Tuesday, March 3, 2015

-- Indochina Expedition: Malaysia Truly Asia --

After many years of failed attempts and diverted itineraries, I find myself descending over palm-tree covered hills on approach into Kuala Lumpur International Airport, main gateway to Malaysia.

Economical disparities between ASEAN countries is instantly experienced at one of its most extreme levels, having left the poorest end of this country alliance in Yangon, and landing in the modern capital of Malaysia.
I proceed to walk through the never-ending corridors of KLIA, following tall escalator, air bridges, conveyor belts, as well as an almost numbing combo of signs, lights and chimes. It feels like landing in a complete different continent, despite having travelled only for over two hours.

A friendly immigration officer affix a green sticker on my passport and welcomes me to a country used to receive tourists. A massive shopping centre is immediately attached to the terminal, also working as a modern train station and common arrivals area.
And here is when one of Malaysia's main obsessions become obvious to me, and that is shopping. It happens everywhere and in every single form.

Refreshed by the strong air conditioning, I take a modern train into the city centre, swiftly crossing through hills dominated by colourful houses hidden in between palm trees and luscious tropical vegetation, finally reaching KL Sentral, an equally impressive crossroads/terminal where rail lines, buses, monorails and shopping centres have been mashed together in a jungle of concrete, neon signs, escalators and coffee shops.

A trip in the monorail (briefly bringing back that silly Simpsons moment) introduces tourists to one of the best glimpses of a constantly-growing metropolis, soaring over congested eight-lane motorways, almost knitting its way through tall glass towers tinted in different colours and shapes.

I stop at Bukit Bintang, Malaysia's answer to Times Square and epicentre of shopping, clubbing, eating, drinking and every possible leisure activity requiring the use of those colourful Malaysian banking notes.
Shortly after finding a hostel squeezed in between a dodgy nightclub and an Emirati food restaurant.

Hypnotised by the strong buzz around me, I waste no time and rapidly walk through squeaky clean avenues sheltered by the shadow of tall office buildings, mildly offsetting the effects of the afternoon sunshine.

And there they are, the shiny twins solidly rising up to over 300 meters, symbolising Malaysian's economic success, and an architectural icon which is now synonym of South East Asian development.
The Petronas complex is also the headquarters of Malaysia's main oil company's, embedded in a commercial hub which also boasts an overpriced aquarium and a beautiful tropical greenery.

I stand in awe, finding hard to frame the entire magnitude of such an engineering conquest in the lens of my camera, whilst wiping heavy drops of sweat off my forehead.
An iced smoothie is next, enjoyed by the steps overlooking the main park where entire families play with hot air balloons, and couples stroll around.

With a steady weather pattern defined as 'wet hell on Earth' all year round, air conditioned pedestrian passageways have been built around this area and connecting it with Bukit Bintang, a refreshingly rewarding option to crossing busy streets and a very enjoyable sheltered experience.

In the evening, I leave the sheltered air conditioned domains of the tiny hostel and walk towards the red lamp-covered Chinatown for an unpronounceable Southeast Asian dish and a bottle of Tiger beer al fresco. I am presented with a bowl of bright yellow stiff noodles dipped in some sort of egg soup topped with some garlic prawns.
To digest the flavours of my somehow light dinner,  I opt for a night walk, approaching the KL Menara, one of the few 'space needles' in the world, finishing at the Petronas complex, which by night are almost blinding with its shiny powerful lamps reflecting in the polished steel corners, design inspired by ancient pagodas.

And I suddenly discover the reason behind crowds gathering around the plaza, with an impressive show of dancing waters beginning at 22:30 and extending for about half an hour at the sound of Sting, Celine Dion and some Malaysian tunes, setting the mood for return walk under the bright neon signs of busy Bukit Bintang and finally retreating to the hostel for the day, challenging task thanks to the Danish guy sharing a dorm room with me, unsuccessfully trying to score a drunk British girl for several hours.

Shortly after taking an early revitalising shower, basic grooming and final packing, I leave the hostel and take the monorail back into KL Sentral, where conveniently located lockers are rented for a very affordable price.
Having left the bulk of my luggage behind, I take a commuter train to a must-see place in the Kuala Lumpur region, the Batu Caves.

I am immediately surrounded by a large crowd of Indian nationals and it is just that Batu Caves is a Hindu sacred place, where an important temple has also been built.
Some twenty minutes later and clearly in the suburban belt of the city, the train pulls up at the platform and hundred of passengers pile up through the exits, almost spitting my body into a row of food stalls and souvenir shops.

Lord Murugan, standing almost 42 meters tall jealously guards the long set of stairs leading up and inside the dark caves.
The steep set of stairs is divided into three 'lanes', being the central one exclusively used by people making offerings, climbing up bare feet, whilst carrying clay vases in their head and loudly praying.

The place is spectacular and intense for the senses once the top is reached, with cheaply neon lit temples crowded by devotes praying and lighting candles, everything surrounded by the structure of the mountain almost hugging us with its cold limestone arms, letting some sunshine to enter through small cracks. A truly enjoyable sight once the smell of piss and piled rubbish is overlooked.

Slightly dizzy by the combination of heat, humidity and strong aromas, I decide to leave the place before feeling sicker, taking the train back into KL Sentral and savouring a delicious curry-inspired Indian feast in Brickfields before finally making the drastic decision of retreating to the airport, because in the end, an afternoon sheltered by air conditioning and Wi-Fi seems more appealing than wearily wander in the hot streets of Kuala Lumpur carrying a heavy backpack.

And whilst the train rapidly cruises to the airport, I get my last sight of the city. The concrete jungle being replaced by the leafy suburban area, which is also my last sight of tropical vegetation.

I pass time at the modern terminal watching numerous, and sometime exotic operations taking place. How many times have you seen the boarding procedures of an Iraqi Airways flight? One for me now.
Check in is open and I am reluctantly handed a 'Malaysian Airlines'-branded boarding pass, before clearing the modern immigration checkpoint and proceed to the sky train and gate.

A sigh of relief is given once the magical announcement of 'Boarding finished' is given and minutes later, our fully-loaded Etihad plane soars above the Andaman Sea, starting a bumpy 7-hour flight across India, landing in Abu Dhabi shortly after midnight , local time.
I start to feel exhausted, but the transfer in the capital of the UAE is swift and hassle-free.
'Etihad 42' is called and boarded with plenty of spare seats. I cram into two seats trying to sleep, frequently frustrated by the nature of yet another bumpy 8-hour flight and interrupted meal services.

Unable to see anything outside my window, the plane's undercarriage heavily touches down at the Dublin Airport runway. It is foggy and with a temperature hitting the negative marks, I am somehow relieved that heat will not be an issue for me anymore, at least not for the upcoming months.

I am the only passenger on the bus service into town, a journey taking me into the Victorian streets of Portobello, and a journey which ends the 'Indochina Expedition', a trip characterised by stuffy humid heat, savoury noodles and aromatic cuisine, idyllic beaches, striking temples and the sights of countries that despite being in the same region, proudly display their own identity in every aspect of their life, creating transcendental experiences, now registered on this blog.