It was impossible to not constantly compare Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Bangkok, Thailand. Overall, my friends and I found KL to be much more organized, clean, and easy to navigate than Bangkok. I almost felt a bit of guilt for thinking that KL is better than Bangkok, but I couldn’t help it — it is simply further along on its path toward development. One major difference seemed to be the way in which street vendors are controlled. Everyone loves Bangkok street food, but anyone who lives here knows how much of a nuisance the vendors can be — they’re messy, they take up the entire breadth and length of every sidewalk, and they’re clearly unregulated (no taxes, no money management system, etc.). In KL, street vendors were in a few specific locations, and it was clear that they were regulated — times of operation, cleanliness standards, etc. We imagined a Bangkok that could maintain its street food culture while simultaneously keeping its streets clean.
Another very noticeable difference between KL and Bangkok was the English proficiency of its inhabitants. In Bangkok, we’re lucky to have an English conversation that goes beyond “Hello. How are you?” whereas in KL, we found people to be downright loquacious in English. Now, of course, neither of these countries’ citizens should be required to speak English; their official languages are Thai and Malay, respectively. It’s just that as a native English speaker, it’s really fun to be able to converse in English with people from different countries. I had so much fun chatting with cooks, waitresses, baristas, sightseers, masseuses, and random people on the street. The fact that Thais have the lowest level of English proficiency in Asia really makes a difference in how friendly I perceive them and how much I enjoy living in Thailand. Malaysians came off so much nicer, simply because I could communicate with them. I have some guilt over not learning more Thai; being able to have even just a tiny conversation in Thai definitely allows Thai people to open up and show their true, very friendly selves. But just as a tourist, I have to say that it was so nice to be able to talk to people in my own language!
My favorite thing about KL was definitely the diversity. I am used to seeing mainly Thai people, mixed in with a few foreign tourists and ex-pats. The homogeneity of Thailand is unique and interesting in and of itself, but Malaysia is cool because it has such a mix of people. The biggest groups are Malays, Indians, and Chinese, but we also saw and met Indonesians, Europeans, Japanese, and people of African descent. The diversity made the food, music, and fashion more interesting and eclectic, and to me it felt like home. I’m used to being surrounded by people from all over, so I found the melting pot very comforting.
Of course, with a multicultural society comes conflict; Malaysia has its fair share of religious and cultural clashes, but as tourists in KL, we found everyone to be peacefully co-mingling.
I met a very nice woman, around my age, in the food court of the Central Market. She was fasting for Ramadan, and I asked her how she could stand not eating while preparing such delicious food. She laughed and told me that this was her 10th year fasting during the holy month, so it was no big deal. She made me some yummy Malay dishes to try and was very pleased to find that I liked them. She spoke excellent English, so she was able to explain the ingredients she was using. (More about the dish in the next post!)
The taxi driver who drove the four of us from KL to Kuala Selangor to see the fireflies gave us some insight into problems stemming from the government, which favors Malay people. He told us that tax breaks, home ownership discounts, healthcare, and other public services are not offered to Malaysian citizens fairly. As a man of Chinese descent (his grandparents were born in China, but his parents and his generation were all born in Malaysia), he does not qualify for government discounts and some services, simply because he is Chinese. Learning of this discrimination changed our opinions of Malaysia; it’s not the multicultural utopia we perceived it to be.
The taxi driver was such a nice man. He ended up paying for our dinner behind our backs, so we tipped him extremely well upon dropping us back off at the hotel. He helped us order some great Malay dishes from this nice waitress who didn’t speak as much English:
At the mosque, we spoke with a Muslim woman who clearly loved speaking to tourists about her faith and also to a Syrian man who answered some of our questions about Islam. I like how the Qua-ran describes God — as a genderless, indescribable, unimaginable by the human brain, omnipotent being who is also the entire universe. While I’m not a fan of organized religion, I do enjoy learning about their followers’ beliefs.
Because we were in KL during Ramadan, we were able to see Muslims break their fast at sunset. Beneath the Petronas Towers there is a huge mall with a great food court We thought it would be a great place to grab a quick bite to eat before going for drinks at Sky Bar. This would have been true had we not arrived at 7:30PM, just after sunset, on a Saturday during Ramadan! I have NEVER seen so many people crammed into a food court in my life…and I live in Bangkok! We were breaking the fast with half of KL. I got soup spilled on me after being run into and we never did find a table to sit at. The four of us ended up eating standing up at a counter for a smoothie stall. Luckily, the food was great!
Overall, we loved talking to lots of people in KL. Casey asked everyone we met how many languages they spoke. We got answers ranging from two to four each time — Malay, Tamil, Punjabi, English, Mandarin, and others. When we needed help, people were happy to assist us, and many were happy to chat with us. We had a particularly funny conversation with a taxi driver who simply could not accept that we were visiting from Thailand. We told him we were American, but that we lived in Thailand, and he would say, “No!” and laugh. It took Jamie a really long time to get this guy to finally accept that we were indeed American teachers living in Bangkok. He gave in and said, “Sawadee kup!” (‘hello’ in Thai).