The first time I heard of Kuala Lumpur was when Muhammed Ali fought Joe Frazier there in the 70’s. I had no idea where it was, or anything about the city, the country and its people. After visiting several years ago, I am a little more familiar, thanks to our friends Sohbee and Angela. I can only hope I describe some of the city accurately on their behalf, as it is a wonderful place to visit, with friendly people, and lots to do.
Sheri was going to the local community college here when she met Sohbee (aka Pansy), an energetic young lady, married to an enjoyable and fun loving British chap, Tom Sturt. They have a daughter, Isabelle, and they lived here for several years, before moving to Dalian, China a few years ago. They met in KL when Sohbee was a young lady, and Tom was there as an architect. They kept telling us that we should make the time to visit KL on our many trips to SE Asia. They also suggested that we stay at the fabulous Datai Hotel on Langkawi.
So, we went, first to the Datai, and then to KL. Our first night there, we called Angela, Sohbee’s dear friend who still lives in KL. She arranged a tour of the city the next day for us. Then she and a friend met us for dinner in Chinatown that evening. They also took us to eat our first durian, the stinky fruit, at a roadside stand on the streets of KL’s Chinatown. But the best part is that Angela has become a dear friend. She met us a few years ago in Sydney, and showed us around as well. We hope she will visit us someday soon.
Anyway, KL is a very interesting city for many reasons. KL is a city of almost 2 million population. Its residents are known a KLites. It is home to the tallest twin buildings in the world, the Petronas Twin Towers. Its origins are traced back to the 1950’s when the Malay Chief, Raja Abdullah, hired Chinese laborers for the tin mines. It became a trading post, although it went through many problems, like disease, fire, and floods. During WW2, KL was captured by the Japanese. They surrendered to the British after the atomic bombs. In 1969, the worst race riot in KL took place between the Malays and the Chinese. But the result of 196 deaths was resolved into major reform of KL’s economic policy. Another movement in 1998 called the Reformasi in KL, resulting in the sack of the Deputy Prime Minister. As recently as 2007, two of the largest political rallies in history took place.
My perception of things now is a little different. It appears to me that the three major cultures, the Malays, the Muslims, and the Chinese seem to get along well at the individual level. Everywhere we went, people seemed very friendly and helpful, almost to a fault. But after reading and talking to locals, the undercurrents of racism still run strong, perhaps stronger than in our country. I do not know where it is headed, or how it will be resolved, if that is even possible.
Moving on to our trip, we landed at the KL airport and took a car and driver to the fabulous Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It is located in the heart of downtown, and next door to KLCC and the Petronas Twin Towers. Despite the fancy buildings and architecture, KL retains great local colour and traditional culture, with a bustling and vibrant Chinatown, and a noisy, curry filled Little India. People here love to eat, any time of day, whenever the food is good and inexpensive. Our friend suggested lunch at the KLCC shopping center food court. Every type of Malaysian food was represented, and it was difficult to choose just one or two stalls.
We took our usual mini van tour of the city on the first morning. People here are very proud of their city and its many sights. We saw many of the city highlights: the Butterfly Reserve, KL Bird Park, the National Monument, Petaling Street (Chinatown), Petronas Towers, KL Tower, the Courthouse, the Royal Palace, the old Train Station, and the Chinese Temple. We finally got tired of seeing the pewter and street markets, so we called it a day. But our driver have us some hope for shopping in Chinatown. He pointed to his “Rolex” on his wrist. He said he got it for $20 US, but that we would probably have to pay more unless we have a local with us. We eventually bought some in Penang with our friends Jason and Chun. He is an expert on “Rolexes”.
After a rest, we arranged to finally meet Angela in person. She suggested the Furama Hotel in Chinatown at 6pm. We got there a little early, and got to walk around the busy Chinatown streets and open market. After almost getting caught in a heavy rainstorm, we waited at another hotel bar since the Furama was closed. When it was time to meet Angela, we headed out to the street. She spotted us from across the street, never having seen us before!! But the streets were flooded, and there was no way to get across without wading in a foot or two of rain water. The resourceful Angela found a way to cross the street and meet and greet us.
It turns out that she and her friend arranged for us to have dinner right where we were standing. It was a very “local” type place. We were the only foreigners in the place, and Sheri the only Caucasian. Angela and her friend took care of ordering. But first, her friend put all of our bowls, plates and chopsticks in a large bowl, and poured hot tea over them. Wow, we never have seen that before. I wondered what would be next.
As the food arrived, Angela explained that one of the dishes is called “worms”, and is a favorite of her niece. She said her niece could eat the entire serving. We wanted to know a little more about this dish, as in, could it really be worms? She assured us that it only looks like worms. We have encountered strange names for Chinese dishes. Another curious one is called “Ants on a Tree”. So far so good, right? Wrong! Sheri discovered that this wonderful dish called “worms” was made out of liver. Now, we both hate liver, but it did not bother me. As soon as she tasted it, she stopped eating!!! It was actually kind of funny. The rest of the meal was quite delicious, and it was fun to try some new things.
After dinner, Angela asked us what we wanted to do. Sheri and I said we wanted to try durian, known variously as the king of fruit, or the stinky fruit. Durian is from a large family of plants, such as cotton, okra and hibiscus. It can grow as large as 12 inches by 6 inches, and weigh from 2 to seven pounds. It is shaped like a football, and has a brownish-green spikey exterior. The odor has caused hotels and public transportation to ban it from its premises. But it is relatively expensive compared to other fruit. It averages from $8 to $15 dollars US.
A British naturalist describes the taste thusly. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. Well, I cannot stand the stuff, both then when I had to spit it out, and now, after trying it several more times. They say it is an acquired taste, much like beer when we were in College. At least, beer left me intoxicated. I would describe the taste as a cross between rotten onions, stinky sweat socks, and over ripe bananas.
So, Angela and her friend enjoyed the durian themselves. They said it was a really good one. She bought some other fruit for us to cleanse our palate. We enjoyed the rambutan, since it tastes like its cousin, the lychee. We will never forget that night, nor Sheri the look on my face. Angela said the people sitting at our outdoor stand were from Hong Kong, and were really enjoying it. In fact, she said they call the people from Hong Kong by the nickname, “honkies”. Sheri is now a big durian fan. She has purchased it here at County Square Market in Pleasant Hill. She talked Jason and Chun in Penang into taking us to a street vendor. She even bought some in Laos earlier this year.
The next morning, Sheri had to recover from the previous day’s festivities. So I took off on foot to the tall KL Tower for a view of the city. I walked about 8 blocks to the base of the tower, then walked up another 500 yards, uphill to the entrance. The 360 degree view was spectacular. The Malaysians like to copy architecture from around the world. In one place, I could see full size copies of the Sydney Opera House, Notre Dame, and the World Trade Center’s twin towers. I also got a great view of our hotel, KLCC, and the famous Petronas Twin Towers. Did you know that each tower was guilt by different companies? Tower 1 was built by the Japanese, and Tower 2 by the Koreans. From 1998 to 2004, it was the tallest building in the world, now passed by Taipei 101. The Skybridge that connects the towers serve as both a stabilizer, and a fire escape. Interestingly, after the 9-11 attack in the U.S., it was determined that the staircases in the Petronas Twin Towers cannot handle the people working in the two towers.
By this time, it was pretty evident that Sheri was getting sick. I went over to the Pharmacy at KLCC to find some guaifenesin for her congestion. The female pharmacist was quite interesting. She had a designer dress, full face of makeup, a fancy hairdo, spiked heels, and a white lab coat. It is a far different picture than any of my employees. She looked more like a super model. She had never heard of what I was looking for, so I bought something else. But what an experience.
There is much more to see of KL, and the surrounding area. We would love to go back (several times) and have Angela show us all of her favorite places. The driver who took us to the airport, drove us by the new city of Putrajaya. Since 1999, they moved the legislative, executive and judicial offices here in an effort to relieve some of the congestion of people and traffic in KL. It is a planned city, still undergoing rapid growth and building. It has tree lined wide boulevards, lots of parking, lakes, traffic signals, open areas of green, and lots of affordable housing. The idea of replacing KL started back in the 80’s. Similar plans have been discussed for Bangkok, Thailand as well.