Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, flying in and first full day
A 6 hr. flight and it’s raining, 80F when we land at 10p. It is a complicated airport; I have to take 3 different trains after landing. I’m unable to use my ATM card. (I find out later that BB&T blocked my card with my first foreign transaction. I had called, but that clearly wasn’t enough. Using them less in future. This is why you have to have a backup money system. Bring cash and a credit card too.) I exchange some cash and will concentrate on using my Visa (from a different bank), something I did not use in Seoul.
The taxi driver is chatty during 45 minute ride into city. A nice man. He was not sure where my hotel was but took me to the area and made me stay in car while he checked it out to make sure I would be safe. It was midnight before I got into room. Area and hotel is a bit dicey. But they had my reservation and it was clean enough. Ok clean-ish. Travel Life can be easier if you have low standards. No toilet paper, only a spray nozzle which took me awhile to figure out how to use. Actually I like it very much just want toilet paper to dry off with. No phone service on my cell but Internet works. Took me several minutes to figure out how to use the shower. It has an on-demand heater which needed to be reset to work. The control was not obvious so the first half of my shower was cold, but as hot as it is outside, it was not so bad. The air-conditioning has not been on for hours so the room is hot, the windows are not sealed well.
I slept we’ll and had to turn off the air conditioner it got so cold. In the morning I was able to call out to my friend Karen using the hotel phone (they charged me a few cents). I had a quick coffee to wake up, still have jet lag and really needed it to find directions to the mall she had me meet her at. Karen met me at a Starbucks in an hour and obviously made good time driving into the city. She spent the entire day driving me around– a true luxury for me. It’s obvious that this city is in constant motion and rebuilding itself. So much construction. Kuala Lumpur was a British territory and only became independent half a century ago. But you can see the influences. They drive on the left, fill the tank with petrol and have tea. But the national religion is Islam and there is a significant Chinese and Indian population in addition to the native Malay.
It is quite a mix here and unlike Seoul, I did not stand out so much. The area I’m in is a tad sketchy, but interesting and as long as I stay in lighted public places will be as safe as one can expect in any major city of the world (include Atlanta). There is a high petty crime, though the incidence of injury during a purse snatching is higher here than most places. Karen tells me they tend to cut the purse from you and women get sliced at the same time. (My mother is going to hate reading this.)
Karen took me to the mall at the Petronas Towers, which are the major feature of the KL skyline. We went to Little Penang a favorite restaurant inside the mall. We had wonderful noodle dishes, then stopped at another place for traditional sweets, heavy in coconut milk. Then she drove me to the KL tower where we went to the top. I took too many photos from the top, but am not sure what I’m looking at most of the time. We drove through the botanical garden and past the king’s palace—places she recommended I come back to. Malaysia has 14 states and most have a sultanate. The kingship is rotated between the sultans for 5 year terms. The royal families are not well loved by the people owing to their lavish lifestyle and that they seem to be above the law.
We make a photo stop at Merdeka Square (independence Square) where the British lowered their flag for the last time in 1957, granting independence to Malaysia. This is where the British influence can most easily be seen. There is a British fountain that dates to before 1900 and a large green lawn that once was for playing cricket. There are colonial buildings ringing the green. Two buildings across the street are lovely old Moorish designs. Karen recommends I come back to this area for a closer inspection. I realize from the map that they are fairly close to Chinatown, where I’m staying.
Karen took me to the cultural arts mall filled with handcrafted items and I found a few small gifts. Karen bought a beautiful hand carved stool for her mother in law, to match one she bought her earlier. Its ingenious design makes it easy to break down for travel. The prices were wonderful. I have little room for purchases so I cannot buy much.
Tomorrow Karen will help her mother prepare the big family meal for the day before Chinese New Year, then the next day she has extended family plans. I was so lucky that she would take time out to spend time with me. Such a gift. The traffic is difficult to negotiate and I could not have rented a car and seen half so much. And she explained so much as we drove around. She married an American and moved to The States with him a few years ago, but keeps her Malaysian citizenship and visits every year at this time. It must have been a huge decision to leave her country, but she seems to be thriving.
I wander this evening, replacing my flip flops (20RGH) buying a new memory card for my camera 25.90RGH. Exchange rate is roughly 3RGH to 1USD. I see live frogs and eels just waiting for someone to order them for dinner—talk about fresh! I stop at a street cafe, write up these notes then head for bed early.
Malay words: terima kasih– thank you
Selamat pagi–good morning
Selamat petang— good evening
KL, day 2
Malay word of the day: Keluar, exit.
Everyone calls Kuala Lumpur simply KL. It’s an easy shorthand and I quickly adopt it.
Saw a Buddhist monk with a begging bowl first thing this morning. Gave him some money and then took a photo. Monks are not allowed to own much more than their clothing and begging bowl.
Hot today, no rain expected. Sweltering by 9a. High temperature expected to be over 90F. The night market outside my hotel has completely transformed to a driving street, but sidewalk sales continue. These are mostly just a blanket thrown down and the merchandise arranged on top. They are doing a brisk business but it makes it impossible to be a pedestrian. You have to walk in the street as the sidewalks are simply too crowded.
I find a hop on/off bus (38RGH for 24 hours) before 9 and my first stop is Little India. A lovely elephant fountain in center but the neighborhood is small and quiet at this hour. Perhaps it comes alive at night. Women in lovely saris walk by. I see a bird with a bill too big for its body and a stripe of sky blue on the wings. So many birds, trees and flowers I’ve never seen. I wonder what the trees are. Banyan? Huge with air roots that stretch from upper limbs to the ground.
Crossing the street is tricky but not as bad as some countries and at major intersections there are walking signs.
I have been drinking only bottled water, though it seems like it would be OK to drink from the tap. Two bottles of water are supplied in my room each day as part of the price.
Next stop, new KL Central Train Station where you can check into an airline, even baggage. This is the only train station with an airline code, XKL. The old one is nearby and a real landmark. White building with Moorish arches and minarets built in 1911, to British standards. It includes an iron roof that can withstand 3ft of snow. Like that could ever happen here! This old building was replaced by the new one in 2001 that is state of the art.
National Museum: Of all the Asian tourists, I can usually pick out the Japanese. They look at nothing, run through exhibits taking pictures. A woman with 2 children is positively rude, pushing and walking in front of everyone to endlessly pose her children in front of every exhibit. Incongruously they flash a V sign in every photo. Nice 2 story museum only 5RGH. Prehistory, Malay kingdoms and colonial period. Called Muzim Negaea, housed in the reproduction of a traditional Malay palace.
If I were to collect something that had to be dusted, it would be teas pots and cups. I would be very tempted here, but don’t know how people carry such heavy, fragile things. I collect experiences and digital photographs. So much lighter to carry.
Stop at the king’s palace, but just for 10 minute photo op. You cannot go inside the huge gates, marked like the ones at Buckingham Palace. The king-ship is a five year rotating position among the 10 sultans in the country.
The Lake Garden area is part of an extensive green space and the unusual parliament building looks over it. Karen had driven me by this area and I knew I wanted to visit today. I spend an hour in the world’s largest aviary, 21 acres. I can only identify a few birds. Several unusual varieties of dove, stork, owl and raptor. To stay hydrated I have a young coconut water drink, served in an actual coconut. Then a bubble coffee (iced coffee with tapioca pearls and a large bore straw). I’ve already drank 3 bottles of water and it is only noon. My shirt is soaked through with sweat but if you can sit in the shade with a cool drink it is possible to get comfortable. I only hope I still have some sunscreen left. I am a pasty woman who burns easily.
Waiting for the bus at each stop is always too long. The brochure says 20 minutes. The drivers say 30, but 45 is more like it.
10 minute stop at Titiwanga. There is a large structure and it may be a temple. They really don’t explain it. Manicured grounds with man made lake. The sky is lovely with puffy clouds and a blue color. I get several good photos from the bus of the Petronas Twin Towers and skyline. They are among the largest twin towers in the world. There is a sky bridge that is free but they only allow 800 tickets a day.
Loved listening to the taxi drivers. At first I could not understand them but eventually I realized they were speaking “malenglish”. Or is it maglish?
KL is built on a river, and was a mining area for tin. Mining caused the river to be muddy and the name KL means “muddy confluence.”
KL Tower (Menara KL) is the 5th largest communication tower in the world. I went up yesterday with Karen. At the base is Malaysia’s oldest nature reserve, 27 acres, and the only green space remaining in the center of city. The tower building plan was changed to preserve the area and to avoid killing a rare 100 year old jelutong tree.
Stopped at a traditional craft center, Kompleks Budaya Kraf. Much pottery, batik cloth, woven baskets and silver. By now it is 2:40 and I’m beginning to get tired and hungry. I’ll soon be back in Chinatown (if the bus ever comes back) and will get something there.
I continue to be surprised at the types of dress–it is very hot but I see people wearing sweaters. And the women are very covered with long sleeves and head coverings. They must be burning up. But the official religion is Islam, so half the women have heavy scarves covering head, hair and neck. I see no veils or burkas. Few of the women are dressed in black as in Egypt, a sign of respect for a married woman.
Found temple Sri Maha Mariamman, near Chinatown. It is the private shrine of a Tamel family of Southern India, built in 1863, but moved to this site in 1885. Today it is KL’s main Hindu temple. Seems like it would have been in Little India.
Figured out why I keep Smelling aftershave in my room–it is the young Asian men next door. I passed them in the hall and they must have been bathing in it. Guess they plan on a hot night out!
At 3:30p I am back to my hotel for a quick rinse and let my clothes air out. It is the main reason I like a central hotel. While lying on the bed I notice the arrow marked “kiblat”. This tells you what direction to face Mecca when you say your prayers 5 times a day.
Also found Chan See Shu Yuen Temple, which I had stumbled on yesterday. It is not open today. Built around 1900, is one of finest examples of southern Chinese architecture in Malaysia. Elaborate pottery tiled roof with glasses ceramic statues. This Buddhist temple is devoted to clan worship, and I’m sorry I could not go inside. On the way there I hear the call to prayer. Am surprised this is the first time I’ve heard it.
I have dinner at a sidewalk cafe, a noodle dish with shrimp and tofu with vegetables. It is quite spicy. The bill has the first tax I’ve seen. Karen warned me not to tip. It is simply not done here.
Last day in KL
I slept 11 hours last night. I woke up occasionally to the sound of fireworks ringing in the Chinese New Year but was too exhausted to go out to see. All the travel and heat has gotten to me. But sleep heals and I was in the shower by 6 am. Not sure what I’m doing today so have packed up everything. Ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Checkout is noon, but if I can get a day tour I will have to be ready. All the tours I am interested in need a minimum of two, but I’ve arranged with the guy who books tours to be on standby. If not, there is a Taoist temple where I can get my fortune read and I may get a foot massage. My plane leaves at 10p and I need to allow an hour to get to the airport.
The street outside is mostly deserted at 7am, and the remains of firecrackers are everywhere. The street sweepers are doing a very poor job.
I have a huge breakfast. Have decided that I should eat heaviest in morning then focus on liquids for rest of day, after the heat sets in. I go to a nearby hotel that is slightly better than mine. They will not let me buy breakfast at my hotel. Not entirely sure why but I suppose that if you did not arrange it when you selected the hotel it is not an option later. The better hotel breakfast is extensive, 50 (about $15). Mostly Indians staying here. Lovely saris. Breakfast is like a fashion show.
I walk to the tourist office but it has a sign that they are closed for the New Year! I stop a bus driver and he shows me a back way into the office and says they are open. So silly not to let people know. The man I made arrangements with yesterday is nowhere to be found. I cannot take my first choice tour but am told I can get a half day tour out of the city to the Batu caves. Except they won’t let me book it. I stand there for 15 minutes and they won’t take my money. First they have some urgent paperwork to do so I must wait, though I am the only person at the counter. Then they take 3 people in front of me that they say need to leave immediately. Then, just as they finally are reaching for my card, 5 people rush in and they say they will wait on them first. So I leave. The man is yelling but I ask if he will take my reservation NOW. He says yes, just as soon as he has waited in these 5 others. I walk out. I have trouble doing business with Indians. Perhaps I don’t understand what they are thinking, or I don’t get the culture, but I often just throw up my hand and walk out. My most frustrating business dealings have all been with Indians. Maybe it is me? But I will not beg someone to do business with me. My theory is that if they are not organized enough to take my money in under 30 minutes, they probably aren’t organized enough to do business with.
I try to find the Taoist temple but can’t. My map seems clear so perhaps it is gone or marked wrong. I realize how close I am to the river and Merdeka Square. There is a lovely fountain there shaped like a huge tree with hanging pitcher plants. The architecture is very special here. One side English Colonial and the other Moorish.
I walk the Merdeka square and help a few people take photographs of their group. One family ask if I will pose with their family in front of the flagpole.
One of the most beautiful buildings is a Moorish style Textile Museum. It is free, has lovely examples of batik, embroidery and weaving. The gift shop has beautiful things though higher priced than at the two craft centers I’ve seen. But it does not matter because my bag is too full now.
I make it back to the hotel by 11a which gives me a chance to take a very quick rinse in the shower, charge my cell phone and send a final email to my mother before leaving for Thailand tonight. They agree to hold my bag for me.
I am beginning to learn how to get around. Quite by accident I find the Taoist temple and it is very busy with people burning incense, paper money, and praying. Very rowdy place. There is a metal pole that everyone takes turns lifting and dropping. It seems to be good luck to get it to bounce. There are statues to touch and prayer wheels to turn. No idea what is going on but as the first day of the New Year I imagine these are rituals to insure luck and prosperity in the Year of the Snake. The small temple is built at an awkward angle in accordance with the rules of Feng Shui (wind water). Built in 1864 by Yap Ah Loy, the 3rd Kaptain China, or Headman of the Chinese community. He was very influential and connected to the first British residents who arrived around 1873, mostly to mine tin. He is considered one of the founding fathers of modern KL.
I go to the Central Market again and am tempted by the painted wooden masks but have no room for them. I try to see Masjid Jamek, the Friday Mosque, the most important and oldest surviving mosque in the city. It is one of the few places with coconut trees in the city and sits at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. Built in 1900, this is where the first settlers arrived. I cannot get inside the compound and only have photos over the wall and across the rivers. The water is muddy and smells quite polluted. From the looks of it, the river floods too.
Back to Merdeka Square. What my guide book identifies as the National Museum is now a restaurant, Restoran Warisan. But beside it is the new City Museum with a pictorial history. They also identify the banyan and raintrees for me. They give guided history walks and if I had known it I would have come here first thing to sign up for them. I have missed them all today, but it is hard to know everything and my guidebook is out of date. This is a nice, brand new museum. Oddly, they are playing Christmas music, odd in February.
I stop at the restaurant and have an iced coffee to get off my feet. I always stop in the ladies room of any decent restaurant I’m in. So lucky with clean bathrooms. Though most have both a “throne” and a hole (squatty potty) I have not had to use the latter, tho will if needed. The nozzle used to wash your bottom is also used to wash the feet before prayer, so the floors are always wet. Since this is done 5 times a day, the tile floors never dry.
I visit St Mary’ Cathedral, an English Gothic style, built in 1895. People were still milling around after the Sunday service so I was allowed inside the small building to take photographs.
I take a taxi (taksi, 10.20) to the largest Chinese temple, Thean Hou. Everyone is going and the roads are blocked with cars. My driver lets me off at the bottom of the hill, one of the highest in the city. It’s a long walk up and when I arrive it looks like a carnival. This is a three tier building and naturally the festivities are at the top of several flights of stairs. First I accept water from the Quan Yin fountain as a blessing. Then take a photo of my Chinese zodiac animal, the boar (please have the courtesy to act surprised that my animal is a pig!). I manage to pet the head of the dragon during the dragon dance which is very good luck.
Another taxi (7.90) takes me back to Chinatown, taking some back streets I did not know of. One had a huge sports stadium mostly for basketball!
Today the Chan See Shu Yuen temple is open! Several B&W photos honor members of the Chan clan. And another temple beside it that is not in my guidebook. All temples require you to remove your shoes before entering but ask no admission and no one minds if you take photos. There are many offerings, mostly of flowers and fruit, plus incense.
I recognized my first transvestite, and if he had not spoken I would not have realized. Karen told me that this is an accepted practice here. And he/she was really beautiful. My guidebook, however, says that gay and lesbian travelers are not encouraged.
On my way to the last two temples I took what I thought to be a shortcut, a narrow back alley. At first I was not concerned since there were lots of others there and it was broad daylight. Once in the middle of it I realized that I was the only woman and the men seemed surprised I was there. I got uncomfortable stares. These were local men, certainly not tourists. They were going in and out two narrow doors, obviously guarded and unmarked. The guards kept an eye on me, but they should not have been concerned. Nothing could have gotten me to go inside. At the side of the street were narrow tables. They seemed to be selling tobacco and pills. I didn’t stick around, just held my head high and walked with a purpose out of the area. Tried not to stare or make an expression. No one bothered me, but I was relieved to be out. Not quite sure what was going on. This situation is easier now that I am older and less appealing to young men—I attract less attention when I’m in a bad location. But it has a downside. I sit at a restaurant and no one notices me. I time it and am there for 10 minutes. Three couples come in and all are waited on. Since I really wanted service, I get up and leave. At the next place I make contact with the waiter as soon as I sit down and tell him what I want, so I’m not ignored. If I were not so honest I know I could walk away without paying my bill because no one usually checks on me.
I take a taxi to the airport, but I arrange the price first. He asks 90 and I say it was only 75 to get here. We agree on 80. Good thing I did this because I don’t see a meter in his cab. The rates posted on the window are old and illegible, what I can read does not match the last cab I was in. I can recognize nothing on the way back to the airport because I was so tired and it was dark and rainy.
The taxi is a Proton, a Malaysian made car. Imported cars are heavily taxed. Driving out I can see terraced fields beside wide highways. Despite the holiday the roads are almost empty. The cars are mostly taxis. The radio is an English station but I have never heard any of these songs. I notice the driver’s fingernails are manicured and the nails on the little fingers are very long. Most of the cars have air freshener, a bottle of liquid that fits into an air vent. These are advertised on the radio constantly as we drive alone.
We make good time to the airport, 40 minutes. I cannot check into Egypt Air for another hour because the counter isn’t open. That can’t be a good sign. But it all works out. Eventually.
Some assorted photos: