Thursday, July 1, 2010

Malaysia -- Truly Asia??

My 24 day tour of Asia ended in Malaysia, the country south of Thailand and north of Singapore.

Courtesy of AirAsia, a terrific budget airline in the region, I flew directly into the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, or KL as the locals like to call it. It's a sprawling city as evidenced by the 50 mile bus ride from airport to city center, with cookie-cutter suburban developments laid out all over.

Back on the hostel circuit after six days in an island resort, I navigated KL's light rail network to my lodging in the city center. I met my new roommates, a Korean guy and a Taiwanese girl, both fresh from "working holidays" in Australia, and we all headed out to KL's jewel, the Petronas Towers. These mammoth structures briefly were the world's tallest, displacing Chicago's Sears Tower (or whatever it's called now). They are an inspiring architectural feat, particularly at night, and Malaysians are rightfully proud to have these as a national symbol.

We walked from there to one of KL's bevy of expat bars in the Golden Triangle area. I ate my first pizza in several weeks as we watched Italy be dealt a shock World Cup defeat.

It was quickly apparent that I was in the first Islamic nation on my trip. Most ethnic Malay women don the traditional headscarves, and there were a dearth of locals in all the bars I visited due to the religion's prohibition on alcohol. Beers were also quite expensive, I suspect due to heavy taxation.

However, despite my hostel being near a large mosque, I didn't hear a call to prayer, but I did hear the bells of a church nearby! In fact, KL has a surprising number of churches. The Chinese and Indian minorities seem to get on just fine, and by all outward appearances the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds appeared delightfully integrated in Malaysia.

On Friday, I took a day trip to Malacca, home of a 15th century trading empire that declined after falling to the Portuguese. Armed only with an Internet printout of important sights which declared, "YOU MUST VISIT THESE PLACES TO RELIVE THE HISTORY," I found my way to the KL bus depot for a 2.5 hour bus ride which only cost $4!

I took a cab to the historic city center and acclimated myself with the area. After finding the important sights...Portuguese church, Dutch fort, English burial ground...I felt very underwhelmed by it all. Took me maybe an hour and I felt I had seen everything.

I walked down the old Jonker Road and found the traditional nasi lemak dish for lunch (for $3; food can be unbelievably cheap in Malaysia!). Pretty good except for some rather unappealing seafood crispy things. Afterwards I made my way down Harmony Street, so named as it has a Chinese Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, and a large mosque! Nice area. Finished up at a remake of Malacca's sultan palace, containing lots of mannequins dressed in the traditional garbs of Malaysia's many states.

On Saturday morning the person manning the hostel desk urged me to check out a traditional Malaysian house-moving ceremony. Legend has it that a man a long time ago wanted to move but didn't want to leave his house; hence, he had his house lifted onto scaffolding and moved down the street. This time the event was staged by an artist as part of an urban festival, and the house was a shell, easily lifted by 50 people or so.

Logistically this wasn't well-planned at all. At one point, the house-moving route took the group to a pedestrian bridge which didn't provide clearance for the house. Oops. I watched this to the end but didn't stay for the arts festival, instead finding a meal of mutton biryani with a delicious yoghurt.

I took a nice long afternoon nap to gear myself up for the US-Ghana match, another 2:30 AM kickoff woohoo! I joined two newcomers at the hostel, another American and an Irishman, for dinner in Chinatown followed by the game in the Jalan Bukit Bintang nightlife strip. We found an Irish bar, naturally, and proceeded to drink heavily as the Americans lost a heartbreaker in extra time. Stumbled home around 5:30 AM local time, early enough to see runners heading to the starting line for the Sunday morning KL marathon! Why anyone would run 26 miles in that heat is beyond me.

I had a wicked hangover Sunday and wanted nothing to do with 90 degree heat and humidity. Finally feeling like myself around 2PM, I headed out with my two new friends to ascend KL Tower, the 5th tallest communications tower in the world. Terrific view of the sprawling KL city from the deck, worth every ringgit!!

We grabbed a late lunch then walked to KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Center) to see the Petronas Towers in daylight. Still mighty impressive.

In the evening we grabbed another Chinatown dinner, then headed to Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) to see Germany vs England projected on a big screen. Quite a good turnout on this public lawn and had a terrific view of the Frank Lampard goal that wasn't -- boy was England robbed!!

I had an evening flight to Dubai on Monday meaning I still had much of the day to explore KL. I headed slightly out of the city to view the Batu Caves, a huge geologic limestone formation of particular significance to the Hindu people. Really impressive place, and full of monkeys fed by the charity of tourists.

Overall I enjoyed Kuala Lumpur more than its close neighbor Singapore. Despite not being as developed and significantly dirtier, KL feels like a real, organically created city. Singapore feels like it is trying too hard, and I didn't enjoy the saccharine Pleasantville nature of the place. Though KL much better typifies the third world capital with its street trash and horrid traffic and disturbing cockroach infestation, at least the place didn't feel shrink-wrapped in plastic. I don't need to revisit KL but I am sad that I missed the famous cuisine from the Malaysian port town of Penang, so I may find my way to this part of the world again.


  1. The Sears Tower is now the Willis Tower. To most everyone here, that is rather unfortunate.

    Dubai? Maybe you'll run into the Crate & Barrel store at the Mall of the Emirates!

  2. I didn't find Crate & Barrel at Mall of the Emirates, though I really wasn't looking. I'm sure it was there, as is every Western brand imaginable. And that's in the "2nd tier mall" for Dubai