Saturday, January 29, 2011

Surfacing in Kuala Lumpur

It's dark when we arrive in the Malaysian capital, four hour's flight from Vientiane. But I can already tell I'm going to like the place.

There's something missing, you can feel it even as you get off the plane. It's that sense of decay, of chaos, of people and systems barely holding it together. Things seem to be co-ordinated, everyone moving with purpose, with more usefulness. The system has cause beyond today.

Here- and it's just a first impression- you get a sense of building toward something, of progress and development being made. Sure, there was construction going on in Laos- tons of it- but here there's a flair to the building, a consistency to the design, standards that are set and met.

And this is looking at things through a rapid transit train in the dark, bulleting towards the city centre.

But the impression continues on our first full day here. I had imagined KL to be much like Bangkok.... noisy, crowded, chaotic, traffic infested, filthy. Instead, I found a city a lot more like Vancouver than any Asian city so far. Admittedly, we saw just a small sample... a few square miles of downtown. But the skyscrapers have a modern flair- and overall there's a sense of coherent design mandated by City Hall (a blue-green-color coordination to all the buildings). There are forests, and just random plots of palms and banana trees- little breaths of fresh air in the ozone.

And even the traffic is quieter. The tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous, poisonous, noisy mini-cabs of Bangkok or Vientiane, are gone. Sure, there's lots of traffic, but it purrs, not screeches.

And god damn! People stick to the lanes here! There are actual pedestrian crossing lights and vehicles actually stop when you're crossing. What a concept. Sidewalks with unbroken surfaces for whole stretches of city blocks. Paradise! Street signs and direction arrows. Accessible curbs and grass trim on the roadsides. Public toilets. Park areas. A skyline that entices and attracts.

And flair. The light standards have been transformed to resemble hibiscus flower heads. Colourful canvases shelter open markets. Fountains come out of nowhere and dance to their own music.

It's been two months of seeing life with a much harsher tone. The beggars, the peasants, the street vendors, the hawkers, the hustlers, the hookers, the desperate and their predators. Cities that stink, that choke you with CO gas, where you tread carefully for fear of tetanus or worse. I'm sure it has its rough parts, but being downtown in KL feels like we're surfacing for the first time since November in a more human, friendly city.

And for the first time in two months, I pay sales tax on something I bought. It's strange... I'd gotten used to the list price being the cost.

And then I realize- the two are likely related. You get what you pay for, and maybe the cost of not having desperate street sellers, having buried sewer lines, having an effective building code and enforcement is a few cents on every dollar devoted to that. People love to bitch about taxes, but life without is a damn sight more unpleasant.

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