Malaysia – Here I Come!

Written by admin on January 22, 2007 – 3:04 pm -

Before taking a long international plane trip, I always save the bulk of my work until the last minute. My theory is that if I pull an all-nighter before departure, the more likely I am to sleep through most of the flight, and can hit a new destination rested and ready to go. I knew that Kuala Lumpur (KL from here on) was famous for radiating chaotic and electrifying excitement, and my hope was to be energized enough to go with the flow. My fears were unfounded; as it turned out, KL was less daunting and more manageable.

The flight was one of, if not the best, I’ve ever taken. The Malaysia Airline flight attendants were wonderfully accommodating (no dagger-like stares for a request of an extra blanket or pillow).  In addition, each looked as rested (and well-groomed) upon arrival as when we departed.

Landing at the KL Airport is a bit of a shock – especially if you’re dazed after a long flight.  It’s hyper-modern:  an automated walkway to the driverless shuttle glides between terminals to the Customs and baggage collection areas. There, you have one last opportunity to buy duty-free items or down your first shot of Starbucks coffee from one of the city’s omnipresent emporiums.

Many travelers take the new non-stop train ( from the airport into the city, a relative bargain at only 100 Malaysian Ringgits. Not only does this save time (the train ride is a mere 26 minutes to the city terminal), it costs less than a limousine. Included in the price is a chauffeur-driven Mercedes to transport you from the terminal to your hotel or a downtown office. If you’re arriving during rush hour – and it’s always rush hour – this is the way to go.  (Keep in mind that, in Malaysia, people drive on the wrong – e.g., British – side of the road.)

The reputation of the Ritz Carlton — KL is stellar.  This is the first hotel in the group to introduce butler service for all guest rooms.  Jesse, “my” butler, helped me unpack and asked if I wanted refreshment. She also offered to make any and all reservations and (as promised in the brochure) and did her best to “anticipate guests’ needs to make them feel at home.” Best of all, Jesse was a pro at configuring my computer to the DSL modem.

There’s nothing ostentatious about this Ritz-Carlton. Rather, the guest rooms and public areas are decorated in muted tones that reflected a subtle British style.

The hotel’s cool elegance contrasts dramatically with the rest of the city. KL is dazzling combination of funky and futuristic.  Garish twinkling Christmas lights – glowing all year long – decorate many of the outdoor walkways (complete with oversized cool “spray misters”). Starbucks and McDonalds are omnipresent.

Inhabitants of different cultures coexist peacefully. Indian temples and monks wearing saffron robes share the city’s neighborhoods with ancient Chinese temples and the mosques of Malaysia’s Muslim community (estimated at 60% of the population). Dress codes are relaxed, both for tourists and locals.  In fact, most tourists dressed more conservatively than many young Malaysian women.

For an overview of Malaysian culture and history, plan on a visit to the National Museum. It has recently re-opened after extensive renovations, and now has a comprehensive exhibit about Malaysia’s extraordinarily diverse society; the Malaysian government is one of the most liberal and progressive in the developing world. It is making huge investments in educations and technology, and government officials are determined to make KL the business/IT capital of this part of the world.

KL’s twin towers are (for the moment) the tallest in the world. There are shopping centers everywhere. The median income in Malaysia is $300 per month, and most people make their livings as farmers or working in light industry. With the many government subsidies, there is a feeling of optimism in the air, and tourists rarely (if ever) see beggars or real poverty.

Visitors aren’t often conscious of the six-times-per-day call to prayer, perhaps because there’s so much street noise. It feels as if everyone’s is driving at 100 kilometers per hour, honking and weaving in and out of traffic. There are buses and taxis galore, with more than 50 taxi companies in KL alone. The concept of street lanes is relative, and the road construction everywhere results in bottlenecks. Whoever did the highway planning clearly didn’t foresee how KL’s jet-propulsion into the 21st century would impact traffic. With no central hub, the subway and aboveground rail systems are difficult to navigate, especially since different companies built lines without connecting them; the modern monorail is often hot and crowded.

If you’re transportation challenged, your hotel will gladly provide a pristine car and a driver (who usually speaks reasonable English) at surprisingly low rates. Regular metered taxis waiting at taxi stands are cheaper still.

Since I’d heard Malacca was a charming city brimming with antique shops and history (it was once a major shipping port), I wanted to see it. One of my traveling companions, Tim, tried to convince me that Malacca wasn’t what it used to be, but accompanied me on a two-and-a-half hour (each way) day trip.

A car “whisked” us to the town approximately 150 kilometers away. The narrow two-lane dirt road was being expanded into a four-lane highway, which made travel difficult. Although Tim was intent on showing me a specific landmark, we couldn’t find it. We assumed the house had been demolished. Here today, gone tomorrow, all in the name of progress. When we returned, we sited this Colonial house and took a brief tour. Unhappily, the original would be destroyed when the highway was inaugurated, replaced by a newer model.

After arriving back in Malacca, we headed to the central square. There were ideal photo opportunities of the Dutch-built town hall. We turned down transportation offers from elderly men navigating trishaws with tacky beaded umbrellas. We weren’t being cheap; rather, we were conscious that, given our combined weights, the trip could well end of the driver’s life!

The Asian crafts were disappointing and we left without buying. We had a pleasant lunch in the courtyard of a former 4-story farmhouse, alongside the original animal water basin. Even though Malacca’s Colonial architecture is suffering from neglect, a renovation plan for the town is in the works. Let’s hope the town’s fathers won’t make it look like Disneyland.

Then it was back to the Ritz Carlton. There’s definitely something to be said for a bath, nap and air-conditioning after such a long day. My butler was on call to see if I needed clothes pressed or cleaned, free of charge.

Tim and I had a quiet dinner at The Top Hat, a restaurant housed in a Colonial building, then proceeded to the night market where haggling is de rigueur; the vendors are ruthless, so be prepared.  If you’re (faux) label conscious, you’ll find everything from the “finest” watches to leather and luggage goods, including, of course, Vuitton bags and Polo shirts. You’ll also find an incredible choice of CDs and DVDs (I assume mainly pirated). I’m told they work in the US. Don’t expect to find native crafts.

I had brought a wad of Euros, as well as some dollars, but found the Euro hasn’t spread to the KL markets and thus has zero buying power. I was forced to go to a rip-off exchange emporium to buy Malay ringgits.

Tim’s goal was to buy two watches. He eventually found two llolexes (Rolexes; apparently Malaysians have the same problem with the “r” sound as the Japanese.) for a total of $20. My heart was set on a carry-on suitcase with wheels. I chose one and did the deal. I think I saw better knock-offs nearby but was too tired to continue the hunt. Plus, Tim was giving me dirty looks.

I did, however, buy some “Polo” shirts.  As Tim put them in my new suitcase, the zipper came off in his hand. Not a good omen. Back we went to that stall, which wasn’t easy to find. The salesman managed to produce a duplicate suitcase, and Tim zipped every zipper at least fourteen times. The young man assured us the suitcase was guaranteed, and we should return if there were additional problems; it was a nice gesture. As it happens, the handle went poof during my trip.

As we left the market, Tim and I were offered “lookie, lookie, dirty movies” and other forms of porn. In case we didn’t understand the words, some graphic gestures were made. I chose not to look.

Tim had been amazingly patient, up until we reached the taxi rank at 10PM and found the taxi drivers had formed a private labor union. They refused to take us to the hotel without charging nearly three times the metered rate. I was outraged and told Tim we were going to wait. Tim gave me an exasperated look and threw me into the cab, muttering that he was paying the two extra dollars!

There’s something for everyone in KL. It’s a wonderful walking city. The older parts of the city are filled with surprises, architectural and otherwise. For dedicated eaters, there are so many types of interesting food; my favorite included noodle houses.

Some members of the group opted for massage, reflexology and herbal medicine, while others went shopping. We didn’t see many indigenous native crafts in KL but there are a lot of “antiques” from neighboring countries. I hit pay dirt when I stumbled into Aseana, an elegant store featuring Malaysian gifts and accessories, as well as some from other parts of Southeast Asia. Best of all, what I liked had been reduced by seventy percent.

If you want to encounter locals, try the Central Market, filled with stalls of all sorts. Especially attractive were the leather goods, handmade purses, straw items and two stores with real antiques (and high prices). You’ll also see underwear and other real-life necessities, such as tee shirts, modestly priced children’s clothes, a few stands of shoes and some food stalls.  No matter the hour, there’s a hum of people doing business.

The Indian market was my favorite. The salespeople were friendly and willing to bargain, and several spoke excellent English. Some of the fabrics were spectacular.  Even though English is mandatory in the Malaysian school system, don’t expect to converse or get information in English except from people in the hospitality industry.

In contrast, the very popular Marriott Hotel shopping center features many boutiques, where you can buy high-style designer merchandise (the real stuff) from around the world. While luxury goods are not cheap in KL, it’s duty free.

On the Marriott’s ground floor, a restaurant called SHOOK really shakes.  It’s the place where those who want to see and be seen gravitate and order from one of the many stands—great if you’re in the mood for pasta, and your companion craves grilled foods. Diners can watch their meals being cooked in open kitchens.

Every shopping center is peppered with restaurants and a food court. In addition to restaurants at all price levels, there are cheaper outdoor cooking areas. Some no doubt will soon be displaced by, but for the moment . . . .

In spite of the standard warnings about not eating street food, most people in our group did. No one reported bad after-effects. But, it’s wise to stick to cooked foods, and to avoid drinking non-bottled water (when in any developing country, you should make sure the bottle is opened at the table).

Another warning: be prepared for Turkish toilets in older establishments. I didn’t go anywhere without a package of baby wipes. There were times when I was Ms. Popularity, because we all wilted in the heat of outdoor markets and were grateful for a refreshing dab or dose.

I could have stayed in KL for much longer.  Little did I know we had just begun our real adventure.   If you go to Malaysia, you can’t leave without visiting its resorts. They’re some of the most beautiful in the world.

Tourist Office Site

Malaysia Airlines:

Ritz Carlton
168, Jalan Imbi
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel:     603 2142 8000
Fax:    603 2143 8080

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