Like most people who go to KL, I just wanted to see the Petronas Twin Towers. My body wanted me to do nothing. Even after a 5 hour bus ride the first thing I did in KL was lie down in bed. This was going to be a rough one.
I had to do something, I only had a day and a half there, so I forced myself to get out and at least walk around the area the hostel was in, Chinatown. What is it about Chinatown everywhere and their markets? I strolled foggy-headed through a maze of stalls selling everything from electronics to tiny Petronas Towers statues. From the big outdoor market to the indoor Central Market I saw more souvenir stalls. My head was swimming. I grabbed a coke on my way to the Merdeka Square; it helped me feel a little more like a human.
Merdeka Square is an interesting assemblage of architecture and cultural institutions. One side is lined by a traditional-looking Malaysian building with small towers and Arabic arches, but behind this is a skyline of glass rectangles, and hiding behind that the tops of the Petronas Towers twinkle in the distance. The square is flanked by fountains, one with a large flagpole in the center proudly displaying the Malaysia flag. A small gallery has an “I ‘heart’ KL” statue out front with a designated picture-taking area. So I took a picture. At dusk the park had minimal activity. I sat on the edge for a while contemplating how I felt and my next moves.
My next moves were back to bed. Luckily my hostel, Reggae Mansion, had cubby holes for dorm beds so I was able to shut my curtain and try to sleep away my illness in peace. When I climbed into bed at 7 I thought I was taking a break. I woke up in the morning.
This was my only full day in KL so no matter what I was seeing things. I dragged myself out of bed and to a hostel breakfast of toast. I convinced myself that I could do this. I went straight for the Jamek Mosque next to the subway. It was under construction; the view from inside the subway was actually better than going into the mosque, but I was still happy to see some more Malaysian architecture.
The subway in KL is in between Singapore and South America: it is quiet like Singapore due to the doors that hide the approaching cars and dull their sound, but it is dirtier and smaller like some of the cars in BA. The one thing that is unlike anywhere is the tokens. The one ride pass is actually a plastic circle that you tap to get on and deposit into a turnstile to exit. I’ve seen subway tickets from tiny pieces of paper to tap to get in cards but I’ve never seen checkers pieces used for subway fare. I actually laughed out loud.
I went straight to the Petronas Towers. I had read the day before that they were closed on Monday so I already knew this would be an exterior- and lobby-only visit, but I still had to see them. They’re huge and shiny. They rise above everything else and the inspiration for their design – a Muslim symbol the Rub el Hizb – is obvious, but looking closely at the detailing and skybridge the steel structure is very visible. I viewed them from one side, backlit, then went through the base (a giant mall) to see the other side. Same impression, but a better view from this park. It would’ve been nice to go in them but I was satisfied, and I used my money to go for a better view from the KL Tower.
The KL Tower is more of a space needle design with two viewing options: observation deck for 45,000 MYR or outdoor deck for 90,000. You can guess which one I went with. From the observation deck I could see the huge extent of the city. I saw Merdeka Square and even found my hostel, then saw the myriad nondescript towers of the city center, with the shining Petronas Towers in the middle, as well as the distant mountains and smaller residential construction in the suburbs. The view was as impressive as advertised.
Then I got woozy and had to sit down. I was doing so well. Then it hit me: I was starving. I’d skipped dinner and just had toast for breakfast. I needed real food. I made my way to what Lonely Planet said would be a busy restaurant street and found one of the recommended places. I told the waiter I wanted Malaysian chicken soup and he served me just that with nice rice noodles and some veggies. It hit the spot. Until I had what looked like a relative of the string bean and ended up being the spiciest pepper I’ve ever eaten. I cried instantly. I had to keep eating just hoping the spice would die down from the other flavors. I was sweating. At least I was distracted from my illness.
I felt better after lunch and tried to make it to the Islamic Arts Museum. I rode the monorail to a different subway station, enjoying the mid-level view of the city, but when I got to the next station the transfer was not obvious and I was forced to wander around a mall until I found it. I was frustrated and tired. I needed small change for a new subway ticket so I bought a chocolate chip cookie. I got on the subway and instead of going to the museum got off back near the hostel.
I decided to go to the Cameron Highlands the next day and get out of this city. So I missed a museum, no big deal, I felt like I’d gotten a feel for the city and more importantly felt like getting out to the country was the right move for me to get healthy. KL is a big complicated city. It’s not easy to walk around, streets have basically no logical orientation, and it’s hot and busy. It didn’t make me want to stay long. So I went home, which happened to be near the bus station, and got my ticket for the following morning.
I was hiding in the AC working on uploading pictures when a hostel worker asked me if I’d be at dinner that night. What dinner? Reggae Mansion had won a Ministry of a Tourism award and all guests were invited to a dinner. For free. Free food? I’m in! All I knew was I had to be in the lobby at 7 with the other guests.
I was unprepared for what this night turned out to be. The hostel gave us some pizza slices and iced tea while we waited to depart – “dinner might start late, we don’t want you to be angry.” I talked to some lovely people from England and Colombia, who would be my companions for the night, while we waited for further instructions. Then we were told it was time to go. Where are we going? It turns out we were invited to the opening of a waterfall walking distance from the hostel. When we arrived it was an outdoor buffet under a tent basically on the side of the road next to the park with the newly constructed waterfall. About 50 of us from the hostel poured in; the only foreigners. Someone said some stuff in Malaysian then thanks us, the special guests from the award-winning hostel, for being there. Time to eat.
I had some rice and barbecued lamb with my new friends and then we were all summoned to the main event. We gathered next to the park as the music started and a man carrying the Malaysian flag zip-lined across the street. None of us knew what to think; we all took video of it. Where the hell were we? Then some colorful lights turned on and water started running down the smallish new waterfall. We took a group picture with the Minister of KL and some people shook hands with the Mayor. The head of tourism thanked us for coming. We walked back to the hostel unsure what just happened but laughing at the randomness of it all.
Thus ended my time in KL. It was a strange experience, from the sickness to my impression of the city to the waterfall opening event, but one that will not be forgotten. I wouldn’t tell anyone to rush there any time soon, but at least I made it, and made it out feeling a little better.
View from the KL Tower