I decided to make a quick visit to Kuala Lumpur to undertake some personal business and to get to know a city that was completely new to me.
I was on a limited budget as the recent downturn in the economy had affected my investments and I was on a fixed income.
One of the flight attendants had informed me that the international airport was about an hour and a quarter from the centre of Kuala Lumpur, hence I would need a fairly inexpensive way to enter the city.
When I arrived, I checked with information at the airport and they suggested three different options – taxi, rail or bus. Because I was a westerner, they naturally assumed that I would opt for a taxi or, at the least, the rail system.
The taxi service costs 90 ringatts or about $30. The rail system or KLIA Exspres cost 35 R or $11.50 and takes 28 minutes while the bus coach system costs 10 R or about $3. 28 and takes an hour.I opted for the bus system. It arrived at KSentral which is a central bus station and somewhat overwhelming but, fortunately, close to the city subway system.
One thing I have always noted in my travels – how do people accommodate strangers in their midst who are obviously disoriented? Are they rude and dismissive? Or do they take time to help? And the Malaysians passed with flying colours. Working class guys, busy mothers, students – all were helpful and guided me in the direction of the subway station.
While English may not always be understood or spoken, it clearly is the default language.
As it turned out, the subway station (KL Sentral) was on the same line and only five stops away from the station (Bukit Bintan) which was close to the hotel I was looking for.
Once outside, I was again pointed in the right direction to the hotel which was at least another seven blocks.
“Why not take a taxi, sir? It will only cost you 5 ringatts.”
I said it was alright. I preferred to walk and get a tangible feel of the city with its sights and sounds. After a few blocks, I could see why they were being helpful. It was early afternoon, and the humidity was oppressive. Sweat was pouring from my brow as I descended Bukit Bintan Street.
Perhaps I had walked a little too far when I noticed a black woman lying on her back to my right. She was topless and was playing with one of her nipples with the end of a straw. She saw me looking at her and jumped up, expecting business, I guess. I continued on in the oppressive heat.
I finally found the street Tingkatt Tong Shin and turned left, noticing a continuation of the Malay, Thai, Chinese and East Indian restaurants where the delicious odours of food and perpetual cooking filled the streets.
Small grocery stores, Internet cafes, reflexology sites, and guest houses dotted the street. I converged at the end of the street at a hotel called the Corona Inn Hotel, and found it charming, clean and friendly.
Rooms went from about 118 to 159 ringatts or $40 to $50 a night, and they were pleasant and air-conditioned. But I was on a tight budget.
I decided to try my luck at the guest houses on the street and chose one called the Anjung KL Guesthouse. All guests were invited to remove their shoes before entering and inquiring about room prices. I found this rather charming and positive.
I saw the single rooms, and single rooms with washroom facilities, and opted for the dormitory – four sets of bunkbeds at 30 ringatts or $10 a night. The room was air-conditioned.
And who ended up staying there? Mostly single travelers like myself – male and female – in their late 20s and early to mid 30s. Just in my short time, there was a forestry engineer from Spain, a social worker from Germany, a nurse from the Philippines, a biologist from Switzerland.
All of them were touring Southeast Asia, with stopovers in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore. Most of the women were traveling alone, proud of their independence and resilience.
The private rooms were taken up by Asian couples or families. I noticed the washrooms all had water on the floor. This bothered me at first until I realized that there was no shower stall — the bathroom doubled as a shower.
But the guesthouse was located right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle at Bukit Bintang. China Town is within walking distance as is the Petrona Twin Towers and the Times Square. The Aquaria and KL Convention Centre is also a 10-minute walk away. And discos are just around the corner.
Kuala Lumpur is a city of contrasts – not between rich and poor — but among the nationalities. Malaysia is supposed to be 70 per cent Muslim and a lot of the women cover their hair. But there seems to be no overwhelming effort on their part to force their way of life on others. The Malays form 60% of the population, the Chinese 23% and East Indian about 7%.
The Malay peninsula has for centuries been the trading post of Malay, Arab, Indian and Chinese merchants. Malaysia sits astride the Indian Ocean and the South Chinese Sea. Today with the economies of China and India showing strength, Malaysia is poised to rediscover itself at the centre of regional trade flows.
There is a sense of prosperity and positiveness in the population. Unemployment is low and literacy is high.
But what makes Kuala Lumpur special are the people and the energy. Just one street away from the guesthouse is Jalan Alor – a street totally made up of Malay, Thai, Chinese and Indian restaurants – all with the chairs and tables in front. And a plate of delicious food that costs all of 6 ringatts.
One thing that stands out in my walks along Jalan Bukit Bintang is that I was constantly being assailed by young women asking me if I wanted a foot massage or a body massage. Was this a front for prostitution or the real thing? Occasionally, I could see a Malay sitting in the front room of the domicile clearly enjoying his foot massage.
How did this tradition get started? Other people at the guest house told me it was a common practice in Southeast Asia.
In any case, it wasn’t unpleasant and there must be a market for such an offering, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many young ladies offering their services.
Thank you KL. It was a pleasure.
Photo: Brian Giesen