So This Is KL
Mar 11, 2014
|While my first post from Malaysia was mostly from a first-impression perspective, I’ve now gotten to know Kuala Lumpur (or at least certain areas of it) much better and learning more all the time. Some of my initial observations were fairly accurate; others were hasty. And while there’s no pretending that I can navigate my way around like a local or know most of the cool little places, there are some instances where I’ve investigated an area that even people who have been here a few years haven’t yet discovered or gone deep into. In the past month and a half (which has flown by mind-blowingly fast) I've begun to engage with KL quite differently. First of all, being much more familiar with the public transit system has increased my freedom in venturing out, which has been key considering this is very much a drive-don't-walk kind of city. I've also started to learn where to go for certain things which makes the day-to-day errands much less frustrating. As a whole, I can safely say I feel vastly more comfortable and less like a tourist in my surroundings. In fact, I often have to remind myself that this is all very temporary and I don't actually live here. The city is a difficult one to depict accurately. Upon trying, I’ve gotten responses like “wow, it sounds fabulous” and also ones like “hang in there, it's just three months.” Both are correct. In some ways, this place is incredibly interesting, complicated, diverse, charming and fun. But in others, it’s a little boring, kinda flat culturally, cookie cutter, inefficient, and flat out annoying. The best encapsulation I can think of is that KL's defined by old and new, which simultaneously compete, intersect and coexist in a manner I’ve quickly grown to appreciate— although at first I found it pretty jarring. You look at the Light Rail system, which is futuristically driverless, and then you look at the trees above the station to see monkeys scampering in the branches. Dilapidated buildings, historic architecture and ornate temples are framed by ultramodern glass and steel skyscrapers barely a kilometer away. Traditional mamak’s (small “restaurants” that are just a step up from street food) sell plates heaped with stir fry for the equivalent of $1 are found around the corner from five-star restaurants. The call to prayer at mosques interrupts Taylor Swift songs blaring from a nearby store. You can go to the malls, which might house stores like Hermes or J. Crew plus a roller coaster, aquarium and science center. You might also walk into one of hundreds of little shops that look like a garage sale, filled with any combination fun and bizarre goods ranging from toddler-sized skateboards (yes I bought one; no I don’t know why) to dusty servingware. Many of the people I encounter are exceptionally kind, while a good chunk are exceptionally creepy. There are locals who sell street food and hardly ever interact with those outside their small community. Then there's overpaid expats who run around the city like it’s their personal playground and usually avoid anything (and anyone) non-Western. Of course, there's everything in-between. Overall, I’ve found it to be somewhere an expat can enjoy aspects of home and an extremely comfortable lifestyle while still able to experience some uniquely local elements. I’ve struggled a bit with how easy it’s been to adjust. Obviously there are differences ,but they are mostly easy to adapt to and not ones that have really shaken me up or freaked me out. With a few minor exceptions I’ve barely felt out of sorts since getting here, which just doesn’t seem right considering I spent about 75% of Indonesia in a state of awe, aggravation and mild fear. And that makes me wonder if being here isn’t quite serving its purpose. Did I take the easy way out by choosing Kuala Lumpur over Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) or Colombo (Sri Lanka)? At decision time, those places seemed too much-- like it would be so unnerving to be there for three months that the whole thing would be mostly unenjoyable. Plus quite honestly, as sad as I was to leave, I was also pretty damn excited to be ‘back in civilization’ after Java and Sumatra. This was just never mentioned to you all because I felt guilty and embarrassed for not always having as much fun as I thought I should’ve been… or that everyone else assumed I was. Don't get me wrong, I LOVED being there and wouldn't change 95% of it for anything. But it just wasn't an absolute blast every minute of every day.
[Quick shout out to an awesome girl I met in Yogya, who’s bold and brave admittance made me feel like I wasn’t the most ridiculous, spoiled, useless person in Asia. Hopefully she won’t kill me for doing this, but I’m going to quote one of her recent blog posts because she says it much better than I ever could.]
“About a third of the way through my trip. I think I’m supposed to say that it’s gone
by in the blink of an eye – but it hasn’t, not really. Memories of last week’s events
seem like something from the distant past, and Europe feels as though it could be on
another planet. There have been many great moments, many worthwhile experiences. I’ve
travelled across the world in a way I would never have imagined possible a year ago.
I’ve gawped at some fabulous sights, met – and said goodbye to – a lot of wonderful
people. I haven’t (cross fingers, touch wood) suffered any crime, serious illness, or
major problems with transport or bureaucracy. I’m fully aware how exceptionally lucky
I am to be in my position. Overall, though, it’s been….difficult. The heat, the noise,
and the sheer busy-ness of Java has often been overwhelming. I spend a lot of time
wandering around feeling weirded out by everything. The way that towns and cities are
structured, the way that society is organised, and the way that people think, is
so different from anything I’ve experienced before that, I find it hard to feel a real
connection with the places and local people that I encounter. Most days I feel some
combination and intensity of lonely, scared, socially inept, frustrated, and guilty
for not enjoying myself more. Sometimes I cower in my air conditioned room reading
familiar websites and feeling as though I can’t face the world outside. I’ve spent at
least half the time afflicted by some sort of minor ailment. I worry that I’ve bitten
off more than I can chew with this trip. But in a perverse way, I’m satisfied.
I wanted things to be difficult; I wanted to be shaken up; I wanted to question who I
am, what I believe, and what’s important to me. I perhaps thought, naively, that this
shaking up would happen in a more manageable way – that I would arrive in SE Asia,
recognise the common humanity in all people, and float onward in a cloud of elation at
having overcome both cultural differences and my own fears. That this hasn’t happened
suggests to me that what I’m doing is necessary – that I need to challenge the
prejudices and address the thought patterns that are stopping me from really
appreciating the region that’s home to half the world’s population.”
It wasn’t until leaving Sumatra that I truly realized those feelings are the whole point, that it’s okay to not love every second and being uneasy doesn’t mean you’re not appreciating the experience. Mostly I learned the things that scare and test you are the ones that make you grow, and are also the ones you look back on most fondly later on. Comfort can make you stagnant and putting myself into non-challenging situations is preventing me from getting the most out of this year. So maybe this current feeling of being so well adjusted means I’m not doing this the way I should be— residing in the modernized capitol of a 2nd world country, staying in a luxury building with people I share a comparable culture with, occasionally succumbing to the simplicity and familiarity of a known store chain or Western-friendly meal. Is this three months well spent or wasted? And if it’s something in the middle, how do I push myself harder to immerse myself in the other aspects of KL and catapult myself out of this easily accessible comfort zone?
Things have really picked up socially and I’m pretty happy with the mix of people I’ve started to hang out with. Initially, while extremely grateful that Sam (my housemate) included me in so many of his friends’ activities, I was also a little worried that it would be too easy to follow suit in falling 100% into the expat community. Don’t get me wrong, most of these people are fantastic and I'm sure there's lot more out there to meet. However it seems a little counterproductive to go all the way around the world and then only hang out with people from a similar background to yours. While I really do like everyone I've met so far, I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around some of the extravagance and general mindset of those foreigners working in KL. Then again, my stint here is extremely short and more based on travel/cultural/life experience reasons than being sent here by a company for a set amount of time, so my objective is probably different. Anyway point being I have luckily managed to thus far strike an almost 50-50 split of expat and local friends. There's the expat buddies who are each wonderful in their own way, every one so far opening my eyes with their ‘how I got here and how I'm living here’ experiences. And then there’s the agency people, who are mostly local and as diverse as it gets. Plus I’ve met some of their outside-of-work friends, who have also started inviting me to things and introducing me to other new sides of KL and its residents. In the process, I've also gotten quite the education on US history I didn’t have any idea about… particularly lots of not-so stellar involvement in the tricking, oppressing and sometimes brutalizing way more countries than one learns about in school. Go America. Of course it's always a little up and down; some days I feel so lucky to have met such great people and other days I feel on the periphery of both groups. But considering the short time I've been here, I feel good about my progress and sad about eventually leaving it all. But since I keep blabbing about how easy most things have been and how cool the people are, I should probably fill you in on what some of those things are, yah? My last update was mostly work-oriented, which also means it was a snapshot of my daily life. Like back home, the majority of my world happens in the office or en-route, with the major explorations of the city and surrounding areas taking place on the weekends. Of course, there are many thoughts and experiences to share that just didn’t seem to fit into the previous post. So outside of the office, these were the general highlights of my past month:
Weekend 1: Saturday was a random day of fun with the roomie! Expecting to just pick a place from my list of to-go’s and venture off on my own, I was pleasantly surprised when Sam asked if I wanted to do some joint sightseeing. In what started as a mission to find some “cool looking” building he had passed by in a cab, we ended up stumbling upon the Islamic Arts Museum (which coincidently been recommended to me the day before by someone at work) and National Mosque. The museum really beautiful with a very well put together collection and arrangement of exhibits, including arms, textile, architecture, calligraphy, Malaysian arts, Indian arts, Chinese arts and coins. Not only was it a great visual experience but a beneficial learning one too, as it gave me a little background on many cultures that make up KL. About a five minute walk away was the National Mosque, which was built in honor of Malaysia’s independence from Britain (which only happened in the early 60’s). There, we both had to wear these floor-length purple robes (I had to keep the hood up), which made me feel like Friar Tuck and also like I was dressed in a sauna. Only Muslims are allowed to enter the mosque itself, but it was great to walk around the perimeter and take in the architectural details. Then on the way to find food, we ended up passing the building we initially set out in search of (it’s the National Textile Museum, which Sam had no interest in and I’ve yet to return to). But turns out this building is located in Merdeka Square, which was also on my list. [Short history lesson: Merdeka is where the British flag was replaced with the Malaysian one, officially marking the country’s independence. It used to be where all of the major government buildings and commerce were held; while still used for some political events and celebrations, it’s mostly known for being center of the colonial district and housing some figurehead structures.] We stopped to check out the incredible Dutch and British architecture but got distracted by the KL Visitor’s Center, which is a hilariously cheesy but somewhat informative place. Then we headed into Chinatown to grab something to eat, took a quick walk around, made a brief stop outside Central Market, and called it a day. Somehow this random excursion managed to cross off a good chunk of places I'd planned on going over these three months in one whirlwind trip.I’ve since been back to almost all of them for a more in-depth visit, so I’ll depict more in a bit
Sunday, I went back to the wet market that was closed the previous week, determined to make up for my somewhat failed first attempt. I'd say it was a success, seeing it was three hours of selecting produce, gazing at various types of fresh and dried noodles, selecting still warm homemade tofu and tempeh, browsing more sauces/strange vinegars/seafood-based condiments/other ingredients than I knew existed, chatting with the spice lady as she helped me choose pastes and packets, pursuing the breakfast bites, and taking in stall after stall devoted to all kinds of animal slabs (I’m still not convinced all that raw meat, unrefrigerated for hours in such insanely hot and humid weather is a great idea, but oh well). About 20 minutes before I was ready to leave, a lion dance unexpectedly popped up right in the middle of the market. Golden-tasseled legs flew in every direction to steady drumbeats before the performers began herding everyone outdoors. Forming small groups, they were twirling unimaginably fast when a noise like a gunshot erupted as the world exploded with color and sparkle— fireworks bursting from every direction as the 'lions ’ continued to dance like ghostly magical creatures in the wispy smoke and pops of red, blue, gold and green. As much as I love grocery shopping, a trip to Whole Foods will probably never have the same appeal again. Finally, I emerged with two giant bags and a notebook full of cooking suggestions. I spent a few hours in the kitchen, then with both of us feeling a little cooped up, Sam suggested we scope out an indoor flea market he'd heard about. This was both weird and fun, filled with some ridiculous junk, unintentionally funny items like Brazilian butt pads, and tons of old records (some hilariously bad, some I was drooling over). Cap it off with one of those crazy, college-like nights out with some of Sam's friends and I'm gonna go on a limb to say I think this housemate thing is going to work out well.
Weekend Two- Went back to Merdeka Square and Chinatown, this time just me and my camera. I may have gotten a little too comfortable traveling alone because I often find myself wanting to explore places (especially for the first time) without company. Not only can I do things at my own pace and based on my interests, I also find that I meet a lot more people when I’m solo and love those random conversations. In Chinatown, I had a fantastic time just wandering around. The touristy thing hadn't yet lost is appeal as I pushed through the throngs of people on Petalang to browse stalls of cheap bags/sunglasses/t-shirts/etc. I couldn't get enough of watching all kinds of food being prepared (my fave is the duck guy, who I kinda stalked as he skinned and butchered some of the birds before cooking a few different ways, then roasting some whole). My favorite was poking into tiny obscure stores (two of the best being a Chinese medicine apothecary and a button shop) and passing outlandishly bright and beautiful temples, simply absorbing it all. In Merderka there’s not much to do besides stroll around and appreciate the beautiful and diverse architecture, which I very happily did. Lastly, I checked out an area called Kampung Baru which is a small, out-of-place village right near the city’s center. Known for being filled with incredible food hawkers (especially on Saturday nights), on a Sunday late afternoon it’s simply a peaceful place to walk around, look around random shops, check out the eats and escape all of the city except the highest buildings peeking over the houses and trees.
Weekend Three- After a pretty rough Thursday evening, my outlook on people was pretty negative. But just when I really needed to be reminded of basic human goodness, it entered my life immediately and repeatedly over the next 48 hours. First were a few small but uplifting gestures— a free phone charger from the friendly guy at the sim card kiosk and an enthusiastic greeting from the people next door, who sold me my replacement phone when I first arrived (no idea how they remembered me). Then there was the cab driver, whose karmic bank account must be through the roof with all of the kindness he puts out into the world. In what started as him joking with me about my apparently still obvious hangover from the previous night, he began giving me advice and warnings based on some of the horror stories about what’s happened to young, drunk expat women in the city. He then proceeded to tell me of someone who he thinks may have had something put in her drink, as she not only fell asleep in the taxi, but fell out of the cab when he woke up her up before managing to effectively squat and urinate on the ground before climbing back into the car and passing out. He carried her to the nearest open food place, then sat with her all night to make sure she could wake up every few hours for at least some lemon water. In a city where cab drivers can be notoriously iffy (I’ve even been uncomfortable enough to throw some money on the seat and get out at a traffic light late one night), she was incredibly lucky to be picked up by someone not only trustworthy, but such a caring person that would take it upon himself to ensure she was protected long past his job responsibilities were over. Plus he routinely gives free rides to the city’s large blind population whenever he spots someone in need of transportation. Aka this guy rules. Later when I was walking from the monorail to the train station (and a little confused as I had never done that route before), a man asked if I needed directions. Excited I was American because his brother had somewhat recently moved to Oklahoma, after about five minutes of chatting he asked if I wanted to get a late dinner with him and his mother. She was inside the mamak just next door; he had seen me looking lost from the window and was worried about me walking alone aimlessly so late at night. The three of us had a wonderful meal and conversation; I returned home feeling like my faith in humanity was almost completely restored. This was solidified the following day when I went to use a public toilet and realized the bathroom and I were out of toilet paper (most of the bathrooms don’t stock it so you always need to keep some in your purse). This woman saw me looking woefully at the empty roll and told me to wait there while she went to her car. She shortly returned with two full packs of tissues, which she generously handed me “for next time.” Universe, point taken: some people just aren’t good people and some are good but don't always act that way... but there's much more light than darkness in this world.
Most of my free time that weekend was spent back in Brickfield, where this time I ignored the colorful main area in search of a Buddhist center I had heard about blocks behind the busy-ness. On the way a bright Chinese Buddhist temple was sitting like a jewel between some decrepit buildings. So magnificent and different than anything I had seen in Indonesia, I inspected its exterior for quite awhile before following the heady scent of incense inside. Like a different world than the street I just walked off, I was amazed by the riots of color present in all elements of the prayer courtyard. It was such a stark contrast to the Indian Buddhist place I went next, which is actually an entire center where they also offer chanting and yoga classes, speakers and other educational resources. Whereas the Chinese temple was loud and bold, this was serene and muted. Two rooms in particular stood out: one with a large gold Buddha in the center surrounded by thousands of smaller ones in all shapes, sizes and colors; the other consisting of three massive Buddha’s (one in standing, one in lotus position and one laying down) and colorful woven carpets. The next day it was off to an indoor craft and food market, located next to an artsy, hipster-type mall. KL does Brooklyn. Although filled and decorated with some really cool art, funky stores and a variety of great food options, it also seemed very bizarre to be in this type of place when just a few minutes away were the gleaming Petronas Towers, luxurious Suria Mall, touristy Bukit Bintang, bar and restaurant laden Changkat, traditional Kampung Baru, and other destinations more indicative of the city.
Weekend Four- Last minute, I joined Sam and two of his friends in leaving the confines of Kuala Lumpur for Malacca. Located about 2.5 hours south, the entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and beyond all the historical significance, a truly lovely place to be. All of the architecture is unbelievable, an amalgamation of Dutch, Portuguese, British and Chinese that ranges from over-the-top ornate to somewhat dilapidated-- but all of it is wonderful. A strait runs through the center, separating a more touristy Dutch Square and Jonker Street from the historic landmarks, Little India, and a small Chinatown. First we strolled the Dutch Square, which reminded me a lot Bukittingi with its cartoony atmosphere, stalls of souvenirs and other bizarrely funny items, punctuated by outlandishly decorated trishaws blaring pop music. The waterway is dotted with cafes and lowkey bars, made even more picturesque by the colorful street art on the buildings and a boat providing tours. After a short ride on the revolving tower (which is kind of like the Space Needle if you really use your imagination) everyone was hot and tired, opting to chill out at the adorable place we were staying while I decided to keep exploring. The remainder of the day was spent meandering through the streets as I got a feel for all this addictively charming little city had to offer, stumbling upon little treasures and historic structures while snapping endless pictures. About four hours later, I dragged my disgustingly sweaty self back for a shower before we all headed out for the evening. A quick, eh dinner was quickly made up for when we hit Jonker St. During the day it's beautiful but quiet with some food stalls, cafes/bars, and shops; once the sun goes down it turns into an incredible night market. A long road strung with Chinese lanterns, it’s absolutely crammed with vendors selling all kinds of merchandise: clothes, accessories, backpacks, toys, crafts, art, shoes, stuffed animals, knickknacks and FOOD! Ok so I know almost everywhere I go the food markets are a high point, but this was just mindboggling in how much (and how good) the assortment was. Soft-boiled quail eggs on a stick, satays of every meat imaginable, shellfish of all varieties and serving methods, fried ice cream, marzipan-looking squares of sugary fruit mixtures, oodles of noodles, an astounding amount of sausage types, ribbon-cut potatoes sprinkled with various spice mixtures, shaved ice with tons of toppings, and more that I can’t remember. Unfortunately I left my camera back at the room (because I’m a dumbass) so the pictures are awful and minimal; this description does not paint an at all accurate picture of the experience, but honestly, even if I did have photos I don’t think it would be possible to get a good sense of it without being there. Sorry.
The next day we rented some retro bicycles and went off to see the city from a different perspective. This was a great idea, as there was so much we never would’ve known about if on foot. After circling the main town we headed for a beach, hanging out on its rocky sands until hunger got the better of us. This led to an absolutely ridiculous buffet lunch turned unofficial eating contest, followed by crashing a pool at the gorgeous hotel. Finally we set out for an old fort and some funky museums. All in all, a wonderful day. However, these cute little bikes were also really old, and mine in particular was in bad shape. Needless to say I have some pretty ridiculous battle scars. Ironic that out of all the adventurous ways I could’ve ripped myself up, the worst ones happened on a lime green bicycle with a wicker basket. After another jaunt down Jonker to buy some last minute things it came the sad time to head back to KL, which I so did not want to do. Can I just live here for the next two months, pretty please? However the drive back improved my mood thanks to the other passengers. Even after a weekend of getting to know each other, Sophie and I in particular found more to bond over— namely similar tastes in music and a goofy, immature, over-hyper personality. It was really nice to completely let out my inner weirdo and just me 100% me.
Most recently, a second person moved in the apartment, so now I have two great housemates! In addition to Sam, now there’s Harry-- an epidemiologist from San Francisco who is here for a research project. While I’ve only known him for a week, so far I’m a huge fan and am really enjoying hanging out with him. So I think that about does it for the recaps! I’m pretty done with writing for the day, so gonna skip any attempt to end this well. Miss you all and I’ll update again soon.