Timing is Everything

Day 2 – Saturday, 30 March 2024

Google knows shit about walking around Kuala Lumpur. This is understandable, because it is precisely the sort of problem computers are shit at. There are no footpaths, barely any along the actual roads. People actually walk, when they walk, which is probably not often, down little gaps between buildings, across carparks, hotel driveways, through shopping centres and railway stations, none of it marked as a thoroughfare either in the real world or Google’s virtual fever dream. As a result, if you ask Google to hallucinate you a path from A to B, it will send you kilometres out of your way. Only a fool or an ignorant tourist would listen for a second. As both, I dived in immediately.

What happens on the massage coach stays on the massage coach

There are benefits. You do get to see a bit more of the city that you would otherwise, even if that city radiates hostility to pedestrians like the noon sun. One part of the city drove past us and honked. It was a taxi, probably, under the scratched and faded paint. The door handles looked liked they’d rusted off. I had no notion of how we might even get in. Even so, I was tempted, for a second. Only a second.

On past the National Mosque, a piece of clean modernity, attractive to my eye. I was surprised to learn that it was built as long ago as the 1960s. We would have gone in, quick modesty self-audit passed, but we were half an hour early. Might try again. Instead, Anna and the boys befriended a small black and white cat.

On up past the National Planetarium, a winding and climbing road. Eventually into the Botanic Gardens, an oasis of greenery around a lake. A lovely spot. After a stroll and a drink, a debate about whether to try to find some of the more far flung parts of the park, including an orchid garden and what Google, that known liar, indicated was a butterfly enclosure. But it was hot, already, and humid and we’re new to this tropical stuff. Also, we had spotted the underpass back in the direction of the National Museum that, had we known about it this morning, would have saved us half an hour’s walking. Of course, then we’d never have met the cat or seen the mosque. 

And so to the National Museum, to find out what tales Malaysians tell themselves, and others, about themselves. The four galleries cover ancient (pre-)history, the Malay kingdoms of the first millennium of the common era, the colonial period and modern Malaysia. The most surprising was the first, and the most surprising element was the shallowness of time. Some stone artefacts dated to 100,000 years ago, but little in the way of hominin remains until the last 10,000 years or so. That may reflect poor preservation conditions in the jungle, of course. But iron apparently did not reach the peninsula until the Roman Empire was at its peak.

The rest of the history of the region was, of course, created and shaped by its position on the trade routes between east and west, as it is to this day. My favourite exhibit was some glass from the mediaeval Middle East, the only undamaged piece indistinguishable from a modern soju glass. A glass with only one possible purpose, there being no point in drinking mere water by the thimbleful.

The colonial era was its familiar litany of brutalities. Nobody deserves having the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British, then the Japanese turn up and decide that theirs was the only opinion that matters. I wondered what the Japanese tour group would make of the displays on the Japanese occupation. Then I realised that I’d be cheerfully contemptuous of the British in the equivalent circumstance. I looked for the English language group but either couldn’t find it or it was one very knowledgeable ethnically Chinese woman talking to another, younger one. I kept meeting them but couldn’t decide if they were the tour group or not, so felt unable simply to attach myself and learn.

The last gallery spent a fair amount of time on the depredations of the communists during the immediate post-war years, invariably referred to as “communist terrorists”. I wondered what the Chinese tour group would make of it, before I could stop myself.

No durians or heterosexualising allowed

Lunch at a Korean place in Nu Sentral, the mall near the hotel. My first jjampong. Almost worth the t-shirt I probably ruined. Delicious.

While Anna and Seb went for a swim at the hotel, Raf and I then headed out to the Central Market area (train stop Masjid Jamek). Saw the Sultan Abdul Samad Jamek Mosque from the outside, poked around the street markets, eventually found Merdeka Square and saw the food trucks setting up for what promised to be an incredible evening event. Saw an iguana on the river bank. Finally found the Central Market. Drank fluids. Sweated. Drank. Sweated.

Iguana territory
Iguana in iguana territory

One funny thing about KL is that, one or two very pungent spots aside, I don’t think it has a distinctive odour, unlike Bangkok or New York, which both stink by comparison. Raf disagrees, but unless I’m walking past a food stall, I can’t smell the place. Weirdly, despite sweating like an anthropomorphic Niagara for ten hours straight, neither do I. Maybe I’m just losing my sense of smell.

Back home to pick up Anna and Seb and then we returned to Merdeka Square and the streets around. As the light faded and the crowds gathered in the square, we walked past endless food stalls, always deciding to move on to the next, and the next, everything too delicious to settle on when even more delicious things no doubt awaited. Finally, in Merdeka Square, the place carpeted with, well, carpets, and the carpets carpeted with people, we heard the evening prayers end and several thousand people broke their fast. Including the stall owners who, having not eaten since dawn, suddenly gave no shits about serving clueless infidels. We went round to the nearest street, just half an hour ago an unnavigable press of humanity, now hastily being pulled down. Incredibly, in the space of thirty minutes, surrounded by a sea of people, we’d gone from too many choices for dinner to next to none. As we made our way back to the train, we saw a strange mist spreading over the riverbanks. We decided it was iguana repellent.

We went back to the hotel and grabbed a roti wrap from a fast food place. It wasn’t especially fast but it was, like everything we’ve eaten here, way better than I expected.

Merdeka Square breaks its fast
Iguana control measures, or possibly not


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