Sunday, March 04, 2012

Day 137 - 140: Kuala Lumpur

Arriving in KL in the afternoon, we checked into our pre-booked accommodation, Ribbon Stayyz. Now, normally I’d balk at anything that not only uses a Z instead of an S as a plural (take note, Orbitz) but chucks in an extraneous Y for no good reason. However, the budget was tight, KL is huge, the hostel was central, and they included breakfast. So I swallowed my orthographic snobbery and we settled into our room.

I say “room”. What I actually mean is “box”. It was barely big enough to accommodate a double bed. There was room for one person to stand up at the side, one person to stand up at the end, but not enough room for either of them to pass the other. The remaining two sides of the bed were firmly lodged against the other two walls of the box. I say “walls”. What I actually mean is “cardboard partitions”. Think of everything you expect a youth hostel private room to look like, reduce the size of it by about 50%, and you have our lodgings for the evening.

The hostel wasn’t bad overall, though. The bed was fairly comfortable, and there was an excellent social area with sofas and a huge Samsung TV.  As time was limited though, we decided to head straight out to go and see the National Planetarium. It was absolutely guttering down outside, which didn't get us off to a good start, but things immediately took an unsavoury turn, as not 15 metres from the hostel entrance I passed a guy who muttered “hello” at us...at least I thought it was us, except Gilly was about 10 paces behind me. After the fact, I should have trusted my instincts; there was definitely something off about him which I couldn’t put my finger on, but I’d chosen to ignore it. The next thing I knew, she ran up in shock. That same guy had decided it would be a good idea to unzip his trousers and expose himself to her. By the time she got to me, the perverted bastard had disappeared. I was furious with him and myself...I should have trusted my gut and kept close, and maybe it wouldn’t have happened. Or if it had, the guy would have had a mangled organ by the end of the encounter. This was our first negative experience in Malaysia, but it’s far from indicative. Flashers abound the world over, the UK included, and it is surely just the sign of some mental disturbance in an individual rather than a deliberate attempt to piss off tourists.

Still, we were in a fairly foul mood by the time we got to the Planetarium, not helped by the horrible weather and the ridiculous layout of KL’s road and pedestrian network. I have no idea who planned the city, but I strongly suspect that during the design phase the architect chucked a bowl of spaghetti at a white canvas and then started scribbling road names down. It takes you a ridiculous amount of time to walk anywhere, because the town planners have put in loops within loops on pavements and walkways, so you end up walking to the end of a bridge before turning around at the end and coming back on yourself even though your goal is a mere 5 metres away but with a 10 foot drop separating you. It’s an exercise in frustration.

We found it in the end though, and it cheered us up greatly. As attractions go, it’s very well designed, contains a heap of information about space programs around the world (and space in general), some excellent time-lapse photos, and has lots of interesting things to play with, such as a replica of a space station toilet:

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And more impressively, an “anti-gravity” room where you can literally bend over backwards without falling over:


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After an enjoyable couple of hours, we were feeling much happier and returned to the hostel to find out that the manager, Joyce, was having a birthday celebration. This involved everyone being given KFC, birthday cake and wine (Jacob’s Creek, no less! Recognisable UK supermarket wine in Asia compares significantly better than the other offerings on the shelf). We also got to meet a few of the other hostelites including Oli from Essex, and Bat from France. Bat’s real name is Guislain but he pronounces it something that is unintelligible to anyone outside of France (or possibly Wales), so he calls himself Bat. I never did find out why. Joyce is in the white top at the back; Bat and Oli are on the right.

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As we were pretty full from the food and not in the mood for a “proper” evening meal, we decided to go out with Oli and Bat to get a couple of roti from a few doors down, before coming back and watching the laughably silly Final Destination 5
on the big TV over a small bottle of brandy. Having seen the previous 4, I can safely say it’s much better than the last two, but not a patch on the first two. There’s only so many over-the-top deaths you can film before things get repetitive. The ending had a decent twist though. The brandy was Golden Axe. As a fan of classic 80s arcade games, I bought it purely for the name and I wanted to see what three quid’s worth of brandy tasted like. Answer: not too bad at all, and there wasn’t a Death Adder in sight.

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After an average night’s sleep in our box, ruined at about 6am by some Chinese neighbours having a huge conversation in the hallway outside our room about moving out, we had breakfast (tea and toast) and went over to the museum for 11am where a regular English tour was scheduled to take place, according to the Lonely Planet guide we had. Let me take this opportunity to say: Lonely Planet is utter crap. Not only are their maps abysmal – an unclear mess of numbers and symbols spread over a page in groups the size of a postage stamp, and often in the wrong place – but their information is frequently wrong. Whilst However, LP is certainly better than nothing at all, if I had the choice of a guide I’d choose Rough Guides every time.  Consequently, we found that the tour actually took place at 10am and we’d missed it. Cursing our luck, we wandered over to the reception desk for a map and were approached by a woman wearing a volunteer badge. Would we like a tour, as if so, she would be happy to take us around for free? My word, yes! An hour and a half later we emerged from the last of the four galleries a little better informed. The museum was no great shakes, but it was interesting enough and the highlight for me (and clearly for our guide, as she went into great detail) was the story about Hang Tuah, a famous warrior who was devoutly loyal to various successive Sultans and by all accounts single-handedly destroyed armies amongst his many feats.

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Interestingly, I read in a national newspaper not long after that it was likely that Hang Tuah never existed, and is probably a folklore legend similar to Robin Hood or King Arthur.  Our guide asked for a photo with us at the end, and graciously returned the favour:

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In the afternoon we decided to get a taxi to the National Art Gallery. This turned out to be far more hassle than we were expecting. Again, I ignored my gut to our cost when we approached a taxi driver with our destination. He clearly had no idea what the National Art Gallery was, or where it was located. Still, we showed him the miniscule dot on our Lonely Planet map and he nodded and set off. The next thing we know, he is on the road that the map says the gallery is on, but he’s going in the wrong direction. I told him this, and he pulled over and starts studying it. Meanwhile, the taxi meter is still ticking upwards. I ask him to stop it, and he says he can’t. I ask him if he knows where he’s going, and he mumbles something and peers closer at the map. He has clearly just bullshat his way to a fare. Reluctant to subsidise the payments on his new in-car DVD Sat Nav player any further, we cut our losses and got out. It was about 12:30pm and the heat was relentless, as appears to be the norm in Malaysia, but we were at the side of a huge dual carriageway with only a vague idea of the direction we should be going. We trundled on, and eventually got to some sort of business area, confirmed by the appearance of McDonalds amongst the more pricier restaurants. I’m not ashamed to say that the double cheeseburger I had was fantastic. After stocking up on water and heading on again in search of this bloody gallery, we stopped at a garage for a Solero Lime Split. This is basically a strawberry split (flavoured ice water on the outside, ice cream in the middle) but lime flavoured, and bright green. It was amazing and kept us plodding along the road, especially as the garage manager told us the building was only two doors along. Thankfully, he was right.

The National Art Gallery was pretty good, and we killed an afternoon pleasantly. Aside from the usual conceptual nonsense – hey, here’s a square piece of canvas painted purely white: can you deduce what I’m trying to say to the viewer? (Answer: Yes, I can deduce that you’re a pretentious buffoon, or alternatively, if you manage to sell that piece for the price tag underneath, an astute businessman) -  there was a great gallery on Japanese characters and their assimilation into Japanese culture. I’ve never been to Japan unlike our friends recently but it gave us a fascinating insight into how cartoon and comic book characters such as Hello Kitty, Pikachu, Ultraman and others have wormed their way into everyday society, not only over there, but worldwide. Here’s a fantastic example – Pikachu, a character from Pokémon is recognised by Microsoft Word’s spell checker as a valid word. It even suggested I added the accent to the “e” in Pokémon.  Apparently, girls’ bedrooms are decked out with characters – the below photo is supposedly a typical example.

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At the end of the gallery tour, we were in need of a rest so took 5 minutes in a massage chair. It was superb. If I could splash out on one thing for a house, it would be one of these:

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It’s worth noting that the metro train system in KL is excellent. Tickets cost roughly between RM1-2 (22 - 44p) and will take you to most of the major places in the city. The trains are punctual and frequent, and you use plastic tokens (rather than cardboard tickets you get in the UK) which are programmed with your destination and you wave them over the entry point to get access and insert them into a slot to exit the station. Ingenious.

That evening we walked down to a local food court to sample some cuisine. We were in Malaysia, so obviously decided on Thai food. I’m not sure whether it was our past experience with the “can’t go wrong” Thai menu, or maybe just the name of the place that enticed us:

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We did indeed get some various fried Thai things, and they were delicious. Objective met.

The following day was the typical tourist destination – the Petronas Towers. We’d got there early for a couple of reasons. Firstly we’d planned to cram a fair bit into the day, and secondly, LP noted that over 1600 tickets up the towers were given away free in the morning. Going on past experience with the book, we took this information with several heaped tablespoons of salt, and were right to be pessimistic as there was now a hefty (relative to our budget) fee for going up them. As with most landmarks, when you’re on/in/up them, you can’t photograph them, and the view over KL wasn’t something we were desperate to see so we decided to take some touristy snaps from the outside. I suspect Sydney Harbour Bridge will be the same. 

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Mid-shooting, we were approached by a group of Malaysian and Japanese students who were doing some sort of treasure hunt around the city which involved getting the help of people on the street for various activities. They wanted us to play “Taboo”, and get 5 correct answers in two minutes. If you’ve never played Taboo, it’s great: you have a word on a card which you have to make another person guess, as well as 6 words related to that first word which they aren’t allowed to say. For instance, with the word “jelly” you may need to describe it without using the words “wibble”, “wobble”, “plate”,  and so on. Gilly and I performed admirably, with me getting words such as “girlfriend” and “snow”, Gilly getting "bangle" and “Hindistan” and us both getting “Jacuzzi”. Task completed, the students headed off to do some Banghra dancing in the street(!), but not before the obligatory photoshoot:


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Next on the list of the day’s activities was Galeri Petronas, which had some decent shots of Chinese New Year, as well as some press photography. More importantly, there was a gallery area where you could use crayons and pencils to draw your own masterpiece and stick it to the wall, so, inspired by the previous day’s visit, I came up with something suitably pretentious. Can you deduce its meaning? Can you?

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You may snigger, but when I’m a famous artist/author/musician, people will be clamouring to pay upwards of £1.50 for my creation.

Our last destination of the day was to Petrosains, an interactive science museum with more than a little focus towards the gas and oil giant Petronas (they of the Towers fame, as well as the sponsors of the museum). We weren’t expecting much, but we must have enjoyed it as we didn’t emerge until almost 5 hours later. Whilst there was a lot of emphasis on how oil is pulled from the ground (it really isn’t very exciting), there are plenty of other interesting science bits including a machine that can make exact copies of a person:

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Incredible. I’m not sure how they’ve kept this technology under wraps for so long.

On our final full day, we took a trip over to the Lake Gardens for a wander around. We managed to find the Hibiscus garden without a problem, but the Orchid garden eluded us.

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I’m pretty sure we took a wrong turn somewhere, probably at the corner of Vermicelli & Linguine. We managed to get back near the outskirts of Merdeka Square as clouds gathered, and we darted into the City Gallery to avoid a potential downpour, but came out again 15 minutes later as it was fairly small and a full third of the building was taken up by a souvenir shop.

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Still, the impending storm provided an excellent backdrop to some of the buildings and the square itself.

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We stopped off for some food at Precious Old China in the Centre Market complex which was pretty good, and in the afternoon ventured out to the Museum Bank Negara which I’d read was supposed to be pretty decent. An hour’s walk around the maze of streets, and we finally got there. It wasn’t too bad, a gallery dedicated to numismatics and another containing purely paintings, but that was pretty much it for an entire floor of what is essentially a huge office building. It was the quietest office I’d ever been into; possibly this was because Mondays were a day off for a lot of businesses. There was supposed to be a gallery explaining how the building was constructed which would have been interesting if it hadn’t been closed for renovation, as it was a fairly impressive piece of architecture:

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Tip: if you go to this museum, eat in the cafe there. It’s excellent, and dirt cheap. We took some cakes and croissants away for our flight the next morning but the food on offer looked fantastic.

Sadly, on our return we learned that Oli – who was sleeping in a dorm room, and had been there for about a week and a half – had had a significant amount of cash taken from his locker. Since the only other people with access to the key for that locker were the staff at Ribbon Stayyz, we can only conclude that there are some light-fingered workers at the hostel. The owner was looking into it as we left, but Oli wasn’t hopeful of getting any recompense since he was due to leave the day after us. We have been extremely fortunate that nothing similar has happened thus far on our trip, although since we’re travelling for a year we are prime candidates for something to happen at some point. Let’s hope it doesn’t.

We’d got a flight booked for Borneo the next morning, and had decided to skip the western part of Malaysian Borneo (Sarawak) in favour of Sabah in the east. There appeared to be more going on, and it was easier to get to Sipidan from there, where some excellent diving was reputed to be found.  We packed our stuff up, and left our box room the next morning on a bus to the airport. 

1 comment:

Ben Price said...

I sincerely hope you're considering writing this up as a book when you get back sir. Top notch journalism :)