I title this entry as such because my experience in Malaysia showed me that in many ways, it is a country of contrasts and contradictions: a nation of ancient tradition and modern industrialization, of Western influence within Eastern orientation, and of community values hidden amongst big city life.

Driving across the bridge from Singapore to the Malaysia was one of the most serene and refreshing moments I’ve had on this adventure so far. Lush greenery and palm trees spread as far as the eye could see, reminding us of the beautiful tropical landscape that is missing from metropolitan Singapore, but which makes areas throughout Southeast Asia absolutely stunning. Though the flora and fauna were nothing like back home in North Carolina, I felt as if I were driving home—coming back into contact with a lush, green landscape I didn’t know I had been missing in Singapore.

Yet I soon was presented with the realization that I was not driving home at all, and in fact was miles away from anything familiar. Exiting our picturesque highway and arriving in Kuala Lumpur, I witnessed the first evidence that I was no longer in a First World nation. Insane traffic jams, dilapidated buildings and visible poverty welcomed us to our new destination. And our first stop: Chinatown. Trying to push my way through crowded streets amongst hawkers selling me knock-off movies, food, massages, souvenirs and really anything else I wanted was one of the most overwhelming events I’ve experienced since arriving in Asia. Exhausted from the long trip and confused without bearings within the city, it was the first time that I have ever wanted to turn around and go back. But I didn’t, and that is the best lesson I’ve learned in traveling. By staying, I fell in love with Malaysia, learning so much more about a truly fascinating culture, and one to which I would love to later return.

We traveled to three main places during our travels in Malaysia, all exceptionally beautiful in their own ways: KL (that’s the local lingo for Kuala Lumpur), Taman Negara (the national rainforest of Malaysia) and Melacca—or Melaka if you wish (a historic town south of KL). KL is lined with temples, mosques and colonial architecture, yet intermixed with modern buildings, Porsche dealerships and skyscrapers like the Petronas Twin Towers. Taman Negara was my favorite park of the trip: a natural beauty and a step back in time to the oldest rainforest in the world, with a Western resort on one side of the river contrasting a small, Eastern village with floating restaurants and shops on the other. Melacca was somewhere in-between. Though the town is showing signs of growing towards big city life, I was charmed and put at complete ease by its community feeling, as we were serenaded by a local restaurant owner during an outdoor night festival.

Still, Malaysia is not without drawbacks. But neither is any nation. Just outside KL, we visited Selamat Datang, an old rubber plantation village now being demolished as part of a larger economic resettlement plan. The poverty and wreckage in this place were astounding, reminding me of the harsh reality of life in a developing country. But as we walked amongst the village, adults and children came out of their houses and schools in droves, all curious to see what was going on. Slowly, they began to converse amongst one another and a self-taught English speaker from one home came out and gave us the grand tour of what he prided himself in calling his village: the place where he had grown up; the place where he had built a family and a community. Despite the poverty, he had pride in his community and was fighting for it with everything he could muster. And though I fear his efforts likely will be unsuccessful and the village will eventually be demolished, I found a sense of identity, self-respect and community that defines Malaysia. It is a struggling nation, but a beautiful nation.

I couldn’t be more thankful that I didn’t turn around and go back. Though Malaysia struggles to fight its way into the fully-industrialized world, clean out government corruption and form a true sense of national identity, it holds a natural beauty and charm that is unparalleled with any other place I’ve experienced. Momentarily lagging behind my group for a moment of solidarity in the rainforest in Taman Negara, I gazed up at an untouched landscape, free from the footprint of man. Standing in that place, I have never felt less alone—a stark contrast to Singapore where one can feel completely isolated in a city of millions. This is why I love Malaysia: the contrast and the contradictions, and the experiences I discovered when I didn’t turn back.