We have just experienced a mindblowing week and checked off two of the world’s seven ancient and natural wonders, the magnificent limsestone cliff islands and coves of Halong Bay and the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, with its detailed engravings and spectacular architecture. I’m now sleeping on the plane from Phnom Penh airport, where I thought I’d have to refinance my assets just to pay the airport departure fee (although I trust it gets put to good use). Here, I also first sampled the tastiest of all the Khmer dishes I tried in Cambodia, Beef Lok Lak with green peppercorns. A sudden jolt of turbulence and I’m awoken, only to the horror that the nose of my Air Asia Airbus is angling downwards at about 45 degrees and the plane is vibrating intensely. At this moment in time, Air Asia’s $50 luggage fee (that my online itinerary convinced me I had already paid for), pales into into insignificance, as I grab onto my friend’s arm for dear life. My arm is quickly removed. It appears I was only having a false awakening, a symptom of jet lag and disturbed sleep patterns as you move between time zones. I’m only losing an hour here though, which is ironic as I am going from east to west. Timezones in this part of the world seem to zigzag randomly all over the place, and once I perused the Time Zone map in the Planetarium in Kuala Lumpur, I could see exactly why.
We’ve been through Kuala Lumpur airport once before, on the way to Hanoi. But on that occasion, we were on a connecting flight, and stuck on the other side of customs with all the duty free shopping malls and cafes. You can actually catch a bus between the two terminals and spend a few hours exploring their shops. For business and exclusive passengers, they have lounges you can pay to “lounge around” in, have a shower, use the internet, and basically make yourself comfortable with five star service. There are bookshops as well, but prices are probably similar here to what you’re used to in Australia. There’s a rainforest waterfall constructed in the centre of one the terminal building malls, which is really spectacular although somewhat artificial. This time, we get off the plane and head straight for the “foreign passports” queue, with our prefilled immigration tickets labelled with the handy warning “DRUG TRAFFICKING IN MALAYSIA INCURS THE DEATH PENALTY”, not that there’s any turning back from here. This is an Arabic nation. Most of the women are wearing hijabs, with the occasional niqab. Malaysia is ruled by Sharia law, although ironically Kuala Lumpur, a multicultural mixture of Chinese and ethnic Malays (the majority of which are muslim), Indians, post-colonial British and Christians, is actually a very tolerant city. The odd drag queen roams free to taunt to tourists in the street, minding their own business, in Bukit Bintang, the central shopping, food, and market district of the CBD, only a short cab ride from the spectacular Petronas Towers, which absolutely must be seen from KLCC Park at night time, accessed from the equally excellent Suria Mall inside the street entrance of the towers, and housing one of the most spectacular bookshops in Asia Kinokuniya, where they sell every range of specialty books, from medical, to crime and historical, asian and foreign books, maps, and every kind of religious book you could imagine. Malaysia prides itself on its first principle which is the freedom of choice of religion of the individual. Not much is really censored in Kuala Lumpur, other than what people would culturally choose to censor for themselves. But Kuala Lumpur is a bustling city of 365-day-a-year equatorial humidity of around 32 degrees. There’s a lot of thunder and lightning, but the rains are generally pretty tame, despite the frequent risk of storms.
We head straight through customs through a hallway lined by small stands selling tickets for shuttle buses and taxis. A number of women with hijabs call out to try to sell us a transfer. We walk quickly past the stands. I have no ringgit, only US dollars, Australian dollars, Vietnamese Dong, and Cambodian Riel, none of which are useful here. At least I’m in a capital city now, I think to myself. This might be the end of my cheap holiday, but at least all the ATMs are going to work (as they had all worked in even the obscurest ATMs in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia). First ATM… fail. Second ATM… fail. Third ATM… fail. It seems only Maybank and a couple of the others have designed new ATMs for the new chip credit cards distributed by the Australian banking pillars. So if you go to Malaysia, don’t expect every ATM with a plus sign to be able to handle your card. You might have to hunt around for one of those newer ATMs that accept the chip cards. Finally, an ATM works and dispenses me a number of 50 ringgit notes. We make our way with our trolley to the taxi rank, only to find that we cannot get a taxi from the airport without a ticket from one of those booths that we neglectfully skipped through on our way from customs. I now have to run back into the airport and find another section of transport booths. The young lady in the hijab asks me how many passengers and bags I have, and then presents me a 120 ringgit ticket (about 35 Australian dollars) for a premium taxi to the Airport (I later find out I’m being raped for about 3 times the price of a normal taxi). We make our way through the futuristic motorways of KL, past massive high-rise complexes even dozens of kilometres from the city centre, for almost an hour into the centre of Kuala Lumpur. You literally can’t see the Petronas Towers until you’re getting especially close to the CBD, and the city is high-rise for miles into the inner suburbs.
After surviving the putrid streets around our hotel, and airing the window to remove the foul stench of decades of neglect, despite our hotel’s spectacular metropolitan glitzy casino style lobby, we spent hours attempting to converse with a non-English speaking housekeeping staff (at the International Hotel, with also had no International power points, nor any usable wi-fi), to try and arrange for our laundry to be done for over 30 Australian dollars. We breathed a sgh of relief that at least we had a western toilet, as a wait for the toilet at McDonalds earlier involved a queue of about 10 other gents. “Selamat Detang. Please Come Again.” says the jolly McDonalds cashier in the hijab as she offers me my fries with a standard shaker bag provided with a sachet of spicy bbq seasoning. At least there would be plenty of western toilets if needed in an emergency while exploring this vast Asian metropolis, or so I thought, as I nodded off to sleep.
Getting around the massive CBD of KL was also more stressful than I anticipated. There is a good monorail system, but multiple different lines with different ticketing systems, and stations you can only reach from other stations by signposted sheltered ten minute walks. Getting off at Masjid Jamek station, and exploring the streets of Little India was probably the first mistake I made, the second was my decision to walk down to the Lake Gardens precinct via Merkeda square and Chinatown. Little India’s drains were filthy and putrid, and the streets were damp and smelly. Little India in Singapore is comparatively upmarket, with beautiful shops and smells, a spectacular temple and a must visit. By comparison, this is a filthy dump, and there are not even many Indians here. We get lost with our inadequate map of KL (most maps of the city are too small and undetailed to be of much use, and in some areas there’s three different storeys of street to choose from), and found the long way round to Merkeda Square and the Sultan Building. The beautiful Masjid Jamek mosque sits on a street just behind, above a putrid drainway, adjoining a dirty alleyway where a homeless man is sleeping on the steps. We quickly make our way through Chinatown, and I’m hoping for some kind of western take away franchise I can spot that is likely to have a Western toilet. We stumble upon a two-storey McDonalds. Only two people in the queue fortunately, I think to myself, looking around nervously, desperately hoping there will be toilet paper at least, as for now, I can see there is no soap, dryer or paper towels. A few minutes later, and here I am, lo and behold, looking deep into the bottom of a squat toilet, with nothing but a mere hose provided for my convenience. Who needs to pollute the waterways with heaps of treated tissue anyway? At least I’ll be washed clean as well as just wiped clean, even if my jocks will be soggy for half an hour afterwards. Aim is the tricky part, and that also applies to usage of the hose. But really, this is a more natural and environmentally friendly way of using a toilet, and you only need to use as much water as is required to flush. Even in the most expensive of shopping malls and hotels, there is always a squat option for he or she who cannot stomach the thought of sitting on a seat that thousands of others have sat on, and prefers to keep his or her pelvic muscles strong. Nevertheless, these insightful and tolerant afterthoughts did nothing to soothe my feelings of bitter resentment towards the international fast food conglomerate, whose lack of clean and decent amenities required me to make a trip to the nearest 7-11 to get hand sanitizer. People are expected to carry their own toilet paper and hand sanitizer in Malaysia. Although if you’ve always lived in this city, you’re probably used to all the toxic E Coli, which have become part of your normal gut flora, so you probably don’t need them. After all, who needs to pollute the waterways further by adding soap?
Dripping wet, I risk death crossing a couple of major arterial multi-storey traffic thoroughfares with my friend, before arriving at the National Mosque (weird, modern, angular, bland, asnd difficult to photograph) where we begin our journey up the hill to the Bird Park. This lake gardens precinct starts here, and really, we should have caught a taxi right here in the first place, rather than attempting the journey on monorail and foot. From here you can access the dodgy planetarium, the shady bird park with drinks, a restaurant, and the world’s biggest free range aviary, the orchid garden with suprisingly few orchids, and the lake gardens at the bottom of the hill. There is also the police museum, (if it’s open. Almost nothing apart from the Bird Park is on a Monday, as we discovered.) There is the Islamic Arts Museum with its spectacular ceilings and models of international mosques, and the National Museum over the bridge from the planetarium. The Planetarium has good views from its very roasty observation deck, but its exhibits are targeted at little children. I learned my resting pulse rate was 102, got sucked into a zero gravity vaccuum toilet, and experienced the dodgiest resolution IMAX/audio inside the dome I have ever experienced… it literally took me ten minutes to work out the voiceover was in English, and it was a story about the atomic bomb. You can spend the better part of a day here, but the highlight is the Bird Park, and that sadly applies even if you are not into birds. We missed the National Monument (after briefly opening the KL guide for a photograph, to ascertain whether it was walking back up the hill for) and the Butterfly Gardens, and caught a taxi home to spend an hour on the fifth storey pool instead, while it was starting to rain and become thundery. It was actually quite cool on the roof of the fifth floor.
Our second day trip was a visit up the KL tower, to see the Petronas Towers close up and the mountain ranges surrounding KL. I hear the rest of Malaysia including Borneo is actually a beautiful mountainous and tropical rainforest paradise, and that Penang and Malacca are well worth the visit for the beachfront utlity and colonial architecture. It is a shame that this is the only view of the natural beauty of Malaysia we really got. A short train trip now takes one all the way to the Batu Caves, guarded by a massive statue of Buddha, where you can walk up a 250-step staircase to a dingy Hindu temple with heaps of graffiti and rubbish inside the otherwise spectacular cave, infested by pigeons and monkeys that live off the human scraps, playing with and aluminium drink cans. Another longe 45-minute train ride from KL Sentral station, in a cramped non-airconditioned carriage with windows that don’t open, will take you to the station of Shah Alam, where you can either get a five minute taxi or spend an hour walking over a bridge and then risking death crossing about ten massive parallel freeways traipsing in ankle-deep mud to reach the massive blue mosque with its giant dome and four surrounding towers, situated next to a quiet suburban lake with a path you can walk around. It really is beautiful to see and a brilliant photo opportunity (though possibly not worth the pilgrimage to Mecca required to get there). As we are walking around the mosque, the evening prayer songs start bellowing from the loudspeaker in Arabic. We kid ourselves for ten minutes that a random taxi might take us back into the city from here. All the cars here are whizzing past at least 80kph, and no one is stopping to pick up a couple of Western backpackers hanging outside a desolate mosque. Fortunately, it was only a ten minute walk before we found a local shopping mall, and a hotel which ordered us a very good-value-for-money air-conditioned taxi back into the CBD after sunset.
We got a small glimpse of this massive metropolis, but in hindsight it was a really bad introduction to Malaysia, as it exhibits all of the worst features of the country, and of a capital city. There is no doubt Malaysia is clearly an Asian leader in multiculturalism and has a thriving competitive economy, but many people here are grumpy and unhelpful. The city is dirty, and at times smells putrid. It is not designed to be tourist friendly, there’s little way to identify you as a tourist anyway, and you’re better off getting taxis to most of your pre-determined destinations. The cabs are moderately cheaper, but beware, these taxi drivers are just as cunning as Melbourne taxi drivers. The majority refuse to use their meters here, despite it being a bureaucratic requirement stated clearly on the door of every taxi you get into. People don’t necessarily speak as much English here as other places like Thailand and Cambodia that have large tourist populations. English here is possibly irrelevant to survival if you are Chinese, Indian or Malay. You will certainly not be pampered here, you are just an ant on the street in a massive metropolis. You might prefer to tour the beautiful scenery one or two hours away than spend much time in KL itself. If you really like shopping, this could be a good time filler, and it’s airconditioned and not too uncomparable from prices at home, but with a slightly better range. There are loads of malls around Bukit Bintang, but Suria KLCC in the ground floor of the Petronas Towers is a must. Plus, with respect to the towers, they are the tallest buildings in the world after all (after September 11), and you will get dizzy just looking up at their Arabic glory (designed by an American, of course). The airport is extraordinary. But in all major respects KL really fails to sell as an overall holiday destination. I would certainly never make it the priority stay of your trip. If you’re stopping over here, you may as well spend the majority of your time shopping, as very few of the tourist attractions are really worth the effort finding!