One of the small weirdnesses of traveling to Thailand is that upon arrival by air, you receive a 30-day visa, but upon arrival overland, you get only 15 days. Presumably this is to urge small-budget travelers on to their next destination in the most expeditious manner: “…lovely to have you here for a few days, please close the door behind you when you leave.”
I ran afoul of this rule by arriving back from Cambodia overland to meet Saki in Bangkok. I wanted to be in Thailand for a further 30 days, but was allotted only 15; thus, after spending a few days in the capital and a week at Colin Cotterill’s place on the Gulf of Siam, I had to make a border run to renew my visa. Up until then, I had not spent a lot of time in Malaysia, and, as we were in the south of Thailand anyway, it seemed quite logical to catch a flight from Surat Thani to Kuala Lumpur, and spend a few days there having a look around. Saki had been to Penang, in the north of Malaysia, but never to KL, so it promised to be a new experience for both of us.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting of Kuala Lumpur, perhaps a smaller version of Bangkok: 24/7 speeding traffic, blithely ignoring traffic signals and lane indicators; lofty high-rises adjacent to open-sewer slums; throngs of scuttling tourists, locals, hawkers and beggars at every turn. The reality of KL was quite different: polite drivers moved smoothly on well-surfaced roads and highways; high-rises were on display in abundance, to be sure (including the one-time world altitude champ, Petronas Twin Towers), but the Third World slums were nowhere in sight; Gucci, Fendi, Cartier and Rolex offered their wares in a high-rent district that would have slotted in perfectly in Ginza, Manhattan or Knightsbridge; hawkers and beggars were conspicuously absent, and the tourists were a small minority, easily discernible by virtue of their remarkable lack of style compared to the locals.
Because Malaysia is a Muslim country, many of the women dress conservatively, often in baju kurung, a loose fitting full length dress, and hijab. I had thought I might find this a bit oppressive, even as a visitor, but in fact it is quite an attractive (and oh-so-colorful) style which has grown on me a lot. The covering offers protection from the sun, and it is very lightweight, wicking away perspiration and keeping the wearer relatively cool in what can be a very hot and humid country. By comparison, my sweat laden t-shirt and jeans felt like a woolen pea coat and long johns, perhaps not the optimal choice of dress a scant few degrees north of the equator.
I have long thought that architecture is one of the finest of the fine arts, with many of the best examples surviving thousands of years (the stone cliffs of Petra, the ruins of Ephesus, Macchu Picchu, etc). I gravitate more toward the modern expression of design, though: the Sydney Opera House; Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. To that august group, I would like to add a couple of Kuala Lumpur landmarks, both of which bowled me over when I saw them up close: the Petronas Twin Towers, 452 meters (that’s about 1483 feet, or more than a quarter-mile tall, for the metrically challenged) of Space Age design that requires a two-block remove to photograph in its entirety with a normal pocket camera; and the National Mosque, with its origami-inspired blue roof that has become one of the most visited sights in the city, by Muslims and infidels alike.
In a week, I feel as if I only scratched the surface of the surface of this attractive and modern city, and I am strongly looking forward to a return visit. As it happens, KL is one of the hubs for AirAsia, and a cheap layover spot en-route from Tokyo to Bangkok. So, all other things being equal, when I return to Thailand next spring, I will first fly in to Kuala Lumpur, and have a bit of a look-see at some of the parts of the city I missed this time around.