Thursday, July 21, 2011


When it comes to me and great cities, I fall fast and hard. It's often love at first sight. By the time I've checked into my hotel, I'm picking out china and planning our future together.

Kuala Lumpur was different. As soon as the train pulled into Sentral Kuala Lumpur rail station, I knew that I'd be spending more than the allotted 48 hours in Malaysia's capital city. It was love, or something like it. Four days later, I was still infatuated, taking it all in with my jaw nearly at ground level, but I also was asking myself the same question that my mother asked me years ago when she visited me in New York City for the first time: "How do people live here?"

Don't get me wrong: I still love KL. It's bold and beautiful, exciting, energetic and endlessly fascinating. But it's playing hard to get (as in, Dear KL, I cram to understand U). Every time I leave my hotel, it's a crapshoot whether I'll make it back. I've put away my map because it's pretty useless in helping me to negotiate the network of traffic-jammed streets and buildings without visible street numbers. And the cars and motorcycles whizzing by at literally break-neck speed mean you cross the roads here at your own risk.

But what's life without a little bit of daring? No (possible) pain, no gain, right?

Or maybe I'm just being a total wimp, wilting in the humidity and 90°F heat. Since my arrival, I've met expatriates from China, from Australia, from Sweden, from New Mexico, people who came here on holiday and never went back home. The streets of central KL are filled with other tourists, none of whom appear to be as sensitive to the noise and heat, or as confused by the city's interior design as I am.

Why the big turnout? It's not just that this weekend is a Middle Eastern holiday, which means a spike in visitors and totally booked hotels all over town. Despite its relatively low profile among international metropolises (out of all my friends, only one that I know of, an Australian, has ever even been here), Kuala Lumpur was the world's fourth most-visited city in the world in 2009, according to Euromonitor International's most recent Top City Destinations Ranking, from January 2011, with some 9.4 million arrivals. (That's up 5.2 per cent from 2008, when it was No. 5.) Only London, Bangkok and Singapore attracted more visitors.

Unlike Bangkok (No. 2) and Singapore (No. 3), which, during my recent stints in both cities, seemed to be filled with people on holiday from Europe and Australia, Kuala Lumpur doesn't appear to be a huge Western draw. Still, it's a melting pot of ethnicities and skin tones, and the relatively large number of Africans I've seen means that I don't stick out here the way I did in Bangkok, Singapore, and pretty much every city I've stepped foot in during the last year or so. I'm still not completely blending in either: They may not stare at me as much here when I walk down the street as they do elsewhere, but last night at dinner, the hot topic was racism -- in Sweden, of all places!

The PR machine here will have its work cut out for it, though, if KL's profile in the U.S. is ever to ascend to the heights of Buenos Aires'. Despite its lowish ranking on Euromonitor's list (No. 51, with 2.1 million visitors in 2009, down 11.5 per cent), BA is still South America's second-most buzzed-about city (after Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, No. 38) and as popular as ever with American expats.

Interestingly, for reasons I've yet to fully comprehend, KL reminds me a lot of BA when we first met. (Incidentally, it took me a full week to fall for Argentina's capital.) There's no real physical resemblance, but like BA circa 2005, there's an abundance of big leafy trees, a 3:1 exchange rate (3 Malaysian ringgits equal about 1 U.S. dollar), and relatively cheap prices, which, sadly, don't include booze. A pint of beer will set you back about RM30 (or $10), which, as someone explained to me, is due to a high alcohol tax, which, in turn, is due to the teetotaling influence of Islam, the dominant and official religion in Malaysia.

But who needs to get wasted when there's so much to see and experience with a clear head? Four days in, I've been to two dinner parties (as an invitee of a KL-based stand-up comedienne, whom I met through my aforementioned Australian friend), but I've yet to hit the nightlife hard, which is generally what seals my connection to any new city. So my affection for KL isn't set in stone: It still could be swayed in the opposite direction.

Yet I'm already thinking about our next hook up. The future may hold no solid commitment, or the whispering of "You're beautiful, I love you" while gazing up at the Petronas Twin Towers after dark. But sometimes the best relationships, with places as with people, are the casual ones with no expectations and no strings attached.
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