I’ve been trying to get to Kuala Lumpur for almost two years. Initially, it was just an exotic sounding city in South East Asia and not on my must see list. Then, when I started looking for international teaching posts, it kept coming up so I researched it a bit more. Suddenly, it sounded right up my street! So, I applied for and even interviewed for, teaching positions, but I was persistently unsuccessful. The closest I could get was Myanmar, a 2.5-hour flight away. So, close, but no cigar!
When I got to Myanmar I didn’t book KL straight away either. Singapore came first, a place I’d wanted to visit for about twelve years. Instead, I chose to book a long weekend at the end of February. But that went awry when I had to renew my passport in February in preparation for my travels later in the year. So I rearranged, and finally got there in April, escaping Myanmar’s Thingyan Festival.
And I’m so glad I did. My instincts were correct. KL is great; modern, clean, logical, friendly, everything I’d want in city living. It’s not perfect. I’d been warned by friendly Malaysians I’d met on the circular train in Yangon, months before, that it was a dangerous place for a woman alone. ‘Hold on to your bag, don’t walk about late at night.’ I took all the usual precautions and felt no more at risk than I do in London. Less, in fact, as KL is not as crowded, at least, not in April. There are still dodgy taxi drivers (mine tried to take me round the entire city to my hotel when actually it was right up the street from where we’d dropped my friend off. Luckily I have sharp eyes!); old, dirty busses, broken pavements and heavy traffic but they fade into insignificance when I consider the positives.
First and foremost, the people are lovely. Malaysia is a cultural melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Indian and, of course, expats, which creates a diverse but thriving cultural identity that lacks the pride of Singapore and the reserve of the Burmese. I had lots of chats with people, on the train, in the street, in restaurants. They engaged with me, not to practice their English but because they were interested in why I was in KL and were keen to talk about their country. Malaysia’s economic growth has been impressive over the past few years and the country’s plans for the future are huge, and they are understandably proud of that.
Kuala Lumpur radiates a cosmopolitan and laidback atmosphere that beat’s Singapore’s haughty detachment hands down. Like Myanmar, people do smile at you although, as I’ve found with all Asian countries, they’re not so great on spatial awareness! Also, they are not too bothered about rule following, which was refreshingly normal compared to the restrictions I’ve felt in both Singapore and Myanmar. The only time I was disturbed by this was on the train home from Batu Caves. I’d noticed that there were ladies only carriages so I entered one for the journey home. You couldn’t miss the pink signage and images indicating ladies only (small children excepted) yet males persistently entered the carriage and remained there. Some, on looking around, realised and moved on, others resolutely remained despite tannoy reminders and a ticket inspector (who did little about them except check their ticket). As I’ve got older I’ve come to accept that you don’t have to follow all of the rules all of the time. I’m even getting better at breaking some of the sillier ones myself (don’t laugh, those who know me well know how far I’ve come!) But for something like this, where religious and cultural sensibilities are at stake, to disregard another’s wishes seems disrespectful, and an unnecessary breaking of the rules. How hard is it to move to the next carriage and allow people to travel comfortably as they choose?
In my conversations with fellow train travellers the usual questions were used to open communications (‘Where are you from? Are you on holiday?’) but while in Myanmar they often stop there, in KL they are maintained and developed. One man, after enquiring if I came from Liverpool (like Gerrard), then told me he wished to holiday in Bournemouth, because it was cheaper than London. (I hadn’t the heart to ruin his ambition!). Another, Sam, adopted me on the train to Batu Caves, had a long conversation with me about the instability of some ASEAN countries and gave me an impromptu tour of the caves, simply because he was a good man, proud of his country and his heritage. He was on his way for his weekly blessing and I was conscious that I was delaying him well beyond his usual visit as I prevailed on his kindness.
Another instance of this amazing kindness happened, again, at Batu Caves. Having visited the temple and climbed and descended the 272 steps, avoided the monkeys and taken the requisite photos, I felt quite peckish and entered one of the nearby cafes in search of lunch. I chose a place that offered north and south Indian cuisine and I chose a 10RM platter of curries and rice. The waiters brought me my choice, on a banana leaf, and served me steaming dhal from a stainless steel bucket. I’ve no idea what I was eating with my poppadums’ (replenished regularly until I had to say no more) but it was delicious and I suspect my face said as much. Part of the way through my meal there was a bit of a commotion as a Malaysian gentleman finished his meal and requested his bill. He pointed at me and the waiters waved a piece of paper in my direction then handed it to him. I paused, looking quizzical, and was told, first by a waiter and then by the gentleman himself that he had bought me my lunch and there was no need to pay. I was flabbergasted, and touched, made my profuse thanks and shook hands with my benefactor before he made his benign way out of the cafe. I didn’t know what else to say and I didn’t like to ask why and seem like a suspicious Westerner, as I could find no agenda to his actions. I think I was the lucky recipient of a selfless gesture, but never having experienced such genuine kindness before I was unsure how to respond except to make me feel even more affectionate in my regard for Malaysian people.
It also made me realise, once again, how lucky I am to be able to travel and interact with others on such a level. To be honest, it was the people who made the place for me. KL was a very welcome change of scene after three solid months in Myanmar. There isn’t actually a lot to see there, after the Petronas Twin Towers, KL Bird Park, Batu Caves and the Hop-on Hop-off bus tour I’d done pretty much all I needed to do for a first visit. More importantly it provided me with Westernised food and shopping and a reassurance that actually I can navigate my way around a strange city (something I’ll never master in Yangon). But my abiding pleasure came from the smiles of the people, the conversations and the generosity of spirit I encountered everywhere I went. And that wasn’t reserved just for when I was in KL. Penang made me feel the same, and my greatest regret was not thinking ahead enough to extend my stay and visit Langkawi before heading back to Yangon.
When I think about the future and the notion of settling somewhere, Malaysia seems like a very good possibility. But until that happens I’ll simply have to keep going back to visit.