Malaysia’s Modern Metropolis

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Ironies being ironies, we had no idea how close we were going to be to where we hung out in China Town, literally a half block from the entrance. We found a nice little hostel that had an air-conditioned room with shared bathrooms, and everything was really clean. Our windowless room was not a problem because it was quiet in a very loud city, our little cave. We decided to experience some more of KL, so we opted for a hop on hop off bus, that took us all around the city in twenty-two stops. It was a great way to see this ultra-modern cosmopolitan city. We were located near China town and the old market, midway on the tour. The only thing I was really looking forward to was the bird sanctuary, but I was more than willing to give the rest of the city a chance.

Well we hit many different places on the tour, from the National Museum to little India. The museum was a bit of a hodge-podge, mixing different messages from the early phases of man in Malaysia to the different rock formations on the peninsula. It was not the best museum, but ok for a gray day. The Sultans Palace, Istana Negara, was up there with that, really being just a drive-by spot where you can take a picture through the gates or with the unsmiling guards. A large amount of time was spent describing the train stations in KL, one being a historic one used for local transportation, and the new, ultramodern, one of a kind, giant mall, condo complex, train station. I much prefer the old one, which was all white, had towers, and a very majestic early nineteenth century feel. Designed by Arthur Benison Hubback, this station is a fusion of western and Indian architecture, inspired by his time living in India. It should be no surprise how much I loved this design seeing how much I believe in preservation, and I love old architecture. The new station feels like a mall, and even though it was the only train station in the world that had its own airport code, and you could check your luggage in for your flight there, I still found it pretty ugly.

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We stopped next at the old cricket grounds, which had the tallest flag pole in Malaysia. It was here where the Union Jack was lowered and the Malaysian flag was raised for first time when it gained its independence. Across from the fields was the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, built in 1897 and designed by A. C. Norman. The design of this was a fusion Indian and British architecture. I just love the mix of the brick and marble, moorish alcoves, pillars, and copper cupolas. A lot of architecture from this time period was influenced from moorish/Indian designs.

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We were hungry and there was an incredibly rude blond girl who left her bag on the empty seat next to her while we sat on the floor of the bus. Some hard looks and loud comments were ignored, so instead of a confrontation with her majesty, we just jumped off at the first exit. Some people will never learn how rude they are. Well this was clearly not a normal tourist stop, more of an industrial trade street, with a few fast food options and some local joints. We chose a nice corner spot where a group of guys were clearly on their fifth bottle of Tiger, even though it was only two in the afternoon. With sign language we managed to order soup and fried rice for Yvonne. As I am stirring my soup a chicken foot floats to the surface, mmmmm. Well, this is a first for me, so I give it a try. It tasted good, but was really too much work and effort eating around those teeny bones and boy was the soup spicy. Sweat broke out on my forehead and nose so badly that the waitress brought over some napkins.

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Back on an empty bus, with no rude people, we sat back and watched how modern and beautiful this city was. We came round a bend, and in the distance you could see the building that has become synonymous with the city, the Petronas Towers. Just so every one knows, I don’t hate modern architecture. Yes, I do think that most of it is really sad and pathetic, all metal and glass, with no detail or design to it. No gracefulness or beauty either. But the Petronas Towers has all those things, and shoots above all the competition. Using an Islamic influence, each of the towers are shaped like the eight pointed Islamic star. The towers rise 88 floors up, with a sky bridge connecting them midway up. They were the tallest building in the world at 452 meters till 1997, but are still the tallest twin towers. You can see Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones swing under the sky bridge in the movie Entrapment. The towers just look so damn cool. Designed around them is a beautiful park, with shooting fountains and plenty of green space.

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Now we could have paid a ridiculous sum of money to go stand on the sky bridge, but I had some technological issues I had to deal with, so I had a more important mission. This being Malaysia, no building could be respectable with out having a mall in it, and this one was a doozy! Five stories high, having every major designer brand of clothing, jewelry, perfume, you name it, even Apple stores. My blasted ipad was running short on memory. You see, we were already a few months in on the trip, and my photos had sucked up every megabite of storage. At some point I will get into a tech talk about travels, but we will save it for another day. Let’s just say I bought a new stylus, seeing how I lost mine in Indonesia, and left the ipad with them to upload photos to dropbox. So we had some time to kill. They had a cinema, but the only film worth seeing was Skyfall, and just the night before I dragged Yvonne on a forty minute walk to see it at the midnight showing. In case you are interested, I thought it was ok, but not great.

So I wandered into a bookstore, just to peruse the travel book section. To my delight, they had a large graphic novel section, awesome! I can not pass a comic store or book store and not search the shelves for books I had worked on or some of my friends books. It’s a bit of an ego thing maybe, but nothing is more exciting than seeing your book on a shelf thousands of miles away, in countries you have never been to, nor, sometimes heard of. Well I searched for some of Ravens’ books, cause he is pretty much every where, but no such luck. So then I am looking at more obscure graphic novels, and I come across a thick hard cover with a familiar illustration on it. I pull it out and sure enough, it’s Once Upon A Time Machine, a compilation of tales published by none other than my local comic shop, Locust Moon Press. I had seen the cover art work in their gallery, but the book was not released till after I had left the country. What a great surprise! If you get a chance I suggest you check this out, it’s a great read.

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The next day we snuck onto the bus to finally get to the Bird Park. This is the largest open air aviary in the world. When we got there you realise that it’s a bit dated, and could use some more signs and improvement to the netting holding birds in. It still is a great place to bring your kids and see, but not as cutting edge as I had hoped. This is why it’s best to not travel with expectations. There were heaps of interesting birds flying around us, and it made for an enjoyable stroll. The most interesting thing to happen there was not part of the show though. As we were walking away from the loud Rock and Roll Bird Show, I noticed a movement in the corner of my eye. So I turned and spotted a foot long monitor lizard in the grass on the outside of the exhibit. He was shaking his head vigorously because in his mouth was a frog that looked to be twice the size of his head. He clawed, smashed, and beat the frog, but still the frog hung on. I stood there rooted for a half hour watching this life and death drama unfold in front of me. There were sounds of children laughing in the distance, completely unaware of the real show going on. People walked past, but not one stopped to ask what I was filming. Finally the frog was beaten to submission, and the lizard let go with his jaws to reposition him. Then I kid you not, he swallowed the frog whole, slow and methodical. Not sure how he fit it all in his mouth, but he did. While I was watching death, Yvonne was watching life in the form of baby chicks hatching out of their eggs. There’s irony for you.

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We finished our time there at a lovely orchid garden then caught the bus back to the Old Market. We did some Christmas shopping there and enjoyed some free cultural shows like traditional dance, singing, and martial arts. That’s the great thing about KL, there really is a little of something for everyone. Has the city been taken over by giant mega-malls, yes, but you can still find the most delicious street food and culture.

Our next stop was Melaka, an old port town with a great historic district. We hopped on a subway, then a bus, and made our way down the coast. There was a steady rain now so a perfect time to be on the bus. Looking out the window I couldn’t help but notice how different everything was, but so familiar. We arrived at a weird bus station in the middle of a mall and hopped on a little city bus all loaded up at rush hour. Every time I moved slightly my bag would bang into some one, and then I would move the other way and knock some one else. Following along the map in Lonely Planet (LP) we were able to figure our stop out and we popped out of that bus like a champagne cork.

We wandered past two large new malls, down a street of bars to a recommended place in LP. It was a dump, so we headed back to a place recommended from a dude at the bus station. Wow! A million times better. Sometimes these places get recommended by LP and they stop trying to keep it up.

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Melaka is an old port town from the dutch era but lost lot its relevance when the river silted up. It has made a huge comeback thanks to its beautiful historic neighborhoods. We wandered across a bridge to a very different China Town from KL; with nice two hundred year old buildings, quiet streets, old bridges. Really peaceful and quaint. When you cross into China Town over a bridge, a huge Chinese dragon stretches across the road, entwining itself in loops over the intersection. Really cool.

The other interesting thing in Melaka were its bicycle cabs. They were the gaudiest, Christmas light covered, stereo toting, boom box of a ride I’ve ever seen. Each one of them was decorated differently. They looked like a cross between mummers and parade floats. They were just so much fun it was hard not to take a ride in them.

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The last night we wandered out of center of town to a recommended Pakistani restaurant. As is so common out here it was a million plastic chairs and tables out side a mini-mall restaurant, but the thing was it was packed to the gills. They had giant clay kilms outside cooking everything from lamb and chicken to nam bread. Our food was delicious, really mouth-watering. Then we went back to our cozy little pad and watched Iron Sky on Tv with a Canadian traveler. What a hilarious movie, I definitely recommend this one.

In a discussion with the Canadian we both shared our shock to how modern Malaysia was. I figured it was going to be similar to Indonesia, or even poorer. I don’t know why, pure ignorance I guess, boy was I ever wrong. The Canadian felt the same way, and talked to some Malaysians about it, and the answer he came up with was all summed up in one word, Oil. Not sure if that’s true or not, but if you like all the glitz and glammer of New York, London, and Rome in Asia, then this is the place for you.

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