Saturday, August 4, 2007

Kuala Lumpur, Friday

My sightseeing trip today was so easy that it's almost not worth writing about. But I've got an hour until my taxi picks me up for dinner, so I may as well go ahead and write anyhow.

Yesterday when I finished my rounds of the city, I made plans with Mr. Chong to take me out again today, after we dropped Ryan off at work. The plans were obviously more concrete in my mind than his, because when I got in the car he said, "Oh, you go to office today?" I said, "No, I wanted to go see the National Mosque, like yesterday." He tells me that he has another booking, but that he will get me someone else to take me around. After we dropped off Ryan, he drove around through a part of town that was so unfamiliar I started thinking that maybe I should be dropping breadcrumbs so I could find my way back.

Eventually we pulled up in front of a bus stop, and I was ushered into a new taxi, this one driven by a younger man named Mr. Lim. I like Mr. Lim better because his taxi is not quite as worn out and has all of it's seat belts. I finally felt safe driving through town, with Darcey and myself safely buckled against the inevitable car accident. Honestly, I'm surprised that there can continue to be so many crazy drivers on the road here with how dangerously they drive. Maybe the driving population has already undergone its Darwinian evolution - all of the worst drivers were, shall we say, selected for extinction, while the remaining ones have learned how to survive these conditions. Surprisingly, though, none of the drivers seem angry as they continually cut off and get cut off by other drivers. It's like Los Angeles on speed and prozac.

My first stop was the National Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world. I think it holds something like 10,000 worshippers. It's located over near the Lake Garden area, which is turning out to be full of great attractions. If I had had my act together from the beginning, I would have hit all of them in one day, instead of over three successive days. Oh well. Because I did not have my act together, I ended up here at the Mosque on Friday. Which is the Islamic holy day. Which means the mosque is closed to visitors. This would be a bad thing except that when I decided I wanted to go see the mosque, it was because I was looking at the wrong building. The mosque itself is not the traditional mosque-y design, it's more angular and pointy instead of that Arabian Nights look. The building I thought I was going to see was actually the old train station, now converted to government offices. So I wasn't disappointed. I still got out of the taxi and took a few pictures, but I was just as happy to get going.

The next place I went was Merdeka Square. "Merdeka" is the Malaysian word for independence, which is a big deal here as this year the country is celebrating it's 50th anniversary of independence from British rule. I'm not the most world-wise person, but to me it seems amazing that a country so young and newly independent can have made so much progress and be so advanced. But I could be completely wrong, my dad will probably let me know.

The square is bounded by the Royal Selangor club on one side, an exclusive club formerly just for white people, now for VIP's of all races, and the current Supreme Court building on the other. The court building (maybe this is the one that used to be a train station, now I'm confused) is in that beautiful Arabian Nights style, just like the movie Aladdin. I'm really taken with that style of architecture. I got lucky today, as a marching band, I'm guessing from the government, was on the square practicing for the August 30th Independence Day performance. The song they were playing was an American western standard, which I can't remember right now because MTV is on in the background, but the song cracked me up, as if they had no idea what a campy song they were playing. (On a side note, MTV and other channels are cool to watch here, if disturbing, because the majority of swear words are bleeped out. Great for me, bad for freedom of expression in general.) I saw the world's tallest flagpole. It's funny to see all of these flags, and none of them American.

Next on my list was Carcosa Seri Negara. This is a beautiful house which used to be the home for the British governor, and more recently was the place where Queen Elizabeth stayed. I didn't care about any of those facts, the reason I went out of my way to see this house/hotel is because it was the pit stop on the KL leg of the Amazing Race. The fact that I could see it meant that I wanted to. I went inside and the place was deserted. I poked my head around a little, saw a dining room set for high tea, then an employee came and showed me some of the rooms. The place was opulent, but not ridiculous, and I felt a little special finding a cool place to see that no one else cared about. Of course, that could just make me a nerd, but that's okay too.

My driver today, Mr. Lim, decided that I should see the king's house. It was in the Lake Garden area, near the Carcosa Seri Negara, so I figured why not. All you could see was the great big gate, and then maybe 1/4 mile down the road was the house. So when I took pictures of the house, all I was really taking pictures of was tourists, taking pictures of each other. I just fed into the vicious cycle. I accidentally came at the best time, though, because I was only there for like 1 minute looking at the crowds and the gate, when three horses with guards on them showed up - it was the changing of the guards. The two old guards (which had to stand there on their horses while people came up to get their picture taken with them, what a horrible job. If it were me I might be tempted to spur the horse so that it would kick all those dumb camera-wielders.)

My final stop was the best, the butterfly garden. I think this was also the first time I had to pay an admission fee, which in America you know they would have charged for most of the things I've seen. I went in and paid, not only for me, but RM1 for my camera to get in as well. I hope the camera had a good time, at least one ringget's worth of fun. After I paid, the woman told me that there's a lot of steps. I said that's okay, I figured she meant there were a lot of short steps up and down throughout the garden. Nope, it was one really steep staircase which I was fine to tackle by picking up the stroller and carrying it down. But there was Mr. Lim to save the day, he grabbed one end of the stroller and I grabbed the other and we carried it down together. That was above and beyond, I think.

I loved seeing the butterflies all over the place, but it wasn't just the butterflies - they had to be attracted to something, so the garden was covered with lush greens and beautiful flowers. The whole area was covered by a giant net to keep the butterflies in (and the predators out, is my guess). After I got down the stairs, there were still the predicted small stairs all over the place. The garden was a maze and I wandered, not knowing really where I was, but not really caring either. At one point I turned a corner and ran into a pond full to the brim with turtles! I tried to get pictures of some of the butterflies when they sat still long enough. There were about 6 or so butterflies on a path, just flying around and landing on the ground, but between them and me was a family that was more interested in ripping leaves off the foliage and feeding it to a cage of rabbits. Rabbits, I tell you! What the heck is the point of that? We aren't at a rabbit garden! So I missed that, although I think I got a pretty good picture of one of the kids' legs.

I stopped a woman who looked like an American tourist and asked her to take my picture, since before then I didn't have any photographic proof that I was actually here. The woman was not, however, an American tourist - she was a middle eastern woman wearing a tank top with bleached blonde hair. Once I took a good look at her (and heard her speak) she was more like a faded Hollywood star that is still trying to look good, but ended up just looking vaguely trashy. But she was nice enough to take my picture, and in return I took a picture of her family. I swear I have never been around nicer people, ever. The whole country, we should somehow find out how to bottle their niceness and sell it to some place like Iraq.

Back in the taxi, I had to tell Mr. Lim that I wasn't interested in the planetarium, and so he took me back to the hotel, with plans to come back and get me at 6pm to take me to the KL Tower (or Menara KL in Malaysian) where Ryan and I were going to meet for dinner. Back at the hotel, I rested for a little while, then headed out to the mall. I ended up at Paddington's House of Pancakes for lunch, it was pretty much barf-a-rama, but that's okay. Then I went to look for a new camera, as the one I have is falling apart, literally. I'd take a picture of it to show you, but that is a physical impossibility. Oh, I guess i could take a picture in the mirror. Anyhow, I was thinking with the exchange rate and the fact that Asia is known for cheap electronics, I might find a good deal here. I did pick out the camera that I want, a nice, pocketsized Canon, but when I compared the prices online, they are charging the equivalent of $500, but it's at Amazon for $292. Which means that haggling is required, and that just isn't going to happen. I'll buy it when I get home.

Haggling or bargaining is de rigeur for items bought in a marketplace and, apparently, sometimes in the mall too. I think I knew this at some point before our trip, but blocked it subconsciously because I dislike it so much. I didn't remember that I needed to bargain until I got back to my hotel the day I spent shopping at Central Market. I spent about RM300, or about $87 total on several pieces of certified authentic pearl jewelry from Borneo and some wooden toys for gifts, probably from an authentic factory in China. At the hotel, I was perusing my tour book again and read that not only do I need to bargain for the prices, but I should start as low as one-third the asking price!! Which means this Americano got completely suckered. Ah, crap. And this from the girl who can't walk away from a good deal that she's got her teeth into until she's shaken every last penny from it. I'm like a money-saving animal. But instead of a tiger, the animal is a cute little puppy, who meekly pays what she is asked and then slinks out with her tail between her legs while the shopkeepers cackle over her gullibility.

It goes without saying that I felt sick about this. I shouldn't have paid more than $50ish bucks for the whole pile of stuff. Oh, wait, and what about the things I bought at the Craft complex, too? That artist who sold me some of her handmade batik, maybe she wasn't smiling in the picture, but I bet she started smiling the minute I handed her the asking price for her work. Dang it, I hate this so much.

But here's the thing. Stuff here is so cheap anyhow that I don't think I got too bad a deal. Not the best deal, certainly, but was the price I paid for the item plus not having to confront someone about how much to pay for it worth it? I think so. I think in hindsight the only thing I paid too much for was the batik from the artist - it was a little pricey now that I've seen it for sale other places, but how cool is it that I got to see the person hand make the stuff? And I hate, hate, hate bargaining - how could I look at this piece of art that someone sweated over, literally, and say, RM65 is too much, how about 20? I think I paid a decent price for everything. Not the best, but certainly not bad, all things considered. And I've made some shopkeepers really happy, or at least given them a good laugh at my expense. No wonder people have been so friendly to us, we've got "Sucker" written on our foreheads. I wonder what the malaysian word for sucker is. I think its "American."

So tonight Mr. Lim came back and drove me to Menara KL to meet Ryan, who was being driven there by Mr. Chong, his usual driver. The drive into the city is normally about 25 minutes or so. Maybe that's 25 American minutes, because tonight it took 3 times as long to get there - I must have been going in Malaysian time. (Get it? The exchange rate is like 3 to 1 here. Not good if I feel the need to explain a joke, especially since I could in theory rewrite it.)

Like I was saying, it took almost an hour and a half to get downtown because of the Friday night traffic. I don't know where all those people were going - surely not to sightsee, I think, but shouldn't the traffic be out of the city, on the way back to people's homes in the suburbs? It was stop and go the whole way, and by "stop" I mean slam on the brakes literally one inch from the next car's bumper (I am absolutely not exaggerating this) and by "go" I mean hit the gas as if to make up for lost time in the 6 feet of free road in front of us. I was feeding Darcey a bottle, as she tends to be fussy in the taxi. So do I, as a matter of fact. How in the world can people drive like this?

When we got there, I had some serious carsickness issues, so Ryan and I spent ten minutes or so sitting at the base of the tower by a giant water feature. The water shot upwards into a pool above it, and all I could think when I saw it was how badly I needed a drink. We went into the tower itself and I checked about dinner in the revolving restaurant at the top of the tower. There were no reservations available, which ended up being fine because the dinner was an astounding RM135 each. I had read online that the food was a mediocre buffet and you only eat there for the view, so we were happy to pass it up. We went up to the observation deck, and there's not a lot to say about it - it's your standard city view from a really high tower. For some reason, and I don't know what, I wasn't too impressed. Maybe it's because it was dark by the time we got up there, but I'm guessing my reaction would have been the same during the day, the only good thing being that I could have taken pictures which always redeems an otherwise cheesy tourist trap. But we had to go there, it is so virtually required of tourists to go there that they may as well funnel you right from Immigrations to the Menara KL and then let you out of the airport. Ryan in particular wanted to go there because it reminds him of the CN tower which he visited in Toronto on his mission.

After the trip to the observation deck, we went down and ate some mediocre but really cheap food at a cafe. It seems like there's generally no smoking indoors here, not as a hard and fast law but more like custom. Since every restaurant and cafe has outdoor seating (it being about 85 degrees year round) people just smoke outside. Which is nice if we want to eat inside, but bad if we want to eat outside. While we ate, we took in a gift shop across the way - it had a really cool "I (heart) KL" canvas tote bag, and a Kuala Lumpur hat that Ryan was eyeing. We went over after dinner and I dithered, trying so hard to get up the gumption to ask for a better price. In the end, though, I couldn't do it. I paid about RM50 for the bag and the hat, so about $15. Ryan had been cheering me on, trying to get me to do it, but consoled me when I chickened out, saying he couldn't have done it either. We're such suckers.

The ride home was more relaxing, if any taxi ride can be said to be relaxing in this city. We had paid Mr. Lim by the hour to wait for us at the tower so he could drive us back, which is a really good thing because taxis on Friday nights or when it rains can be incredibly hard to come by. It's best to arrange for them ahead of time, and most of the drivers give us their name card so that we will call them when we need to go somewhere. If we have the hotel call us a cab (via walkie talkie that connects to the cabs' radio system) the driver charges an extra RM5 fee, which I think of as the Slacker Surcharge. Plus I always have to pay an extra RM1 to put the stroller in the "boot" which is really the trunk. Someone really ought to tell them they are calling it the wrong name.

So that was Friday. By the end of the night, I had spent so much money (from the entire day) especially in taxi fees, that I felt like I was bleeding money and didn't want to leave the hotel again, just to make it stop. Which is too bad, since Ryan hadn't done a lick of sightseeing. I went online and checked my credit card and bank debits to see how much we've spent so far. For the entire week, Friday night to Friday night, including all of the cash we had come with and everything we've taken out since, we've spent a total of about $500. That includes eating out every meal except breakfast and all of the souvenirs and taxi rides. Wow. Ryan's in luck - I guess we can afford to continue sight seeing after all.

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