One of the most noticeable things I saw when walking around Kuala Lumpur last month was all the construction taking place around the city. Buildings being torn down or renovated, new monstrosities under construction, plus some streets closed to accommodate the cranes and jackhammers. “Watch your step” was good advice!
In the area around Pasar Seni (Central Market) there was a still a lot of digging going on and some of the sidewalks were either torn up or being resurfaced, along with some landscaping work, looking like they are attempting to beautify the area. One of the employees at my hotel told me that they were planning on banning vehicles from at least one of the streets and making it a pedestrian thoroughfare. On nearby Lebu Pudu Street, which boasts many shops and restaurants catering to Myanmar/Burmese workers, many places appeared to be closed while the construction work was ongoing.
This construction chaos was not confined to that area, though, not by a long shot. The Bukit Bintang area was also a mess of barriers and obstacles, plus even over in Petaling Jaya I noticed several new building projects going up. Perhaps all of this construction isn’t unusual in a city as large and sprawling as Kuala Lumpur, but I’ve never seen so much of it as I did during this visit.
There has been a lot of excitement in the past year over various reforms in Myanmar, the most dramatic changes being the release of political prisoners, democratic elections, more freedom of the press, and opening the country to foreign investment. But one thing that hasn’t changed in the country is the dire employment situation and stagnant economy. Maybe all this “investment” and “development” will equate to better employment opportunities for locals at some point, but, to quote the great song by John Hiatt: “It hasn’t happened yet.”
Because finding a good paying job — hell, any sort of job — is so difficult, many natives of Myanmar are still seeking work in other Southeast Asian countries, particularly in Thailand and Malaysia. In Bangkok, it’s quite common to find people from Myanmar working in jobs in the construction industry, in bars and restaurants, or as maids. I’ve met two waiters just in the past month; one from Mawlamyine and the other from Chin State. When I was in Kuala Lumpur last month one of the young men working at my hotel was from Mandalay. He’s been working there for several years and I always enjoy chatting with him in Burmese when I stay there. Not far from the hotel, near KL’s Central Market, or Pasar Seni, is a street lined with several businesses either managed by people from Myanmar or catering to customers from that country. This “Little Burma” seems to get larger every time I’m in town.
When I’m in KL, I make sure to stop at the Gantawin Restaurant a few times for hearty bowls of monhinga for breakfast, or good meal and a bottle of Myanmar Beer at night. The waitresses always look a little apprehensive when they see a western customer enter the establishment, but once I smooth talk them with a bit of Burmese, the ice is broken. One more bottle, please!
When I wasn’t book shopping or rummaging through the CD stores in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, I was content to just stroll around town and soak up the local atmosphere. I stayed in a colorful area between Central Market and Masjid Jamek, conveniently close to the subway/train line and the Chinatown and Little India districts, plus there is noticeable Burmese presence on one street (more about that in a future post).
From either the Pasar Seni or Masjid Jamek LRT stations, I could take a train to nearly any part of town my heart desired. At nearby KL Sentral, there is also a link to the monorail, KL Kommuter trains, and the KLIA Airport Express. Very handy system they have. Once I arrived at my station of choice, I’d either head straight to a mall for more shopping or eating, or just walk around the neighborhood to kill time. There is not much in the way of historical sites to see in the city, but I do like looking at the modern architecture, street graffiti, mosques, Hindu temples, and shops.
The only thing that bothered me this time was all the Christmas decorations I saw, littering the local malls, restaurants, and department stores. And what is it with store employees gleefully wearing Santa Claus caps? Urrgghh! Yeah, I’m a seasonal Grinch, and proud of it. When I moved to Thailand 16 years ago, I thought I would be able to escape the Xmas idiocy, but no such luck. But even in a predominately Muslim country like Malaysia, the Christmas decorations are just out of control. Jingle Hell once again.
I was also disappointed that one of my favorite restaurants, Yut Kee (in Dang Wangi) was closed for some sort of multi-day break during the time I was in town. But there are plenty of good dining options in KL, so it wasn’t like I was going to go without eating for four days. I found another nearby kopitiam for breakfast, dined a few times at a Burmese restaurant, went to the funky The Ship in Bukit Bintang, and of course made a pilgrimage to the mighty Coliseum (more about that legendary restaurant in a later post also) for a sizzling steak with fried tofu on the side. Really. Weird combination, but along with a couple of Tiger beers it made my night.