I got my first sense of Malaysia in the Kuala Lumpur international airport. Other than the typical things one finds in an international airport, I noticed that there were prayer rooms, separated to accommodate either men or women. Descending a ramp, I looked into a waiting room that was completely occupied by women wearing the hijab. In the customs queue I saw one woman in a boshiya. She was like a shadow, only the slit of her eyes visible.
When I came to the counter, I handed my passport to a woman with a serious face. She was wearing the immigration uniform, decorated with various badges of authority, and all but her face was veiled by a simple black hijab. She scrutinised me without expression and sent me on my way into the capital city.
My entire time in Malaysia I may have met a couple of Americans, and there were other Americans who only existed as rumours, people who had passed through at some irrelevant point in time. In the airport and from then on, I often came into earshot of the people of Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, the Scandinavian region, and the rare Canadian or Australian. Other than the Anglos and Europeans, the bulk of people were from all over Asia. They were from Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan, India, the Phillipines, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and a masala mix of all the other mentionable Asian nations.
In the airport, most of those from Asia had a middle class air about them. The men wore plaid button-up shirts, thick rimmed black glasses, and dapper undercuts. Their jeans were trimmed and fitted, their watches were chrome and masculine, they lived in symbiosis with smartphones. In appearance, they’re a lot like anyone else, and I expected it to be that way. These were the patrons wealthy enough to afford a plane ticket to anywhere, and perhaps unbeknownst to them, they’ve come to resemble one another in every part of our world.
Transit in the city was efficient and relatively cheap, and the railways became my primary way of witnessing the city. The first train took me to the heart of the capital, Kuala Lumpur (K.L.) “Sentral”. There were flat, open areas around the airport that were sectioned with thin groves of trees and occupied by industrial outlets and massive structures following the architecture of mosques. In the hills there were luxury hotels and resorts shadowing compacted suburbs, some quite beautiful in that they were grown out of gardens rather than lawns. There were parking decks curtained with hanging gardens, and enormous stretches of palm trees broken by occasional patches of cropland. Those cleared way and became huge billboards that proclaimed the obsessions of that city’s grasping society. Those that were there to climb above their lot, they climbed for expensive watches, the iPhone 6, Isuzu pickup trucks, Mitsubishi air conditioners, Western toilets, and plenty of brands that I didn’t recognise.
The train sped on, and ungracefully hidden behind a layer of palms was a trash dump with flaming debris and smoke. From that the train flanked a crisscross of highways, graffitied bridges, stadiums and a university campus. We passed a manmade lake, and multicoloured townhouses dwarfed by condominiums. Above were curving skyscrapers with what looked like landing pads protruding from them. Between those was a catholic church and a graveyard, like a defiant world within a world. And then like a beast rising from the ocean, I caught the first glimpse of the Petronas Towers.
If one only compared the two capitals, Kuala Lumpur may shadow Bangkok in terms of modern development. There were wider roads, more cars, efficient public transit, and not a single rickshaw. And the growth of KL is unprecedented. The city is digging its nails into the farmland and forests surrounding it, tilling instead a crop of hi-rise apartments and hotels and towering commercial buildings. I counted at least fifty cranes as we passed that skyline, and was later informed that the city was queued to raise well over 200 more skyscrapers by 2020. I’m most interested in what they plan to put in them.
I checked in to the Submarine guesthouse near a Hindu temple around Chinatown. The guesthouse was basic but not dirty. Every room was full but one, even though the end of Ramadan wasn’t typically a high season for tourism. It was a small, stuffy room with a single bunk. I dropped my bag and left to find dinner.
The Hindu temple was presently active. There were flower salesmen, women with bindis and traditional dress. A crippled babba in a white dhoti leaned on a crutch, and his almost identical Muslim counterpart stood in a limp across the street. In the caverns of the closed shops, a skeletal woman with a Dravidian face knelt over a shirtless man with a Malay face. He was on his haunches on top of a bed of cardboard, and he was burning something in a pipe bowl. Just as the world did, I walked by them into the market.
Petaling Street (China Town) was resetting itself before dinner. There was a flurry of action among the shop owners and employees as they shifted tarpaulins and foundations and tables.
Like anything, markets exist in the present. And presently on Petaling Street, the exotic perfumes come in recycled bottles of Hugo Boss and Chanel, the curios sing, spin, flash and bounce and squirm like furry animals, souvenir shops sell miniature replicas of the Petronas Towers and counterfeits of designer sunglasses, there are blue jeans and sandals for sale, watches and wallets, belts and bongs and pipes. Chinese tea houses tout swallow nests, Malaysian restaurants serve nasi lemak next to a foot reflexology parlour, and veiled women haggle over tables of mangoes, rambutan, cherries, mangosteen. Surrounded by a sweet-nutty aroma, two aged Malay men stand at the crossroads with two great churning cauldrons of roasting chestnuts. They smile from ear to ear as pedestrians walk by.
The guesthouse receptionist had recommended a Pakistani restaurant around the corner, but I didn’t see any sign that would give it away and chose another place away from Petaling Street that was touting Malaysian food. I have no name for the vegetables that I ordered, and the fish was curiously similar to any meat but fish. I wanted to ask the server if my fish used to have legs, but thought better of it.
I sat in the open air and watched the people walk by. The women were generally covered up, but didn’t usually wear ful traditional clothing. They wore light cotton long-sleeve shirts, loose jeans and sneakers, along with a hijab of matching colour. But many people were also dressed-up, on their way to somewhere festive or important. The expatriates and tourists were easy to spot, as their garb was the most revealing. They wore the tight pants and the short skirts. The men, however, were harder to distinguish. They could be from so many places. Presently a mass of them were crowded around the bus station, where a few Indian shop owners were having a noisy argument with a truck driver.
I observed the manager of the restaurant. Older man, brown skin, skullcap, an irritable expression and temperament. He scolded the boy waiting on the tables and dismissed me as soon as I said something to him in English.
There weren’t many places to have a drink around Chinatown, and due to the alcohol tax, prices on beer and spirits were above that of any of the surrounding Southeast Asian countries. Six euros wouldn’t get you a pint of Tiger, and being an Islamic country, Malaysia has no major breweries of its own. The only thing that wasn’t imported was the rice whisky.
Tourists generally flock to the Reggea Bar, it being the only standard bar around. I had set myself there around a table of other travellers. Two were Frenchmen, the others were Scottish, and Malay, from Charlestown. No one was drinking more than a schooner to themselves, and all sobered eyes were turned to the television screens. The speakers shuffled through an infinite library of Bob Marley tracks as Ireland played against France in the Euros. I think I was the only one facing the door.
I struck a conversation with one of the Frenchmen. He’d bicycled all the way from France, passing through Central Asia, Iran, China, and most of Southeast Asia.
I told him, “I occasionally run into people like you and think to myself, ‘I cannot die before doing a thing like that’.”
“It was great to see what’s happening in between,” he said.
The entire journey had lasted him one year and three months, but he wasn’t finished yet. He was going to send his bicycle home and head elsewhere. It was an interesting story but he seemed to be tired of telling it. Having become tired and uninterested in the bar scene, I went back to the guesthouse.
That night a Filipino on vacation from his workplace in Singapore was just checking out of my room. The owner of the guesthouse found me and attempted to start a conversation, but I didn’t want to talk about myself. Instead I had a chat with the receptionist. He was from Pakistan, and had come out here for opportunities. He told me that many people came to the city from the Phillipines, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal. They came there for the same reason that he did, to have a better life. Many of them made up the bulk of the cheap labor force in the country. Despite “now hiring” signs all across Malaysia, the receptionist was always Burmese, the server Bangladeshi, the housekeeper Tamil, the farmhand from the Terai of Nepal. They came because the Petronas lights shined so brightly, because the cranes were turning atop a thousand buildings, the roads were jammed with foreign cars, and the palm oil flowed through Port Klang.
I spent a good part of the day at the embassy. The subway was fast and comfortable, there wasn’t much of a crowd, and the taxi that got me the rest of the way didn’t cheat me. In all I spent under three ringgit for the train, four for the taxi.
As the train passed through the centre of the city again, I got to observe the skyline a lot more. It reminded me of Singapore, as if the architects had modelled their buildings around that city. Winding, curvaceous architecture, some beautiful and interesting, but some fairly ugly. The bulk of the city was new, so the planners were able to accommodate for the future better than some older cities. The architecture was a blend of styles from all over the place, and the postmodernist style was quickly coming to prominence there. It was a postmodern Asia inspired by Islamic culture, built upon the remains of a colonial era. Some of the newer skyscrapers had taken on an organic look, resembling a thing one may see growing in the Taman Negara. I’d call it a green city, or at least greener than I’d seen in some other cities.
In the centre of the city, downtown with all the massive financial and luxury brand headquarters, people zipped about in formalwear, with only a destination in mind. Busy, totally occupied people. One could sense an air of pretension, but mostly anxiety and exhaustion among them. I could never spend much time in those parts of a city, disturbed by how quickly it can drain or shackle the soul.
There was a long line outside of the Thai embassy. It was Ramadan, and the employees were having their morning prayer. After half an hour the line began to shuffle. I was next to a man who introduced himself as a lawyer. He was there on behalf of his client, a European businessman, to sort out the client’s transfer to another country. I gathered that the lawyer was nervous about the queue, but he admitted that he preferred this to being in the office. And it was like that with so many working people in Malaysia — they would rather be somewhere else, they’d rather have some down time, they wanted to escape it all and travel, relax. They talked about how much they dislike their office job and routine. They generally blamed the government or local business owners for the problem, or the high food prices, or the woes of tourism. They were interesting people when I got them to talking about their specialty, but every one of them seemed overworked and as if they were wearing themselves out in the act of hiding it. And the stories that they told me sounded scripted, heavily edited, more like a resume than anything.
The lawyer was young, maybe just over thirty, and he was a handsome man. I think he was from Singapore, but he’d spent his life in the trenches of business, kissing the feet of men like the one that had presently walked across the street to join us. He was a tall and fat European man with a yellow tuft of hair, accompanied by his son, maybe ten years old. The man was irritable and at first quite rude to the lawyer. He had unintentionally stepped in front of me in the line, and the lawyer spoke up, nervously. “Excuse me, sir. This man is also waiting in the line.”
The businessman looked down on me, scoffed “Yeah, we’re all waiting in line. I’m waiting, too.”
He was a man who was used to having servants, someone who managed people for a living, but cannot relate to them. His son occasionally asked questions about his business and the world, but the man never gave the boy a useful answer. There was all the hope and answers and reason for living that the man needed, knocking on his front door, tugging at his sleeve, and he ignored it as if it were a passing thought.
Once the doors to immigration were open, the process was straightforward. I paid 3,000 baht and was told to come back around three in the afternoon the next day.
I passed again through Pasar Seni, where a lot of the construction is happening in the city, and took a train all the way to the Batu Caves, and had lunch at a south Indian restaurant before climbing the steps to visit the interior. It was as the French bicyclist from the other day had told me; much of the Batu caves have become a major tourist attraction, and in becoming that way, it has come to resemble a theme park. One still had to climb the stairs, until they get the tram working again, and monkeys still hopped around and stole food from passersby. However, the hundreds of tourists taking selfies and all of the souvenir shops and hawkers and light fixtures took something away from the experience. One no longer goes to the caves for a cave experience, rather you go to visit the temples and witness the bizarre Hindu sculptures, and to feed potato chips to the monkeys. However, the 42-metre statue of Lord Murugan at the foot of the staircase is impressive, and the place has a fascinating history. The interior of the highest cave is also interesting to see. Imagine a hindu temple dwarfed by the blue light of a great sinkhole covered in vegetation and moist cliffs where a clan of macaques slide down to meet visitors. The best time to come is during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, when the temple has a much more festive atmosphere. I didn’t budget for it, but the Malaysian Nature Society organises trips into the protected Dark Caves, home to flora and fauna rarely seen anywhere else.
There was a moment as I was departing the cave when not many people were around. The way the light was shining, and the sheer openness and acoustics of the chamber, with the swooping black birds and macaques whining in the distance, and the old man with the Hindu curio shop at the entrance, filled me with a sensation I’d only had in India. It was a sense of incomprehensible otherness, of being unable to adequately understand the people and place around you, and how swallowing such a realisation humbled you. The man by the curio shop sold clocks and charms with spinning rainbows and the faces of saints and deities I knew nothing about, simple contraptions that sang a Hindu jingle for twenty seconds or so and then repeated it, eternally. The man seemed to be eternal as well, and I thought he must be insane, sitting there, listening to that jingle for all time. But it wasn’t insanity, and that’s what one has to swallow when they visit a place as strange as India — it’s just a thing an outsider cannot comprehend.
That evening I scrambled to check out of the guesthouse and meet David, a young Filipino expat who agreed to host me for a couple of nights over Couchsurfing. I hadn’t reset my phone’s time zone and was half an hour late to our meeting point, so the first couple of hours were a bit embarrassing. Neither of us had eaten, but we decided to cook something with all the tofu he had laying around back at his flat. The grocery store was very expensive and because the tofu meal didn’t go so well, we mostly ate chips and homemade salsa. We talked a bit about the state of the world and about diet and exercise, about what we’ve done and what we wanted to do next, and I was asleep by midnight.
The city skyline sprawled up and around Ampang Park, the first shopping centre that was built in the Malaysia. Even though it was only built in 1973, MRT Corp had already announced its demolition in 2015, to make way for a new rapid transit project. So far the shop owners had resisted this move, but signs of the struggle between the landowners and the Corp are still visible today, as posters are rarely taken down in Kuala Lumpur once they’re out of date. On the five stories of walls flanking a rainbow of colourful hijabs (“tudungs” in Malaysia), skullcaps, shalwar kameez, dupattas, saris, sarongs, and the traditional baju kurung and baju Melayu, there was the occasional pin-up that exclaimed “Save Ampang Park!”
I was there to see what the common people were buying and selling, and to have lunch, since I’d skipped breakfast to pick up my documents from the embassy (the coveted Non-immigrant B visa, eligible to teach for three months with a single employer while pursuing the one-year work permit). Walking through the narrow aisles of clothing and electronics stores, I passed a Turkish restaurant that was alongside a Hainanese one, old bespectacled men reading the newspaper, and masses of Malays in Islamic dress. Popular Malaysian music played softly from every stereo, and it was a romantic, sincere and devotional sound that I’d come to love.
I took my lunch at the Chinese Ampang Food House, a meal of tofu and vegetables. The restaurant felt lived-in and functional. Faded canvases of photo-printed fruit and forested rivers, plastic stools and white fold-up tables, old Chinese ladies with short hair, an elderly man barking from the kitchen, cartons of eggs stacked against the window, and an incomprehensible menu placard. Out of the window I saw green in the empty lots.
The city was a jungle of glass, plastic and reinforced concrete, but not so much as other cities. The powerlines were buried and crows with fat heads stalked the streets where beggars knelt in constant prayer. One of them had long black hair and a frizzled handlebar moustache, and as I left Ampang Park, he held out an empty McDonald’s coffee cup to me.
I wandered the city and found myself atop a tall building in a place called the “Garden in the Sky”, where I stood atop a concrete bench and looked to the KL Tower and all the people below. I thought about material things and how it has consumed so many of us for so long, and because of it I felt inadequate and impotent in the city.
It was midday when I walked through Alor Street, an undulating mixed-use neighbourhood of packed townhouses draped with drying clothes and potted plants, and local restaurants and barber shops. Chinese lanterns were strung overhead and the next street over was occupied by pubs that were locked up before eight in the evening. It was hot out, the sun beat down on everyone. I sat down at a street shop for some kopi, the local coffee that tastes like a bitter oil without any milk or sugar. I watched men ride up on motorcycles and purchase single cigarettes from the counter. The cook passed my kopi back and forth between two cups, making a great arch in the air, cooling the coffee in the most artful way on earth, though it did nothing for the taste.
That evening beneath the Petronas, in the parkland (KLCC Park), I sat with my newly purchased chinos, feeling unhealthy, hypocritical and smelly, but enjoying the view as the towers lit up and the water show began. There was a crowd of people wherever one could get a good look at the pond and the Towers, and lots of people were jogging around the track. I got a kick out of how the Chinese tourists came and set up their tripods all at once, like archers preparing to defend a castle. I bothered a couple of ladies down by the pond, talked with them, and found that they were from Taiwan. They’d just graduated and were on holiday with seven other people, some they’d only just met. I greeted the others as they came, and truly they weren’t the most interesting company, but I was hooked by the good-looking girls. Their party was only there for a single night, as most of them were on their way to Singapore, where one of them worked. I found that I was the one making all the jokes and doing all the ice-breaking, and though they mostly spoke in Mandarin it didn’t seem to be a conversation of substance. Eventually one of the guys invited me to have chicken wings with them, and I said that’d be great. I would really appreciate the company.
I lingered with them for half an hour while they took hundreds of photos. Finally the light show ended, the batteries on my company’s phones died out, and after all the guy who’d invited me said that one of them felt “uncomfortable” and thus they were going straight back to the hotel, “so no chicken wings”.
After that, I didn’t linger. The Taiwanese called an Uber taxi, and I walked to the train station and headed back to David’s apartment.
On the way I was joined by a Malay girl of about twenty-two, who struck a conversation with me. She worked in retail, probably a cashier. We related well after I told her about my time in Australia, working in Caltex and BP. Like every Malaysian that I met, she wanted to travel, to see Europe and America, to have a job that was a bit better. Currently she took the train to the last station every night after work and then walked the remaining half-hour in darkness to her home in the outskirts of the city. She told me it was safe, but she normally had a friend with her. In our talking, we missed the station and had to catch another train, and continued talking until we got there again. I noted that she was wearing a hijab, but did not come off as a religiously conservative type. There was really no correlation like that in Malaysia. Her gesture of speaking to me on that train got me thinking of my country, of how Islam and Asian people in general are so deeply misunderstood in America.
As one normally does these days, we exchanged Facebook profiles and bid each other the best of luck.
I was stirred early the following morning by David haunched over his desk chair, ironing a shirt. Here was a young professional who had worked hard for the position he was now in. Well-paid and felt secure in his job, he knew his role in the office, he was respected. Sometimes he wished he could just drop it all and do his own thing, go out into the world and go wherever he wanted. And watching him in his morning routine, preparing to go to the office, made my heart sink. David had told me that you should only do something if you know that you really want it. Unsure what exactly it was that I wanted, I made some passing joke with David and fell back to sleep.