Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Malaysia and Singapore III: Exploring Kuala Lumpur

My two-week Asian adventure ended where it began:  Kuala Lumpur. After six days exploring the island state of Singapore (tale here) and two eventful days in the culturally diverse Malaysian town of Melaka (tale here), I found myself on a coach speeding through a tropical downpour towards the capital city. I can't say the thought filled me with much joy: my one night stopover in KL (as it is often known) had left me with an impression of an uninspiring metropolis bisected by flyovers and speckled with shopping malls. I wished rather than expected my rapidly made up mind to change over the 48 hours that followed.

My mood brightened abruptly on reaching the Equator Hostel in the Golden Triangle area, my residence for the next two nights. The friendly owner greeted me warmly, giving me a hand-annotated map of the city and talking me through the sights and the best way to see them. Spurred on by his enthusiastic descriptions of Chinatown and Little India, I decided to brave KL's unintegrated transport system, made up of a monorail, a metro and commuter trains. Once I'd worked out how to get my 10p ticket to open the barrier and recovered from the resulting embarrassment, I was gliding over the city in a mini-monorail carriage. A short while later I found myself in the gritty heart of Chinatown: Petaling Street. Famous for its trade in designer knock-off goods of all varieties, this thoroughfare requires finely-tuned bargaining skills, the ability to dodge persistent traders and sharp elbows if you're ever to emerge at the other end. Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown is poles apart from Singapore's district of the same name: there are no smartly-painted shophouses, no glossy stores catering to the tourist trade. KL's Chinese quarter bustles with hustle; trade and human traffic reign supreme.

Merdeka Square

Emerging triumphantly from Petaling Street with just one successfully-haggled purchase in tow, I headed for a more elegant area: Merdeka Square, KL's colonial core. Dominated by the world's tallest flagpole proudly flying the Malaysian flag, the square is significant in the country's recent history. Although it retains its cricket pitch and half-timbered clubhouse from British rule, the square is now more commonly associated with Malaysia's burgeoning democracy: this is where the country's independence ('Merdeka') was proclaimed in August 1957. With the Royal Selangor clubhouse on one side and the domed fantasy of the Sultan Abdul Samed Building on the other against a backdrop of modern skyscrapers, Merdeka Square is a microcosm of the city's identity and an ideal spot to linger.

The Sultan Abdul Samed Building
Malaysia's cultural mixture of Malay, Chinese and Indian communities is reflected in KL's make-up: just a ten-minute walk from Chinatown lies Little India, tucked away behind the Masjid Jamek metro stop. Although the Brickfields area surrounding KL Sentral Station is fast becoming the new hub of the Indian community, this petite quarter retains its bustle and atmosphere: market stalls peddling myriad colours of headscarves, henna tattooists setting up their stalls in the street, jewellery shops and restaurants all compete for the attention of passers-by. Shopping opportunities aside, it's also an ideal spot to grab a central bite to eat. Keen to consume as many dosai (South Indian savoury pancakes) as humanly possible before returning to the UK, I filled up on a vegetable-stuffed number at vegetarian restaurant Saravaana Bhavan for just 10 Ringgits.

Contrary to my first impressions, the historical centre of KL is easily walkable. However, the sprawling nature of the city means that some sights are best reached by public transport, taxi or tourist bus. Embracing my holidaymaker status, I opted for the latter option on my final day. But before boarding the bus, I still had to see Kuala Lumpur's most famous sight: the Petronas Towers.

The Petronas Towers

Completed in 1998, these silver-coloured skyscrapers were the tallest buildings in the world until 2004. They're still by far the tallest towers in KL, dominating its skyline from almost all angles. For those who want to see the view from the Skybridge between the 41st and 42nd floors, free tickets are issued each morning: arrive at 7am to be in with a chance of securing one. Valuing my sleep more than the photo opportunity, I contented myself with a ground-level view before taking a stress-free tour of the city. Swinging past the upmarket boutiques of Bukit Bintang (the Golden Triangle), the hilltop Menara KL (KL Tower) and Chinatown, I headed to the KL Bird Park instead. Situated in the city's outlying Lake Gardens, the Bird Park is the world's largest walk-in aviary, and provides fans of our feathered friends with plenty of opportunities to get up close to almost every exotic Asian species imaginable. As my companion for the day Kerry and I discovered, there was definitely such a thing as too close: one particularly menacing-looking creature swooped dangerously close to our lunch on more than one occasion.

Watch where you're pointing that beak!

Suitably impressed with KL's sights, there was just one left on my hitlist: the National Mosque. As a Muslim country, Malaysia certainly isn't short on mosques, and KL's Masjid Jamek (Friday Mosque) and Masjid Negara (National Mosque) are two of the most famous. A short walk from Merdeka Square, the modern Masjid Negara welcomes visitors to selected areas provided they cover up in one of the robes on offer. This sprawling mosque is an island of calm among KL's traffic-choked streets, and helpful staff are on hand to answer any questions about Islam or the building itself.

At Masjid Negara

By the time my departure rolled around, I was sorry to leave this friendly city. Busy as it may be, KL was not as pedestrian-hostile as I first imagined. With many free attractions, cheap food and a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere for such a big place, visitors to South East Asia should be sure to put Kuala Lumpur on their itinerary.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A Brit abroad in Singapore

Following on from my Singapore article for The Travel Belles, this month's guest post is from Laura Mogg, who found herself moving to Singapore unexpectedly in 2010 and is currently making the most of her expat experience.

I can clearly remember when my boyfriend confirmed he had been offered the job in Singapore and my feelings at the time: I was shocked and terrified. I was shocked because he had been offered a job on the basis of two phone conversations, and terrified at the thought of moving abroad. I'd never considered a life abroad before then: I always admired those who had the courage to do it but I never thought I would be one of them. My fear was born out of the unknown: other than being somewhere in Asia, I had no real idea where Singapore was (I'm glad to say my geography has improved since then), what language is spoken there or anything about what to expect. I'd never been to Asia, and to me it seemed like the great unknown.

Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles

My boyfriend moved out in January 2010 and I joined him in July. I'd been on a two week trip when he first moved so I had some experiences to fall back on, but the first thing I was sharply reminded of was the heat and humidity. I'd learnt by then that Singapore has a tropical climate with no distinct seasons, but I'd been back to the UK and quickly forgotten just how intense it is. As soon as I stepped out of the airport it all came flooding back to me. Six months on I don't think you ever get used to it. You just learn to live with it and adjust to it, walking at a pace to avoid getting too hot, allowing yourself plenty of time to get to places to avoid rushing and making ample use of the air conditioned MRT (train service) and taxis. The other main weather hazard here is the frequent storms, so carrying an umbrella is essential, alternatively diving into one of the endless shopping malls is a good way of avoiding getting too wet or too hot.

 I still find Singapore's shopping malls overwhelming and finding what you want can be a challenge at times. I've spent so much time wandering around in malls totally lost. Shopping and food are the main two passions for the locals, and shopping isn't just restricted to the huge malls of Orchard Road. Naturally some malls are better than others; some specialising in one type of goods, some very much focusing on designer labels. I know that there are still malls I've never been to, and I wonder whether I'll ever cover them all.

Singapore is amazingly multicultural, and what has struck me most of all since being here is how accepting everyone is of this. There are public holidays for all the main religions' most important days in their calendars and many other festivals to enjoy throughout the year. You certainly don't have to wait long for one to come along!

Singapore's mascot, the Merlion

Naturally we've had many amusing experiences since moving here. One was our decision to buy a chicken and have a traditional roast. It was only when we took the chicken out of its wrapping at home that we realised it still had its head and feet attached. We panicked that perhaps it had not been gutted; fortunately it had but cutting off the head and feet took a lot of courage. Since then we've played it safe and just bought chicken pieces.

Food is one of the main passions in Singapore, and I think you would struggle not to find something to your taste. You can eat incredibly cheaply if you are prepared to eat in hawker centres, and you don't need to worry about the food being unsafe as all restaurants and hawker stalls have to meet carefully regulated hygiene standards. Some of the best food can be found at hawker stalls, and locals will travel from one end of the island to the other for a certain dish on a particular stall and are prepared to queue for an hour or more just to eat there! I'm not a huge seafood fan, but since I've been here I've probably eaten more of it than I have in my whole life. This includes trying the famous chilli crab and BBQ stingray, although I haven't yet plucked up the courage to try fish head curry.

View of the Central Business District on Grand Prix night

I've grown very fond of Singapore and realised there is a whole lot more to it than a simple stopover on the way to somewhere else. I still have a long list of things I want to do both here and hopefully within Asia. Since arriving I've made new friends, which has only enhanced my time here. Something that has really hit me (especially within the expat community) is a recognition that everyone is in the same position when they arrive. I have found that this makes people a lot more willing to invite a stranger they meet for a coffee or lunch; I got an invite to the cinema out of a chance encounter in a fish and chip shop, for example. That said though, it is important to be willing to engage with people and above all else make an effort. One piece of advice I was given was to meet and get to know as many people as you can. The expat lifestyle by its very nature means that as quickly as someone arrives they can be leaving again so you cannot afford to rely on just one or two other acquaintances. More than anything though I know that if it all ended tomorrow for me I'd have had a brilliant experience to look back on and cherish. Singapore will always hold a special place in my heart whatever the future may bring.

Laura moved to Singapore in July 2010 and initially began blogging to keep friends and family updated on her new life. Realising she really enjoyed it, she now actively looks for blogging subjects, from new places to everday life. She sees her time abroad as a fantastic opportunity and hopes to grab every experience possible along the way. Her blog, Expat Adventures in Singapore, can be found here.

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