It's not easy being in third place. In recent years South East Asia has emerged as a huge hub of commerce and a major tourist destination. The region is now very much on the global stage. Kuala Lumpur, the capitol of Malaysia has neither the glamour of Hong Kong or the excitement of Bangkok, but there is no doubt South East Asia's third city is trying hard and getting a lot of things right.
Kuala Lumpur is not just the capitol, but also Malaysia's most important and populous city. It is an intriguing mix of native Malays making up 44% of the population and the Chinese right behind at 43%. Rounding it out are Indians with 10% of the 1.6 million people living in the city. The official religion is Muslim, but the Chinese follow Buddhism and the Indians are Hindu. The city is a melting pot of many yummy flavours. Kuala Lumpur sits just 3 degrees north of the equator and there are no seasons here. Whether January or July the average daily temperature is 90F degrees. At night it may drop down to 85F if you're lucky. The heat and humidity are ever present in this jungle city whose name means "muddy confluence". With a name like that, it's no wonder the new generation with their sights firmly set on the future refer to it simply as KL. And like my former home town that goes by its initials, KL has much in common with L.A. KL sprawls across a vast area and there is no centre of town. Nobody walks in KL and getting around requires a car. There is no logic to traffic flow and the peak
hours of rush hour can be hellish.
We flew to KL at the end of our holiday in Thailand. It's less than a two hour flight from Bangkok, although the flight back to London was a whopping 13 hours on the new double decker A380. We booked three nights at the magnificent Shangri La Hotel in the middle of town. In this city that has been in the throes of a building boom for the last 15 years, the Shangri La is an old timer, having opened in 1985. But she has just
had a multi-million dollar make-over and is positively dripping in gilt and grandeur. We quickly discovered that the Malay's are as obsessed with service as the Thai's. Nothing is too much for them, and we were made to feel like old friends the moment we arrived. KL is very much a business capitol in South East Asia, and I was surprised and happy to see so many American businesspeople here making deals, sipping cocktails, moving and shaking. Part of the reason for this is that KL is still inexpensive compared to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. The Malaysian Ringgit is undervalued making everything from hotels to taxi rides seem very cheap by our standards.
The first day we braved the dripping jungle heat and walked from the hotel to the Menara Tower. Rising 421 meters into the heavens it is the fifth tallest tower in the world. At its base are a collection of cafe's, souvenir stands and a prayer room. I considered praying for cooler weather but I knew that Allah, Buddha and Ganesh together could do nothing to stop the crush of heat and humidity. For about $8 we were lifted to the observation deck in one ear popping minute. The round glass room offers an all-encompassing 360 view of the vast city with its steel and glass
skyscrapers popping up and out of the jungle fauna. It is hard not to be impressed.
After a refreshing dip in the pool, and a fantastic dinner at the Shangri La we went out to sample the nightlife. I was a little concerned (Malaysia being a Muslim county) that we might find the evening entertainment a bit dull. To our complete surprise we found whole streets full of bars catering to party goers from all over the world. We went into one called the Rum Jungle that had a Calypso band playing to an odd mix of Wilford Brimley types sitting silently with their Asian girlfriends and teenage boys nervously ordering their first beer. Confused Japanese businessmen watched a well past her prime hooker sway to the music in the dim hope of attracting a single rich man. Since everyone here seemed lost in translation, we decided to try the one across the road called Thai Bar. This place was rammed full of
gorgeous young Asian girls in hot pursuit of middle aged white men. Freddie and I were attracting them like mosquitos. Obviously they were barking up the wrong tree, but that did not stop them from feeling us up like fruit in a market stall. If they found out we had a suite back at The Shangri La, I'm sure a full scale riot would have ensued. The last stop of the night was Frangipani, the chic gay bar and lounge that has been packing them in for over ten years (an eternity in KL). The crowd was well dressed and well behaved, creating a nice change from the mauling that was going on at the last few stops.
Hong Kong may be where shopaholics go to die, but here in Kuala Lumpur shopping is a living, breathing sport. There are no less than sixty six shopping malls keeping the masses cool and comfortable while they search for the perfect linen suit. Not surprisingly the Japanese are here by the thousands getting a lot more bang for their yen than they would back home. Once inside one of these behemoths you could be anywhere in the world. The food courts are enormous and feature unlikely
establishments such as Tony Roma's Ribs and Kenny Rogers Chicken. Malaysians love to eat.
When we emerged from the mega malls the traffic outside had ground to a stop, so we decided to ride the monorail back to the Shangri La. This really is the only way to travel in KL. The Disney-esque elevated train slithers silently through the malls, rounding the mosques and skyscrapers. It is
blissfully cool inside and you get a bird’s eye view from one end of the city to the other, all for about fifty cents. It beats the hell out of the Hop On, Hop Off tourist bus. These chocking old clunkers wheeze and protest their way through the clogged streets at a snail’s pace delivering droll English commentary of the sights. The best part was Hopping Off.
That evening we made our way to KL's most famous landmark and signature of the city: The Petronis Towers. Built in 1988 by the celebrated Argentinean architect Cesar Pelli, it was briefly the world’s tallest building. Soaring to 452 meters it is the internationally recognized symbol of modern Malaysia. The towers are covered in heat reflective stainless steel and are meant to give the feeling of two giant Islamic minarets. I thought they looked like cosmic corn cobs about to blast into space. In the evening when they light up in blaze of silver and white, they are truly spectacular. Architecture
on this scale must be seen to be appreciated, although I am pretty proud of the photos I took that evening. The weekend we were in KL coincided with the election of the new Argentinean pope, so Freddy had much to be proud of for his home country.
On our last night in KL a ferocious thunderstorm tore through town. Freddy and I watched the lightening cracking all over the city from our perch on the 28th floor of the hotel. The Malaysian's took this all in stride, hardly noticing the ear splitting thunder and pouring rain filling the streets. This concrete jungle is still very much a real jungle too, complete with burping frogs, hookers and hawkers, mosquitos and mosques. Kuala Lumpur remains one of the fastest growing cities in the world, and there is no sign of things slowing down. The good natured locals are an intriguing mixture of heritage with one thing in common. They believe in the future of Kuala Lumpur, and after three days here, so do I.