonies. Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia royalty were present at the side of the Sultan, and HRH Sultan Mizan, who took center stage. Riders from Holland, Belgium, Australia, Indonesia, Qatar and USA tested the trail along with almost 80 riders from various parts of Malaysia. A huge tent, draped in yellow silk, provided the backdrop for the cermonies. Native dancers with expressive hands, oriental steps, moving to exotic music of the orient. And all the color! silk shirts and dresses, flowing fabrics, very beautiful.

And the ride ...