Kuala Lumpur was a revelation.
Stepping off a plane from India in late December and arriving there was the closest thing to culture shock that I’ve experienced on this trip. I arrived at the clean, efficient, safe and friendly b international airport around 1 a.m. I caught a shuttle bus into the city, where even in the dark, I saw modern, new highways lined with trees and clear, easy-to-understand signs. The Malaysians on the bus were respectful and quiet. We arrived at KL Sentral, the main bus and train station. I hopped off in the middle of the night, got a pre-paid taxi to Chinatown, and made pleasant, non-threatening conversation with the driver. He brought me to the door of the hostel, and I was greeted warmly and ushered inside.
The hostel was the nicest I’ve ever stayed in. Housed in a mansion, it is multi-leveled, immaculately clean, gleaming white everything, marble this and that, with the most creative and efficient use of space EVER. Add that to free drinking water, free breakfast, brand-new bathrooms, a rooftop bar, air conditioning, keyless entry to rooms, swanky restaurant, movie theatre and wifi throughout and you have the best $12/night I’ve ever spent. I arrived around 3:30 a.m. to this marvel of modern backpacking and was given passcodes to access my room and locker. It was a 24-bed dorm, which normally spells not quite death, but sleepless nights, drunk Aussies and petty theft. Not here. Here it meant dead quiet and individual sleeping pods. I climbed up to mine–a pleasant pea-green color with a full-sized soft mattress, writing shelf, mirror and cabinet. A curtain cordoned me off from the world outside. I could’ve lived for eternity in that little pod, no doubt. The hostel is undoubtedly king of the international movement of flashpacker accomodations, taking the grand prize easily.
Emily, who lives in Cambodia and came to meet me in Malaysia, was below me and had awakened with my arrival. She climbed out and we talked briefly, squealing in hushed tones about the hostel.
“I want to LIVE here,” she said, meaning in the pod, not in Kuala Lumpur.
“Can we stay three nights?” I pleaded
“YES! This is amazing,” she said.
“I know! Coming from India, this is unreal!” I responded
“Right!? Cambodia’s poor,” she faux-whined.
“India’s dirty,” I lamented back, recalling Delhi’s streets and Mumbai’s masses.
We cracked up and went to bed, falling into glorious deep sleep. Breakfast the next morning was fruit, strong coffee, tea, and bread with peanut butter, jam, honey and Nutella.
We reluctantly left the cocoon of the Reggae Mansion to find that the rest of the Kuala Lumpur was… also gleaming, clean, spotless, and more than anything, filthy rich. We were staying sandwiched between Chinatown and Little India, which were maybe the more chaotic parts of the city, but we still found completely reasonable. We spent the following days realizing that every building is a mall full of designer brands, every street vendor sells delicious, hygenic and cheap food of pan-Asian fusion, and that every train is clean, modern, efficient and inexpensive. We were in love and couldn’t stop gawking at the development all around us. Government buildings are an elegant blend of Western and Islamic architecture, with cream-colored archways surrounding lush courtyards and sprawling complexes.
One day, we took a day trip out to the Batu Caves north of the city. We boarded the bus, and Emily said, “So I looked up some stats on Malaysia last night…”
I cut her off, saying, “Me too! GDP’s about $12k/year.”
She responded with “Adjusted for PPP, it’s more like $17k/year.”
“Yeah, with 6% annual growth since the 80s,” I said and she nodded.
“With one of the highest literacy rates in Asia,” she agreed, beginning to smile.
“Yeah, HDI’s about .80,” I said, marveling at the statistic.
Then we both stopped, looked at each other and cracked up. Once development nerds, always development nerds.
We found much of the same level of amazingness (or development, whatever) in Melaka, south of KL, where we spent a few days eating, riding bicycles and wandering in markets. We stayed in the Rooftop Guesthouse, run by a Malysian man with glasses on the tip of his nose, perpetually bearing an expression of amused intellectualism. His eyebrows slightly raised, eyes gazing out over the top of his reading glasses, thin face half-smiling, he’d welcome us warmly when we’d come home at the end of the day. The bathrooms were spotless and tastefully designed (incorporating stone, I love that), the room was ample and air-conditioned, there was a massive rooftop area, and large leather couches surrounding a flat-screen TV with DVD library downstairs. We each spent $10/night.
It was a much-appreciated change from the subcontinent and accompanying craziness, disease, depressing reality and mass humanity. It felt good to be somewhere not just comfortable, but downright luxurious like Malaysia. It assauged my conscience to see a country thriving as a whole, not just in pockets. The government buildings–an elegant blend of Islamic and Western architecture, were somehow comforting in their condifent austerity. And it was somehow–what’s the word?–satisfying to be in a place that felt nicer, more developed, safer and more assured of itself than the United States.
But I couldn’t help but wonder what Kuala Lumpur, the banking capital of Asia, will look like in twenty years’ time. Or thirty, fifty, or whatever. I often wonder the same about Dubai and other megacities that have sprung up in recent economic booms. How long can they last? Will they crumble, like Potosi, Detroit, other cities that have sparkled and faded? Will Kuala Lumpur find ways to reinvent itself (like Pittsburgh!) when being the banking center of Asia is no longer viable? Or will I come back in the future, to find it bombed out and hollow, the center of wealth and prosperity shifted somewhere else?