Friday 11 March 2011

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur has always sounded like an exotic destination to me, maybe it was the name itself, or maybe because it wasn't until relatively recently that I actually knew where it was.  Shame on me!  I think the first time I consciously remember knowing where it was located, was when I rented a flat in London from an air steward who worked for BA.  He had a big piece of art (a sort of tribal mask as I remember) hung on the wall in the hallway, and he told us that he had bought it here.  It impressed me at the time.

The view from our balcony as we moved slowly into dock this morning was not one of great beauty.  We'd tied up in what looked like another container port, and our limited perspective of the port gave us no clue as to where we were at all.  KL (as anyone who has been there before smugly calls it) was nowhere to be seen, and so we had to take an organised coach at our own expense, about 1 hour down the road to reach it.  We could have chosen not to, but the alternative was a free shuttle to a local shopping centre, and we didn't come 3/4 of the way around the world for that.    P&O gets away with this because they tell you that they are taking you to Port Kelang, the port itself.  We've quickly learnt that there is certain "estate agent" type jargon that we must be aware of in order to get the most out of our stay, and I will hereby enlighten you.

If somewhere is said to be "The Gateway to...Some Place Else", this means that "Some Place Else" is probably Some Place Distant!  It requires a lengthy transfer.  A great many of Ryan Air's airport destinations could be described as such.

If someone tells you that Some Place has "Breathtaking Views" then be aware that there is a substantial climb involved in getting there.  You don't get something for nothing!

And finally, be mindful of food described as a "local specialty".  By all means try it, but watch that it doesn't contain things that we might consider giving a cute name back home.  There may be a reason it hasn't been made popular worldwide.

So there you have it, don't say that reading our blog has been a waste of time!

We boarded the coach to Kuala Lumpur City Centre (again abbreviated to KLCC for the lazy and boastful) and were treated to some great views as we got closer to it.  We were dropped off right underneath the Twin Petronas Towers, the tallest building in the world.  When it was built.  Now it's the 3rd.  Probably.  This is how it was described to us by our tour guide, Larry.  3rd tallest in the world isn't bad though, it was still a mighty impressive structure, but there was a bit of confusion as to whether we would be allowed to ascend it.  Larry explained that there were only 1000 free tickets issued each day and that the queues started at 6am so we had little chance of getting any today.  It turns out that Larry wasn't being 100% honest with us.  As some lady sitting a bit further back explained in a loud voice to the whole coach, "You don't have ANY chance of getting in today, it's closed on Mondays".  She's probably the same woman that calls it "KL" and I'm sure that tour guides the world over really love meeting well informed tourists.  Larry looked like he was grateful for the information, just like a Zebra is grateful to be eaten by a Lion.  So we didn't go up the Petronas Towers, but we did stand at the bottom and get neck ache from them.  That and the photos should help preserve the memory of their sheer size. 

Underneath the offices that make up the majority of the towers, a 4 story shopping mall tempts you into air conditioned, commercial heaven.  We were having none of that, and decided to make use of the underground trains to take us to Central Market, from where we could explore by foot, some of the highlights of the city.  Only one line serviced this particular station, so it didn't require too much brain power to buy 4 tickets (we were hanging out with Trevor and Jean again) and board the correct train travelling in the correct direction.  The service was fast, efficient, not too crowded (although we were standing for most of the 10 minute journey) and above all, it was cool.  The train appeared at Central Market above ground, and we stepped out of the sliding doors and back into the oven outside.  We found our bearings and walked to find the old train station and a mosque.  I won't pretend to be all knowledgeable about these 2 places, but they were on the way to the Bird Park so we took some pictures.  We headed up hill a little way and towards a tourist attraction called Lake Gardens.  Within the gardens we found the Bird Park - The "World's Largest Free-flight, Walk-in Aviary" no less.  As with many of the Largest, Tallest, Steepest claims, I have no way of checking, but I can confirm that it was quite sizable.  I have a long standing love that I share with at least one other person, of the way that attractions worldwide advertise themselves.  So much so that I thought I would try to impress you by saying that if our cabin on board Arcadia was a tourist attraction, then it would be known as the World's largest rear facing, clothes strewn, passenger ship cabin on board a ship whose name began with A.  Lies, damn lies, statistics and tourist attraction claims.

Despite its questionable size claims, the Bird Park was very good, and although we limited ourselves on the time we spent there, we still had the chance to wander around in the midst of some very colourful and exotic looking birds, and to feed some of them from our hands.  And our heads.  And my shoulder.  In fact, these particular parrots would sit or cling onto any part of your anatomy on which they thought they might get fed.  I was happily filming Katie as she entertained about 6 on her arm, 1 on her head and 2 on her other hand as they ate sunflower seeds and slurped sugary mixture, but I wasn't immune from their attention.  With a single move that would have impressed a watch thief, the park guide suggested he film us both, and in taking the camera dropped a handful of seeds into my palm.  Before I'd even noticed he'd done it, the birds were upon me too.  All I could do was stand there, arms outstretched like a half-hearted scare-crow.  I've shaved the beard off now in a vain attempt to keep cool, and so I didn't look like a complete scare-crow!

A tick in the box next to the Bird Park, we jumped into a taxi to take us back to Central Market.  There was no way we were walking back in the heat.  The next item on the agenda before lunch was to find Merdeka square where another "world's tallest" could be found.  This time is was a flag pole, about 100m tall where the Union Jack was lowered, and the Malaysian flag raised in 1957.  It was sat on the edge of a nice square, more cricket ground, than cobbled piazza.  Across the road was one of the most famous landmarks in the city.  The Sultan Abdul Samad Building is now a court building, but its clock tower is apparently very photographed and looks like Big Ben.  We duely obliged.  We retraced our steps back to the Central Market area, and made a surprisingly quick decision about where to eat.  We wanted something practical that wouldn't take up too much time, but didn't want to eat in KFC.  (There was one a bit further up the road, but the queue was almost out the door!) We opted for what we took to be the Malaysian equivalent of McDonalds, "Es Teler".  It was quick, very tasty and for 3 meals it cost about 6 pounds.  No fries or burgers to be seen.

Stomachs full again, it was time to look around the Central Market.  We found a couple of things.  Katie bought a dress, I got a shirt, and the prices seemed more reasonable than in Singapore.  But time was marching on, and with Katie having some alterations to her dress done, we were a little later than planned leaving the market.  We got the underground back to KLCC and had enough time to look around a few shops at the bottom the Petronas towers before gathering to catch the coach back.  In the time that we were cocooned inside, a storm was brewing outside, and we could hear the thunder as we walked around the mall.  Larry had warned us this morning that there may be rain when we were collected, and he was right.  He advised us to wait undercover by the entrance to the mall, and so a small crowd made up of people on our coach, and others, started to grow as the rain lashed down and the thunder and lightening crashed around us.  Once all present and correct, we had to make a mad dash for the coach, about 200 meters away.  We've experienced some heavy rain since we've been away, and this was fairly monsoon like too, but I've never heard and seen thunder and lightening as intense as we did today.  Before we dashed, I put on my new waterproof jacket (don't call it an anorak!) that I've been carrying around in the bottom of my bag since I bought it in Hong Kong.  I was secretly pleased to let it see the light of day and it had a good initiation.  With my hood up, and my head down, all I could see were the back of Jeans shoes as we headed to the sanctuary of the waiting coach.  She led me through some sizable puddles but it was inevitable that something was going to get wet.  Looking out of the window of the coach as it weaved its way through the suburbs; I think we got off lightly.  It was still raining and I was amazed at the amount of water running down the roads and through ditches at the side of the roads.  I watched as it created temporary waterfalls off the bridges and fly-overs and down steps towards houses and driveways. 
Arriving back at a bone dry port, we realised that it was quite rich in facilities.  A convenience store, where we tried to spend our remaining Ringgits, a big Wi-Fi enabled room where we had no time to logon, and a duty free store the other side of "security" where the beer we had bought just 5 minutes earlier, was less than half the price!  We live and learn.  We were a little late leaving the port because several coaches from the city had been delayed by the traffic and the rain.  It gave us time to sit on the balcony and relax and also to witness a helicopter coming into land on the American warship docked right next to us.  Nice touch. 

Later that evening:

As I'm writing this it's about 11.30pm and we've just been standing on our balcony at the back of the ship watching the best lightening show we've ever seen.  The storm must be over the land somewhere, but we have an uninterrupted view of it as it lights up the sky and the clouds every few seconds.  Not just the odd flash, but one after another, and often several at a time.  We've been standing there mesmerised for about 30 minutes after which it started to die down.  I tried to capture it on the video camera with some limited success, and also on my stills camera with slightly less.  I've always wanted to get a good shot of lightening, but even on bulb setting, where you can keep the shutter open as long as you like, the light from the strike isn't enough to register and convey the magnitude sufficiently.  Either that or my skill level has maxed out.  I suspect more of the latter.

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