Our main destination was the tropical island of Langkawi, to escape the worst of the Beijing freeze and recover from an exhausting year. However along the way we stopped off at Kuala Lumpur (KL to its friends), for a quick look at the capital.
“Kuala Lumpur” literally means “Muddy confluence”, and the city began life as a mining town, complete with gang wars and cholera – I imagine it like Deadwood in the TV show. It was a British governor and a Chinese community leader who began the process of building the modern metropolis, and the mix of cultural influences is apparent in the very fabric of KL.
The international airport is a long way out from the city itself, and our metered taxi ride cost a hefty 160 ringgits (around RMB 250). It’s possible to pay a fixed fare at various desks in the airport, but research suggests this is unlikely to be cheaper. If you’re on a budget, and your children can handle it after the 6 hour 30 minute flight from Beijing, you can save some money by taking the train or bus into town.
The first thing you may notice is that cars drive on the left – a legacy of British imperialism. Anyone used to the grid-like layout of most US and Chinese cities will also be baffled by the spaghetti-like tangle of roads in the city, and the complex one way system. KL is not really designed for pedestrians: an absence of sidewalks, gaping holes which present a dangerous trap for anyone using their phone while walking, and drivers less cautious than those in China mean you have to be on your toes.
Fortunately taxis are plentiful and cheap, as long as you don’t get scammed. Insist on paying by the meter, and don’t believe in any nonsense about it being “broken”. Grab is the local equivalent of Uber or Didi, and if you’re staying in KL for any length of time it might be worth downloading it.
On the positive side, the city center is relatively compact. Although there’s a sprawling urban area around it, KL itself has a population of a mere 1.8 million, making it a village by Chinese standards. We stayed near Chinatown, where most of the hotels and hostels are too be found, and it’s a good base for exploring. Like most rapidly developing Asian cities, KL is a hotchpotch of glittering skyscrapers and ramshackle huts. Add into the mix some attractive colonial-era buildings (sadly not all in the best state of repair), and it’s a fascinating place to discover.
If shopping is your thing, then the Indian market offers better bargains than the much-hyped Chinatown or Central Market. Be sure to haggle to get the best prices! Or for high-end purchases, the KLCC mall at the foot of the iconic Petronas Towers offers big fashion brands, and a place for local teens to strut in their Harajuku-style finery.
Malaysia is a majority-Muslim country, and anyone who’s fond of a glass of wine with their meal will be shocked to discover that alcohol is not served in most restaurants, and in shops is heavily taxed. In the next post I’ll write about some of the sights which reflect Malaysia’s historic Islamic heritage.
Photos: IQRemix via Flickr, Andrew Killeen