We were down to the last couple weeks of our trip when we decided to go to Malaysia. Sitting in Thailand, we had tickets in hand to fly from Singapore to Brisbane the day after Christmas. The question on the table was, “What do we want to see between now and then?”
The easiest options would have been to stay in Bangkok a little longer or fly directly to Singapore. Always wanting to see a new place, my preference would have been to bus down through Malaysia, but I knew Oksana wasn’t up for that. At any rate, there wouldn’t be time enough to do the country justice. Kuala Lumpur was only a few hours from Singapore by bus, though. Perhaps we could spend a few days there – and see the Petronas Towers, at least – before moving on? (And yes, I’ll admit that chalking up a visit to another country’s McDonald’s may have influenced my decision…)
Oksana agreed, so we paid for a one-way flight from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur.
I started taking notes about Malaysia two months before we officially entered the country. After our first month in Thailand, we had to do a visa run to extend our stay. Since we were in Phuket, we had only two options. One, we could take an all day bus-boat-bus ride across the border into Burma, but that would have only granted us 15 more days. To get a 30-day stamp, we chose option number two, which was to buy round-trip airline tickets to Kuala Lumpur.
We left practically all our belongings in our hotel room and just brought along a laptop and iPad to keep us entertained during the 5-hour layover. We never even left the airport, but even so, that’s when I jotted down my first thoughts on Malaysia.
I saw a lot of scattered clouds as we descended toward the city, but it was sunny when we exited our plane. I figured it must be monsoon season, though, because the airport was prepared for heavy rains.
We were in the budget carrier terminal, where most of the jets parked out on the tarmac. Instead of descending down a jetway to reach them, passengers were, more often than not, herded into buses which drove them out to their awaiting planes. Because of this, passengers would sometimes be at the mercy of the elements.
Fortunately, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport watches out for travelers, even in the budget carrier terminal. Right outside the gate’s doors were huge baskets filled with dozens of large umbrellas. I saw them and wondered if we were going to see any rain while we were there.
We did, oh yes indeed, we did. While waiting in the passenger lounge, we looked outside to see a torrential downpour. Everyone out there – the passengers, baggage handlers, mechanics – looked miserable. Within minutes, an inch of water covered the entire tarmac.
It was gone in an hour or so, though. The ground was nice and dry by the time we boarded our return flight home.
Later, when we were playing tourist in the city, we experienced similar weather from time to time. Reminded me of South Florida in the summer. Thunderstorms would roll in, drench the streets, and then pass on by. Didn’t really stop us from exploring, though we did wait out one storm in a mall. Grabbed a coffee at Starbucks, caught a movie.
There were drinking fountains in the Kuala Lumpur airport. Seeing one of those made me realize just how rare they are in the world. If you don’t count the old fountains in Istanbul, I’m not sure we’ve seen one since leaving the States.
“Two for one,” “Buy one, get one free,” I’m sure you’ve seen offers like that before. While waiting for our return flight to Thailand, we had breakfast in Dunkin’ Donuts and we bought a couple Coolattas because they were “Buy 1, free 1.”
Not a huge revelation or anything, but I thought that was a clever and catchy restatement of the advertisements I was used to. I’ll bet you that phrase – complete with numerals in place of written words for numbers – was selected because it makes more sense to people with a limited grasp of English.
Worked on me, anyway.
Something new at McDonald’s? After almost 30 different countries? Surprised me!
I kept seeing these little stickers of the Golden Arches on car windshields all over town. When I finally found one on a parked car, I discovered that they were “VIP drive-thru” stickers. Didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I’ve since learned that they entitle you to some sort of freebie, once a month, when you use the drive-thru. Must be a popular club, judging from all the stickers I saw.
Speaking of English, Malaysia surprised me in the amount of English they use in everyday life. We noticed it right away as the road signs from the airport to the city were all perfectly understandable to us – sort of a novelty after traveling though Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia!
On the streets, some business signs would be in Malay, but the vast majority were in English. I remember seeing one for a laundry mat and realizing just how much easier it would be for travelers to get around in Kuala Lumpur than in, say, Bangkok or Phnom Penh.
Malaysia identifies over one hundred languages within its borders, but English is second only to Malay. If you only visited the city, like us, you might be forgiven for thinking it was the official language of the country – everyone speaks it and it’s printed everywhere you look. In reality, English is the de facto language of business and government in Malaysia.
You’ve heard of Spanglish, before, I’m sure – the cross-pollination of Spanish and English. Likewise, there’s Engrish, which is a label we often use for funny translations on Asian signs, menus, and the like. Did you realize there’s a Manglish, too? Mangled English is the Malay equivalent of Spanglish.
I believe it’s a term usually reserved for a jumbled up mix of spoken English and Malay, but I wonder if it might also refer to some of the written words I saw in Kuala Lumpur.
For instance, there were the bas tikets we purchased to get to Singapore, Epal and oren fruit-flavored sodas in the convenience stores, and even some ice cold rut bir.
“Mangled English,” sure, but were they simplified spellings or honest mistakes? That, I don’t know.
Our first hint that Kuala Lumpur might be more technologically advanced that other countries in Southeast Asia was on the drive from the airport to the city. We arrived at night, so there wasn’t a lot of traffic, but there were still road advisory signs lit up along the way. Not only were the LED sign boards accurately stating the travel times to different destinations, they also flashed a notice every once in awhile to let motorists know that they could get up-to-the-minute traffic information by following the KL traffic twitter feed!
Later, when Oksana and I window shopped our way through the Low Yat Plaza, a huge mall full of nothing but camera, computer, and mobile phone stores in the Bukit Bintang shopping area, we realized that Malaysia is one of the few places in the world with technology prices comparable to the U.S. (In fact, I’d say it was second only to Dubai in that respect.)
We also noted that both our hotel room and our metro tokens took advantage of RFID technology. Most of our hotel/hostel room keys on this trip resembled something you’d use to unlock a pirate’s treasure chest, but not in Kuala Lumpur (at least not in our hotel!) We received what looked like a normal swipe card, but without the magnetic stripe. Instead of putting it in a slot or swiping it somewhere on the door, all you needed to do was bring it within close proximity to the latch. I didn’t even need to take it out of my wallet.
Similarly, the metro used tokens that looked not unlike small poker chips. ATM-like, touch screen machines dispense them after you’ve tapped in your destination and paid the appropriate amount. I thought there would be a slot on the turnstiles into which you deposited your token, but instead they’re simply pressed flat against a sensor. You keep them with you while on the train (presumably so that you can preset them, upon request, to metro officials) and only relinquish them when passing through the turnstiles at your destination.
And finally, after we left Malaysia, I came across an article in the New Strait Times that claimed a new law had been passed in Kuala Lumpur requiring every large restaurant, cafe, bar, and pub in the city center to offer wi-fi internet access to their patrons. Starting in April of this year, Kuala Lumpur’s City Hall will not grant or renew a food operator license unless the establishment installs a hotspot for its customers.
I wish we had laws like that in the States!
While I wouldn’t say that Kuala Lumpur was a particular dirty city, we did witness one of its downsides. While walking along a concrete reinforced canal that channeled a river through the city, we observed someone chucking garbage out of their window. It was hard to miss; they were on the 5th floor.
It looked to me like a normal plastic shopping bag which had been tied off. It arced over our heads and landed with the sound of breaking glass just shy of the water’s edge. There it sat, awaiting the next heavy rain (likely to come along any minute) to swell the banks and carry it downriver to who-knows-where.
Seeing people litter in their own country always makes me sad. Have a little pride. I’d to see your best side while I’m there.
When I woke up the first morning in our hotel room, I noticed a tiny little arrow stuck on the ceiling where the walls met in a corner. On it was printed the word “Kiblat.” My guess was that it was pointing to Mecca, so that Muslim guests knew toward which direction they should pray. A quick check on the internet confirmed that I was right.
Malaysia seems to have a fairly tolerant view of religion. Islam is dominant in the country, with about 60% of the population practicing, but there’s a healthy percentage of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and others, too.
For such a predominantly Muslim country, I did not expect to see as much emphasis put on Christmas as I did! Perhaps it was because we stuck to the shopping areas, but every mall was decked out with decorated trees and Santa Claus advertising while traditional Christmas music played in every store. I guess the Muslims and Buddhists don’t mind too much, especially since you don’t have to be a Christian to take advantage of the sales!
Oksana noticed this one.
Often, when two women greeted each other on the street, they’d reach out for a handshake; however, it was a slightly different handshake than we’re used to. It starts out as a two-handed shake, where one person would cover the other’s hand with both of their own. After a cursory shake, they would pull their hands apart, but slowly, almost as if they were lingering. The person using two hands would caress the other’s hand in one long stroke, top and bottom, and their fingertips would be the last thing touching as the hands slid apart.
When Oksana demonstrated for me, I found the gesture to be strongly effeminate and wondered if men in Malaysia greet themselves the same way. I wasn’t able to find an answer to that question online, but it seems the country has as many different greetings as it has cultures.
We’ve seen a lot of bus stations on our trip, but I guess we saved the best for last! The BTS station in Kuala Lumpur is amazing!
The single, huge building is at least six stories tall. The uppermost floor is a food court which included, among other restaurants, Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, KFC, and a Kenny Rogers Roasters (of all things!)
The mid-level is where you buy your tickets. There are ATMs, self-service kiosks, convenience stores of all sorts, and rows upon rows of windows where you can buy your ticket from a helpful cashier. We mistimed our arrival at the station, and so had to wait a couple hours for the next bus to Singapore. We found some comfortable chairs and killed time surfing the internet on their free wi-fi.
Downstairs… downstairs is where the magic happens. Bus-wise, I mean.
Everything is set up exactly like an airport. There is a departure lounge for each gate, with rows upon rows of seating. There are big LCD screens with rows upon rows of departure information and more screens above each exit announce the departure time for each bus. Barely five minutes before its scheduled departure, a bus rolls up to the gate – the door and windows are all glass, so you can see it idling there – and a gate attendant announces the bus number. You show your tickets, toss your big bags into the luggage compartment underneath, and climb aboard.
The best part is, the bus lanes are built through the building itself. It may be raining cats and dogs outside, but you and your bags will be perfectly dry when you climb aboard!