Thursday, April 17, 2014

One More Stamp in Our Passports

This week, we had a chance to spend a few days in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or K.L. It's a modern, clean, and orderly city with a nice balance between the modern and the traditional and some great sight-seeing spots. There's a fantastic railway system that is very inexpensive, convenient, and easy to use. Trains ran every few minutes, so we didn't have to wait very long to go anywhere. We took the train and walked everywhere and did not have to take a single taxi while we were there. So freeing! The roads were usually congested with traffic, but the traffic was orderly. There were fewer scooters there than in Thailand, and no one rode on the sidewalks or on the wrong side of the street! For a city with so many people and cars, it was actually quiet and peaceful there.

The people, while more traditional and reserved, were very nice and helpful. I really liked that barely anyone was on their phone or tablet, unlike in Bangkok, where smartphones seem be an appendage of every person. K.L. is a true melting pot with many different ethnic and religious groups existing together, as evidenced by the food, dress codes, and houses of worship of different religions. The language posed no problems for us. While the Malay language is the main language there, everything is written in the English alphabet with translations into English (and Chinese as well, in many cases). It actually was quite easy to pick up the language because of that, and I probably learned more Malay words by being there for just a few days than I have Thai in the last nine months or so. Even better, everyone there spoke English. It was not only easy to get around, but also to communicate with people there.  

K.L. was not as cheap of a place to visit as Thailand or Vietnam, especially the tourist attractions. The food was amazing, though, and cost only a bit more than in Thailand, with slightly bigger portion sizes (though still smaller than American portion sizes). Housing there is apparently fairly expensive. From our elementary school counselor, who will be relocating there with her teacher-husband and two daughters next school year, we learned that most Malays don't live in the city because of how expensive housing is. She told us that her family will be given a monthly housing allowance of almost 2000USD, but that won't even get them a detached house!

We had a fantastic time in K.L., and only wish we had planned for more time there to see more of the city. I guess that just gives us an excuse to return for another visit!
The pretty Malaysian money, called the Ringgit.
One of the main train stations. which was vibrant with people and shops.
While we were getting our train tickets to get to our hotel, a flash mob broke out! It was the first flash mob we had ever seen and so fun to watch!
One of the several train lines around the city. Easy enough to figure out.
The train ticket machine.
Our train "tickets," which were plastic and looked more like poker chips, but so easy to use. Just swipe it at the turnstile and go!
Everything was in both the Malay language and English.
One of the trains we took. The trains were very smooth and quiet.
Underground train stations were all enclosed by doors that opened only when a train came in, so all the underground stations were air-conditioned, quiet, and comfortable.
Sights of K.L. on the way to our hotel.
Some Malay words are very similar to their English counterparts.
Durians are well-known for their foul smell and strictly prohibited at our hotel!
We were on the 11th floor and had a nice view of the city.
On our way to dinner, we saw some street musicians performing, and people dancing and making bubbles, just having a good time on a Friday evening.
Shopping is apparently a big part of the culture, like it is in Thailand. This mall by our hotel is known for its huge sales with 50- to 80-percent discounts! I caught a shot of the shopping frenzy.
A waterfall at the food court inside the mall. The food court offered a large variety of cuisines, from Malaysian to Chinese to Indian to western, all quite good. Notice the people working out at the gym by the top of the waterfall while we happily pigged out.
The moon peeking out from amongst the skyscrapers.
The first tourist attraction we visited was the Petronas Twin Towers, which were the world's tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004. We reserved tickets for a tour of the towers in advance because there are apparently a limited number of tickets handed out each day. At $60 for the three of us, I thought it was pretty expensive just to get a nice view of the city, but we couldn't go to K.L. and not go there. The tour was well-done, though, with a few small groups at a time so there were no crowds of people to fight to see the views. We stopped off at the 41st and 86th floors of one of the towers. The views were spectacular, of course.
Our visitor's badge.
My son got a sticker on his back.
Before getting in the elevator, we watched an introductory film about the towers projected through a film of smoke! It was pretty cool to run our hands through it and see the images disappear.
At the lower level of the double-decker skybridge on the 41st floor.
View from the 41st floor.
View from the other side of the bridge.
The building with the cool-looking, blue roof is the arts museum.
The other tower from the 86th floor.
A view from the 86th floor.
I love the mountains in the distance.
There's the arts museum again, from higher up.
At the 86th floor, there were two screens you could stand in front of, hold out your ticket, and make different images of the Petronas Towers appear on the screen so it looked like you were holding the towers in your hand.
A distant view of the Petronas Towers at night, from near our hotel.
After the tour, we went to the K.L. aquarium to meet up with the traveling family we had met earlier this year. Like the aquarium in Bangkok, this aquarium also is located in an upscale mall, next to the Petronas Towers. The family has been staying in K.L. for the past month, to take a breather from traveling and catch up on work and school. The aquarium was a good size, but very crowded. Following the aquarium, it was time for lunch, and we were introduced to Nando's, a Portuguese chain restaurant in England, where it is this family's favorite restaurant. The food was fresh and delicious!

After lunch, we took the kids outside, where there was an enormous playground and a wading pool with a little waterfall. One of the things I loved about K.L. was how kid-friendly it was. Everywhere we went, there were playgrounds and play areas for children, which are hard to find in Bangkok. We weren't prepared for the kids to get wet, but the kids went into the wading pool anyway. We hung out and chatted for a couple of hours while the kids played, then headed to Harrods for a cheap beer and snacks (alcohol is usually very expensive in K.L. because of religious restrictions, but we were able to get tall glasses of beer for less than $4 each at Harrods). We sat outside, watched people, chatted, and talked. Because the kids were soaked from playing in the wading pool, the other family went to one of the many shops around and bought t-shirts and shorts for the kids, including our son. He had the same outfit as the boy from the other family and they had fun pretending to be twins, even though the other boy is fair and blond and my son is the complete opposite. We hung out there until dark, gloomy clouds appeared overhead and then said our goodbyes before it began pouring rain. It was a fun day and so nice to see familiar faces in an unfamiliar place.
The touch pool at the aquarium. There were little sharks in it.
An otter performing tricks. It would retrieve balls from the basket in the foreground, throw and fetch them, and put them back. Really cute!
A display of fish.
Inside a tunnel surrounded by fish.
Giant turtle.
The mall where the aquarium is located.
So cool to be able to play right under the Petronas Towers.
Behind the waterfall that's part of the wading pool.
An afternoon at Harrods...time well spent.
We also met up with a teacher (who was there for a visit as well) at the middle school and our elementary school counselor, her husband, and her daughters, at the world's largest free-flight aviary, which was amazing with 20 acres and all kinds of exotic birds flying and roaming the grounds. The kids got to feed some birds, we got to see a feeding (which turned a bit gruesome), and we even got to see a show of parrots and other birds performing. Our friend's older daughter was chosen to be part of the bird show and received a small prize for her participation.

As I mentioned earlier, the counselor and her family are relocating to K.L. this summer, so they went there for the entire break to begin preparing for their move there and to establish residency there for this fiscal year for tax purposes. Spending the day with them and the middle-school teacher was lots of fun and educational. From them, we got more information about the recruitment process for international teachers and learned a lot about other international schools. But that will have to be the subject of another post.

To get to the bird park, we took another line of train that was part of the entire railway system. This train was a little different in that the platform had designated waiting areas just for women and there were a few train cars that were just for women and children. There were also signs prohibiting "indecent behavior." We rode in the cars that were for both men and women because we didn't want to get separated, but it would've been interesting to check out the women-only cars.
There were prayer rooms even at very minimalist train stations.
A beautiful mosque seen from the train station platform.
The ladies-only waiting area on the platform.
A sign on the ladies-only coach: no couples or single men allowed.
A ladies-only coach.
"Indecent" behavior prohibited, third sign from the right.
An ad at the train station....Who says you need to show hair to sell shampoo?
The beautiful train station where we exited.
The transit system's headquarters, across the street from the train station above.
At the bird park, at last!
These birds were everywhere at the aviary and were quite aggressive. One of them got up to about three inches from my son's face and had a staring contest with him. When my son didn't budge, the bird stepped forward as if to peck him!
This peacock was totally strutting around and showing off! He actually spun around slowly in a circle so that our group and the group behind him could see him in all his glory.
A scarlet ibis, so gorgeous and bright.
A waterfall inviting us to swim in it in the heat.
A big pond for all the water birds.
Feeding time! Everyone got quiet when the person feeding the birds threw this scary-looking bird a chick for lunch! We were relieved when it flew away to eat the chick in private.
This bird spread its wing a bit when it saw us taking photos.
Our kids feeding the birds.
These monkeys were everywhere and were pretty aggressive. Someone told us that if a baby monkey is holding onto its mother and falls off the mother, the mother will leave it behind. We caught this monkey leaping from one structure to another.
The bird show, during which the birds performed gymnastics, flew through hoops, did math, talked to the audience, and raced each other, among other things.
Our friend's daughter doing a trick with one of the birds.
Another pretty waterfall.
Another stop we made was to the Islamic Arts Museum. It has a beautiful space and beautiful Muslim calligraphy, and artifacts, costumes, textiles, jewelry, and money from the past. 
From a column outside.
The lobby.
The first level.
A beautiful chandelier.
The second level.
A multi-lingual introduction!
Amazingly intricate calligraphy art.
More amazing calligraphy art.
Loved this domed ceiling!
A stunning copy of the Qu'ran from 19th-century India.
On the rooftop outside.
We also tried to visit the National Mosque of Malaysia, but it was closed to non-Muslims at that hour.
The beautiful grounds of the National Mosque.
Grounds of the National Mosque.
Our last full day there was Indian-themed. First, we set out for the Batu Caves, which is a limestone hill with cave temples high up amongst the rocks of the hill. You have to really want to see these cave temples because you need to climb about 300 steps before you're rewarded with sight of them. It was breathtaking, though. Because these temples are some of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India, there were crowds of people there to pay homage. It was a sight to behold.

Also there were tons of wild and crazy monkeys, the same kind as those at the bird park. These monkeys will grab what they can from visitors -- bags, water bottles, sunglasses, food. I saw a couple of monkeys hissing at people climbing up to the Batu Caves and grabbing their bags. You're supposed to just give them what they want so they don't attack you. Crazy and scary.
This is what you see when you exit the train station on the left.
The Batu Caves!
Beautiful Hindu statues at the top of the gate to the steps.

So colorful and detailed.
The daunting climb!
View from the top.
This picture and the next several were all taken inside the cave.
On the way down.
Another temple next to the Batu Caves.
Part of the inside.
On the rooftop.
People lined up for their turn to pay respect and pray.
After the Batu Caves, we headed over to Little India, wandered around, and had a scrumptious lunch at an Indian restaurant. It was the best Indian food we had had in a long time. After lunch, we did a walking tour through the area on our own, then called it a day. We were supposed to continue on to a market and then Chinatown for dinner, but we were exhausted from all the walking we did through the city the past few days and climbing all those steps. Another excuse to go back!
An ashram on the way to Little India.
These apartments, called the Hundred Quarters, used to be government housing for civil servants or railway employees.
A fountain of elephants.
The gate welcoming people to Little India.
Little India!
Arches lining the streets.
Another view of Little India.
Best Indian food ever.
A Buddhist temple on our walk.
One of the temples on the compound.
Inside the temple.
Front of another temple.
The two Bodhi trees behind these Buddha statues are supposedly grown from cuttings taken from the sacred Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka.
Another Hindu temple we saw.
A mosque that we wanted to visit, but it was praying hour.
Three Teachings Chinese Temple.
There are several of these massage centers run by blind people who are trained by the Malaysian Association for the Blind. The massages are said to be affordable and effective.
Chinese food stands.
Another upscale mall we had to enter to access the railway.

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