Incipient Futurism in Kuala Lumpur; Shopping like a real Malaysian; The Petronas Towers, mosques, birds and the Return of Wong

I had grand plans for Kuala Lumpur before we reached it. There’s a lot of cool things to see and do here. The city is a fascinating fusion of cultures and full of startling juxtapositions of exhausted traditions clinging against the tide of gleaming modernity. It’s much like I imagine Hong Kong and Singapore to have been thirty or forty years ago.

Alas, our time there vanished as I tried to deal with my camera troubles. Time was very short - we had only six days in the city before our flight to Indonesia. Repair or replace? Canon Malaysia’s website claimed that they offered a one-day express repair service, but a wild-goose-chase between showroom, dealership and pro-shop was fruitless - either no one had heard of the service or they had but it was only possible if you dropped the camera at Canon’s head office fifty kilometres away with no public transit. And nobody could tell me how much the express service fee might be. Everyone agreed that they could accept the camera for non-express repair, but that it would take six to eight weeks. Not an option, we had to be gone from Malaysia on our visa expiry date in six days. Sure, I could pop down to Singapore or up to Thailand on a visa run and get three more months, but the train costs, the lost plane tickets to Indonesia, and the cumulative costs of living for two people for two months, plus the repair cost, would make it more cost-effective to buy a new camera.

I hadn’t given up, though, and I cast my net wider looking for repair shops. In any other country this would be trivial. But the Malaysian middle-class are addicted to shopping, to spending money and to conspicuous consumption. They don’t repair things, they throw them away. This made finding a repair shop or a second-hand camera shop very hard. Even in Chinatown, where we were staying in a fifth-floor concrete walkup, there was nothing - and most cities’ Chinatowns are full of repair shops. In all of KL, a modern city of two million, I was able to find only four shops - and two of them were unreachably far out in suburban malls. I visited the others and they both told me the same - the lens was repairable in a couple of days (albeit for a shocking six times the CAD$20 I’d paid in Hanoi) but the camera couldn’t be fixed in time. I felt sick, but it was really only confirmation of the worst-case scenario that had been playing out in my mind.

So there was nothing left to do but price out a new camera. The product line had come a long way since late 2006 and the model due to hit the shelves that very Friday was four models ahead of my poor old machine To my misfortune, Canon had changed both battery and memory-card format since, so I wasn’t able to use the old ones - another $450 investment gone in the name of planned obsolescence. I could have been angry but at that point I was just numb with horror at the vast amount of money I’d have to spend.

KL is full of malls, just like all Malaysian cities. Everyone agrees that the place to go for electronics, though, is Low Yat Plaza. Seven hectic floors crammed full of flashing, noisy stores spilling out into the aisles selling anything at all, as long as it takes batteries. There must be a thousand shops in the mall, but for sanity’s sake they’re roughly grouped by the type of merchandise. The camera shops are mostly on 1 and 2, with a sprinkling on UG. We took it as methodically as possible. I knew what I was looking for, which made it easier. I’d ask, they’d give me a price and I’d write it down. All the prices in Low Yat are negotiable, but I didn’t stop to bargain (haggling is a social contract and beginning the bargaining process means that you intend to buy if you reach a good price - it’s the height of bad form to walk away instead). In the end I had prices from some dozen places in Low Yat. Alive to the possibility that Low Yat was a hype-job I checked a few other malls, but Low Yat really did have the best prices - all the competition, I suppose. Prices varied by almost 15% so it was worth all the shoe-leather. I finally went with the vendor who had the lowest price - the only one smart enough to notice that I was writing down prices, and observant enough to read them upside-down and undercut his competitors. The new camera body was 2400 Malaysian Ringgits, and after haggling, with a big fast memory card and a screen-protector, it all came to RM2580 - just short of CAD$800. Carrying the box out of the mall, other vendors kept asking me how much I’d paid. Their uncomfortable looks and demands to know who I’d bought it from told me I had indeed gotten a good price.

Still. $800. And more than a hundred more to get the lens fixed It’s a horrifying amount of money to me. I’m sure it probably doesn’t sound like much to those of you with steady incomes and used to a high cost of living. But here in Southeast Asia, where a meal costs a dollar and a room in a bad guesthouse costs five, I could have travelled for three months on that money. It’s true that it was about 20% cheaper than it would have been at home, especially since Malaysia has no sales tax. Although, ironically, what I ended up with was a grey-market import from Japan with the Japanese model name, but with Canadian electrical-appliance standards conformation notices on the bottom in French and English. It’s a claustrophobically small world sometimes. It’ll save me trouble with customs if I ever go home though.

All of the nonsense left us without much time to explore Kuala Lumpur. We’d already managed to see the famous Petronas Twin Towers, until recently the tallest in the world. I had wanted to see them ever since they usurped the title from Toronto’s CN Tower, and they didn’t disappoint. Their shape makes them seem shorter than they really are - they’re massive, massive buildings, and they only begin to taper at the top quarter. Each tower is ribbed with polished stainless-steel bands that glow with a lustrous Futurist promise. It’s a remarkably beautiful effect. The towers look like a pair of giant Zeppelins standing on end with their tail-fins buried in the ground. They’re linked halfway up by a two-storey bridge that Petronas calls (rather unimaginatively) the Skybridge. There are free tours offered, if you line up early enough to get one of the 1500 daily tickets. We were there at 7:15 and there were easily 800 people ahead of us in line. While we waited for our turn we watched a Petronas propaganda film in eye-wrenching 3D. I’d have preferred to see more about the towers and less about how wonderful Petronas is - no matter how you spin it, they’re an oil company, which is about as vile and evil as it’s possible to be.

Inside the towers, the stainless-steel d├ęcor continues - even to the elevators. It was like a very expensive restaurant kitchen, or like one of those strapping 1950s sci-fi pieces. Striding boldly forward off the elevator and into a bright new future on the 44th floor, we beheld the Skybridge. It was a tad disappointing. Really, an enclosed bridge is basically just… a hallway, right? The view was fun, but at only 44 stories it’s not too impressive. It wasn’t a waste of time, but it was hardly necessary. The towers are beautiful enough to stand on their own (no pun intended) - the bridge is just gilding the lily, as it were.

We spent our last day in KL with Wong, a friend we’d met on our Halong Bay cruise in Vietnam. Wong’s a super guy - friendly and with a boundless enthusiasm for conversation. Besides wanting to catch up with him, he’d just been to Kenya and Tanzania on a safari and I’ve been desperately missing Africa and wanted to see his pictures. He’d been nice enough to take delivery of a package sent from home for Sheryl, too, and we needed to pick that up. He found us outside our hotel, and after a diversion to the post office and for breakfast, he took us on a sightseeing tour of the city. The first stop was the train station with its white Moorish domes, and then it was on to the State Mosque where Sheryl got to wear a lovely purple robe over her clothes. Following Wong’s inexhaustible lead we went to the KL Bird Park, a gigantic complex of linked, mesh-covered aviary jungles. I’ve lost track of all the different birds we saw, but I remember lots of brightly-coloured songbirds, parrots and parakeets, hornbills, storks, egrets, owls and flamingos. The calls of peacocks echoed sharply back and forth, sounding like meowing cats. I can confidently report from experimentation that it’s a bad idea to put your fingers in the fish ponds at the Bird Park. The ornamental carp there believe they are bloodthirsty sharks or piranhas. My finger bled for hours and took a week to heal. Sheryl claims I was asking for it, but that’s what she says every time misfortune befalls me.

From the bird park it was on to the orchid conservatory. There were hundreds of varieties in all shapes, colours and patterns. I couldn’t escape thoughts of my grandmother and how much she would have loved to see it. After that there was dinner (with Wong paying as he’d done for everything all day, generous as he is) and peppering the conversation with remarks on all the things he hates about Malaysia. I didn’t take any of them too seriously, given his tone of fond frustration.

Just before sunset found us at the Thean Hou temple overlooking the city. The temple is a cheerfully over decorated confection dedicated to Tian Hou, the Heavenly Mother of the Buddhist pantheon. There I had to rescue an elderly tortoise in the crowded tortoise pond, who had gotten himself wedged sideways between rock and a concrete pillar and had been stuck for days by the look of him. Night fell while we were at the temple and all the red lanterns around the ground floor shrine were lit. We tried some handheld long exposures - Wong has the steadiest hands I’ve ever seen. At ⅓”s. my shots were a blurry mess and his were pin-sharp, I’d swear.

The Petronas Towers are lit at night in glowing white, and look like rocket ships ready for takeoff. We sat in the park behind them and looked at half of Wong’s Africa photos - all we could manage, it was getting late and we were all tired. Wong dropped us back in Chinatown. It had been a long day but a fun one - thanks again, Wong, we had a great time.

Getting out of KL wasn’t as easy as it might have been. There’s a nice, fast, modern train that runs directly to KL International Airport, but our discount tickets to Indonesia on Air Asia meant that we were leaving from the embarrassingly-named Low-Cost Carrier Terminal. Lucky for us there’s a shuttle bus that left from Puduraya bus terminal a couple of blocks from Chinatown. We should have bought tickets the day before, as it turned out, since the buses fill up - we were lucky to get seats on the 9:30 bus. That left enough time for a last breakfast of noodles for Sheryl and nasi lemak for me (spicy rice, roasted peanuts and tiny dried whole fish wrapped in a pyramid-shaped banana leaf). Things went to hell at the airport. It’s a confusing mess, the LCCT. One huge warehouse-sized building with check-in desks, baggage scanners and whatnot scattered all over with no apparent order or flow. There are plenty of signs, but the ones that don’t contradict each other just lead you in a big circle around the warehouse. Possibly the world’s most annoying airport. Somehow we managed to find the plane and settled in for our hour’s flight to Banda Aceh in Indonesia, country number 38 of the world tour, and a place about which I had profound misgivings.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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