- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2005

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Before taking a long plane trip, I never get my work done, bills paid or suitcases packed until the 24th hour. My theory is that if I pull an all-nighter before departure, I’ll probably sleep through most of the flight and be raring to go at the new destination.

I knew that Kuala Lumpur — always called “K.L.” here — is famous for radiating chaotic and electrifying excitement, so I aimed to be energized to go with the flow. I’ve had this feeling about other Asian cities but have often found them overwhelming. As it turned out, K.L. was less daunting and more doable.

Landing at the modern Kuala Lumpur Airport was a bit of a shock, especially if you’re the type who is dazed after a very long flight. It’s convenient, with an automated walkway to the driverless shuttle, which glides back and forth between terminals to customs and the baggage collection area. There, you can have your first shot of Starbucks coffee.

Many travelers take the new non-stop train (www.eXKL.com) from the airport into the central city for about $26. The ride is only 28 minutes to the city terminal. The price includes a chauffeured Mercedes-Benz from the terminal to a hotel or downtown office. During rush hour — and it seems there is always a rush hour — this definitely is the way to go.

The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur more than lived up to its reputation. It was the chain’s first hotel to introduce butler service for all guest rooms. Jesse, my butler, helped me unpack and asked if I wanted something to drink or eat. She offered to make any and all reservations and (as promised in the brochure) did her best to anticipate my needs to make me feel at home. Best of all, she was a pro at configuring my computer to the DSL modem.

The hotel’s cool elegance contrasts dramatically with the rest of the city. K.L. is a combination of funky and futuristic. Garish Christmas lights twinkle year-round on many of the outdoor walkways (complete with oversized cool “spray misters”). A favorite local photo opportunity is a child sitting in Ronald McDonald’s lap.

Inhabitants of different cultures coexist peacefully. Indian temples and monks, wearing saffron robes, share the city’s neighborhoods with ancient Chinese temples and with the mosques of Malaysia’s Muslim population, estimated to be 60 percent. Although dress codes are relaxed for tourists and locals, I found that I was dressed more conservatively than the young Malaysian women who crowded the shopping centers.

For an overview of Malaysian culture and history, plan a visit to the National Museum. It recently reopened after extensive renovations and now has a comprehensive exhibit about Malaysia’s extraordinarily diverse society.

The Malaysian government is making huge investments in education and technology, and government officials are determined to make K.L. the business capital of this part of the world.

I wasn’t conscious of the frequent daily calls to prayer — perhaps because of so much street noise. It feels as if every other person is driving at 60 mph and honking while weaving in and out of traffic. Adding to the sound level are the motorcycle boys, often with women passengers wearing headscarves under their helmets.

There are buses and taxis galore — more than 50 taxi companies in K.L. alone. The concept of street lanes hasn’t landed yet here or is totally ignored. Road construction is everywhere with the resulting bottlenecks. Such is progress as K.L. is being jet-propelled into the 21st century.

K.L.’s twin towers are the tallest in the world — for the moment. There are shopping centers everywhere. The median income in Malaysia is about $300 per month and most people make their living as farmers or working in light industry. There are many government subsidies and tourists rarely (if ever) see beggars or real poverty. There’s a feeling of optimism in the air and prosperity around the corner.

Whoever did the highway planning didn’t foresee how explosive economic growth would impact traffic. The subway and above-ground rail systems aren’t difficult to use since there’s no central hub. Different transportation companies built lines without connecting them to others. The monorail is often hot and crowded.

For the transportation-challenged, hotels often can provide a pristine car and a driver at surprisingly low rates. Regular metered taxis waiting at taxi stands are cheaper still.

While in K.L., I wanted to go to Malacca since I’d heard it’s a charming city brimming with history, having been a major shipping port. Antique shops beckoned. Timothy, one of my traveling companions, tried to persuade me that Malacca wasn’t what it used to be but accompanied me on a 2½-hour (each way) day trip.

A car whisked us to the town about 95 miles away. It wasn’t easy going. The narrow two-lane dirt road was being expanded into a four-lane highway. Timothy was intent on showing me a specific landmark, but we could not find it. We assumed the house had been demolished. On the way back to K.L., we saw the colonial house and took a brief tour — to learn that it would be destroyed when the four-lane road was inaugurated, and replaced with a generic box of a home.

In Malacca, we headed to the central square. I took a photo of the Dutch-built town hall and turned down transportation offers by elderly men in their trishawswith more-than-tacky beaded umbrellas. We weren’t being cheap. We were conscious that, given our combined weights, the trip could well be the end of the driver’s life.

I was looking for Asian crafts, but found none. We did find a store with some promise, Lonely Creature. The problem with falling in love with items that require shipping is the cost of the freight. So, unless you’re buying a lot. … We had a pleasant lunch in the courtyard of a four-story former farmhouse.

Malacca’s colonial architecture is suffering from neglect but a renovation plan for the town is in the works.

It was good to get back to the Ritz-Carlton. There’s definitely something to be said for a bath, nap and air-conditioning. My butler was on call to see if I needed anything, clothes pressed or cleaned (free of cost), etc.

Tim and I had a quiet dinner at the Top Hat in a colonial building, and then proceeded to the night market where people haggle over anything and everything. The faux-label conscious will find everything from the so-called “finest” watches to the knockoff leather and luggage goods, including Louis Vuitton of course, Polo shirts and more. No native crafts, but an incredible choice of CDs and DVDs (I assume mainly pirated). I’m told they work in the USA.

Anyone looking for tacky will find it here. The vendors make a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman look shy. There’s no way for a tourist to look like a native, so they shouldn’t even try, and accept the fact that they are prey. These salesmen are out for the kill and the U.S. greenback. I brought a wad of euros, as well as some dollars, but found the euro hasn’t spread to the markets of K.L. I was forced to go to a rip-off exchange emporium and buy Malay ringgits.

Tim’s goal was to buy two watches. He eventually found two would-be Rolexes at $20 for the pair.

My heart was set on a carry-on suitcase with wheels. I chose one and did the deal. I think I saw better knockoffs of the same brand but was too tired to continue the hunt. Plus, Tim was looking ready to leave. I did stop to buy some “Polo” shirts. As Tim put them in the suitcase I had just bought, the zipper came off in his hand. Not a good omen.

Back we went to that vendor’s stall, but finding it wasn’t easy. The salesman managed to produce a duplicate. Tim zipped every zipper at least 14 times, and the young man assured us the suitcase was guaranteed and we should return if there were additional problems. I should have gotten his name, because the handle went poof during my trip.

As we were exiting the market near the 10 p.m. closing, Tim and I turned down offers of “lookie, lookie, dirty movies” and other forms of pornography. By this time. the taxi drivers had formed a private labor union and refused to take us to the hotel without charging nearly three times the metered rate.

I was outraged and told Tim we were going to wait. He gave me a dirty look and pushed me into the cab muttering that he was paying the extra $2 to get back to the hotel.

K.L. has something for everyone. It’s a wonderful city for walking, and the older sections are filled with surprises, architectural and more. For dedicated eaters, there are so many types of interesting food. I preferred the noodle houses.

I didn’t see many indigenous native crafts in K.L. but there are a lot of items posing as antiques from neighboring countries. I hit pay dirt when I stumbled into an elegant store featuring Malaysian gifts and accessories and goods from other parts of Southeast Asia. Best of all, what I liked had been reduced 70 percent.

The Central Market is filled with stalls of all sorts — especially attractive were leather goods, handmade purses, straw items and two stores with real antiques (and high prices). No matter the hour, there’s a hum of people doing business.

The Indian Market was my favorite. The salespeople were friendly and willing to bargain. Some of the fabrics were spectacular, and there was always someone who spoke excellent English. English is mandatory in the Malaysian school system, and people in the hospitality industry seemed so fluent.

There are many boutiques in the Marriott Hotel shopping center that sell the real high-style designer merchandise from anywhere in the world. While luxury goods are not cheap in K.L., it is duty-free. People come from all over the region for holidays and buying trips. I confined my luxury shopping until after the stores were closed.

On the ground floor of the Marriott, the restaurant Shook really shakes. It’s the place where those who want to see and be seen gravitate and order from one of the many restaurants’ elegant food stands. One person can be in the mood for pasta while another craves grilled foods, but all can watch their meals being cooked in open kitchens. Shook stocks about 60,000 bottles of wine.

Every shopping center is peppered with restaurants and a food court. No matter the hour, people seem to eat. In addition to restaurants at all price levels, there are outdoor areas where people are cooking and frying and chowing down. Some areas, no doubt, would be displaced soon by a parking lot or a construction site but for the moment the scene is lively.

Despite the standard warnings about eating street food, I heard no complaints about any aftereffects. But it’s smart to stick to food that’s being cooked while you watch and not to drink non-bottled water.

I could have stayed in K.L. a few more days at least. Little did I know the real adventure was about to begin: the Pangkor Laut Resort, about 150 miles from Kuala Lumpur.

• • •

My flight on Malaysia Airlines was one of the best I’ve ever taken. The attendants were wonderfully accommodating, even if asked for an extra blanket or pillow. Malaysia Airlines: www.malaysiaairlines.com.

For more information about Kuala Lumpur, visit www.tourism.gov.my

Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur, 168 Jalan Imbi, 55100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; phone 603/2142-8000; fax, 603/2143-8080; e-mail, [email protected]; or visit www.ritzcarlton.com.

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