Tuesday, May 11, 2010

That’s what the cool kids call it: “KL”, not Kuala Lumpur. This is probably because everyone in Malaysia pretty much always has their mouth full, so they don’t want to have to pronounce extraneous syllables. It seems that eating is the national sport in Malaysia. That, and shopping.

Inside one of the seven gajillion malls within a ten minute walk of my guesthouse.

I’m in a bit of a “whistle stop” phase of the trip right now where it feels like I just fly in to a city, see the big sight, attend a hash, eat something weird and move on. Tick, tick, tick the boxes and off I go. I suppose it’s my own fault – I could have chosen to visit fewer places and stay longer in each place, but as my travel time winds down I feel like I need to cram in what I can. Whatever the reason, I only had about two and a half days in KL, so I tried to make the most of them.

KL is the first big, properly “Western” city I’ve been in since Hong Kong, so it was nice to see old friends like 7-11 and Starbucks, and have access to a mass transit system. On paper the transit system in Kuala Lumpur looks like a pretty good set-up. They’ve got a fast train from the airport, underground metro trains, even a monorail (sing it with me, “Simpsons” fans!). The transit map is properly spidery with many multi-coloured lines flinging themselves across the city, such that you think it’ll be no trouble at all getting around the place. Ha! The problem is that each of those different lines is owned and operated by one of five different companies that do not play well with each other. This means that when you get off the monorail and on a metro train you have to pay a new fare. And the interchange stations definitely stretch the definition. In particular, the change from the metro to the monorail at KL Sentral involves leaving the building, walking two blocks, and entering a whole new station, and paying another fare. It’s hardly the friendly, efficient system I left in Hong Kong. I managed to get around, but it was frustrating, sweaty work.

My “must do” activity for KL was to see the Petronas Twin Towers. Once the tallest buildings in the world (surpassed by Tai Pei 100 and then the Burj Dubai, the current record holder), the towers are an icon of KL. At 88 stories and 451.0 metres high, the top floors offer an unparalleled view of the city.

The Petronas Twin Towers

Yes, that would be a sight to see. Unfortunately, the highest part of the towers that tourists can see is the “Skybridge” the catwalk that links the two towers on the 41st and 42nd floors, about 170 metres up. Tickets to visit the Skybridge are free so they’re very popular, and only 1200 are issued every day. As a consequence you have to line up early because the tickets are usually gone by about 10:00 am. I got up at 6:30 am and walked to the basement ticket office, a thirty minute trip. On the way I stopped at one of many food hawkers set up on the sidewalk selling food to people on their way to work. There were simple folding tables covered in food – trays of sweets, tupperware containers filled with fried eggs and curries and noodles and other unidentifiable stuff, and big vats of rice. I picked out a few interesting skewers and some donut-like things, and for the grand sum of 1.75 RM (Malaysian Ringgit, about $0.55) I had breakfast on the hoof.


I got to the towers by 8:00 am and the lineup for tickets had already snaked back on itself countless times. I stood in line until 9:25 am and snagged the last ticket for the 1:00 pm visit to the skybridge. By this time, frankly, I was ready for a nap so I hiked the 30 minutes back to the hotel and slept until it was time to walk back to the towers AGAIN. It seemed hard to believe that the whole business would be worth the effort.

And it wasn’t. Yes, the skybridge is interesting, but it’s less than half way up the towers and we were allowed a grand total of ten minutes to look around and take pictures. So let’s do the math: 30 minutes to walk there, 90 minutes waiting in line, 30 minutes walking back to the hotel, and 30 minutes walking back to the towers. That’s 3 hours of “prep” for ten minutes of activity. I think I could have spent my time better. Then again, it was a pretty good view.

Here’s me, pretending it was worth it.

One off-beat thing I did in KL was to visit the Royal Selangor Pewter Factory – something that was recommended by one of the people I met on my cruise of Halong Bay in Vietnam. The factory offers free tours of their facility, but real drawing card was an associated activity they called the “School of Hard Knocks” where you get to bang out your own small pewter bowl, which sounded like a lot of fun (though that bit wasn’t free). The tour itself was a bit odd – I called ahead to get the details and they actually asked me to pick a specific time to visit so they could assign someone to show me around. Sure enough, when I arrived at the appointed hour Michael was there to give me a short guided tour of the pewter displays they had and of the factory itself. It was kind of cool having a personal guide, but also a bit weird.

Weirder still was the “School of Hard Knocks”. It took place in a large, purpose-built room that could accommodate up to a hundred pewter-banging tourists. I had the whole room to myself, and a whole other personal guide/instructor to help me through the bowl-shaping process, though I got the distinct impression that she was not entirely consumed with a passion to teach me how to pound my little pewter disc into a bowl. In fact, the whole business felt quite rushed, which is too bad. I was expecting there would be other people participating, which would have been a lot more fun. Still, I did manage to create a reasonable little dish which I’m now carting around Asia with me.

Here’s me, punching my name into the bottom of my bowl blank

While the School of Hard Knocks (you really have to give them props for coming up with that name) was a real rush job, they certainly encouraged you to take your time when viewing the gift shop. I really didn’t want to buy anything, but I was dogged by such a persistent sales person that I finally relented and bought a tiny hand-hammered picture frame fridge magnet. I hate it when they do that.

My next stop that day was unplanned. When I hailed a cab on leaving the Pewter Factory I planned to go back to the hotel and get some lunch, but the cab driver misunderstood me. He thought I wanted to go to the monorail, and suggested I just get out at the closest station – Chow Kit. I looked a the map and the LP and figured that Chow Kit was as likely a place as any to have some lunch, so I agreed. And here’s one for the Improbable Coincidences File: When I told the cab driver I’d come from Winnipeg he told me his wife had left hat morning to fly to Winnipeg and visit their daughter, who lives there. So off all the cabbies in KL, I got the one with a daughter in Winnipeg. Wild.

Chow Kit turned out to be cool too. There was a big market with the requisite dead beasts and weird veggies and there were lots of hawker stands selling prepared food. I had some Indian style fritters and a really good folded omelet kind of thing with chicken in it. And I got some sweets and some really weird fruit. In fact, I think that fruit - buah salak - deserves to be KL’s Weird Food, mostly because it looks like a cross between a mutant strawberry and a snake. The shape of each fruit is like a big upside-down strawberry, but the whole thing is covered in a dark brown scaly skin that looks decidedly reptilian. (And no, Ian, I don’t know what species… Malaysian Brown Fruit Viper or something.)

Here’s a partially peeled salak, along with some untouched others, displayed in my hand-hammered pewter bowl.

The white flesh inside was in very firm sections that clung to a large pit in the middle so you had to gnaw at it with your front teeth. The texture was quite nice - juicy and a bit crispy, sort of like an apple. The flavour, on the other hand, was not so nice. It was green and harsh like an unripe banana, and left that funny puckery feeling on my tongue. Sadly, I think buah salak will languish forever (along with black jelly) in the pantheon of foods that will never be “the next big thing”.

Besides the towers and the weird food, the other box I simply had to tick off in KL was the one marked “Hash”. The Hash House Harriers were formed at the Royal Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur 1938, and that original group – the Mother Hash - still runs every Monday night at 6:00 pm, and has done so since 1938. I actually went to visit the Royal Selangor Club while I was in KL, but let’s just say that, like the Skybridge, it wasn’t worth the trouble. And I couldn’t run with the Mother Hash because it’s a men-only group (don’t get me started….) Instead I got in touch with one of the 37 (no really, thirty-seven) other hash groups in the greater KL area. I chose the Batu Hash House Harriers because they were running the night I was there, and they answered my email.

Me and the GM of the Batu Hash, posing before the run when I was still blissfully unaware of what was to come.

I suppose I should have guessed that hashing in birthplace of it all would be serious business. I just didn’t think I’d be stumbling out of the jungle an hour and a half after starting out, cursing, completely drenched in sweat, utterly exhausted, fed up, and bleeding (not badly, but the scratches on my legs did excite comment for several days after). It was the last twenty minutes of crashing through the jungle that really did me in – until that time I’d been having fun. But just as I was getting tired and it was getting dark the trail veered unexpectedly into much denser growth, up and down several more hills, through ankle-grabbing vines and leg-scarring thorns, and across one very small stream before finally spitting me out where we’d started.

I had to take a few minutes to calm down when I finished, and after doing that, and quizzing a few other people, I was amazed to be told that the trail I’d just run was considered by most to be on the wimpy side of average for a Batu hash. Well that’s just mental. I guess I’m just not KL hash material.

Despite the er… challenging nature of the trail, all the festivities after were definitely worth attending. There was a table of food set up when I emerged, and I had something to eat after I’d calmed myself and scraped off the top layer of grunge. Then I was informed that this was only the “warm-up” food – there was much more coming later. Remember how I said that eating is the national sport in Malaysia? Well this was a good example of that. There were snacks before the run, a respectable assortment of dishes immediately after, and a big buffet of home cooking after that. It’s like the evening was one big meal interrupted by some pesky interludes of running and drinking beer. Perhaps in Malaysia life is what happens to you in between eating.

This hash was one of the few I’ve attended that was predominantly local people; of the large group (about 90) only me and two others were not Malaysians. This meant that the circle was conducted almost entirely in Cantonese, which was very strange. I got some interpretation but mostly I just let it wash over me. Sitting there in the dark with a succession of bottles of Guinness, tuning in and out of what was going on, and chatting with the incredibly friendly people around me it really felt like this was the kind of thing I’d hoped to experience when I conceived of this whole crazy trip. Lots of people came up to talk to me like I was a bit of a celebrity for having traveled all that way. And it seemed they were all genuinely pleased and proud that of all the groups in KL, I’d chosen to run with them. I got home a little after 2:00 am that night, exhausted and convinced that hashing in KL is not for the faint of heart, but happy that I met those people and ran and ate and drank and talked with them.

I was also desperately, profoundly, extravagantly happy to go to sleep.


Viviane said...

Thanks for another great read Pam. I'm sitting at my desk in Calgary and am so glad that you had such a wicked experience with the KL hashers.

Kathryn said...

So - after perusing your pics...did you adopt some children in Singapore?

Unknown said...



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