Kuala Lumpur: Tropical heat. Tons of monkeys. What more could you want?
Flying out of Singapore’s Changi Airport, we arrived an hour later in Malaysia and took a cab to the Palace of Golden Horses, a ridiculously elaborate resort outside Kuala Lumpur (or KL, as they call it). With our arrival being off-season, we had the palace essentially to ourselves. And yet they still managed to put us as far from the lobby as possible (no doubt reserving the good rooms for foreign dignitaries like Carrot-Top).
Our thoroughly marbled and gold-dipped Palace Of Golden Horses resort was part of a larger area known as the The Mines Resort City which is comprised of the following other things:
- A central, man-made lake surrounded by a golf course (that Tiger Woods was reportedly paid $1mil to play)
- A four-story shopping complex with an indoor river (so you can take a water-taxi right inside the mall itself),
- A beach resort
- A wonderland amusement park
- And a business park
Over 50 delegates and other famous types who’ve stayed there are pictured in photos in the main lobby to impress folks. However, in the light of day, The Palace of the Golden Horses was looking a little less golden and more showing its age. Certainly the main lobby and grounds were fairly well maintained, but the room we got was more musty and moldy than we would have liked — it was fine, but hardly “five-star,” as promised. Next time, we’d probably stay in the city.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 23
We woke up the next morning and decided to take a city tour to get the lay of the land. At 2pm, our tour bus arrived disguised as a Japanese subcompact. The tiny, four-seat economy car turned out to be a Malaysian Proton. Founded in the 1980s by then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, Proton was meant to symbolize the country’s rapid industrialization and aspirations of first-world status. (It was a nice try, anyway.)
I was shocked to learn there are several car companies selling cars here that I never even knew existed: Perodua (Malaysian), SsangYong (Korean) and Mitsouka (Japanese). The three companies make cars in three basic sizes: small, smaller and nano — presumably for fuel efficiency, but it’s somewhat unnecessary since gas in Malaysia only costs about US$1.40 a gallon. An even cheaper mode of transportation is the popular moped/motorcycle. About 40% of all Malaysian highway traffic is nut-cases noisily buzzing around town on mopeds wearing their coats backwards (so the zipper’s in back), the reason for which was never sufficiently explained.
We crammed into the “backseat” of one such Proton subcompact and headed uptown. Our affable Indian guide, Raj (who speaks English pretty well — call him at 012-6624655), drove us all over greater KL pointing out all the major sites, such as the World’s Tallest Flagpole (which we later found out actually isn’t). Raj next showed us the inspiration for the name “Kuala Lumpur” which means “the meeting of two muddy rivers,” and the spot lived up to its billing. According to Raj, a ship of Chinese workers got stuck at the junction and just decided to stay there and mine tin.
Later, we got to see the palace where the ruler du jour lived, too. Much nicer than our Golden Palace, the KL palace (or Istana Negara) houses a new royal family every five years. Since Malaysia has 9 provinces and 9 ruling families, they each take turns living in the palace. Once the five years is up, the next family moves in. In forty-five years, they get to move back in again. If they survive that long. If not, then Junior gets the pad.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 23
We took the Mines water-taxi (RM$3) across the lake to the Mines Shopping mall. Unlike the ones in downtown KL, the Mines mall was a low-rent zoo. Kiosks were shoehorned into every inch of floorspace making it feel more like a bazaar. We didn’t recognize any of the stores with the exception of McDonald’s and KFC, both of which are extremely popular with lazy, overweight Malaysians — you know, all seven of them.
MONDAY, OCTOBER 24
Every morning at 10am, a shuttle leaves the Palace for the KLCC, or Kuala Lumpur City Center. And every morning, we missed it. So once again we took a cab to the Central Market instead. The Central Market is a big warehouse with two floors of shops selling locally made crafts and jewelry. A few streets away is Petaling Street, a closed-off, covered road that’s lined with kiosk-like tents in the street. There, they sell “genuine copies” (not those fake copies) of designer bags, clothes, sneakers, perfume and watches for unbelievably low prices — combine those prices with an almost 4-to-1 exchange rate and shopping doesn’t get more fun.
Once we reached our ATM card’s withdrawl limit for the day, we toured some of the nearby Chinese and Hindu temples before ending up in the shadow of the Petronas Twin Towers, the world’s tallest twin towers. We watched the outdoor fountain water show and hung out in the beautifully manicured 48-acre park in the shadow of the Towers. Illuminated at night by powerful spotlights, the steel-wrapped structure is nothing short of spectacular. We almost forgot how petroleum companies like Petronas were raping the planet and mortgaging mankind’s future.
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 25
Malaysia, it turns out, is only one of two places on Earth where you can see colonies of fireflies in the wild (the other being Brazil): This we had to see. So that night, Raj drove us to the coast, past endless fields of palm trees (the source of palm oil, a major Malaysian export). Near where the Klang river empties into the China Sea, we were taken to a dimly lit river dock. From out of the pitch blackness, a boatman, rowing slowly like a gondolier in Venice, pulled alongside and motioned for us to get in.
Stepping onto his long, low and wide boat was like stepping back into primeval times. Against the strong current of the murky water, our boatman slowly inched our boat up the river in eerie silence. Such was the vibe of this Land of the Lost that the appearance of a Pterodactyl or Ichthyosaur wouldn’t have surprised us in the least.
We rowed on for a time when, just about the time we started wondering if the quiet boatman planned to roll us and leave our bodies for the crocodiles, we saw the fireflies — hundreds of them, in fact, swarming in and around bushes that lined the river.
The fireflies in Malaysia eat the leaf of the Beremban tree, a bush-like tree. From a distance, the bushes appeared to be wired with dim, white twinkle lights. It almost looked fake, that is, until the boatman rowed our boat right up into the bush and we were able to touch the fireflies — it was, frankly, astonishing.
These fireflies — called “kelip-kelip” in the Malay language — are really 6mm long beetles, which belong to the Lampyridae species. They produce a cool, yellowish-greenish glow in their lower abdomens. Both male and female fireflies are able to flash, but only the males flash in unison; the synchronized display serves to attract a mate. Now you know.
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 26
Malaysia isn’t all sunshine and palm trees. Three hours outside of Kuala Lumpur lies a good-sized mountain. And up in that mountain is a plateau of sorts. Back when Malaysia was a British colony, that plateau was found and settled by the Scots, of all people. Why red-headed, fair-skinned Scotsmen would move to balmy, tropical Malaysia is anyone’s guess, but once we drove up into the mountain, we learned why. At 1500 meters above sea level, Frasier’s Hill is a cool 60-degrees fahrenheit (with fog, no less). Lush and green, the area has a charming Scottish hamlet feel complete with Inns, Pubs and, no lie, a 9-hole golf course! The Scots are mostly all gone now, but the village is still popular with pasty-faced tourists who can’t take tropical heat and humidity. You know, like us.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 27
Having done everything we’d planned, we burned off the whole day doing pretty much nothing and, that night, went to the resort’s Polo Lounge for Ladies’ Night. We sucked down beers while a cheesy keyboard/midi player with a mullet — but not just a mullet, a permed mullet — banged out music while a woman in a business suit (?) murdered popular songs. We stood it for as long as we could and then left to go have Peking Duck at the highly regarded Chinese restaurant also in the resort.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28
We had an early flight that morning and, thanks to the huge time change involved in traveling halfway around the globe, I’d set my watch alarm incorrectly so it never went off. Fortunately, we’d made arrangements with a cabbie to call our room if we weren’t down in the lobby at the predetermined time. Unfortunately, he never bothered to show up. Luckily, the hotel got us a different cabbie who exceeded the legal speed limit for the entire hour-long drive (!) to the KL airport. (Not every foreign country has citizens nice enough to flout their own laws for the sake of over-sleeping tourists.)
A scant 16 hours later, we were back home in the Bay Area, tired but happy, having gained a lot from the experience. Specifically, a lot of stuff we had to declare to US customs. (We did mention the excellent exchange rates, right?)