I recently returned from a vacation that took me to Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea this past May. It was my first time landing in Malaysia and Singapore but not South Korea. I had been an English teacher in Korea almost 20 years ago. When I was there, I wrote a bi-weekly column for a Nova Scotia newspaper about my experiences. I’ve decided to share my experiences this time around — only this time, on my own blog.
One and a half days in KL
Part I of Singapore ’16
Stepping off the train in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia, the heat grabbed me in a bear hug. It was only 7 a.m. but the warmth of the early morning wasn’t going to let me go. It was only going to squeeze me tighter and tighter until my clothes were saturated with sweat and I was dizzy. There was too much to see, too much to do though, and I tried to settle into the May temperatures of a place several thousand kilometres — and several degrees — removed from home.
I had thought maybe KL might spark some kind of recognition in my veins. Some sort of ancient feeling deep in my bones. Ancestors used to live in Malaysia. I talked to my grandmother about it before coming here. She told me she used to get letters with the return address stamped Kuala Lumpur. Our relatives either owned or ran rubber and tea plantations outside of the city and in Singapore as well. The resistance to the heat that had been built up in their blood had dissipated by the time it trickled down to me.
Since there were no traces of old memories or ghosts to chase, KL was mine to explore. After arriving at from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) at 1 a.m. and trying to find out why my husband’s backpack had missed the plane, we laid down on a long bench in the arrival’s lounge and tried to find sleep amongst the other tired travellers. When rest refused to come, we boarded a train to visit Batumalai Sri Muruga Perumal Kovil, otherwise known as the Batu Caves. The caves are massive limestone hollows that were once used as shelter and now are part of a Hindu shrine. They also open at 6 a.m.
A stormed had rolled through about half an hour earlier and did nothing to lower the temperature. It just made the grounds of the religious site wet and the air sticky with humidity. Grey clouds still languished in the sky creating a perfect backdrop for giant golden statues. I had never seen such things before. Seven or eight skinny dogs stretched out amongst the puddles in the parking lot. They looked hungry but never wandered over to us looking for food.
At odds with the poor dogs, was the smell of rich incense in the air. Everywhere I went in KL, there was the smell of spices, a warm aroma of seasonings that I’ve never learned the names of since I don’t know how to cook. The spices coloured the scenes around me, making everything that much more exotic, even a stair climb in the damp heat.
My husband and I went up 272 concrete steps with the other tourists, chickens and monkeys to the largest of the caves, the Temple Cave. Once at the top, music from two musicians blessed a ritual being performed by a man who washed a pure white sheet in clear water flowing from a hidden tap. The darkness of the cave held in the warmth. Sweat made my grasp on the camera slippery. I took a few photos of the beige walls marbled with black and then went back down the stairs, stopping on every one. I was being hypnotized by each step and felt I was going to fall if I went at any other speed other than slow. At the bottom, my husband and I got back on the train and headed into the central train station and breakfast.
After our meal of laksa, a spicy noodle soup, and a milk tea (it came with a lot of milk, duh, and tons of sugar already added) we tried to walk around KL. Not the best idea. Sidewalks ended abruptly in the middle of intersections and crosswalks are almost non-existent. Cars and trucks and motorcycles whiz and scream and buzz by so closely that their side mirrors almost touch me. Oh yes, the sun had come out.
If I had thought it was hot before, now it was excruciating. It smothered me with its softness and overtook my brain. All I could think of was escaping the brightness. The brilliance of the heat that bored into my pores. We had to stop but found a cool drink of water near shaded botanical gardens and listened to crickets sing and watched butterflies and giant moths fly overhead.
On the other side of KL are the Petronas Twin Towers,
buildings that were once the tallest buildings in the world until 2004. (Now it’s Taipei 101.) We took the subway to the office towers and looked up, way up. There are 88 floors and the Skybridge, a walkway connecting the towers, is supposed to be incredible. We really wanted to go on a tour and one left in 15 minutes. We were almost at the front of the line with a couple ahead of us.
The lanky stringbean Westerners used up the whole 15 minutes to ask the tour clerk questions. We missed that tour and had to move on. Our Airbnb host was meeting us at 3 p.m. and we didn’t want to be late. We were anyway.
Navigating the train and metro system wasn’t the problem. Finding the tall apartment building where we were staying for the night wasn’t either. We could see the white concrete structure sticking out amongst the other skyscraper residences from the train. We were late because we couldn’t find the front door. Then someone told us we had to go down some crumbling stairs cut into the side of a steep but short hill, and then round a corner. There it was. Home for the night.
There was a pool in the building and so I went for a swim. That’s when the heat loosened its hot grip on me, slid off my sweat-slicked arms and withered away. It wouldn’t be gone for good on this trip. It would find me again. For now, it was banished by the apartment’s air conditioning.
The view from the 15th floor apartment was amazing: traffic,
traffic, traffic. The one-room place had floor to ceiling windows that suspended me over the busy roads. I couldn’t stop watching the trucks and cars push and shove each other looking for free space. In-between them, motorcycles zipped along, lane-splitting in a way that’s illegal in Canada, but a highly effective way to get downtown quickly in KL.
It was only early evening, 7 p.m., but the travel, the 14-hour time difference with Calgary and the battle with the stifling heat invaded my brain. It shut down my body and I closed my eyes. Waking up 12 hours later.