Sunday, December 21, 2014

Shopping Malls And Hookers

And I'm back again. Briefly. Before I take off for the final leg of Operation: Get The F Out Of Kalamazoo.

This first leg of Operation: GTFOOK was a one week visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to visit a very old friend who I haven't seen in eighteen years.  The friend in question, who shall henceforth be known via his codename "Tim," was someone I'd met through a mutual interest in martial arts back in college. Ever since we reconnected on Facebook a few years back this visit has been in the works, but it wasn't until now that the logistics made sense.

It was my first time out of the country since I was in the low single digits, age-wise. I expected to be a great deal more lost than I was.

Kuala Lumpur is a strangely approachable town. As is the case in SE Asia, most of the city speaks very good English. All signs are in the roman alphabet. Even if you don't know, exactly, what something means, you can pronounce it. Oftentimes you pick up new words from context ("Tandas" equals "bathroom," for example) .

Everything you need to get by on a daily basis is clearly labeled and within walking distance. Credit cards work fine. Cash exchange shops abound. The public transport system is logical, cheap and easy to use. The few times I needed help, I could just grab someone official-looking and ask them for it. The locals are friendly. The city, at least in the parts where tourists hang out, is very safe.

Once you get past the airplane ticket, everything's extraordinarily inexpensive. Hotels are cheap. Food? You can get a heaping plate of the best food you've ever had for two or three bucks. About the only thing that isn't cheap is alcohol, thanks to the Muslim tilt of the local political system. But that just brings booze prices up to an American ballpark figure.

Everything's weirdly affordable.

The place is not really what I expected. I was expecting a tropical version of Bladerunner's Chinatown, I guess. Blazing hot, jungle everywhere, all communication in an impenetrable patois of southeast Asian languages. Neon signs in kanji and hieroglyphics. Maybe I'd have to fight monkeys for food, or sword-fight pirates. I don't know. I really had no frame of reference.

Instead, the city reminded me of Grand Rapids except a hundred times larger, more sprawling and filled with ridiculous shopping malls, palm trees and a nigh-mythical level of tropical humidity. And hookers. That's a story for another day, I guess. No, I didn't retain any hookers. Damn it, folks, that's how rumors get started. Anyway.

Shopping malls?

That's right. Shopping malls. You can't throw a rock in Kuala Lumpur without hitting one. They come in all sizes, ranging from large by American standards to "Holy shit, I just stumbled into a pocket universe."

Think I'm kidding? Check out this Google image search. Some of the places were so huge they reminded me of that final scene in Close Encounters when Richard Dreyfuss is inside the alien ship and he looks up, seeing rank upon rank of observation decks until perspective closes them to a point far above him.

Again, not what I was expecting. I asked my buddy Tim about it.

It turns out that back in the 80s and earlier, there wasn't really a whole lot to do around those parts. People would fish or hang out in local parks. There was a mall or two, but they weren't extraordinarily large.

Then something happened. Right around the time in the early 90s when mall culture began to die in America, it hopped the ocean.

It was a perfect fit. As it turns out, nobody likes to do much outdoor shopping in a tropical country. Even if you grew up there, being out in that weather is rather miserable. Malaysia, at the best of times, averages around the high 80's to low 90's, with physics-defying levels of humidity. It's the sort of place you define temperature by the number of t-shirts you go through in a day, where it's perfectly normal to take three or four showers by suppertime.

When the locals found out you could build a place where everything you could ever want can take place inside one enormous air-conditioned building? Where it's not only okay to just wander around slowly, at your own pace, just enjoying the sights and the people watching, that it's expected to do so? You can just hang out, be cool, peregrinate and graze, without having to pay a single thin red cent for the privilege? Heaven.

Mall culture is alive and well in Malaysia. And nobody does them better.

Mall businesses run the usual gamut: clothing stores, fast food chains, cinemas, comic book shops and so on. You'll find businesses that no longer exist in America, because apparently Malaysia is where franchises go to die. I haven't seen a Baskin Robbins in Michigan in over thirty years, but you can't go thirty feet without tripping over one in an average Malaysian mall.

Even a mid-sized Malaysian mall will usually have a food court, containing some of the best food around. Some of the food courts, like the one in the bottom level of the Lot 10 mall, are regionally famous.

Malls in KL are brimming with oddities. There was one where you could take an escalator up eighteen flights of stairs, a place so tall it had safety nets halfway down the atriums. It had an indoor amusement park. Another place had an ice rink on the bottom floor, complete with Zamboni. Apparently a local hockey club practices there.

Another place had an indoor track and a basketball court two levels from the top. I believe it had two fitness centers who shared them. You could shoot hoops, run a few laps, get buff and then buy cheap elecronics, score some junk food and buy a suit, get a haircut and take a nap, all without leaving the building.

Another place I wandered through was large and opaque, labyrinthine and cavernous. It took me an hour to walk from one end to the other and scenery would subtly alter as I drifted along. As I passed, low ceilings turned into high. Cinemas appeared. Sometimes I'd be in a bamboo garden filled with Chinese lanterns, and in other places, I'd be in a crystalline place with chandeliers hanging from the ceilings.

At one far end, I wandered eight floors up to find there was a garden and a parking lot on the roof, because why the hell not? I texted Tim at one point while exploring, asking him if the mall was being procedurally generated, like one of those rogue-like video games where the maps would assemble themselves off-screen from a jigsaw puzzle collection of randomized components.

Even when you don't want to go to a mall, you wind up having to go to one anyway, because that's where all the stores and restaurants are. Sometimes it's more efficient to cut through one, because they are sprawling, huge, air-conditioned and often will save you from having to cross a street. Pedestrians do not have right of way in Malaysia, so if it comes down to a comfortable walk through the local equivalent of a Sears to avoid potentially being run down by a bus, then sign me the hell up. Or you'd simple cut through one because if you have a choice between slogging down a half mile of sidewalk in damp tropical humidity or going the same distance in air-conditioned comfort and still wind up in the same place, you make the obvious choice.

And they are all crowded, filled with shoppers, loafers, children, old people, foreigners, locals and what have you. Even more so in December, because apparently Malaysia goes completely insane around Christmas time.


For a country composed of only around 10% practicing Christians, it was a little surprising just how nuts the Christmas decorations were. After a while, I began to not be surprised when I'd round a corner and find myself in a faithfully-recreated snowy pine forest filled with animatronic elves with "White Christmas" blasting over loudspeakers. Even the smallest shop would have Christmas lights up, musak Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer playing on the radio. To get down the street, sometimes you'd have to dodge around small clusters of pretty girls dressed up like elves. Santa hats abounded.

It was surreal. I don't think I've seen anything like it anywhere in America. Even Frankenmuth isn't this nuts.

Other than that, I did the usual touristy stuff. Climbed tall buildings. Saw some jungle. Visited some big damn caves. Gawked at things. Figured out the rail system.

Tim drove me around the city, showed me stuff off the usual tourist circuits. We did strange restaurants, visited stores only locals go to. We ate a lot, went to a night market of colossal proportions, the Asian equivalent of a county fair, except without rides and carnies and with much better junk food.

It was fun. It's probably going to be several months before I digest all my experiences. I figure I've got a few dozen blog entries just from that one week, so expect more in this vein.

And now I'm going to disappear for another week. Heading out on the second leg of Operation: GTFOOK before the New Year and my next job.

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