Thursday, October 27, 2011

Malaysia in style, and winning at Monopoly

Good evening from Kuala Lumpur. It's a bit surreal to be back here so many times in the last 18 months, but I'm very happy over my good fortune to be able to do so. I woke up really early this morning in Manila
to catch the first flight out to Malaysia. This was one of the rare days I literally had to drag myself out of bed -- usually I'm just raring to get up, get out and have the competition for merienda -- and I was so slow and sleepy all the way to the plane. Then I spent the entire three hours on board editing someone's story about a Caribbean cruise. No time even for breakfast.


I'm in Malaysia at the very kind and personal invitation of Malaysia's highly-esteemed and extremely powerful Minister of Tourism, a dynamic and very vivacious lady who is the architect and guiding force behind Malaysia's incredible "Malaysia, Truly Asia" tourist campaigns, and who is also one of the best presenters I have ever seen. She certainly knows how to sell her own product, and how lucky Malaysia is to have her.

Well, Malaysia's Minister of Tourism also knows how to entertain in style. I think I'm generally a pretty luxe traveler, but this trip to Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi is certainly one for the luxury books.
I arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and breezed through priority immigrations with the pass card provided to everyone in club class; and waiting at the arrivals halls was my personal guide for my short stay in Kuala Lumpur, who was holding a sign with my name, and the senior chief from Tourism Malaysia, along with the lady in charge of the Philippine desk. They'd also prepared a very nice limousine to take me to my hotel and to wherever I wanted to go this afternoon.


But first we went for an early lunch at a really charming and apparently very popular local restaurant in a township not far from the airport, called Aunty Aini's. It was basically a compound of old-fashioned wooden huts and cottages that had been turned into a half open-air restaurant serving Malay food and Western dishes. The place was full but I didn't spot a single foreigner as I walked through the whole compound. Talk about insider knowledge.

"This is one of my favorite restaurants," the bureau chief confessed. "I take people here when I want to talk because the food's good and it's very relaxing. In fact, I took my son here recently when I wanted to discuss something serious with him."

We ordered a bunch of Malay specialties, many of which were really local dishes as this was still not even Kuala Lumpur. One of the dishes, for instance, was fried chicken -- but it was chicken made from local free-range chicken rather than farmed chicken, so it was really tasty.

We also had a fish stew made with tamarind and chillies that was an incredibly fiery color - so fiery in color, in fact, that I almost was afraid to taste it. However after my tongue got over the chili shock, I really enjoyed it because the tamarind and chili went incredibly well together. I had about four helpings of this, and was still spooning sauce onto my rice while the bill was being paid.


Then it was on to my very grand hotel, located right smack in the middle of everything in KL's most prestigious shopping district. I'd planned to quickly check in and then to head out for the two places I really wanted to go to since I was provided with a limo, a driver and a guide for the rest of the day. I was meeting up with an old AIESEC friend at 6 pm but I had the afternoon free and I knew exactly where I wanted to go.
When I reached my hotel, the staff was waiting in the driveway for my arrival. Now this is pretty standard for luxury hotels as limo drivers usually ring up the hotel when they're but a couple of blocks away, to alert them that their car carrying hotel passengers is arriving. But to my very great surprise, the owner of the hotel himself was in the lobby to greet me.

This owner is very well-known in Malaysia as he's among the richest men in the country. In fact, I could look out my hotel window right now and chances are, my eyes would rest on something he owns. Or we could play Monopoly of Kuala Lumpur and he would win even before the game got started. You get the picture. He owns a lot of Kuala Lumpur's CBD, including most of its most well-known hospitality and retail landmarks. And there he was waiting to say hello to me in the lobby. Now that's what I call real Malaysian hospitality. So of course, I'm hooked for life.


Anyway, Mr. Hotel Owner was really nice and almost shockingly unassuming for such a big shot. I was very impressed. And I'm having lunch with him tomorrow as well, so I hope to hear more about his success story then. Tomorrow afternoon, too, I heard he's planning to close one of his big stores for a private shopping trip for me. Now that really puts the pressure on the credit card, if you know what I mean.

But back to this afternoon for now. I was just in KL last August and I'm actually going to be back here in three weeks for something else, so there has been plenty of time in the past months to do everything I wanted to do and there will be plenty of time next month for the rest. However today, at the top of my list were a visit to Karyaneka and a visit to Central Market.

I go to the main Karyaneka store every time I'm in KL to buy a couple of hand painted silk gowns; they're my one indulgence (haha -- I can hear my friends say. One indulgence??), so by now I've amassed quite a number of these beautiful gowns. They're not cheap but they are so worth it. They're so simply designed, but so unique that you have to be prepared to stand out from the crowd when you wear one of them. There's not been a single time that I've worn one of these Karyaneka gowns to a formal event and not received rave reviews -- so this just makes me their customer for life. Or at least their customer for every single time I visit Malaysia.


Just a few weeks ago, I wore a Karyaneka gown I bought last August to the black-tie dinner and charity auction for Gawad Kalinga at the Peninsula Manila. It was different from what everyone was wearing and it looked nice enough for several women -- including a very glamorous ambassador's wife -- to come come up to me and compliment me on my gown.

This happens all the time with my Karyaneka gowns. So today I found one in a color I still didn't have, and then I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, handed my credit card over and snapped it up.


The other place I really wanted to go is a wooden clogs stand in Central Market. It's a very small outfit with a woman who hates publicity for some reason, but she sells the most beautiful hand painted wooden clogs. She'll happily talk to you about her clogs but just don't let her see you snapping photos away with anything resembling a serious camera.

Again, I bought about four pairs from her in August and everyone who sees them loves them. They're lovely works of art and also so comfortable to wear and so unique and eye-catching in Manila, or anywhere else for that matter -- so of course I had to take advantage of this unexpected trip to KL (I was supposed to be in Japan today! And if I was in Manila, I'd be drinking up with the AIESEC Alumni Organizing Committee at a Cast Party someone's house tonight) to stock up on more of them.

The lady was hard at work behind her counter, trying to tack some strips of leather onto a new pair of clogs. I walked in breathless, partly because of excitement and partly because I'd been running from the other part of the market, and I said to her: "I bought a couple of pairs last August and I love them. Do you have other styles or colors I can buy?"


The rest is history. I got back to my hotel with several shopping bags, just in time to meet up with my old friend Elcee, who I actually haven't seen in decades. The last time I saw her was for lunch at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. But interestingly, we had no problem recognizing each other and we reconnected as if we'd only met yesterday.

Just another day in our never-ending, and never-endingly eventful, Travelife. Good night from wonderful Kuala Lumpur. Gotta get some rest for my private shopping trip tomorrow...

Travelife Magazine's
Oct-Nov 2011 Issue


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