Some cities are hard to get to know–people are unpredictable, the weather can make a huge difference, and depending on where you go, you might get a cranky waiter, a tired taxi driver, a leering comment by an insensitive man on the street, or (insert annoying or frustrating travel experience here). Conversely, at first glance, some cities are romantic, alluring, sexy, and (insert positive adjective here), but will turn out to be noncommittal and dispassionate after a few good days.
Kuala Lumpur has turned out to be neither of these two extremes. Instead, in the two days we’ve been here so far, I’ve been greeted by a city that’s both surprised and delighted me–and not for the reasons I might have expected. Here are just a few reasons why I have been nothing but impressed with my 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur.
Malay: If You Can Spell, You Can Pronounce It
For one, though I’d bought a guidebook with a Malay pronunciation guide and key expressions and studied up before we arrived here on Friday, I immediately realized that I didn’t really need it. Everyone here will tell you that pronouncing Malay is about as easy as pronouncing Spanish. All of Malay’s letters–literally, all of them (no weird silent letters here)–are completely phonetic. There are no strong or unusual stress markers, no inflections, and most letters are pronounced exactly the same way as in English. For instance, their “a” will take on the sound of “a” in “father,” their “e” will take on the sound of “bell,” and their “i” will take on the sound in “taxi” (there are other variations, but these are just some examples). So, for instance, the word for “thank you” (which I recommend you take the time to learn because it’s a very kind gesture), is “Terima Kaseh.” How would you pronounce it? If you’re a native English speaker, exactly as you’d think: tear-ee-ma kass-eh.
Also, as I’ve learned, people absolutely light up when you take the extra step to address them by name. Our guide, Sim, told us to try it just once–ask a person you meet what his or her name is, use it later on in the conversation, and you’ll have a friend for life. I’ve realized that people keep doing this to me (nearly everyone I’ve met calls me Kristin after only meeting me one time!), and I’ve loved every second of it. I tried it on some of the other guides and people we’ve met so far, and yes, I can testify: it works. Not only will you elicit a huge smile, there’s no prouder feeling than making someone else’s day.
But Even Still, Everyone Speaks At Least 3 Languages
One of the most amazing things I’ve learned in my few days here is that the Malay people are encouraged from a young age to learn at least 3 languages: Malay, English, and Chinese. In some places, there are almost no street signs in Malay–everything is in English and Chinese. This really, really, really surprised me. Though I haven’t traveled significantly throughout Asia yet, the other two countries I have visited, Taiwan and Thailand, are countries almost exclusively written in Chinese and Thai. Here, you’ve got three options to figure out what something or someone is saying to you. But in all honesty, you won’t really need much else to get by than English–nearly every person I have met speaks English with as much fluency as, well, any of my freshman composition students.
Something else I love about Malaysia is that by law, every child has the right to learn his or her native tongue. Therefore, if you live in Malaysia and your child is Hindi, the school your child attends is required to hire a language tutor who can teach Hindi. Tagalog? Same thing. I have never been to a place that respects and cares for differences as much as Malaysia does. It truly is incredible.
Happy Taxi Drivers – Cliche and All
The way a taxi driver treats me is one of the first indications of whether or not I’m going to like a place (and yet, I do realize that first impressions are often not the last ones!). My first day in Cartagena, Colombia, for instance, I had a taxi driver who promised me a price and then began arguing with me when we arrived at my destination and told me that because I was a white girl, I should give him the shirt off my back since I probably had a thousand more shirts at home due to how rich I was. (Despite this, I fell head over heels for the city upon subsequent taxi rides).
Being a young woman in a taxi isn’t always a safe–or easy–place to be, so I’m very attune to how well I’m treated in those yellow cars. Here, in KL, I’ve taken three cabs so far and have laughed my way through all of them. The first one talked extensively about how much he loves Los Angeles even though he’s never been there. The second one, who picked me up in the pouring rain from a shopping mall and headed directly into a chaotic string of cars, talked philosophically about the nature of the human being. And the third, who picked us up later that night, let my colleague Bill fall asleep in the front seat while he quietly drove us home through the rain. While he did tell us the price goes up in the rain, we didn’t mind–we were so exhausted that an extra $9 USD wasn’t too much of an unnecessary expense.
Say Goodbye to Noisy Tourists Who’ve Imbibed Too Much
This could quite possibly be the best reason to visit Kuala Lumpur–though Malaysia is an incredibly diverse and accepting of all religions, because it’s nationally recognized as a Muslim country, it frowns upon alcohol in many contexts. Therefore, there is a noticeable shortage of bars and nightclubs. While they are definitely places for people to imbibe, dance, and mingle (rooftops bars are always a favorite, as the view is spectacular), you won’t see bar upon bar lining the streets in this city. So, because there aren’t many tourists sloppily stumbling around or locals getting angry with each other and picking fights, the streets are relatively quiet, incredibly safe, and unusually welcoming by night. (Even the night markets don’t feel chaotic, which is definitely a feather in KL’s night cap).
Basically, everywhere I’ve walked, I’ve walked with my head up, eyes forward, my purse slung over my shoulder. And I feel completely fine doing it. This is amazing.
Who Doesn’t Love a Good Malay-Chinese-Indian-Thai-Java-Arabic Dinner?
While some purist foodies scoff at fusion food, I am definitely not one of those people. In my opinion, one of the most rewarding and undeniably awesome parts about globalization is the way food has mixed, mingled, appropriated, re-appropriated, and blended across the globe. Here in Kuala Lumpur–which is perhaps the most truly international city I’ve been in–everything is fusion: in one meal, you might have some crispy roti telur, an unleavened Indian bread mixed with fried egg and cooked in margarine, some Malaysian nasi lamak, steamed rice with coconut topped with fried anchovy bodies, hard-boiled eggs, and a very spicy red chili paste, and some Cantonese yellow noodles–all on the same plate at the same time. Can I just say I can’t put my fork down?
A special thanks to Tourism Malaysia and AEROMEET 2013 for graciously hosting me on this trip. All photographs are the author’s own.