Saturday, 20 June 2015

Kuala Lumpur: Teh 360 Style Life

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
We arrived in KL in the evening from Melbourne (and may I add that we never once saw a spider or snake except a fake one). Lucky enough to get a ride from a friend Yannick made a few years before, we sat back in air conditioned comfort while Jarold drove us to our hotel. The humid heat was a difference that we expected, but were still stifled by (in stark contrast to the chilly climes of Melbourne). After checking in, he suggested Sizzling Steamboat for dinner, which was a food truck serving celup: skewers of meat, seafood, vegetables and tofu that you submerge in boiling broth until it's cooked the way you like. Then you add sauces like satay, chilli or "savoury" as Jarold called it, which tasted kind of like gravy. Standing around eating potentially dubious meats, I took up my default stance of people watching and I admit I was a bit culture shocked. 
Having never been to Asia before except in Hong Kong airport on a layover, it was fascinating to see the streets buzzing but also shady figures loitering in alleys (not in a threatening way, I think that's just how they were standing), cats sitting on the sidelines and brusque waiters scraping chairs around. I felt that it may take me some time to get used to this change in culture, but I was sure that I would enjoy being in amongst it. What I did not enjoy so much was the cendol at a 24 jam (jam means hour in Malay) cafe: shaved ice with condensed milk, cubes of different flavoured jellies, red beans, and topped with tinned sweet corn. I know that corn is sweet but I cannot grasp the concept of it being in a dessert, it's just wrong! 
After our first night in KL we actually took the bus to Melaka, but that will be my next post. We spent two days in the capital, and there's nothing more iconic than the Petronas Towers. It was expensive to go up to the skybridge that links the 41st and 42nd floors on both towers, so we just gazed up at their inconceivable height from the street below. 
We also visited the adjoining shopping mall, containing a huge and absorbing book store as well as an art gallery that was temporarily showing an exhibition on comics from Gila Gila in their golden era in the 70s - a popular Malaysian humour magazine. Most of the comics were not in English, but a vast quantity of the jokes carried over between the language barrier. One I found amusing depicted a manager disparaging that his workers are never in the office due to so many holidays taking place; Malaysia is a melting pot with Chinese, Indian and Malaysian people all living together and as such they celebrate four different New Years and various other days off. While many events are tied to a certain group or religion, everyone gets a day off in order to embrace their differences. 
At KL Sentral, the main train station, we ate some pastries from a shop called Breadstory. I love to find strange words and phrases that Malaysians use. One that stands out is "Live 360 Style!" on a property, advertising that you too can have 360 degree views and live in style I suppose. The great majority of Malaysians  speak excellent English, and it is used almost as commonly as Malay. Another reason I read as many signs as I can with interest are the simplifications in letter usage in Malay. For instance pharmacy becomes farmasi, police becomes polis, and boutique becomes butik. It makes so much sense, as it does away with unnecessary letters and combinations like CH (as a C alone makes a ch sound), Y, PH, Q and X (in Makay you would use KS instead of an X as in teksi in place of taxi). 
On commuter trains, there are one or two compartments that are designated for women only (koc (coach) wanita), an interesting concept designed to improve the safety and comfort of female passengers. While I find it sad that these measures are needed, it's good to see that action has been taken. 
Using the train to get to Jarold's place was simple, and we made good use of the rooftop pool in his apartment complex. We swam with a view over the city, tinted orange as the sun hunkered down for the evening. To us, the water was refreshing and quite warm, but to Jarold it was like dipping into the New Zealand sea. I could imagine him fleeing from an Auckland shoreline, and found it interesting how the human body acclimatises to the temperature of the environment in which it lives.
Jarold took us to see Batu Caves, an impressive series of caves that holds Hindu temples and shrines. An enormous statue of Hindu deity Murugan stands at the foot of the stairs to the entrance, the tallest Murugan statue in the world. The climb was less strenuous than I thought it would be, and it was broken up by interludes in which I laughed at the behaviour of the resident monkeys. 
Constantly mischievous in their desire for food and shiny things, you would sometimes hear a shriek as one monkey got their little hands on a woman's handbag and she (upon realising) would flee up the stairs. We saw a monkey get ahold of a soft drink bottle and with both hands, a foot and his teeth try to access the contents. He did manage to make a hole with his teeth, but the fizzy liquid burst out and it almost knocked him off his perch. However, he did not fall and was able to enjoy a refreshing Malaysian "100 Plus".
Once at the top, the temperate did decrease slightly but the humidity shot up, meaning that not only was I drenched in sweat but my hair expanded to about five times its normal size. Not letting that get in my way, I watched people praying at various locations, vendors hawking postcards and cool beverages, a man letting off fireworks in order to try to scare the birds out of the cave, and of course tourists taking photos. 
Whenever a monkey did capture some treat, or was given it, they would horde it and try to eat as much as they could before other monkeys found out and tried to take it. These two fellows were enjoying a bag of chick peas before a lot of running and snatching took place and the chick peas went flying. Another monkey was given a banana and he swallowed it in three bites, leaving the peel lying discarded behind him - a cartoon tumble waiting to happen. 
The main cave explored, we took a tour through the neighbouring cave where we saw bats, spiders, centipedes and crickets. We had to wear helmets in case a snake fell on our heads, as the snakes in these caves would leap out over thin air to snag their prey as the fall to the ground would not hurt them. The bat guano fed many creatures including two types of cockroach, a smaller cave species and the urban roach that was accidentally introduced through development nearby. 
Speaking of roaches, it was pretty strange to eat scrumptious coconut ice cream while all around your feet were creepy crawlies and rats in the gutters! In the neighbourhood where uni students hang out, we stood with our plastic spoons watching the cockroaches scuttle around looking for something tasty. 
A sad sight was just down the road where a litter of starveling cats paced, mewling. I think the rats were bigger than the kittens, and I badly wanted to rescue them. Yet I refrained even from petting them as I suspected they had fleas. There I was, eating ice cream while they went hungry. Heartbreak ensued. I really can't hug every cat. 
Our hotel was smack bang in Chinatown, and we walked under the lanterns seeing fake designer wares for sale next to smokey food stalls with signs only in Chinese. Not knowing what kind of food we'd be ordering (and not being terribly hungry), we chose some fresh fruit from a vendor and returned to our air conditioned hotel room to eat from the plastic bags with toothpicks. Watermelon, mango and guava - the fruits here are ripe and full of flavour. And so many choices! I saw one fruit stand with five different types of mango.
The drinks are all very sweet to my palate. Juices are popular (the green one in the photo is lime and sour plum), as is tea. Though it was very sweet, I enjoyed sipping teh tarik ice, tea with milk and sugar served cold. From now on when people ask what Teh Travels means, I'll tell them that the Malay word for tea is teh. Tea explains everything.