The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Thursday, 1 September 2011

From Tin Town to Golden City - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The muggy heat slaps us like a sauna blast as we step out of the flashy high tech transit lounge into the throbbing grotty bus depot of KL’s airport.

Porters mill about us asking if we need tickets, drink vendors call out offering sprite and coke and women in long black robes and vibrant saris wander past, their menfolk leading the way. The bubbling bustling vibe of KL has already greeted us and we’ve yet still 75kms to go. We consider our options for the final leg of our journey, having just spent 7hours in flight, a night flight without sleep, we’re keen to get to the hotel and shower. It’s only 8.30am in the morning but we’ve been up since 5.30am the previous day. Our options are, a blue limo for 135RM, a taxi for close to the same amount, the train for 30Rm or a bus for the measly amount of 10Rm, that’s $3.00Aus. Where in Oz could you go for 3bucks…. of course we take the bus.

Malaysia is proudly proclaiming itself as number 1, and judging by the construction and progress that abounds, she is fast becoming it. Lush tropical jungle has made way for extensive freeways and spaghetti junctions as if tying the countryside up. For the full length of the 75kms we are greet by huge national flags and banners with number 1 on every lamp pillar and railing, a flurry of red and white stripes with yellow stars and moons. It’s spectacular! 

But there is a downside to the progress that is rapidly eating this lush tropical landscape. As we come closer to the city, a city that has metamorphosed into a skyscraper metropolis, a cloak of smog drapes across its gleaming skyline. The prides of KL, the Petronas Towers are a faded grey instead of glistening silver and my heart sinks. This is not the first time we’ve been to KL and on our first visit, we had arrived just 18months after these Towers had been built. I remember looking out our motel window at them thinking how amazing they looked, like fine pewter set with crystal. They were stunning. Today, they are dull.

Our Hotel sits in the ‘Golden Triangle’ district, the business centre filled with upmarket designer shops and plush restaurants. Not too many backpackers would frequent the lodgings here, so we are given a somewhat surprised look when we wander into our four-star hotel, hot and sweaty and weary from toteing the packs. I forgot to say, our bus stoped at KL Sentral and we had to hop a train then walk the rest of the way in the free open-air sauna. We certainly looked a sight, especially after a 7hour flight and many more hours of transit. It was now 11.30am. Although, we really shouldn’t complain about how long it took to get here. We almost didn’t get out of Australia!

Upon arrival at the airport, proudly handed over our one way tickets, we were stopped in our free-wheeling backpacking tracks by the check-in clerk when she asked us if we had return tickets. Our explanation that we were ‘winging it’ resulted in us being informed that we mightn’t even be getting on the plane as Malaysia had strict requirements of showing that you were going to leave their country and that meant an onward ticket. My heart sank, we’d arrived well within the 3hrs required for check in but because of the long queues there was now very little time to organise a return flight and besides, it was 1am in the morning and other than booking a ticket on the internet, none of the airlines offices were open at the airport…. not to mention that we didn’t even know when we would be returning or where from. Our plan to not plan was again falling apart. The supervisor was called over and after checking that we had sufficient funds to satisfy the authorities in Malaysia and that our passports were well and truly valid for quite some time, made a call to Malaysia requesting special permission for us to arrive. Problem solved and I must say Michael from Emiratis went beyond the call of duty for assist us with this….

Our first stop on the tourist route are the Petronas Towers, they are basically our neighbours. From our rooms window we have a great view of them…. over the top of a, would you believe it, construction site! When I first saw this site I thought “Oh no, we’re on the scaffolding tour again” but at night that worry about construction goes out of mind when the glittering lights of the towers and surrounding skyscrapers twinkle away and demand your attention.

We are to find KL a wondrous place a night – it glitters and sparkles and flickers with the most beautiful lights. Every thing is lit up - trees drip with lights of blue, white and pink; garlands of coloured lights line the streets; huge neon digital signs in unusual shapes – cubes and wrap a-rounds – flash out advertisements that are more like works of art than consumer enticements; and down the back laneways, strings of red Chinese lanterns light the way. The towers stuffed with designer shops of every name with every luxury item conceivable turn out to be a hot favourite with tourists and local alike. I’m not sure if it’s because of the heat or the shopping but it’s so crowded it’s like being in the day before Christmas crush.

Later that night we discover an absolute gem in KL – it’s famous “eat street” – Jalan Alor, the fare here is delicious and we’re spoilt for choice. By day the street is a grotty back lane of ramshackle lean-tos attached to dirty grey buildings covered in washing, rusting iron railings and creeping vegetation. There’s even a monkey that scavenges amongst the roadside garbage and we’re told he’s wild but belongs to everyone. He looks like a very old monkey and has a growth on his lip. At night this street transforms into a mass of hawker stalls overflowing with plastic tables and chairs and crowded to the absolute max. It has a carnival atmosphere as buskers, trinket sellers and beggars vie for the attention of the diners. Big M and I forego the various frog dishes such as frog porridge and dry chilli frog and stick with chicken, rice and noodle dishes. The place is awash with smells that are both delectable and dreadful all at the same time. Roasted duck, sizzling beef and fragrant fruit aromas mix and swirl with odours of raw fish, snails, skinned frogs, and that most disgusting smell of all, the Durian. This fruits stinks every bit as they say…. it is literally a gutter stench so vile and yet it is eaten in great swaths – with the diners wearing rubber gloves as they devour big plates of the fruit.

We’ve arrived at a very special time in Malaysia. It is Hari Raya Aidilfitri (end of Ramadan or Eid) and the country is in full swing of a great party. On this very special day, Big M and I had decided to head to the National Museum to escape the bustling frenetic celebrating that was happening in the streets and shopping centres. Everyone is out and about in their very best outfits – even the children are dressed in outfits the exact same as their parents, they look adorable and everyone is absolutely gorgeous! We jumped aboard the KL Hop-on Hop-off bus and quickly found ourselves in a massive traffic jam on the freeway. This massive multilane freeway had become a single lane road with all the other lanes filled with parked cars. Cars parked in the most bizarre way and for the life of me, I couldn’t see how some of them would be able to get out. Instead of parking in formation – one behind the other – they had parked at odd angles including facing backwards. Hoards of beautifully dressed people with children in tow were making their way along the freeway, across the parklands, crossing in front of the traffic with out a care in the world.
Our bus was at crawling stance. We soon realised why – for one day only each year, and only until 1pm, the royal palace is open to the public and all are invited into meet the sultan and have a huge free feast.Before we knew it, we too were part of the crowd heading into the immaculate palace grounds, thru the ornate laced gate, guarded by two horseback, red coated, dripping in gold braid guards. A massive marquee housing rows and rows of mobile kitchens with tables and chairs, enormous stunning flower arrangements and the most amazing intricate lace cakes was spread out over the lawns. A large stage was set up to one side and music sung live by a line of musicians entrained the masses. As one finished another took his or her place and belted out their song. Huge TV screens sat either side of the stage showing the crowds, the feast and the procession of people meeting the Sultan. We were told we too could go and meet the sultan but before we could join the queue of people heading into the palace, the Sultan and his wife had to leave and we witnessed a full present arms and shoulder arms by the royal guards.  Dressed in cream uniform jackets with gold braid and silver bayonets on guns, they made an impressive sight. As the sultan left the gates were closed and no more people were allowed into the palace grounds. We felt incredibly privileged and lucky to have been able to attend this. We never did get to the museum – it turned out to be closed for a public holiday.
The day after Eid was Merdeka Day – Independence Day - and once again the country was in party mode and national pride on display. It also turns out that this day will be celebrated again on the 16th with a huge pomp and pageantry display in the very beautiful Merdeka Square.

As luck would have it, Big M and I stumbled upon a Hindu Temple in Chinatown…. something we hadn’t thought we’d find in that part of the town – a Taoist temple definitely but Hindu…. anyway, we discovered this beautiful temple down a side street and upon entering are delighted to be ‘invited’ to join a wedding that was happening in the temple. The Bride was as every bride is – beautiful – her bejewelled blue sari almost making me cry – exquisite - and the groom, very handsome in off-white. Swept up in the ceremony we were encouraged to come right into the temple and photograph the couple, greet some of the guest and even offered to eat at the feast being served next to the temple – of this we gracefully and humbly declined, we certainly weren’t dressed for such a fine occasion.

Kuala Lumpur is rising from its colonial tin mining past to be a prosperous city of magnificence, yet amongst the skyscrapers and designer shops, beyond the paved sidewalks and lush green parklands filled with abstract sculptures there is still the old Kuala Lumpur. Little India with it’s pastel arches and shop fronts, exquisite fabrics, aromas of curries and tinny music pumping out; Chinatown brimming with stalls of knock off designer brands handbags and clothing, garlands of red lanterns, gold lucky charms and waving cats; Little Nepal with shop fronts called the “the Himalayan restaurant” and “the Ghurkha” and signs written in Sanskrit; and the Arab quarter – they are all here and nestled in the old colonial arched buildings of yesteryear, giving this glittering city it kaleidoscope charms.