Monday, August 15, 2011

Malaysia: Making the most of what they have

Good morning from Kuala Lumpur airport on the way to the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site of Georgetown, Penang which, coincidentally, is the cover destination of our fabulous TRAVELIFE August-September 2011 cover on sale everywhere from today. Please get a copy of this wonderful issue full of great travel stories. Read about the James Bond retreat in Jamaica, the encounters with the supernatural in Siquijor, and the world's most expensive steak (starting at US$1000 per head).

It's another beautiful day here in sunny Malaysia -- yes, we've been really lucky with the weather -- and the Travelife team has been observing a truly exhausting schedule. But we've also been having lots of fun.


I ended yesterday -- a day that began at the King's Palace and wove its way around Kuala Lumpur's many historic sights, before a last-minute stop at Central Market to buy some handpainted clogs and have a wonderful high tea at the Carcosa Seri Negara luxury hotel. I just love having tea here on the terrace or right in the garden if it's a fine day. It's an oasis of calm in a large city.
And high tea here consists of either a proper British high tea with scones, salmon and cucumber sandwiches, and Earl Grey tea; or a Malay high tea with sweet milky tea and lots of savory appetizers with a dash of chili. We ordered one British set and one Malay set so we could taste a bit of everything, and it was really a civilized way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Kuala Lumpur.


Finally, it was on to a very fiery Malaysian dinner at a local restaurant in the Bukit Bintang area. The guys had gone on ahead to the restaurant but I'd stopped by the hotel first to change into a fresh set of clothes. I wasn't very hungry anyway, and figured I could actually skip dinner in favor of a hot shower. When I reached dinner, they'd almost finished and all of them practically had their tongues hanging out, complaining of the spiciness of the meal.

"It's the best meal I've had so far, but also the spiciest," one of them said, while another admitted: "I've drank eight glasses of water already."

Nevertheless, they couldn't wait for me to try out some of the food, urging me to try a large dish of stir-fried bean sprouts and small dried fishes. "Make sure you get a big dose of the bean sprouts," they reminded, with exaggerated concern. Of course I saw through the ploy and made sure I had very little of this dish. But when I finally had a taste of it, I was surprised that it wasn't as hot as I had imagined, and very delicious as well.


Yesterday ended at about midnight at Kuala Lumpur's famous Sky Bar, with a 2011 remake of an 80s song playing in the background, a perfect view of the Petronas Towers, and my feet in the swimming pool right smack in the middle of this very cool bar filled with stylish people. Never mind that so many people were looking.

It's been a wonderful stay in Kuala Lumpur, and all of us just couldn't help noticing the contrasts between this beautiful and green city and our own Metro Manila. KL is three hours away from Manila, but it's an entire world away in terms of development. In the van on the way to the airport to catch our Penang flight, we were all trying to pinpoint the differences because, well, they truly seemed different.


"In terms of private sector infrastructure, things aren't too different," someone said. "Malaysia and the Philippines are pretty much even in terms of private sector projects and development. It's our public sector infrastructure that completely lags behind. Look at these fantastic highways and the clean roads. Did you notice that we've been here for days now and we still haven't ridden over a single major bump in the road?"

Everyone nodded.


Personally, I like the fact that Kuala Lumpur is a real green city, even in the most central and busiest parts of town. In contrast, it's a tragedy that successive governments in the Philippines have not failed to stem ugly after-effects of urban growth in Metro Manila, so that the metropolis is now one big concrete jungle with very few trees. The greenery of KL really does a lot to make the city beautiful, and also to lower everyone's stress levels. If you're sitting in traffic, but all around you is greenery instead of slum areas and ugly billboards, then things won't be so bad.


Speaking of billboards, that's another thing Malaysia is doing right. It has billboards but we didn't really see any that were "in your face," in bad taste or just so outrageously big that it became an eyesore to the city. Kuala Lumpur has billboards incorporated into the railbridge of the trams and strategically positioned around the city, but these billboards are all tasteful.


One other surprise, so far, is the development of artistry in Kuala Lumpur. I spent too little time at Central Market yesterday because of our hectic schedule, but it was enough to see and be amazed by the burgeoning creativity of locals in creating truly beautiful and unique products. I had about 45 minutes to shop but in that short span of time, I bought way too much because there were so many irresistible and truly unique items. And they had an entire and very pleasant airconditioned market of these goods!


Finally, the airport is just wonderful. Clean, organized, and very First World. Great shops, efficient service and a nice atmosphere for travel. Something every Malaysian can be proud of, and someplace any travelers would not mind spending time in.

So there's so much for tourists to do in this city and country that is so admirably trying its best to maximize the attractions it has. Just like with people, when it comes to tourism, sometimes it's not what you actually have but what you do with what you have that matters most.

The Travelife team in Kuala Lumpur yesterday

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