10 January 2009

Selamat Datang Di Kuala Lumpur! (Welcome in KL!)

Kuala Lumpur - or "KL" as it is lovingly called by Malaysians - rocks big time!!!

After my less than timely departure in Butterworth (more on that in another post!), I am rewarded by the stunning architecture of KL Sentral. It looks more like an airport than a train station with its steel construction, glass roof with loads of natural sunlight and the BUZZ! I'm back in a city alright!
I walk up to the adjoined LRT to do the one stop to Chinatown where my guesthouse is. Taking the metro for this is totally worth it because it gives you the most WOOOW skyline view, especially for those who are new in town! I was struck with awe at the palatable and most impressive visual signs of the country's industrial development. Mission accomplished for the governors!
I realise for the first of X times during my first day of my very short stay how much I have yet to learn about Malaysia and Southeast Asia. I also instantly know that I want to come back soon! I just have to! But let me give you more of my first impressions!

It's 1RM (ca. 20 cents) for the one stop and 20RM (ca. 4€) for a single simple bedroom with fan (in Asia EVERYTHING revolves around fans and A/C whether it's train tickets, bus tickets or rooms - it needs some getting used to to quickly change from 16 degrees Celsius in a shop or mall to the humid 28 degrees heat once you stick the toe out of anything that has a door whether mobile or immobile). These prices confirm my thoughts that I could live over here.
I live in the very very heart of Chinatown, namely its main road Jalan Petaling (Petaling Street), famous for its night market and authentic Chinese eateries of course visited by many Chinese themselves. As you may (or should!) know, Chinese New Year is coming up soon, so it's like run-up for Christmas season, except for the red and gold bigger-than-human-head-lampions, the red and gold charms, the ueberdimensional red and gold wall fans, the traditional Chinese bakery (about the only thing NOT red and gold - almond cakes, pineapple cakes and rolls of the apparently the same dough as the fortune cookies but with a relief on them, making me wonder if it is baked money for prosperity...) stocked in high piles; and of course the people cramming through the tiny spaces in between shops, stalls, eateries, stalls, eateries, carts and shops. You get the picture! I vow to buy at least two if not more small packets of bakery later to try them out while I can and while it's the season!

What you'll also quickly notice in KL is that it's THE Mekka of shop-a-holics. If you can get 100€ suits (tailored to you after designer suits like Armani, Boss etc.) in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur is the capital of shoes, Batik, bags, electronics and - for the distinguished Carrie Bradshaws among you whose purse values more than my account - haute couture. Now I REALLY know the true meaning of membeli-belah ("to go shopping" in Malay)! If only my mother was here she would go crazy! No surprise customs regulations in Malaysia have a maximum export value of purchased goods.

Later that day, I proceed to do some more conventional sightseeing - the Muzium Negara (National Museum), conveniently located five minutes walk from my new favourite station but also inconveniently divided by a major causeway and no footbridge. Ergo the best and most ridiculous way is to catch a taxi for that short trip for 10RM one way. At first, I find this measure a bit unnecessary but the friendly driver knows Austria is the Austr*** with Vienna not Perth, so I don't care so much anymore. And the driver who later took me back knows Austria because he once chauffeured a pack of Lauda Air stewardesses with little time all the way to Singapore for "maybe only 100€! STRRRRRAIGHT to Singapore!" He gave me his card! If anyone is interested! ;)

As I will outline in another post (I hope), KL has a lot confusing traffic connections. The museum is only 2RM and the pass lets you see Malaysia's past from prehistory to today in a visually very appealing way AND it also allows you entrance to the current special exhibition on traditional weapons and the ASEAN gallery. For me, the most interesting period is the time from when the powerful and famous kingdom of Melakka flourished and prospered for a peak period of about 150 (I hope I get this right) years and how imperialist greed of course had to destroy everything.

For those of you who have not heard of Melaka before (ahem!):
It was an influential maritime trading kingdom whose strategic position made it an important entrepot during the 14th and 15th century for traders that, depending on the monsoon winds (East or West) came from as far as India, China, the Indonesian archipelago, the Philippines, the Arab world and eventually, Europe. There is a famous quote by Tome Pires: "Whoever has his hands on Malacca, has his hands on the throat of Venice", referring to the so-called spice race (spices were then what computer chips are today).

I really do put it on your hearts to patch up on these bits of history that was not covered even by an Austrian school curriculum for History as - my SEA bias aside! - I believe Melaka is just as significant as the ancient Pharaos and Greeks, Venice and the "discovery" and conquest of various places around the globe. Hint: You may find the first half of the history part of the Wikipedia article a bit too detailed but the second part when in 1511 the Portuguese invade Melaka might be more interesting.

There also is a section on the Malay headwear for men. Unfortunately the only seemingly good source I could find on the internet is this which briefly points out the most important points. As you can see on the images, they are folded in many different ways, also depending on the status of the respective person.

Then you see the colonial section with the Portuguese, the British and the Dutch East India Company and - believe it or not Aike! - I even found evidence of an Austrian entrepreneur, Baron von Overbeck (Strg + F him here) who apparently owned the North Borneo Co. or some such thing. Would that make Brunei and the surrounding area a former Austro-Hungarian colony?!?!

Another section is dedicated to tin mining, an important industry and how a purifying plant works like, followed by different editions of colonial paper money and pre-colonial money in form of animal statues (the one impressive 35cm lizard probably the equivalent of a 500€ note today).

The Malaysia Today part refers to the probably two most important dates in recent Malay history: Independence (1957) and the so-called communist "Emergency" (1940s-1960 I believe but I'm not quite familiar with that period). Kinda interesting to read about the first Malaysian party (which by the way, in its more controversial development, still exists today) and how the sultans of the respective Malaysian states got tricked into signing an agreement that basically gave up sovereignty for all matters (giving the British Parliament the last word) except religious affairs. I guess this is a practical example, a case study if you will, of typical British "Divide & Rule" policy.

The special exhibition on weapons is overwhelming and full blast: At least 1300 (no exagerration!) weapons, about 95% of them K(e)rises that come in all shapes and sizes with all kinds of handles made of a range of different materials, are on display! You might as yourself at this point, what is keris and why the bloody hell it deserves an exhibition of its own (or yet another paragraph on this already long and hopefully educational blog post): As you can see on the picture on the link, it is a dagger-like weapon usually worn by men. Like wands in Harry Potter (I know but it's a good comparison for those of you who are familiar with the novels), the material is of great importance for the vital match between keris and the bearer which is crucial for its power. Also, it is enveloped by mystical beliefs and many believe it has strong magical powers. The keris is ascribed not only protective qualities and serves for purposes of self-defense. Some even say that a keris can determine upon the success a person is going to have in life. So you better be patient about this and wait for "the right one", else it can influence your life in a negative way. This is also why not just any random person can make them. The keris maker is a person that not only possesses the manual skills to craft and adorn them but also requires vast spiritual knowledge. The raja's keris maker was in fact one of the most important people in the kingdom, so much so, that he often landed a VIP room in the court where he is in the vicinity of the king, upon whose keris depends the welfare and prosperity of his whole kingdom!

Some of the rules revolving around kerises:

- A keris should not be fooled around with or taken out of its sheath (which is nearly just as powerful; these things go together, like Excalibur and its sheath in the Mists of Avalon in the book version - there actually is a Malaysian legend that also involves a keris being sealed into a stone). In other words, don't take it out if you don't have a proper purpose

- A keris should never lie around uncovered and it cannot be covered in a rag

- A keris should not be stepped over

- A man without a keris is naked even if he is fully dressed

- It is better not to have one rather than have one that does not fit you

There also is all kinds of gory stories revolving around it like reports of kerises that could fly on their own and kill enemies and the legend of a fatal love triangle: Guy loves girl and wants to marry her, so he goes on sth like a walkabout in the wood for a longer period of time (a year I believe), a rite of passage, to gain the experience, knowledge and maturity to become a good husband. Guess what. The girl is so popular that another guy is queuing up and tricks her into marrying him. Guy 1 comes back only to find the whole village in the middle of wedding celebrations! Understandably, he was "not amused about this" (as the Queen would say) and went amok (as the Malaysians would say); his trident shot out again and again, killing 99 people in total resulting in a massacre including the groom. When the girl touched the keris, however, the keris lost all its power and the killing spree was over. That's what I call a rose war...

There also is a small section devoted to Indian and Chinese weapons. The latter are most prominently featured in Chinese opera (and movies I suppose), where the thumb rule is, the longer the sword or weapon, the higher up the hierarchy is the character.

Some skulls from headhunting tribes of Borneo, wrapped in Rattan strings; if I remember correctly to keep the spirit of the person they killed trapped (pretty much like in this picture). And then an impressive video showing a guy from the Orang Asli (the most famous and I think numerous indigenous people in Malaysia, hunter/gatherers) shooting a small green gecko-like reptile hiding among the equally green leaves on the top of a high tree with a blow pipe (see also here for the more cliche picture), that kills the animal with one damn well-aimed poisonous arrow!

I leave you guys here to let the many TRULY FASCINATING facts about Malaysia sink in properly, as I'm aware that some of the non-anthropologists or Southeast Asianists among you might need a break at this point! ;) More educational entries are following soon! It's all in my travel diary but I'll probably roll the trip up backwards. And I might even add some pictures once I organise them!

3 courageous comments!:

Anonymous said...

glad to know you returned safely and enjoyed your time in sea. i'm sure we soon will have the opportunity to talk personally and you can tell me everything in detail then.
may i just note that your blogpostst would be easier to read if you chose a higher contrast between text and background.
love, n

Aike said...

Hi Heidi! Good you finally found time to write and post. Too bad we didn't get the chance to meet again in Malaysia.

Koh Tao was cool, though I think you're a bit more optimistic than me when it comes to the possibility of preserving nature there - frankly, I was quite shocked to witness tourism's Thanatos in all its force (http://iwatabi.waarbenjij.nu/Bericht/?Thailand/De+stervende+schildpad/&subdomain=iwatabi&module=site&page=message&id=2808722). But thanks for the good times we had (I remember a lovely izakaya, and a very gemuetliches new year's eve!) and of course for coping with this guy's emotional maelstrom. ;)

As for KL, I have to make one comment: true, the place has amazing modern architecture (I just love this fusion of Asian, Middle Eastern and Western elements - did you see the Masjid Negara and the Islami Arts Museum?) - but in terms of city planning it's one of the worst cities in the world. Highways crossing right through the city centre, an aching lack of pedestrian areas, no unity whatsoever. Only Jakarta is worse.

By the way: it's not the capital of batik ether. That's here, Jogja. They rather kill you than let you leave the place without a piece of painted cloth. Thus far, I managed to survive though. And apart from the scams it's a lovely city.

Anyway I'm looking forward to your next posts! Take care!

Kak Teh said...

heidi, such an interesting account of your brief visit. you must go back and spend more time there.