The View from Kuala Lumpur

Aaron Goccia rides the train in Malaysia's smoke-addled capital

By / September 2013

Kuala Lumpur, more commonly called KL, means “muddy confluence” in the Malay language. The name refers to the meeting of the Gombak and Klang rivers, a slurry of bright brown mud. In June, smoke drifts across the hot, sticky city and its turbid rivers. The smoke is the product of the slashing and burning that consumes Indonesia’s palm oil plantations this time of year. Although such land-clearing is officially banned in Indonesia, there is little enforcement. As a result, the smoke drifts about 200 miles across the Strait of Malacca to Kuala Lumpur.

On this June morning, 9 am and already 90 degrees outside, I am in a hurry to get on the KTM commuter train and escape the thick clouds of smog that have enveloped the city for the past three days. The Air Pollutant Index (API) has reached levels above 700 this week; anything over 300 is considered hazardous, something on the order of smoking 80 cigarettes. This is the worst smog the city has suffered since 1998, when the API soared to 860. The only hope for relief in the near future is rain, but June is Malaysia’s driest month. In the meantime, many schools and businesses have closed and many locals people have chosen to stay behind closed doors and windows rather than breathe the sooty air.

Ticket in hand, I hobble, slowed by a recent knee surgery, to the stairs leading down to the railway platform at Sentul station. I am on my way to the town of Klang, where a friend has asked me to teach an English class to one of his friends, a Sikh priest from India. Squealing wheels announce the train’s arrival. The doors slide open. I slip into the cool unsullied air of the railway car.

The KTM (Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad, or Malaysian Railways Limited) has been operating since 1995. My route covers 28 miles, connecting Batu Caves in the far north of KL to Klang, the country’s largest port, on the city’s southwestern edge. Although the train is contemporary looking, comfortable and clean, it runs notoriously late. But the price, 4 ringgit (USD $1.25) fare for an hour ride, is hard to beat.

Now out of the station, the train sways from one side to another as it makes its way south. From my window seat, I survey my diversity of cabin mates. Two young Malay Muslim women, likely in their early thirties, sit quietly, each attired in baju karung, a matching knee-length blouse and skirt, floral-patterned and extending to the ankles. Their heads and necks are covered in scarves, wrapped in a way that leaves only their faces visible. They converse in such hushed tones that I wonder if they can actually hear one another.

Across from them sits a twenty-something Chinese girl in high heels, her face hidden beneath a blanket of makeup, her head bobbing to the music emanating from her bright red Beats headphones. To my left are four young Tamil men dressed in tight jeans, t-shirts, gold necklaces, gold earrings. They are rhapsodizing about the night ahead, a party at a friend’s apartment. Next to me is an older Sikh man with a thick white beard and neatly tied blue turban, plaid golf shirt, and khakis. His eyes are closed, his lips are moving. He is likely in meditation, uttering the Punjabi word for God, Waheguru.

On an average day in KL, you can hear Malay, Tamil (South Indian), Punjabi (North Indian), Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien and English. Most people speak Malay, English, and their ethnic tongue, but it is not uncommon to find an Indian speaking Chinese or a Chinese person speaking Tamil.

The city’s cultural contrasts are evident in the architecture along the train ride. In southwest Kuala Lumpur, between Sentul and Shah Alam station, flashy new apartment buildings are going up beside decrepit government housing projects. The 1,483-foot-high Petronas Towers, the tallest twin-tower complex in the world, are there, not far from alleys containing innumerable wooden residences, some perched atop stilts. Everywhere along the route large cranes sit like enormous pterodactyls atop high-rises under construction. The message is clear, KL is growing up and out, buoyed by exports, foreign investment, government investment, consumption, and a strong exchange rate.

Religious edifices also dot the landscape. Although Malaysia is a majority Islamic country, there is tolerance towards other religions here. People are free to worship, so long as they do not proselytize others. Muslim mosques with shiny golden domes and minarets rise like huge flower buds hungry for sunlight. Hindu mandirs appear like tall slender mountains, their sides covered with thousands of small painted gods. Large crosses give away Christian churches, that and the word gareja (Malay for “church”) scrawled on the signs. There are ornate Buddhist temples covered with tiles that give the appearance of bamboo. There are also a number of Sikh Gurdwaras, each with a tall pole clad in orange cloth and tipped in a triangular flag bearing a blue khanda, the symbol of their faith.

KL may ever increasingly resemble a concrete jungle, but the remnants of the real jungle, the tropical landscape from which this city first emerged, remain. Palm trees, some clutching coconuts in their boughs, huddle in patches. At the end of each branch on a banana tree hang bulbous red flowers from which thumb-sized bananas are waiting to emerge. In other places, rubber trees, redolent of a once thriving industry, stand at attention. Rubber has been largely replaced by palm oil, the trees of which are also visible, neatly planted in fields on the outskirts. Palm oil became popular as the country was looking for a way to replace the no longer lucrative rubber tree tapping. Fields of tall grass, too, where elephants and tigers once roamed.

From the train I can also see the Kuala Lumpur Tower. Topping out at 1,381 feet, it is the seventh tallest telecommunications tower in the world. It stands near the heart of the city, in an area known as Bukit Nanas (Pineapple Hill). The area around the base of the tower is the only preserved section of virgin rain forest in the city.

After an hour, I hear Stesen berikutnya Klang. As my train pulls into the station, I take one final breath of filtered air and step through the doors into the smoke. The Klang station was built in 1890 when Malaysia, then called the Straits Settlements, was under British rule. It is a small single story building which maintains the British colonial look, even after multiple renovations. At first glance, it looks like a large bungalow capped by an orange tiled roof, long-since turned shades of brown and black from mildew. I wonder if the station’s architects imagined that more than 120 years later there would still be trains using this station. What would they think if they could see the sleek electric train that just delivered me?

I am snapped back to reality as my throat begins to burn from the smog. The poor visibility makes the station’s surroundings look like a scene from a cheap horror flick. It appears that any moment some malevolent creature may lurch forward and annihilate me. But the only thing to fear, I know, is the fare the taxi drivers will charge. They know how desperate people are in June in KL to get out of the smoke.


Aaron Goccia is an EthnoTraveler contributor. He lives in Kuala Lumpur.