Kuala Lumpur: On top of the world

November 14, 2009 0 Comments

We toy with the idea of getting up early enough to queue for a couple of the 1200 tickets that are released each day and allow you to ascend the Petronas Twin towers as far as the suspension bridge. Ultimately though, we find a sleep-in more appealing. So we put the Kuala Lumpur tower on our tourist agenda for the day instead. It’s not as tall as the Petronas towers, but the observation deck is way higher than the bridge between the towers. So mid-morning finds us taking advantage of some cloud cover to visit the tower. It’s not far from our hostel and isn’t hard to find. At the entrance there’s a free shuttle bus to take you up to the tower itself. Initially suspicious of the drivers intentions, we accept the lift up the hill which saves us a lot of climbing steps.

Up at the tower business is brisk and school tours are coming and going. On the observation deck the noise is deafening as children mill about shouting and laughing. It’s obviously the custom in this country for men who are friends to drape themselves around each others shoulders. These school kids are practising early. You can slowly edge your way around the tower trying not to trip on whatever child is underfoot and get a few seconds at each window to peer out into the murky skies. Kuala Lumpur stretches out vast in front of us. The sky is cloudy so it’s hard to see too far, but it’s clear enough that the city is massive. Unlike Singapore the tall buildings are more spread out and there’s space for extra greenery. The view on this day is very grey and dull, highlighting the heat and smog surrounding the city and obscuring the view past the immediate area. Once we’ve had our fill of being deafened by the crowds we board a lift and hurtle back down to ground level.


Kuala Lumpur

As the shuttle bus returns us to the foot of the hill another couple of tourists are coming into view. Our driver toots his horn and calls out to them to come take the shuttle bus. His toots and calls get more frantic as his targets give him a stony look and pointedly look the other way. The poor driver persistently tries to do these people a favour, pleading with them that the shuttle is FREE. They have the haunted look of tourists that have been hounded and scammed one too many times and are unwilling to take any more chances. Without a backward glance they give the bus a wide berth and practically run towards the steps to take them away from the road and the bus driver calling to them. If they’d been a bit slower we might have been out of the bus in time to reassure them that this is one of those rare times that someone isn’t trying to fleece them. It’s sad to see the poor reaction to a genuine offer of help, but it’s quite understandable considering how often tourists get targeted as easy pickings for money. Sooner or later people cultivate some form of self-defence.

Back on the streets we bemoan the lack of any kind of effort to provide facilities for pedestrians. Unlike Singapore there’s absolutely no effort to make it easier to cross the busy roads with their insane traffic. Not only are there no bridges or underpasses, but the pavements are uneven or non-existent. Only some pedestrian lights function. At the bigger junctions the pedestrian lights just outright refuse to work.  Apparently they’re just there for show.  No matter how many times you press the button and stand waiting, the red man continues to mock you from the other side while scooters whizz past too close for comfort  These scooters are everywhere, racing off as soon as they can and guaranteeing that crossing a road as the lights change isn’t a great option. U-turns are popular here too so looking both ways before you cross isn’t helping much. There are upto 8 different directions the traffic could be approaching from. Fairly soon we realise that if we’re to make any progress at all we’re just going to have to go native and play chicken with the oncoming traffic.

KL doesn’t just dislike pedestrians, it actively hates them. Not only do the drivers speed and break red lights, they also don’t indicate at all. If they do, it’ll virtually always be the opposite direction to the way they’re going to go. The fake pedestrian crossing markings on the road (like the lights, they don’t seem to serve any real purpose) are ignored. Cars and scooters are more likely to sit on the markings than leave them clear.  When it rains, it’s even worse. Rivers of water are flowing everywhere. The tiling on the uneven walkways is slick and slippery, threatening to send you flying if you’re not paying close attention. If there are roadworks blocking the path there’ll be no road cordoned off for use. The heavy traffic on the road prevents you from crossing so sooner or later you’ll have to edge your way around the obstruction, wading up to your calves in water and trying hard not to think of potential diseases that might be carried in it.

If you think that the drivers might make some kind of allowance for pedestrians in the heavy rain you’d be completely wrong.  Unlike most other countries they don’t slow down or make any effort to avoid sending waves of water washing over someone on foot. This is a city for the rich. The people who just don’t walk anywhere. The people who can pay to avoid being exposed to any major discomforts. For the rest there’s ample encouragement to join the droves of scooters and see if you can run over some of those pesky pedestrians that haven’t realised KL doesn’t want them  I find it ironic that there was heavy advertising on the airport train informing me that Malaysia is making huge efforts to promote the country and try to increase tourism. The call is out for bloggers to help with this. I can’t help thinking that while Malaysia could potentially have the edge on the concrete jungle that is Singapore, they’ll always just be a poorer cousin unless they make a more concerted effort to improve the conditions for your average tourist just trying to make it around the city on foot without getting themselves killed. Not everyone is a danger-junkie.

While I’m wondering how any tourist is supposed to enjoy walking around KL like this I get accosted by a ‘monk’ just to improve matters. Brodie neatly sidesteps around a man with a shaved head in the long flowing orange robes of a buddhist monk. I’m caught on the narrow path as he grips my arm and presses a piece of paper into my hand. As he produces a little book with names and donations written in it I forcefully return his paper, tell him a firm no, and make a quick exit hoping he won’t follow. This is one of KL’s infamous bogus buddhist monks that target tourists specifically. Apparently a real buddhist monk would only accept food, never money, and would certainly not be going around annoying tourists. Lucky for me he moves on looking for someone else to annoy.

Leaving the dangers of the road behind us for a time, we get sucked into the monster shopping centre again. Now that we have a telephoto lens for the camera it seems like a good idea to add a wide angle lens aswell. This expedition goes even better than in Singapore. Brodie displays the telephoto lens plus camera and asks for a similar kind of wide angle lens. The correct lens is produced (same manufacturer, different name) and we’re asked how much we paid for the one we have. If in doubt, stick to your favourite answer when it comes to haggling.  Brodie tells him $60. I do some calculations in my head and keep my mouth shut. The assistant tells us that the wide angle lens is more expensive as it’s also a macro lens. He goes through the routine of demonstrating how the lens works before giving us a price a little higher than what he’s told we paid for the telephoto lens. I sign off on 230 malasia ringgits and leave the shop before telling Brodie that’s about the same as what we paid for the ‘cheaper’ telephoto lens. After testing out the lens we make our way back to the hostel trying not to get washed away in the rain, step on a rat, or get totalled by an eager car driver.