If I was asked to describe Kuala Lumpur in a word I'd say it was a city of contrast. Deposited dreary-eyed and yawning by the bus in KL's Chinatown district at 7am in the morning we were greeted by the sight of dozens of homeless people sleeping on presumably the most comfortable piece of real estate they could find. The shops were closed, there was rubbish strewn along the footpaths and the smell of sewerage wafting up from the drains. I started to question what the hell we were doing here.
Fast-forward an hour and we were wandering (still bleary-eyed and yawning) around the world famous Petronas Towers, home of Malaysia's national petroleum corporation and previously the world's tallest building (until the Taiwanese went one up ... or 22 floors up to be more precise). The twin towers stand tall over sprawling megamalls (which make awesome air conditioned refuges in the heat of the day) and other buildings in KL's swishy business district. This part of town is all about opulence and felt like a world away from where we'd just come from. So obsessed with image and cleanliness are they here that on the day we visited there were people dressed in waders cleaning the bottom of the artificial pond in the surrounding gardens. The crowd is clean-cut too, businessman wearing suits and rolexes (presumably not the knock-offs sold in Chinatown) and yuppies starting their days with an early morning jog in the park.
The cultures similarly split the spectrum. Chinese, Malaysians and Indians live, work and worship side-by-side in one massive, stinking hot melting pot. The call to prayer rings out from Malaysia's National Mosque, one of the largest in South-East Asia, in the shadow of a huge monolith of a catholic church (possibly better suited to Gotham City than KL). Ladies in headscarves wander in and out of shops advertising fashion for the "modern muslim woman" next to stalls patronised by women wearing colourful saris and bindis on their foreheads. Despite the clash of cultures the two tall, fair-skinned skippy tourists seemed to elicit the most attention.
The public transport system in KL is another case in point. The state-of-the-art monorail system is super efficient, leaving us waiting no more than 2 minutes when we used it (Sydney could learn a thing or two!). While in comparison, the buses lurch along blowing out black smoke, trying to navigate a safe passage between the motorbikes zipping past in all directions.
When we made it back to Chinatown later that morning the place was beginning to wake up. The doors of businesses were being pulled up and the smell of food slowly started to overpower the smell of the sewerage. By night the suburb really came alive, with hawkers walking up and down the streets lined with markets and shopkeepers trying to convince passers-by to buy their pirated DVD's or fake Louis Vuitton handbags. This version of Chinatown was in stark contrast to the one we'd experienced this morning and far better, as was our outlook on the city!