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Highway Speeds in Kuala Lumpur

It seems our most valued adviser, Ms Smita Sharma, had been awake for some while by the time AsiaWheeling dragged itself from bed. Having already breakfasted herself, and to our great excitement, Smita presented us with a couple of thin rice pancakes, soaked in a kind of of sweet coconut milk.

We were just digging into these, when she presented yet another most welcome surprise: two cups of homemade mellow Malaysian coffee, a variation on the fried in butter type we had found in Penang and Malacca. So delighted were we with this breakfast, and so excitedly were we looking at two slightly greasy looking goodies (known as Nasi Lemak) wrapped in brown paper (which seemed also to be part of our meal), that we were almost oblivious to the fact that as we ate, the apartment was becoming increasingly full of Tamil workmen wearing large gas masks over their bushy mustaches. Some of the workers were carrying large cans, from which they began to spray a foul and acrid liquid into the corners and along the base-boards of the room.

The arrival of the exterminator had also created the perfect excuse for Smita and her sister, a newly barred local lawyer, with an excuse to visit that great mecca of the budget conscious but mildly design oriented homemaker: Ikea. So, as the fumes began to fill the room, we grabbed our brown paper shapes, and made a mad dash for the cycles, swearing to Smita that we would meet again some day. As Smita and her sister faded into the poison mist, Scott and I made a silent prayer for their safe passage, and climbed onto the bikes. Nasi Lamak safely strapped to the rear rack, next to our waters and bike locks, we whipped down the street, passing buses, and scooters, screaming out the field commands and singing “She’s a Lady” in two part harmony above the din of the traffic.

Let me tell you, dear reader, we were feeling great. KL is an excellent city for wheeling, as long as you can maintain the high voltage. And that morning we could. In fact, we didn’t want to stop.

So when we spotted a coffee joint, we called a waypoint to re-amp and dig into the Nasi Lemak. The Nasi Lemak was one of the tastiest things I’ve eaten for breakfast in my entire life. As I write now, I find myself salivating over its sticky rice interior, dampened with fishy red sauce and roasted peanuts. Oh my.

Ready for anything, we poured back onto the streets, noodling through the downtown, allowing ourselves to be siphoned this way and that by the plethora of one-way streets. Before long, we had taken one siphon too many, and found ourselves on a raging highway. Malaysian traffic was whipping by us, and though they gave us plenty of space, we were still periodically given a good case of the willies by the giant signs that advertised blatantly that cycling on the freeway was prohibited. Though we swore to take the next exit, it proved to be only an entrance onto another raging highway. Finally, we called a waypoint to address the situation.

In the distance, on the opposite side of the highway, I could just barely make out what looked like a cross between an exit and the kind of steep gravelly uphill that one sees not so uncommonly in the American Rockies as a last resort for runaway trucks. This, it seemed, was our best chance at escaping the current predicament, so after a unanimous vote and closing of the meeting, we began the painstaking process of waiting for a break in the torrent of traffic that was doing its best to escape KL before the next day (Chinese New Year). After what seemed like an eternity, a break came, and we were able to make it across. Clling a very earnest “highway speeds!” we took off toward the exit.

Thankfully, it did prove to be an exit of sorts, dumping us off into a very lushly vegetated and expensively developed neighborhood of mansions. We caught sight of a sign directing us toward a side road if we wanted to “re-enter the rumah”. We thought anything must be better than attempting to re-enter the raging highway, so in we went. The road wound down the side of the mountain for some time; overhead we could hear monkeys scurrying about and from time to time we were forced to dodge little bits of debris sent earthward by the primates. At the bottom of the road, we found a small settlement of brightly colored houses, with inspirational mottoes such as “This is your test,” and “There is truth in the light and light in the truth.” Middle aged men were sitting in the shade at a number of pucick tables playing cards, and all immediately looked up at us inquisitively. We pulled an uber-rauchenberg and began to climb back up the hill in search of some way back into the city without using the highway.

It was only later that evening that we solved the mystery of the rumah. Rumah Pengasih is a Non-Goverment Organisation that provides treatment to rehabilitate drug addicts by using a “Therapeutic Community” approach. So it was a kind of halfway house community that we had wheeled into. An interesting waypoint to be sure.

From there, we were still badly in need of an avenue by which to regain the city that would not put us on the wrong side of the law. Eventually, we found one.

A great sewage canal bisects the city of Kuala Lumpur, and as we were noodling through what was now becoming a significantly less wealthy neighborhood, we came upon two men doing some kind of maintenance on the many layers of piping that help to empty the offal of the city into this canal.

Along the edge of the canal was a mostly paved service path, which seemed to lead for as far as we could see in the very direction we wanted to go. Thinking to ourselves, this could only be a step in the right direction, we hoisted the bikes over a section of rubble and pointy bits of metal, paused to chat a little with the municipal sewer workers, who seemed quite chagrined at the entire idea, and then hit the road -  or as it might better be put – the service path.

Finally after riding for some time, past fellows fishing in the canal, fellows swimming in the canal, and even some ladies that appeared to be doing laundry (the darks) in the canal, we came to a large metal bridge.  Across the water, garbage burned.

It was then only another minor portage over some sewage pipes, and back onto the road. It was then that I realized my rear wheel was about to fall off. It seemed that all the jostling of the last few days of journey had helped to bring the rear bolts to near the point of falling out of their sockets. Thankfully, the problem was quickly rectified by dashing into a local motorbike repair shop, where they were more than happy to lend me a wrench for a quick repair. During the repair, Scott ran to purchase waters and documented a large outdoor on-store advertisement for a Taiwanese bridal boutique.  Subtlety has its place, but clearly not here.

We were getting back to the main city, just in the nick of time, when the hunger pangs began.  We wheeled to safety back in Lot 10 Hutong.

We began with an immediate and emergency Egg Tart.

And moved onto Honkee porridge and other delicacies.

Smita called us and informed  us that after the meal she would like to meet in an Indian part of town called Brickfields.

It turned out to be another highway intensive wheel, for try as we might, we seemed completely unable to get to that part of town without at least spending some time on highways.

These, at least, were not emblazoned with anti-bicycling signage, and after a few false positives, we found ourselves surrounded by the tell-tale Tamil signage, increased levels of smoke, garbage, and Bollywood, which heralded our entrance to Indiatown. The day’s wheel had been very intense, and Scott especially was quite frazzled by our hair-raising highway rides. It was high time for a coconut. And luckily one of the roadside Halal Indian joints was ready to provide. The establishment used a curious system for cooling the interior. The entire seating area was outside and sheltered from the blistering sun by a large patchwork of lacquered canvas awnings. The management had piped water up into the awning so that it gurgled and trickled down, dripping like rain onto the pavement around the place. Inside, the seating area was covered by strategically placed panning and misting fans, the same kind we had seen so many times in Penang.

The coconut water proved delightful, and once again slightly fermented. We relaxed and allowed our bodies to absorb some of the moisture and energy from the coconut, while I read the wikipedia article on coconuts.

Of particular interest was the fact that coconut water is sterile and can be (often is in Sri Lanka and parts of Southeast Asia) used as an intravenous solution in a pinch. Scott and I briefly entertained the notion of contracting some terrible dysentery in the middle of the Laotian jungle, losing consciousness outside a pit toilet and discovering through a haze of dehydration and malnutrition that we were in a hospital built from bamboo and grass, where a fellow in a loincloth was sterilizing a needle with a lighter and attempting to attach us to a coconut.  No doubt the other fellow would be standing by with a camera.

Then we remembered the steadfast support of Surgical Associates of Grinnell, and thanked goodness that we carry antibiotics, and that we are careful about what we eat, and that the sun was shining and we were healthy and safe, and that the phone was ringing and Smita was done with her business at Ikea and wanted to go wheeling some more. So back on the cycles we climbed, and deeper into Tamil town we wheeled, where we found Smita, on her folding cycle ready to give us a tour.

We wheeled through Brickfields and up into Smita’s old neighborhood, a rather posh expat and nightclub area called Bangsar Village, where we stopped to drink a little more coffee at a local institution.

From there we continued our wheel on foot though block after block of nice restaurants, malls, and little boutiques, all set on this little hill overlooking the greater city of Kuala Lumpur. Once again, AsiaWheeling was forced to take a moment to consider how very well this city was doing, and how truly cosmopolitan it felt.  We did so while enjoying a delicious and hitherto unknown fruit of incredible taste.

We dined that night at another local institution, where we enjoyed a scrumptious Malay-Indian hybrid feast.

It came complete with Tandoori Chicken, some Malay curries, an interesting pressed rice dish, a towering dosa, and a strawberry hookah for desert.

We dined like royalty, allowing the meal to stretch into the night as we debated the finer points of Barak Obama’s implementation of his presidency, and Malaysian Feminism.  Feeling as though we had determined a suite of adequate solutions to most of the world’s problems, we climbed back on the bikes, with the goal of folding them up and hopping a train back to Smita’s neighborhood. Unfortunately, the skies had another idea altogether, and began to pour on us so heavily, that fearing our Panama hats might dissolve completely, we took refuge in a parking garage.

With no sign of the rain letting up, we negotiated permission to leave the cycles in the garage, and use a kind of underground passage that would allow us to enter a nearby mall with only about 10 meters of travel in the rain. In the passage, we found a very, very tattered and ancient cat, which nearly brought me to tears, and in the mall we found a very interesting store selling beauty products, which exhibited one of the most distinctive and well executed examples of branding of the entire trip.

When we left the mall, the rain was done, and we were feeling energetic enough to just wheel all the way back to Smita’s.

The wheel proved quite wonderful, with the entire city lit up with lights, and preparing for the Chinese New Year, which was the next day. It was hard to believe, when we arrived safely back at Smita’s most luxurious abode, that we would be boarding a flight for Tiruchirappalli (Trichy), India, the next day. Malaysia had proved comfortable, welcoming, and quite wheel-able. But was it too easy? India held untold extremes of experience, new problems to solve, and the sage advice of our India Bureau Chief, Nikhil Kulkarni. It was time for the next chapter, but we could not help feeling a little sadness, as we looked out over the city through the floor to ceiling windows of Smita’s apartment, while fireworks went off all around us. It was New Year’s Eve for the Malaysian Chinese, and they were showing their excitement and hope for prosperity in the Year of the Tiger in a most incendiary way. We decided there was no better way to consecrate the occasion than to crack open a couple of the local beers by the same name, and toast our brief re-exploration of Malaysia.


  1. kaswira | March 5th, 2010 | 8:18 am

    those are not sewage canals

  2. Mark/Dad | March 6th, 2010 | 2:07 pm

    Great to see Smita again, and hollering “Rausch, rausch” no less. What was the mystery fruit, and the dark smear on it? (sauce? slug?)

  3. Woody | March 7th, 2010 | 6:24 am

    @ Mark/Dad
    The smear is actually one of the black seeds of the fruit. The name… I’ll have to ask the Malaysian Bureau about that one.

  4. Smita | March 7th, 2010 | 6:45 am

    Hey Mark! The fruit is known to locals (and to South Asians) as chiku. It’s English name is sapodilla, and its Wikipedia entry is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapodilla.

    And Kaswira’s right. Unfortunately, that’s probably what remains of one of the city’s central rivers. Sad state it’s in, eh?

  5. Rebecca | March 7th, 2010 | 9:12 am

    Hi Woody and Smita–great to see you in action and read the news

  6. Woody | March 7th, 2010 | 9:47 am

    @ Kiswira
    @ Smita
    Sorry for the mislabeling, folks. I guess it just goes to show how one man’s central river can become another man’s sewer. The blurring of the lines between sewar and non-sewer have been one of the many themes of this trip.

    Thanks for pointing out our error, Kiswira.

  7. AsiaWheeling » Blog Archive » Talking Shop In Phnom Penh | May 18th, 2010 | 12:58 am

    […] to find a pleasant surprise: it was raining. It had not rained on AsiaWheleing for months, since Kuala Lumpur in fact. The smell and the sound of the rain were invigorating in a totally unexpected way. We […]

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