Sunday, September 8, 2013

Kuala Lumpur a.k.a. K.L. a.k.a. Asia for beginners

Apart from the fact that it involved leaving Nepal, the flight to Malaysia was great. The flight was only 1 hour and 40 minutes so I was expecting it to be no-frills but Malaysia Air provided in-seat entertainment, excellent food (I enjoyed both dishes available because there was no veggie option) and a complimentary drink. A glass of red wine (it probably wasn't great, but it was my first wine in nearly 4 months so it tasted pretty good to me) and three episodes of Modern Family later we touched down in Kuala Lumpur all too soon. The only fault by Malaysia Air was the detailed article in the in-flight magazine on how difficult it is to fly out of Kathmandu – something I could have done without.

Our first impression of Kuala Lumpur was: clean. Sparklingly clean. Not “clean” as we had come to accept in India and Nepal which actually meant pretty grubby but no signs of anything immediately life-threatening, but actually clean clean! I even made a point of using the bathroom in the airport even though I didn't need to just because it was the first bathroom I had seen in a while that I would come out of cleaner than when I went in.

On the comfortable bus journey into the city we had our second impression of the city: “it looks a lot like America doesn't it?”. He roads are wide and well maintained, and lined by the usual fast-food restaurants and brand names one would expect to see in the U.S. From the air conditioned (and clean!) bus it would have been easy to completely forget that we were in Asia.

It was 2am by the time we arrived in central K.L. so we went straight to our accommodation. I say “accommodation” rather than “hotel” or “guesthouse” because we had booked into a recommended place for travellers named “POD” because it consists of a number of tiny (incidentally lime-green) pods barely larger than a bed and with walls that don't reach the ceiling. After being woken at 7am by some annoyingly loud teenage guests to discover a large number of bedbug bites on both of us we decided that i) we were too old to stay in places like this and ii) there must be better value budget accommodation available in K.L. Some quick internet research and a short taxi ride (from a driver who seemed disappointed to have any custom) later we found ourselves in a really quite nice hotel with air-conditioning, hot water and walls in Chinatown for only $3 a night more than the POD place.

The Chinatown of K.L. is a really lively area based around a large market selling fake clothing, fake watches, fake perfumes...basically fake stuff. The only thing that isn't fake is the food which is the real deal, and really great – all manner of Cantonese roast meats served with rice or noodles which I found almost impossible to turn down (and all manner of unidentifiable animal products that I found easier to say no to). It's a really interesting area, however it was difficult to establish what culture we were experiencing. I wasn't sure whether it was Malaysian culture of Chinese culture, and it felt to me more like I would expect Japan to be – lots of shops selling cutesy stuffed toys, things to hang off mobile phones and downright odd knick-knacks.

Unfortunately, once you get past its pristine appearance and efficient transport system it doesn't appear that Kuala Lumpur has much to see or do. The most obvious sight is the Petronas Towers – the tallest twin building in the world, and previously the world's tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004. After bemusing the security staff at a nearby tower by asking how to get to the non-existent observation deck (apparently we had the wrong tower) we enjoyed spending some time relaxing in the nearby square as the sun went down and the towers lit up. The towers really are quite impressive.

Afterwards we wondered around the extremely high-end mall next to the towers looking at things we couldn't afford, and spent some time sitting by the mall's fountains.

We were due to fly out from K.L. to Jakarta just a week after arrival so we headed out of the city after only a couple of nights knowing that we would have a bit more time to explore before flying out. After a few days in Melaka and Taman Negara National Park, which will be the subjects of separate posts, we returned to K.L and had enough time to go up to the observation deck of the K.L. Tower – that's the one that does have an observation deck. The panoramic views of the city were spectacular, and the sunset was fantastic.

Before heading out to Indonesia we also visited the National Mosque of Malaysia – a huge mosque that can hold 15,000 people. We visited on the last day of Ramadan, a time when most Muslims spend visit their families (presumably to eat and drink lots), and so it was very quiet but the people there were incredibly friendly and really keen for us to understand what was going on and get involved. We watched the congregation pray and were then invited to join in with the breaking of the fast which we did (despite having enjoyed my usual fill of roast meats earlier in the day) by eating dates and cake. I should mention that throughout our visit we both had to wear fetching full-length, lilac coloured robes that made it look a bit like we had joined a cult. It was a really pleasant experience (the visit, not the wearing of lilac robes), and nice to be reminded of what an inclusive religion Islam is at a time when so much of what we read and see in the press paints a different picture.

I've mentioned how I had enjoyed the food K.L. but Monique had been struggling to find vegetarian food since we had arrived in Malaysia, so after some internet research we tracked down a well reviewed vegetarian restaurant that was quite the find. On our first visit we enjoyed the lunchtime buffet which included all manner of vegetable, tofu and soya meat dishes. On our return visit, on the morning of our flight to Jakarta, we were initially disappointed to find that the buffet was not available, however the dishes that we ordered were both spectacular – easily the best food we had eaten in Malaysia. We both wished that we had discovered it earlier.

That's really about all there is to say about Kuala Lumpur. It's a nice city, and one which isn't a bad place to visit for a couple of days while passing through the area, but for me it really lacks the atmosphere and culture that other major Asian cities have. It's a lot more like an American city than an Asian city (a sort of Asia-light), however it lacks some of the positives of America. Whilst I quite enjoyed K.L. as a brief respite after nearly 4 months spent in India and Nepal I wouldn't recommend it over numerous other Asian cities unless someone was nervous about visiting Asia for the first time, in which case it might be a good starting place for a gentle introduction.

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