Contrasts and Diversity
Kuala Lumpur, 16th - 17th January
In my university years, I met a Malaysian who asked me if I knew where his country was located. The same way I ask people about Bulgaria. But, of course, I know - it is part of the lands of the former Ottoman empire. You see, in Bulgarian, we call the lands of (now) southern Turkey ‘Mala Asia’, which, you have to admit, sounds a lot like Malaysia. Well, he almost laughed in my face. Oh, the shame! And I consider myself an intelligent person, just to embarrass myself this bad. I imagined what those English people should feel like - the ones that ask me if we have washing machines or drive cars in Bulgaria. The only difference being, they don’t tend to have any claims on knowing anything about the world that we live in. I learned my lesson quickly.
Malaysia, as you have probably guessed, is the next country from the Malay Peninsula that will be our temporary home. Divided between the peninsula and the island of Borneo, the territory is three times ofBulgaria, while the population is nearly 33 million people. Yet another former British colony in this part of the world, today - a federal monarchy with thirteen states and three federal territories. And considering the geography of the land, you would have a very logical assumption that Singapore also used to be part of Malaysia before their separation in 1965.
Today, Malaysia’s biggest city is its capital Kuala Lumpur with a population slightly larger than Sofia’s. One of the quickest developing destinations of Asia, a city filled with symbols of continuity and progress. Last night, coming into the city, the welcome sign made a great impression on me. “Welcome to Kuala Lumpur: a City of Contrasts and Diversity”. A large part is based on the freedom of religions here - Islam is the official state religion, but the country allows everyone the freedom to choose. Consequently, Kuala Lumpur has truly become the embodiment of its moto. It is yet to show us how.
After yesterday’s fiasco, we completely allow ourselves to sleep in. We get up late, lazy but with a wonderful view from the nineteenth floor of Berjaya Times Square in the heart of the Malaysian capital. We are tired, but we have so much to discover in this new destination. And mostly, we are hungry for delicious, local food.
With the help of our app, we leave the eastern tower and head towards a Buddhist vegan/vegetarian restaurant. The path takes us away from the centre of the capital and towards the neighbourhoods in the back. Well, this should not be the place to meet a new culture for the first time. And yet, we end up in one of the most miserable areas of the capital - the first steps in the new country. Dirty, smelly, loud, dangerous and overall unpleasant.
We could perhaps ignore the lack of safety around building sites or lack of hygiene in food places (with the meats left out in the dusty heat, covered in flies.) But the smell that welcomes us knocks us out. If our tummies weren’t entirely empty, these local aromas would be enough to empty them directly onto the street.
How do people live this way? Do they really consider it to be normal? Does happiness exist around here? And if it does … what does it look like?
We pass many restaurants in this neighbourhood. Most are buffet style with dirty plastic tables out in the open in humid Kuala Lumpur. I am starting to doubt my ability to break and eat here. My adventurous spirit isn’t strong enough for this place. But we finally see the chosen restaurant behind the corner and a large dose of disgust vanishes. The restaurant is nicely finished, clean and has air-conditioning. I don’t get chills looking at it, quite the opposite.
However, inside we are welcomed by clear displeasure that the waitress will have to speak English. How are there tourists here that had the courage to enter this part of the city? Well, we don’t know either and we apologise, but our Malaysian is at zero currently. Fortunately, the menu has pictures, the choice is quick and the ordering is done by pointing. It is a workday today, so we order from the lunch menu - a bowl of soup, a glass of home-prepared soy milk and a huge main portion - £3. The food is delicious and, in the end, we have nothing to complain about. And yet … we are still to return through the smelly streets and this time we are full. I will not describe the road back, because I don’t want to remember it either.
As I already mentioned, Berjaya Times Square, the building we are staying in, comprises two live-in towers and a joint area in between with a nine-story shopping centre at the heart. Nine stories! I don’t even know how that is possible. We decide to quickly roam through it to see if there is anything special in it, and the answer is easy. There isn’t. The top floors don’t even look like they’re in a mall. On the contrary. Up there, it is like a covered gipsy market. I haven’t ever seen anything like it before - your legs fall off just to find the escalator down and on the way, you are bombarded by colour, cheapness and needlessness. I am so glad, I don’t have to shop.
The main entrance of the shopping centre attracts the eye from afar. Decorated in red and pink, the mall is ready to welcome the Lunar New Year. It puts us in the festive spirit as well. But at the same time, nothing can take our tiredness away. It seems like we had forgotten about it so far, but it sneakily came upon us again and I am ready to go back into the room and fall asleep on our big bed. Oooh, no, that can’t be! With a “slight” unwillingness, let’s get on the tram towards the centre of Kuala Lumpur.
We get off about ten minutes away from the Petronas Towers, coming from behind them. With every step, we see the twins between the net of less important skyscrapers. And we take photos. Slightly obsessed. As if we won’t see a better angle, although we are yet to arrive at the square in front of the main entrance. And there, we are smitten. These towers are wonderful - we will talk much more about them later on, but I can’t miss saying how beautiful, elegant and impressive they are. Will I miss the opportunity to climb on a wall for pictures? Fortunately, the guards didn’t see us.
We quickly go into the towers and buy tickets for a tour. We are hopeful that we will be able to go up today, but we have no such luck. After all, it is the top tourist attraction of the capital, there can’t be gaps in the bookings. We get tickets for the day after tomorrow and continue with the rest of the communal areas of the towers. What is there? How could you ask such a question? - A shopping centre, naturally.
My morning assessment that I don’t need to shop is now under question. The programme for tomorrow will be a bit different from the typical tourist wandering so far and requires a swimming costume. One that can be used for active movements but is also pretty. I don’t have one like that in my luggage - neither can I trust my bikini to not fail me, nor do I feel elegant in my sports swimming costume. Let’s look.
We walk in, dig through, watch, ask and quickly discover a very important element - we are in a predominantly Muslim country. The exhibition of the female body is more than unacceptable. Swimming costumes can only be found in a neck to toe style. Well, that’s not exactly what I am looking for, thank you. Okay then, my sports one will have to do fine for tomorrow. But there’s a H&M across the street, let’s try one last time. It seems they were waiting for me. On the hidden rails at the back, three swimsuits are hanging. One of them not only fits, but it looks good on me and matches my flip-flops. Jackpot! Don’t laugh! To buy the perfect bathing suit in Kuala Lumpur is more than a difficult task and the success deserves to be celebrated!
With the successful purchase, we get on the tram which takes us to Chinatown. Here, we will see the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia - Sri Mahamariamman. On the outside, we are welcomed by a tall tower, covered in pastel colours and countless figurines telling different stories. By the entrance, we are called to leave our shoes - can’t have them on in the temple. But who pays attention to the fact we need to walk 3-4 meters barefoot on the dirty street before entering the clean temple. Nevermind …
The temple is under a covered porch inside an enclosed open space. Coloured in a combination of bright paints and floral motives - typical decorations as we are yet to see. We are already starting to build a collection of Hindu interpretations on the Asian lands. Just like our churches are different in the separate parts of Europe according to the branch of Christianity, there isn’t much in common among the temples of Bali, Malaysia and Thailand. Contrasts and diversity …
We sit on the floor to take a deep breath - just in time for the evening service. We observe the procession. From altar to altar - from god to god. With songs, incense and many bows. And if that wasn’t enough to take our tiredness from us, all of a sudden, without warning or any songs, rain starts pouring down! Truly pouring! Nic is like a little child. People are praying as he takes his socks off and runs out into the rain with a GoPro in hand. He does everything possible to not come back under the shelter, trying to convince us it’s all for the video; An unforgettable, authentic experience.
When the rain slows down, we leave the praying in the temple and get out on the streets of Chinatown in search of the next adventure. It doesn’t take long to find us. We are in a seemingly covered market. High above us, rise artistic shelters - some architect was obviously very invested in their design. But they clearly didn’t take into consideration the local climate. Every vendor, with their cheap knock-off goods, have tethered a tarp above each of their three square meters. All colours and patterns. They stop the view and end right at the pedestrian path. Leaking from every gap. We are supposed to be able to shop freely in the covered market and yet don’t have the opportunity to take a breath from the overwhelmed space - if it isn’t for colourful shoes and bags, it would be rain pouring out of badly installed tarps. There is no end to it! The Waters and Canals Engineers (that’s what we call them in Bulgarian) also failed to do their job - there are rivers flowing underfoot which are carefully collected at the end of the street. You get there and there is no choice but to paddle through fifty centimetres of dirt and street water if you insist on continuing the way you wanted. Or you can walk around it which adds about ten minutes to your schedule.
MAD-NESS! The fact that one of the central and most visited markets in Kuala Lumpur has such a non-existent infrastructure when pouring rains daily flood them is just baffling. And Kuala Lumpur is a prosperous city. One of the quickest developing ones on the continent … Well, we are in Asia, after all. Here the unkept, unsafe and broken are the norm. (As well as other places closer to home, of course.)
Wet as rats, we make our way to the restaurant for dinner. The sticky table covers, flickering halogen lights and the white under top of the 60-70-year-old waiter, don’t exactly fill me with faith but at the end of the day, it isn’t easy finding vegan food around here. Plus, this is clearly an authentic place that we just won’t be able to avoid in Malaysia.
The exposed grandpa passes us the menu. Years ago, these photo albums were very trendy - big enough to fit hundreds of photos. Thick as bricks and full of 9x13 print. We have one at home. Well, this is exactly what the menu is. Hundreds of dishes, photographed in bad lighting, arranged in an enormous album - faded and gone sticky with time. Some have names, most don’t. The grandpa convinces us that everything is completely vegetarian (which for the locals means vegan) and we choose bravely. Should we have done it with our eyes closed, the result would have been the same. It is delicious and with the tip, we leave £7. Wonderful!
The tram takes us back to Berjaya.
I think that for the level of tiredness we have been fighting all day, we actually managed to see a lot. We got to know Kuala Lumpur on the first date, and we will have plenty of time for the details in the next few days. We get onto the big bed, in the sheets cool from the air-conditioning to watch a film. Could you even question what film we will watch tonight? How has this much time passed and I haven’t mentioned it once? “Entrapment”, of course! Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery telling us a bedtime story. After all, we need to have done comprehensive research before going up the towers in two days.
Today is much better told by video instead of words. Nevertheless, I will add some (con)text to Nic’s colourful efforts.
We start the day with smoothies from the mall under us and quickly hop into a taxi towards Sunway Lagoon. It might sound like a magical bay on the ocean, but it isn’t. It is just a water theme park! Yes. We’ve had enough walking around capitals like horses to see more and more. Today we will be just like children in search of laughter and adventures. Slides, pools, blow-up doughnuts, wet hair and a lot of running around under the hot sunshine. To show off my new swimming costume!
With the GoPro in hand, we are like little shuttles through the park. It is large, with different zones. In some places, the attractions are mainly dry - roller coasters, ships, archery. In other places, more attention has been turned to the newer technologies - zip-lines, pools with waves for surfing, quad-bikes and so much more. But otherwise, we are surrounded by slides in all colours, combinations and height. Fortunately, the GoPro is waterproof because we filmed everything!
From the first moment, our attention is pulled to the women’s wear. Considering the difficulties in finding a bathing suit, last night I got worried I might not be allowed to show my knees here, let alone for any skin to be seen further up. But according to Sunway Lagoon’s website, everyone has the right to wear whatever they wish. Today, there are certainly other women in western style swimwear. But there are also clear contrasts and diversity between me and the locals. Not only can you see swimsuits in a wet-suit fashion and headscarf, but so many of the girls are fully clothed. Jeans, blouses, leggings, skirts, dresses … even jackets. They aren’t worried that everything on them will get wet or how unpleasantly every piece of clothing will stick on them. Their smile is just as big as mine. That’s the standard here, I am the exception.
I won’t describe other details. The park isn’t one of those places that can be described with words, because people come here only for the feelings. To wait in lines, to get wet every twenty minutes, to splish-splash barefoot on the hot concrete. It doesn’t matter much if the paint is peeling here and there - it is! Or if there is a huge rope bridge above the main pool - there is! Or if for half an hour we were worried that I’ve lost my phone - I hadn’t! If their food is good - it was, but the quantities were wrong for people about to spend the afternoon in water!
Just an aqua park with endless fun. For a tiring day to send you straight to bed with red cheeks and the unwashable smell of chlorine and sunshine. One that makes you order food to the room because you can’t move a muscle. Well, that is exactly what I wanted from this day. To have fun without thinking about absolutely anything!
Okay, okay, this isn’t one of my more informative texts. You probably expected a much higher level if I am to introduce you to a new country. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I promise, the next days were full of temples, monkeys and local culture. Very full!
Vassya (and Nic)