From George Town, I spent less than $19 to fly one hour to Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport (SZB), which is 30 minutes’ drive west of Kuala Lumpur (KL), a city of 1.6 million people. Bangkok is regarded as a much better tourist destination than KL, but I have relished my week here due to the pleasantly low prices and a couple of the best shopping complexes I have ever visited.
Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, the 7th Muslim country I have visited. Although Islam accounts for 46% of the population, Buddhism is also widespread at 36%. One hears the occasional Muslim call for prayer. There exist apps now to signal the five prayer times per day and to point one in the direction of Mecca. In the Renaissance Hotel I stayed at for one night, there was an arrow on the ceiling to indicate the correct prayer direction.
I will have spent only six days in Kuala Lumpur, but in less than a week, I will have:
- Completed a dentist appointment.
- Attended my first Formula 1 Grand Prix.
- Seen my first Korean pop concert.
- Gone to a sky bar, nightclub, and a pisco bar.
- Spent hours in at least four mega-malls.
- Finished my first Muay Thai session (as a first-timer, it was free).
- Toured a cave with Hindu statues.
- Flown into one airport and out of another. A month ago, I would not have guessed that I would use three different airports in Malaysia.
Cosmopolitan Asian cities have over-the-top shopping malls that are mini-cities, with endless food and merchandise options. Both Pavilion and the shopping complex at the base of the Petronas Towers exceed anything offered in the United States. Unlike some luxury malls where traffic can be light, the malls here are always packed. One of the practical reasons is that this tropical rainforest city is blazing hot, breaking 40 °C many times but feeling much hotter than anything in the U.S. due to its proximity to the equator. The density can be staggering too. Motorcycle use is much less than I would have guessed, and more riders wear helmets than they do in Bangkok.
At night, Kuala Lumpur shows its crazy side. Malay is the official language, but English is an officially recognized language, so many people speak a broken form of it. There are also many expatriates working in the finance and energy sectors. The city possesses a great energy although it does not last until sunrise. Alcohol is relatively expensive to the point of shock, when everything else is only 25%-75% of U.S. prices. A can of Coca-Cola from a convenience store is a half-dollar. An Auntie Anne’s pretzel is a dollar. However, a can of beer at a grocery store is at least two dollars. There are even signs warning Muslims that it is prohibited for them to purchase alcohol, although this rule is widely ignored, as are most religious rules around the world.
Going to a bar and paying more than $5 for a drink gives me sticker shock nowadays since I regularly eat for less than that amount. I did go to Zouk, one of the best nightclubs in the world, although its namesake in Singapore is the better original venue.
The population here is more heterogeneous than in Thailand or certainly South Korea and Japan. There are a mix of darker skinned people with backgrounds from Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. There are lighter skinned people with Chinese influences. I will let you guess which ones have a leg up in this society. It is amazing how racism can persist even in a country where everyone is Asian.
I enjoy nightclubs, and I hit Zouk on a Thursday night. I am used to Las Vegas, so everything else pales in comparison, but this club held its own, and I can see why the premier DJs all play here. The drinks were less than $6, and the cover was less than $20. A bottle was less than $150. In a Manhattan or Vegas nightclub, those three numbers would be $20, $80, and $600, respectively. The scene was attractive and brought all these young good-looking people I had not seen during the daylight. The cars parked outside were fancy. At least 90% of the patrons, including myself, were of the light-skinned Asian variety. There were a few white expatriates. When I went to order drinks, I saw that every security man and bartender was dark-skinned.
Aside from occasional military or terrorist atrocities, this part of the world has below-average violent crime. At night, I feel completely safe, despite the constant buzz and the glaring neon lights. Even at midnight, the percentage of people walking the street that is below 10 years of age has to be among the highest in the world. There are pimps and peddlers. There are unsightly maimed panhandlers asking for money or singing karaoke in a moving wheelchair to solicit donations. I am often reminded of Slumdog Millionaire because prior to watching that film, I did not realize that organized crime may be maiming and enslaving people to panhandle on the streets. The sewer grates release a rancid smell. Every time I see a grate, I reflexively hold my breath. Even with all this, I like Kuala Lumpur.
Despite the full week I am having here, I will have spent less than $600 total, including airfare and lodging. My airfare was $19. My lodging bill is only $141. I even redeemed 15,000 Marriott points for one night at the Renaissance, which felt luxurious. I even got free breakfast, although I hardly ate. My average taxi ride is $4. Even my dental bill was only $41.
Kuala Lumpur is a great city to try world-class hotels. One can stay at the Shangri-La or the Mandarin Oriental for less than $200.
One day, I took a 16-kilometer drive north to tour the Batu Caves, which are home to Hindu statues, including one of the largest in the world. Below are some pictures.