Saturday, 18 March 2017

Malaysia: The Land of DO NOT


After a brief stopover in Bangkok, needless to say NOT in Khaosan this time, we found ourselves touching down in Kuala Lumpur. No thanks, I might add, to AirAsia who managed to cancel our flights, remove the booking from Evan's online account and made us have to buy new ones at double the price, a fact we only discovered at the check-in desk an hour before the flight left. I've received appalling customer service in my time, but AirAsia now holds the record.

My first impression of KL was that I'd somehow passed through a portal and arrived back in the UK. Marks & Spencer, H&M, Topshop, Harrods, Dorothy Perkins, Tesco, Mothercare - they're all here. With a switch to the left hand side of the road (although confusingly you have to stand on the left when on escalators and walk on the right), three pin plugs and so many visual aspects of the place so very 'British', it was hard to believe that we were still on the other side of the world. Compared to its less polished neighbours, KL has all the trappings of a first world country. Flashy shopping malls, skyscrapers, an orderly road system...and most prominent of all? Rules.

When I was a kid I was a big fan of Enid Blyton books. I don't know why, she was a terrible writer, but I had just about every book she ever wrote. My favourite was The Magic Faraway Tree. For anyone unfamiliar with this book it was about a group of kids who climbed a tree in a forest one day and found an array of whimsical fantasy characters living in its branches - Moonface, Silky and Saucepan Man to name a few. If they climbed to the very top and popped their heads out through the hole in the clouds there would be a different land at the top for them to explore each time. Sometimes it would be a wonderful place, for example the Land of Toys or the Land of Goodies, at other times it would be a land with darker, more sinister undertones such as the Land of Tempers or the Land of Topsy Turvy. Arriving in KL it felt like we'd climbed that ladder and popped out in the Land of Do Not.















I have never in my life been bombarded with as many 'Do Not' and 'Prohibited' signs as we were in Malaysia. If there are steps there will be a sign (or more likely multiple signs) on them saying 'Do Not Sit'. Many 'do not' instructions are fairly obvious - the Do Not Touch on art exhibits - although the signs are often bigger than the item itself. Others are a little more obscure, for example 'Do Not Stand on the Toilet Seat' or 'No Durians' or 'Do Not Spit', although if you've spent any time in SE Asia you'll understand why all of those are required.

Other signs bark orders or put restrictions on how things should be done. Then of course there are the funny translations. There is a serious side to these rules though, despite their entertainment value. Malaysia does not mess around when it comes to punishment for disobeying rules. Many actions that no-one would bat an eyelid over at home are punishable by lashes of the cane here. Smoke on a train? 10,000 ringit fine and/or two years imprisonment. Something tells me Malaysian jail isn't somewhere that anyone wants to end up.





Unsure of where exactly we wanted to be in KL we headed for Chinatown as it's usually where the cheapest accommodation can be found. This time cheapest really wasn't the way to go. We found ourselves in a really grotty room on Petaling Street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare filled with stalls selling knock-off electronics, watches and t-shirts. It was noisy, dirty and the room, which we shared with varying sized cockroaches depending on whether or not the light was on, wasn't much better. A change to a different guesthouse after the first couple of days didn't improve things, we just ended up sharing what felt like a half-way house with various misfits including a grotesque old hippy guy who was way too over-familiar with everyone and a Spanish girl who had found a tiny puppy in the street that now wandered the halls of the building leaving its fleas everywhere.

Some aspects of KL were very much like places we've been already though. Toilets for example. I know Evan will disagree with me, but whoever invented the 'bum gun' should be shot. Yes, I see the benefits of being able to wash yourself with a high powered water jet after using the toilet, but unfortunately no-one read the memo that said 'you do this OVER THE TOILET BOWL'. Cue the floors of toilet cubicles nationwide awash, literally, with murky looking water and soggy tissue. I know complaining about the state of toilets when you travel isn't new, but when you're desperate for a wee and you barely make it to a service station bathroom only to find it's a squat toilet, there's two inches of water on the floor and no paper...well, I need say no more.






















Our main and only real goal in KL was to find new bikes to continue our journey on. Oh, that's not true actually, it was also to get Evan's passport renewed because he was out of pages. We hadn't appreciated that many countries here use a whole page for their visa and then a second page for stamps. Some processes of applying them are quite elaborate, such as in Cambodia where they stick the visa in and then use a series of different stamps to build up layers of colours to make their official mark. As it turned out neither of our two goals were easily achievable. The passport would take up to 20 working days to be ready for collection and it was the middle of Chinese New Year which meant that even though we found a couple of bike dealerships that were open, the vehicle registration office wouldn't be for best part of another week. 

Eventually our patience ran out with the obnoxious, entitled assholes we were sharing a roof with, so we moved accommodation again to a hotel staffed by two guys we affectionately nicknamed 'Dumb and Dumber' in a seedier, but altogether more agreeable part of town and set out to explore.

This is going to sound dismissive and I know I'm generalising somewhat, but there's really not a great deal to do in Kuala Lumpur. We went to see the Petronas Towers and indeed they are impressive both during the day and after dark, as is the park adjacent to them. We didn't go up to the bridge and admire the view because quite frankly we could have paid for three nights accommodation for the price of admission. Instead we visited the KL tower, still not exactly cheap but far better value. With a 360 degree view of the city, we stayed up there for quite some time, long enough for a storm to pass over and completely obscure the view around us in thick cloud which was very surreal.












We also threw ourselves into the Chinese New Year celebrations - except there weren't really any to speak of, just continuous bursts of loud firecrackers lit every night until the early hours and they were hard to ignore. There were various Lion Dances scheduled at different places around the city; some happened, others failed to show up. We spent time trawling shopping malls (I bought some new boots in anticipation of getting back on two wheels again), visiting museums and the botanical gardens, eating and generally biding our time, so it was nice to be able to spend a day with Albert and Renee Talalla, the brother of Evan's childhood next-door neighbour and his wife. A former Ambassador to the UN amongst other postings, Albert was born in the house that is now the home of the US Ambassador to Malaysia in KL. During WW2 his brother was killed during a mission in France and a fascinating documentary has been made to tell his story. After watching this, we were treated to lunch at the Royal Lake Club, a rare chance to try lots of different local food without having to simply point and hope that it isn't too spicy, never really knowing what it is. Once again the best times we have on these trips are those spent with local people who can share a slice of life in that place. A big thank you to Albert and Renee for their wonderful hospitality.










































Culturally, KL is a fascinating city, a place where predominantly Malay, Indian and Chinese communities live side by side, mostly in harmony. Mosques and temples also sit side by side, as do the various dishes in the large coffee shops serving food influenced by all three cultures. KL really is a cultural melting pot and I couldn't help thinking how many people living in countries showing an increase in nationalistic and bigotted policies in recent months could do with seeing how it works when everyone makes an effort to get along. In fact the most obvious thing missing in Malaysia are large numbers of white people projecting their superiority and fighting to dominate everyone else...

The longer we stayed in KL though, the more we noticed its complex layers, not immediately obvious when we first arrived. For the first time in a while it was clear there was a darker element here, a sense that there were areas of town where we probably didn't want to walk alone at night. The visible homeless in KL are far greater than in other countries we've visited already in SEA. Ironically, as in so many places, the disabled appear to do their best to work for a living, usually selling packets of tissues for a few coins, whereas the able bodied beg. Like most places in the world, the greater the disparity of wealth, the more beggars there are on the streets. The hotel we'd moved to was in an area of town that was clearly inhabited by a higher than average number of people with mental health issues. As we walked several times a day to our favourite little eatery, KR Kandar Corner, we'd pass a group of unkempt middle aged men sitting on little stools in a small alcove with their empty alcohol bottles strewn around them. They were probably the friendliest people we encountered in the city, their drunken enthusiasm for life always pointed in our direction as we passed with big smiles and salutes. We also started to see that the idyllic image of so many different cultures living side by side wasn't always as smooth at it seemed. Still, tolerance of each other seemed to be the name of the game and for the most part it seems to be working.

Eventually the initial Chinese New Year celebrations came to a close and Chinese owned businesses started to open again. At last we were able to get out to look at bikes. We'd been to see one dealer that someone on a forum had recommended to us a few days earlier, but we hadn't seen anything that was suitable and the bikes were very overpriced. We were both keen to have proper manual bikes this time, but prices were higher than we had anticipated (or maybe we'd just got used to Vietnamese pricing) so again we decided on smaller semi-automatic scooters, the same as we'd had in Vietnam. Some forum friends who had just returned from a similar trip had suggested we go to Ban Guan Thye Motors just south of the centre of town and speak with Dave, so this we did. 

Dave turned out to be a great guy, easy to talk to and negotiate with, and we quickly hammered out a deal on two Honda scooters with a buy back deal if we want to return them in a couple of months. My bike is a little older as I didn't want to risk any more money than I had to on it, a blue Honda Wave with just over 65,000km on the clock, a fuel gauge that doesn't work, a squeaky and mostly ineffective back brake, but otherwise solid enough. Evan's bike is a red and silver Honda Future and a bit newer. Sadly, 'Wilson' the bike that our friends had owned had been sold the previous night just after we left so that sealed his fate. He wasn't coming on this adventure with us, but at least we got to meet him briefly before he went to his new home. We persuaded Dave to throw in helmets and a couple of days later we returned to go with him to the registration office to change over the ownership. 

Expecting a long wait and the usual government bureacracy, we were pleasantly surprised to find an office with about 30 desks, all working flat out to move people through as quickly as they could. A couple of forms to hand in, a glance at our passports and the authorisation of the big boss guy and we were all set. We had wheels again and were ready to go. Not wanting to waste any more time we had already checked out of the hotel and brought our bags with us so we literally jumped on, waved goodbye to Dave and his team and rode away.





Given that we still had at least a couple of weeks to wait for Evan's passport, we decided to head south first, down as far as we could ride to Johor Bahru. From here we planned to hop over to Singapore for a few days. We were perhaps a little ambitious on our first day and didn't make it all the way to our anticipated stopping point; instead we found ourselves, after a brief stop to see a submarine, in Port Dickson, a small town on the coast a little way south of KL. We checked into a random hotel, paying more of course than we would have done if we'd booked it on Agoda, but not begrudging the old guys who ran it the extra few ringit. Contrary to previous google reviews that had them down as cantankerous and miserable, I really liked them. They were incredulous that we were going to ride any great distance on our little bikes and bent over backwards to accommodate us, making space for our bikes on the front veranda (mostly so one of them could use it as a smoking stool I think) and imploring us to go over to the home DIY store across the road immediately to buy locks for them, otherwise they'd likely be gone in the morning. It was a far cry from Vietnam where we never really gave security a second thought and our steering locks didn't even work.















From here we continued down to Melaka (or Malacca if you prefer), a city with an interesting and turbulent history having been ruled by the Portugese, Dutch, British and Japanese at various points in time. Rumoured to have been named after the Melaka tree, the city is a pretty place, full of historic buildings, museums and art and we decided it was worthy of a few days of our time. We set up camp at the lovely Casa Blanca Hostel and spent a few days exploring. The old town is a slightly creepy place with nineteeneightyfour-esque music blaring from a central public address system, a mix of adverts in Malay that we couldn't understand and traditional music that we both agreed sounded a lot like Frosty the Snowman.





















Melaka has a Disney-like feel to it with its pristine red painted buildings in the Dutch quarter and pirate ship style maritime museum down by the water. Buzzing around the place were trishaws on steroids, lavishly decorated with lights and fur and cartoon characters, best viewed at night to fully appreciate them. We visited museums (sadly quantity over quality in Melaka), searched out murals and wandered the narrow streets looking at the various temples and Chinese shop-houses. One of the most interesting places we visited was the Baba Nyonya Museum, three old adjacent Chinese shop-houses restored to their former glory and still in their original ownership. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside, although one particularly obnoxious Asian tourist insisted on doing so anyway, even filming most of what our guide told us. We learned a lot about Chinese culture, that most wooden furniture is glued together, never nailed, including a beautiful wooden staircase in the house inlaid with thousands of pieces of mother of pearl (ok, I snuck a photo, but just the one!)



Another day we walked the entire length of the abandoned monorail track that was built some years ago, but after several failures upon which passengers had to be winched down from the train, it had closed permanently. Although we could find out very little about it, work has clearly been taking place on the line though with a new station having been built fairly recently so I presume it will indeed run again.






































Our last stop heading south was Johor Bahru, a dirty, smelly city with nothing at all going for it. A typical border town, it consists of an enormous shopping centre, a couple of bus stations and the obligatory temple or two. We stayed a little out of town in the suburbs at a very sweet little guesthouse, the Lotus Hotel, who immediately agreed to look after our bikes while we took ourselves off to Singapore for a few days. So that's exactly what we did.


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