I got to the airport in Bangkok quickly and cheaply enough on the new airport link. From the hotel to the airport in less than an hour and for about a fifth of the price of a taxi! This is the ideal way to go if you do not have much luggage. The flight was an uneventful journey of less than two hours. The same trip by train would have been 24 hours… but certainly more adventurous! I only wish I had had the time to go that way.
When we arrived at the airport, the plane emptied out so quickly, I couldn’t believe it! Then I found out why. As I ambled to immigration, I saw only two lines and they were long ones! I was one of the last ones through and by the time I got to the carrousel to claim my bag, it was gone! Spend 10 endless and anxious minutes as they searched for the bag. Ended up that they had to take it off as another flight was coming in and they needed the claim area cleared. I’ve learned my lesson! Push, shove and tackle your way off the plane next time! And I think Malaysia needs to increase the size of its airport again! Changed some money to the local ringgit and headed out by taxi to the hotel. (Now that I am more savvy, they have a train link as well to the city.)
My biggest surprise on the first day was realizing that I recognized a lot of environmental print language like the words for “push,” “pull,” “beware,” “stop,” etc. from my trip last year to Indonesia. As it ends up the languages are virtually the same! Another similarity to Indonesia is that the people are just as universally gracious and friendly, but in a different way from the Indonesians. In Indonesia once you smile at someone they become your “best friend,” otherwise they will look at you with a very strange, almost “aggressive” demeanor. The Malays always seem to be ready to chat. As in Java, I never once felt scammed or treated rudely. This was taken to the “nth” degree one day in Malacca (Maleka) when I was at the ruins of the old St. Paul’s church. They were doing a fashion photo shoot there in one part of the ruins. As I stood contemplating life and lost in thought looking out one of the windows I sensed something and turned around. The crew and models had moved the cameras and lights into position to do a shoot at the very window I was looking out of! They were ALL standing there quietly waiting for me to finish before they continued the shoot!! I thought it so bizarre that I mugged for them and said I was ready for the shoot now. One of the camera men said, “OK Let’s do it!” We all had a nice laugh. I apologized to much refusal and they continued.
The Hotel Capitol KL in Bukit Bintang, where I stayed, was right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. This city has changed so much in thirty years that I gave up trying to recall anything from the past visit! After breakfast, hit the monorail and ventured to Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), which was the cultural center for the British during the colonial era. The Sports Club, St. Mary’s Church, and a lot of old administrative buildings now mostly museums and trendy restaurants surround a large field that was, and still is, used mostly for sports events. Many of the buildings in his area reflect the old colonial architectural style. Never made it to Jamek Mosque as I spent so much time in so many other places that time and light were fleeting. I decided to walk back to the hotel. This is when I realized that KL is really quite hilly! One of the people I stopped to ask directions gave me a short-cut that worked and also took me through and interesting little night market. Had a huge bowl of noodle soup, fish and a drink for less than $2.00 US. There is also a bustling night market near the hotel centered around the various shopping malls in the district. The electronics mall is a real eye-opener. Went into the Apple Store and all the products were at least what you’d pay in the US, but people were snapping them up like nothing.
The next day, I wanted to go up and see the city from above. In KL that means you go to the Petronas Twin Towers or to the Menara Monument, which is one of the tallest towers of its type in the world. To get into the more-famous Petronas Towers requires tickets that you have to be on line for very early in the morning. Sadly, at the Patronas Towers, you only go to the observation deck on the link between the two buildings– about 44 floors up. So I opted to go up in the Menara instead. It did not disappoint. The view was amazing and it was a relatively clear day. After I got to the ground floor again, they were just starting a cultural dance program that I managed to video. Very interesting fast-paced dancing. Ended up at the Petronas Towers but did not go in. They are impressive. (Google image them as I’m not sure most of you can get pictures judging from last year’s experience.) Got back to the hotel for a quick nap before dinner. As it was Friday, the entire area was a carnival of performance artists, jugglers, fire eaters, shops and stands of all types, balloon sellers and people from all over the world and walks of life. All aglow in the festive lights that seemed to decorate everything imaginable! The restaurants were packed even at 11 pm with live music playing everywhere to suit everyone’s taste. The real entertainment, as it usually is, was watching the crowd go by!
Up early and took the monorail to the bus station. Travel by bus in this country is relatively cheap and very comfortable! This is definitely a different experience for me. Most times, I have had to endure at least several trips on very dilapidated public transportation. The buses here are incredible. You have a comfortable seat and so much leg room—- only a Westerner over 5′ 7″ could appreciate! The congenial fellow traveler sitting next to me is a lawyer, Latip, returning to Malacca from business. He is in his late-sixties and studied his law degree in England. We talked nearly the whole way to Malacca about Malaysia and life in general. When we got to the bus station of “Melaka Sentral,” he had to wait for his son-in-law to pick him up, so we had lunch in one of the local shops. Enjoyed a meal of long green beans and chicken over rice and a bowl of ayam (chicken) soup. When his son-in-law arrived, they graciously took me to my hotel. His son-in-law is studying English with the local Peace Corps volunteer, so it was a mixture of opportunity and terror for him to practice his English on the short trip to the hotel!
Melaka is a very interesting city. It has a rich colonial past from the Portuguese, Dutch and English. It dates from a sultanate period in the 15th century before the greedy Portuguese, realizing it’s market potential, decided to take over. The old part of the city has changed since I was last here in the 1970’s, but enough is still there to remind me of the past. I took a quick walk to the old city to climb Bukit St. Paul (St. Paul’s Hill). It was here so many years ago that I sat looking out over the Straights of Malacca to the thin line in the distance that is Sumatra and totally realized that I was in Asia! The Hill and shell of the old church, where St. Francis Xavier lived, worked, and was briefly buried before his body was moved to India, hasn’t changed that much but the view sure has. What was once a view of red-tiled roofs to the blue sea is now largely condos, a few malls and a very tall Holiday Inn! It was nice to just sit on the grassy slope of the hill (probably near the very spot I had been so many years ago) and meditate none-the-less. So many fishing boats and tankers as the Straights are a major sea passageway.
Got out early the next day. As I was walking down the street toward the old part of the city, I saw an old building that looked like it had been a colonial office building of some sort. I snapped a photo and as I stood there trying to figure out what it was, a voice came from behind me saying, “That is an old movie theatre,” as if some detached being was reading my mind and responding to my question! I turned and met a Chinese-Malay named Raymond, who speaks impeccable English and works for CitiBank in KL. This is his neighborhood and he walked with me all the way down to the old city telling me stories of buildings and the ghosts that haunt them. What a character. With all his education, I think he still half-believes those stories! Before long, I met his mother and heard his life story. He has been a life-saver sending me messages suggesting places to go and how to get to them. (Speaking of which, I have been using my Google Maps.. what an amazing thing! In Singapore I walked from my hotel to Little India in Singapore as it gave me street by street directions– completely accurately! Our modern world!) Raymond and I parted when we got down to the historic district as he was going off to a party for his brother and still had to change and pick up his fiancee. Very nice person and we have been keeping in touch via email. He occasionally travels and thinks he will be in NYC soon. I hope to return even a little of the thoughtfulness he showed me.
Spent the rest of the day wandering the old town and museums. The heat finally told me it was time to go back to the hotel to rest and shower. I turned on the shower and water sprayed everywhere! So up they sent this guy of about 20-something, the type that holds old hotels like this together in the most creative ways. He fixed the shower in short order and then went to work on the mini refrigerator in the room. I’ve never seen a person so confidently put the pointy end of a set of pliers in a hole that once held a knob to set the temperature in an electrical appliance still plugged in! I thought he would fry himself, but in no time all was well with the room and off he went on some other task to solve.
That night I was out again and off in the direction of the small, but colorful Chinatown in the city. I walked downtown via the river this time. It had such an old world charm to it with a promenade along both banks of the narrow river. The sweet smell of tropical flowers enhancing your senses as you meander along the side streets. Set up here and there are quaint little restaurants with tables where you can just enjoy stopping, having something to drink and watching life go by on the river. Nice ornate footbridges built over the colonial years still allow you to cross over the river. The small buildings are generally two-storied and have the colonial charm you would expect here.
The road leading into Chinatown is called Jonker Street. Actually, it should be called “Junker Street” as it is contains every conceivable hawker stand selling cheap souvenirs mostly made in China or local food. Even if you don’t buy anything, it is still an interesting place. My real goal is the Chinatown food shops and bandshell on this Saturday night. For the equivalent of three dollars you can sit there and have a nice dinner and listen to the karaoke singers from the town serenade you in Chinese and sometimes English. The amazing thing is that most of them are locals and mostly in their 70’s and 80’s! One extremely thin octogenarian came out in a huge black 50’s toupe dressed in white and sang “Sounds of Silence!” He was incredible and I went up to him afterwards to tell him how great he was. They all were…. Even the worst singer got a good round of applause! What an inspiration they were! (Antonette you would have been in your glory there!) And the people were friendly, approachable and so alive! There was even an elderly couple up there ballroom dancing to every song that fit the bill! It was a wonderful way to spend the final night in Melaka!
Next stop, SIngapore………………