Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Kuala Lumpur

I had originally no prior notion about Kuala Lumpur.  The only thing I had filed in my brain’s databanks was an image of Will Ferrell in a curly wig licking a lollipop and chanting hypnotically, “kill the prime minister of Malaysia!”  While I was expecting to be surprised, there’s only so much you can do to preempt surprise and I was indeed surprised from my short stay over a 16 hour long connection.  Still coming down from my high in Nepal, my first shock was working electricity after sun down, then by how very clean everything was, and not just in comparison to India and Nepal.  Kuala Lumpur, or at least gauging by the parts I visited, is one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever seen.  It had wonderful things like street signs and rubbish bins (now I’m comparing to India and Nepal), and there were actually people up and socializing when I arrived in Chinatown looking for a room at one in the morning.

Thawing out in the Malaysian heat, the accumulation of sweat and dirt from a week in Nepal was awoken by the humidity, causing an unpleasant smell that I was happy to relieve with a long overdue shower.  The jungle heat had me reintroducing a technique I pioneered in Italy years before, where I wash a single outfit in the bathroom sink and then wear it to sleep.  It helps keep me cool while I’m sleeping, the clothes are dry when I wake up, and it saves me the time and expense of having someone else clean my laundry.

I had Malay food for the first time ever in the morning: a crazy good dish called Nasi Campur.  You are served a plate with a big ball of coconut rice, orbited by peanuts, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, an egg, and I forget what else.  It would have been a decent enough meal on its own, but then you go to a generous buffet table to smother your plate in whatever else you feel like – in my case, a perfectly spicy yellow curry with carrots and tempeh.

Malaysia is a predominantly Islamic country (in fact, there are more Asian Muslims than Middle Eastern Muslims), with a generous dose of religion and populace from both India and China.  I had just enough time to visit a place of worship from each region.  In an enormous and new mosque (it made me think of an Islamic answer to American mega-churches), Masjid Negara, I was terribly smitten by Islam’s love of geometry, with vaguely floral geometric designs of the highest intricacy carved into the surfaces of its towers, domes, and mathematical sculptures.

In a relatively new Hindu temple, the Sri Mahamariamman, I was hypnotized by its façade: a distinctly south Indian design, but made with cement, in immaculate condition to contrast the many ruins I’ve seen, and most surprisingly, abundant with color.  A typically complicated pantheon of Hindu deities brought to life with distinct colors for their hair, skin, saris, sashes, swords, and instruments populated the surface of the temple, and the color lended them so much more personality than I’ve seen in depictions before.  I curse my lack of time that I couldn’t study each character separately or sit and enjoy the music churning within.

And then I blitzed through my first Taoist temple, a strictly gold and red affair wafting with incense and new rituals I’ve never seen but hope to understand later.

I wish that was all I had to say about my time in Kuala Lumpur, but getting back to the airport to complete my connection to Myanmar proved to be a complete debacle, and I’m just grateful I got to airport on time.

The hour long shuttle from Chinatown to the airport leaves from KL Sentral (there’s a lot of funny spelling in Kuala Lumpur – my favorite is “teksi” for taxi), and on my walk back I could feel the sweat building more quickly than a whole week in Nepal could accomplish, so I periodically ducked my head into any air conditioned bus pointed in the same direction while parroting, “KL Sentral?”  Eventually a driver said yes with a beckoning wave of his arm, and after confirming “KL Sentral” three times with him, I thought I was on my way.

Forty minutes passed – much longer it would have taken to walk to Sentral – and the driver’s placating reassurance no longer kept me placated.  Asking around, another customer confirmed my suspicion that we weren’t head to Sentral at all, rather some city hilariously named Klang.  I had the driver halt the bus so I could cross the freeway and call a teksi from a Shell station.

A quite friendly driver scooped me up and took me to KL International, quadrupling the cost of my once cleverly cheap stay in the city.  My timing would have been quite good… if I was at the right airport.  It turned out my international flight was out of the domestic airport, a mistake I would have felt worse aobut making if it weren’t for the fact that the airport code on my ticket didn’t match either airport’s code.  I hopped on an inter-airport shuttle and held my breath until I was finally on my plane bound for Yangon.

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