Friday, March 16, 2012

Kuala Lumpur and Melaka

We behaved like complete idiots; even scared away the one traveler with us as we checked out the seats, poked the cushions to see how soft they were, discreetly gauging how low the chassis was and wishing we were rich enough to afford the tickets for the top deck. When the double-deck bus finally moved out of the station, we were forced to sit down, buckle up and fall asleep. The three of us woke up the next morning in Kuala Lumpur and forgot to wish Vikas a very happy birthday.

Took a taxi. It was the last leg so we permitted ourselves to splurge a bit. Equator Hostel was no more than 200m from Imbi station and the owners couldn't have picked a better location - we had a local chomp shop next door for cheap food and great conversation. Like every place else we visited in Malaysia, it was point, pay and eat.

The caretaker at the hostel was ruggedly suave, and very friendly. It was our first hostel where we had a common loo, but that too was spotless. Shoes were left out the front door and the array of slippers and sandals stood bare testimony to the hostel's popularity.

Of course now that we were in Kuala Lumpur, we had to go see the Petronas Tower. It's hard to imagine hundreds of people spend the day in this 88-storey metallic monster pounding away at their keyboards, while visitors outside stand agape at one of the world's tallest buildings. Zipping upwards in that elevator towards the sky-bridge on floors 41 and 42 among a clutch of other tourists made me feel like I was on a day-trip at school. It might do acrophobics good to stay away from the glass-panel edges, but the view is stunning and would probably be even more so when the city lights wink in the dark.

The Menara KL was a far cry from the Petronas buildings. The telecommunications and broadcast tower loomed large on Bukit Nanas, or Pineapple Hill, so we were quite sweaty after having traipsed around in circles trying to find the entrance from Raja Chulan monorail station. The hope of a look-see from the revolving restaurant at the top of the thousand foot or more tower remained a flight of fancy; the charge to take the elevator up was exorbitant.

T, D, G and J made it to KL too after Langkawi so to Zouk it was for Vikas' birthday party. It was the biggest and fanciest club I'd been to and the first where I ran into a "Club Dress Code". I was probably the only girl in there wearing trainers after the realisation dawned on me that Goa's shorts and slippers deal wouldn't make the cut. It was a Thursday but the crowd and DJs still gave us a good time.

Hangovers don't do anyone good the day there's a journey to be made. And crowded bus stops with delayed transportation don't make them any better. Typically, it's safe to say your bum will be in the seat for about two and a half hours, but the confusion of coloured buses, long lines and busy people left us still waiting with our tickets for the corresponding ride long after we ought to have reached Melaka.

Nevertheless, a delayed arrival was the least of our worries. Little Nyonya Youth Hostel had a shared Indian loo, with no toilet paper. I wasn't too happy to have to bother climbing down the creaky wooden stairs, bumping past the breakfast table in the kitchen and up a couple of slippery tiled stairs to relieve a protesting bladder in the middle of the night. It would have to do, and our Japanese dorm-mate was kind enough to set the fan on rotate so the hot, humid air would blow off blood-sucking mosquitoes.

The narrow winding lanes and greenery brought back memories of home along the road to the Dutch quarter housing Stadthuys Town Hall and Red Square. There's a sense of satisfaction and achievement to stand looking at a scene you've seen only in photographs. It brings perspective, respect and a strange understanding and connection to read the plaques detailing historical moments. You re-create times, erasing the present goings-on with dated nobles wearing fancy formal clothes on their way to church, or local vendors looking for a good deal, horse-drawn carriages, a coarse argument between beggars and a barefoot child peering longingly at a girl in a rich dress.

Melacca was colonised by a good many empires, including the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and the Japanese. It's no wonder then that the 'Historic State' is full of museums - dedicated to general history, Dutch influence, architecture, culture and costume. There's much to miss out if you don't tarry long enough - the peculiar Nyonya cuisine, the antique goods on Jonker Street, Malaysia's oldest mosque with its pagoda influence - the Kampung Kling and the Chen Hoong Teng Temple. Catholic pilgrims might make a trip to the Church of St Francis Xavier, who was briefly laid to rest in this port city in 1553, before his body was brought to Goa.

A Famosa, that Chinese deco restaurant milling with people, beckoned for lunch. The stooped old man at the door appeared to be a member of the owners' family, which made thousands of rice balls daily to serve hungry customers. It went well with the roast duck and had to be one of the best meals I'd eaten in Malaysia. It's a must-visit along with one of the many kopitiams offering deliciously hot white coffee, strangely relaxing in the sweltering heat. Strolling along Jonker Street after the sun goes down brings the strains of live music - we enjoyed the Metallica covers on the corner - haggling over prices of antiques, families stopping for a snack on their way home and Malaysian Tamils sending a slightly warped sound of India to the ears.

We emptied our pockets at the satay stall, trying to taste every kind he had in fried and steamed versions. There couldn't be a better way to end our visit to Malaysia - stuffing our faces with a local snack, chatting about the days just passed, laughing over gaffes in public, simply happy being completely broke.