After a few days spent meandering down Kuala Lumpur’s cracked (or non-existent) sidewalks and taking in the sites recommended by my Lonely Planet guidebook (can I get a cut for free advertising?), I feel I finally have a pulse on this city. In the initial hours, it was hard to put my finger on why I didn’t like it here, why there was something strange and uncomfortable about it (aside from the suffocating heat).
The city itself feels like the shell of a formerly bustling city that has been abandoned. There is life in the streets; an impressive array of cultures and religions all trying to navigate the narrow, cracked sidewalks. But this life only seems to exist in the intense heat and sun of KL; the buildings are run-down and could easily be vacant. There never seems be life or light in these hulking and dull structures.
From far away, buildings, gardens and landmarks all look impressive. The Tudor influence at the Royal Selangor Club or the rainbow-colored flowers that rim a fountain look elegant and tidy from a distance, but close up they are dilapidated and graying. The one bastion of modernization and beauty here are the Petronas Towers. It is undoubtedly an example of the modern “bigger is better” theory of urban development (up until recently it was the tallest building in the world), but in a city that lacks excitement and 21st century flair, it is a welcome sign of Kuala Lumpur’s efforts to modernize it’s relatively young city.
Malaysia is a Muslim country and as such the influence of the religion is seen in all facets of life here. Aside from the onion-shaped domes and tall minarets of mosques throughout the city, you see the Islamic influence in the traditional dress of women and the male-dominated societal structure. Wearing typical garb for a day walking around under the abusive heat of the sun, I felt as if I was disobeying all Muslim rules of decency in my sleveless sundress. I might as well have been naked or wearing a sandwich board offering free massages for all of the strange looks I got. Though Muslims dominate here, ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian influences are also pervasive.
I am finding though that after a few days here I am quite ready to move on and see the countryside of Malaysia. I have devoutly followed the guidance of the good folks at LP (that’s another $100 right there) and am not overly impressed with KL’s tourist attractions.
I was encouraged by the guidebook, however, to go to a shopping mall (who am I to argue with the experts?) and had an almost religious experience. There was nothing special about this mall; lots of high-end shops, an elegant design, air conditioning. But looking at the various levels from the balcony, my eye caught a familiar blue sign with three letters. GAP. I was drawn to it’s open glass doors and stacks of jeans like a moth to a flame. This pillar of classic American fashion was exactly what I needed to pretend for 10 minutes that I wasn’t in Asia and that I was in fact on 23rd St. in NYC. I was also able to try on racks of dresses in my actual size without reliving junior high school nightmares of the short pants and tight tops favored by peers who could shop in the kids section.
Music by The “Fadzil Ahmad” Ensemble.