A Tale of Solo Travel in KL

Published: May 22nd 2011
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Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur

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 Video Playlist:

1: Call to prayer at Putra Mosque 83 secs
The Three MusketeersThe Three MusketeersThe Three Musketeers

A gregarious but friendly group
"Are you alone," one of three boys in student uniforms asked. He appeared to be the ringleader. Sometime after that, the question,"Did you leave your family at home?," followed. We then discussed a number of the "normal" topics that teenage boys and travelers alike might cover on first meeting......girls, Facebook, and how I liked Malaysia. Most charming was when they suggested I should come and stay for a while. Most fun was when they told me about one of Malaysia's leading female starlets and beauties, Lisa Surahani(pronounced Soora honey), who one of the boy's stated as his favorite.....after his girlfriend, of course. We even got into to discussing politics and our assumptions about the responsibilities of married life. Just as they walked me out of the agricultural park where I met them, they invoked the coming fears and dread of adult life by saying, "We want to stay like this forever." This after previously informing me that their group of three had been slowly dwindling. I had affectionately dubbed them 'The Three Musketeers' because I knew I would have trouble remembering their unfamiliar Malaysian nicknames. My solo journey brought me briefly but happily into the lives of these three young men.
Dragonfruit TreesDragonfruit TreesDragonfruit Trees

The first time I have ever seen these......my favorite fruit. From a cactus looking plan like tequila....I knew it!!!

I had just finished wandering around an agricultural development park and was looking out over the new Malaysian political capital of Putrajaya. In the seething tropical heat, I had been thrilled despite my fatigue to get a good look at mango trees, rubber trees, mango trees, coffee trees, oil palms, coconut palms, jackfruit trees, lovely flowers in bloom and a massive variety of medicinal herbs. If you can stand the heat, it is a nice little walk and like much of Putrajaya, a Malaysian localization of Ebenezer Howard's 'Garden City' concept, the journey is well scripted, if you let it be. Tour guides and golf carts await if you want a more detailed tour of the park then I received. I arrived too late for that and the park was closed by the time the Three Musketeers had led me out. I doubt I could have enjoyed anything more then getting myself lost as I did there and having things turn out as they did. New friends and new knowledge are one of life's most worthwhile pursuits.

They say life can be tough traveling alone and this is quite true. What is often neglected is that strangers are usually quite friendly and can be trusted. In fact, traveling with strangers is usually much easier than traveling with family and friends. Outside of the usual traveling hassles, I find the 'good' strangers to largely outnumber the assumed 'bad' ones. I guess it is a little bit like eating food here. Once you know what to look for, and especially WHAT TO AVOID, things usually go smoothly. But there are always hangups. On my last evening in Kuala Lumpur (easier to just say KL), I had dinner with a fellow traveler staying at my 'hotel', Dennis, from the Czech Republic. This was after a day trip together, by bus, to the Hindu Temple at the Baku caves. We had dinner in Kamphong Baru, which is still touted as being representative of the traditional Malaysian 'kampong' or village. The food there is supposed to be quite traditional and good. But it was quite average at the place where we stopped and people asking for money during dinner never stopped, from the an old guy dressed like a swami to a student asking for school donations to guys selling souvenir like items made in Pakistan. I suspect it would be better the next time around, but the first time doing something always leaves room for experiences like this. You get used to them, but if they happened all the time, it might get tiresome.

I had come to KL, the capital of Malaysia's federated system, in order to get a new tourist visa for the next three months in Thailand. I was staying at a backpacker style outfit amusingly called the 'Hotel' Cosmopolitan for about $6 a night. I have stayed there before and it is one of the world's great values that I have found for a solo traveler of my needs. I had submitted my visa application in the morning and decided to head out to Putrajaya in the afternoon. Much like the more celebrated Petronas towers, Putrajaya is a legacy of former prime minister Mahatir. As Putrajaya is about ten years old, its newness made me think of Naypidaw in Myanmar, the new political capital there. But there were no soldiers to be found in Putrajaya, only civil servants and lots of roads with wide open landscape. However, Malaysia and Myanmar, to my knowledge, appear to be the only cities in Southeast Asia with distinct political capitals separate
Malaysian fast foodMalaysian fast foodMalaysian fast food

Many office workers, including a lot of woman in chadors, stopped at these little tables for breakfast and snacks.
from their largest cities, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Yangon in Myanmar. Despite all this, Putrajaya feels a lot like Washington D.C. surrounded by an Asian version of Disney's Celebration suburb in Florida. The sculpted marble and stone of the government buildings and mosques are reminiscent of the museums and government offices in Washington D.C. while the 'Boomburb' looking homes and the skyward seeking apartment buildings are invested with a suburban/urban motif.

The plan of Putrajaya has partnered it with the adjacent city of Cyberjaya, a technology industrial complex with manufacturing and services. A huge highway system that connects them to Kuala Lumpur and the nearby airport makes it dependent on having a car. This is in spite of the efficient bus system I used to get there. It has largely become a car culture for most of the less than 100,000 people living there, who for the moment, have escaped the more congested environment of Kuala Lumpur. Like Washington D.C., it does often feel quite isolated there, if a lot more green and a lot hotter than the American capital. The trees do very little to cool it off and seem mostly to serve aesthetic purposes. I do
My favorite dessert from a Malaysian cutieMy favorite dessert from a Malaysian cutieMy favorite dessert from a Malaysian cutie

A custard like outer wrapping filled with shredded coconut bathed in palm sugar. It had a faint maple syrupy and carmel like taste. Awesome!!
find it paradoxical though, that the city of KL, with its disjointed but effective train and bus system, has a much more modern, convenient and cleaner transportation system than the new 'Green' capital.

During the trip, I had been reading Helena Drysdale's "Mother Tongues: Travels Through Tribal Europe" and thought about her distinctions between different interpretations of 'nation' and 'tribe'. She had been traveling through parts of Europe visiting people such as the Basques, the Samis, the Catalans, the Bretons, the Macedonians (the most questionable at all as a people but less so as a nation), and the Greeks. The people and countries she visited often shared in some form of ethnic diversity rather than homogenousness. Malaysia, being a recently formed country (1957) with a number of ethnic minorities, shares some of these characteristics. Drysdale's emphasis on the importance of 'consciousness of being a community' versus the natural simplicity of 'sharing an ancestry' filtered throughout my head as I tried to discover some aspects of shared consciousness in Malaysia. Its ancestry, like number of the European minority nations that Drysdale traveled through, is constructed through a number of groups that could be defined as ancestry if ancestry were passed
The Prime Minister's Office in PutrajayaThe Prime Minister's Office in PutrajayaThe Prime Minister's Office in Putrajaya

I joked with the security guards here until a delegation of Chinese in limos came in to do a 'photo shoot' in front of the gate.
on as a national or tribal affiliation. But as a bloodline or even as a similar culture, ancestry as a point of origin, particulary as it has been imagined over the last century in Malaysia, is deeply problematic.

The rapid coming together of laborers from India, China and the Malaysian archipelago during the British Empire's rise in the nineteenth century brought an export driven cash economy and cities together in a rush and in a rather authoritarian manner. The invasive but productive policies of the Malaysian government in the early 70s up to very recently followed a similar trend. But much like Singapore, Malaysia is one of Southeast Asia's success stories of economic development and democracy. The scale of Malaysia's roads and broad highways around Kuala Lumpur and the constant appearance of the Proton(often as taxis), a car originally developed during the late 1970s in Malaysia, are reminders of the its economic prosperity. The political capital of Putrajaya, unlike Naypidaw in Myanmar, provokes genuine consideration about the nature of Malaysia's democracy.

Although hardly so simple in reality, three stereotypic groups are most easily recognizable through the categories of Indian, Chinese and Malay. In fact, the Indians are often
Inside Masjid Putra (Putra Mosque)Inside Masjid Putra (Putra Mosque)Inside Masjid Putra (Putra Mosque)

I wish I had gotten Azizah's picture. I think she would have loved for me to do it......oh well!!
Tamils from southern India and seem to fill a social status similar to blacks in the US, the Chinese are members of various dialect groups from Southern China especially Hakka, Hokkien and Cantonese and the Malays themselves are from various cultural groups throughout the archipelago. This says little about the issue of intermarriage and its progeny which has been ongoing for a long time now. Islam, unofficially the national religion, appears to be a more homogenous and unifying category than any ethnic categories. Women on the streets wearing chadors brought this home to me more than anything. However, unlike Middle Eastern countries, the Malaysian state has had a combative relationship with Islam's political role. I looked for other unifying characteristics outside of religion and language that I could identify as 'Malaysian'.

I listened to a Chinese Malaysian, on the plane, discuss the discrimination he and his family have born, as Chinese, under this system. It sounded a bit like poor whites who complain about affirmative action in the US with the difference being that 'Chinese' in Malaysia is seen as being foreign. Being white, of most ethnic races and groups, in America is perhaps (?) more easily identifiable as 'naturally' American. Additionally, he was a factory owner, so not poor. So it is clear that the classifications above lack depth. Business and government have since the early 1970s tended to separate the government workers, Malays, from the big business operators, the Chinese, and small business people, the Indians and everyone else that is left. Mahatir is no longer in power, but the son of the country's first prime minister is. This means, globalization has not really changed but altered the old system. The answer to my question probably lies in the vast middle class suburbs that lie in the valley surrounding Kuala Lumpur and not in the city, much as they do in the US. In the meantime, I threw my hands up in the air and gave my brain some distracting comfort in the utopian "Unity in Diversity" pronouncements of ASEAN, Southeast Asia's regional political and trade organ. And I went for a ride on the train and the bus, everyday while reading, and sleeping, in the rain every night.

On my trip to Putrajaya, I had also stopped at Masjid Putra, the Putra Mosque to have a look inside. It was not what I expected. It

After recent trips through New Zealand and Central Asia, I am sure the hike up to these caves was a breeze for him.
is quite open and reminded me a bit of cathedrals in Europe in that it is somewhat of a tourist attraction. Chinese tourists apparently come in large numbers. There, I met Azizah, an elderly but very spry Malaysian volunteer who provided tours for English speakers. Although the level of English in Kuala Lumpur is quite good, in general, hers was exceptional. She told me how she had been educated in English through the former British colonial system. She shared a lot of 'good PR' with me about Islam and how 'benign' it really was. More than this, she impressed me as a genuine personality who was an intellectual reservoir of knowledge about Islam and its role in her life.....and the larger world. She discussed the different architectural influences of local mosques, led me into the mosque, and even read me the daily prayer of all Muslims from a copy of the Koran, in Arabic. She talked about Islam like a learned Catholic priest or Christian scholar but in much chattier and friendly fashion. I cannot recall anything specific that she said but can only convey that spending thirty minutes with her was an opportunity not to be missed. She reminded
The city's landmarkThe city's landmarkThe city's landmark

The Petronas Towers are always there if you get lost.
me of my grandmother Marie, but with a more intellectual bent. She was Malaysian, Islamic and even a little British all at once. More than this, she was an intelligent and friendly woman who made Islam seem more familiar and quite normalized. In many ways, she could have been from anywhere, even the neighborhood.

On my trip, I was never really solo. Such an emperor really hath no clothes. Outside of the Three Musketeers, Azizah and Dennis, people I met on the streets for directions, the smiling cute girl who introduced me to Malaysian desserts, the super helpful information officer Bakri at the Putra mosque, friendly Hostel staff, nice metro personnel, the funny security guy's at the Prime Minister's office, the talkative Ibrahim from Oman, courteous taxi drivers, curious other travelers at the Thai consulate and a larger cast of others took a number of stresses out of what could have been a dull and unpleasant trip. My biggest disappointment was the rain every evening. The food in KL is some of the most diverse in Southeast Asia and quite cheap. But the only night I got to try out something new was my disappointing meal with Dennis in
Rubber TreesRubber TreesRubber Trees

Malaysia's signature agricultural development
Kampong Baru. My best meal was a Chinese/Malaysian vegetarian dish which I managed to eat with a bunch of rats in an alley. I guess you can't have everything for $1.50. The owner of the restaurant made me sup down a bowl of bitter green broth that I think gave me health for days. It was almost like a bowl of green tea.....lol. So is that Chinese or Malaysian medicine? I don't really care. It was damn good!

Additional photos below
Photos: 20, Displayed: 20


Mango TreesMango Trees
Mango Trees

But with no mangoes
At Batu CavesAt Batu Caves
At Batu Caves

A ceremony of some sort overseen by this swami had some great lively music as Dennis and I walked up a long flight of stairs to the cave.

Don't the stalactites in the cave look like very sharp penises? Lucky or unlucky female hindu deities????

26th May 2011

Solo in KL--- NOT
Just got this today, and here you are off on another mystery tour. Enlightening comparisons of American and KL immigrant groups, and the relationships between different ethnic groups--a sort of class structure? First place you've mentioned seeing women in chadors--they must be determined Muslims in that heat and humidity! Your mosque guide seemed appealing and helpful, as is the reading you report on. Photos really help us to see the architectural and cultural difference from Chiang-Mai and Bangkok, not to mention the U.S. Less talk about food--how are you doing with diet restrictions they laid on you in BKK?
1st June 2011

Class structures is an important aspect as much of the current 'class' structure (Malays in government vs. Chinese running the economy) was reinforced during a turbulent period in the 1960s.....it used to be British in government and Chinese in business......with Malays, Chinese and others as labor or villagers. But that is a very crude picture. Many 'Malays' today are of mixed ancestry. As far as chadors go, I am quite sure many of them are comfortable as they often wear jeans and other outfits with them. The chadors are usually quite light and probably shade against the sunlight....they prefer whiter skin......gucci handbags, high heels and other consumer items are often quite conspicuous. This is not the Middle East!!
10th November 2011

Hey, Really well-written and informative blog. Check out this cool new platform to connect with exciting locals and co-travelers on http://www.mingletrips.com/ and like me you could venture into KL in the company of new friends! Cheers!

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