Following the post on Singapore, this is about a trip to Kuala Lumpur that we took near the end of our stay. Malaysia is something of a stretch as a title, as we only stayed in the capital. However, we did travel by train all the way along the peninsular from Singapore, and saw something of the countryside on the way. It was possible to book an overnight sleeper for the seven hour journey, but we chose to travel during the day, to be able to watch the scenery. If only we had known…
We took a taxi from the hotel to the station and bought first-class tickets, to ensure a reserved seat. By European standards, the ticket prices were very reasonable, although the facilities on board would only be considered basic over here. We had already reserved our two nights in a luxury room at the Novotel Hotel, in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. This had come in at the incredibly low price of £40 per night, per room. Everyone else in the train carriage was Japanese. They were mostly very elderly men, and we later discovered that they were going to the north of the country, to visit places where they had served during the war. It felt strange to be in the company of men who might well have been those who had imprisoned my own uncle all those years before. Contrary to what I expected, they were far from polite or respectful. They were incredibly noisy, and were spitting and coughing constantly.
The train left on time, and we crossed the rail bridge over the strait into Malaysia. Immediately, the outlook changed completely. Alongside the tracks, shabby-looking houses could be seen, with ragged children milling around waving at us as we passed by. In a very short time, it was apparent that we were no longer in Singapore, and had entered a significantly poorer country. To get away from the annoying Japanese passengers, Julie and I wandered up to the space between the carriages, and watched the world go by from an open window. We soon discovered that there was going to be very little to see. The whole area had been given over to plantations of palm-oil trees. The endless rows of these stumpy trees stretched as far as the eye could see. In fact, we saw nothing else for the rest of that long journey, save for the devastating impact of this cultivation of palm trees that had eradicated any other crop, and left the countryside devoid of anything worth looking at.
As a result, we were pleased when the train finally arrived at Kuala Lumpur and we could find something else to look at, and get away from our fellow passengers. Departing the station for the taxi rank, the city felt hectic and overcrowded, and was even more humid than Singapore. Taxi drivers jostled for our business, grabbing at our bags. When we finally got into a taxi, the driver set off as if his life depended on getting us to our hotel at breakneck speed, despite the streets being clogged with late afternoon traffic. After the short journey, the fare was so small, I was sure that he had got it wrong. It wasn’t much more than a bus fare in London. I paid with a decent tip, and he seemed very happy indeed. The Novotel was much the same as it would have been in any city in the world. Somewhat featureless, and devoid of any local colour or charm. It was ideally located though, and when we were shown to our room, we were impressed indeed. It was more like a small suite, and had the biggest bed I have ever slept in, as well as good views across the city from the high floor. I couldn’t believe how lucky we had been to get such quality at a low price.
As evening was approaching and as we were very tired after an early start, we had a look around the hotel. It had a swimming pool, a small gym, and a large restaurant. We decided to eat there that night, which wasn’t the best idea. The food was ‘International’ and we could have eaten the like of it anywhere. The restaurant was also incredibly brightly-lit, and felt like a works canteen. At least the room was great, and we had a very good sleep before setting out to explore the city the next morning.
Because we only had a two-night stay, we had to cram in the sights of the city that day. It was hot and still bustling, with the need to take shelter from the occasional heavy rain showers too. Not unlike Singapore, commerce dominated the central area, and interesting markets crammed with tiny shopfronts inside sold everything imaginable. Next to these, lavish malls offered an air-conditioned break from the oppressive heat, and the busy thoroughfares. We were heading for the Petronas Towers, the unmissable landmark of that city. These imposing twin towers of glass and steel are connected by a walkway that serves as a public viewing gallery. And I wanted to get up there and see it. They are still the tallest twin towers, but at that time they were also the tallest buildings in the world. My single disappointment was discovering that the viewing platform was only on the 41st floor of the 88 story building. You have to buy a ticket for a ten-minute stay. The tickets are timed, and you have to come back at the allotted time to get the incredibly fast lift up to the ‘Skybridge’. We whiled away an hour by visiting a nearby museum, before returning to catch our lift.
It was certainly worth it. The views were spectacular, and even the short time allowed still meant that I was able to get lots of photos. I have read that since we visited, the queues can be a lot longer, and many travellers report excessive delays and frustrations. However, we arrived early and were happy enough to wait for one hour before ascending. After looking around the area, we went back into the shopping district to browse the ridiculously expensive designer shops, and cool off in the air-conditioning. In the lobby of one very stylish mall, we saw that they were advertising a ‘Spanish Evening’ that night. Flamenco dancers from Seville were performing, and there was unlimited tapas, as well as all wines included. It was very cheap by our standards, so we reserved a table.
After looking around the many stalls selling fake designer products, we returned to the hotel to get ready for our evening out. Strange as it may seem to be anticipating a Spanish meal in the capital of Malaysia, we were actually looking forward to enjoying a change from the oriental food. We also both love Flamenco music and dancing, and we were curious to see how this would all be staged, in the foyer of a shopping mall. The answer was that it was all done very well indeed. The area was low-lit, the food and wines first-class, and the music and dancing were of the highest order. The only unsettling thing about that night was that we were the only Europeans there, (other than the waiters and performers) and as we tapped and clapped happily to the excellent performances, the other predominantly Chinese diners sat stone-faced and still. Nonetheless it was a great night. The best tapas we had ever eaten, and the best Flamenco we had ever seen. And in Malaysia!
We wandered out into the warm night, going back to the stalls and street vendors selling the fake designer goods. We managed to pick up some very convincing-looking handbags as holiday gifts, as well as a fake Rolex watch for a couple of pounds. The only downside was that this was the end of our all-too short stay in the city, as we were returning to Singapore by train the next morning. We had seen little of the culture of the country, and nothing of life outside of that busy city.
Given the chance, I would happily return.