March 6: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The ship arrived this morning in Port Klang, Malaysia, the cruise port for Kuala Lumpur. Unlike many of the ports we’ve visited, this one seems to be located in the middle of nowhere. The cruise terminal is a multi-story stark white building (almost empty), and there’s a very large parking lot (also almost empty). The surrounding area has not been developed at all: it’s just bushes and trees. Off in the distance, we could see the blue cranes characteristic of container ports, which would be indicative of commercial activity, but none of that was present at the cruise port.
On our bus tour today, we saw the highlights of Kuala Lumpur, a modern city which is somewhat more prosperous than Jakarta. During the hour’s drive from the ship to the city, we first noticed community after community of two-story apartment buildings. As we got closer to the city, more and more multi-story apartments appeared. Our guide explained how the high cost of living in the city has driven workers out into the suburbs and that government policies have made it possible for everyone to have a place to live. They’re also working on a light rail transportation system which is supposed to be completed in 2017 and which should help with traffic congestion. On the modern highway into the city, the traffic was dominated by trucks and commercial vehicles, suggesting prosperity, as did the large number of construction projects within the city.
Our tour included photo stops which allowed us to see some of the contrasts between colonial and modern Malaysia.
- The Old Railway Station is a dramatic building of British-Malay design from 1910. Today, there’s a new transit hub, but this building is now being used for the railway’s administrative offices.
- Nearby is Independence Square with Tudor-style architecture and an exclusive social club. Once these buildings were for the use of the British population, but when independence from Britain was achieved in 1957, this area became open to everyone. Public events are now held on the former cricket field (the Malaysians prefer soccer).
- The National Monument is a war memorial honoring those who died in 20th century Malaysian wars. It’s in a big park with a cenotaph, a reflecting pool, and an Iwo-Jima type sculpture.
- The National Mosque is a huge white structure which covers a city block and holds 15,000 worshipers at a time. It has an imposing minaret and a bright blue roof dome.
- The King’s Palace is a particularly ornate building set on a hill surrounded by gardens. This is not a hereditary office but is occupied by the sultans of Malaysian states, rotated every five years.
- The Petronas Towers are the tallest twin buildings in the world. Like many of the other skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur, they are beautiful to look at.
March 7: Penang, Malaysia.
This morning our ship anchored off the coast of Georgetown, island state of Penang, country of Malaysia. The purpose of our excursion today was to introduce us to some of the sights and attractions of the island of Penang. From the tender dock, we walked directly into the bus parking lot, and therefore didn’t see anything of Georgetown on foot. From the bus, though, we saw traffic, many tall apartment buildings, and lots of construction sites. Our first stop was at the Thai Buddhist temple, with the 4th largest reclining Buddha in the world. I noted yesterday that the King’s palace in Kuala Lumpur was ornate. It was nothing compared to this temple. Thousands and thousands of ½-inch mirrored, colored tiles covered the façade of the building, the dragons and other figures which guard the entrance, and the other shrines on the grounds. Across the street was another temple garden, from the Burmese ethnic group. This was more like a garden, with an arcade, fish pond, shrines, food-preparation building, and a three story temple with an ornate façade and a cool, peaceful interior space. The fragrance of incense was inescapable.
From Georgetown, we drove up into the mountains as we continued our circumnavigation of the island. The road was narrow and winding, and for most of the time we were driving through deep tropical forest. Our next stop was at a batik factory. Our Chinese guide assured us that the batik we’ll find in Penang would be more beautiful and of better quality than any found in Indonesia. I attributed that statement to local pride. I’ve now dealt with batiks from several different areas and don’t feel the need to say one is better than another. But they’re certainly all different. At this factory we had the opportunity to watch the craftspeople at work or to shop right away. I chose to shop because we had only 30 minutes to spend there. They had a very large collection of ready-made clothing, and I did get a top, but my main focus was on the intricately patterned batik yardage. We purchased lengths for 3 shirts, at what I thought was a very reasonable price.
A short way down the road was the Penang Butterfly Farm. It was a relatively small screened-in space filled with plants and butterflies flitting about. They were colorful and graceful, and it was fun to watch them light on the visitors. We shuffled through this space with all the other tourists, were grossed out by a pen full of huge worms, and walked quickly through a room filled with close-up photographs of scary insect parts. According to the guide, this place is doing such good business that they’re having to close for renovations in order to make their display space several times larger. Our next stop was at a roadside market selling local fruits and spices. Back on the bus, the guide passed around some of the different products he had gathered there and then explained their significance in Malaysia: cloves, nutmeg, betel nut, and cocoa. The historical spice trade was important in this area; in fact, our road was originally built by the British as a means of bringing the Malaysian spices to the port for export to Europe. Our final stop was out of the mountains and back down by the ocean, where we had a view of two important bridges which link Penang to the mainland. The drive to the ship was through heavily populated areas with lots of traffic.
Our most vivid impression of Indonesia and Malaysia has been of their melting pot character. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, in terms of religions, and Malaysians, Indonesians, Chinese, Indians, and Europeans have been able to create a society which seems to be working. As tourists, we didn’t see all the social and economic problems, but we did see invariably lovely people who live and love and have their being in a part of the world which until now has been a blank space on the map.