I’m getting the hang of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia now. I’ve been maybe four or five times now for work, and I like the city so much I slot on a few days before or after. This post relates to two very enjoyable work trips to KL, Malaysia, but I’m a bit behind writing this one up – it’s about visits in the spring. Sorry!
While most ex-pats in Chiang Mai go to Malaysia to get a visa (same for the visa to Vietnam), I went to teach competency based interviewing to HR people in a bank – not especially glamorous, but as I’ve said before, I really appreciate the opportunity to get to know people living and working in a country instead of just being a tourist. This trip, I learned about a few interesting cultural differences, as well as eating delicious food (I now love Malaysian food) and other travel delights.
Malaysia versus Thailand
Malaysia is hot. And as humid as Thailand, which can be brutal at times. But it’s very different from Thailand in many other ways (though the crazy traffic is similar). For me, the most obvious is the clash of cultures. Thailand has a fairly homogenous culture. Thai people are, well, Thai, and they’re 96%(ish) Buddhist.
But in Malaysia, as I described in a previous post, you have a blend of three different cultures. And behind all that, you have the colonial influence, and some of the oldest buildings feel very British or European in style, which is as strange to me as seeing Portuguese in China (in Macau).
Having said that, much of the architecture is modern – huge glass and steel towers. And the place I was working was very tranquil, with modern architecture but plenty of green and trees too.
I stayed in a suburban hotel for the work portion of the trips, and this felt positively futuristic (the hotel, not the fact I stayed in one, before someone comments!).
As before, the food for me in Malaysia is a real highlight. I was lucky enough to be taken out a couple of times by my work colleagues, who are gracious and wonderful hosts.
My favourite was a banana leaf cafe (because you’re served your curry on a banana leaf). You get whatever is being served, though you can choose the vegetarian or non-vegetarian option, ladled out from big metal canisters that the waiters come round with. I tried everything on offer, and it was pretty delicious. I also had a mango lassi, because, why not? I also ate with my fingers to fit in, but that was less of a success. I had no idea it would be so difficult, and almost ended up with more on my face than in my tummy…
I also tried curry in Little India, which was delicious, and included fake meat, which is always a bit of a treat for me, as I enjoy some texture (having been vegetarian for 22+ years). I also went to a super healthy place called BMS Organics where I had a meal which, well, tasted nice, but maybe a bit *too* healthy at times. But I felt virtuous! I balanced that out another day by having a double chocolate dipped banana wrapped in a crêpe. Wow.
AirBnB recommended host in KL, Malaysia
I stayed in an AirBnB for the non-work portions of the trip, and was really impressed with it this time. It was in the same building as the last one I took, but from a different renter, Zul. He had produced a really excellent guide to KL (in fact he has a whole website which you get when you book), and I was able to use this to help guide me round the city. I would recommend him on AirBnB if you’re going to KL and want a centrally located apartment.
I didn’t do as much tourist stuff this time, I wanted to spend some time in the apartment itself, because I’d just come from the middle east, so hadn’t had much time to myself for a while. I hung out, mooched around the Petronas shopping centre, ate in similar places, went to Starbucks (I know!) and watched TV on my laptop.
Working in other countries is a privilege, and almost always fun, but sometimes I get things wrong.
As per the previous times in Malaysia, I had a real cultural mix. And this time, I made an unexpected cultural error.
I handed out flip chart markers for the delegates to write their names on their name cards. I had various coloured pens, and just put one pen at random on each group table.
But one table didn’t make a start. I went back over to them to ask them again, in case my speedy-talking was too fast for them and they didn’t understand what to do. But it wasn’t that…
Instead, with many apologies, they told me that in Chinese culture – they were ethnically Chinese – red is a bad luck colour, and none of them wanted to use the red pen I had put between them. I snatched it up and swapped it for a black one, embarrassed. I had no idea!
I found another interesting cultural difference in the lifts (elevators). In some countries in the west, you don’t find a floor 13, or a room 13. But in Malaysia, it’s 14 that’s the unlucky number. The floors go from 13 to 13A. That definitely confused me for a while!
The written language is both alien and familiar. Unlike Thailand, it uses the same letters and script as English, but the combinations are very different. At first, everything feels strange and unrecognisable – until you look a little closer and see Taksi is taxi or Kopi is coffee. I managed to learn thank you (Terima kasih) but that’s pretty much all (here’s a language guide if you’re going and want to do better than me!)
I was also intrigued to see that all the vehicles in the car park of the offices I was at – and in many other places once I’d seen it – had their windscreen wipers up. I asked my colleagues about it, and they said it was because it’s so hot, the windscreen wipers decay more quickly. But I haven’t seen people do that in Thailand. And it’s pretty hot there.
On the last night I went out to Brickfields, which is Little India. My mum has a recent habit of asking me to pick up material for her from wherever I am in the world (which is sometimes a hit, and sometimes a miss…). Brickfields was bright and neon and colourful, and I managed to pick up two saris of varying colours, as well as having a curry. That was a fun end to my trip.
Oh, and I flew out of Malaysia with Malaysian Airlines (I was going back to the UK), and it was absolutely fine. And very cheap!