For a capital city, the Malaysians have got it together. Kuala Lumpur is impressive. It is clean, organised, well engineered and getting around is ridiculously simple. The city is a dazzling array of high rises, glittering malls and easily recognisable franchises. After several months of simple living in the absence of many luxuries, I wandered through the glittering multi story malls, with their blasting air-conditioning and oh-so-shiny floor tiles, goggle eyed at the display of what money can buy. I climbed the Kuala Lumpur tower to take in the city lights at night, my camera dying in the elevator – very unfortunate given that it is the world’s seventh tallest building. Until my visit to KL, I would never have been able to say that a modern building can be beautiful – but the Petronas Towers at night are mind blowing. To the point that I went back three times just to sit and gaze up at them. I walked for miles around the colonial quarter, and each night would land at a different part of the city to take in the markets and street food. But after several days I had had my fill of the overt display of wealth and privilege The commercialism of the golden triangle was starting to get under my skin, and I was getting sick of being jostled on the footpath by people too engrossed in their mobile phones to look up. So, I struck out towards some of the lesser visited attractions that I’d heard were worth the effort.
The call of the Muezzin is woven through the fabric of noises in Malaysia. Mosques are everywhere and every few hours he sings out from his minaret calling the devout and devoted to prayer. For the average travelling infidel like myself it is just another muffled background noise demanding of my attention, but without any real meaning. Taking a break from the heat of the walk towards the botanic gardens and bird park, I stopped and rested under a shady tree very close to the National Mosque. Within minutes the Muezzin started rolling out his chant. Perhaps it was the tranquility of the setting with no other competing noise, or perhaps it was the quality of sound that you could expect from a mosque of national pride, but I was struck by how beautiful the song was. Deep and clear, and although I couldn’t understand a word, the call washed over me leaving me mesmerized. Comfortable in the shade and calmed by he chant I started getting drowsy. Several minutes later I became aware of a soft rustling near my foot. I opened my eyes and found myself staring straight into the cold, beady eye of a massive monitor lizard. His tongue flicked out, exploring my shoe. Reflexes are amazing things. Without needing to think about it I was arcing through the air, the soles of my feet completing a loud overhead clap, with a high pitched F bomb the backing soundtrack to my ballet. The muezzin didn’t miss a beat, but the devout and devoted didn’t seem inclined to be understanding of my intrusion on a sacred moment. Imaging the reception I might get if did the same thing midway through the Sunday sermon in a Catholic church, I can understand their reaction. I retrieved my bag from a safe distance with the longest stick that I could find, gulped down some water and I continued on my way.
I had been in two minds about visiting the bird park. I can easily get shat on by a flock of pigeons in Australia, and I’ve encountered enough pubescent roosters with messed up body clocks in Indonesia to have me fantasizing about axes. As a vet, birds aren’t my favourite species to deal with. I’m also not sure about how I feel on the ethics of their confinement. So, the prospect of handing over my hard earned ringgits to get into an aviary was a difficult idea to swallow. Like everything in Kuala Lumpur, the bird park is impressively put together. It’s well planned, functional and meticulously clean. The grounds and lush and verdant, and discounting some of the landscape features which are very obviously painted polystyrene, convincingly Jurassic. The array of birds that they have on display is impressive. To sit by a pair of massive, thick legged cassowarys, with their bony head plates and oversized wattles dangling like an old man’s sunburnt scrotum was a real treat. But, I was saddened to see the degree of feather plucking, poor feet and behavioural stereotypies that come from having wild animals contained in a contrived environment, denied their natural instincts. Given that a lot of the species in the park were in breeding programs necessary because of natural habitat destruction, perhaps facilities like this are a necessary evil.
For an hour I thoroughly enjoyed the quiet and calm of the bird park. But then, true to form, several busloads of noisy school kids were deposited at the front gate. They moved through the park a noisy, high-pitched, yellow-uniformed swarm. Each of them armed with a mobile phone, selfie stick and various other techno gadgets and USB plug-ins that I couldn’t identify. Although I was doing my best to pretend that they didn’t exist, one of them was annoying enough to constantly draw my attention. He scuffed along, rarely looking up from his game of bejizzled or embezzled or whatever it is that obnoxious eight year olds play on their phones. As his thumbs worked the screen he would kick to the cages and hoot like a imbecile, not satisfied until he had provoked the birds within to some sort of reaction. The owls glared at him, the cockatoos raised their crests and screeched in alarm, the emus fluffed themselves up and gargled their warnings. His teachers did nothing, the keepers did nothing, and despite having plenty of ideas about what I would like to do, I did nothing.
Trying to avoid getting tangled any further with the tide of children, I moved well ahead, and spent a while enjoying the yellow-beaked storks. With their puffed up upper bodies, and long stilts for legs, I wondered if that is what I would look like wearing a white business shirt and no trousers. The way that they curiously looked me up and down, it was as though they recognised the similarity as well. Unfortunately, the school group caught me and the few minutes of tranquility dissolved. My irritating little friend scuffed to the front of the group, nose to the screen and thumbs working furiously, hooting and honking and stamping his feet. The stork and his brethren, unrestricted like all of the previous displays, decided they were having none of it and took to the wing. Storks are big birds and they have a massive wingspan. When they start to flap them it makes a noise like a helicopter starting up, and a flock of them moving overhead create a very impressive down-draught. For everyone paying attention, the mass of big white bodies taking to the air was a spectacular sight to see. But for a kid approaching a high score on his mobile phone game, it was fright enough to make him slip sideways over the embankment, and head first down the wet grass into the small lake. Backpack, lunch, shorts, mobile phone all embarressingly submerged in the stagnating water dotted with fresh turds. While I don’t wish ill on anyone, being able to witness a stork serve up some life lessons to an obnoxious kid is 50 ringgit that I would part with daily.
The butterfly park was only a short walk away, and on-route to the botanic gardens. I spent a frustrating hour carefully chasing butterflies with my camera, trying to snap off some passable photos. They are surprisingly elusive for such a primitive nervous system and although I hate to be outwitted by an insect, I had to admit that they had my measure. The only reasonable photos that I managed to get were of butterflies that were stone-cold dead that I wrestled from the grip of an army of ants. It was as I was preparing to leave that I realised that there was a serious collection of specimens attracted to the lights of the female toilet. Not being able to hear any noise from within, and not wanting my movement to disturb them, I padded across the tiles, camera in hand. There was something very sinister about the setting – a dim, flickering light, floor to ceiling tiles and an assortment of moths and butterflies fluttering around in the gloom. For a few minutes I was lost in a Silence of the Lambs de ja vu, a scene that always gave me the creeps as a child. It would be hard to describe the look that the Indian lady and her daughter gave me as they came in to find me peering through the lens taking happy snaps deep in the ladies room. I decided that trying to start a conversation would probably only make things worse. I still had 25 days on my Malaysian visa and would rather not leave the country through extradition. I discreetly pocketed my camera, shouldered my way between them and got on the first bus back to the city.
The street artists were in ample supply near where I stayed, and while they were all good, one particular Chinese lady was amazing. Sitting on a rickety stool in a dim light, cigarette hanging precariously from her lips and against the incessant background chaos of the city nightlife, she would take an hour to produce a pastel portrait that looked ready to leave the page and begin to speak. On my last night at around 10pm, having spent a few hours watching over her shoulder, I decided I didn’t want to miss out. I stayed in Kuala Lumpur for five days, but I could easily have made it two weeks. It really was a fascinating place with so many interesting things to do. But, the time came for somewhere new, so I left he following morning aboard the uber well organised rail system, heading north to Penang.