Get any Malaysia Air flight and you’ll be treated to this a little gem, or something of a similar ilk.
OK, so the video might be a bit cringe and there is a rather high white-foreigner to Malaysian ration, but after having it on repeat during a 10-hour flight, you get the idea; Malaysia IS truly Asia.
This is quite a big claim to fame, and they’re obviously very proud of it. But what the hair oil are they on about? What is a true representation of Asia?
Frankly, I haven’t a clue. But if the slogan is correct and if Kuala Lumpur is anything to go by, then I guess it’s all about sheer contrasts and diversity; an exhausting mix of bustling street stalls and new-age high-risers, samosas on the roadside and a Starbucks on every corner, temples and mosques and the occasional church thrown in for good measure.
Let’s put this into context. So we arrived sleepy and smelly into Kuala Lumpur late in the evening not really knowing what to expect, hop onto the train to the city centre and notice that this is probably the smartest train that either of us have ever caught. All the other passengers are well-dressed and smothered in electronics, there are flat-screen TVs at the end of each carriage with yet more advertisements proclaiming Malaysia’s Asian-ness, each stop is announced and clearly marked on an LED board with every station, the train is more refrigerated than air-conditioned, the stations have glass doors between the train and the platform so suicidal passengers don’t upset the timetable. In short, this is high-quality stuff. Yet, alighting in Chinatown, the area where we were staying, we walk straight into a night market. It’s similar to stumbling upon five different children’s parties happening simultaneously while someone slaps your face with a damp towel and shines a light in your eyes. The stalls are so close to one another that there is hardly room to pass between them, and glorious smells of cooked meat drift between the racks of fake sunglasses and Abercrombie T-shirts. Hawkers beckon us into their stalls with promises of ‘good price’ and ‘gifts for lady’. Obviously we are awestruck, we never know quite which way to turn, we keep bumping into one another. Hectic, yes, but hilarious.
This contrast wasn’t a one off. Take the following day, for example. Suffering from mild jetlag, we spent the first morning sweltering our way up the 272 steps to the Batu Cave Indian Temple – a Hindu shrine in the cavernous interior of a limestone outcrop, frequented by bona fide Hindus, hoards of tourists, and a bunch of extraordinarily bold monkeys who are surprisingly adept at nicking your lunch. At the top, we were casually asking a bystander about the meanings of the various marks being painted on the worshippers heads, and we suddenly found ourselves ushered to the front of the temple to receive a blessing. Pretty moving stuff.
Compare this with the afternoon, where we found ourselves in hedonist heaven Bukit Bintang. This is an area of the city devoted to shopping malls, as in a WHOLE AREA THAT IS JUST MALL AFTER MALL AFTER MALL. No joke, this makes Oxford Street look like the ‘Reduced to Clear’ section of Tescos. For anyone that knows Celyn and I, we were TOTALLY lost. We’re not really that accustomed to shopping, even window shopping, and now we were being faced with square miles of brightly lit consumer culture. Sorry guys, but we were a little overwhelmed. We got lost in one mall, the Sungei Wang centre, which was actually TERRIFYING. It was like one of those scenes from a horror film where no matter which way they turn, they always end up at the same place. In a horror film, they are trying to escape from some sort of mad axe murderer, in our case we were trying to escape from the crazy ladies who wanted us to buy some sort of skin-lightening moisturizer. They KEPT RUBBING OUR HANDS. Weird.
In all seriousness, this area is phenomenal. There is just so much evident wealth. One shopping centre, the Starhill Gallery was more like a hotel, or a museum showcasing how millionaires spend their time. There was a jazz band in the foyer playing to no-one, the escalators were red a la red-carpets and the lifts had no numbers for the floors, just enigmatic labels such as ‘Relish’ and ‘Adorn’. What the..?!
Anyway shopping-mall-stress aside, we’ve come to see that this is what Kuala Lumpur is all about; contrast. And despite being a truly modern cyber-city, it is clear that it’s still managed to retain every ounce of the integrity and tradition from which it was originally built.
And we’ll leave you with a few more pics…