The coach from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur was straightforward. Five hours, lots of room and a wee stop (£12 each). Travelling by bus allows you to see the sights and we did: palms for palm oil and the odd billboard selling tools, office equipment and sanitary stuff. It’s very green and very bumpy and very full of palm trees. Apparently they mine a lot of tin. And there’s oil, the crude stuff. But there’s also a lot of palms for palm oil.
Our hosts in KL (parents of ex-students of ours) run a palm oil plantation or two. And he tells me that soya creates five times as much deforestation as palms, and you can’t use soya to replace diesel. What with the orangutans and everything it’s getting a bad press, but soya is worse, apparently. Anyhow, there’s miles and miles of it here.
We were booked into a v swanky colonial hotel, with pithe-helmeted doorsmen and more staff than I had tips for. Our first night was a drive-by tour of KL kindly provided by another ex-student who now works as a property developer in the city. And, wow. There’s been a lot of property developed in KL.
The most iconic is the Petronas Towers, once the tallest building(s) in the world, but now dwarfed by that mad thing in Dubai. It only became clear in daylight, but KL is a busy, skyscraper city that’s doubling as a building site. It has more cranes than a paddy field. There are gihuge buildings everywhere – as far as the eye can see. And bigger ones are being built. None, however, will eclipse the extraordinary spectacle that is/are the Petronas Towers. After a local supper we took a fast lift to the 33rd floor of another tower, hoped to get a drink only to realise that it was ladies’ night (Teng and I were going to be lucky numbers wise, less so C). So whilst we didn’t stop we did manage to get a full-frontal of the towers. Mad, absolutely mad. We finally got our drink in a bar in another hotel high-rise. Again, fabulous views.
The next day was the full KL tour with driver and guide (thanks Mrs Gan). It was only then that we began to realise that KL isn’t Singapore. There are metaphorical and actual cracks in the pavement. The concrete looks more West African than West Byfleet. It’s a bit dirty. The workers don’t have that ordered efficiency of Singapore. A lot of it is half- finished. And everyone told us to watch out for petty, but determined crime.
Apparently much of the race for the skies is underpinned by backhanders – certainly the previous PM is being done for some serious corruption including a £41 million super yacht. And the new builds are not supported by appropriate infrastructure. It’s about being big and bold, but not so much integrated. As a result the traffic is like rush hour Naples … in 90% humidity. It’s trying very hard to be a first world country, but at only 70 years old, its ambition isn’t supported by a first world government. Yet. And there are gently simmering racial issues. The indigenous, Muslim Malays who hold the power, don’t quite see eye to eye with the centuries old Chinese Malaysians, who have the money. There’s the jealousy of the uber-rich Singapore who were, not so long ago, Malaysian. And the Thais who let the Japanese in during the second world war, are looked down on.
And I loved it (the place, not the racism).
We did the palace where my day was made by a minibus-load of Chinese tourists who wanted their photograph taken with me. I think they mistook me for Harrison Ford, which happens a lot. We did the main Taoist temple, which is in an old bat cave (nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner, nunner … Batman!), up an unnecessarilyl multicoloured flight of steps protected by a huge, gold God-type figure. We did a Chinese temple, and all of the old, central colonial buildings, finishing off at the old cricket square next to a Tudoresque private club which we weren’t allowed to go into. It was all very 1900s, but delightfully so, especially compared to the glass, steel and concrete superstructures that surrounded us.
Exhausted but not out, we ran in the hotel’s gym, swum in the hotel’s terrace pool and, undaunted by the threat of being mugged, we walked and found a McDonald’s for fear of ending up looking like a grain of rice.
We also booked the next stage of our trip (so excited … I’m penning this on my phone in a coach heading north).
Our second full day was a trip to Malacca, down the coast from KL. Again a driver and guide were provided. We chose Malacca because my mum and dad were based there in the early 60s. It was fun and v provincial. We looked around the old colonial sites, visited a Malay/Chinese merchant’s house museum and then drove onto dad’s old barracks … which was strangely moving.
And last night the Gans took us out for supper, finishing with coffee and pud in our hotel. It was a v chilled way to end our stay in KL.
Would we come again? We loved Singapore and could certainly see us stopping over for a day or so, if the bank balance allowed. KL? Other than to see the Gans, possibly not. It’s an inexpensive city with a gawpable skyline. There’s plenty of nightlife to make you feel special and shopping malls galore. The colonial history is fascinating, but that only needs to be told once.
So, maybe not.
And Malaysia? Mmmm. As we snake our way north through huge limestone gorges where the rainforest hasn’t been decimated for palm trees, to a ferry to an island off the northwest coast … possibly. And more of all that later. ‘Cos Malaysia also includes the northern half of Borneo where Bex has just come back from. We’ll see what she says.
(BTW, luxury coach – Cosmic Express! – from KL, 500 km north to Kuala Perlis is £12 each. Clean and efficient and leaves from a modern, 3-storey bus terminus the size of Watford.)
More of Malaysia next time.