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Archive for 18 January, 2009

days 32 to 35 – kuala lumpur – towers and caves

I am massively behind, I know, as I am typing this in Laos after having been through both Malaysia and Thailand. But here goes with an attempt to catch up.

Sentral Kuala Lumpur (the train station) is lot more swish than Singapore’s although is probably the only thing that is. It was a little bit disconcerting though to turn up and not be met with any form of border control or customs. I just walked on through to get on the MRT. Apart from my leaving card from Singapore, I spent my whole time in Malaysia without any proof that I had arrived. The MRT itself is a bit confusing too. Each line is operated by a different company, so each time I wanted to change, I would have to get off, go through the barriers, cross over to another station and then buy another ticket.

Buses are convenient as long as you can find the stop, which is a lot easier said than done. Once on them though, the drivers are usually very helpful in shouting at you when you need to get off. This is particularly useful as the buttons for the stop bell are on the ceiling. In a nation of short people, I don’t think they thought that one through. I, by the way, feel surprisingly normally sized.

There are people on scooters everywhere. I am still convinced that after nuts an accident with a scooter is what is most likely to kill me before I get home. The riders wear their jackets backwards with helmets that don’t look like they’d give any more protection than eggshells and when stopped by traffic lights, will mount the pavement and go round that way, if they get impatient enough. I was so amazed to see one man on a scooter who apparently had a whole confectionery shop attached to him and his scooter, making him the width of a large car, that I wasn’t looking where I was going, fell over on the uneven and very high pavement and picked up a set of bruises that lasted me well into Thailand. Once on a bus, I was caught in a traffic jam, I looked out of the window to see the cause. A large group of riders with their scooters were standing around at the edge of the road by two police cars and an ambulance and on the floor in front of them, being given a healthy amount of room, was a large tarpaulin spread over a large lump and two flip flops lying on top. I’ve since met a lot of people who’ve had some very nasty accidents on scooters and motorbikes around here.

I stayed in the Hostel Cosmopolitan, which was on the fourth floor of a nondescript building in Chow Kit* between a 7-11 and an internet gaming place and only signposted by a piece of A4 paper next to the lift. I liked it there a lot though – they kindly waived the check-in fee for me turning up exceedingly early and when I accidentally locked my padlock key inside my locker, broke it open for me and wouldn’t let me pay for the damage. Although the girl who did it did laugh every time she saw me for the next three days. Also in the hostel were two cats called Naughty and Winnie. They would be your best friend if you opened up the fish cracker tub and if they ever lost each other, you’d hear plaintive cries across the floor until they found each other again.

It was very relaxed there and sociable (as long as we avoided talking about the Israel-Gaza situation, at which point things got a little more complicated), the one downside was that there were no windows in the dorms so you never knew when morning had come. As a result, everyone seemed very lethargic and there was one American woman staying in my room, Maryann, who had been there for a month. She had In Days, when she stayed in watched television and used the internet, and Out Days, when she went out to the mall and ate McDonalds. I’m not entirely sure that was worth travelling half way around the world for.

The hostel had provided free toast for breakfast, accompanied by a sign saying there was a maximum of six slices per guest. No one ever wanted six slices of toast in the morning but being told that that was our limit, it felt like we were being challenged to eat that many. I never managed more than four, neither did another English girl I met called Helen. Rob, who was coming to the end of his South East Asia travels before going to teach English in Vanuatu**, just about managed his full allocation each morning.

The Petronas Towers are impressive, as you might expect. They are particularly beautiful when they are all lit up. I ended up finding this out by accident – Helen, Rob, an Irish guy called Ronan (I barely resisted Boyzone jokes. He, as Rob pointed out later, looks like Super Hans from The Peep Show) and I set out to on a very long walk in an attempt to find a food market that was meant to be huge and instead ended up at the Petronas Towers by night instead. Happily, they have a food court inside (as well as a five storey shopping centre, complete with art gallery) so we didn’t starve and instead ate nasi lemak and sat out by the fountains talking until they were turned off.

I didn’t go up the Towers because despite it being free, you have to queue up from about 8.30am and the aforementioned lethargy meant I was never up that early. Plus, the Sky Bridge is only about halfway up, so the view isn’t as good as it was from the KL Tower***. They do have a Man U supporting security guard who argued with me about when they were playing Liverpool (I turned out to be right). With my entry ticket for the KL Tower, I got a free KL Tower-shaped bottle of water and tickets to some of their other lesser attractions, which I doubt you would ever choose to pay for. One was the impressively tacky Winter Wonderland – a row of giant plastic snowmen and reindeer, with humongous Christmas baubles hanging from palm trees and fans blasting out fake snow.

The Lake Gardens are lovely, particularly in the heat and the bird park (which I think is meant to be the biggest undercover in the world) is pretty impressive. The restaurant is particularly nice, as it’s on a balcony over the park and birds often fly over and land on your table.

North of KL are the Batu Caves and Helen, Rob and I took a bus out there to go see them. It’s incredible how fast the area changes once you get past city limits and Titiwangsa (heh) – all the tall concrete buildings turn into buildings under construction, then they too drop away until you’re going past short, rundown huts for the rest of the run up to Gombak.

Little bit of background for you: the Batu Caves is made of limestone and is the site of a Hindu shrine and one of the most popular places for pilgrimage during Thaipasum (about a week after we visited). It has a giant gold painted statue of a Hindu deity (Muragan, so Wikipedia tells me) outside and you have to climb 272 steps up to the main cave – I am so unfit, it’s embarrassing. The cave itself is beautiful – sunlight cuts through the ceiling and monkeys run around – what they’ve done to it is not. The ground has been covered in concrete, steel hand railings have been erected and there are electric lamps, like streetlights. There are tacky souvenir stands outside, which I expected and inside, which I really did not. And there is litter everywhere. It was singularly depressing and I can’t imagine how reverent you could feel on a pilgrimage there.

There was a holy woman there giving blessings. I don’t think she could have ever have cut her hair, as it would have been longer then her height and she held it coiled up in her lap. Rob asked her if she would mind him taking a photo, she gestured to a pile of one ringgit notes, which he added to. When he went to take the photo, she refused but offered him a blessing instead, which he refused and didn’t take the photo. Given the number of tourists snapping away without even bothering to ask, it seemed a very awkward exchange. We ended up spending far more time sitting outside in the shade of a convenience store, eating Miaow Miaow Chicken Crackers (very moreish) and talking.

I left Kuala Lumpur from Pudaraya bus station to go to Ipoh, with the intention to meet up with Helen the next day to carry on up to the Cameron Highlands. As you walk into the bus station, there are at least a hundred stands for different bus journeys and companies and people shouting for your custom. The long distance buses are really comfortable, with reclining seats and freezingly air-conditioned. Time-keeping isn’t so great though – my bus left an hour and a half after it was scheduled to.

* Just south of Lake Titiwangsa – a place that every time I read or heard the name of, I giggled childishly to myself.
** A set of islands near Fiji without electricity – I didn’t have a clue where it was either.
***Apparently the fourth tallest communications tower in the world. At what position does it stop getting impressive? Fifth? Tenth?

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