Monday, February 6, 2012

Kuala Lumpur

With only one day available to me to play tourist in Kuala Lumpur or Malaysia and trying to get the best bang for my time-buck I originally thought of taking a 5-hour bus tour from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore at the bottom of the Malay Peninsula and then fly back from Changi airport to the US. But that idea died when colleagues told me these buses are crowed, hot and you don’t actually see that much of the countryside going down south. Also, accidents and traffic jams could lengthen the trip and maybe even result in me missing my connection flight in Singapore. So I stayed in Kuala Lumpur. There I contemplated taking one of those “look-Ma-no-roof” buses you find in most major cities around the world. We have used them on occasion in New York and Rome and in London it saved us a ton of money in transport cost. In Kuala Lumpur, however, these buses are air-conditioned with roofs due to the constant heat and humidity, but comments from fellow travellers on travel related websites strongly suggested that it was a waste of money because the windows are fogged up from the air-con and the difficulty seeing things from an enclosed bus. So I gave it a skip. I was on my own with only my feet doing the walking and KL’s taxi corps doing the driving.

The King of Malaysia's Palace

Although Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy, the monarchy is not directly hereditary, but elective. In most monarchies the king or queen comes from a single royal family (Britain, Spain, Sweden, etc.) and in some monarchies the king or future king is elected from within the ruling family (the Saud family of Saudi Arabia elects the Crown Prince and it is not necessarily the eldest son), or by a Council of tribal rulers/local kings/cardinals, etc. (i.e. Cambodia or The Vatican – The Pope is nearly like a king). In Swaziland the royal family elects which one of the king’s wives will be the “indovukazi” (She-Elephant or Queen Mother) and then her son will become the next king. In all these cases the ruler is usually on the throne for life or until an abdication. But Malaysia is unique in the world in that the king or the Yang di-Pertuan Agong as he is called in Malay, is elected for only a five year period by a Council of Rulers, made up from nine hereditary sultans (broadly speaking since one of thise "sultan's" is also elected) who are the rulers in nine of the Malay states.

Malaysia consists of 13 states, 11 on the Malay Peninsula and 2 states on the island of Borneo across the South China Sea. (Borneo in itself is unique in that it is the only island in the world that is governed by 3 different countries (Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.))  9 states are ruled by a sultan or hereditary leader (thus, these are the members of the Council of Rulers) and 4 by appointed governors (appointed by the King.)  These states are loosely based on historical Malay kingdoms or sultanates.

Massive Byanan trees are seen everywhere along the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Even in the city center you sometimes have to walk around these trees. Quite a statement from the city fathers to keep nature within the skyscraper city.

Given its location in Southeast Asia, on trade routes halfway between India and China, and the Strait of Malacca on the Malay peninsula’s west coast being one of the most important waterways in the world it is not surprising that the Malay peninsula and the greater Malay Archipelago saw its fair share of wars, kings, sultans, foreign invaders and European colonization via the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English through the eons of time. Add to that the thousands of islands in the Archipelago and the nature of Southeast Asia’s geography which favors the development of isolated pockets of different civilizations and traditions, and the fact that the peninsula’s west coast was part of the ancient migration path of humans between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago as they settled Asia and Australia from Africa, and that some of those early ancestors are still “around” and represented in Malaysia’s Nigritos (among other the Semang peoples and Sarawak’s indigenous people)  and you have a modern day Malaysia that is truly a melting pot of cultures, traditions, languages and architecture from the Malays, the Chinese, the Tamil Indians, the “Orang Asal” (non-Malay indigenous people), the Siams, the Khmers, the Burmese and of course, Europeans.

So it was against this background of diverse history and influences that I anticipated a day of magnificent cultural discovery at Malaysia’s National Museum. I rose early, refreshed, energized after the previous day’s tiredness, had a sumptuous breakfast in the hotel’s Maya Brasserie restaurant, booked out of my room, stashed my luggage in a store room in the hotel, and hailed my first taxi for the day.

First stop though was at Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown district. Got to do some shopping too! Look for bargains! I guess if you are a big shopper then this is definitely the place to go and look. Their prices on the same merchandise sold at Suria Shopping Mall at the Petronas Towers are far lower and if you haggle hard they are always willing to come down even more in price. Actually they expect you to haggle. But Chinatown was not my main interest of the day and the area was still relative quiet first thing in the morning.

The Chan She Shu Yuen Chinese Temple in Kuala Lumpur

Hundreds of small sculptures decorate the roof and walls of the temple

I exited the shopping area, consulted my map and it was my plan to walk to The Heritage Railway Station to see the architecture and from there to the Museum. They are all sort of in line from Petaling Street and within my walking range, but I never made it. I only got as far as Kasturi Walk and the Central Market.  I realized that the tropical heat and my Northern European/South African genes weren’t compatible. The humidity was killing me. So, lots of liquid, slow casual strolling, ducking in and out of air-conditioned places and taxi hopping was at the order for the rest of the day. The Central Market reminded me lot of the Indian Market that used to be or still is (I don’t know) in lower Cape Town. “Little India.” From there I jumped into a taxi and headed for the museum.

Royal Headgear. A variety of head royal “crowns” in the National Museum. Headgear is very important in Malay culture. It signifies stature in the society. Malayan rulers do not have a crown like many other rulers. The Tengkolok is a replacement of a crown. Bottom left is the current King’s tengkolok and the others belong to Sultans of some of the Malayan States.

Either I expected too much from the museum or the museum simply delivered too little. In the end it was a disappointment from a content aspect, but it was a great way to stay out of the heat. It houses the normal exhibits one finds in natural museums from rock strata to geographical information of the Malay Peninsula and its early peoples from the Stone Age to the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms to the Muslim Sultanate of Malacca. A large portion of the 2nd ground floor gallery is devoted to the Malacca Sultanate and one can derive from that that this powerful Sultanate played a big role in the forming of modern day Malaysia’s identity and the spread of Islam. The sultanate was established around 1400 AD and at the height of its power it controlled most of the southern Malay Peninsula and most of Sumatra, across the strait. In 1511 European colonization started by the invasion of Malacca by the Portuguese, followed in 1641 by the Dutch and in 1824 by the British.

It was from Malacca and Java that Malayan and Javanese craftsmen and slaves were brought to the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch. With them they brought bobotie and sosaties, (“satay” is still a traditional food in Malaysia – meat or fish marinated in a curry sauce) and what is more tastier than rich, creamy Cape fish curry made with coconut milk, which is one of the important ingredients in Malayan cuisine.

The 3rd and last gallery of the museum is devoted to the colonial period and the forming of modern Malaysia in the 20th Century. As I mentioned in a previous post about guilt and “affirmative action” on the “previously elite” in South Africa, Malaysia has similar affirmative action laws to favor the Malayan people over the large Chinese and Indian populations of the country. And the lack of historical references to and exhibits of these portions of the population is a major drawback to the museum’s credibility as a showpiece of Malaysia’s history. After all, the Chinese make up about 40% of Kuala Lumpur’s demographics and more than 20% of Malaysia’s population.

   The Royal Throne of Perak

On the Internet travellers warn not to use KL’s notorious meterless taxi’s. They charge an arm and a leg in fees. When I left the museum for my next destination no taxi was readily available and I saw a booth near the museum advertising for taxi services. It was one of those meterless taxi’s, but I negotiated a fixed price of 15 Ringgits, which I though was very fair, and which was less for a longer ride than what I paid in the morning from the hotel to Chinatown. And that was a metered taxi. And it was also far less than what I paid later in the day on another metered taxi for a very short hop from KL Tower to the hotel. Go figure! However, I think I was just lucky to find a drastic driver at a quiet time.                

 Wooden Swing bridge entrance to the cultural center at the Kuala Lumpur Tower

My last tourist stop for the day was the Kuala Lumpur Tower with one of the highest observation decks in the world. On previous travels there was always some or other reason why I never went up on high structures. In Washington DC the line was too long at the George Washington Memorial. In Venice with so much to see we had too little time to ascend St. Mark’s Basilica’s Campanile. In KL I had more than enough time on my hands to take the elevator up the 335 meters in 58 seconds. That’s more than 20 km per hour. Pretty fast for an elevator! My ears even popped going up.

The view from there was spectacular. It was a semi-cloudy day and with KL’s ever present haziness and having to take photographs through a thick glass it prevented crystal clear quality photos, but I could get a beautiful view of the Klang valley, the Titiwangsa Mountains on the eastern horizon, the hill where the Batu Caves is, and the skyscrapers of KL. On the same grounds, the tower is located inside a park, across a wooden swing bridge are replicas of several traditional houses from various Malayan states and regions. It was quite a worthwhile excursion and another example of the diverse architectures and cultures from across the Malay Peninsula.

Traditional houses from various Malayan regions

By 5:00 PM my visit to Malaysia came to an end. It was time for me to go to the hotel, change clothes and go to the airport for a flight to Tokyo and from there to Chicago before the last leg home to Lexington. Notwithstanding the tropical heat and monsoon rain, I thoroughly enjoyed my stays in Shah Alam and Kuala Lumpur. The food is semi-exotic and spicy, the people super friendly and helpful, and the infrastructure and hotels are world-class (hotels are far cheaper and more spacious than in Japan where I was prior to Malaysia.) Although I only visited cities I heard and read only good things about Malaysia’s countryside and other cities like Malacca and traveling is easy and everything is in English. I would have loved to see more of the countryside but I wonder if I could have survived the tropical heat without air-conditioning.
Kuala Lumpur's towers at night.


BoerinBallingskap said...

Ek dink jy kan bly wees jy het nie daardie busroete gedoen nie! Baie interessante inskrywing. Dis nou regtig vir my 'n aptytwekker om self KL te besoek!

BluegrassBaobab said...

Dis 'n pragtige land en ek dink die moeite werd om te besoek. Ek hoor die Jungle railway is glo 'n belewenis (voor mense al die oerwoude vervang me palmolie bome.)