Sunday, 27 December 2009

Truly Asia

Its been a little bit of a predicament to discover the real Asia, and that's pretty ironical coming from an Asian. But the truth of the matter is that Asia's simply too vast and too diverse to have one 'true' self. It also true that South East Asia is a much more closely knit region than South Asia. South Asia, due to its adjacency to Persia, the Middle East, and its connections to Europe via the sea was always in a state of diffusion of cultures and peoples. And so there have always been significant differences between India and her eastern neighbours - differences that go way beyond that fold of eyelid skin that gives East Asians their 'oriental' look. And the Orient traditionally meant lands to the east of India.
Malaysia's marketing campaign claims it to be 'Truly Asia', but the capital city of Kuala Lumpur spoke of an Asia very different from the conventional images of a 'mysterious and exotic' Far East. It spoke of a region fast rising on the wings of western capitalism, riding new technology, new business practices and creating its own place under the sun. Nothing could be more emblematic of KL than the twin Petronas towers seen above, taken at a really low shutter speed.

Downtown KL glittered and sparkled after a late downpour, and city looked like a party-goer and shoppers paradise. The conversion rate of the Malay Ringit makes spending in SGD deceptively easy, and that never bodes well for the shopper's purse. KL has all the brands you've ever known about, and probably some that you've not known about. The stores and malls can give any American mall a run for its money, and the downtown is studded with diners and cafes for the hungry and watering holes for party-goers.

Kuala Lumpur is doing all the right things: working towards establishing a good infra-structure, inviting retailers from all over the world to tap into its very receptive markets, and getting it's people hooked on to a diet of malls and showrooms and shopping. Selling itself as the ultimate shopping destination and drawing in hordes of tourists from within the country and abroad, KL is is doing everything it can to whip up a voracious retail appetite in its markets.

It has a casino at the near-by hill resort of Genting. The clown here was one of the many attractions on the way to Genting, trying to make life a little more entertaining for people queueing up for the 20 minute cable car ride up the mountain. And as soon as we reached the top, we were greeted by a blast of chilly mountain air and some freshly brewed Chinese herbal jelly. The dark mahogany decoction was steamed in huge brass vats, so that it congealed to form a jelly, and was served steaming hot. Its hot pungent aroma filled the air, and very soon, we'd downed two cups of the jelly each, with some very sweet honey water to complement the slight bitterness of the blend. The jelly seller lady who served us with much ado about its health benefits, agreed to pose with her vat of jelly.

The Genting Highlands are roughly an hour's drive from KL, followed by a 4km ride on a cable car that takes you to a height of well over 1700 m. In spite of being in steamy Malaysia, Genting enjoys an almost perfect climate with temperatures ranging between 16 and 24 degrees celcius. Plentiful rainfall ensures lush rainforests covering the slopes. This comes the closest to my idea of an ideal climate...I had never imagined I'd ever want to wear a sweater and sip on some hot chocolate at 4.00 in the afternoon anywhere in South East Asia.

But Genting is too busy being the Las Vegas of Malaysia to pay heed to nature's gifts. We saw a colossal resort filled with an indoor and outdoor amusement park, and of course, a casino. The casino was overflowing with gamblers and the amusement parks were overflowing with picnickers and kids. I saw these two little dudes waiting patiently for their balloons outside one of the many rides.

We had a lovely time trying out the rides. And a little less lovely time watching the games of roulette, and wishing we had enough money to just blow it off on a night in the casino. The shoestring budgets that we had planned our trip on had no room for such extravagances. We did cook up a hypothetical fool proof scheme for making some money on the roulette the next time we came back.

The dining was very fine, and inspite of constraints faced by our vegetarians, we sampled some Vietnamese food. The restaurant had some lovely decor.The food of course was very nice too, but to people famished after a day of trudging theme parks and casinos, I wonder if the taste would have made any difference.
Thus ended our very first attempt to discover Asia. Even though what we saw was the very superficial, fast changing, market driven face of Asia, it was nevertheless one facet of this exotic place. Perhaps there are other things to be discovered by going, not on a trip to a Casino resort, but perhaps on a trek to the rainforests of Indonesia, or a trip to the rice fields of the Phillipines or the temples of Angkor. I hope I get a chance to write about these places in this blog.

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