Melaka, spelt exactly that way, was the first familiar name that came up on the signboards as the van sped through the neon-lit streets in the late hours of the night. The thrill set in- yes, we were truly in Malaysia, on our way to Kuala Lumpur, living a distant, surreal dream of seeing distant places on the globe.
The Singapore-Malaysia border is just about twenty minutes away from where we live, and as the van reached the checkpost and we were subjected to the customary immigration checks, we could hardly believe we were already entering Malaysia. The road took a sweeping curve, and suddenly, the signboards were bereft of English. Unknown words were splashed across signboards and shop-fronts, and driving deeper in, we wpassed a row of automobile repair shops and people sitting at tables in the open, smoking hookahs at three in the morning. We were stopped at a few checkposts, which got a little annoying- especially because there didn't seem to be any genuine checking going on. We were asked to get out and show our passports at one point to a group of trainees. Once all the bother was over, we were relieved to be finally on our way.
Five hours later, the skyline of Kuala Lumpur made itself visible through the hazy blue morning mist. Identical houses with sloping roofs, packed so close together as to induce claustrophobia, appeared on either side of the highway, giving us an indication of how populated the city was. Tall, unrecognisable outlines hovered in the distance, when all of a sudden, like a beacon, the famous landmark that we had seen and admired on television and in books appeared in the distance- the Petronas Twin Towers. A visit was in order later that day, and we could hardly contain our excitement as we drove on to the Batu Caves.
A giant statue of Lord Karthikeya loomed over the temples at the base of the limestone caves. A steep walk uphill led us to the interior of the caves which housed various shrines. Dimly-lit and bat-infested, the caves are a marvellous sight, opening up suddenly to the sky and the foliage above. Monkeys abounded on the steps, snatching at bananas and hopping around, disconcerting people as they made their way up and down the steps. Cool and invigorating, the walk through the caves was remarkable. The city was beginning to churn into activity as we looked down at it, the dust beginning to rise in the distance. Deciding it was time to move on, we made our way to the hotel for a short nap and to freshen up before we set off for our next destination- the KL Tower.
The Menara KL affords a fantastic view of the city from the observation deck. It is adorned with ornate arches, designed in Islamic fashion, and is an excellent way to take in a bird's-eye view of the entire city. Rainforests thrive right beside it, to break the monotony of glass and concrete.
One of the attractions that we were smitten with was the F1 simulators- getting into those really low seats in the car-shaped chambers and driving on a simulated track was a true insight into what F1 drivers actually go through- and for us, it was without the strain on the neck and back muscles. I had an embarrassing four laps, spending more time in the gravel and on the grass than on tarmac, and I am determined to have more respect than ever for anybody who ever drives a racing car.
The trip to the China Bazaar was cancelled due to some sort of protest going on at the market, so we were driven to the Petronas Towers earlier than scheduled. The towers are a stunning marvel in concrete and glass, rising impressively overhead, the tallest twin structures in the world. Underneath lies the Suria KLCC shopping complex, which, after some perusal, I decided was made for the likes of Paris Hilton and the devils who wore Prada. Articles from the streets of Chinatown were laid out at exorbitant prices. That said, KL in general appears cheap compared to Singapore, but just doesn't seem as comfortable and clean- perhaps a day is too little time in which to form opinions of a city, though.
We had the inevitable photo sessions outside the mall, and when we needed someone to take a group picture, I requested a lanky, long-haired (Dutch, I came to know later) tourist passing by to do so. He was very obliging, and asked us what we'd like for our backdrop. He looked around and, I am not sure what came into his mind all of a sudden, asked where the twin towers were. When we explained to him that he had in fact been wandering in the mall under the towers, he was perplexed and extremely disappointed. He complained he'd been walking through the "stupid mall" trying to find an exit, and all the while there he was, right by the towers. How he could have missed something as obvious as the nose on his face, I'm not quite sure, but it was a pretty amusing bit of confusion, and I wish I could have captured his priceless expression.
We came out into the open around seven o'clock to see if the lights in the towers had come on yet. The sight we were greeted with we shall probably never forget. The towers sparkled against the slowly darkening blue night, all shimmering with the electric lights artfully placed, the moon snug and aristocratic between the rods that met at the Sky Bridge, forming a V. People twisted and bent themselves into all sorts of shapes to get the best pictures of the incredibly tall structures. Looking at the towers, I knew, for once, that man had come quite close to beating nature at her own talents of irrepressible beauty and skill. I don't know if the towers are perfect in every sense- but to me, at that moment, nothing came close to matching the awe and the inexplicable gratitude I felt. The lights in the KL Tower had also come on, and I suppose I make it very clear when I say we were left massaging our neck muscles the rest of the night.
Day 1 in Malaysia ended with pizza in the hotel. Sleep came easily, accompanied by glittering visions of multi-storeyed structures. How different Day 2 would be!