16.5. Kuala Lumpur

Whoo! I love this town! It's a wacky and wild combination of First and Third World, swanky shops and modern infrastructure next to decaying colonial buildings... but without the worst downsides of the "real" Third World (open sewers, leprous beggars, ...) and with a distinct Master Plan being imposed on it by the iron grip of Dr. M. I imagine Tokyo must have looked like this some 20-30 years back?

My hotel, Season's View, is a great place in a great place -- on Jalan Alor, one of Kuala Lumpur's best-known food stall streets, right around the corner from the shopping Mecca of Bukit Bintang in the Golden Triangle. (The location will be even better starting July 2002, when the KL Monorail goes online and the place can be reached directly from KL Sentral station.)

I spent the hot afternoon hours wandering about some of those (air-conditioned! yes!) malls. Lot 10 is the most upmarket of the lot, all fancy boutiques and French cafes; for me the best part was the surprisingly affordable underground food court, where I ate some chicken rice and peanut soup. Yes, chicken rice is "just" chicken on rice, but the style of cooking the chicken is a Chinese specialty much favored in these parts and damn is it good. The peanut soup, on the other hand, turned out to consist of very thin chicken broth with whole peanuts and chicken feet floating about in it. Err. But this cost me barely over RM 5, so no complaints!

However, the award of "best mall in Kuala Lumpur" definitely goes to Sungei Wang, just across the street from Lot 10. True, it's scruffier and more confusing, but it's immense, lively and cheap! Computer freaks will definitely want to head up to the 3rd-floor "IT Plaza", but the place sells everything under the sun, and I just wandered about more or less at random, soaking it all in. Malay, Chinese and Japanese culture are all fused together in a melting pop, what with life-size Ayumi Hamasaki cutouts and j-pop blasting out; the place out-Shibuyas Shibuya itself! I was getting chills down my spine just from being there...

Lulled to a false sense of coolness by the air-conditioning (and, again, because there were no trains running yet along the monorail tracks tracing my exact path) I decided to set off for Kuala Lumpur's number one landmark, the Petronas Twin Towers, on foot. KL's heat is deceptive; you can walk along effortlessly for maybe 15 minutes (at least after some acclimatization...), but then you hit some tiny burst of effort -- crossing a street without being hit by cars, for example -- and you suddenly realized you are, in fact, sweating like a pig. I took at break at the conviniently located new MATIC (Malaysia Tourist Information Center) and surfed the Internet for a while, but was unable to penetrate their firewall, or get an up-to-date map of Kuala Lumpur for that matter; nearly all maps are missing parts of KL's new public transport system.

I continued my trek and, soon enough, my head started to crane up, up and up as I goggled at the Petronas Towers. They are, um, big. Alas, excluding a lucky group of 100 each morning there are no provisions for tourists to go up, so I proceeded into the inevitable Suria KLCC shopping mall at the base of the towers. Almost as big and impressive as the towers themselves, the shopping mall is again pretty high-end, although I did amuse myself in the Maruzen bookstore for a while (about the only place I found then or later that stocks Lonely Planet Malaysia). On the other side of the towers is the large, beautiful KLCC Park, full of fountains, happy couples and great views of the city.

After a bit of searching I located the surprisingly poorly signposted entrance to the PUTRA LRT and tried out Kuala Lumpur's public transportation system. It's spiffy, it's underground (this particular section at least), its machines have trouble dealing with notes but it works. Alas, the ticket systems are not (yet?) integrated, so when I transferred to the STAR LRT at Masjid Jamek I had to buy another ticket, and got myself in a minor pickle when I accidentally entered the ticket gates for trains going in the other direction. Oops. Fortunately the staff sorted me out and I managed to get to Hang Tuah.

Hang Tuah will, once again, be a transfer point for the monorail -- I have to say that, at least from a tourist's point of view, the track layout will be excellent. But for time being I walked a couple of kilometers, past an extraordinarily nasty-looking prison (emblazoned with "BEWARE! THE SENTENCE FOR DRUGS IS DEATH!") and again doing some freeform lane skipping. Kuala Lumpur is manifestly not a city designed for pedestrians; while the existence of sidewalks was a pleasant surprise, pedestrian crossings for major roads (which, with KL traffic, means most of them) are either bizarrely and inconviniently placed or just nonexistent.

By now it was dark. I went trawling on Jalan Alor in search of a meal, but evidently arrived a little late -- some of the stalls were already shutting up shop, and I ended up kidnapped by a big mama with an English menu who asked me if I wanted beer refills every 5 minutes. I asked for non-fish recommendations (the menu was the size of War and Peace) and ended up with ordering Thai lemon chicken, only afterwards noticing the huge (Chinese-only) sign proclaiming this to be a seafood specialty restaurant. It took a long time to prepare, and at one point I noticed a waitress girl bringing something that looked very much like my chicken towards me, only to be intercepted by mama and sent back to the kitchen. I pointedly refused to order another beer while waiting, and the chicken eventually arrived. It wasn't great, and one of many interesting features on the bill was a RM 0.40 "towel charge", but it still added up to only 16 ringgit with beer. Next time I'll try frog.

Dessert, on the other hand, was an unqualified success. I bought some durian at a stand and wolfed it down on the spot; I'd tried it before in Japan, but this stuff was good. A shame it smells like a cross between vomit and a rotting corpse...

16.5. KLIA Express

I love the way they write "Malaysia" in Chinese: , or "Horse comes to West Asia" if you read it literally. Which you shouldn't, of course, the characters were picked because their readings are ma-lai-xi-a...

I thought that Kuala Lumpur's pollution wasn't bad at all (read: it was unnoticeable to my Tokyo-trained lungs), but why does every cabbie in KL seem to have major respiratory problems then...?

KLIA Express is yet another spiffy but woefully underutilized service. At the KL City Air Terminal, one (1) of some 20-odd counters was open, and the only customer in sight was me. (Although this is partly because you can't check in for other airlines at KLCAT yet...) The train was at -- I'll be optimistic -- maybe 15% of capacity, so running every 15 minutes from dawn to dusk seems a little excessive. Then again, I suppose the big costs in this project are fixed...

...and now the train is stuck in the middle of nowhere. The conductor usefully announced: "The train will be delayed. Please remain on board."

We did eventually get going, and once the train accelerated to full speed it turned out to be pretty fast indeed. Putrajaya, Malaysia's future seat of government, and Cyberjaya, navel of the Multimedia Supercorridor but just a construction site at time being, whizzed by. I wonder if the KLIA Transit service will be operational by the time I return? It would be nice to visit them, the view from the plane was pretty impressive.