07 April 2007

Back in KL

With new passport and residence permit in hand, I finally made it back to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, after an absence of almost four years. The flight itself is only about an hour and forty minutes, but there is the hour drive to the airport, where you have to be two hours before departure, and then another hour drive from the KL airport into town.

I was coming back to a place where I had lived for two years, so was surprised that I was in a state of semi-shock on the drive in from the airport. We were on a modern, divided highway, with exit ramps clearly marked by giant, green signs. I could have been on any highway in the US. It wasn’t so much that it was all so 21st century, but that it was such a radical change from Vietnam, a mere short flight away.

Once again I felt exactly as I had the first time I had arrived in Malaysia; awe at the beautiful, tropical landscape that stretched on forever, only diminishing once we got to the outskirts of KL.

I had booked a room at the YWCA which, after days and days on the internet searching every site available, seemed like a really good deal. Although centrally located in Chinatown, an area I knew well, and built in 1923, neither I nor any of my friends had ever heard of it. I was happy to see that it stood in an area that actually had more trees than buildings.

At the office, I was told the price of the room and almost fainted. It was close to the price of one of the hotels I could have booked on-line. After some clarification, it seemed all the normal rooms with bathrooms had been booked and that all that was available was an air-conditioned room. I don’t use A/C, so they knocked off a few Ringgit and said that since I was staying for a week, the rate would be further reduced. But it was still more than I had anticipated. I paid for one night and went up to my room where I realized why it was the price it was. It was a studio apartment, complete with a kitchen. (but no stove or refrigerator.) I didn’t do much more than dump my bags and head out to Bukit Bintang, the area where the more reasonable hotels are located, and a fifteen minute walk away.

I never had spent much time in the area, only going there to get my hair cut. It was always a fairly busy place but now, on Friday, late afternoon, it was jammed with locals and tourists and cars. I wandered in and out of hotels checking availability and prices. Most were disgusting, tiny rooms, with just enough room for a bed. One new place looked ok but, again, it was super tiny and still more than the Y. When I started seeing hotels that rented rooms by the hour, I knew it was time to give up. The Y would have to do.

It was starting to get darker when I remembered that there was one insurmountable problem with the Y room; it was all florescent lighting. Either I was to spend the night in the dark, or I needed to buy a lamp. My first stop was Low Yet Plaza, the place where I’d had my hair done when living in KL. The last time I was there, it was a fairly new, four-story, small mall, with not many businesses. I walked in to see that it now had shops on every level, in every available space. But it was mostly computer stuff and no lamps.

A block over was another mall which contained a Metrojaya department store. I found the household section, but they only had a small, clip-on lamp, which could only use a 40 watt bulb. When I asked about other places to buy a lamp, I was given the answer I did not want to hear: go next door to Sungei Wang shopping center.

I have always referred to Sungei Wang as “Dante’s Inferno”. It is a multi-storied, low-ceilinged mall that takes up a square block. There are hundreds of little shops aligned along hundreds of rows. Once in there, there is no easy way out. But I had no choice and figured this time I would be very aware of which way I turned and what floor I was on. I asked around at several places, was directed to others, but still couldn’t find a small desk lamp. It was time to go back to the one I had seen at Metrojaya. It was twenty minutes before I was able to locate the escape route.

Once I got my lamp, I stopped to get a bite to eat. By then it was dark, and although it was only about a 30 minute walk balk to the Y, I was whipped. Three hours of dealing with hotels and stores and thousands of people, in sweltering heat, had done me in. I went to the taxi stand.

Taxis had never been a problem in KL. On crowded nights you sometimes had to wait in a long line, but the drivers were always pleasant. It has changed. I told the driver where I wanted to go, and he quoted a price three times the normal fare. I walked off to another street, but the answer was the same. Flat rate, no negotiations, surly drivers. I got in and after a few minutes realized from whence the nastiness came. Traffic did not move. I was to find out over the next week that there no longer seems to be bad traffic times. Streets are giant parking lots from early morning to late at night. And this being a Friday night, it was at its all time worst.

Eventually, I did arrive at the Y, bedraggled, sticky, and not at all pleased about being in KL. Then I went up to my room and looked out the windows. I had the most amazing view of the Twin Towers and the KL Tower. I opened all the windows, threw on the ceiling fans, and plugged in my little lamp. I looked around my huge room, and listened to the quiet of the night. Why had I even bothered to look at all those other hotels? I should have known after the first two, that nothing would have been this nice. True, they don’t have maid service at the Y, and they don’t serve breakfast, and if I had been a little more persistent, I could have moved to a room with a refrigerator. (I still regret not insisting on the last item.) But it was spotless, safe, quiet, and as centrally located as one could wish. It wasn’t as cheap as I had thought, but still cheaper than the hotels. If I ever go to KL again, it is where I will stay.

The next morning I got up with first light, which is 7am. I never did like that about Malaysia. In Vietnam, there is light in the sky at 5:20am. It stays lighter much longer in Malaysia, but I prefer the morning sun. I also remembered that nothing gets going very early in KL. Stores do not open until 10, 10:30, or even 11:00. I don’t understand this. By that time, it is too hot to be out, especially in Chinatown where there is a lot of good shopping to be done, but not in the middle of the day with 3000 people cramming the tiny streets. I had hoped things had changed.

Wandering around Chinatown at 9am was rather useless, unless you wanted to eat. I did enjoy passing by some of the old buildings I remembered that were still standing. The whole area was in the midst of renovation when I left, and it is now completed. It looks nice, but when it is crowded, you can’t really notice the change. I walked past other buildings that were either not there when I left, or had been completely refurbished.

One of the reasons I came to KL was to get glasses made. I hoped that the store I had gone to four years ago was still in service. And I hoped I remembered where it was. I certainly didn’t remember the name. I took a taxi to yet another shopping center and found the store. But it was only 10am and they were closed.

By 10:30 they had opened and I walked in to see that the woman who had made my glasses all those years ago was still there. She not only remembered me, but still had my card on file! I pulled out the five pairs of frames I had bought in Vietnam, and she said she could have everything done in five days.

This bumping into shop owners I hadn’t seen in years continued throughout the week. I went to the place where I used to buy a bottle of water on my way home from work. I recognized the man at the cash register, but didn’t say anything. Then he said, “I haven’t seen you in a long time.” When I was at another place that sold DVD’s, it was the same thing. I was really touched that these people had remembered me, a simple customer who had never done more than exchange short conversations with them.

I spent time with friends visiting some of the places I use to enjoy and eating great food. While I was having dinner with a Chinese friend, I started to listen in on the conversation she was having with the owner. I was absolutely astounded to realize that I could hear all the separate words! Prior to studying Vietnamese, all Chinese languages sort of sounded like hetjrkeisjnfhrkslejjkeshugowk – one long string of incomprehensible sounds. I still don’t understand a word, but it “makes sense”. I also had fun checking which of the words I knew in Vietnamese were close to Chinese, since the languages are related. I don’t ever intend to study Chinese, but it no longer seems an impossibility to learn to speak.

I spent a lot of time walking around town amazed at all the building that has been done. I don’t think I have ever seen a city with more shopping malls. Mammoth to reasonably sized, outrageously priced to slightly tolerable. I was astonished at how expensive things have become. I had hoped to buy more batik fabric but the prices were triple what they had been. In fact all the reasonably priced craft items were too expensive for me. Food prices have also gone way up.

The whole city felt very westernized, especially coming from another South East Asian country that still feels like you are in South East Asia. I am not quite sure who has the money to live the lifestyle that KL seems to offer. Certainly not the average Malaysian.

The weather also surprised me. April in Vietnam is basically hot 24 hours a day. But in KL, it cooled down quite a bit at night. In fact, one day it rained all day and I was cold! It was also very humid, not that I mind it. One stays perpetually soaked, which doesn’t happen in Vietnam very often. The plus side is that you never get dry skin.

Despite traffic jams and high prices, I was really happy to visit KL. The people are lovely, the weather is nice, and when you get out of the city, the scenery is breathtaking. Maybe I won’t wait another four years before I return.