Revisiting Kuala Lumpur seven weeks after arriving as “fresh off the plane” North American newbies, our perspective was a lot different the second time around. First impressions aside, although we loved the modern flair, food and luxurious five-star hotels at cut-rate prices (by Western standards), the first three-day stay was really just a quick glimpse and a chance to deposit some cash and meet our banking relationship manager. Impressed with how modern the city centre was, second thoughts set in about Penang when we first viewed its rustic environment compared to “the big city”. Fortunately it only took six weeks of island living to realize that KL is the place to be for working expats, especially those with spouses looking for social activities, big city amenities and nightlife. For the rest of us, it’s a smaller version of Singapore where shopping centres and massive office towers dominate the landscape, construction never stops and traffic rivals any big Southeast Asian city (in fact, it almost rivals San Francisco). Basically, it’s where you go when you need some pampering and a few goods unavailable in the laid back island up north.
Enjoying the beautiful view of Malaysia’s most iconic landmark from our luxurious room in the Traders Hotel, we settled in and had visions of hitting all the local places we didn’t have time to see the first time. As outdoor lovers, we chose the KL Bird Park as a day trip last time and decided to soak in the big city culture this time. Flipping through the local brochures describing the city’s top ten attractions, it takes minutes to realize the city’s biggest draw is the unspoken national sport: Mall hopping. Notice I didn’t say shopping because Singapore still owns that title. Patronized by a multi-cultural combination of locals and tourists, most of the cash seems to be doled out in the unbelievable multitude of food outlets that come in every size, taste and ethic flavor. Visiting the upper floors of the high-end malls offers a chance to shop prcatically distraction free since nobody seems to be interested in shelling out three month’s salary for a Kate Spade handbag. Mesmerized by the sheer size and volume of retail shopping space crammed into one square mile, Diane and I spent about an hour negotiating the air-conditioned indoor walkways and finally meandered our way to the Pavillion, KL’s answer to Orchard Road. Rodeo Drive and New York’s Fifth Avenue.
In defense of the outdoor lovers, there is a small but beautiful park right in the middle of all the skyscrapers and malls. Simply named KL City Park, it’s a small urban oasis of green-space dotted by a jogging track, a wading pool and decent signage detailing the foliage’s origin. Of course there’s also dozens of signs explaining the cornucopia of rules and regulations found throughout Malaysia. Seeming a bit ridiculous to most Westerners, the park employs “wading pool police” that wear security signs and hang out with loud whistles waiting for the slightest violation. Almost comedic, if someone’s child so much as steps on the rim of the pool, enters from the wrong angle or splashes water (all violations), the pool police blow their whistles loudly. Almost always walking over to explain what they’ve done wrong, even the Malaysians don’t understand how a two-year old child warrants a lengthy scolding for playing in a public pool.
Hilariously, one day Diane and I saw the ultra violation that sent the female Malaysian pool cop into a frenzy. Offering nowhere to change, a Malaysian mother pulled down her infant’s pants for two seconds to slip on their bathing suit. Unexpectedly the infant began running away while still exposed and even the Malaysian parents laughed at the outrage expressed by the park’s security guards. On the other hand, everyone in Malaysia feels safe walking the streets whereas the USA subjects its citizens to random acts of violence every day so maybe they’ve got the right idea by enforcing every little infraction. Making me think that democracy only works when people don’t use “liberty and freedom” as an excuse to do almost anything they want even when it infringes on other people’s rights, perhaps a society that enforces lots of rules in exchange for a chance at a good life and an opportunity to feel safe isn’t so bad. Never having experienced even a small act of fundamentalist related terror, Malaysians mostly enjoy a society last seen in the West circa 1950’s when people followed the rules and rarely questioned authority. Understanding Malaysia also faces huge social and financial challenges in the coming years, we realized there’s no utopian society anywhere but experiencing basic acts of kindness by strangers, feeling safe at night and interacting with people of all social classes with little or no resentment takes me back to my childhood.
Anyway, everyone told us to visit The Pavillion but we couldn’t really figure out how to get there the first time so this time we asked for help. Reaching the first floor, we turned left at the hotel exit, walked through the air-conditioned lobby of the first four convention centers and found a small escalator we didn’t see the first time. Heading downstairs we discovered six more small but delicious places to eat, a Starbucks closer than the one I found last time, and a long corridor that led to another mall (we guessed). Eventually winding up at a back entrance to KLCC Suria, another large mall, we discovered the long corridor that apparently connected the first three malls to the Grandaddy of all Upscale Malaysian Malls. Winding up on the third floor, you’re greeted by three large signs with visual illustrations of what awaits; seven floors of food grouped by ethnic style, price and quality.
Unsure where to start we decided look at the mall itself. Walking past a group of restaurants and pubs that reminded me of Studio Walk at California’s Universal Studios, we finally found the center court and glanced up at its enormous splendor.
Surprisingly, the further you walk up, the less crowded it is and we discovered that upper floors mean higher rents and prices half way in line with Hong Kong or Tokyo. Checking out a multitude of menus, we saw overpriced Chinese disguised as Cantonese but not really looking like it, Italian places serving pasta creations with fancy names and dimly lit decorations making it look like a romantic escape, every other type of ethnic food ranging from Thai to Indonesian and Vietnamese and a host of western style restaurants serving real cheeseburgers and other food that looked quite similar to what we often crave but rarely eat.
Oddly enough, tucked into the corner of the ritzy seventh floor was the strangest thing yet. Traveling 7,000 miles the last thing we expected in Malaysia was The Counter, a small “build your own burger” chain we thought we left behind in downtown Walnut Creek, but there it was. Astounded that they’d consider a small American burger chain worthy of the “world-class” international floor that housed famous Hong Kong chefs, the hostess gave us a long spiel about the concept and desperately tried to get us in but paying almost 100 ringgit for a ten-dollar cheeseburger that wasn’t even that good in California wasn’t our idea of Southeast Asian cuisine so we politely declined and headed back down to the third floor where most of the hubbub was. Realizing the stores are found tucked away in corridors leading every which way form the center court we thought we’d come back later to check out the shopping and judging from the emptiness of the upscale shops we wondered who they actually expect to patronize a mall where a good dinner is almost a month’s wage for an average Malaysian office worker.
Eventually working our way back downstairs we chose a place called Quivo’s, a Mediterranean themed restaurant that had excellent looking pizzas and burgers. Choosing real Western food for the first time since arriving in Malaysia felt both good and strange. Almost feeling guilty for shelling out about 80 ringgit, the server told us it was happy hour which lasts until the dinner rush (after 9 PM) so we ordered wine at half price. Still adapting to a city that eats dinner five hours after our dinner time from the old working life, I wondered if anyone ever slept and why restaurants are so crowded at 10 PM in a mall that closes at 11 PM but then I recalled the serenity of the park at 7 AM when I found myself with the couple of dozen Malaysians that jog while the rest of the nation is still sleeping and remembered that only America starts its rush hour at 5 AM. Thoroughly enjoying a feast of Moroccan burgers with an amazing sauce and a pasta dish with seafood worthy of any western establishment, we enjoyed the meal immensely and realized the hardest part of the trip would be which air-conditioned western style restaurant to enjoy before returning to our more subdued, even “boring” backwoods life in little Penang.
Noticing everything has more variety in Asia, we stumbled on a Bearded Papa’s, a cream puff chain we always visited the few times we found ourselves in Downtown San Francisco. Of course they have three flavors because Americans don’t really eat very much variety of anything. With a multitude of flavored to choose from, I bypassed the durian puff and enjoyed a mango yogurt ice cream puff for dessert.
Thinking the street exit might lead to an outdoor thoroughfare back to the hotel, would lead elsewhere, we found ourselves on a street with bumper to bumper traffic but hardly pedestrians. Amazingly, that street led to a crosswalk that led to..what else..another mall. Seeking a yoga mat suitable for outdoor yoga on our pool deck, we saw a store that sold good ones but didn’t feel like lugging it back on the train so instead we browsed another group of stores that were not as upscale but still quite interesting. Of course there was a section labelled after New York City and shoes that you’d have to be insane to wear in the tropical heat.
Basically we spent our first night and next day exploring The Great Indoors. Clearly KL’s most popular attraction, we loved the feeling of being back in the big city but as I’ve stated before, Penang is a better option for early retirees that enjoy walking, sightseeing, birdwatching, beach combing and spending more time at outdoor food courts than modern expensive Western style restaurants serving real Australian beef cheeseburgers. Oh, yes, we did visit the U.S. Embassy on our second day to get a notarized letter. Proving only that they looked at our California drivers license and that we raised our right hand to swear (not on a Bible, perhaps to respect Muslim culture), it’s an extra step imposed by the ministry for conversion of American drivers licenses. Not planning on driving anyway, carrying a valid license from home and this letter apparently makes it legal so why not? Since cameras are a big no-no, I only have a picture of the inglorious building that felt nothing at all like the set they used in Homeland.
In its defense, KL does have a few attractions probably worth visiting including the National Museum, a small Chinatown and several impressive mosques and temples. Our awesome relationship manager hung out with us on Sphis day off and took us to the observation deck of the KL Tower. Large than the CN Tower in Toronto, it’s insanely overpriced at over 100 ringgits for foreigners and once again I have to point out the funniest part. Unlike every observation deck in North America, the outdoor deck is mostly unprotected with a small railing. In fact, we signed a waiver which I suppose dismisses liability should you choose to jump off or hurl rocks at people from 83 floors up. Surprisingly, only about 10 visitors were there on a spectacular sunny clear day and we didn’t understand why until he took us downstairs to the cramped but air-conditioned enclosed deck. Packed beyond reason, we couldn’t get near the windows on that floor and waited 15 minutes to get back on the elevator. Indoor enthusiasm at its best.
And that’s how we spent our summer vacation. Well, our first two days revisiting Malaysia’s capital city, anyway. Insisting on spending some time outdoors, I did walk outside every morning to get my coffee and can honestly say the first 90 minutes of daylight are quite tolerable. Once the sun rises higher than the surrounding towers, however, it’s easy to understand why nobody ever leaves the air conditioning in this city. Shrouded in a valley, filled with skyscrapers and crowded with way too many vehicles, it’s much hotter and more torrid than Penang and receives little change unlike our island climate up north. Our time was bright and sunny which did make for a great trip to Selangor but helped me understand why people being winter coats and ride the trains in arctic icebox conditions. Maybe we’ll take Air Asia next time.
GOT KL ? Please share !!!