Malaysia, part 1: A Malaysian Initiation

Monsieur and I had two weeks’ holiday at our disposal, so, as you do, we went to Waterstone’s in Notting Hill and stood in the midst of the travel guide section, looking for inspiration. In the end, we restricted ourselves to three guides: Greece, Croatia and Malaysia, which we pored over at home, trying to decide on our destination. I’ve never been to Greece and my mind soon filled with images of sun-drenched islands littered with whitewashed houses and azure-blue doors, juicy olives, lethal ouzo and moussaka everywhere. Monsieur wasn’t overly keen. He’d already visited Greece. Strike one.

Then there was Croatia. A colleague who holidays there every year with his wife gave me brochures and lots of tips on how to plan the trip. I even wrote an itinerary. It will have to wait, however, because in the end Monsieur and I decided to brave the thirteen-hour flight to Malaysia.

We booked the flights, researched hotels, read about the food, the people and the history and Somerset Maugham found his way onto my bedside table. Then, a couple of weeks before we left, the UK went onto red-alert. There’d been a terrorist threat involving liquids that could be easily converted into bombs once on-board a plane. Carry-on luggage was banned. Clear plastic bags were all you could take onto a flight. No books or papers or magazines or liquids or make-up or mobile phones or laptops or just about anything you’d usually take into the cabin with you were permitted. This was a problem. I don’t do boredom. I’m never bored, partly because I never go anywhere without a notebook or something to read – just in case I get stuck with nothing to do. How ever would I cope on a plane for so long without, at the very least, a book? This would be a case of 13 hours of enforced film watching, at best.

Days before departure, the restrictions were lessened somewhat. Liquids and electronics were still banned but it was possible to take books onto planes again. There were still extended check-in times because of the lengthier security checks, “but that’s all right,” I thought, “it’s for our own good.”

When we got to the airport, it was surprising how many people were still trying to take liquids through security. The additional staff had arranged for big clear bins to show us how much was being confiscated. There goes another bottle of water, a lip gloss, contact lens fluid, soon to be joined by the umpteenth can of deodorant… I couldn’t believe that our fellow travellers had missed the widespread news coverage about this over the past few weeks! The irony was that once through security, we could buy liquids everywhere – water, duty free alcohol, perfume…

In the end, the flight wasn’t too bad, although long. Once the cabin lights were dimmed at night time, I raised my window blind and looked down. There were zig zags of lights far away in the darkness. Checking the map on the movie screen, I could see that we were somewhere above Afghanistan. “Look where we are,” I whispered to Monsieur. Deep breathing came as a reply. He was already asleep.

Eventually we arrived in Kuala Lumpur. I felt smelly. My breath was strong enough to asphxiate a camel, I had dry skin, cracked lips and was desperate for chewing gum and a dab of uplifting perfume. As we walked away from the plane (trying hard not to breathe on Monsieur) there, in the middle of the concourse was a Harrods sign. Yes, they had installed a Harrods cafe, here in Kuala Lumpur. It would seem some parts of the Empire had never left.

As we waited for our bags to arrive on the conveyor belt, I started to jiggle. Spotting the nearest ladies room sign I took off, only just making it into a cubicle in time. Oh hell. It was a hole-in-the-ground. I’d have to aim carefully and pray that all those squats in the gym had strengthened my thighs enough to hold firm. This loo was the first visible sign of being in a different culture. Having said that, it was clean and space-ship modern, so a mix of the past and the future seemed to blend here, and this was just a loo!

Bags collected, a squirt of scent and a swish of lip gloss later, we met our transfer driver. When we expressed our surprise at having a whole car to ourselves, he smiled: “we are upgrading your transfer because no one is coming to our country now. Tourism is bad. We are Islamic here. Westerners don’t want to go to Islamic countries anymore.” It suddenly hit me that our cabin had been half empty and most of the people who were on our flight looked Malaysian or wore headscarves. There hadn’t been that many white faces and now we knew why.

The drive into Kuala Lumpur was fascinating. There were flags hanging everywhere. Why was that? “Ah, that’s because it’s Merdeka soon,” explained the driver. “Merdeka is celebration of Malaysian independence.”

We were lucky with our driver. He was keen to answer all our questions and tell us about his country. Of Chinese background, ethnicity was one of our first lessons. “In Malaysia the main religion is Islam. You must follow Islam to succeed. If you are Chinese, like me, and you convert to Islam, you will benefit from government initiatives. If you do not follow Islam, you will be at economic disadvantage.” Heavens. So was our driver a Moslem? “No. I am at economic disadvantage. I do not want to convert.”

Lining the motorway were tens of candy-coloured apartment blocks. Were they state housing? Our font of Malaysian knowledge answered the question before it was asked. “what do you see missing on those blocks? Hmm? Balconies. They are missing balconies, but do you know why?” We shook our heads. “The government is clearing native villages and bringing the people into the cities. It is very hard for them to adjust to city life. Many of them jump off their balconies and die. They are not used to living high off the ground like that. So the government builds them apartments with no balconies. Now they cannot jump.” Goodness. Malaysian culture was more complicated than we’d realised.

I looked up at the skyline. At last, there were the landmark Petronas Towers and we would be staying next door. As we exited the motorway, heading for the hotel, I craned my neck to follow the position of the towers, to see how far we were from a hot shower and much vigorous tooth-brushing. Soon enough, we were waving farewell to our driver and walking into the Mandarin Oriental hotel, those gunmetal towers standing huge in the sky overhead. When we reached our room on 13th floor, the door opened onto floor-to-ceiling windows filled with our neighbours, the Petronas Towers, yet again. Out came my camera as I stood mesmerised, snapping away at this architectural wonder.

Yes, we did brush our teeth, but thought better of taking a shower. We could swim instead! Down at the fitness centre we found an outdoor infinity pool with views over Kuala Lumpur. Clinging to the edge which spilled onto the postcard view before us, we observed the surrounds. There were the Petronas Towers, just next door (it seemed there was no getting away from them in KL), perfect circles of man-made pond sat below us in the midst of lush, symmetrical gardens, giving onto the Suria (Sunshine) KL Convention Centre shopping complex. Varying heights of building, mostly hotels and banks, formed the rest of the view. Then, turning around we saw the Menara Tower climbing above the other buildings. This was definitely a 21st Century city.

Later that evening we went to explore the KLCC shopping centre. As we noticed a glowing green sign for Mark’s and Spencer, I wondered if we’d really left home. Inside, there were all the big names: Gucci, Sony, Tiffany, Hugo Boss and Bally. “Are we really in Asia?” Monsieur enquired. “It doesn’t feel like it yet.” I could see why.

Back at the hotel we decided on Japanese for dinner and took the lift down to the Wasabi Bistro in the basement. Once we saw the prices, we knew we were no longer in London. The current exchange rate meant we could have whatever we felt like and only pay the equivalent of a pizza and house wine back home.

We each chose a different set menu. I went for the Enzo Meal, diving into a plate of divine soft-shell crab set on a bed of prawn cracker noodles. This was followed by a tray of small dishes: miso soup, rice, sashimi of tuna and salmon, prawn and vegetable tempura, and chicken slices. Monsieur, meanwhile, ate from the Chef’s Specialties menu, starting with a mixed salad, moving onto sashimi of tuna, yellow fin and sea bass, presented in small dishes on a bed of ice, and finishing with chicken slices tossed onto salad with a sesame seed dressing. We were highly satisfied customers.

Next to us, a table of 3 Japanese customers had a lively time with their meal, enjoying warm sake and plum wine as they ate from sizzling hot plates. Elsewhere, men in suits conducted business over their dinner. We sat, exhausted from the journey, and drank in the atmosphere. Not too tired to try the blackened sesame seed ice cream with a cup of green tea, we now knew for certain that we were in Asia.

To read the next instalment, click here.

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