Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Kuala Lumpur

II wrote this a million years ago but forgot to post it. This seems fitting to post today, since I just booked a flight to KL.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, might be the greatest city in the world. It doesn’t have the art or architecture or cultural relevance of a New York, Paris, or Tokyo. There is no beach. It lacks the Vienna or Prague high culture. There’s no skiing. It doesn’t share the anything-goes vibe with Amsterdam, Las Vegas, of even Seoul. In fact, I retract my original statement. Kuala Lumpur is not the greatest city in the world. However, I’ve been to a lot of cities over the last few years, and there are none that I would rather live in.

I’ve often known that a city halfway between two others takes on properties of both. San Francisco has something of a half-Seattle, half-LA feel. People in SF are more laid back than their LA counterparts, but not as much as Seattelites. It never rains in LA, it always rains in Seattle, so fittingly it sometimes rains in SF. The same could be said for St. Louis being halfway between Kansas City and Chicago. Kansas City has a lot of murders, Chicago has a lot of murders. St. Louis, in the middle of both, boasts as many murders as KC and Chicago combined. Kuala Lumpur falls within the first half or this theory, ie, adopting good properties of both cities, only more so. KL is between Bangkok and Singapore.

Singapore is super-orderly, expensive, and nearly German in it’s efficiency. Despite it being a meeting point of Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Arab culture, it is almost more American than Baltimore. It’s often the European ideal of an American city, yet thoroughly Asian. English is the predominant language, and the town boast establishments like Border’s and other large English bookstores, jazz bars, and Orange Julius. Singapore has a top-notch public transit system, and one of the two or three best airports in the world. The food is fantastic.

Bangkok is chaos. It is international, but not American nor European in the way that Singapore is. Asia is the only continent that Bangkok could exist in. It is full of warm people that will go out of their way to help, and scam artists that will try any trick in the book. English language books are for sale, sure, but only on the street, and haggling is necessary. The public transit, outside the Skytrain, is disastrous. Taxis take an hour to get anywhere. The airport is shiny and new, yet still as shady as Patpong tout. Threats of all out revolution loom everywhere in town. Also, the food is fantastic.

KL, at least in my eyes, seemed to be the perfect mix. Efficient when it came time to get from point A to point B, crooked when it came time to buy movies or sunglasses. Stable politically, yet not the kind of place to issue jaywalking tickets. Not as cheap to go out in as Bangkok, but considerably cheaper than Singapore. The airport is far closer to Singapore standards than Bangkok. And yes, the food is fantastic.

I like a good mix of legitimacy and corruption in my cities. This is a factor in the years I spent in Chicago. This kind of mix is hard to find. In Asia, it’s safe to assume that most cities are corrupt outside of Japan and Singapore, and that Japan and Singapore lean too far the other way. Without a little corruption, every city may as well be Zurich.

I’ve brought it up in passing, but I should mention the food. KL is a multicultural town, like Singapore. It’s denizens include Indians, Chinese, Malays, Thais, and a large expat community. For cheap eats, hawker centers take center stage. A hawker center is a large number of food stands that each make one specific dish. Hawker centers also feature lax smoking policies and cheap beer. I stayed in Chinatown, and beyond the hawker centers, there are numerous 24-hour restaurants that are hopping at 3 a.m. I ate at a joint that served a killer shrimp-fried noodle - and nothing else. No ordering required, just sit down and tell the waiter whether or not I wanted a beer with my noodles. Beyond the brilliant local and ethnic food, KL also boasted a spread of American chains that could spawn envy in any Seoul expat. Wendy’s and Chili’s were a couple obvious gems (yes, I ate at Wendy’s. I live in Korea. Shut up). Less obvious was the fact that McDonald’s sold Quarter Pounders, another item that simply doesn’t exist in Seoul.

The right balance of corruption and the food are hardly the only reasons to move to KL. The weather is hot, maybe a little too hot sometimes, but that still beats the recent 6-month drudgery of an extended Seoul winter.

Kuala Lumpur is big, 1.5 million people or so, but not huge. It’s entirely possible to walk from the National Mosque on the southwestern fringe of the old city to the famed Petronas Towers across town in under two hours. In Seoul, a subway ride that never leaves the city limits could conceivably take that long.

Finally, as I so often do, I must bring it back to airports. A top feature of Kuala Lumpur is the fact that it’s the hub of Air Asia. Air Asia is the Southwest Airlines of Southeast Asia. Thus, if Kuala Lumpur started closing in on me and I had to get away for a weekend, I could fly to Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, or Malaysian Borneo for under $100 round trip. For a little more, India or China are in play. Even Australia is a possibility.

KL is a nice place to visit, but I’d really rather live there.

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