I keep coming back to Kuala Lumpur because it is the biggest hub of Air Asia, the region’s best low-cost carrier. Their rates are rarely beaten and the flights mostly feel like a full service airline, without “no reserved seat” policies or other Ryanair-like silliness (of course, you have to pay for any extra, like checking luggage or getting a glass of water). Their almost dedicated terminal in KL is quite efficient, but a little chaotic. Last week, for the first time in my life, I boarded a plane (via stairs), was asked for my boarding pass, and then told “sorry, next plane on the right”!
During my last stay here in December, I took a blog break and mostly enjoyed hanging around nice air-conditioned shopping centres, after having spent a few months in Yemen, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Zambia. The Berjaya Time Square is one of the most impressive shopping centre I have ever seen. Ten floors of consumerism heaven, mostly focusing on the low and medium priced brands.
The Christmas decorations I had seen two months ago were gone, and so were the insane crowds of last minute Christmas shoppers. All that had been replaced by the Chinese New Year lanterns and banners.
This was also the case in Malacca, about an hour South of KL, which has a large Chinese population.
Malacca has a long and complex colonial history. This photo is not particularly interesting, but it portrays that reality quite well. In the background, you have a Church built by the Dutch to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their conquest of this former Portuguese colony and in front of it, you have a fountain celebrating the reign of Queen Victoria!
I can’t help but wonder what the Portuguese men who built the “Our Lady of the Hill” church in the early 17th Century would think if they could see the kind of structures being built in the background today. Malacca certainly isn’t the trading centre it once was – neighbouring Singapore has long ago taken over that role – but whatever the new economic drivers are, there certainly is a lot of construction going on.
Malacca is a very important stop on the mainland Malaysia touristic circuit and as such, the city invests a fair amount of effort in displays, explanatory panels and the like. This 13m waterwheel is a replica of a structure built during the Malacca Sultana. At its peak in the 15th and 16th Centuries, 2,000 trading ships docked in Malacca’s harbour, where 84 different languages from Asia, Arabia and Europe were spoken.
Today Malacca is also known as the City of Museums. There are 14 of them, including the no doubt captivating Democratic Government Museum and the Stamp Museum. We saw this poster in the Proclamation of Independence Memorial Museum and it reminded me of everything I learned – by chance – when I took refuge in Kuala Lumpur’s Police Museum during a massive rainstorm around Christmas time. I was unaware of it but, prior to independence in 1957, Malaysia fought an incredibly costly and bloody counter-insurgency against communist insurgents, a period known as the Malayan Emergency. Thousands were killed; Government troops, British soldiers, Malay civilians and communist terrorists. Surprisingly, the period concluded in an offer of amnesty, but not before the insurgency had been much weakened, both militarily and politically.
I must give some explanation for using the term “we saw” in the previous paragraph. When travelling “alone”, I certainly spend more time visiting sites or eating meals with other people than by myself. However, this particular encounter is worthy of mention. There are not a lot of Canadians at the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, but I did manage to run into one. Not only was she from the same province as myself, but she also is the younger sister of a good friend of mine. What are the odds?
Back in Malacca, we learned that the town had produced a former Mr. Universe. Datuk Wira Dr. Gan Boon Leong is know as the father of bodybuilding in Malaysia and won the title of Mr. Asia in the fifties. I Googled him and found out he wasn’t actually Mr. Universe, but for his outstanding contributions to the sport, he was named honorary Mr. Universe in 2000 (to win for real at the age of 63 would have been rather unlikely). He spent most of his post sport career as a politician. “Datuk Wira” is a form of address for Malaysian dignitaries (similar to “The Honourable” in Canada). Amusingly, I read an article on the man written by a Canadian bodybuilder who kept writing things like “Datuk is a great guy”!
Back in KL, one of the most popular day trips for tourists is to visit the Hindu site of the Batu Caves, which can be reached by city train. The giant 42.7m statue is that of Lord Murugan (the tallest in the World and, if you look closely, a little chubby!).
The caves are an interesting and easy visit from downtown KL, but the place is hardly overwhelming. The temples don’t integrate very well in the space and no care is taken to ensure the site actually “looks good” (pieces of scaffolding lying around, garbage in every nook and cranny, etc). I guess looks is not what matters to devotees. Perhaps it would be more interesting to visit during a religious festival, although I can easily imagine the site becoming quite painful to visit (for all senses) when crowded with ten thousand people. Actually, ten thousand might be OK. The statue was completed in 2006 and the next year, the Thaipusam festival attracted 1.5 million pilgrims!
At least, if worship is not your thing, you can visit this Hindu Holy site to replenish your collection of cheap sunglasses made in China and little paper Malaysia flags.
Since I don’t expect to come back to KL for a while (except an overnight connection to Laos), here are a few funny or unusual observations. First, walking in KL is relatively safe. There are pedestrian overpasses above major roads and traffic lights for pedestrian which drivers comply with. However, when traffic grinds to a halt at rush hour, tens of thousands of scooters and motorbikes take to… the sidewalk. Look both ways before exiting any door to the outside.
Second, there are clearly business opportunities in KL, so I decided to open a pizzeria. Seriously, I regret not going in. I was in a hurry to get my visa, but I could have stopped on the way back and I would have been curious to meet the owner, assuming he is Canadian and that he actually spends time in the restaurant, two definite uncertainties. Restaurant opening aside, I did talk business with a Malaysian guy in the shipping business. He mentioned that Malaysians with disposable income go wild over novelties. Apparently the guy who introduced paintball made a killing. Since I have no intention of moving to Malaysia, I suggested he introduce zorbing to KL and showed him a video of it. KL certainly has the hills – although the land might be pricey. He actually looked like he might be thinking about it. He seemed a little young to have the capital on his own, but who knows.
And finally, a stern warning against smooching on the train!
UPDATE: My friend Rachel in Singapore has informed me that Canadian 2 for 1 Pizza is a chain. After some research, I found they have 25 locations in Canada (all in British Columbia) plus 9 in Malaysia, 30 in Singapore and soon expanding to the Middle-East!