Overseas trip 2: Return to Kuala Lumpur

Over four years was to pass between my first and second trips overseas. This was to be a shorter holiday, both in time and distance travelled, accompanying B’s mother and B back to Kuala Lumpur for a week.

I had not particularly enjoyed Kuala Lumpur the first time we had visited. It was hot and muggy, polluted and run down. However, apparently the city had been cleaned up for the 1998 Commonwealth Games, so I was interested in seeing how much it had changed. I also looked forward to the opportunity to sample more of the delights of Malaysia’s hawker stalls!

The flights and hotel were organised through a cheap travel agent in Sydney’s Chinatown. On the afternoon of Friday the 3 March 2000 we boarded our Malaysian Airlines 747 for the flight from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur’s new international airport.

It was the first time that I had encountered a personal seatback inflight entertainment system. I watched Three Kings and The 13th Warrior on the tiny screen, played some SNES games without much skill. And as I always do, I gazed out to see the red deserts and occasional waterways of the Australian interior.

Despite the entertainment, I was not a happy passenger. As we got further into our journey I started to feel ill. The air seemed stuffy and I was starting to develop a bad headache. By the time we touched down I could barely hold myself together.

Once we were inside the shiny new airport terminal, thankfully airconditioned, I began to slowly feel a little better. We made our way out as quickly as possible and were met by our transfer driver from the hotel, cramming our bodies and luggage into his little van.

The ride from the airport to the hotel was visually interesting. KLIA is about 50 kilometers distant from the center of Kuala Lumpur and surrounded by palm plantations. The sight of the palm trees alongside the lonely motorway brought home the fact that we were now in another country. Eventually the quiet farmlands were replaced by grand new developments looming over the motorway, their red and blue neon sign adding to the amber streetlamps that had so far coloured our journey into the city.

We had booked to stay at the Fairlane Hotel, now known as the Coronade, located in Bukit Bintang, or Kuala Lumpur’s “Golden Triangle”. Our supposedly four star room was disappointingly tiny and I had to sleep on a fold up bed. But the hotel was still more luxurious than any I had stayed in before and I loved the view across the city, looking out across a sea of lights and activity.

Though it was 11pm and we had eaten on board our flight, B and her Mum were determined to find some hawker stalls. Still trying to recover from the headache I had no energy to join them and just wanted to lie down in the airconditioned room.

The next morning I was felt much better and ready to explore the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The first issue was breakfast. Throughout this trip there was conflict between myself and B’s mother when it came to food. She (and often B as well) wanted to eat Chinese Malaysian food, often soup-style noodles. I, on the other hand, liked the Malay and Indian cuisines as well. This was sometimes solved by splitting up and each going to their own eating areas, the different nationalities rarely mixing.

Behind the hotel was a long tin shed containing Malay and Indian hawker stalls. There I would dine on roti canai with a cup of condensed milk sweetened Milo ice (iced Milo drink). Meanwhile, the other two would have walked up to Jalan Alor for their Chinese breakfast.

From 2008 trip

Kuala Lumpur had changed a lot since our previous visit. The footpaths were now properly delineated and the potholes had disappeared from the streets. There were now a couple of light rail lines, though they were poorly integrated. In the middle of Jalan Imbi stood the concrete pylons of a stalled monorail project. The city was dotted with new skyscrapers of magnificent Islamic-inspired design, though the poorer kampong-style shanties had not entirely disappeared.

From 2008 trip

The famous Petronas Twin Towers, at that time the tallest in the world, were off limits to tourists, but we did make it up KL Tower. Unfortunately, the view across the city was rather spoiled by the ever-present haze.

Much of our time was spent in the presence of family and friends of B’s mother. Probably the highlight of our stay was when we visited Pulua Ketam, or Crab Island, with B’s cousins, Ken, Sarah and the (now) three girls.

They picked us up from the hotel and we drove down to Port Klang. The harbourside was rundown, lined with factories with only the ferry terminal indicating anything of tourist interest. While I munched on some of my favourite coconut and peanut filled pancake kuih, Ken haggled for a boat across to the island.

He was soon in trouble with his wife. Rather than one of the big enclosed passenger ferries we would be riding across in a small open sampan. In a small way, I was glad of this because I couldn’t imagine escaping from the ferry in case of an accident. That wouldn’t be a problem in the long and thin sampan.

When the powerful outboard motor started up and we shot out across the dirty brown water I was terrified. The boatman had to angle the sampan to face the waves and the wake of the other boats or we would have been rolled. Each time we struck a wave it was like slamming into a solid wall. As we dodged around ships a hundred times our size I hoped that we would not end up in the fetid water.

Gradually we relaxed and began to enjoy the view. They chatted away to the boatman’s young daughter, while Sarah and I tried to shade her newborn from the sun. We rode through mangrove lined channels and past prawn farms. Sitting in the middle of one channel was a Shell petrol station looking as if it had been flooded and the cars replaced by boats.

Pulua Ketam was amazing. The village was built entirely on stilts and was decorated in an ornate Chinese style. With wobbly legs we climbed out of the boat to explore the town.

It was pleasant to walk around a part of Malaysia where there were no crazy cars or scooters. The commercial area sat on a platform raised by stilts above the water. There were temples, warehouses and shops. Outside of one temple was a pond with carp and turtles. Surrounding the pond with rock walls like a model mountain with miniature temples and statues along the sides.

We ate a spicy lunch of local seafood at one of the restaurants and B relived memories of her childhood by going sweet shopping with the kids. Then it was back to the mainland on the very same boat. Before heading off, the boatman had to drop something off at his house, so we navigated through the canals until we reached his stilted abode, his daughter jumping off to drop the item off. I watched them throw rubbish directly into the same water that supplied them with their food, wandering if we really wanted to eat those prawns. The Malaysians tend to be a messy bunch, with little regard for their waste. It’s as if they see no connections between their own actions and the state of the environment around them.

In the evening we drove to Kuala Selangor to view the fireflies. We sat in the silent electric boats drifting past bushes filled with tiny natural blinking lights. Unfortunately, the experience was spoiled by the vicious mosquitoes that were determined to drink every last drop of our blood.

Any terror felt on the boat ride to Pulua Ketam paled into insignificance when compared to the drive to Port Dickson. Malaysian drivers are bad at the best of times. If they see the smallest gap in the traffic then they will attempt to push in, to gain any advantage. You often see three lanes where only two can fit. Malaysians are more tolerant of poor driving than Sydney motorists.

I had sat in a car driven by B’s Mum in Sydney and feared for my life as she didn’t keep her lane or bother reading signs. Now I discovered that this was a trait shared by her friend as she drove us down the motorway in her little Kancil. The Kancil lacks safety features and we were on an open freeway with drivers ignoring speed limits. As Aunty didn’t, or couldn’t, read the street signs we often found ourselves turning off on wrong exists, then reversing back up them, weaving left and dodging back right again into the traffic.

Somehow we made it past all the palm plantations and to Port Dickson in one piece. The Port is a popular beach town, but the murky grey waves and smell dispelled any thought of venturing into the water. Instead we sat in the quiet beachside park and had a Malaysian style picnic. I bought some pisang goreng, or bananas fried in batter, from a little cart and found them so delicious that I just had to go back for seconds over the protestations of the others. “Why fill you stomach when you can eat so many other dishes?” they said.

I’m glad I didn’t listen for I have never enjoyed pisang goreng as much as I did that day.

On the return from Port Dickson we made a detour via Putrajaya, the new administrative capital of Malaysia. While it was still under construction at the time I found it impressive, possibly rivalling Canberra as a planned capital. It needed more trees, though (and still does), and people (again, it still does). We survived another drive the wrong way down a one-way street and made it back to the hotel in one piece, but I swore that I would never sit in that car again.

Thankfully, the other friend of B’s mum was a far more skilled driver with a bigger car. We were off to Melaka, a port city that had played a major role in Malaysia’s history and interactions with the European world. Melaka was at one time or another controlled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British and each has left its mark. It is also the home of the Peranakans, the result of marriage between Chinese men and Malay women who combined their cooking skills to create the wonderful Nonya cuisine.

We wandered from the famous red Stadthuys and St Paul’s Church up to the ruined fort of A’Famosa and the interesting recreation of a Sultan’s palace. While the others drove to their next location B and I caught a trishaw on a tour of the old streets. The poor cyclist struggled at times and I got out a walked up a couple of particular steep spots.

The old shophouses of Melaka are so evocative of another age, with colourfully decorative tiling and paintwork. The town oozes history and a trishaw ride was a great way to experience it.

We rejoined the others and had a sumptuous Nonya lunch at the Peranakan House. The restaurant retained the ornate furniture and decorations of times past and, with the fans slowly rotating above, was an atmospheric environment to taste the most special cuisine of Malaysia.

During out time in Melaka we explored some of the tourist craft shops, picking up various knick-knacks including a bamboo percussion instrument and a decorative bow and arrow. Somehow we were allowed to bring them all back into Australia.

That night we returned to Bangsar to eat at the tandoori stall, but unfortunately it was closed for the day and the alternative just didn’t taste as good. Surprisingly, it was a new experience for the oldies, as they had never eaten tandoori before after spending most of their lives stuck on Chinese cuisine.

In between all this travelling there were visits to other parts of Kuala Lumpur, sometimes with friends and relatives, sometimes on our own. Once we were driven out to a rather rundown shopping centre near Taman Jaya, taking us past some of the more poverty stricken areas of KL. I remember seeing the light rail line running besides us and thinking that I would like to have a ride on this scenic line. Eight years later I got my wish.

The weather was much improved over our last visit to KL. It didn’t feel as muggy and most evenings there was a storm to cool things down and clear the air. I enjoyed a swim in the hotel pool, located a number of stories up, the sides open to the air. I watched as lightening flashed down from the dark grey clouds. The cool water felt so wonderful.

At some point I developed a nasty cold. Each day had been long, starting early in the morning to find food and go to the bank, and ending after 10pm when the shops in the nearby shopping centres finally closed. I was quite exhausted from constantly being on the go, and also from almost never having any privacy from B’s mum and her friends, so little time with just B and myself alone. One night I simply had enough and stayed back in the hotel room, listening to music on my Walkman while they shopped and ate with another relative. I like to have my own space when we are travelling, to immerse myself during the day, then at night to shut the door and shut-off the rest of the world.

It was time to go home. I stocked up on decongestant sprays and cold medication in the hope that the flight back would not be too unpleasant. Then we drove out to the distant, lonely airport to catch our overnight flight back to Australia.

After the flight home I vowed never to fly Malaysian Airlines again. Overnight flights are bad enough at the best of times, but on this flight none of the inflight entertainment functioned correctly, not even the audio. Announcements over the speaker were similarly unintelligible. And again, by the end of the flight I felt very nauseous.

The flights were so unpleasant that I seriously doubted that I would ever be able to leave Australia again. It was a disappointing end to what had been an exciting return to a beautiful and interesting country.

Update 19/9/2015: I’ve discovered photos from the trip and scanned them in!