Friday, April 15, 2011

Kuala Lumpur - Malaysia

The flight was only a couple of hours long, but when we arrived it felt strangely like coming home.  On the bus from the Airport to Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur we solemnly gaped out of the window watching well developed roads and expensive cars blur past us as the rain came down.  We both immediately thought we had made the wrong choice in coming to Malaysia, we certainly didn't expect it to be this modern.  Having spent over three months in places where even the best roads require frequent swerves to avoid pot holes and cliff edges this was like landing in London with the exception that it was still a hot and sticky climate but on the coach with air conditioning like a Siberian winter and the urban view it didn't even feel like we were still in Asia.  After an hour’s drive or so we were in Chinatown, KL (as Kuala Lumpur is known to anybody who has set foot in Asia).

KL is an intense melting pot of everything that is good and bad about a capital city.  It is in your face, dirty, claustrophobic, chaotic and an unforgiving mush of rich and poor.  At the same time there are infinite choices for eating, shopping and conveniences in general.  Drinking is expensive because alcohol, especially beer, is heavily taxed making it a fast way to spend your budget at around two pound for a small can of beer even in the supermarket.  As an alternative to a bar we stopped at a Chinese tearoom and sampled some of their healthy tasting brews.  Being a capital city, accommodation is also relatively expensive in KL.  We looked at many dirty hovels at the sharp end of our budget until we found an extremely small but clean box in a place called The Monkey Inn.

We paid an extra pound for a window room which was a great idea for the feeling of space, but the walls are paper thin and the room is barely big enough for the bed which makes it nothing more than a safe place to crash.  I happened to look out the window just in time to see a massive rat hurtle down the backstreet below.  The hostel had a nice communal area where you could watch movies and go online for free which helped justify the cost.  The Monkey Inn was surprisingly not in any of the guidebooks considering the efforts they had gone to in order to build up the brand of the place with a nice little logo and t-shirts & mugs for sale, but this may have had something to do with the American proprietor being patronising to the extent that visiting reception was more irritating than a handful of wasps.  This frustration was a common occurrence judging by comments written in the guestbook.

This photo captures the poverty and prosperity of KL

All the tea in China(town)

Aside from the relatively (relative in terms of countries that is, not Chinatown) poor value for money on accommodation and booze, Chinatown­ is an amazing place and­ bursting with mouthwatering places to eat.  The streets are throbbing with people sat at pavement tables shoveling noodles in their gob or cooking food on wooden sticks in bubbling pots whilst chatting away.  There are sometimes so many tables taking up the pavement that you often find yourself walking on the road!  It really is no matter though because the traffic can only crawl along most of the busy roads, minus the odd motorbike whizzing past.  Fine dining it is not, but there is quality and what better way to drink in all the sensational sights and smells? 

Then there’s the shopping.  I confess that I am far from being a shopaholic but in Chinatown there is a large open-air market called Jln Petaling which comes alive at night where you can shop for clothes, food, pirated versions of popular designer wallets, sunglasses and handbags,  DVD's, telephones, trainers.... etc.  People literally squeeze past each other down narrow alleyways whilst brushing up again sarongs or getting bonked on the head by dangling handbags whilst energised shopkeepers are on their feet trying their very best to get you to look at their wares.  It is also a haggler's paradise.  Every storekeeper offers you a first price that is probably reasonable to a westerner but massively inflated from a local perspective.  Unlike Thailand where we were often surprised by shopkeepers reluctance to engage in much haggling, you could always get stuff down to a fraction of the initial price with a bit of persistence, especially if you are buying items in bulk.  There are also many shops selling the same thing so the good old fashioned 'pretend to walk away' works a charm here.  After the initial shock of the modernity of the city, the energy of Chinatown helped us to pick up our spirits and gain confidence in the choice to come here. 

Some of the hawker street food on offer

Upon getting out Chinatown we visited the National Museum, but not before getting our photo taken with an array of parrots amongst a backdrop of old trains (argh so touristy).   The museum was dedicated to the pillars that founded the country, detailing its economical, artistic and cultural foundations including a thorough history of the country’s wars, colonisation and spice routes displayed in modern and clean exhibits.  The other part is dedicated to the more ancient history, housing artifacts and telling stories about original Malay settlers and early man.  Once we were museumed out we thought we would pay a visit to the Masjid Negara which is one of Southeast Asia’s largest mosques.  There was a dress code.  I was alright getting in wearing long pants and sleeves but Kate was fortunately not dressed appropriately and had to get kitted out in a purple outfit before she could set foot in there.  Our impressions were that it looked very modern but didn’t feel very spiritual.  I think we would have preferred something with a little more history.

Kate, now dressed respectfully in the Masjid Negara

For another adventure outside of Chinatown we visited the area known as little India.  Like Chinatown it was still full of energy but offering completely different shops, foods and smells (and what smells!).   Even if you aren’t hungry when you set foot in the district’s main street, it doesn’t take long before you are salivating.  The tantalising smells entice you in, as do the glamorous rainbow sparkles of the saris and bangles in shop windows.  It is good fun and makes for a nice change but it isn't somewhere you have to spend more than one night.

Where we ate in Little India

The highlight was easily our meal overlooking the city in the ‘Menara Kuala Lumpur’ or the KL tower as it’s more commonly known.  Looking like a gigantic spinning top perched on a knitting needle but with unrivaled views of KL came at a cost at one hundred and fifty ringgits (thirty pound) each, but we didn’t want to let the opportunity pass and the fact that it was an all you can eat buffet rested firmly in our favour.  I think our ears popped twice as we made our way up past two hundred and eighty meters in the elevator.  The views were absolutely phenomenal and the food wasn’t bad either!  The restaurant floor sits upon a donut shaped rotating platform which takes about an hour and a half to full rotate 360 degrees. 

The drinks were foreseeably expensive, but we hurdled this by bringing in a sneaky bottle of vodka so we only had to order soft drinks albeit at three pounds each time!  In total, we were gorging on the views and the food for over three hours.  The view was like in-house entertainment as the city scape altered whilst the sun went down.   We also had a great view of the Petronas Towers which also hogged the skyline.  There was an in house pianist and singer relaying many western classics in a completely ‘Engrish’ loungafied manner which I wouldn’t have changed for the world.  All in all a great experience that anyone visiting Kuala Lumpur should do and at a fraction of the cost of tower equivalents in Thailand and other places (and I thought Malaysia was supposed to be expensive!).  Another thing worth noting is the difference in climate in Malaysia.  It was constantly humid and when it decided to rain it really did it properly but I like that sort of thing.  On our last night in KL the rain, thunder and lightning didn’t stop throughout the night and was an amazing spectacle to watch from our window. 

Photograph taken from the KL tower

Sunset in the KL tower

Our next destination was the smaller and slightly lesser known town of Melaka.  Whilst we had our initial reservations I would definitely return to KL.  We were exhausted from our experience but we definitely left with great satisfaction, there is nowhere in the world quite like it.

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