Having overcome my doubts about Seoul, a month later I went to Kuala Lumpur. I made an overnight stop in KL in 2003 on my way to Japan on my first Brompton trip but I left the bike at the airport. Taking a walk from my hotel to the nearby twin towers I was struck by the brutality of the traffic, crossing the 6-lane main road meant a brisk jog to get across before the lights changed and I had no illusions that the Grand Prix would hold back on my account.
It’s not a surprise that Kuala Lumpur now hosts one of the Formula 1 races. Like Korea it’s a newly affluent country with a growing motor industry, unlike Koreans the normally relaxed and kindly Malaysians seem to turn to monsters behind the wheel. The city is laid out with a network of swirling expressways and there does not seem to be a way for a pedestrian or cyclist to get around without taking to motorised transport or the extensive metro system. This has created a great market for small motorcycles, large numbers of classic Hondas weaving in and out of the traffic, but you see very few cyclists although people say they always used bicycles in the old days before the city grew to swallow up the surrounding villages.
I thought very hard about whether to take my Brompton. It was only a short trip but I felt it was important to see what could be done. When my hosts told me which hotel I would stay in I thought, from the map, that it was in a relatively central area where it might be possible to get around some of the sights but then I found I was in a different branch of the same chain, away from the centre. It was in an out of town golf enclave and you could not ride more than half a mile without using a big main road, the whole area consisted of small housing or industrial areas only accessible from the main road, no local roads or paths visible on the map or satellite view.
So I packed my suitcase and went the “normal” way, by train and underground to Heathrow, having to get a lift to the station, struggling through the crowds at Paddington underground and then being chauffeured between hotel and university. Like having my legs cut off.
It was particularly unpleasant being stuck in a big hotel, infantilised by the impossibility of doing anything for myself, not a shop or cafe anywhere near, everybody being very helpful and not letting you lift a finger for yourself but mainly providing you with stuff you didn’t want. The month before in Seoul I had stayed in a budget hotel in the city and could walk out to a shop or cafe, or cycle away anywhere in the city, a place with a genuine street life.
The climate, in the tropical rainy season, was very warm and humid but Mr Pumpy is very emphatic that cycling in South East Asia can be delightful with the airflow to keep you cool. The scenery is beautiful, even in the outskirts of KL where outcrops of often ugly urbanisation intrude between the lush green hills. Mists swirl across the hillsides and I had breakfast to the sound of monkeys whooping in the tress nearby. All you need is a basic country road winding off into the trees but instead the whole territory has been quartered up by expressways, nothing so modernist as the newly modern.
It’s sad because this is basically a very civilised country. Malays are charming and pleased to see you, they spend a lot of time having snacks and being polite (nobody gives a speech or talk without ten minutes of formalities) and they wear wonderful colourful clothes in a huge variety of batik fabrics. At a formal event while I was there only one person wore a suit. The male Vice-Chancellor of the university and director of the local museum were gorgeously turned out and the women are like a garden of multi-coloured flowers.
Meanwhile my host took me to see the vast Putrajaya government area newly built outside the city. It’s an impressive achievement, like the iconic Petronas towers that were briefly the tallest buildings in Asia, but as an architect colleague remarked, having reviewed a barrage of ambitious student projects, “How many iconic buildings can one city absorb?” Meanwhile at street level, my host acknowledged that the 2km long straight main drag joining up all the government buildings was a furnace on hot days, due to a total lack of trees, although it was great for huge military parades. With a little shade and some human scale street level development it would be a perfect situation for government workers, or even politicians, to cycle about their business, instead everybody uses their air-conditioned car even if they only have to go a short distance.
So if I get the chance to go again I’ll see if I can locate myself in the centre and take my bike, if only to avoid taking the tube across London. There must be some opportunities for urban cycling in Malaysia.