Thursday, June 3, 2010


     We ended up in Malaysia by chance. The offer from to fly their new route from London to Kuala Lumpur for under $400 round-trip was too good to pass up.  We bought the tickets and organized our trip backwards.  The little I’d heard about Malaysia had not engaged my enthusiam, but once arrived in KL we decided to stay and check out Kuching, Penang and Melacca as well as KL.

     The population is a mix of native Malay, Chinese, Indian, and various other immigrants. In a store in Malacca owned by Pakistanis, I met the Japanese saleswoman, Mitsuko. “I live with my American husband in a neighborhood with a Muslim mosque, a Chinese temple, and an Anglican church. Everyone gets along well here.” Malaysia has an inspiring ‘we-are-the-world’ feel, a rainbow coalition, although the darkest skinned people still work most menial jobs, and gays are left in the cold due to conservative religious views and prohibitive colonial era laws.

     The country was unified in 1963, having been a checkerboard of English colonial governments for two hundred years. It’s rich in natural resources (palm oil and rubber are the main exports), and is listed as one of seventeen megadiverse countries by the UN. An economic boom in the late 20th century sent Malaysia rocketing into modernity, and now a hefty portion of it’s income is from manufacturing of domestic electronics and cars. I saw a thriving middle class in Malaysia--the shopping mania that fuels much of Southeast Asia is in full force here. There’s a spic-and-span, new-money feel to some of Malaysia, although poverty and decay are never far out of sight. There’s little in the way of ancestral ruins like Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, but enough new construction to suggest a boom. The shiny new buildings of Malaysia cast their shadows on bamboo huts; it feels like a culture seeking to define itself, continually working out its recipe for coexistence.


     Kuala Lumpur (or simply ‘KL’), Malaysia’s largest city (1.7 million), is a decidedly unromantic place, a hodge-podge of a town, with a handful of English colonial buildings, a moderate sized Chinatown, and a gleaming new, hi-rise business zone, to provide sufficient brochure photos to attract the tourists.

     In our hotel room, we watched soap operas in Hindi, and snacked on green pandan cakes.  Our 8th floor view encompassed schoolkids in neat blue and white uniforms, a sober Methodist church, and the Petronas Towers, KL’s signature structure, a genuine architectural marvel. It’s image put KL on the map the way the opera house did for Sidney, and the Guggenheim for Bilbao—it’s trophy architecture, today’s boar’s tooth necklace. Although in this case, the building is not raised to the arts, but to commerce. These glitzy, stainless steel phalli evoke gothic cathedrals, Hindu temples, science fiction space stations, the Chrysler Building, and a pair of corn cobs. It’s architecture that is funny, elegant, and a bit trashy—and it looks like it cost a fortune. There’s a busy food court on the 4th floor of the stunning shopping mall in Petronas Towers, which works well as a visual dictionary of local cuisine.  (Click here for a slide show of Malaysian food.)

     Public transportation is limited, and taxis are expensive in KL. I recommend taking the tourist bus, which loops around the city. You can hop on and off all day for $10.

     We took the efficient monorail to the Chow Kit market, a rare remnant of Malay village life in the heart of the city. At night, Bintang Walk is the liveliest part of town, but it has a dreary sleeze factor. On the nearby street Jalan Alor, however, the night food market was in full swing--the food we had here was the best in KL. 


     If you’re traveling with AirAsia, you may end up in KL, their hub city. Malacca makes a more pleasant stop than KL if you’re traveling through, but bus service from the airport is erratic—check at the information desk. You can take a taxi (about $60 each way) or go to KL central station and change to Malacca bus (cheaper but longer) if the direct bus to Malacca is not running.


We stayed at the Ancasa Hotel which was comfortable and near to Chinatown.

I kept looking for a more desirable neighborhood, but didn’t really find one. 

Two more that I saw that looked like possibilities for the next time are:

The best food was on Jalan Alor, mentioned above. 

No comments: