Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Country #99: My Malaysia

After two long days of flying, I landed in Malaysia, my last double digit country. I'd arrived late in the evening and didn't make it to the hostel until after midnight so my initial enthusiasm was mixed in with a healthy dose of jet lag. I was in that phase of exhaustion where you don't want to do a damned thing but you can't really sleep either, so I grabbed a beer from the front desk and went up to the rooftop patio. From the comfort of a swing chair, I looked out at what could possibly be a Petronas Tower. It wasn't the two side-by-side sleek cylindrical structures that I expected but with a bit of squinting and a touch of imagination, it was not unreasonable to believe that this was a side view of the iconic landmark. Or a hallucination. At this point, I wasn't ruling anything out.

Daylight and a long night's sleep proved me right.  It was official.  I was in Kuala Lumpur staring at 1/2 of the world's former tallest building. I wanted to immediately run over there for a closer look but having arrived without my usual rigorously planned agenda, I opted to have the lady at the front desk plan out my day for me.
Her first suggestion was for me to beat the crowds by heading straight to the Batu Caves.  This involved taking a couple of trains for the 13 kilometer journey, so I was concerned that in my still somewhat somnolent state, I'd screw it up.  What if I arrived in Selangor and went the wrong way? What if I managed to miss the subtle signs leading me towards the temple?  What if they didn't have a 50 foot statue of the monkey god, Hanuman, to point the way?

I had beat the tourists but this being a religious holiday, I found myself surrounded by worshippers on the 272 step climb up to the temple, which made it all the better.

The complex consists of several limestone caves but the largest one, which is found at the top of the stairs and is appropriately dubbed Temple Cave, appeared to be the holiest (or at least the one with the largest number of offerings being placed at the altar).

I had read that the caves were inhabited by macaques, many of whom were prone to snatching anything they could get their little monkey hands on.

But I've got to say, these little guys (and girls) were the very model of well-behaved law-abiding citizens.  I watched this one visitor take his sweet time rummaging through a bag, looking for some fruit that he had brought.  I stood off to the side just waiting, certain that the monkey was going to both snatch the bag and bitch-slap the guy for making him wait. But no, he just patiently sat there and then politely grabbed the small coconut when it was offered to him.  I think I may have even heard him say "thanks, bro".

I should point out that throughout this trip, I had many opportunities to observe and photograph wild monkeys.  Lots and lots of monkeys.  If anyone does not care for monkey photos, I suggest you strap in because this is going to be one very bumpy ride.  But can you blame me?  I love monkeys. They are so entertaining and humanlike and there is no such thing as an ugly baby monkey.  Or is there?

Seriously.  Look at that mug!  You know that mother is saying to her friends "I'll tell you what, he didn't get that face from my side of the family!"
While the main temple was free to enter, the Ramayana cave, closer to the train station, had an entrance fee.  Although it was minimal, that almost caused me to skip it.  Thank the monkey gods that I decided I needed to break the big bills I had received from the ATM.

Inside was a series of figures depicting the life of the lord Rama, which managed to be cool, informative and kitschy all at once.  I absolutely loved it!

The Batu Caves had been a success.  I looked at the itinerary that the woman from the hostel had drawn up for me.  Next stop: the Petronas Towers.  Both of them.

I took the train to the suggested stop and to my total and utter horror, found myself inside the middle of a shopping mall.   This dismayed me on so many levels.  Anyone who knows me, knows how much I hate shopping but this was problematic for other reasons.  I had assumed that by spending most of December in a country that is primarily Muslim and Hindu, I'd be able to avoid the Christmas mania that grips so many places.  Rarely, have I been this wrong.

Everywhere I went, there were trees and Santas and never-ending Xmas carols.  And what's worse, since Xmas is more a concept than an actual holiday in Malaysia, it does not mercifully have the decency to end on Dec 25.  I walked into a store on Dec. 28th, only to see people lined up to see Santa and hear "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas".  "No!!!!" I wanted to scream.  "It's beginning to look like time to take all this shit down! Stop this madness!"

The more I tried to escape this inferno, the deeper into its heart I went.  In a near panic mode, I went to the information desk and asked how I could quickly get out of there and over to the Petronas Towers. The look that I initially attributed to some sort of language-related misunderstanding turned out to be more of a "And where is it that you think you are?" look.  Up until that moment, I had no idea that the towers housed a mall.  I was standing inside the stinking towers and didn't even know it! I tried to save face by explaining that I wanted to see the towers from the outside but I'm pretty sure that she didn't buy it and just to spite me,  sent me off with a "Merry Xmas!"

It is possible to go up to the walkway connecting to the two towers but the cost is $28 (which is roughly the equivalent to 4 nights at the hostel or dinner for a week in KL) and there was a 4 hour wait for the next timed entry so I chose to skip it and view the city from the comfort of the KL Tower later in the month.

I don't recall if the next item on my itinerary was "Experience why it is called the rainy season" but if it was, I was following it to a tee.  By this point, I was in Merdeka Square, the former center of the British rule.  I hid out in a couple of museums to wait out the rain but it was not until the next day's excellent free walking tour that I could to fully explore this area.

The centerpiece of the square, the Sultan Abdul Samad building, hints at a surprisingly level of cooperation between the colonizers and the locals.  This former British courthouse was built on land donated by the Sultan (as was the nearby church).  I don't know how much say, the Sultan had in making this "donation" but the British were at least savvy enough to name the building after him and to hire the same architect who had designed the nearby Jamek Mosque to ensure that the Moorish influence was present.

The tour focused on both the city's future, highlighted by a well done multimedia presentation at the City Gallery revealing that KL will soon be wall to wall condos and the city's past, explained through both the architecture and displays on traditional clothing at the textile museum.

We concluded the tour at the Royal Selangor Club, which was once the exclusive retreat for British officers, who would enjoy a drink while watching cricket matches on the field. It is now a private club but since we were finishing the tour inside, I figured I would stay and have a beer before continuing on.  Only, I was not allowed.  The membership part was not a problem since I was chatting with a couple of members who had come in for lunch.  The problem was my gender.  That's right.  In 2016, the bar at the RSC is still a 'men's only' club. Barbarians.

A short walk from the Sausage Salon lays Heritage Park, a massive  green space where several museums and attractions can be found.  Theoretically, it is possible to walk the park but it was 90+ degrees and humid so I was more than happy to pay 50 cents to jump on a hop on/ hop off tram that takes you to all the main points of interest.

I got the impression that not too many people know about this option.  Not even my in-the-know travel planner at the hostel had heard about it and looking for the link just now took longer than it should have, so let this be my public service announcement.  The tram rocks!

In theory, when you hop off a tour tram, you have to wait around until the next one comes around to hop back on.  This can sometimes take a while which has the practical effect of limiting the number of times you want to stop and see things.

The National Mosque

This tram is different. With the limited number of people on board, they were willing to stop and just wait for us at the smaller attractions.  We were given 15 minutes at Tugu Negara aka the National Monument.

I reached for my camera as we neared the Perdana Botanical Garden.  We got another 15 minutes to wander around and take photos.

It wasn't until we got to the Islamic Arts Museum, where I knew I wanted to spend at least an hour that I officially hopped off.  Once I was inside and saw how well done it was and how much there was to see, I could have easily spent much more time than that but that would have meant missing the last tram.

Not to worry, though, when I exited 55 minutes later, the tram was parked and waiting for me in the driveway.

By this time, the usual afternoon rain had begun so I called it a day and began making my preparations for the next day's journey south.

A couple of weeks later, I would return to KL to unwind for a few days before catching my flight home.  As I mentioned before, going up to the observation deck at the Petronas Towers was both expensive and impractical so I spent my last afternoon in Malaysia observing the city from another more accessible perch.  

I took a ride up to the top of the KL Tower, Petronas' scrappy low-rent neighbor.

Of to the upper right, you can see the National Mosque set in the Heritage Park.

Merdeka Square

Another advantage of not going to the Petronas Towers observation deck...from elsewhere, you can actually see the Petronas Towers.

From a blurry light in the distance to a front row seat before these famed twin skyscrapers.  What a difference three weeks made.  In the intervening weeks, I'd had a chance to see and experience some pretty spectacular places, which I will be blogging about just as soon as I can finish sorting through all of the monkey photos.

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