Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Kuala Lumpur

We left Melbourne on the cheapest flight we could find, which just happened to leave at 3:30am. Again, like so many cost-saving measures, it seems like such a great idea at the time of booking, but in the moment while living it, leaves us wondering why we cheaped out.

But we survived. We kept our Airbnb an extra night -- clearly, the more convenient flight time was considerably more than an extra Airbnb night -- so that we could live a full day and catch a bit of sleep before heading off to the airport. A smart move - which I hate to sound like I'm blowing our own horn, but sometimes when things work out, you're just so relieved, you can't help it. And, it certainly softened the blow of arriving in KL early in the morning, but having no place to go since our Airbnb there wasn't going to be ready until mid afternoon.

But I digress, at some point I might do a post on Airbnb, the pluses, the minuses, and our tips for choosing one, but today, this post is all about KL.

KL is a fascinating city. It's not very old - founded in 1857 on the banks where two rivers meet because of the nearby tin and easy river transportation to this point. Chinese came in large numbers to work in the tin mines. Malays began moving in later as the city developed and government jobs opened up. Indians came to build the railways. 

Where the Klang and Gombak rivers meet. Now home to the oldest mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Masjid Jamek.
An old wooden Malaysian house. There aren't very many left because of a fire that roared through KL a long time ago. After that, buildings were to be built with brick, not wood. The few wooden houses that remain are protected and valuable. That's why you can see the huge condo building being built around this particular house.
SrMahamariamman: The oldest Hindu Temple in KL 

Meanwhile, the British colonized the country using KL as its capital. The Japanese occupied it during WWII. The British returned. Finally, in 1957 Malaysia became an independent country. 

Today, we have this thriving modern city in the heart of an Islamic country - Islam is the official religion - with a Malay population (which by the way is defined as a person who is Muslim, speaks Malay regularly, practises Malay customs, and lived or has ancestors from Brunei, Malaysia or Singapore), a large Chinese population and an Indian population all living together with their own traditions, customs and languages. 

Its truly an example of how well different ethnicities can live together. I don't think there are many places in the world where you can hear the Islamic call to prayer from a Chinese temple, but we did here in KL.

The whole feel of KL is terribly exotic: the diversity, the architecture, the colonial past. To top it off, it remains a constitutional monarchy with Sultans as the constitutional head of most of the Malay states.

Chinese calligraphy meets Islam.

Indian flower market

One guide told us that she loves the city because there are so many different religious festivals, and all of them seem to revolve around good food. Essentially, you can eat your way through the year - for free, if you find enough ethnic variety in your friends.

And eat we did. Our Airbnb didn't have great cooking facilities. Given that food was fairly inexpensive, we ate out a lot: Japanese, Thai, Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese. We also went on a fantastic food tour where we ate so much great food. The kids found lots that they liked and did not go hungry. 

One of the best parts of our food tour was the Yee Sang for Chinese New Year. It's a salad from Singapore that focuses on prosperity. It goes on the plate, and then everyone puts in their chopsticks and throws it in the air to toss it. I have no idea what all was in it, but it was fantastic and a highlight of the day.

Yee Sang before the toss.

And after the toss.

We were there a couple of weeks before Chinese New Year. Wow. There were decorations and displays, and red and gold everywhere. It almost felt like we could have been in China. More than once we came across Chinese performances in the malls - dancing, drumming, dragons, lions. So much excitement for the upcoming new year. 

Of course, where there are Chinese, there is a Chinatown, and KL is no exception. The Chinatown is busy and crowded, with market stalls full of goods and food to buy, street food, restaurants, the odd busker. There is so much activity. We didn't buy anything, but it was fun walking and looking.

This fellow was hoping to earn enough to travel the world.

The colonial past is also rather well preserved with the Royal Selangor Club. I'd like to say that the club exists in memories only, but alas, it is still an exclusive club into which you can buy your way. It has the longest bar (the long bar) in Asia. Most surprising is that even today, women and children are not allowed in the bar -- even when it's closed for business!

Royal Selangor Club - For the socializing colonial English, and a place from which to watch cricket on the cricket ground out front. Today, a place of prestige, power and money. And men if you want a drink at the long bar.

Kerry looking dashing and debonair as the only member of our family permitted to enter and stand at the long bar - even though it was closed! 

The English arrived in KL and lived on a hill. At the base of the hill, and not far from the railway, they set up their lives. A big cricket ground with the Royal Selangor Club along one side of it. On the other side they had their huge administrative offices and shops. The third side held their church. The final side contained their printing press. A small bubble for the British and their families in what would have been a very different and exotic world from their own.

The view from the Royal Selangor Club looking out onto the cricket grounds and to the administrative buildings. 
Sultan Abdul Samad Building where the English had their administrative offices. 

I found it fascinating that the river played no part in the English bubble - except that their administrative buildings backed onto it. More fascinating: across the river is Chinatown. But again, everything backed onto the river. Even today standing on a bridge between the areas, you can clearly see the division between the colonial history, and Chinatown. I should have taken a photo of that, but perhaps I was just too hot and wet (from the heat and the humidity) to pull my phone out of my pocket.

About the heat and the humidity: KL made us all very grateful for air conditioning, malls, and for the two infinity swimming pools in our apartment complex. 

The view from the infinity pool at the top of our apartment complex.

Our attempts to escape heat and humidity took us to the science museum one day, brought to you by Petronas, the nationalized oil company. Of course, there was lots about the oil industry, but there was also a nice space area (that included 3 space videos by Chris Hadfield!) and lots of hands on exhibits. The coolest part was the off-shore drilling rig exhibit made to look like you were walking around on a rig itself. You also had the option of testing out the emergency escape, which Kerry and Meaghan did.

That blur of orange is Meaghan going down the emergency escape tunnel in the off-shore drilling rig. Kerry was a sport and also went down it, though not nearly as gracefully as Meaghan.

You don't have to know or understand science to be in awe of it. Our shadows stopped the coloured balls raining down on the screen.

Sleeping like an astronaut.

I found the heat and humidity at its worst the day we visited the National Mosque - it was over 40°C with the humidity. To go inside Meaghan and I needed to cover up. I was given a long robe, and we both had to wear a hijab. Meaghan looked adorable. I did not. I looked and felt like a hot sweaty mess. Sweat poured off me and had no where to go. I have never ever been so hot and uncomfortable.

National Mosque's minaret (tower from which the call to prayer comes)

Meaghan looks fantastic. I look better than I did about 20 minutes after this photo was taken. I know the women must get used to wearing clothes to their wrists and ankles and then covering their heads on top of it in this heat and humidity, but I did not get used to it.

These massage chairs are inside the mosque. I'm not entirely sure what to say about them, but I did find it quite awesome that they were there.

The mosque is beautiful, and a woman volunteer was most helpful as I pummelled her with questions. I didn't get a good photo of the outside of the mosque and its unique architecture, but I do love the inside of the prayer room. Stained glass gets me every time I see it.

The main prayer room

Of course, we stuck around to hear the call to prayer. Kerry videotaped it and you can listen to it here. I don't know what it is about the call to prayer, but I love hearing it and will never get tired of it.

Though KL is fantastic, as are the people, it's still in a country that has an official religion (Islam) though there is freedom of religion for everyone else. Still, I'm never a fan of a place that doesn't separate its religion from its politics. 

Muslims are to follow the decisions of the Sharia courts on matters of religion, and matters such as marriage, inheritance, divorce, religious conversion, and custody. This doesn't sit well with me. But we travel to see how different the world is from home, and sometimes what we see makes us appreciate what we have at home that much more. 

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