DAYS 28-34 - Friday 24th-Thursday 29th July 2009 - Kuala Lumpur

Landing in Kuala Lumpur’s airport was not, by any means, a reassuring experience. During the hop from Phuket to Malaysia’s capital city, we were thrown blank forms demanding, alongside the usual passport and personal information, notification of any signs of high fevers, coughs, sneezes, shortness of breath, and all previously visited countries prior to entry of Malaysia. Yes, it had finally arrived. The H1N1 virus, also known as The Dreaded Swine Flu, after weeks of avoidance, had finally, rudely thrust its presence upon us. Failing to recall any examples of the daintiest sneeze, or the most delicate rise in temperature, I sheepishly ticked every “no” box.

Tick "yes" for immediate quarantine and fugitive status.

Nick fills in his form.

Before Passport Control, we were alarmed to discover the walls pasted with terrifying warning posters and throngs of mask-clad guards patrolling the area. We dutifully and nervously lined up and passed under the stern, impassive gaze of the heat-detecting camera. After it became clear we would not be bundled into black sacks, sealed in boxes and probed in unmentionable places, we passed through the rest of the airport and managed to snatch a taxi after waiting in many agonising queues.

Friendly warnings

We arrived at our hotel, the Impiana, and were ushered inside. Nick and I were suddenly horribly conscious of how out of place we were, standing in the middle of a sparkling marbled, chandeliered lobby in our shorts and (dirty) sandals, flanked by immaculately suited staff while a three-piece live band tickled their instruments, showering the room with music. We muttered our agreement to sport jeans for the next few days. After being led to our hotel room and marvelling at the masses of more marble and fine furniture, and a quick trip out to the local food market where we dined on Malaysian cuisine, we collapsed into our respective beds to hibernate our minds in preparation for the morning.

Masses of marble.

The next day invited us to wander the city. As we wandered, I was struck at the sheer scale of the city. The countless skyscrapers and towers reached skywards, and looming above them all, the renowned and iconic Petronas Towers hovered like two sentinels, ever present, ever visible and ever watching. I felt drawn to them; it was impossible to wander a few steps without throwing my head upwards to gaze at and take in their elegant structure. It struck me that they symbolise a Kuala Lumpur torn between two identities; its desire to succeed, to be wealthy, and to be strong and powerful: an imitator of the United States of America, further reflected in the towers’ decidedly American scale and height. On the other hand, Malaysia is an Islamic state, deeply rooted in its religion and spiritual identity. The towers are based upon ancient and typically Islamic architecture, which stands in stark contrast to the bland, blocky skyscrapers found in America. They are exquisitely designed structures, reflecting the Islamic appreciation for aesthetic appeal and beauty.

The towers are a testament to the booming and rapidly expanding Malaysian economy: while walking around some areas of the city, it was impossible to ignore not only the smell of wealth thick in the air, but also the stench of open sewers by the pavements, and the feeling that Kuala Lumpur is vibrant, alive and constantly growing. The duality continues. It’s possible to spot the occasional Malaysian gentlemen can be seen waddling around, their belts stretched by excessive wealth and the pleasures it can afford (obesity being a rarity in the neighbouring countries) accompanied by their wives clad head-to-foot in black Islamic dress; we once saw three sleek and expensive sports cars tearing down the roads, outstripping spluttering taxis; and, as ever, the gleaming towers pierce the sky, while run-down and filthy buildings and markets clutter at their feet.

Islamic mosque.

Following the inevitable photo opportunities in and around the Petronas Park with the towers as our backdrop, we elected to spend some time at the Kuala Lumpur Aquazone, apparently the world’s largest aquarium. We peered at various fish and other sea-dwelling creatures writhing inside their tanks, feeling decidedly smug of our personal acquaintances with quite a few of the displayed specimens, having met them in their natural environments.

An old friend.

Kuala Lumpur certainly possesses one of the most successful public transportation systems I have ever encountered. As Thailand had required us to walk anywhere and everywhere, buying a pair of monorail tickets heading to the City Centre became something of a luxury, allowing us to join the diverse masses of multi-ethnic citizens flowing in and out of carriages.

A monorail ticket...I'm struggling to stay conscious over the excitement of this photo...

Walking to the monorail, I had a disturbing experience. This experience materialised in the form of, believe me…a monk. Shaven headed, bespectacled and draped in grubby yellow robes, resembling a discount Dalai Lama, he bounced in front of me, eagerly shook my hand, and, reaching into the depths of his shawl, produced a small, gold-coloured plastic card imprinted with a Buddha. Grinning widely, he pressed the card into my hand and whispered: “Peace!” I blinked. He repeated. “Peeeace!” I smiled politely, thanked him for his kindness and attempted to edge around him. His brow furrowed and he whipped out a tiny book, rifling through the pages before cramming it into my other hand. I looked down, sweating. I was beginning to grow hot and embarrassed as I saw the list of first names scribbled down the page, each one declaring “peace”, followed by a number hugging an unorthodox amount of zeros. Deciding upon a policy of appeasement, I followed with my name and the beginning of a number before realising suddenly what this was. Money. The numbers were donations. I frantically scribbled out my line. “Oh no! No, no, I can’t, I don’t have that much money!” I spluttered. His smile vanished. His expression darkened. He snatched back the book and card before storming away, leaving me, caked in shame and embarrassment and guilt and sweat, to wrap my head around the fact that I had almost been robbed by a monk.

Kuala Lumpur, confusingly, appears to have two centres; the business district, where the Impiana is located within rambling distance of the towers; and the actual, actual centre: a mess of cultural markets, Islamic architecture and ultra-modern, oversized shopping malls. In fact the malls, specifically the many located in and around the business district, became our havens, providing restaurants, entrance to the metro and shelter from the sweltering Malaysian heat.

Nick waits for me in one of the oversized shopping malls.

The metro provided the most convenient and cost-effective means of finding our way around the city. At the astonishingly reasonable price of 1.60 Malaysian Ringgit (30 pence) per single journey, it was the ideal means of transport to ply to my tight, inflexible frugality. It was also rather pleasant to find ourselves surrounded by everyday travellers; teenagers with bags slung over their shoulders, beshawled and beveiled women perusing their shopping lists, elderly ladies with their mouths and noses wrapped in pollution and swine flu masks, and the aforementioned portly businessgentlemen, one of whom wedged himself into the packed carriage, crushing the air from my lungs and forcing my face to press up against the glass.

Awaiting the metro.

Dash for the carriage.

The next few days passed casually; Nick and I stalked the city, visiting various sites of interest such as Merderka Square where several thousand cheering Malaysians declared their independence fifty-two years ago, and the national museum, containing extensive and detailed history, entailing the ancient past, conception and present day of modern Malaysia.

Menara Kuala Lumpur (Kuala Lumpur Tower) is the imaginatively named competitor to the Petronas Tower’s claim of tallest building in the city. It was late in the afternoon when we found ourselves inside a gleaming lift, speeding up this 421 metre tower. Ears popping, we gaped at the extraordinary view, as the sun sank into the horizon and the lights of the city gleamed into life. The evening was spoiled slightly by the eternal camera versus window reflections battle. Once the view beyond the great glass panes had melted to pitch black, and had essentially turned into a giant mirror, I gave up, smashing my camera against the floor in rage. Nick approached a man and requested he return a favour; the handlebar-moustachioed fellow had previously asked Nick to take at least a thousand photos of him against the skyline backdrop. He cheerfully obliged and snapped Nick and I with the Petronas Towers glinting behind us.

Spot the horrible reflection...

On the final day, we had saved the best until last; the Towers themselves. However, when the alarm screamed at 6:30am and I crawled out of my nest of bedcovers, sobbing, and cursing and damning everything in the universe, I began to seriously question whether it was worth it. I was still questioning as we waited in the queue, a queue stretching from the ticket desk down several corridors, long before the opening time of 8:30am. We were clearly not the only adherents to the “first come, first served” policy. It paid off, however, as we managed to procure free tickets for the perfect time of 10:40am.

A quick breakfast later, we were standing inside the Towers’ skybridge, watching a daring window-cleaner buff and shine the metal beams, hovering hundreds of metres over the soaring landscape. Disappointingly, access to the peak of the towers is, for some insignificant reason, disallowed, despite both of us agreeing that we would have happily paid to be shown the very top.

Views from the skybridge.

A daring window cleaner.

Nick on the bridge.

When the day of departure arrived, we packed, bade farewell to the Impiana, and took a taxi to the train station, the mode of transport which would whisk us to Singapore. Although sad to be leaving Kuala Lumpur behind, we knew that the towers would greet us again; we had not seen the last of the city.

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