Needing to choose a destination to another country in order to correct a visa screwup by Kat's school, we decided on Kuala Lumpur. The capital of Malaysia is a comfortable two hour flight from Bangkok, so we hopped on an Air Asia airbus for a brief weekend stay. Upon arrival we immediately began making comparisons between "KL" and Bangkok. Despite being in neighboring countries, there were obvious differences.
First, it was possible to read every sign in Malaysia. Granted, we couldn't understand most of them, but Malay uses the same alphabet as we do in English. In fact, many English words have been adopted by Malay, probably due to British colonial influence. However, the Malaysians have converted them phonetically: teksi, immigresen, diskoun, ekspres, sentral. While we often struggle painfully to sound out each letter at a time in Thai script (provided we recognize one of their 44 letters), Malay is quite easy to pronounce.
In contrast to Bangkok's chaotic sprawl, KL is relatively compact. We easily walked throughout most of the city, which would be an impossibility in the Thai capital. Of course, Bangkok is about six times as large, but as big cities go (1.2 million), Kuala Lumpur was quite accessible by foot, monorail or bus. And, despite being closer to the equator, it is not as hot as Bangkok. Vehicular traffic was creampuff--one can actually cross the street there without fear of falling prey to waves of unpredictable traffic.
It is interesting that two countries that share a border can be so different; religion plays a huge part in determining cultural norms. While Thais always smile and avoid prolonged eye contact, Malays stare; Thai men jokingly flirt, Malay men leer; Thais greet with hands pressed together in a "wai"; Malays shake hands or simply nod; As Buddhists, Thais have no designated worship time or weekly holy days, Malays, as Muslims, follow a rigid prayer schedule; Kuala Lumpur has one major business area where skyscrapers reign, Bangkok's highrises are spread out indiscriminately across the cityscape; Thai food is much more flavorful and spicy than Malay cuisine.
While we appreciated the differences, we also enjoyed the similarities: Wandering through bustling street markets, riding the elevated trains, chatting with friendly shopkeepers, trying new dishes, and being greeted as we walked through residential areas. But then something wholly unexpected happened as we meandered through the delightful bazaars of Little India and Chinatown. As we perused the handicrafts and silks, I noticed a burning sensation in my eyes that gradually increased until the stinging elicited streams of tears. I noticed people walking hastily away with scarves and bandannas held over their mouths and noses. It didn't take long to know that we had encountered a rogue cloud of teargas. Teargas? In a market? We overheard people talking about a demonstration, but it wasn't to take place for another three hours. When we later happened upon the planned demonstration site, there were policemen everywhere, but no demonstrators. I asked about the teargas. One policeman grinned sheepishly and remarked that they had "tested" it earlier. "Well, it works!" I said to bursts of laughter.
Later, as we had lunch on a balcony overlooking one of the main mosques, 50 or so demonstrators grouped calmly beneath us with TV cameramen and news photographers recording the remarks of the leaders. It was a bizarre scene: Eating Chinese noodles, a Charlie Chaplin movie on the big screen, chanting demonstrators gathering outside, police helicopters circling overhead, interested bystanders--us included--watching, beers in hand. And then, the stinging sensation returned, sending everyone scurrying inside. It seemed to me to be an exaggerated overreaction to a rather benign gathering of people who didn't like something the government had recently done. But then, I was only a visitor. Relating the experience to colleagues who have lived in Malaysia, I learned that this was a typical response by the Malaysian authorities.
After a brief excursion in the opposite direction to check out Chinatown, we found ourselves too weary to walk back to the hotel, so we hailed a taxi (teksi). As we disembarked, we were once again met with what had become an all too familiar irritant. Weeping, we ran into the hotel and called it a day.
So, if you are ever up for an adventure to an interesting city, Kuala Lumpur just might be your kind of town. It may even bring tears to your eyes.