Food and fun in Malaysia
To our surprise, smoking is still allowed pretty much everywhere in Kuala Lumpur, outside and inside. Restaurants that don’t allow for smoking inside are the unusual exception. Even at the breakfast table of our hotel it’s possible to puff away at your heart’s desire.
Though that doesn’t mean the packets of smokes on sale don’t carry the same nasty pictures as in Thailand, which now has a nearly total ban on smoking inside of cafes and hotels. The worst, one I’ve not (yet) seen in Thailand is a picture of a dead, aborted I presume, baby, with the message that smoking causes miscarriages.
Prices are significantly higher than in Thailand. Though restaurant food is affordable compared to European standards restaurants are typically 50% to 100% more expensive than in Thailand, it’s particularly the beers which can make the restaurant bill pricey.
Yesterday, we had some excellent food at the very pretty The Old China Cafe, where the jug of beer we had ended up taking up half the bill. Walking upstairs in the restaurant, to check out what the background story in the menu claimed was an ‘antique gallery’, I stumbled upon something of a reception for laid-off actors. Walking in, all eyes quickly focused on me and I was invited to join for drinks and snacks. I stealthily made my getaway.
It’s not unreasonable to compare Kuala Lumpur, KL, with Bangkok, both capitals of South East Asian tigers Thailand and Malaysia which, together with Indonesia, experienced GDPs growing well above 7% per year in the 1980s and 90s. However, KL is surprisingly small, with less than 2 million inhabitants, while Bangkok has over 8 million. The downtown area of KL is manageable on foot, with the major sites in a 2 by 2 kilometer square.
Also, the racial makeup of the city and, so it seems, the country, is completely different compared t Thailand, resulting in a very different cultural outcome, noticeable in everything from religion to architecture to food to cultural focus.
The dominant religion of Malaysia is islam, with some 60% of the country practicing it, brought to present day Malaysia by Indian traders from the 15th century onwards. However, with invasions and takeovers by, in succession, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, and also the introduction of foreign labor as well as the migration of many regional adventurists, some 20 percent of the country practices Buddhism, some 10 percent is Christian, with about 6 percent being Hindu.
Indeed, about 60% of the population is ethnic Malay, 24% is Chinese and some 8% are Indians. However, walking around KL, it seemed the percentage of Indians is much, much higher, not in the least witnessed by the existence of Little India, at least rivalling Chinatown in size, if not being significantly more active, economically and culturally.
Islam isn’t as prominent ‘on the streets’ as it is in most middle eastern countries. However, Malaysia does deploy the sharia, at least to some extent, and in one of the newspapers we bought, a critical article was headlined with “Is whipping the answer”, after a woman was sentenced to six lashes for drinking alcohol.
On several occasions, walking around KL, I was reminded of Tokyo, much more so than Bangkok.
A visit to Kuala Lumpur isn’t complete without a view of the clubhouse where it all started (hashing, that is) in 1938, the Royal Selangor Club, though it’s now an exclusive members only clubhouse (I nearly creamed my pants when stumbling on the original Hash House.), and a visit to the Petronas Twin Towers (‘the highest twin towers in the world’).
Tickets to the skybridge of the Petronas towers, about 170 meters off the ground, are free, but ‘only’ 1700 are given away each day, from 8:30AM onwards, when the ticket booth in the basement of the towers opens up.
After a few beers at the rooftop bar of the Backpackers Travellers Inn, we had too short a night’s sleep, but still managed to get up at seven this morning, and after breakfast got our asses over to the towers to queue up at 8:45. When all the tickets had already been given away. On a cloudy and rainy Sunday morning.
Apparently, tourists start to line up at 7 in the morning. Yes, even on a Sunday.
As an alternative, you can go up the KL tower, the fifth highest communication tower in the world and at 421 meters, only some 30 meters lower than the Petronas towers. The tower’s marketing materials still claim the tower is the fourth tallest, but with the recently built Borj-e-Milad in Tehran, at 435 meters, the KL tower slipped a place in the list.
The viewing deck on the KL tower is more than 100 meters higher than the public gallery on the Petronas towers. On the other hand, the price to get in is a scandalous 38 Ringgit, some 8 euros.
If you’re wondering (or even if you’re not), of the ten tallest towers in the world, only two are in Europe, and both of those are in Eastern Europe (in Moscow and in Kiev).
Interestingly, the tower is also used as an Islamic falak observatory, to look for the crescent moon to mark the beginning of Ramadan. With a lot of the architecture in KL, the Muslim influences are apparent. In the KL tower, Iranian craftsmen from Esfahan were responsible for multiple typical islamic artistic designs, including several muqarnas.
Kuala Lumpur has partnered with three sister cities in Iran, Mashhad, Esfahan and Shiraz.
When we arrived, the yearly towerthon, a race to the top, using the tower’s staircase, had just ended.
Later, in unrelated news, we forgot to pick up our umbrella, which we weren’t allowed to take up, from reception. I suppose this is the fate of umbrellas. If umbrellas were people, suicide rates amongst umbrellas would probably be the highest in the world.
After the rather impressive views from the KL tower and visiting the attached mini zoo which, amongst other things, housed huge spiders which were fed with baby mice, we strolled around town, taking in some of the more major sites.
The city is only just over 150 years old, founded in the mid 19th century by adventurists, after tin was discovered at the confluence of the Klang and Gomback rivers, now in the heart of KL, them naming the area ‘muddy confluence’, that is, Kuala Lumpur. So, with the strong British influence at the time, the city was spaciously laid out and obviously had strong British colonial influences. Perhaps most surprisingly is the central square, independence, or Merdaka, square, which is a grassy field, and a former cricket ground. Then again, this was a British colony.
Also, the city has quite a few very attractive, though sometimes rather dilapidated, art deco architectural gems.
We’re staying in the D’Oriental Inn. Pretty decent, and an actual hotel, not a hostel, while being affordable. Pleasant, after getting a whiff, last night, of the Backpackers Travellers Inn.
We even received a welcome drink. Orange or mango juice. In a tiny glass. Excellent! Oh, and free wifi of mildly acceptable quality. On the downside, we’re pretty much in the middle of KL’s version of the Chiang Mai Night bazar.
Another superb meal was had just off Asian heritage row, at Kasim Mustafa. We went in for a quick snack, but left with tummies filled with garlic nan, cheese nan, sauces and two huge chicken skewers. Super yum.
Airfares, give me low airfares
I recently was made aware of lowfares.com, which claims to offer, you’ve guessed it, low airfares. A grand idea and using a different concept than simply being yet another search engine for airline prices. It’s hard to compete with the likes of Expedia.
The concept is to compare existing booking engines, in a way not too dissimilar to what HotelsCombined.com does for hotel bookings. However, there, results from the different providers are all compared on one page, whereas lowfares.com simply spawns windows with the search results on different booking engines for the flight you’re interested in. And then only a maximum of three.
What’s worse, it has issues recognizing the locations you type in, unless you select them from an autocomplete dropdown, which sometimes takes its time appearing.
As a test, I tried searching for flights between Bangkok and Johannesburg. First of all, for Bangkok I had to select one of the two airports there, whereas most booking engines allow you to select ‘all airports’ in a given city. Second, as said, I could only compare three engines out of the (only) five lowfares.com had available (but not Expedia). Third, two of the three booking engines returned no results and even complained about my search criteria. I was left with search results from only one booking engine.
To be fair, I also checked for domestic American flights. After all, the online travel industry is still dominated by US based companies. Checking for flights from New York to Miami, I now was able to select ‘all airports’ for New York. Also, my range of available booking engines now totaled 11, but I was still only able to select three.
Now, however, my web browser Safari blocked one of the three websites, leaving me with two. Both offered a range of options, but both were offering pretty much the same range, with the cheapest ticket coming in at 169 USD. I have to say, a return flight from New York to Miami for under 170 USD is cheap, but using lowfares.com was not much of a help.
Indeed, if I’d checked Expedia, which I would have done under normal circumstances, I would have found an airfare of 169.20 USD, making use of lowfares.com pretty much pointless.
The site uses the same system for hotel bookings, making it very similar to the afore mentioned HotelsCombined.com. However, here, too, only three booking engines can be compared at a time. A test for hotels in Chiang Mai resulted in one of the three booking engines not recognizing Chiang Mai, while none of the remaining two were able to beat the prices which HotelsCombined.com came up with, though all three had the same hotel listed as the cheapest available.
Lowfares.com also allows you to book vacations and lists news, which simply seems to be an aggregated RSS feed.
Overall, the site seems to have been put together in too short a time, without too little thought, providing too few benefits.