We descended from the highlands refreshed and reinvigorated, and reluctantly acclimatising to the renewed heat and humidity of the lowlands. Props to Mr Cameron, and that glorious quasi-English climate he discovered.
First impressions of Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it is commonly known) included: Ooh, look at all the tall buildings; Aah, what a lovely clean monorail; Hey, look, Petronas!; and, finally, Titty wangs are great!
Unfortunately, aside from the giggle-prone name, there is no reason to go or stay in Titiwangsa. Great!
However, the aforementioned monorail and the slightly older metro network are quick and cheap, so getting into the action was easy. And they both boast good views of the city, suspended as they are above the traffic-clogged roads.
Most people stay in or around Bukit Bintang, an area of malls, street food, misery-midnight bars and stacks of hotels and hostels. It’s a bustling place, especially with the streets being ripped up to provide a new metro station. But the bukit (hill) makes for interesting views over an older KL.
Here you’re once again reminded of the stark contrasts in Asia – no more so than poolside at the Regency Hotel. We sneaked in to have a gander (and use the facilities, truth be told), and found the pool overlooked by ugly and flaking high-rise flats. The people living there must look down on these wealthy hotel guests with not a little envy, as they hang their laundry out their windows.
The centrepiece of the area is undoubtedly Jalan Alor, where Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Indian restaurants invade the street with tables and chairs. Waiters seek to lure you in with menus of grilled stingray, fried frog or beef pho, while hawkers barbecue prawns and satay chicken.
An extra helping of colour above our heads gave the place added seasoning: hundreds of hanging red lanterns hung dangling over the street in readiness for Chinese New Year. The excellent Chinese steamed dumpling kitchen was doing particularly well – so much so we ate there twice.
By the side of Jalan Alor are the bars of Bukit Bintang. Again, waiters pester you with menus, but it’s happy-hour lager towers and buy-two-get-one-free cocktails. Most of the time the prices for a BOGOF beer are double the going rate, so the whole thing is a sham. Booze here is expensive, you just have to swallow it.
Two places of note: there’s a nice Latin bar that has excellent live music, with people dancing the salsa in front of the mariachis. And there’s an English pub – The Green Man – where we watched the mighty Spurs beat Arsenal in the Premier League. Fond, fond memories.
The following day, through a muggy haze of victory booze, we visited KL’s iconic twin Petronas towers. You can go up them to the 50th floor, or so, and then walk across the sky bridge that connects them, but it’s rather expensive, and we’d heard the view from the nearby communications tower was higher.
Nevertheless, the oil corporation’s HQ has a number of fancy bars and restaurants at its base, and overlooks a lovely park, with a splashing pool and a playground for kids, and one of those Vegas-style synchronised fountains. It’s all quite nice – a good place for a picnic, if you were so inclined.
We also chanced upon something I’ve always wanted to see: a proper Chinese lion dance. Previously, I’d only seen the spectacle at the beginning of Jackie Chan’s The Young Master (one of his truly excellent movies), so I was pleased to find their acrobatics and skill just as exciting in real life. Two athletic chaps don the lion costume like a pantomime horse, but unlike a pantomime horse, they scamper over tiny platforms suspended metres from the ground on poles. It’s really quite amazing.
All the main sights in KL are conveniently served by a hop-on-hop-off bus that laps the city. We took a look round the national museum, which attempts the daunting task of covering Malaysia’s history from the birth of the planet through to the modern day in just four rooms. And we had a quick mooch around a temporary exhibition of weapons and warfare – ostensibly as research for a short story I’m working on, but also because I’m a 33-year-old boy who loves swords and spears.
Being in Malaysia, the majority of the pieces were kris swords, a kind of ceremonial dagger with an undulating blade, like a snake slithering through grass. They can be used in a fight but are more commonly given as gifts between diplomats and emissaries and the like. There are, therefore, some huge ones that would make the creators of Final Fantasy blush.
We also stopped off at the Menara communications tower for the view over the city. They have coin-operated binoculars at the top, all of which need no coins to operate, which is nice. Our friend Diana, the Korean girl we met in Ipoh, had mentioned a bar on the helipad of a skyscraper in KL, and we managed to spot it. I recorded a video through the binoculars of the waiters on the roof.
Back on the ground, our stay in KL was sandwiched around a visit to one of Swarana’s university friends, Alysha, who moved out to KL last year with her husband and two kids. They live in the pretty suburb of Bangsar, to the south of the city – home to a large expat community.
We were very well looked after for two nights, eating food we’d forgotten we missed, like bangers and mash, and breakfast cereal. Then, in the evenings, Alicia’s husband Shaun poured me generous glasses of whiskey, while Swarana sampled some – at long last – appropriately chilled (and authentic) white wine.
I say “authentic” because we’ve found, to our dismay, that Malaysia has gallons of fake wine for sale. There will be a vast array of modestly priced wines, all supposedly from different vineyards, but upon closer inspection, you’ll notice the whole things a sham. Read the labels of these two different vineyards…
You can’t argue with: “This wine will appeal to wine lovers who enjoy drinking wine anytime”. As in, this wine will appeal to drunks – AND NO ONE ELSE.
But not at Alysha’s, thank God. I should also mention the room they gave us, which was huge, with a massive comfy bed and a bathroom (with two sinks) bigger than most of the hotel rooms we’ve stayed in. It was roughly a five minute walk from the toilet to the sink. Proper luxury, and a welcome break with two most excellent hosts.
A couple of nights later we were heading to Melaka, a colonial river town, where we’d spend Valentine’s and my birthday on our way to Singapore.
<= Previous post – Getting high in Tanah Rata