After exploring Melaka, I jumped on the bus for Kuala Lumpur. Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, and in the local language the name means 'muddy confluence', an apt description of the two rather brown rivers that meet in the city centre. Despite the name, Kuala Lumpur is a very smart place; it's a far cry from the large conurbations of Indonesia.
KL, as the city is affectionately known, has a population of just over one million people; this isn't a huge figure when compared to other capital cities, but what KL lacks in size of population, it makes up for with the size of its skyscrapers. They're everywhere, they're huge, and they're multiplying; wherever you look, KL is sprouting building sites that promise to make the skyline even more interesting.
The most famous of all the skyscrapers is the tallest building in the world, the Petronas Twin Towers. At 451.9m above sea level, it is a monster of chrome and glass that's made up of two huge towers, joined by a bridge halfway up. It will, no doubt, be relegated to the second highest building in the world before long (I hear that someone is building a bigger one in Beijing), but until then it's more impressive precisely because you know that it's bigger than anything else. When buildings get above a certain height, they all look the same; they're monstrously big. I just pity the poor window cleaners; it's a job on a par with painting the Golden Gate bridge.
The other distinctive landmark is the Menara Kuala Lumpur (otherwise known as the KL Tower) whose design is not a million miles off Toronto's CN Tower, or Sydney's Centrepoint. At a height of 421m the Menara is no slouch either, and it has the advantage of having a 360 degree observation deck at the top, where you can look down on the minions below and the countless building projects that are hopefully going to transform KL into a modernist paradise by the Commonwealth Games next year, which Malaysia is hosting.
Arriving in KL on Thursday, Franco1 and I found a place, wandered around town for a while, and ended up eating in a steam café. A steam café is not unlike a fondue, except you dip your meat into boiling water rather than oil; it's a pleasant way to eat, there on the sidewalk, watching the world go by. And it's a great place to be when the rain kicks in.
I'd heard that KL was susceptible to extreme rain during the monsoon season, but however many harsh storms I sit through, it always amazes me just how much water can fall from the sky in one go. As we cowered under the table's umbrella – not the most effective shelter, it has to be said – intense black clouds rolled in, the sky ripped open with thunder and lightning, and the heavens opened. We were trapped; unable to leave the shelter of our parasol for fear of being swept away, we lowered it to gain maximum cover. It would have been OK if there hadn't been a big pot of boiling water in the middle of the table, which filled the umbrella with steam and condensation, raising the humidity to sub-marine levels and turning the storm into an experience I'm not likely to forget.
In the meantime the road had become a river, literally. Asian city streets have very deep kerbs and open drains along the road sides, and until now it had felt more like a pedestrian inconvenience than a sensible idea, but once you see a storm hit KL, it's suddenly obvious why the pavement is a good foot above the driving surface; the roads simply disappear as muddy water rushes down the lanes, washing everything into the city's rivers. But then the rain suddenly stops, the humidity level drops significantly, and within ten minutes all the water has gone; it's as if nothing ever happened. It has to be seen to be believed.
The next day, with Franco occupied with his new arrival, I wandered the streets of KL alone. The scorching sun shone on streets of choking traffic and gleaming buildings, and it wasn't long before I found myself falling for KL's charms. It doesn't have the insanity of Indonesia2, but it does have a depth of character that is increasingly hard to find in slick Singapore. The Chinatown area, where I was staying, is just like any other Chinatown in the world – noisy, bustling streets with millions of shops, restaurants, stalls, people and smells – but KL has character beyond Chinatown. The buildings are the main attraction; with everything from colonial architecture (like magnificent Merdeka Square) to local (the many mosques and temples) to ultra-modern (the skyscrapers), KL is a great place to walk around. I spent two days just exploring.
Some of the things I saw were just astounding. I particularly remember a set of display boards in the Central Market where the department of transport were showing pictures of road accidents, in an attempt to show people just how dangerous it can be to drive in the crazy way that Asians do.
Sure, there were pictures of mangled cars and bikes, blood-stained windscreens and jack-knifed lorries, but the display went much further than that, indeed much further than it would in the UK. There were gory close-ups of men with crushed skulls, their brains leaking out onto the road; there were photos of bodies so horribly mangled that it was hard to believe that they were human; and there were shots of arms and legs, long parted from their bodies and ripped up like so much meat.
It was horrific, effective and shocking, but all I could think of, when faced with the picture of a man with the top half of his head spread across the white lines like meat paste, was, 'That guy cleaned his teeth before setting out; what a futile thing to do.' It was an odd reaction, but we all deal with reality shock in a different way, I suppose.
Another slice of real life was a display in the main tourist office showing the winners of the World Press Photographer awards. Here were pictures of war zones, famines, sports, science, people and places... a whole variety of newspaper and magazine photographs. But the pictures of collaborators being executed by rebel soldiers (of which there were a number, from all sorts of different conflicts) didn't shock me half as much as the roadkill pictures; I suppose it's because it's hard to relate to war-zone death when you're a mollycoddled westerner, but seeing road casualties is a bit too close to home. Indeed, one of the organisers came over and talked to me about the exhibition (which was in its first day), asking me what I thought about the photos and which ones I liked best, so I gave him the old spiel about the best photographs being ones that make you look at otherwise familiar sights in a different way, rather than the ones that simply report an occurrence. When he found out I was a journalist, he was pretty shocked; I suppose you don't get too many journalists hanging out in Malaysia (immigration officers can have a thing about western journalists entering their country, especially when there's something to hide; the solution is to put 'computer programmer' on your entry form instead of 'journalist').
KL is home to some delightful colonial architecture, and taking in the sights of Merdeka Square and the Railway Station was an exercise in inventive and flagrant British building. With minarets, towers and Moorish roofing, the area surrounding the square – where the British rulers used to play cricket – seemed oddly appropriate, with the sign announcing the coming of the Commonwealth Games fluttering in the breeze. The nearby Lake Gardens, with its muddy lake and not terribly interesting garden landscape, was pleasant enough, but the highlight had to be the National Museum, where I managed to catch a special exhibit on Infidelity. Among the interesting stories of famous cuckolds and adulterers, and graphic descriptions of punishments meted out to the guilty parties in ancient times, was this wonderful description of the Eskimos' way of dealing with adultery. The thought of the challenge in the final sentence is particularly chilling:
In some societies, a wife's hospitality included her sexual services. She had no right to refuse such arrangements. On the Aleutian Islands, southwest of Alaska, etiquette required that men should place their wives at the disposal of guests. Among the Eskimo and other societies that practised wife exchange and wife hospitality, the wife had no right to volunteer herself to another man. Such a liaison was adultery and the Eskimo husband would assault the lover, or challenge him to a song contest.
A song contest? Aren't museums wonderful places...
It was a shame to leave KL, but I'm planning to return, albeit briefly, on the way back from my next destination, the tropical jungle of Taman Negara. By all accounts I'm going to be well and truly away from the rat race there, so I bought a week's worth of food, packed my bags, and jumped on the bus bound for the biggest National Park in Malaysia.
1 An entertaining Italian whom I met in Melaka, Franco was meeting his girlfriend off the plane the next day and was hoping to use the travelling experience to keep her off the heroin she'd been hooked on until recently. I hope it worked.
2 I've started to encounter a larger diversity of travellers, now that I'm on a real backpackers' thoroughfare, but most of the people I've met haven't been to Indonesia, either because they have yet to go there, or because they've skipped it on the way north; and absolutely nobody I've met has been outside of Sumatra, Java, Bali and Lombok. On the other hand, those who have been to Indonesia and who have also travelled through Southeast Asia are quite adamant that Indonesia is the hardest and most frustrating place to travel in the area, and in the rest of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, only India is more challenging. This reassures me quite a bit, especially after the frustrations I felt in the outer reaches of Indonesia; I hope reality bears this theory out.