12 July 2008
Not So Hustle, No So Bustle
“The hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur may be overwhelming to those seeking a quiet escape.” That’s how our travel book described our first stop. The writer had nearly been to China. Compared to Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur felt like a deserted island. On at least a dozen different occasions Kyle and I asked ourselves and each other, “where are all the people?” 1.5 million people is pretty darn big, but not when you’ve just come from 26 million in Shanghai. We were in heaven.
What made it even better is that everything seemed to function perfectly, without any useless bureaucracy. Our flight was on time, customs was a breeze, our bags were already on the carousel, the bus to the city was waiting outside, the monorail was running on schedule and our hostel was expecting us. Could it get any more refreshing? It seemed, however, that we were still taking baby steps into the high and mighty depths of Southeast Asia. The overwhelming popularity of Famous Amos cookies (sold in fully branded Famous Amos stores) and 7 Eleven stores on every corner meant we weren’t exactly “roughing it.”
The adventure began with the most delicious India food I’ve ever tasted (minus Gunjan’s) and a trip through the corner shop to check out all the interesting, bizarre foods and beverages. One of the best ways to really “see” a place is to go shopping in local hotspots just to see what’s available. It definitely gives a far better sense of what it’s “like” to live somewhere compared to massive shopping malls or tourist attractions. It seems that in Malaysia local favorites include Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonalds, Starbucks (yeah globalization), “Whatever” soda and “Everything” juice. Yep, they’re actually called “Whatever” and “Anything” and the ingredients listed include “Whatever” and “Anything.” How did they taste? Eh, whatever. Like anything, really. And welcome to the first inside joke of our trip. “What do you feel like,” I’d ask. “Anything sounds good. Whatever,” Kyle would respond. We thought it was hilarious.
Beyond aisle surfing in super markets and corner shops, we did manage to do some more touristy stuff as well. It poured rain most of the first day, which found us enjoying the indoor venues. From the 600-year old Dutch Town Square to The Planetarium that still referred to Russia as the Soviet Union (slightly outdated) and the National Museum that told the whirlwind history of European Imperialism (first the Dutch then the French and finally the Brits, who got them driving on the let side of the road), the fascinating blend of religions, cultures and traditions really enthralled both of us. Walking the streets you could easily pass a woman in a burka, a young girl in a mini-skirt, a man in a white muslim cap and a baby running around in diapers in a matter of seconds. The breadth of languages spoken – Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, English and even some French – was equally fascinating. And yet, despite all their differences these were a peaceful, respectful people, honoring the right of everyone else to live their life however they saw fit. I couldn’t help but think about how many lessons we might learn from them.
Our time in Malaysia closed with a trip to Melaka, where it all began in terms of Malaysian history. From the first tribes to the signing of their independence, Melaka was home to more than 2000 years of cultural relics. The churches, mosques, governor’s mansions and winding streets of Chinatown were the perfect juxtaposition to the otherworldly Petronas Towers that were – until 2003 – the world’s tallest buildings. Soaring 1200 feet in the air, the identical towers are connected on the 41st floor by the world’s highest two story bridge. Home to the national oil and gas company (Petronas) the buildings may very well be the most gorgeous skyscrapers I have ever seen. We were able to meander across the 41st floor bridge as well as do a mini photo shoot of the silver gems (I mean I did the photo shoot and Kyle tolerated me for the full 30 minutes).
We closed out our stay by looking for a place recommended by Lonely Planet that was, naturally, not there. This the first of many ordeals involving the satanic Lonely Planet. More on that to come. My advice: travel with “Let’s Go.” Onward to Vientiane, Laos!