Long Stay in Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur is a diverse, hardworking and somewhat polluted city. It is quite small really: Google gives me a population estimate of just over 1.6m compared to over 8m for London and Bangkok and 12.5m for Mumbai. This means the whole city is pretty accessible and we can actually walk to most areas in the central area.
We’ve been really enjoying our time here. So far Henry has spent nearly 3 months in the city and I’ve been here almost 2. As well as all the touristy sights we have been able to do all sorts of things in the last few weeks that we would never have been able to experience had we only spent the recommended few days here. Like in Bangkok and Goa, having settled down here we’ve been able to get a little bit ‘under the skin’ of the city. I’m going to try and cover the highlights of our time here and give some insight as to what it is like to live in this city.
By virtue of the accommodation prices and central location, Chinatown has been our base in KL. Our hotel, Nan Yeang, is on Jalan Sultan, right in the heart of the Chinatown. Just around the corner is Jalan Petaling (Petaling Street) which hosts a daily market full of fake handbags, clothes, shoes, perfumes and DVD’s, you can imagine the sort of thing.
One of the ‘non-touristy’ things we experienced was the ‘illegal’ early morning market. (‘Illegal’ according to a policeman shopping there that Henry got talking to.) It starts at about 6.30am every day and by the time it gets light at 7am its usually pretty busy.
There are no stalls or any sort of order to things; the sellers just spread out their wares on a tarp or newspapers on the floor. Much of what is for sale is second hand, like a car boot sale. We’ve been a number of times as it is literally just outside our hotel but we’ve only every made one purchase – a pair of Oral B toothbrushes that turned out to be fake. Who would ever think that someone somewhere would go to the trouble of faking a toothbrush?! (They were only 20p each – I suppose that should have alerted us.)
We have been lucky enough to be involved in quite a few group outings in our time here. (I’ve already written about our day with the KAKI PHOTOGRAFI group here.) It started with Henry joining the ‘Meetup’ Photography group while I was back in the UK (see here for his post on that) which his membership of alerted us to the World Wide Photo Walk.
The World Wide Photo Walk is a one day event where groups of photographers from all over the world meet in cities and towns on the same day, go for a walk and take photos. There are prizes to be won but that is not why we took part. We joined both photo walks that were organised in Kuala Lumpur. The first was in the morning in the Burkit Bintang area and the second was in the late afternoon with the start point near Central Market – our neck of the woods.
The morning session started well with breakfast in restaurant (egg roti for us) and once the sizeable group was gathered together the group shot was taken: The weather was not kind to us though. About an hour into proceedings the torrential rain started. It was so bad the whole group was confined to shelter in one place for quite some time before it eased off enough to run along to the next bit of shelter.
We did not stick around for lunch at the end point but decided to head back and prepare for the afternoon session. The afternoon was much brighter. We posed for the second group shot of the day and headed off towards Little India. Henry knew many of the people in this group from his other outings with the Meetup group and I made a lovely friend called Bre – an American lady living in Japan. It was great, as always, to have some female company and I’m now following her adventures on her blog here.
The outing went on through until dusk and we ended up gathering in an artsy warehouse cafe at the end of the walk. Arriving there and examining the menu it became clear that we have become accustomed to paying local prices. It was Rm14 for a side portion of vegetables – we can usually get 2 meals for that! It seemed like we were the only ones grumbling about the prices. The Malaysian photographers were obviously more affluent than the vast majority of people in Kuala Lumpur – they did have quite expensive camera equipment after all. We just had a coffee (at £2 EACH instead of our usual 20 – 50p) and then left and took Bre to one of our local, more affordable eateries.
I was quite under the weather at this point in our trip. In fact, I spent nearly the whole first month of my time back in KL with HMFD: hand foot and mouth disease! It was a pretty nasty virus involving a rash on my hands and feet and extreme fatigue. I won’t go into details but trust me, you don’t want to get it.
Our next group outing was with the Rakan (‘friends of’) KL group. They are an active group of concerned citizens working together to help preserve the heritage of the city. We went on their second ever walk to parts of the city we had not visited before. Looking at heritage buildings like this church as well as developments that had started years ago and had been abandoned during construction (some of them back in 1997.) We also saw some of the places that have already been demolished or were scheduled for demolition soon to make room for the controversial new MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) being built. (On a side note I have no idea why the city feels there is a need for another form of public transport – they already have 3 different train / monorail systems in place and a myriad of busses, in addition to the normal trains, coaches and a new completely free bus service.)
We learnt that corruption is rife; rules and regulations are rarely adhered to. There are very few open green spaces left in the city which can only be detrimental, it is no place to own a dog! In the light of everything we learnt I find it difficult to see how anything will change – money always wins in these cases but Rakan KL are trying. (Their Facebook page is here.)
After the walk we went to one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in Kuala Lumpur which was only around the corner from our hotel. The food was great and I really enjoyed watching some of the members of the group performing a traditional ceremony. This involved washing (or rinsing really) all of our glasses, bowls, dishes and chopsticks in quite a methodical way. They were not dirty to start with but it was good to see the traditions in action. The most recent trip we’ve been on was a workshop organised by Sony. We both have Sony cameras and the workshop idea appealed to us. The group was led by professional photographer Kevin Ng and we walked, talked and snapped for a few hours and managed to get into another group shot:
There were very few non-Malaysians on any of these outings and we were able again to explore places that really do not attract too many tourists. We found all of the outings on the internet and we continue to keep our eyes open for more opportunities like this.
Just to the north of Chinatown is one of the two Little India’s of Kuala Lumpur. It is centred around Jalan Ampang and near Masjid Jamek, the oldest mosque in KL. It is another area we’ve visited a lot. Along with Brickfields (the other Little India of KL), many Indian Malaysians live there.
The area is home to what seems like thousands of shops selling fabric and the ubiquitous Malaysian headscarfs. You do get a feeling of being in India, there is the music blaring loudly from the shops and sometimes some incense wafting in the air and the big groups of Indian men standing / sitting around chatting and smoking finish off the illusion. It is cleaner than India though.
Hari Raya Haji (Eid)
The Muslim festival of Eid was a few weeks ago. Marked by a national public holiday, it is a big deal here. We headed out early hoping to see a live sacrifice (well, sort of hoping). A gentleman we had met a few weeks ago told us that it happens outside every mosque in the city in the late morning. In the end we did not see a cow being sacrificed, which I think I am actually quite pleased about really. We may have only just missed it in Masjid India as there was a lot of hosing down going on when we arrived but no one we spoke to had enough English to explain it to us.
We did come across a massive prayer session in the middle of what is usually a very busy road. The road had been shut down and covered with enormous tarpaulins. There was literally a sea of men performing Hari Raya Haji prayers. The women, as usual, were no where to be seen. I joked it was because they were at home cooking the dinner and it seems I was probably correct. Women are not allowed to take part in these prayers at all. I was the only female amongst thousands of men.
Many of the men were wearing new outfits, as demonstrated by the creases from the packets they had only recently been removed from. It seems the sales running at the local stalls and in shops big and small had worked – most people had a new outfit for Eid. It is true what they say about Malaysians enjoying shopping. Even on the day, after the prayers broke up, the phone shops, butchers, small stall holders selling belts and socks, the paan sellers and the independent grocery shops were all doing a roaring trade.
Brickfields is another enclave of mainly Indian Malaysians. The area came to be populated under British rule when it was decided that the city should be built out of bricks, rather than wood. The bricks were formed from the clay rich soil and set out to dry en masse by the Indian workers who had been brought in by from southern India the British. Hence the name, Brickfields, came to be.
As it is one of the older areas of the city there are plenty of heritage buildings to see. We had visited the area several times before deciding to join a free guided tour organised by city hall a couple of weeks ago. It runs on a Saturday morning and our group consisted of Henry, myself and an Australian man who worked at the Australian high commission; not exactly oversubscribed.
The tour took us to several places we had already visited like the enormous Sri Kandaswamy Hindu temple as well as quite a few we had not. We were not allowed to take photos inside but we had visited the garden on a previous visit and taken some snaps:
Brickfields is another colourful area of the city with plenty of flowers for sale…
Another big festival that fell during our time in KL was Deepavali (Diwali) the Hindu festival of lights. We really wanted there to be some big, impressive celebration but in the end we were a little disappointed by what, in Malaysia, is a low key, family orientated celebration.
It is another excuse for sales and, as well as the big stores having ‘Deepavali sales’, there were quite a few temporary stalls set up in Masjid India, Brickfields and around the city selling all sorts of clothes, food (lots of sweet things), toys and household items.
The major shopping centres and even our local Central Market all got involved with the kolam (rice art) and we saw some stunning examples.
On the day itself all the stalls were shut down and it was a public holiday. We had heard that Batu Caves was a good place to see the celebrations, so with 10,000 people expected to gather there we charged our cameras and headed off on the train.
It was very busy there and everyone was wearing their Sunday best. There was no parade but we were graced by the presence of the prime minister himself who attended an ‘open house’ in the temple grounds.
An ‘open house’ is apparently a very traditional way to celebrate the festival where people basically visit one another and have a good old catch up and some food. The one organised by MIC (Malaysia Indian Congress) was enormous. I cannot imagine how much food was consumed. There were dozens of stalls all cooking food from scratch and serving it up constantly from 9am – 1pm. There were hundreds of tables set up like a wedding and best of all, everything was free! We enjoyed our lunch just in time before the rains came and headed back to the city on the train.
Whist browsing for events to attend we came across details of a protest being staged to highlight the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. There were to be over 100 protesters there marking a ‘day of action’ in unity with other groups all over the world.
Unfortunately, the day before the protest the organiser announced that the police had declared the protest illegal which, I believe, seriously affected the number of people who attended. We arrived early to find huge numbers of police in place but no protesters. After 10 minutes or so they made their presence known and the silent protest began. The protesters were outnumbered by photographers and media people but they pressed ahead and got their message across. The police outnumbered the protesters by about 4:1 – talk about overkill!
The plight of the Rohingya Muslims is very much a current issue here and it was good to see the protesters able to voice their opinion without interference from the police.
We have noticed a difference in the weather from our other visits to the city which were considerably earlier in the year. Heading into mid October we started to see regular thunderstorms most afternoons. These were very dramatic and brought an astonishing amount of rain down in quite a short period of time.
By November we were pretty much guaranteed to see torrential rain everyday for a few hours. The thunder and lightning has not been quite so ferocious in the last week or so but we’ve had a few bouts of rain in the mornings too: its only getting wetter. It is never cold though!
I know there are lots of pictures on this post but trust me – we have more! Please check back soon to see our collection of pictures from Malaysia on the Gallery page.
Kuala Lumpur: September – November 2012