It was hard to believe that we were only a few hundred kilometers south of the border of Thailand. From our surroundings, we could have been in any major city in the Western world. Except that we were still in South East Asia, and this city felt cleaner and safer than most in North America.
The breeze was gentle and cool, a pleasant change from the intense heat and haze of Northern Thailand. Even though we were now only 2˚ North of the Equator, we were close enough to the ocean to enjoy some of its moderating effects.
We had come to Kuala Lumpur for our second visa run, and were shocked to find a world class city that largely escapes the attention of the Western Psyche. I won’t repeat all the sordid details of our first visa run to Myanmar (Burma), but this was an improvement on so many levels.
On the trip to Mae Sai, we had spent 4 hours in the car each way, careening around the corners and hill passes at breakneck speed. Our flight to KL lasted less than 3 hours each way. True, the flight there was a bit turbulent, but turbulence is nothing compared to coming down a mountain, screeching around a corner, swerving to avoid oncoming traffic. At least in turbulence, you know the bumps are caused by pillows of air, not by giant potholes, and gone is the fear of an impending collision.
Mae Sai was not so much of a town as it was a congregation of misery. KL had all the luxuries and amenities you could wish for. By going to Myanmar, we were only granted another 30 days of time in Thailand. In KL, the Embassy granted us a full 3 months.
The only downside to going to Malaysia was the cost. The border run to Mai Sai is a single day affair, getting you home in time for supper, and costing around 6000 Baht ($150). Going to KL for a visa requires at least 4 days, 5 to play it safe, and ran over 30,000 Baht ($750) for a family of four, including hotel and airfare.
In all honesty though, it was worth it. Sometimes you need to get away from a place to appreciate both the positive and negative qualities of it. Thailand is such a truly Asian country that there are many things that baffle and amaze the Western mind. It is as though the very things that make you love the place will also drive you crazy.
Indeed, one of the things that the Thais are very proud of is the fact that they, unlike every other Asian nation, have never been under the dominion of a foreign power. They have never been a colony; they have never been subjugated to imperial rule; they have always been a nation under their own sovereign status.
This is why, to the linear Western brain, numerous behaviours make us stop and shake our heads, saying, that doesn’t make sense, you shouldn’t be doing things like that. To which they reply, this is the way we have always done it. No one has ever told us otherwise. Even as Thailand struggles to adopt technology and Western ‘conveniences’, they do it in their own unique fashion.
But not Malaysia. They were celebrating a tourist campaign that year commemorating their 50th anniversary of independence from Britain, a fact that surely shows in the affluence and order that they possess. Kuala Lumpur is a city of towering skyscrapers and lofty ambitions. They boast the world’s ‘tallest’ building, a fact that is subject to some scrutiny that I will not discuss here.
Several of the world’s largest computer manufacturing companies host their main factories in Malaysia, including Dell, Intel and AMD. The diverse cross cultural mix leaves little room for racial tensions. Although the majority are Muslim, these are made up of Malay, Indonesian and Arab Muslim. There is a large Indian Hindu population, a smattering of Buddhists, and a surprising number of Ethnic Chinese.
After the swirling mayhem of Thailand, it was good to be in a culture of stability, where they actually drive between the lines on the road, the vehicles were not all spouting dangerous amounts of smoke, and the people seem to be aware that there is a world beyond their borders. Again, these were things that we didn’t notice about Thailand until leaving.
We had booked ourselves into Novotel Hotel, right in the heart of the city, which was a bit of a gamble considering how lackluster the Novotel in Bangkok had been, but this was a first class, state of the art hotel. It was clean and new, with friendly and efficient service and everyone spoke impeccable English.
We set out shortly after arriving to find a place to eat, seeking some of the more interesting looking places we had seen on the drive in. They turned out to be bars, and being tired and hungry, and with children, we made for the first restaurant we could find. Dodging the traffic, and exploring some side streets, we came across a beautiful little French restaurant with a perfect view of the Petronas Towers, those debatable ‘tallest’ buildings.
I never thought I would say this, but we were getting tired of Thai food. Anyone who is fond of Thai food will say “But how could you, the food is so amazing!” And it is, but when you eat it day in and day out, it can get a little tiring. Not to mention unhealthy. Noodles and rice are, after all, mostly carbs and starch.
So it was with reckless abandon that we delved into a hearty meal of divine French food. I had a chicken salad, Theresa had Sea Bass, Cyrus had a Caesar salad, and Violet had pasta. And of course Theresa and I shared some French wine. I can’t begin to describe how wonderful it was to eat “real” food again. The American food venues in Thailand couldn’t begin to compete, for a meal that cost less than $40. We liked KL already. We liked it very much.
After inquiring with our waiter, we discovered that at the foot of the towers, half a block from us, was a mall. Hoping to find some real groceries, we set out after our meal. The towers, now emitting an unearthly nighttime glow, loomed larger and larger in front of us until they vanished in their own vertical largesse. We entered the Suria KLCC at the base to be awed at the sheer size of the mall. It was a city unto itself!
We located a grocery store, and which led to the realization of some other idiosyncrasies of the Thai people. Despite the deeply ingrained Buddhist belief in the respect for all living things, they appear to have no concept of environmental concern, and only put a half hearted attempt into creating ‘Western’ grocery stores. The uniqueness of the Thai people is part of their charm, but with so many Westerners living in Thailand, it would be smart to cater more to their needs, especially when they usually have some money to contribute.
We felt right at home in the grocery store. If anything, it reminded us of the grocery stores we had frequented in Australia, probably owing to the aforementioned British influences. We were able to find many familiar products, and even some innovative new ones. Due to the restrictions of our hotel, we would have to sneak it all back into our room, but that’s part of the fun of travel, right?
Exiting the back entrance of the mall on a whim, we were amazed to find a small lake with fountains and a large park, right in the heart of the city. Even though it was about 9pm, hordes of people were just hanging out, enjoying the atmosphere and beauty of it all. I’m not much of a city person, but I felt right at home, and thought that at the least, the Malaysians had done it right. Now we just needed to keep the children entertained.
Kuala Lumpur, being a large city, has an abundance of things to do. There are several nice beaches within two hours drive, a world class zoo, the Mines resort, (an old pit mine that has been converted into a lake, with rides, amusements, and a floating market), numerous parks, an aquarium and the bridge between the Petronas towers. The list of amazing things goes on and on.
Surprisingly, our favourite thing to do was to hang out between our hotel room and the mall. A good chunk of our first two mornings were devoted to obtaining the visas, so that ruled out any long outings. We did make an attempt at going to the ‘Little India’ shopping district, but the driver mistook what we wanted for the ethnic Indian area, and we left soon after arriving due to the groups of hungry eyes looking at us and our bags.
There was also Chinatown, which was the most grotesque example of a tourist hawker venue I have ever seen. Two narrow criss-crossed alleys were packed tight with vendors, with barely room to pass people. Walking through the stalls went something like this: bags, watches, bags, t-shirts, bags, watches, perfumes, bags… you get the idea. In Thailand we had been spoiled by markets that largely sold real things, i.e. crafts and Thai clothing. This seemed like an overflow market for cheap Chinese goods.
So, we stuck to the mall, and enjoyed Sushi (something we haven’t felt safe eating in Thailand), shopping in real bookstores, and playing in the park. We even took in a movie, which was Violet’s first ever on the big screen, and spent an afternoon in the Aquarium attached to the mall. This was by far our favourite attraction in Kuala Lumpur, providing for some of our educational curriculum, and definitely fulfilling our family entertainment needs. These were the comforts of home to us, which we realized we were starting to miss. We still had two more months planned in Thailand, and at least two months planned for India. Having the visas was going to spare us the agony of another border run, and we had a mission to undertake.
The visa process itself was simple, but nerve wracking. We showed up at about 10:15 at the Royal Thai Embassy, and were given a set of forms to fill out. We took a number for the counter, and started the task of filling out the forms. The sign said they would stop taking applications at 11:30, which seemed Ok, until 11:00 rolled along, and they were only calling #45. We were #’s 59 – 62, and were starting to worry. Several people seemed to have serious issues, and were holding up the line.
By the time 11:45 rolled around, we were sweating and nervous. We hadn’t allowed for extra days in Malaysia should there be a hold up with the visa’s, and weren’t looking forward to being stuck there due to bureaucratic issues. Some of the visa applicants were being told to produce more documentation, or show proof of an airline ticket out of Thailand. While we carry fairly thorough documentation, two things we lacked were airline tickets out of the country, and signed documentation from Nico, (Cyrus’ Biological father), stating that we have his express permission to take Cyrus into (or out of) Thailand. Being as Cyrus shares a different last name than Myself, Theresa, or Nico, this is a potentially serious issue.
Luckily, we were whisked through the process, paying our 4000 Baht ($130), and were told to return the next day. Imagining, or perhaps foreshadowing the possibility of being caught in a Kafka-esque legal nightmare, I anxiously returned the next day, receiving our visa’s almost immediately. I felt great relief at not having to deal with the painful bureaucracy as others before us had, grateful that we were now free to carry on. Before we knew it, our time was up, and we were headed back to Thailand. For all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, we all kind of missed the place. It was good to be home!