Day One in Kuala Lumpur: Lay of the Land

I’m writing this entry on April 3, 2022, but backdating it to the morning we pulled into Kuala Lumpur just before 5 a.m., March 14, 2011.

Actually, that was an interesting journey on its own. We’d been staying at a nice complex of bungaloes in Krabi (after a tangle with a deceptive travel agency), showed up in Bangkok just to wait for a sleeper bus, and rode down to KL all day. We’d befriended a nice Dutch man, I think his name was Conny, who didn’t agree that climate change was real but fronted us for cash when we crossed the border and scrounged for a meal at a rest stop that didn’t offer currency conversion. Principles are for full stomachs, I guess.

We bused into KL very early in the morning. The three of us needed to find somewhere to stay. Conny had arrangements, but we had to find somewhere reasonable and most places were not open yet. I guarded our bags at an all-night cafe, Restoran Shukran, and not just a diner but a really nice, glossy, bright restaurant that didn’t seem to close. Rebecca and Conny took off into the city, I know not where, but I toyed around with what apps my crappy iPod could afford and happily rested (not on a moving vehicle) and gawked at the city as dawn broke. Rebecca and Conny returned, he went his way and we were on ours.

Conny wanted to camp out with other travelers in Chinatown. Rebecca found a nice place referred to in the travel books, and it didn’t look like much on the outside but the interior was freshened up considerably, so she secured us a room and they returned to Shukran to collect me. Conny went his way, we thanked him for his help and company, and we lugged our aptly name luggage over to Tropical Guesthouse. (Ed. note: Around 2018, according to Google Maps, it was converted to a Thai restaurant.) I remember it being a much larger building, like two or three stories, with a tropics-themed thatch-roof front, but in pictures the front office was only a one-floor protrusion that introduced stayers to a time-worn building of multiple floors.

Inside, it was very nice. Fresh paint in cheery colors, sticking with the tropical theme. Our room was on the second floor, I believe, and we were struck by how comically narrow it was. Nothing more than a long closet, long enough to house a bunk bed and only just enough room to stand next to it. All the same, it was in good repair, had permanent fixtures we could chain our bags to, and how much room did we need to sleep, really.

I believe we pushed through to stay awake and explore the town. One thing readily apparent was the abundant Chinese presence everywhere. It made sense here, where Malaysia’s location situated it ideally for an international trading crossroads. That is, the Chinese businesses seemed less intrusive than in Lao PDR, for example, where gold jewelry shops were about as common as Starbucks in the United States. It was predicable to spot, just outside any residential area, the one nice house that was Chinese-owned and the row of houses alongside it that were nicer than anything else in the region—indeed, the assembly stood out in sharp contrast from some desperately impoverished, rural neighborhoods. These nice houses were for the Vietnamese workers that Chinese businessmen brought into Lao PDR, because they believed Lao employees were lazy: insult to injury. That’s how it was relayed to me by various locals in Lao PDR and Cambodia, with simmering resentment. This dynamic wasn’t so dramatic in KL, instead taking the form of Chinese filling out neighborhoods and keeping other groups out. This would later be more egregiously manifest in Singapore, where entire blocks refused to speak that nation’s other three official languages (to the chagrin of city government), but for now I was delighted to find my pick of excellent Chinese restaurants to choose from.

As it happened, the first restoran we went to was Indian. From the sidewalk we were able to peer into a buffet of delicious-smelling food and went inside. This was Restoran UK Asia, which is still open for business in 2022. It looked a lot like American buffets, with long, deep trays full of food you could shovel onto your plate, with one significant difference. At least in Minnesota, the trick to getting really good international cuisine is to find the restaurant within one year of its opening. After that, the owners begin to cater to local tastes and cut back on the exotic spices that make their dishes so wonderful; in three years, even a good Indian restaurant will water its food down to stay in business. There’s an urban legend that you can ask some restaurateurs to “make it like you would for your family,” thereby receiving an exciting and flavorful dish, but this is fraught with disrespectful entitlement.

Every dish was better than the last. It was impossible to choose, easier to take a little (or a lot) of everything.

Anyway, I heaped my plate with this amazing selection and tucked myself in the rear corner of the seating area, and I dug in before Rebecca finished picking out her meal. In that interim another group of people arrived and took the seating next to me. I couldn’t guess where they were from, but it was a group of three women with skin so brown it was nearly black that set off their colorful headwraps and dresses to striking effect. I remember them being exceptionally lovely, with expressive eyes and bright smiles, and I felt privileged simply to be sitting near them. I grinned at them with modest welcome—that’s my perception—and the joy of simply being in this incredible city with excellent food, and they replied with glares of real poison, as though they were deeply insulted that I presumed to engage with them to any degree. (Needless to say, Rebecca didn’t notice this at all and tells me it was all in my head.) Did they assume I was French or German, or could they somehow discern I was a contemptible American? Perhaps it was enough to simply hate my skin color, and in the world’s extended tale there’s plenty of reason to do so. At this point in our journeys I was accustomed to responding to social cues swiftly and molested them no further with my attention. It was easy enough to pull out a chair for my wife and focus on the delectable platter I’d gathered.

By way of orientation, Tropical GH was on a street called Tengkat Tong Shin, running up at a northeasterly angle. Three blocks south of this is a popular “eating street,” Jalan Alor, and two blocks south of that is the start of Bukit Bintang Street, where Restoran UK Asia sits. Keep walking NE up Bukit Bintang and you’ll find yourself at a crossroads of busy streets and a bustling shopping district, cut through overhead by monorail. Standing at the intersection of Bukit Bintang St and the proliferate Jalan Sultan Ismail in 2011 is significantly different than how it appears on Google Streetview today. In the below comparison photos, you can just see the Grand Millenium behind the golden facade of Kuala Lumpur International Hotel. Google Street View records that three years later KLIH had entirely been done over in dark glass and nearly doubled in height by a hotel named WOLO, to almost entirely occlude the Grand Millenium and loom over the elevated train with a digital display stretching the height of the skyscraper itself. Across from this was the long, curved facade of an H&M. Walk up NE along Bukit Bintang St and you’ll find yourself in front of another huge, curved storefront for Fahrenheit 88 and UNIQLO, which I was delighted to discover for personal reasons. In front of this was a coffee shop, O’Coffee Club, that resembled a greenhouse sitting on the sidewalk, a long rectangle of glass exposing both the bar and all its customers. Today it’s Connoisseurs Café, or it was until it recently and permanently closed.

Okay, yes, now we know where we are.

Two excellent landmarks were the large, elaborate water fountain in front of Pavilion and the amorphous, abstract mound owned by Sephora. These details will not mean anything to the reader, but we came to rely upon them. If we could see those structures, we knew where we were on Bukit Bintang, and from there we could find our way back “home” to Tropical GH. Anyone has to admit it’s important to know how to get back to your hotel. We relied on our mental maps at least as much as we referred to the paper foldout we could pick up at a tourism office or whatever the GPS on our devices told us. It’s better to know this stuff, when you lose your wireless connection. That’s why I’m so invested in re-creating it.

Map: Google Maps.

It’s said that all cities will resemble each other, and maybe that’s something you want to avoid when you travel abroad, if you want to get a feel for the local culture. On the other hand, when you’re overwhelmed for weeks and months with signs you can’t read and overheard conversations or televised broadcasts you can’t speak and different concepts in everything from food to pop music, returning to a large chain mall can be deeply comforting and grounding. Don’t sneer at that: it feels like releasing a breath you’ve been holding for too long, unconsciously.

Apparently MAC collaborated with DC Comics for this merchandise, and yet the clerk asked me not to take this picture.

So let me come back to why I was so excited to see UNIQLO. In the year prior to this, I was aware of a screensaver put out by an organization known only as UNIQLO. I didn’t know it was a clothing retailer, I only knew it was Japanese and their screensaver was mesmerizing. It was a clock that counted down, intermittently displaying a short dance routine by one to four attractive, young Japanese women in very nice clothing. In hindsight, yes, it was obviously a way to showcase their clothing line, but at the time it felt very conceptual. Why were they executing these terse jazz routines? Where did the ambient grooves come from? And if you were very determined, you could watch the screensaver very late at night, in your time zone, and the women could be found napping on school desks or other furniture. It was late, it was time for them to sleep, and to my Western cishet eyes this was the cutest thing in the world.

Now you can understand why I was so excited to discover the UNIQLO outlet. It wasn’t just an art project: it was a store, and here it was in Kuala Lumpur, in the heart of the international trade routes. I loved the place before I even stepped inside, though finding clothing in my size was a daunting task. I found a T-shirt with a beloved anime character stylistically portrayed, Kakashi from Naruto, and we each came away with a pair of what we lovingly called our “Japanese technology pants,” because somehow they looked too small but fit perfectly and looked great on us, even when we put on weight after returning to the States. Rebecca still has a UNIQLO hoodie that she adores, because it fits well and goes with everything, and it’s light and just warm enough for a range of temperatures. It’s just really good clothing.

I’m sure there’s a political issue with their production because nothing can ever be wholly good.

The whole day was spent like this: wandering around, picking out the familiar, marveling at the foreign, me being tempted by places to eat, slowly recognizing things we’ve seen elsewhere or that keep coming up. It was a wonderful day of breezing around, and we managed it on so little sleep.

At the very last I procured a can of beer, which I drank in our narrow little bedroom as a mild celebration for a full day to exploration and discovery in yet another country. We were very much looking forward to what there was to see in this amazing city, which was plenty, and picking out any little secrets or enticing details we might come upon. But believe me when I say we slept hard that night.

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