A couple of weeks ago Peter had an unexpected 4 day weekend, prompting us to take a last minute trip to Kuala Lumpur! With only a week to spare, we booked flights and a hotel and were off by Friday afternoon.
Kuala Lumpur is less than an hour flight from Penang and provides a perfect city escape from the small island of Penang. After living in Penang for 3 months I was more than ready for the excitement of the city and more importantly, awesome public transportation. Penang just so happens to have the highest population density in Malaysia and a glaring lack of accessible public transport. Now put all these people in cars and motorbikes on 3 main roads on a small island and you have a recipe for constant road congestion. Malaysians call this a “jam”, I just call it is a nuisance and a reason to avoid driving anywhere.
Because of these sentiments, I was thrilled to find that Kuala Lumpur has a Grand Central Station (KL Sentral) with a network of buses, trains, and monorails conveniently intersecting the city. Once we arrived at the KL Airport Terminal for AirAsia flights, we bought tickets for the KLIA Express train that would quickly take us to KL Sentral in 30 minutes. The tickets included a bus that transported us from the airport to the KLIA Express. This added another 15 minutes to the trip but it was insanely cheaper than any taxi ride into the city. We were also helped by a local named Kelvin who Peter befriended on the train (of course!). Kelvin told us that he thought KL was exceedingly boring which did not surprise me at all. The grass is always greener on the other side right?
Once we arrived at KL Sentral, Kelvin pointed us in the direction of the Kommuter train for the 20 minute ride to KLCC, Kuala Lumpur City Centre. As soon as we emerged from the KLCC train station (bypassing the enormous mall inside), we looked up to see the Petronas Towers.
I had seen snippets of these twin towers on the Malaysian news but I was not expecting something of this magnitude. Was this a mistake? Had we inadvertently gone back in the Financial District of Shanghai? I was floored.
The Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004 and remain as the tallest twin towers in the world at 88 stories. The exterior consists of 83,500 square meters of stainless steel extrusions that together with the glass facade resemble motifs in Islamic art, an homage to the Muslim religion of Malaysia (as I type this I hear the call to prayer from an unknown source in my apartment complex). At night spotlights from below illuminate the protruding steel and create an intricate texture that seems to defy reality.
I continue to be amazed by the skyscrapers in Asia. They take architecture to a whole new level. Seeing these towers got me thinking. What is the real appeal of cities?
For locals, cities offer employment, transportation (my favorite), and a range of activities. There is something for everyone. For expats, cities offer often large expat communities that are enormously helpful when living abroad. When we lived in Shanghai, I had access to various groups of expats who became my potential clients, fellow tourists, work-out buddies, and closest friends. The opportunities for me to actively engage in a community of like-minded people were endless.
But for tourists, what do we find that is so special about cities? Often we visit cities because they are the most well-known locations abroad with an abundance of things to see and do in a condensed space. Cities offer the most infrastructure which makes getting around much easier. Cities also represent the flavor of the country or region as a whole, mixed with some seasonings of international influence.
Here is what I have found true for myself as an American expat in Asia:
I prefer to live in cities.
And I prefer traveling to small towns or rural areas.
However, I believe this is only because I am a foreigner in a part of the world that is so completely different from the United States. Back in the States I avoid cities like the plague and yearn to settle down in a small unassuming mountain town. I hate the hustle and bustle of major cities and I feel isolated and removed from others. But now that I live in Asia, I miss the community and support I found in Shanghai despite the extreme noise and crowds that drove me insane. Penang is calmer, brighter, and easier but lacks the opportunities to get involved for a lonely expat like myself.
For now I am stuck finishing out this year in Penang but traveling as much as possible to locations that are more remote. At the end of this month my best friend and I are traveling to Siem Reap, Chiang Mai, and Koh Samui to find culture, peace, and natural beauty in popular tourist destinations that are not big cities by any means at all. I could not be more excited… and nervous!
These trips have kept me motivated and sane. As for our weekend excursion to Kuala Lumpur, I was reinvigorated with the revelation that I want to live in a city again. As soon as I saw the Petronas Towers I thought “Ok awesome!”… “Now what?” Peter and I then walked the short distance to our hotel and caught dinner at a nearby restaurant. While lounging in our comfortable room at Hotel Maya we talked about where we wanted to go this weekend and how we could easily take the many forms of public transportation. And I thought to myself, “I could totally live here”.
Although I doubt we will be moving to Kuala Lumpur any time soon, Shanghai is becoming a very real option for us next year. And you know what? I am looking forward to it. In the midst of this crazy Asian adventure, I have become a city girl.