Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Posted on March 22nd, 2005

View from the Petronas Towers bridge

After a month on Borneo, I was anxious to get moving. Having read ahead in Lonely Planet and consulting with other travelers, I decided that Kuala Lumpur would be the lone destination I would visit on the Malaysian peninsula before moving on to Thailand.

Typical street scene, with Kuala Lumpur Tower in the center.

Kuala Lumpur (KL), population 1.4 million, is Malaysia’s capitol and like most raging capitol cities the fine line of people, culture, good manners and common courtesy blur to the point where you are left with little more than a loud, dirty, stinking, high paced, rude, culturally non-descript hell hole. That’s KL in a nut. KL is making a name for itself by bear-hugging industrialization and developing themselves into a city-of-the-future prototype with wild and careless abandon. Skyscrapers are jungle-thick in density, streets are choked with vehicles with no emissions standards, in some places there isn’t so much as a blade of grass for miles and the media over-saturation is intolerable - e.g., on the light rail line, you can ride the “Nokia train,” which, in addition to being wallpapered inside and out with Nokia ads, announces stations like this: “Next stop, Pasar Seni. Nokia, Connecting People” Deedooloodoo, deedooloodoo, deedooloodoo, deeeee! I hated the place immediately.

I got a line on the Anuja Hostel from Liz in Semporna. She reported that while the private rooms were a bit disappointing for the price, the dorm rooms were clean, roomy and the deal of the century at RM10 per night (US$2.63). While all of this turned out to be true, what she didn’t mention was that the hostel rooms all overlook Jalan Pudu, one of the loudest, carbon dioxide soaked, chaotic streets I have ever seen in my life. The window provided zero insulation against the muffler-less assault of noise and the Malaysian driving tendency to beep their horns anywhere from two to eight times per half minute. Sleep was sparing and fitful at the best of times.

I spent my first day locked in the hostel finishing my Semporna journal and desperately searching for pictures to link to all of the fish types I mentioned in the journal so that my U.S. mid-westerner readers, 1,500 miles from the nearest ocean, would have some inkling of what exactly I was seeing while underwater. I also identified KL’s prime wi-fi location by way of a hostel mate who informed me that the wonderfully air conditioned and comfortable KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Center, which houses a gigantic mall and the Petronas Towers, formerly the tallest buildings in the world, having been recently usurped by the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan) was an orgy of open, free wi-fi hubs.


I set out early the next morning to confirm this. Escorted by my roommate Trudy from London, who had been shopping in KL many times and knew her way around, we rode the jam-packed light rail to KLCC, where she left me to set out on more adventures in shopping. I killed both laptop batteries while taking care of web site business, sending countless emails and making travel plans to Bangkok. Once the second battery expired, I meandered in the general direction of the light rail, but I was sidetracked and sucked into a terribly expensive, geek-fuel impulse buy. After my Timeport died on Borneo, I had been despondent without a PDA to take notes, record contact information and play games while waiting for my bowl of noodles. I had been reduced to storing pertinent information on dozens of scraps of paper carried in my pockets, which were inevitably soaked in my own sweat by the end of each day. The previous summer I had toyed with the idea of buying a Palm Pilot, the Tungsten T5, with all the wonderful attributes that you would expect in a Palm, with a wi-fi card to boot. A geek store in KLCC had just gotten them into stock and I asked if I could play with one for a few minutes and there was no turning back. I bought that damn thing. I was initially excited by the price (US$400), as it was nearly US$100 cheaper than it had been six months earlier, but some online research later on revealed that I could have knocked off another US$50 off the price if I had made the purchase online in the US, with a free wireless keyboard to sweeten the deal. Of course this would have meant having the thing shipped to my parent’s house and then in turn having them ship it to me, but then I wouldn’t have been able to play with it for weeks and that would have gone directly against my unabashed need for instant gratification. I spent the afternoon and evening setting up and personalizing my T5, whipping it out at each stoplight as I walked back to the hostel to see if I could get a wi-fi signal.

The next day, as much as I didn’t want to unnecessarily expose myself to the KL street scene, I decided it was my tourist and journalistic duty to get out and see city. Lonely Planet had a few, mildly appealing suggestions, so I got to work. I headed right back to KLCC to stand in line and acquire a ticket to go up to the Petronas Towers connecting bridge on the 41st level. The lines for this attraction are hideously long and the worst part is you don’t even get to go right up. Instead you are issued a ticket, reserving you a spot on a tour later in the day. On most days, if you don’t drag yourself out of bed and get in line by 10:00AM, no tour for you. After a 30 minute wait (five games of solitaire on my T5 and 11 minutes of flirting with the two British girls behind me), I was assigned a tour spot for two hours later. I made use of this interlude to yet again sit behind the laptop and download new, vital software and accessories for my T5 via KLCC’s free wi-fi.

Petronas Towers

I diligently returned to the Petronas tour staging area two hours later as instructed, where we were shown 1/3 of a video about how the towers were constructed before we were called to go up to the platform on the specially produced elevators that shoot up one floor per second. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the bridge connecting the Petronas Towers is a groundbreaking marvel of engineering, but its actual elevation level, arguably a large reason why people want to go up there, was ultimately lacking. When you have an 88 story building, one of the tallest in the world, there should be some kind of regulation that requires you to make some space available for a viewing area on one of the topmost levels rather than irresponsibly frittering that space away on stupid oil company executive offices. Not only was the connecting bridge less than half way up these colossal structures, but after suffering through the ordeal required to get up to the bridge, it’s frustrating to look out and see a dozen nearby buildings that are similarly tall or taller. We were told we would have 10 minutes to hang around and enjoy the view from the bridge, but after about a minute and a half most of us were ready to go back down.

After getting back down to ground level, I decided I had better try a different approach to seeing KL. After depositing my bulging grab-bag of geek accoutrements back at the hostel, I headed out for Masjid Negara, A.K.A. the National Mosque. Lonely Planet urged me to “dress conservatively” for this attraction so even though it was roughly 95 degrees out with 90 percent humidity, I took this suggestion seriously, putting on my suffocating khaki pants from Old Navy before heading out.

I have had my share of tap dancing through cities where drivers have no sense of mortality for themselves or pedestrians (Lisbon, Naples, Duluth). Malaysia takes some getting used to because while pedestrians legally have the right of way in most western countries, it seems that the vehicles have the right of way in Malaysia, or at least that’s how drivers conduct themselves. If a pedestrian is in their way, the driver’s mentality is that the onus is on the pedestrian to move themselves before they get killed, leaving the driver free to proceed at a top speed collision course toward the offending individual with a clear conscious. There’s no slowing down expectantly, there’s no effort made to swerve out of the way, they just barrel on through and if you don’t leap for safety, you’re dead. This concept was driven home for me when my friend Katie wrote me an email, telling me of the time that her friend was in KL ten years ago; she stepped off the curb assuming in her serene, Iowa-bred mindset that if a vehicle came careening along that it would at least make a cursory effort to not run her down. This optimism was rewarded with a head injury by a bus side view mirror at 40 MPH that resulted in brain death.

Although I hadn’t been too tense about the street crossing protocol in KL before this cautionary tale, I most certainly was afterward. Even when the little green man light told me it was safe to go, I was all nerves, sprinting across the street in case a driver decided that he’d waited at the red light for long enough or a scooter chose to completely ignore the lights, as they do. So, you can imagine as I walked along in the debilitating heat, the overwhelming dreadful air quality, the treacherous pandemonium of an ordinary street crossing, while wearing cheap, sweltering pants, I came unraveled rather quickly.

My 15 minute walk swelled to well over an hour due to some street configurations that were not represented accurately on the map. KL has been scrupulously designed so that certain parts of the city are utterly inaccessible from other parts unless you are in a car or train (in this case, the seemingly short distance between my hostel and the National Mosque). If you are on foot and wanting to hurdle these impediments, you either have to race across highway-like roads like a stray dog, climb through rail yards like a hobo or both like a hobo’s stray dog. I walked for an eternity, trying to get around a gigantic snarl of converging highways, barriers, dead ends and the Kuala Lumpur inter-city railway station. It was insurmountable. After a full hour of this insanity I was filthy, soaked in sweat and inconsolably irritated. In rage-fueled desperation, I ignored all common sense and self-preservation inclinations and started crossing the highways. Then I cut through the train station, snuck through a cordoned off part, exited through a break in a fence into a warehouse loading dock and finally immerged within sight of the Mosque. A few more fractionally less unnerving road crossing and I was finally at my objective.

National Mosque

The National Mosque is supposed to be one of the largest in SE Asia, but it is also one of the ugliest. The roof, rather than being in the classic, pleasing dome configuration, is a nearly flat, rippled mess. It looks like a giant, blue, crumpled pizza. Lonely Planet said the Mosque had special hours on Fridays, 2:45PM – 6:00PM, but when I finally slumped up to the entrance there was a huge sign saying “Closed to Tourists.” A small, battered sign next to it said that the Friday hours of the Mosque were 2:30PM to 4:00PM and 5:00PM to 6:00PM. It was 4:15PM. I was annoyed, unsettled, hopelessly soaked in sweat and reaching critical pissed-off-ness. Clearly I wasn’t going to sit and wait in the heat for another 45 minutes in this state, so I poked the lazy guard in the eyes Three Stooges style, marched into the Mosque with my shoes on, dropped my pants so as to better soak up the A/C in my fiery loins and started taking pictures of the room full of worshipers with the camera flash set on “Super Nova.”

No, I just imagined that, of course. What really happened was I spied an unusually helpful sign indication that the Islamic Museum was just up the road. This sounded like a place that might have air conditioning, so I lunged for it. As I approached, my heart sank for the 24th time that day as the Museum looked abandoned. There wasn’t so much as a single person or vehicle anywhere in sight. Pooling determination, I pressed on up to the door, if only to read and record for posterity what was sure to be yet another series of odd and decidedly inconvenient opening hours, but to my surprise the doors automatically slid open and I stepped into the refreshing arctic air conditioning. The lobby was immense and completely deserted. I wondered if perhaps the staff had gone off for 4:00 prayer and forgotten to lock up, but I eventually spotted the crown of a tiny scarved head bobbing behind the colossal reception desk. The woman graciously ignored the fact that I looked like I had just walked out of a Turkish bath and informed me that the entry fee was RM8 (US$2). I was so hot and sweaty that I happily paid this just to hang out in the A/C for a while and sneak into the marbled, ornate bathroom to douse my head under the facet.

The Islamic Museum turned out to be rather interesting, as far as spontaneous, time wasting side trips go. There were dozens of Koran displays from all over the Islamic world, written in tattered books, inked on sheep skin and woven into rugs. Judging from this exhibit, it seems that the Koran can’t simply be written down without being carefully ornamented as well. Every single piece of text, no matter what medium it was inscribed on was decorated with designs and embellishments in a variety of colors and always prominently featuring gold. After seeing 143 different editions of the Koran, I moved onto displays of weapons, ceramics, tools and utensils before finally blundering into a room with scale models of the grandest mosques in the world. This easily ate up an hour and the cool environs of the museum very nearly dried my clothes off.

At 5:00 sharp, I left the Museum and headed back to the mosque. By this point, I was more wanting to just get this damn mosque visit out of the way than holding any true excitement for the experience. With my attitude flagging you’ll imagine my fury to find out that the sign outside the mosque wasn’t correct either. Instead of opening at 5:00PM, as the sign said, it actually opened at 5:30PM, as the woman manning the security desk now demonstrated by pointing at a “5:30” written on her hand in pen. I cursed Allah, spun around and nearly left, but I managed to pull myself together by taking a slow walk around the entire building. By the time I got back to the entrance a young German woman was waiting as well. Even from 20 yards away, it was plain that she was wearing a very loose, low-cut shirt and no bra, sitting hunched over and revealing everything. I entertained the notion that perhaps she was overtly exposing herself like this because she was desperately bored and wanted some company, so I did the gentlemanly thing and sat down and talked to her, making a concentrated effort to actually look her in the eye once every few minutes. Ten minutes later we were let in, but not before the guard forced the German woman to cover herself and her free-swinging bosoms with a blue cloak and tie a scarf around her head for good measure. I was allow in as is.

The "porch" of the mosque, for lack of a better word at the moment.

Zooming into the mosque from the back door.

But not all the way in, because that might have actually prevented my outlook about the whole mosque allure from bottoming out completely. In fact, non-Muslims are merely allowed to enter the grounds of the KL National Mosque, not the mosque itself, no matter what effing time it is. They do, strangely, allow picture taking however, so the German girl and I stood a respectable distance outside the doors and did our best to take pictures of the inside of the mosque from various angles. Having finally fulfilled this major disappointment, I headed back to the hostel to sit mostly naked in front of the fan for three hours and drink a large bottle of water.

That night I was coerced into going out for dinner with a few women that I had met in Semporna who had caught up with me in KL. They knew a local who had offered to take us on a private tour and then lead us to one of the better hawker stalls in the Little India area. I felt that after my mostly disappointing day that I needed an attitude adjustment and some good company, so I tagged along. We had a great time. The local guy - a Malaysian Indian whom the girls called “Nora” because his real name was too hard to remember and they had met him at a Nora Jones concert in Singapore – was a wealth of local factoids and information. He had something notable to say about nearly every prominent building we passed, something I probably couldn’t do if I were leading people around my own Minneapolis. We had a great time and ate a delicious dinner which I chased with my first cup of sugarcane juice since Singapore.

That night, what I thought was a simple sore throat from breathing KL’s horrendous air, turned into a full-on cold. I was getting more miserable by the minute so I doped myself up on cold medicine and fell into a surprisingly deep slumber despite the Horn Honking World Championships going on just outside my window.

The next day I wasn’t feeling much better. Resting at the hot, cigarette smoke engulfed hostel wasn’t an option, so I packed up my nerd paraphernalia and headed back to KLCC to surf on free wi-fi for several hours. On my way to the light rail station, I got my daily chuckle from passing the “S & M Mall.” Tee hee! Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to locate the “Doggy Style Mall” or the “Booty Call Mall,” but I’m certain they’re in KL somewhere.

For all your S & M needs...


KL was hosting their very own international Formula One race over the weekend and the whole city, KLCC in particular, was a madhouse of extra tourists and Malaysians wheeling into town for the ancillary music concerts and events. The KLCC main rotunda had non-stop media events going on. I managed to rope off some personal space in the Starbucks lounge and amused myself for four hours, including downloading a digital MPEG encoder for compressing movies to be watched on my kick ass T5.

When the laptop died, so did my ambitions. I had had enough of the KL street scene and refused to put myself through more touring, especially while sick. I headed back to the hostel, buying a pile of illegal DVDs en route, and spent the afternoon watching the Jim Carrey’s Brainless Movies of All Time Marathon, or some such thing, on the Star Movies channel in the hostel lounge. My plane for Bangkok was leaving early the next day and I was going to have to fight the hoard of people rushing in the same direction to the Formula One race, so I was in bed by 10:00PM, in anticipation of leaving for the airport about four hours early the next morning.

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