Apparently Monsieur and I were not immune from jet lag, in spite of keeping to local time on arrival. We slept fitfully that first night and when we finally dragged our heavy bodies down to breakfast, it was all gone. What next? We decided to talk to the concierge about our sightseeing options, but he was very unhelpful. I can only think that maybe the real concierge had dashed to the loo and his fill-in was a clerk who didn’t know what was what.
In the end we took a taxi to Merdeka (Independence) Square, where The Empire was well and truly alive. The Royal Selangor Club resembled a long mock-tudor sporting pavilion, looking onto a very English cricket pitch that was currently cordoned off in the process of preparations for the forthcoming celebrations. It was easy to imaging sipping on the gin slings that must have flowed here in the past. Voices seemed to float in the air “Harry, daaaaarling, how the devil are you?” “Jolly good, jolly good, my dear. Now, tell me. Where’s that husband of yours. Thrashed him at tennis today. Did he tell you? Your old boy usually thrashes me! Quite a shock, I’m telling you.” What ho and another round of slings, please.
Looking around, we noted a ginormous flagpole with (yet another) Malaysian flag flapping in the breeze at one end of the Square. A stage was in the process of being assembled, no doubt for speeches and performances on Independence Day, but a few concerned glances told us that we were probably in the way of the workers, so we moved on. Stopping only to snap away at the buildings all around us, so reminiscent of colonial times with their columns and domes and shuttered windows, we headed for the nearby Sentral (Central) Market.
In spite of all the guidebook reviews saying what a key destination this covered market is, it was really just a thinly disguised tourist trap, filled with stalls of cheap ethnic souvenirs -from batik wear to beads and prawn crackers to feng shui tools. It did, however, sell food, so we stopped there for a quick breakfast. Then, back outside beneath a sky that threatened a good old tropical downpour, we stumbled across Petaling Street, the main drag of Kuala Lumpur’s China Town.
In International-China-Town-Style, there stood huge red gates topped with pagoda-style roof at either end of Petaling Street. In between we found all the current knock-off brands (Louis Vuitton, Coach, Gucci) in all their guises (sunglasses, bags, belts, clothes, watches) next to UK rugby and football shirts. Colour spilled off the stalls of fruit and vegetables -pink dragon fruit, lychees, glowing orange persimmons, and the stinky Durian Fruit, so prized in this region yet despised for its smell. Florists injected even more colour into the street and its off-shoots, and chestnuts were roasted next to stalls selling pirated DVDs. All around, locals waved and shouted and encouraged tourists to buy, buy, buy. “I give you best price!” they implored.
On a street running parallel to Petaling, we saw a pet shop. Inside were cages of rabbits, dormice, hamsters, rats and small birds. The terrapins were only RM8 each. I wondered if these animals really were destined to be pets, or if some of them would end up in a casserole. I hoped with all my heart it was the former.
Across the road stood a reflexology shop with giant plans of pressure points in the feet hung suggestively in its window. All the way along the street there were open-fronted eateries, filled with Chinese Malaysians sat at wipe-clean white plastic tables as roast chickens and ducks hung on meat hooks in the windows, enticing hungry passers-by. One large souvenir shop boasted an entire wall of Buddhas of all styles and descriptions, including North Asian style with knotted hair and Happy Style with smile and big belly. There in their midst was a bust of Chairman Mao as statuettes of long-bearded wise men stood watch over tables of Chinese comics. At last, we were beginning to feel Asia everywhere around us.
As the humidity cranked up, we walked to nearby Jalan Tun H.S. Lee to look at the temples. There are three along this street: two Buddhist and one Hindu. The Hindu temple was a riot of figures depicting various scenes from Hindu lore, including the Ramayana, an epic Indian poem about a hero, Rama, who lives his exemplary life according to Dharma. On the street outside the temple stood tiny stalls laden with fresh garlands and fruit to offer to the gods dwelling inside. One worshipper after another purchased their offerings and removed their shoes at the entrance as they went to prayer.
Opposite, we poked our heads through the gate at one of the Buddhist temples, but the beggars there were scarily insistent that we give them money, so we decided against going in, lest they pummel us with their crutches and we never come out.
As the clouds once more grew black, we walked past a cluster of fragrant hawker stalls to the colonial railway station. Now that many of its functions have been taken over by the newer Sentral Station, it stands quite obviously quiet and under-utilised. But no one can take away the beauty of this place. With domed turrets and spiralling stairwells, this is a marvel of colonial architecture and, once more, in tardis-like fashion, it’s easy to imagine porters and travelling trunks, steam trains and vintage fashion passing through these platforms. Snapping out of the past and back to reality, however, we were now a bit lost.
We wanted to buy bus tickets to Singapore and had been told that this was the place to buy them. However, the information was a bit out of date because we couldn’t find any indication of the recommended bus company and a lot of the station’s previously occupied offices were now empty with piles of uncollected mail on their floors. At the Railway Station Hotel, we thought we might find some help. Sadly not. A grumpy woman, obviously put out that we didn’t want to stay in her establishment and merely needed (free) directions, grumbled at us. “there are no bus companies here anymore.” We persisted. “Do you know where they’ve gone?” “No.” Turning away from us to a young pair of backpackers who were potential fee-paying business, she transformed from evil ogre to charming landlady, quoting rates and room configurations. Bemused by this change in behaviour, we hesitated in the lobby, looking into the long bar. There was dust everywhere. What could have been a nostalgic place to eat or drink looked like an Asian version of Miss Haversham’s dining room. Faded postcards, dusty souvenirs, sticky-looking plastic flowers, an empty bar and sad-looking staff. I glanced at the rate card. At RM76 per night for a “superior single room” we would not be staying here. Ever.
We found a cab and asked where we could find buses to Singapore. “Pudu Raya station,” came the reply. So off we zoomed in the KL traffic to Pudu Raya. What an experience this was! Monsieur and I are honest travellers, quite unused to dealing with people who think nothing of telling a few white lies to up their business. We knew the bus company we wanted to travel with, but were shanghaied by a tout claiming he worked for them as he knowingly sold us tickets for another company. At first I was furious and argued with the girl behind the ticket counter, fag hanging dangerously out of a corner of her mouth. A stony face told me I’d get nowhere with her. As we’d already paid the tout RM35 each for the privilege of not travelling with the company we wanted, we finally realised we’d lost this particular battle, took our tickets and walked through the station, working out where we’d need to be in a couple of days’ time. Later, I realised that in a way, this sort of business-getting is quite admirable. It just surprises me because I wasn’t built that way.
Time to eat. Next stop on the list was the Bukit Bintang shopping area. Once again, we’d missed a meal; this time, we reached the hawker stalls too late for lunch. Everything was closing up until evening. Eventually, we found a little Thai restaurant that was still willing to serve us. Watching the adjacent market open up after its lunch-break, we sat in the shade drinking icy lager under huge fans blowing cool water into the humid air. As we refuelled on spicy seafood laksa, our waiter kindly took time to explain the quickest way to walk to the Menara Tower. But first, we had to check out the electronics stores in the nearby shopping centres.
Inside these large complexes, we found ourselves in windowless mazes of identikit commercial space, only discernable one from the next by product, much of which was the same as next door. Some shops sold laptops, others MP3 players. There were DVD shops, computer game shops, tamagotchi and hand-held game shops, game memorabilia shops, audio-visual equipment shops, software shops and mobile phone shops. After a while, they all seemed to blend into each other and the windowlessness of the IT shopping centre gave everything a sci-fi film feel. Who could tell where in the world we were? Most of what we saw could have placed us anywhere.
We had a quick look in a commercial shopping centre that sold clothes, as opposed to computer games, but we weren’t really in the mood for shopping. Besides, we had strict baggage allowances to adhere to. So, in typical Monsieur and Epic style, bickering a bit about which way the waiter said we should go, (“it’s this way” “no, it’s that way. Are you deaf?”) we set off in search of the Menara Tower.
In fact, this wasn’t difficult at all. The tower is built on a hill and is therefore the tallest point in Kuala Lumpur. You can’t miss it. The tough part was encouraging our tired legs to persevere with the steep hillside climb to the base of the tower. Once there, we were greeted by a pair of rickshaws, decorated with plastic flowers and garlands of the brightest of colours created for us by Mother Nature (and plastics factories). The queues were minimal so we had no trouble buying tickets and were soon zooming up the tower shaft in a lift to the viewing deck 276 metres above ground level. It was so fast that my ears popped several times en route.
Even though the views over KL were incredible from this height, apparently, the tower rose to a whopping 421metres, so we were only part way to its zenith. Opened to the public in 1996, its function is to serve as a telecoms tower and, as such, it is the fourth tallest in the world, apparently, after the CN Tower in Toronto, Ostankino Tower in Moscow and Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. Size really does matter to some people. Especially those in the business of building telecommunications towers.
Standard issue listening devices on the observation deck helped us to understand what we were looking at and we were soon able to place most of KL’s famed landmarks. We spotted the Merdeka Square where we’d been just that morning, saw the nets of the Butterfly Park in the Lake Gardens, the Petronas Towers and our hotel in the distance, and the glinting domes of the mosques of Masjid Negara (National Mosque) and Masjid Jamek (the old mosque).
Back on the ground, the skies opened and the downpour that had been threatening us all day commenced. We were lucky to get a cab, which then got stuck in terrible traffic on the way back to the hotel. We were only a short walk away but two seconds in this sort of weather would have seen us soaked to the bone, so sit in the cab, rain pelting against the windows and traffic lights bleeding through the wet, we did.
For dinner, we decided to try the Pacifica Grill and Bar on the ground floor of the hotel as we were rather impressed by the its prize from the Malaysia Tourism Awards 2004 for Best Western Restaurant. Sure enough, the food was impeccable. Monsieur started with a salmon tartare, constructed like yet another tower, and I had soft shell crab with fennel and a drizzle of lobster sauce. Now that I’ve discovered soft shell crab, I’ll be eating it as often as possible! Something called a virtue sherbert arrived to cleanse our palates and no sooner had we licked the last morsel off the spoon, the glass was whisked away and the main appeared before us. Had we taken a sip of our wine? Yes? Top up at the ready. The service was really quite something.
Monsieur tucked into a nice slab of beef with a potato mousse next, while I tried the cod in black miso sauce with sweet potato fries so delicate that they fell through the fork. Faultless so far. Following fresh mojito aperitifs, we had chosen wine: a red bordeaux for Monsieur and its white equivalent for me with lashings of sparkling water to keep us hydrated. After a long day on our feet, we needed it.
Dessert was delicious. Monsieur’s choice comprised creme brulee with lemon thyme and white chocolate. Mine was a choccy-lover’s dream, consisting of tastes of chocolate mousse souffle in a tea cup, accompanied by chocolate ice cream, chocolate discs and a sprinkling of (unnecessary) gold leaf.
The only thing to fault the evening’s meal was the service. It was so efficient that we had an unnerving feeling that every one of our moves was being closely scrutinised. I was almost scared to sneeze. The wait-staff pounced every time we put our cutlery down at the end of a course and we barely had time to breathe before the next culinary instalment arrived. So it was with the bill. It arrived for signature almost as soon as we’d asked for it, along with a wine glass of more chocolates, this time artfully tipped on its side to spill the contents. As we walked out of the restaurant, I counted the wait-staff and did the same for the patrons. The restaurant wasn’t full tonight, so the ratio of staff to patron worked out at 2.5 each. Incredible. The poor staff were probably bored, hence the extra-committed service. Nonetheless, it was yet another memorable meal and we’ll never forget how rapidly our every need was attended to, even if it was a bit unnerving at times.
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