12 Hot Days in Malaysia....

Culture Shock in South East Asia

Your average American lives in a bubble. A solipsistic bubble. I know because, until I went to Malaysia, I was that American. 

However, having seen the wild level of modernization and population growth in Kuala Lumpur (not to mention Singapore) I now have a revised identity. This trip opened a new wing in my temporal lobe - one where my position in the world as an American is no longer the slam dunk head of the class, but now just another contender competing with the denizens of an ambitious and talented hemisphere looking for their piece of the action. 

Welcome to the real world, Yank; America is, in some sense, almost irrelevant. Does Asia really need us any longer? Sure they do, for the exports and continued growth, but in terms of technological invention?  America could be sucked into an accidental void and I get the sense that Asia would carry on just fine. 

And then there's Malaysia, a realm unto itself...

Perhaps less well-known to American travelers than Thailand or even Vietnam, Malaysia is in fact a pivotal part of world history. A microcosm manifesting the scars of periodic clashes of imperialism, it is now a complex mash-up of cultures, a confluence of three of the world's major religions and a compelling panoply of sensual extremes.

Part one: Kuala Lumpur

 It’s actually a long haul to get to KL (who knew it was a city so big and so modern it had already become an acronym?) No matter how you slice it, you’ll spend at least 23 hours in flights and airports. I managed to get a pretty tight layover in Taipei, flying EVA Airlines - the one with the best reviews online. Aside from the food, which is seriously bland, the airline was timely and efficient and the aircraft more comfortable than your average US carrier.

I decided to take KL on a day by day, street by street basis, depending on my mood; to not be an aggressive tourist but go for the immersive experience.

Kuala Lumpur is a like a cross between New York and (I’m guessing) Calcutta. Contemporary architecture is having a heyday here. Tall shards of glass and steel, KL’s new buildings slice upward into the hot, cloudy skies, transecting a panorama of lush green hills blanketed in oil palms. Colonial era streets lined with shophouses and teeming hawker markets are transected by huge modern thoroughfares. Pedestrians need to function a bit like pinballs - since there are no straight routes in the city.  Old lanes and pocket parks of loopy old palms and banyans are brutally interrupted by modern 8 lane roads which lack frequent stop lights or pedestrian cross zones.  Not a walking city until you hit the back streets, which is where beats the heart of old KL.

Skyline Kuala LumpurView from the Grand Hyatt, 38th floor. (All images © 2013 Ellary Eddy)

My first foray was to the Butterfly Park, and the jump from an air-conditioned cab into KL’s biosphere was an immediate shock. The average 90 degree temperatures are ramped up by ultra-humid air - there is typically a daily afternoon deluge - which surrounds you like a wet shroud.  Slows you up, but in a good way.

While there weren’t as many species outdoors as I expected, there were plenty of colored wings to watch. But the Park’s central building housed countless entomological specimens from SE Asia - vast collages of amazing butterflies, stick bugs, beetles and all sorts of critters in between. The fact that the exhibits, probably circa 1950, all reeked of camphor just lent an exotic, antiquated air to the experience.

The most startling of the living variety were huge charcoal black butterflies that clung against the netting above, like errant swatches having freed themselves from the numerous black burkas below. I wondered if these tented women envied the Lepidoptera their wings... In fact this become a mild obsession of mine in KL - pondering the legitimacy of wrapping women in black. Especially in the great heat. Especially since their husbands were traipsing around in Nike sports shirts and cargo shorts - looking more like Jersey goombas than upstanding Muslim gents.  Of course I had to acknowledge the fact that the most observant women in the Muslim world abide by this custom.  At least there are a number of women who, while they accept the headscarf and robe, can dress in color and pattern.  But still, the heat....

While I was defeated by ‘No Tourists due to Renovation’ signs at three separate attempts to enter a Mosque during my trip, I found the Islamic Museum quite welcoming and spent hours there, studying the many metamorphoses of Arabic calligraphy, cruising an eye-opening exhibit on the Hajj, and a big room of architectural models of the world’s great mosques...

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