For reasons I cannot really explain, Malaysia has never been on my travel radar. Don’t really know why, there is no rhyme or reason, but I was ready to shout “It should have been!!!” at the top of my lungs right after clearing immigration in Kuala Lumpur’s super-modern and super-efficient International Airport. Clearing immigration with a Russian passport is never a fun thing – you need invitations, visas, proofs of return flights, proofs of accommodation booked, and all other petty and snub nuisances that make one want to wish for a more travel-friendly passport. Well, you guess what?… Not in Malaysia! They don’t give a shit!!!! The immigration officers are not interested in anything, neither do they speak English, which makes the immigration clearing process super-efficient, but makes it also super-silent as well, to the special delight of the specifically a-social tourists like myself. The stern lady in a headscarf quickly determined that the photo in my passport matched the tired mug in front of her, pointed towards the fingerprint scanner and the camera, and waved me off into the welcoming depths of the country in no time. Yay – long live Malaysian immigration authorities!!!!
Our flight to this oasis of technology and efficiency was not without surprises, though. Not only was our flight from Labuanbajo to Bali delayed for the totally uncontrollable 4.5 (!!!!) hours, which made us miss our connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur, but the Wings Air flight that we finally boarded after waiting for what felt like forever in the Komodo Airport on site, boasted the most original in-flight magazine I have ever seen! Strictly speaking, it was not even a magazine – there were no shopping ads, or photos of fancy places to visit, instead, the leaflet was basically a collection of prayers (in Indonesian, English and Arabic for Islam) for safe flying aimed at every known denomination, and even some obscure ones… Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and the followers of Khonghucu (which upon closer inspection turned out to be the Indonesian version of Confucianism) could feel perfectly safe on board, while reciting the short directions from the leaflet…
I studied them carefully, and could not help but wonder whether the differences in text represented the more universal differences between the religions:
- Catholics and Protestants were expected to pray for the safe flight and landing of the aircraft and for their families to be safe on the ground. The Confucians added to this the hope that the airline crew knew what they were doing.
- The followers of Islam were expected to praise Allah for the ability to use the aircraft, and ask for protection from hardship or danger. Judging by the fact that the airline pilots and crew were omitted from the text of the prayer, they obviously put more trust in their abilities.
- The Hindu and Buddhist prayers merely wished for happiness and purity of mind of the passengers while in flight (with the Hindu one, also wishing for good manners on the part of those praying).
If the in-flight prayer abstracts were to be any indication of the world religions they represented, the wild generalizations to be made would depict the Catholics, Protestants and Confucians as a pretty skeptical lot, the Muslims as very grateful and trusty souls, and cement the reputation of the Hindus and Buddhists as an overly happy-go-lucky bunch. There, here are my 5 cents on the religions of the world!
The sole presence of the in-flight prayer leaflets on board was mildly disturbing, but apart from the inexcusable delay, the flight was quick and smooth. The delay obviously made us miss our already booked and paid for flight to Kuala Lumpur, but the impeccably polite and friendly staff of AirAsia counter in Bali Danpassar airport quickly re-booked us to the next available one. The running around the airport in search of said counter did nothing to improve our already cemented impressions of Bali, and even got us thinking that probably Bali did not like us either…
3 hours later we were in Malaysia.
The already described fantastic first impressions from the fast-speed immigration were seconded by the super-fast, efficient and inexpensive (€20 for two) train from the airport to the city. The Majestic hotel, far-sightedly booked by us from Le Pirat under the influence of home-made palm rum cocktails turned out to be the best surprise of all! We had no idea we were going to stay in a palace!!! The hotel shuttle picked up all guests from downtown train station, and when we entered the foyer, we were immediately swept by a confusing emotional mix of feeling immediately at home, and out of place in our sweaty T-shirts and flip-flops. The overdressed staff at Reception did not blink an eye, issued us our room key and helpfully pointed out that the bar on the ground floor was still open – an exceptionally useful piece of information, for with all the hassle of delays, re-bookings and figuring out local transportation it was close to midnight when we finally checked in!
We threw the bags in the room, gushed over the regal grandeur of our new digs (there was even a stand-alone bath-tub with what looked like silver glass holders for champagne flutes!), changed the sweaty T-shirts (to be annihilated or disinfected later) to something slightly more appropriate and moved to the bar. Two glasses of wine (each), served by a royal-looking barman in white tuxedo (I kid you not!) were a welcome balm to our tied souls, and definitely helped to erase all memories of Bali already after the 2nd sip. I did double-check our booking confirmation – after seeing the hotel in all its glory, I was worried palm rum influence might have been a bit too strong at the time, and we would have to sell a minimum of 2 kidneys to afford the 2 nights we booked. To my relief it was nothing of the kind! Even having prolonged our stay in the hotel for 1 more night to celebrate my birthday in style we ended up paying an equivalent of €150 for 3 nights for an absolutely luxurious room with the breathtaking view of the city. We were officially in love with Kuala Lumpur!
The two full days we spent in the city did not spoil the first impression one bit. It was a mad mix of super-modern and shabby, technological and outdated, posh and down-to-earth, while at the same time not allowing for contrasts to get too sharp or overflow your senses.
Kuala Lumpur’s public transport is efficient, well-developed and affordable with LRT/MRT & Monorail train lines covering the whole city in a far-reaching grid. The LRT/MRT trains are also fully-automated, rushing through the city without any visible human support. The older monorail ones, running on a well-elevated line around the Golden Triangle district, are still man-operated. The old downtown of Kuala Lumpur is fairly compact and is easily explorable on foot. We walked from the hotel to Chinatown, passing by the majestic-looking, but seemingly deserted Kuala Lumpur Old Train Station, observed the semi-organized chaos of the shopping streets of Chinatown near Petailing street, had some yummy but unpronounceable food in a tiny street cafe, and jumped on the MRT to get to the Golden Triangle.
Our plan for the day was pretty simple – relax from the stress of plane- and island-hopping of the past several days, walk aimlessly around, and take in the city. The only definite item on our list of things to see was Petronas Twin Towers, still remaining the tallest twin buildings in the world (even after the general height was beaten by the taller, but single-standing Taipei 101 in 2004). The towers were seriously cool – not only do they look VERY sleek and high-tech and boast a sky bridge connecting them in the middle, there is also a huge shopping mall in the several underground floors! We again, showed admirable planning skills and bought the tickets online the night before, as the sky bridge only accommodates 1,000 visitors a day. Visitor tickets can give you admission only to sky bridge, connecting the towers on the 41st and 42nd floor, or combine it with the visit to the top of one of the towers on 86th floor. Of course, we did both – we traveled this far, we might as well see it all! The sky bridge was especially cool, once you learn that it does not actually connect to the two towers, but rather slides in and out of them, allowing for the swaying of the towers in high winds. The view from the top was mesmerizing – we could see the whole city, and the square and park by the entrance underneath the buildings looked especially microscopic.
We did find the party area in Kuala Lumpur (of course!) – Bukit Bintang, where we spent two wonderful evenings walking the streets and looking at the variety of nightlife the city had to offer. All bright, clean, and very safe – what more can a visitor ask for? Our venue of choice for the first night was Healy Mac’s, and Irish pub with an 80-ies marathon on TV screens above the bar. It was too hot for Guinness, so I took the bartender’s word and tried their day’s special – a Lychee martini. After that – there was no stopping me. Lychee martinis – here I come!!! I actually had a reason for celebration (not that I ever needed one…), as in a couple of hours it was going to be my very own personal birthday.
Nothing would ever top the celebration we had in the biker “Mushroom Bar” in a shady alley of Aonang in Thailand several years earlier (those who missed, or forgot this epic occasion, can refresh their memories here), but Healy Mac’s came very fucking close. We struck a conversation with a huge and scary-looking guy who looked very much at home in the place. Selim turned out to be the sweetest and funniest person, and also the bar manager. Having learned from my loose-tongued husband about my birthday, not only did he stop the bartender from changing the channel and allowed me to sing along with Rick Astley and Madonna all night long (amazing, what a bunch of Lychee martinis do to one’s vocal talents and self-esteem!), but at midnight personally brought me the most wonderful mini-birthday cake with a sparkler and a “Happy birthday, Victoria!” written in chocolate on the plate! He also gave us a tip of a next-door steak restaurant for the next day, and shared that Healy Mac’s had a branch on the Penang Peninsular, our next destination. The evening lasted well into the early hours of the morning, we don’t remember how we got back to our palatial hotel, and it was only around midday when we woke up, that I saw another birthday cake decorated with fresh fruits and flowers, waiting for me on a coffee table. What can I say?… Kuala Lumpur knew how to make a girl feel at home!
Our remaining half a day in the city was spent in a quiet and relaxing fashion. We had a walk around the Orchid Garden, conveniently located within the walking distance from the hotel, stopped at the Bird Park nearby – definitely an hour well-spent looking at various brightly-colored birds in a huge aviary park, and finished the day with a birthday dinner in The Steakhouse, next door to Healy Mac’s and recommended by Selim. Much as we enjoyed the last night in Healy Mac’s, we both knew better than going there again. At our age, celebrations definitely turned from marathons to sprints, and we needed some time to recover before we were ready to go again. With the forthcoming New Year Celebrations, and the presence of a Healy Mac’s branch in our next destination, we definitely needed a couple of days to regroup.
The last scene from Kuala Lumpur’s life, observed on the KTM train back to the hotel, was memorable as well. A completely round guy was sitting on a huge suitcase in the middle of a packed train, looking obviously chuffed. When we smiled and complimented him on his far-sightedness of having brought his own seat with him, the guy beamed, his wife rolled her eyes, and we were immediately told the story of the suitcase. The guy proudly shared that the suitcase was a fresh purchase, and was great not only for packing clothes, and using as a chair in crowded public transport, but had many other uses. The guy went on reciting a long list of said uses, ending with “And I can swim on it as well!!!!” Throughout his 10- or so minute speech, the wife continued rolling her eyes, which by the time of the final remark must have made a full orbit around her brain, and put her 5 cents in: “We don’t even need a new suitcase! He only bought it because the salesman stood on it, to show how sturdy it was. And that guy weighed a good 200 pounds!…” Only in Kuala Lumpur…