A bit more than 36 hours in Kuala Lumpur

[I wrote this a few days ago, but couldn’t post it from the jungle, where the Internet was slow as a sloth.]

When I’m planning a visit to a city in a country I know little about, I often google the phrase “36 Hours in [City Name].” “That’s the title of the popular New York Times travel column that offers itineraries for slapdash visits to intriguing locations around the world. It’s been mocked for its unrealistically fast pacing. But I’ve gotten good ideas from it for locales as far-flung as Hanoi and Bogota.
I didn’t have time to do much research in preparation for our one-day visit to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. But while I blogged on our train ride Sunday from Singapore, Steve burrowed into the aging library copy of “Lonely Planet Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei” that we brought along. He supplemented it with some fact-gathering courtesy of Google and learned enough to create an entertaining day. I’ve summarized it here for anyone planning a visit to Kuala Lumpur soon.

5:15 pm Sunday — Arrive at Kuala Lumpur’s central railroad station and buy a $2.17 ticket for the taxi ride to our hotel, the Majestic. The Majestic is a much better class of joint than we normally stay at. People compare it to the Raffles in Singapore, where the least expensive rooms these days fetch around $700 a night. When I learn that I can book a double (Majestic) room for less than $100, I can’t resist. And when we check in, the desk clerk murmurs that for an extra $60 or so per night, we will get access to their sumptuous buffet breakfast along with a large suite in the historic old building (instead of the prosaic new tower) and a butler who will serve us our breakfast in our suite if we wish. We can have our dirty clothes laundered for free. We can drink up all the contents of the minibar, again at no charge. And we can participate in the high tea and cocktail hour with all the booze and munchies we want. This too will be complimentary. I find it irresistible, and it proves to be a decision we do not regret. 

Part of the lobby of the Majestic


6:30 pm — In the hotel’s “library,” we are plied with cocktails, good South African wine  and enough tea sandwiches and hot hors d’oeuvres to extinguish 90% of our appetite. We nonetheless tipsily make our way to the “Colonial Cafe,” where we consume one Colonial salad and one bowl of Mulligatawny soup. We return to our winsomely comfy quarters and are sound asleep by 10.
8 am Monday — We eat too much of the buffet breakfast, but cannot help ourselves because the Malay pastries and crepes are so intriguing (if kind of creepy). Also, the contestants for Miss Malaysia Universe 2017 are in the hotel this day for 12 hours of instruction in makeup, hair, and comportment. It’s fascinating to watch them file in and pick at their Malaysian pastries.


9 am — We hit the street, and it’s our lucky day. Instead of yesterday’s gray, rainy, sweltering weather (which made the city look bleak), the skies today are sunny and blue. Under them, Kuala Lumpur looks jaunty and energetic. The Majestic is very close to the Tun Abdul Razak Heritage Park, and we follow a winding path through it, noting its how many alluring attractions it contains: the world’s biggest aviary, an inviting planetarium, a butterfly garden, an orchid garden. We don’t have time to visit any of them. But if we had an extra day, we could readily pass it here. Instead we get lost, trying to find our way out of the park. The temperature is climbing well past 90. Our printed street map is not to scale, and Google maps is lnon-functional. It takes a while, but we finally make our way to Little India. 

11 am — A huge chunk of the ethnic enclave appears to be torn up for reconstruction. Many big chunks of the city are, which compounds the inherently confusing jumble of streets. We resolve to come back to Little India in the evening, when it’s not so hot and explore further. For now we head to KL Tower, one of the tallest structures in the world. Kuala Lumpur has many skyscrapers, but somehow the city feels very different from Singapore. The infrastructure is more dilapidated. Walkways are crumbling. Signage is poor, and it’s much harder to find our way around. That said, Steve’s research online has made us aware that Malaysia is about as prosperous as Greece, Poland, and Portugal, and many times richer than Thailand, the Philippines, or Indonesia.

Noon — Kuala Lumpur’s tallest buildings, the Petronas Towers, are closed on Mondays, and this happens to be a Monday. But the KL Tower is almost as tall and equipped with the glass-bottomed viewing platforms that have become a minor fad in recent years. For about $22 per person, we spend a highly satisfying hour ogling the 360-degree views and experiencing the glass-bottom viewing experience.


The KL Tower…

…and the great view of the Petronus Towers, even taller.


1 pm –We walk to Jalan Alor, an open-air dining street in the city center where the guidebook promises one can get every imaginable Malay or Chinese dish. Indeed there are many frog dishes on the menu of the place we plop down in, along with about 200 other choices. We eat rice, barbecued pork, savory soup dumplings, and beer for less than $18 for two.

2:30 pm — We’re not far from the city’s monorail line, and we quickly figure out how to use it to get to the Chinatown. But we’re appalled that the automatic gates that should keep people from falling 30 feet to the street below are broken. It gives a whole new urgency to the injunction “Mind the gap!” 

2:45 pm — We stroll up the main pedestrian street in the Chinatown, and I buy a chillable eye mask for a little under $2. But we don’t linger. The day is still sweltering, and even though the Chinatown is close to our hotel, it can be devilishly hard to navigate from one point to another in this town.

The main pedestrian street in KL’s Chinatown
3:30 pm — Back at the Majestic, we gratefully ease into one of the two disappearing-edge pools. It feels like paradise. We linger, then shower, then I finish writing my last blog post about Singapore. 


6 pm — We return for more of the South African wine and filling cold and hot snacks. The staff dazzles us with their attention and solicitousness. They promise to book a taxi to take us to the travel agency where we need to go first thing the next morning.

7:15 pm — We decide we’re so full we don’t even need soup or salad. We also can’t muster the energy to make our way to Little India in the heat. Instead we chill in the air-conditioned comfort of our suite. 

10 p.m. — Asleep again. 

5:22 am Tuesday — I hear the first Muslim call to prayer of the morning, issuing from the large mosque next to our hotel. It’s more melodic here than what I remember in the Middle East and North Africa. Somehow it reminds me of a Gregorian chant. It almost soothes me back to sleep, but we have to pack, eat more of the monster buffet breakfast, and head to the travel agency, where a van will transport us on the next phase of our Malaysian adventure: a journey to Malaysia’s vast national park in the middle of a 130-million-year-old tropical rainforest. 

Disneyland for plant lovers (and other unnatural wonders)

For our last day in Singapore, we took a closer look at a couple of the city’s most dumbfounding landmarks. One, weirdly, is a public park, the Gardens by the Bay, built in 2012 at a cost of more than a billion Singapore dollars, and now one of the city’s premier tourist draws. It’s free to enter much of it, but you have to pay to enter the two enormous “biodomes.” One of them, the Cloud Forest, was the most fantastic plant-exposition-space I’ve ever seen.

We got there early to beat the crowds and took the elevator up to the top of the 10-story-tall artificial mountain that’s at the dome’s heart. It’s been planted with many of the rare and beautiful plants that grow at high altitudes in the tropics. From the top, you stroll down walkways that simultaneously bring you close to the exquisite flora while taking in dizzying views of Singapore’s science-fictional skyline.


I was almost rubbing my eyes like a cartoon character at all the beauty — botanical, architectural, sculptural. After we staggered out, all but dazed by it, we moved on to visit the adjoining Flower Dome, which proved to be well done but paled in comparison to the wonders of the Cloud Forest and seemed much more mundane (probably because it showcases plants from the world’s drier Mediterranean regions — like our home.)

We ate lunch at a hawker center within the park then did a lightning tour of Marina Bay Sands, the eye-popping hotel and casino that adjoins the urban gardens. It’s very Vegas (perhaps in part because it’s owned by Nevada gaming magnate Sheldon Adelson).

But we weren’t sneering at it; that’s hard to do. In fact, after returning to our hotel to pack and eating our final dinner (in Chinatown), we returned to the enormous plaza between the Sands and the reservoir (aka Marina Bay). We’d heard that a free, superb sound and light show was presented nightly at 8. When we arrived shortly before then, hundreds of people had gathered in anticipation of it. 

I wondered: what do you do to impress a 21st-century horde? I found out that what works pretty well is to puff a wall of fog at several spots along the waterfront, with the glittery Singaporean nightscape behind it. Then with rousing music surrounding the crowd, you project on that ephemeral misty “screen” primal images of human happiness: young lovers kissing, parents gazing rapturously at their babies, children romping in the surf, beaming elders. If incoherent, it also somehow felt magical.


We didn’t linger, but rather, as soon as the mist dissipated, Steve and I raced through the passageways back to the Gardens by the Bay, to ascend to the top of one of its “supertrees.”

Here’s what the supertrees look like in the daytime, with the Marina Bay Sands in the background.

At night they shine.

On the roof, we sipped wine and gazed some more at the incomparable skyline, until a few minutes before 8:45, when we descended to take in the free spectacle staged nightly in the supertree plaza. Music began to pulse, and the trees sprang to lighted life — changing color and all but dancing to the sound track, which consisted exclusively of songs from late 20th-century American and British musicals: Chicago, Evita, Les Miserables, Fiddler on the Roof, and more. This was both oddly beautiful and simply odd, and once again I felt ecstatic to be a part of the epic cultural mash-up.

Eating up Singapore

Among the many delicious aspects of our visit to Singapore has been the food. Our guide on the bike tour that first morning was blunt. “Every single Singaporean is a foodie,” he declared. Most people don’t cook at home, he said, at least in part because they can choose from such a vast profusion of excellent dishes, many available at rock-bottom prices. Of course it’s also possible to pay a lot in restaurants. Singapore regularly shows up on lists of the world’s most expensive cities. But it also is blessed with dozens upon dozens of so-called “hawker centres,” each offering a head-spinning number of Items to eat.

The Lao Pa Sat center in the downtown business district. We ate there two nights.
The Maxwell Street centre in Chinatown
 

We did most of our eating in the centers. They’re are a bit like American food courts, except they lack air-conditioning and an industrialized approach to food production. A handful may have branches in a couple of centers, but most aren’t chains. Everything is cooked on the spot after the order has been placed. I read that Michelin’s recently published guide to Singaporean dining includes a number of hawker centre stalls.

Some of the offerings were too weird for us to consider:

In other nearby stalls, I noted salted egg and barbecued crayfish, various kinds of squid, prawn balls, fried fritters and fried oyster egg, salted egg with bitter gourd, and shark’s fin soup for sale.

I’d happily try this in LA. But in Singapore? No way.

Still, we were reasonably adventurous. At the recommendation of our bike-tour guide, we ate barbecued sting ray…

The texture reminded me of sole!.

… and oyster omelette…

….and something that the locals call “carrot cake.”

Looks a lot like omelette too. But it’s filled with chunks of a mysterious ingredient.

On our last night, we sought out one of the most beloved local dishes — Hainan chicken rice — at the stall in Chinatown where Anthony Bourdain swooned over its deliciousness (His photo is prominently displayed on the Tian Tian stall.)

It was tasty, but we thought our noodles with roast duck was even more irresistible. We gobbled both dishes down with stir-fried bean sprouts and good Singaporean beer, and the total came to just over $15 for the two of us.

There are so many things we didn’t have time to try —  even at McDonald’s! 

Since “ebi” in Japanese means shrimp, I assume that these were shrimp burgers. But what the heck is a honeydew McSlurry?!

It makes me imagine coming back just to eat more.

In the land of the merlion

Late Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after we arrived in Singapore, I was re-reading a long blog post that I had printed out months ago about taking the train from Bangkok to Singapore (a journey that Steve and I will begin, in reverse, on Sunday). In writing about his time in Singapore, the post’s author had mentioned that he’d taken a bike tour of the city — something I had completely forgotten, even though Steve and I had a wonderful experience touring Bogota, Colombia by bike in May. I all but slapped myself on the forehead. We did some quick research; made a quick call. Found that we could join the morning tour the next day.

That’s how we came to be in Singapore’s financial district, wearing bike helmets and ready to set off at 8:30 Thursday morning with Alfian, our 27-year-old bike-tour guide. Our fellow bikers were  a British guy of Indian descent named Joe, and a Norwegian woman traveling with her 12-year-old daughter. Alfian had given us our orientation lecture, and we were ready to roll out the door, when the skies opened up, unloosing a drenching downpour.

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Alfian seemed only a little dismayed. He predicted it wouldn’t last long and advised us to get a coffee at the nearby Starbucks.  We did, but by 9, it was not only still raining, but crackling with lightning and explosions of thunder. Alfian made a phone call to someone and pronounced that the rain was actually only gentle. He suggested that we carry on, and everyone in the group agreed. So off we pedaled into the thunderstorm.

He was right. The downpour and pyrotechnics didn’t last much longer, and the part we experienced felt emblematic of this place overall — dramatic and beautiful and refreshing and actually quite safe. For the vast majority of our three-plus hours with Alfian, we pedaled on level sidewalks or bike paths. None of it was in scary, chaotic traffic. My sleeveless arms were damp, and the breeze generated by the biking cooled me; it was a little like generating our own air conditioning. Best of all, biking and chatting and stopping for photos was a perfect way to see some of Singapore’s many marvels.

I’m embarrassed to admit how little I knew about the place before coming here. But we’ve made up a lot of ground in the last 24 hours. I now understand how this little island at the tip of the Malay peninsula came to be an independent country (no doubt about that!) in 1965, and I’ve gotten a little insight into how the humble one-time fishing village (symbolized by the mermaid) has become transformed into the economic lion it is today — one of the wealthiest and most productive societies in the world. The bike tour yesterday made it crystal clear that the city center is a physically astounding place. Parts of it retain the grandiose classical and Victorian edifices built by the one-time British rulers. The humble but colorful vernacular architecture of their one-time inhabitants (Chinese, Malay, Indian) has been preserved in a couple of enclaves.

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A park in the Little India area
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The iconic Sultan Mosque, in the center of the historic Muslim district

Elsewhere the Singaporeans have constructed some of the most incredible looking high rises I’ve seen anywhere. They rival (or surpass) the wonders of today’s Shanghai skyline.

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The population is multinational — though 74% are ethnic Chinese (many of whose antecedents poured in here in the early 1800s, when Singapore first began thriving as a free port. But about 12% are ethnic Malay, and a similar number are Indian. (Everyone else makes up the other 2%). What charms and delights me is that although the city-state looks and feels intensely Asian, for the most part, people are speaking English (or Singlish, as the weirdly inflected local tongue has been nicknamed). All children study it in school (along with their “native” ethnic language). You can walk anywhere, day or night, and be safe; talk to everyone, and be understood.

Thursday afternoon we spent an hour at the National Museum. Friday we covered a lot more ground; took the metro and a city bus out to the city’s zoological complex in the rainforest. Although the zoo here is reputed to be one of the world’s best, we figured didn’t have the time to do it justice. But Steve and I are total suckers for rivers, and we couldn’t resist a quick visit to the adjoining “River Safari” park devoted to showcasing 8 of the greatest rivers in the world (the Mississippi, Nile, Congo, Mekong, Yangste, Amazon, Ganges, and Mary).

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The entrance to the River Safari park — an homage to some of the manatees who are featured prominently

Then we metro’d to the Orchard Street, Singapore’s over-the-top concentration of insanely expensive designer shopping palaces.

Along the way we have been amused by a few reminders that the infamous Singaporean social control still persists. There was that notice about executing drug dealers (on the immigration form). And Alfian told us they still cane rapists and other criminals here.  I haven’t seen any warnings about chewing gum (though they probably don’t sell it in the stores), but I did gasp at the cigarette packages.

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Every package of every brand is plastered with a grisly image.

 

This is a food-obsessed society, but vendors no longer can sell their wares on the street, where it’s too hard to police their sanitary standards. Instead they’ve been moved into wondrous indoor facilities. But that’s the subject of another post. For now, we only have one day left to begin absorb what would probably take a month – or a year to begin to understand.

In hot water

A little sad that we wouldn’t see Taiwan’s beautiful countryside, I felt intrigued by the recommendation I read from a couple of travel writers. They said a 40-minute metro ride could take one to one of the hot springs towns created by the Japanese during their 50-year occupation of this island last century. The outing sounded almost too good to be true: bucolic, potentially relaxing, and something that could be accomplished in just a few hours. So yesterday morning, off we went.

Using the splendid Taipei metro system, it was cheap (about $1.10 per person) and easy to reach Beitou. But it sure didn’t feel like the ride took us out into the country; the town feels more like a prosperous suburb, albeit one surrounded by not-so-distant lush and rugged and potentially undeveloped mountains. Even though our stop was the end of the line and it was a Tuesday morning in October, the train discharged a bunch of passengers along with us: young couples, families, and older folk. A thick knot of restaurants and shops surrounded the station, but everyone seemed to stream toward a long woodsy park created along both sides of the Beitou Stream, so we went with the flow. 

It swept us to the town’s principal sights. These included a beautifully ecosensitive branch of the Taipei city library, designed with a plethora of nooks so tranquil I longed to stay and study something in one of them. A few minutes further down the path, we found the town’s hot spring museum. It contained a few replicas of soaking pools and a huge tatami-lined hall where the Taiwanese tourists seemed to get a big kick out of sitting on the straw mats and pretending to be Japanese. 

The Millenial Hot Springs facility was a bit further down the trail. We’d read that this was the cheap date in town for getting a soak, and since we were more interested in the sociology than the actual hot springs, we paid the 80 Taiwan dollars (about $2.55 US for two) and soldiered in. (We’d brought our bathing suits but not towels, so buying a flimsy one set us back another $1.60)


Inside we changed and eased into the first pool of hot water, which a sign declared to be 38-40 degrees C (100-104 F). It was hot but tolerable, and after a few minutes we moved up to the next dipping station (104-109 F), which we found to be hotter but still bearable. In the final pools at the top, we could only submerge ourselves in the 111-113-degree water for a minute. But we’d seen enough. If we’d come with a bunch of friends, the way the locals did, it would have made sense to move back down to the cooler levels to gossip and absorb more of the supposedly healing minerals. Alternatively, Beitou has plenty of tonier, more expensive spas we could have patronized. But then we would felt obliged to linger. And what we lacked more than anything was time. 

Seeing Beitou’s  last two major sights took no more than a half hour. 

This most interesting of these was the very short walk up the “Thermal Valley.” It felt like strolling past a gigantic pot of sulfurously smelly boiling water.

Then it was time to find lunch and return to central Taipei, where we spent what was left of the afternoon resting and walking more and packing for our morning flight Wednesday.

Now I’m writing this at 35,000 feet, bound for Singapore. I have to add that Taipei’s airport and this EVA Air plane have both shown us some additional sights that made our eyes widen. In the airport, we noted rooms where waiting passengers can go in and shower (they looked similar to private bathrooms). I’ve never seen that before. But the airport is very, very short on the sort of sundries ubiquitous in America airports. I had 140 Taiwanese dollars left (about $3.50US) after we changed money, and though we searched and searched, we almost couldn’t find anything to spend it on. There were mountains of designer purses and French perfume and high-end luggage and other fancy goods, but not a single package of gum or a chocolate bar for sale. Finally, I found a little box of cookies that I’m sure will fill my sugar craving some night. 

We passed a “reading lounge” stocked with books, and much weirder, a “Hello Kitty”-themed lounge open to the public. A couple of adult men and women seemed to be hanging out in it, but no kids. 

For anyone allergic to Hello Kitty, this flight also would be a trial. The interior of our 777 is soaked with the iconic Japanese brand. 


I have no idea why it is nor time to find out. I have to fill out my arrival form for Singapore — while silently giving thanks that I haven’t packed any narcotics for sale on this trip.

 

 

Three reasons to like Taiwan even if it isn’t a country

To be honest, one of the reasons we came to Taiwan is because I wanted to add another country to the list of those I’ve visited. That wasn’t the only reason. Because we were flying to Singapore on EVA Air (Taiwan’s well-respected airline), we could spend a few days on this beautiful island off the coast of China at no extra cost for the transportation. Such a stop would help break up the grimly long trip from Los Angeles (13-plus hours just to Taipei alone). Steve could once again see the city that he and his mom toured for a day (via bicycle rickshaw!) back in 1958 (when it took them 3 weeks to cross the Pacific by freighter).

So yesterday, when I learned (was reminded?) that Taiwan is not universally recognized to be a separate country, I was dismayed. (Somehow, I thought the Chinese  along the line gave up their claims to it. Which, apparently they haven’t.) But after some reflection, I’ve decided I don’t care. I think Taiwan deserves to be on my list at least as much as Tibet and Palestine. And even if isn’t a separate country, after less than 24 hours here, we’ve seen much to justify a visit. Here are three things that have most impressed us:

1) Taipei has one of the best public subway systems we’ve used anywhere in the world. We figured it out almost instantly. Even though we can’t read most of the signs, they include enough Roman lettering to enable non-Chinese speakers to get by. All the trains are immaculate and quiet and they come along every 5 minutes or less.image

Best of all is the brilliant way the systems handles single-ride payment. From easy-to-use machines, you buy tokens that look like cheap poker chips.image

But they have some kind of electronic signaler in them, so when you touch them to a pad at each turnstile, they make the gates open. At the end of your ride you insert them into a slot that lets you exit. Most rides cost about 60 cents.

2) This is a city of passionate eaters. That seems true of most of the Chinese-influenced cities I’ve ever visited. But it meant on our very first day, we had two great meals, both in atmospheric joints. For lunch, we made our way to one of the supposedly best sources of meat-stuffed dumplings in the city — a gritty jammed second-story room above a sweltering kitchen open to the street. We ordered two types of dumplings, fat ones filled with seasoned ground pork and smaller ones served with soup broth, and each one felt like a gift.

imageYou bit into the delicate packaging of pasta to encounter a delicious present within. We ate dinner in another dive reputed to have the best beef noodles in the city. The line to get in stretched out into the street even when we arrived after 7:30.

imageBut all the families and working folk inside ate fast and paid fast; no sitting around and gabbing and digesting at those tables. We followed suit, then hit the street in search of a current fad in Taipei — soft-serve ice cream.

3) Though Taipei feels extremely Chinese in many ways, almost everyone seems to speak at least a bit of English. Children start to study it in grade school and continue into secondary school. And folks young and old don’t seem afraid to use it. That’s one thing that makes the place feel friendly. Within just a few hours of our taking to the street, we had a late-middle-age guy stop his bike and roll it up to us to ask if we needed help finding someplace. (We actually did — but just didn’t realize it when he asked us) Despite their linguistic skills, the locals never seem to use them to hustle or harangue  visitors to buy stuff. That may be because so few Westerners come here. Steve and I counted no more than a dozen or two out of the thousands upon thousands of people we walked by our first day here. It also may reflect how prosperous people are here. According to the CIA Fact Book, the Taiwanese rank just behind Germany in their economic output per person — ahead of Britain, France, Canada, and Japan!

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One thing they spend their money on is karaoke. Every floor of the Party World building is devoted to it. Our walking tour guide told us many young people like to start around 11 p.m and sing until dawn. 

If we had more time to range out into the country, I’m sure we’d find even more to dazzle us. But we have only one more full day in Taiwan before pushing on to the strange little city-state of Singapore.