It’s been a long time since I was in Kuala Lumpur so when Mission Control suggested that we might add a Malaysia leg to our recent Dubai trip that would enable her to see her godson in Singapore, my heartbeat quickened. Not, I hasten to point out, because I have more than a passing interest in the progress that small boys are making with their violin lessons; no, I was thinking ‘rain forest’ and ‘Crested Serpent Eagle’ and metaphorically rubbing my hands at the chance to reacquaint myself with the peanut shells on the floor of the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel. My reverie was cut short, however, by the news that the journey between KL and Singapore would be by train. ‘Train?’ I asked. Now anyone who has spent a significant part of his life compacting his spine by commuting into London will share my immediate alarm. It’s not that I’m against travelling by train – far from it because I like travelling on comfortable trains; it’s just that I’ve had such harrowing experiences on the way to and from Liverpool Street station that when I heard the journey between KL and Singapore would take around six hours my life flashed before my eyes. Ever prepared, however, and familiar with my failings she introduced me to a fascinating and informative website called The Man in Seat Sixty-One. The time I spent browsing the site was very reassuring and that’s how we got to purchase First Class seats out of KL Sentral to Singapore for about £14 each.
We’d planned to stay a couple of nights in KL and wanted to be downtown so had booked the splendid Mandarin Oriental, which sits right in the commercial heart of the city, next to the City Centre Park and the Petronas Towers. The centre of KL has shaken off a lot of its colonial past and now looks every bit a modern city. In some respects, the Oriental is an oasis of tradition in a desert of bland modernity, surrounded as it is by new buildings and high-rise blocks, shopping malls, steel sculptures in the park and, of course, those towers. But some things hadn’t changed, as the taxi-ride from the airport proved. The people are just as friendly, smiling and welcoming as they ever were; the driving still as eye-wateringly incompetent and heart-stopping. And, it appears, the locals still hold firm to the belief that if you don’t maintain a vehicle it will last forever. Mind you, there may be some truth in that judging by the condition of the dilapidated wrecks that careered erratically past us.
I’ve always liked being in Asia. I love the food, the seductive greenness and colours, the heat and, especially, the level of service. The attention afforded by people who seem genuinely interested in doing their job well is excellent; there remains a clear understanding of the competitive edge that making the customer feel special can bring. That hasn’t changed at all. So it was pleasant and elevating when I found that everyone working at the Oriental knew my name almost from the point at which I checked-in and continued to greet me with a salute of respect even though I recognised none, hampered as I was by a confusing perception of physical similarity and a limited ability to address people whose forenames have only two letters. I enjoyed my first ice-cold Tiger beer of the trip in the excellent Lounge on the Park and again, the attention was faultless – although these days I find myself ever-so-slightly uncomfortable when men are unashamedly served ahead of women, particularly when the attractive waitresses are, how do I put it – flirtatious? Perhaps not – attentive is perhaps a better way of expressing it. This is a traditional grand hotel in the old style; I can’t recommend it highly enough and the pool, set as it is at tree-top level above City Centre Park, is beautifully located and a perfect place to start your day. Unless you’re a birder, that is. The park is well provided with mature trees and lush planting so I thought a quiet, dawn walk around it would be an ideal start to a list of south-east Asian birds that I would mull over in flickering firelight on a cold European night. And there were birds, lots of them; Magpie Robins, Asian Koels, Pink-necked Green Pigeons, Javan Mynas, Brown Shrikes and Black-naped Orioles, but the dawn chorus was drowned-out and the birds outnumbered three-to-one by joggers, practitioners of Taekwondo, group aerobicists from the conference centre and all manner of worshippers of the sunrise. I’d forgotten that in this part of the world the early-morning workout – together with the full-on, hi-tech, gizmo-laden, fashion statement outfit – is de rigueur. I’ve never seen so much silver velour. Coffee in the relatively uncrowded Oriental was welcome and pretty good, I recall.
The driverless metro system is new since my last visit and, being little more than a schoolboy at heart, I had to ride it so we went down to the old centre and just walked. I’m a bit old-fashioned about cities – maybe because I’m from the centre of London – and believe you can’t really see and feel a place unless you get off the beaten track and walk it. There’s something other worldly about the back streets of Kuala Lumpur and, in some respects, time spent there can feel like time spent in another age. It still smacks of a colonial life and days of Empire and of course modern-day Malaysia is very much a product of occupying cultures. Perhaps it’s the number of people still getting somewhere on two wheels; perhaps it’s the fume-belching trucks in narrow roads piled high with green stuff and bales of material or loaded with animals; perhaps it’s the fact that most people are so busy getting on with the business of daily life that they generate a single-mindedness of purpose we’ve all but lost in the west. Life takes place on the street where shophouses, go-downs and restaurants spill out in a multiplicity of sounds, sights and smells. The Central Market is a little touristy now but the surrounding area still has a vibrancy that makes it a pivotal point in the city. We ate chicken dumplings, noodles and soup at a stall while KL bustled past us; traditional, excellent and cheap. Chinatown and Little India still felt authentic, dirty underfoot and, when one occasionally made eye contact with someone sitting way back in one of the shophouses, a little edgy.
The Suria KLCC shopping mall, below the Petronas Towers and next door to the Oriental, is something of a contrast, a microcosm of the city. This six-storey behemoth with its own metro station sports outlets that we’d walked past in Dubai; Gucci, Prada, Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Chanel and even Marks and Spencer. Popular – definitely; incongruous – not as much as one might think but what I liked most about it was the way that local families loaded up with ice cream at closing time and sat outside in the park, bathed in light from the floodlit Petronas Towers and watched reflections in the lake. Spending a pleasant hour amongst chatting families, teenagers discreetly falling in love and children running through the crowds isn’t listed as a tourist attraction but it certainly betters a few I’ve experienced.
I enjoyed my reacquaintance with KL a great deal. There’s been a lot of new building and many changes since I was last there but some areas seem to have avoided wholesale redevelopment and retained their essential character. That probably owes a lot to a lack of money but I suspect it also has something to do with the charm of the Malaysian people and I can’t wait to get back there. Sadly, I expect by then they will have embraced even more of our western preoccupation with recreational shopping and made their restaurants and bars smoke free. But in a funny sort of way, I hope not.
So, off to KL Sentral and the train to Singapore…