Well, this is certainly a change of pace. The KL airport is 70 km from my hotel, costing about $30 by metered taxi, which plowed along at 120km/hr on a freeway rivalling anything one might find in the US. For several kilometres near the airport, both sides of the road were palm oil plantations, eventually giving way to actual forest, soon to be replaced by scattered high-rise (20-30 stories) apartments and/or condos and a few housing developments trying hard to look just like Daly City, CA for uniform ugliness. There were even a few developments of larger homes that could have been built by Seeno or Pulty in the US, two-story single family dwellings, huddled on small lots with perfect driveways, two-car garages, manicured lawns and community dues. So this is Kuala Lumpur.
Here, there is no evidence of an older, more traditional way of life. There is no trash, no abandoned construction projects. I did not see a mosque until well into the city. In a country that is 28% Chinese, it was days before I saw any Chinese or signs in any language other than Bahasa or english. As we traveled deep into the urban landscape, I saw the skyline, the infrastructure, the traffic and ambience of a first-world city. This could be Chicago, Boston, Atlanta.
This is a muslim country, yet also with a large Indian community (12%). It is a radical departure from any other place I’ve visited in the past couple of years, a secular melting pot, highly moral, educated and seemingly affluent. In one of my walks, I passed a mosque on one side of the road with Hindu and Chinese shrines on the other. In the neighbourhood surrounding my hotel, nearly all the women are wearing hijab. A very small percentage are in burka. My hotel, chosen at random based on location, amenities and price, happens to be in a neighbourhood that must be the fabric and fashion centre of the city. That, and gold jewellery. Amongst the multi-story fashion houses are Fifth Avenue style jewellery stores in every direction, complete with shotgun-toting security guards and bars separating customers from salesperson.
I am also surrounded by a maze of open-air shops selling dresses, hijab, and conservative (formless) western-style wear for women and men, everything from the raw fabric to the finished product. Most shops are operated by men. I also notice that in this humid, tropical climate, the very idea of wearing shorts would likely be a shocking departure from the norm, branding me as an ignorant and uncouth foreigner. I am already stared at as it it is. I later find out that is an inaccurate perception peculiar to this small enclave I am inhabiting.
I purchase a SIM card from a young Tamil man working out of a “shop” no bigger than an ATM booth. For $12, he fixes me up in 5 minutes flat. Better than standing in line at the airport. I wander through an open air market, make some fruit purchases and head back to my hotel. Not far away, I discover later, is a huge well-stocked western-style supermarket where I buy some of my favourite foods.
I am here for a buddhist retreat. I came early rather than spending more time in Phnom Penh. My initial reaction is to be much less interested in exploring this place than I imagined. On the ride from the airport, I had two thoughts: the enormous amount of energy required to power the development and transformation of a traditional culture (whose memory is undoubtedly receding quickly), and the sheer amount of cement necessary to accomplish it all. And this isn’t even China. In the US, we take it all for granted. Buildings, roads, it’s just always been there. One more high rise? We hardly notice anymore. But here and throughout Asia, it’s all happening so fast and on such a massive scale–think of building another Los Angeles about every two years– that the change is far more dramatic. The energy required to power this world is vast and the shift to renewables– at least here –is not happening nearly fast enough.
The money is made of plastic. The only other country I’ve been to with plastic money is Canada.
I do not expect to ever leave the city during my time here. I am not here for that kind of exploration.This will be another period of going in. Do I need it, having returned from the dramatic visit to Bodhgaya for Kalachakra?
After several days now of different sorts of interactions with Malays, I discover there is a much greater fluency in english here than almost anywhere I’ve been, including India. The Chinese have been here for more than 500 years, but they are educated in Chinese schools and may not be fluent in the official language–Bahasa. Likewise, Malays may not speak much Chinese at all. But almost everyone speaks some english. I have complicated conversations with cab drivers about religion and politics. Well, they asked.
Upon joining the retreat, I am even more impressed to see that though there are no Malays (muslims) here, of course, the Chinese are fluent in three languages, as are some of the Indians. The demographics of the country have been changing for 50 years. Chinese have fewer children and have been gradually emigrating over the past few decades, lowering their demographic to under 30% from what was once 45%. The Malays, on the other hand, have larger families and control the government–which is another reason Chinese tend to leave. They don’t have political representation commensurate with their economic influence.