Where have all the people gone?? Even after spending our last few days in India on the quiet Delhi cantonment, we were surprised to see how few people there are in Kuala Lumpur (KL). When I looked up the statistics in the Lonely Planet, I was amazed to learn that KL has a population under 1.5 million. The city is very green, with wide streets - many of them one-way, freeways, flyovers and traffic circles. People complain of traffic congestion, but cars seem to flow steadily compared to large cities in India.
I should tell you a little about this city, founded in 1857 where the Klang river meets the Gombak. Prospectors looking for tin named the place Kuala Lumpur (Muddy Confluence). The area was infested with malaria and other tropical diseases, but the tin drew other miners and a boomtown quickly developed. Thirty years later, the city became the capital of the Federated Malay States and has never looked back. It's now an amazingly modern city, very clean, very green and more prosperous that I had imagined it to be. The temperature ranges from 21 to 33 degrees Celsius and the humidity averages at least 82%. The spring and fall are the wettest months, though there is rain throughout the year.
The day before leaving Delhi, we searched the internet for a place to stay in KL and found a delightful guesthouse, called NumberEight, located in the "Golden Triangle" district of the city. The flight from Delhi was short, only five hours. This was our first time on Malaysian Airways - considered to be one of the safest airlines in the world. The seats were spacious, the food tasty, but we both found the sitting to be incredibly uncomfortable and we didn't sleep a wink. The flight departed Delhi at 11:00 pm and arrived in KL at 7:00 am; a real "red-eye".
We decided to take the KL Ekspress into the city. It is an ultra-modern train and it made the non-stop trip of 75 km in 28 minutes. We changed to the monorail at KL Sentral in the middle of the morning rush hour - the commuters were none too pleased with our suitcases taking up valuable standing room. Down from the monorail station and a short walk to the guesthouse, we were lucky to find a room available as it's a popular place in the heart of the trendy restaurant district.
One of the first things we did was walk the short distance to the Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower, the world's fourth highest telecommunications tower (421m). We had read that the observation deck was at a height of 276 meters and provides a 360-degree view of the city and the surrounding hills. The world's highest building, the twin Petronas Towers (451.9m) can be seen clearly from the KL Tower, and the observation deck there is only located only one-third of the way up. There are only 800 tickets allocated each day to see the Petronas Towers, so tourists have to arrive early to reserve a ticket and then return at the allotted time. We decided we didn't want the bother and saw the KL Tower instead. I must say the Petronas Towers are pretty impressive, more so at night when they are all lit up.
I like to point out strange things that I notice when we travel; things that I do not see at home or anywhere else I've been before. One of these unusual things is the fact that most motorcyclists wear jackets while they are riding, even in the high humidity and heat of Malaysia. What is really unusual is that the majority of them wear them backwards, with their arms in the sleeves and the back of the jacket against their chests. I asked someone why they do this and he told me it's to keep their clothes clean and to keep them warm as the air feels cold when they are zipping along at high speeds. Go figure!
In the evening we went for a stroll around the area and while walking back we noticed a cascade of water falling near an entrance to an underground car park. At first I thought the sprinkler system had sprung a leak and I crossed the street because no one seemed to take notice of the flood. It was then I saw that the water was pouring out from below a tropical garden and there was a sign that read "Landscape Waterfall". Here was the most delightful entrance to a parkade that we had ever seen. I imagined that cars would get a "wash" as they entered the garage, and started walking down the ramp to take a picture. Halfway down, the water suddenly stopped! Was there a motion sensor to turn off the water as cars entered? Anil told me, laughing loudly, that it was weight-sensitive! Suddenly, I wasn't so delighted with the waterfall; could it have mistaken me for a Hummer? As we turned to leave, we saw a watchman taking great delight in my delight; we caught each other's eyes and exchanged smiles.
Before bed, Anil poured over the "What's Happening" Guide for the city and discovered that there is a beautiful Aquarium near the Petronas Towers - one with a walk-through tunnel so that it appears that the fish are all around you. I had heard about this aquarium and always wanted to experience the tunnel walk. We headed out in late morning to walk to the Convention Centre where it is located, not thinking clearly about the effect the sun and high humidity would have on us. We arrived after walking for about half an hour and found ourselves ready to drop. We stopped in the food court for iced guava juice and once we were cooled off, headed into the amazing underwater world.
I can't say enough about the delightful "Aquaria". They have fabulous exhibits where you can actually touch sea creatures (I wouldn't dare!) and a large exhibit on endangered sea turtles. One can even "adopt" a sea turtle as a fundraiser. After passing through several equally interesting exhibits we came to the 90m long underwater tunnel and were blown away by the experience. I took a couple of photographs, one of a fearsome shark and another of a small black and white happy-go-lucky fish. Most of the fish swam in schools, but this little guy looked like he was playing truant and "doing his own thing". He moved so quickly that it was hard to catch him, but after a while I realized that he had a little loop he was swimming and I could anticipate his route and catch him when he swam by.
Day Three saw us travelling by taxi to the Lake Gardens and the "world's largest covered" Bird Park. We stopped for lunch at the edge of the Bird Park. In fact, once we entered the large, traditional Malayan building, we were actually "in" the park, seeing that the terrace tables were under the net enclosure. Birds were flying from one tree to another right in front of our eyes and one large Hornbill posed in a tree just a few feet from our table. I snapped a photo because he was so unusual looking and colourful. After a great lunch of Malaysian Chicken Satay and Greek Salad, we hurried into the park to see the 'Bird Show" at 3:30 pm. Just as the show was getting underway, the skies opened up and the rain poured down. There were only a handful of other visitors in the park that day, and we all took shelter under a thatched roof over a wooden platform.
The Bird Show was cancelled and the macaws taken into their shelters. The large storks surrounding an artificial lake remained out in the pouring rain, scattered across the grass, heads all pointing in the same direction. After some time, I looked up from the book I was reading, to find that the storks had all shifted and their heads were all pointing in the opposite direction. One lone stork seemed to tire of the stillness and wandered into the water for a drink. They all looked so sodden and dreary and only perked up when one of the keepers arrived with a large bucket of fish for them to eat.
The rain finally stopped after about forty minutes and we set off to tour all four zones of the park. There is netting high above the forest canopy, but one zone is open to the sky where the flightless birds reside. It's easy to forget you are in an aviary, because the netting is so high and there are many birds flying back and forth above you. The variety of birds and the habitats that have been created for them seem endless. It was easy to spend the balance of the day wandering through the paths, encountering colourful, noisy birds at every turn. One of our last discoveries was the pelicans. I'll never forget what huge birds they are; I never imagined them to be so big.
One evening while we were doing the Lonely Planet walking tour of Chinatown, we stopped to check directions on the map. An elderly Indian man stopped to see if he could be of assistance and asked Anil if he too, was an Indian. We had a great little chat with him about Malaysia and he advised us to be sure to visit the Islamic Arts Museum. He told us that it is one of the best things to see in Kuala Lumpur. We assured him we had it on our agenda and he departed with a wave and a blessing.
We ventured out in the heat the next day, but took a taxi to the impressive looking Islamic Arts Museum. We were told we could not take photographs of the exhibits, understandable of course, but I wished I could have photographed the beautiful building itself. We spent a memorable afternoon viewing treasures from throughout the Islamic world and the most impressive scale models of the world's largest mosques. We were surprised to learn that closing time was upon us; we had been so absorbed in the exhibits that the time just flew by.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of our first week in KL was the food. We have been eating so very well in India, great South Indian delights and then home cooking whenever we stayed with family. In the past, whenever we traveled in Thailand and Vietnam, we would invariably tire of the local food and instead of falling back to North American staples (burgers, pizzas, fries, etc.) we would look for an Indian restaurant and breathe a sign of relief. Indians have spread their wonderful aromatic cooking throughout the world and we have never found ourselves in a city where we couldn't find basmati rice, dal (lentil stew) and Indian breads.
However, after spending six months in India eating a smorgasbord of dishes, we were craving different ethnic delicacies and happily dove into Egyptian food the first evening, Korean dishes the second evening, Lebanese the third and pizza, soups and fresh salads since then. The one food I miss most while travelling is salad greens, but they are here in abundance and since the water appears to be quite safe in KL, I have been having salads every day! I've even indulged in a bottle of Tiger Beer (or two, or three) as I find it doesn't give me a migraine.
Our guesthouse is in the middle of an area where one street is lined with upscale restaurants and the next street over is filled with market-style out-door eating cafes. People sit on plastic stools, at plastic tables set in the middle of the street, and eat incredible edibles, with plastic chopsticks, until all hours of the night. It has to be seen to be appreciated. Directly across the street from our guesthouse is one of these open-air cafes. The Arabic food is simple, tasty and cheap. We have eaten at least one meal there everyday and the staff now treat us like family and give us big portions and big discounts. One night Anil wasn't feeling up to crossing the street to eat and when I asked for take-away, they insisted on serving us at the tables in the courtyard of our guesthouse. Mohammed, the sweetest waiter of them all, made several trips back and forth to serve us the food as if we were seated in hos café. When I took the empty plates back myself, he was appalled that I hadn't waited for him to clear the dishes himself. I gave him a tip when I paid the incredibly tiny bill and he insisted on giving me a handful of mint candy in return. It's times like this when we connect with perfect strangers that makes travelling all the more special.
We've really enjoyed reading all the signs in the city and becoming familiar with the Malaysian words for everyday things. I have listed a few below, see if you can make out what they mean in English, they are pretty phonetic, but it still takes some getting used to. The answers are at the bottom of this entry:
Malaysia is famous as the home of the Royal Sengalor Pewter Factory, it recently celebrated its 100 Anniversary. We went to the factory on the outskirts of the city in order to learn how pewter items are made. We entered the large modern glass building and were greeted by a welcoming young man who told us he would be our guide. He took us through a series of stations where women were creating pewter masterpieces. I have always admired pewter for its subtle beauty, but never realized that it is made from an alloy that is 97% tin. It was something to see a women dipping a ladle into a small vat of molten pewter - simmering at 250 degrees C. The amount of handwork that goes into each item is astounding. I truly have a new appreciation for items made of pewter. Like most tours, this one ends in a gift shop and it was all I could do to keep from buying something. However, we're determined to keep travelling light and I selected a simple pendant which weighs practically nothing.
Editor's Note: Made my wallet a little lighter too!
We had already ridden on the Airport Ekspress, the Monorail, and local taxis so we decided to try the LRT system to see what it was like. It's as modern as any we've seen in Hong Kong and Bangkok, and we enjoyed the view from the elevated open-air stations. The one thing we discovered on the LRT is advertising on the hand-straps provided for standing passengers. I thought I had seen it all when they introduced commercial ads on the backs of toilet stall doors, and now this. As if it wasn't bad enough that you have to stand in a crowded train, you have to stare at an ad while grasping a strap. Is nothing sacred?
There has been a little adjustment required with the change in currency to the Malaysian Ringitt but this has been cushioned slightly by the recent rise in the value of the Canadian dollar to a 30-year high. Prices here are similar to those in large cities in India, but when we look at a food menu, for example, the prices appear to be the same as they would be on a menu in Canada. In reality, items are about one third the cost of home. Transportation costs are a real deal due to the low price of petrol here. It appears that most commuter and long-distance buses are modern, air-conditioned and comfortable.
We originally thought that we would only stay in KL for a few days, but ended up staying for twelve days, the last night being our 33rd Wedding Anniversary. Because we extended our stay little-by-little, we ended up moving from one room to another within the guesthouse and even had to spend three separate nights in a nearby high-rise hotel. The staff in the guesthouse were really amused at our comings and goings, but they are such warm friendly people they took it all in stride. If we ever make it back to KL, we will be sure to book ourselves into the NumberEight for the duration of our stay.
When we learned that there were no ensuite rooms available for our second weekend in KL, we decided that if we were going to have to change hotels once again, we would finally bite the bullet and move on to see more of Malaysia. We're off by private luxury bus to the Cameron Highlands and tea gardens once again. The weather is supposed to be much cooler and the hills will be quiet. Stay tuned for more tales from the road.
Editor's Note: Will there be a chance to golf?
Answers to the Quizz above:
KLINIK (clinic - medical or dental)
STESYEN TEKSI (taxi stand)
PESAR (market - as in bazaar)