The Two Towers

After a few days of cool weather up in the highlands, it was time to head back to the heat, and the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, or KL. It was also going to be a big change from jungle covered hills and tea plantations to overlapping overpasses and an impressive city skyline, including the Menara KL.

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We were surprised as we arrived to see just how big and modern KL appeared. We’ve been used to cities that are no more than a few stories high (sometimes by law). Here we had something more like New York, with skyscrapers and office buildings dominating the view. Most impressive were the twin Petronas Towers, once the tallest buildings in the world.

The first task on arrival in a new place is always to find someplace to stay, but luckily we had that covered already. While at our hostel in Tanah Rata, we stumbled on a pamphlet of all things, and booked a coveted 2-person room at Birdnest Guesthouse two days in advance.

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Conveniently located in the heart of Chinatown, Birdnest is a really homey hostel with a great vibe, two iguanas, and a kitty.

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The awesome manager Willi greeted us and showed us the highlights; guest kitchen! free coffee! hot showers! All these things have been rare the past few months and were most welcome.

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We had a great time there, and met some fellow long term travellers who shared their tales.

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After recovering our strength we headed out for dinner on the famous Jalan Alor food street. This place is full of every type of Malaysian food you can think of, in restaurants of every ilk. However, we were disappointed to find it a very touristy place, with inflated prices to match. In the end, we managed to find a “local’s place”, just a little stall set back from the road, with some really delicious fried noodles.

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One of the highlights of KL are the Perdana Lake Gardens. Originally set aside and landscaped by the British, they are now the home to several museums, flower gardens, and animal parks. They have the largest open air bird park in the world, which we passed by as we strolled the gardens. I remarked that the heat and humidity outside were just the same feeling I get when stepping into a covered aviary back in the States. KL is probably the first really tropical place I’ve felt like we’ve been. Just really hot and really wet air.

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One really neat area was the orchid and hibiscus garden. It’s built in a spiral, with habitats for ground, climbing, and epiphytic varieties. We had a nice time walking through, looking at all the different types of orchid. It’s really strange to see so many in one place, when they are typically singular. Also, the variety in color and shape was pretty amazing. I tried to get a bunch of pictures, as I know my mom would appreciate them.

We’d originally intended to go on a free guided tour of the National Museum, but we couldn’t figure out how to get through the lake gardens to actually find it. (I found it a few days later, and spent a nice few hours learning about the prehistoric through colonial period of Malaysian history). So, instead, we decided to visit the Islamic Arts Museum.  This very well presented museum showcased Islamic influence on architecture, jewelry, clothing, weaponry, and other craft-work  It was fascinating to see the incorporation of Arabic writings from the Qur’an into otherwise traditional Chinese ceramics and textiles.

The diversity of architectural styles among mosques across the Muslim world was also amazing and made both Alina and I want to visit many of these places. After seeing so much of the cultural goods from Central Asia  I now have this idea to travel the old silk road and experience these people myself. Sadly, a lot of these regions are off limits to Americans (or not safe). Maybe one day we’ll be able to do it. For now, I was satisfied with a quick visit to the National Mosque, set in a beautiful garden, with great vistas to the city all around.

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One of the nice things about Lonely Planet is that they sometimes outline walking tours of city districts. Their coverage of Kuala Lumpur featured a few of these, and we started off with the tour of Little India. We started at the Jamek Mosque, supposedly the most beautiful in KL.

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Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation, but we were able to get a glimpse of the nice domes and parapets over the imposing construction walls. We wandered the streets, taking in the sounds of Bollywood, the smells of curry, and the sights of hawker stalls and brightly colored dress shops.

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Along the way, we stopped by Merdeka Square, once a cricket field during British colonialism, now a monument to Malaysian independence.

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One side is bordered by the old faux-Tudor buildings that used to house the private clubs of the British, while along the other is a magnificent edifice that now is home to several of the courts. Overlooking it all is the tallest freestanding flagpole in the world, waving a mighty banner.

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At night the whole place comes alive, illuminated in fairy lights of green and blue. Soccer matches are played on the big screen, and you can see incredible views of the city skyline alive with twinkling lights of its own.

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The streets of Little India are closed off and a bustling night market takes over, choked with vendors of every type. We had a great time walking a seemingly endless path through the market, wondering what all the foods we were seeing were, and yet being slightly too cautious to try anything. Hopefully we’ll grow more adventurous with time!

For our next tour, we followed our book’s advice, and went on a stroll around our hostel, through KL’s vibrant Chinatown. We were already familiar with the Petaling Street Market, having shouldered our way through the many counterfeit goods vendors on our initial way to our guesthouse.

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Busy enough by day, it gets absolutely packed with sellers and buyers at night. So much so that it’s not even fun to walk through, and we usually took side streets instead.

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On the plus side, these side streets are packed in their own way, with food courts and individual stalls. We of course indulged in our usual gluttony, scouring every locale for the best cheap eats. As usual, we weren’t disappointed in what we found.

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Our feet took us past many of the oldest shophouses in the city, including several that had been redone in art deco style in the 1930s.

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We passed through the massive Central Market, once a true Asian ‘wet market’, now re-imagined as a crafts center, peddling goods from all over Malaysia.

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Continuing on, we passed a quite lively and intricate Taoist temple sandwiched between two buidlings in an alley. Apparently it was built there based on feng shui principles.

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As we headed back to our lodgings, we encountered another Chinese temple with some very nice statues inside.

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Almost directly across was a Hindu temple with an impressive facade, complete with banana peeling priests near the altar and entrepreneurial garland sellers outside the walls.

No trip to KL would be complete without a visit to the famous Petronas Towers. These twin skyscrapers, linked by a skybridge on the 42nd floor, can be seen from most anywhere in the city, and are it’s iconic image. To get to them though, we had to brave the city’s business district, a concrete jungle of high-rises and highways, not well suited for pedestrians of our ilk. It was dismally hot with no shade to be found, with cars zipping by everywhere down roads with no evident means of crossings. Along the way, we were drawn into several gargantuan shopping malls.

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Eventually, we worked our way through this labyrinth though, and emerged seemingly by miracle almost at the base of the towers.

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They truly were magnificent to look up at, though it was honestly quite difficult to put their real height into perspective from our vantage point.

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So, only one question remains. Which one is Orthanc and which one is Barad-Dur?

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