The contrast between Malaysia and Thailand was clear, as it had been when I entered Thailand from Myanmar, and the most striking difference is the people. Ethnic Thais make up more than 85% of the population in Thailand, but Malaysia is a mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians, who were encouraged to work in the rubber and tin industries in colonial times. These groups are culturally and religiously distinct; the Malays are largely Muslim, the Indians Hindu and the Chinese Buddhist or Christian, which makes the people-watching in Malaysia much more varied than earlier in my trip. The landscape was equally diverse on my bus journey to Kuala Lumpur, passing through flat acres of palm plantations, steep limestone mountains, and dense rainforest.
Kuala Lumpur is a city on an international scale, with skyscrapers and communications towers and a sense that Important Things happen here. It’s also very, very hot and humid and nowhere near a beach, which was tough for me. And like a big city should, it has lots of green space. Next to the Petronas towers and surrounded by gleaming glass skyscrapers is KLCC Park, a well-kept, landscaped park with fountains and a playground, always full of visitors to the city’s business district. Smaller and less manicured is the Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve, a slice of rainforest in the centre of the city, complete with a canopy walk, nature trails and the Forestry Information Centre. It is dense and hilly and attracts fewer visitors than it should, making it an excellent place to escape the big city for a while. KL’s main green space however is the Lake Gardens, towards the west of the city centre. A huge piece of land covering over 200 acres, it includes a deer park, aviary and butterfly park, as well as gardens devoted to orchids, rare trees, medicinal plants, and hibiscus. Its playgrounds, picnic benches and boating lake make it popular with families and there are a range of museums at the edges of the park.
The main attraction of Kuala Lumpur for Malaysians is not the green space, but the shopping; KL boasts more than fifty ultra-modern shopping centres selling luxury and high street brands. The majority of these are in the Bukit Bintang and KLCC areas, and in this part of the city, full of skyscrapers and designer labels, you could be anywhere in the world. I found a more uniquely Malaysian experience walking around the west end of the city; Chinatown, Little India and the former colonial centre, with it’s clock tower and intricate civic buildings that reminded me of the Brighton Pavilion. The international skyscrapers still form the backdrop in this part of town, but the foreground is all Malaysia; street hawkers, open sided canteen-style restaurants, and small bazaars in the alleyways
Malaysia’s multi-culturalism everywhere, from the people to the religious buildings and monuments, like the Batu Caves, a cave complex designated as a Hindu place of worship for over a hundred years, with gigantic status and a 200-odd step gold-painted staircase leading up to the main cave. The language also reflects the strongly preserved cultures here; although Bahasa Malaysia is the only official language, most signs in shops and businesses are also written in Chinese and many are in English as well. A lot of advertising is in English only, and the general level of English in Kuala Lumpur is very high to the extent that I didn’t even manage to learn my ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Bahasa Malaysia; when I visited a bookshop I even found that almost all of the books on sale were in English.
Despite promoting itself as an example of multi-cultural harmony, KL is not without cultural tensions, as I learned when I was invited to a barbecue and pool party in a block of flats on the edge of the city. I chatted to a former political journalist, who explained that the political system maintains cultural divides, as the political parties are each directed at and financed by different cultural groups. In addition, he said that racism is more prevalent in cities, because the urban neighbourhoods each tend to be dominated by one group, rather than everyone being mixed together as they are in small towns.
At the same party my western companions and I caused a minor diplomatic incident when we went for a swim in the pool; we were aware of the Malaysians sensibilities about dress – respectable people are expected to have their knees and shoulders covered – so when we went for a swim we wore t-shirts and shorts over our bikinis. As we got into the water, the pool security guard told us that t-shirts were not allowed, only lycra ‘swim shirts’, and after a short discussion with our Malaysian friend, we were permitted to swim in our bikinis only. A little while later, after a complaint from one of the residents, a different security guard came over and told us that bikinis were not appropriate attire and that we should leave the pool. The caused a great deal of argument between the security guards and our party, to the embarrassment of me and the other westerners. Eventually the issue was resolved and the guards apologised to us, which was even more embarrassing. The other party guests, exclusively Indian and Chinese Malaysians, later said that the complaint had probably come from a Malay couple sitting by the pool, because it’s only the Muslim Malays who care about that sort of thing. They told us wearily that it is common for the Malays to make this sort of complaint towards other Malaysians and Westerners alike, characterising the Malays as killjoys and zealots. So much for multi-cultural harmony.