Truly Asia

The title of this blog is taken from the Malaysian Tourist Board's slogan for Malaysia - a woman sings 'Malllaaaaysia.... Truuuuly Aaaaasia' in soft, melodic tones whilst images of stunning white sands, laughing couples and steaming bowls of food are montaged in the background like a visual ticker tape of every Thomas Cook brochure cover since the 1970's. It's well produced though, and I only mention it as, compared to the visuals, the slogan seems too lazy to be so ambitious. Can one country, and a small one at that, really capture the flavour of an entire continent, especially one so rich in divergent cultures? I was running this possibility through my head as our overnight coach dropped us off at the central KL coach station at two thirty in the morning. 

I would have pictures of the scene that awaited us when we got off of the bus, but I suddenly became very aware that flashing around several hundred pounds worth of consumer technology would see me quickly relieved of it, so I'll just say that the vista is one commensurate with city bus stations all over the world. Tens of people were sleeping on mats made from old cardboard boxes, presumably either homeless or awaiting transport in the morning, while the streets were lined with unlicensed taxi drivers, shifty looking men in dark corners and what I can only describe as hookers. I headed immediately towards the nearest beacon of western safety, a MacDonalds, and looked up where our hotel was. After a brief discussion with a man in possession of a car - taxi driver isn't a fair description - and with no will left to barter, we started a long journey towards our hotel. Long, not because it was far away, but because we drove around the streets with an obviously lost cabbie, stopping to watch as he ran out to ask passerbys if they'd heard of our hotel. So far, the Truly Asia moniker seemed a little ungenerous. 

Eventually we arrived and the hotel, seeing us looking both mentally and physically dishevelled, took pity on us and found us our room way earlier than we'd expected. After a shower and a snooze, we set off out into KL to see what the city had to offer. Which turned out to be shops. Lots of them. And expensive ones at that. We stayed on the Bukit Bintang, the main strip in KL, and it is literally festooned with shopping malls, all lavishly decorated and bidding for the attention of the top brands. The speed of architectural progression here means that only a small handful are graced by the Gucci's and the Burberry's (which definitely is Truly Asia), whilst the older or less fashionable malls stand forlornly apart, left to local clothes merchants or souvenier sellers which are scattered around like fleas over a decaying carcass. 

Building is massive here, both in terms of the rate of development and the size of the buildings. Cranes dominate the street and the skyline, whilst pillars of low emission glass slowly rise up to enclose steely skeletons, like a bodily decomposition in reverse. The city acts like an encyclopedia for modern skyscraper design, fashion and trends clearly visible in the architecture of the buildings, whilst their scale and materials are infinitesimally far removed from the small pockets of traditional Malay architecture that cower in the shadows of these crystalline giants. It's as if KL is playing catch up with New York or Shanghai (which, of course, it is) and, in it's struggle to look the part, has just thrown up buildings where-ever there's space, leaving a confused and erratic tapestry that never really seems anything other than modernly sterile.  

The most cohesive place we visited, and only in an organised, 'town planning' kind-of-way, was (somewhat predictably) KL's CBD, or central business district if you will. The silvery towers here have eradicated any remaining space for indigenous inhabitation, and so the place looks just like parts of Manhatton or the City of London. It's clean, and studded with the envitable presence of the shopping mall, but characterless and smacking of somebody trying too hard to fit a suit that wasn't made for them. 

Right in the middle of it all is the crowning glory of KL's architectural ambition, the Petronas Towers. Each is 452m high and at one point they were the tallest buildings in the world, and are still impressive today. After taking the obligatory pictures, we wandered around the park built to accompany the towers, a peaceful bit of meandering greenery that is accessed via, you guessed it, a shopping mall.

We also took in the Menara Tower, another colossal reminder of Malaysia's rapidly growing economy. It's surrounded by a nice, if scarily vague (considering the sign denies any responsibility for scorpion or snake attacks), parkland and a 'traditional' Malay village, complete with traditional Malay papier mâché facades and traditional steel structure. 

I know I'm being really snippy in this post and that it sounds very negative. In fact, we had a really nice time in KL, taking in the little luxuries that we'd missed whilst travelling across Asia. I think I'm just a little disillusioned by the whole 'developing city ' thing. It's been so eye-opening to be knee deep in genuinely indigenous cultures that it's made me a little suspicious (and a little disappointed) to find myself plunged back into a world full to Starbucks, Armani and flagrant capitalism. I'm not saying one's better than the other or anything, and I know KL is only a small part of a whole country, but it's just been a jarring juxtaposition and not how I'd choose to define Truly Asia.

But hey, at least it means we get themeparks in our shopping malls right? (Take that, Metocentre!)