The best way I can describe a thirteen hour flight from Europe to Asia is that it feels like one elongated sigh. Tentatively sidestepping countries that may be a tad hostile to flying objects creates a convoluted route, and ample time to mull over life’s little niggles. Like why won’t my seat fully recline? And what possesses airlines to have one hundred movies, all of which are at best mediocre or at worst starring Tom Cruise? Worse than that, the selection of ‘comedy’ contains no trace of wit whatsoever, churned out direct from Hollywood with copious amounts of canned laughter. Six hours in, zigzagging the Middle East, I can understand why the Scotsman in front of me downed wine after wine. And never shut the f**k up.
So I was undeniably a bit delicate and frazzled arriving at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, but pleased to be on solid ground. It was now – somehow – eight in the morning on New Year’s Eve. Usually I would march through various sterile checkpoints and stride ten miles by travelator to board a plane for a further nine hours of frustration at 36,000 feet. This time, though, I was embarking on the luxury of a stopover, and a new spot to see in a new year.
You know you are no longer in England when you are whisked at high speed in spacious and air-conditioned futurism to the middle of a city somewhere over the horizon. All sleek glass and swish whooshing noises as stunted palm trees and suspiciously golfy-looking estates flash past in a blur. You also know you are no longer in England when you turn into a gasping pile of sweat traipsing through an inner city jungle. Despairingly unable to check in to hoped-for luxury so early, KL had me bright, hot, and early.
So, I clambered up steps and dawdled down hills and crossed roads that were of questionable safety, unexpected u-turns being a favourite of hundreds of mopeds per minute. Eventual refuge emerged in one of many shopping malls, wonderfully air-conditioned and extravagantly Christmassy. And to think I had the naivety to assume Christmas was done and dusted; here it was bigger and more opulent than ever, and with a mosque or two just down the road. Still, grand extravagance seems to have been all the rage in KL over the last decade or so, encapsulated in the shiny Petronas Towers stretching into the sky above Santa’s grotto.
Extravagance of a kind was waiting for me back at my hotel once I could – with the utmost relief – check in. There was a pool and gym and chandeliered lobby with lots of people in red uniforms and gold buttons feverishly milling around seeking tips. There was a water feature and sweeping driveway for parades of taxis and eight elevators to propel you to the 27th floor. A floor with city views but the most famous of the towers obscured. A floor with room and king bed and satin sheets and probably the most deserved afternoon nap ever…
…the city was still there and still in daylight when waking and I calculated that any New Year’s Eve fireworks would largely be obscured from this spot. Thus the option to see in 2016 in my pants with a bag of peanuts lost some of its appeal, and meant I had to put in the effort to go outside again.
In the end I’m rather glad I did, because I saw a few different parts of the city and discovered a more chaotic and odorous KL, more befitting of one’s expectations of being in Asia. Luminous signs and satay sticks on smoke, bars with Bintang and bang bang, street sellers trading in ancient arts and iphone cases. I was offered a massage on at least fifteen occasions in the space of twenty metres and a tacky umbrella at every alternate shop. It was raining now, and threatening to dampen the wait until midnight.
When in KL, do what it looks like many of the Lumpens do. Head to a mall, never more than half a kilometre away. Revel in the cool, dry air and twinkling diamonds of Christmas. Take five escalators down to a gargantuan food court and then another hour to decide which sublime looking bargain concoction to eat. In the end I chose Japanese, content to fulfil my Malaysian quota over the course of the stopover.
By ten the rain had stopped and I ventured back out into the night air to establish exactly where to watch fireworks. Logic dictated somewhere around the Petronas Towers, and I practically circumnavigated the perimeter of its adjoining park to suss out the opportunities. Eventually I came to a halt, joining an amiable throng of people lining the banks of a feature lake. Music was playing and coloured fountains were bubbling and projections were being beamed onto buildings, one of which handily had a giant digital clock. There was enough space and a clear view and even a little cooling breeze and I immediately thought this would just not be possible in Sydney at 11pm on 31st December.
Only with ten minutes to spare did locals and visitors rise to their feet, counting down the final minute of the year. Phones and tablets floated above heads, forever capturing the last ten seconds of 2015 and the first few of 2016. Almost everyone pointed shiny screens at the towers, waiting for the bangs and sparkles. The clock struck twelve, the bangs rang out and the sparkles were, oh, behind you.
Now very happily in 2016, the first hour of the year was spent trying to avoid inadvertently photobombing selfies while taking a very gradual, processional walk back to my hotel. What was an easy entry became a more congested exit, but there was a jovial aura, strangers were friends, the crowd was cosy and the blaring of cheap plastic horns was incredibly annoying. My mind said SHUT. THE. HELL. UP. But good manners and New Year cheer ought to persist for at least an hour, I feel.
I enjoyed the final day of the year immensely and was glad to have made the effort to see in 2016 in a different place. The first day of the New Year commenced uneventfully – subdued even – and I was in no rush to check out early and embrace the mugginess. Farewell five star comfort and hello hours of walking and pausing and dodging traffic and cooling off in every mall stop available. First mall for iced coffee, second mall for lunch (a highlight-worthy Nasi Lemak), third mall just for the hell of it. Across from this, the monorail took me laboriously to a further mall, acting as a glorified transit tunnel towards the Botanic Gardens.
Any city worth its weight in Ringgits can only be judged by the quality of its Botanic Gardens. Here they were – for the most part – divinely lovely. In spots shadily cooling, tropically exotic, elegantly coiffured. A few quiet roads intersected with meandering paths and crossed ornamental streams. Most welcome though was the relative peace and calm, a sanctuary in what can be a busy, noisy, pungent place. And surely that is all you can ask of a city’s Botanic Gardens.
Heading back down into humid chaos and occasional grime of the city I unexpectedly stumbled onto Kuala Lumpur’s Central Mosque. I like it when random stuff like this happens in places you have never been before. I may not have chosen to go there, but here I was now, and appreciative I was of the geometric architecture and alignment and symbolism crossed with a concrete styling worthy of Plymouth city centre post-war brutalism. You were welcome – as a non-Muslim – to visit inside and be guided around the place. The only stumbling block was the thought of taking of my shoes, and subjecting an entire religion to the smell of my by now equatorial flavoursome feet.
So I pushed onto the frequently touted in guidebooks but underwhelming Merdeka Square, crossed a very brown stretch of water, explored the Central Markets disappointing lack of food stalls, struggled to cross complex road intersections and eventually ended up back in Bintang. Daytime was quieter and generally devoid of satay sticks. Massages appeared to be a thing of the night. Only ambling tourists and opportunistic traders lingered, while everyone else must have been at the mall.
With seemingly little left to see and do and weariness now set in, the mall became my refuge as well. I still had five hours until my flight departed, but time for some dinner and a sit on a bench and a potter around a bookshop. Endless arrays of escalators from an M.C. Escher fantasy took some strain off the feet. Christmas was still out in force, perhaps for just a few more days, but I was quietly accepting of this by now. For all that I was starting to tire of malls, it still beats being cooped up on an aluminium tube, fighting a losing battle with headphone sockets and movies featuring Tom Cruise. I was ready to leave but also wasn’t. The tedium of the tube awaits, but at least it would deliver me – at last – back to Australia 2016.