It was the cheapest flight I could find between Amsterdam and Sydney, but it left me a sixteen-hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur. Awkward. Not long enough to justify a night in a hotel, and although KL International Airport was voted ‘best airport in the world 2005-06’, sixteen hours is a long time to spend drinking Delifrance cappuccinos and shopping duty free. Even the World’s Best Airport 2005-06 was unlikely to keep me conscious till a 10pm flight.
So I caught the fast train into downtown Kuala Lumpur. It took 28 minutes, cost 35 ringgits (about US$12) and dropped me off at Sentral Stesen near the Lake Gardens. There’s shade there. And a free mouse deer enclosure. Mouse deer (or is it mice deer?) are only interesting for about ten minutes, but when you have hours to kill, every little helps. Most mice deer in the cages were curling themselves up inside logs, ignoring their plates of chopped carrots and cabbage. They’re bigger than mice incidentally – more like rabbit deer, but with spindly legs and short ears.
Still fourteen hours left to fill. I saw there was a bird park next to Lake Gardens. I loved Singapore’s Jurong Bird Park, so this was worth a try. Entrance 45 ringgits (about US$15). Singapore is wealthy enough to put a lot of resources into its zoos. Malaysia’s bird park is less spectacular than Jurong, but nonetheless I was pleased I went.
Egrets and storks have free range in ‘the largest free flight aviary in the world’, because a net covers the top of most of the park, keeping the birds in place. This means that even a klutz like me can get close enough to a feathered friend to get a sharp picture (see sample above.)
More interesting still was the people watching.
In a muslim country, when I’m confronted by the sight of men walking around in t-shirts, shorts and baseball caps in the heat and humidity, while their womenfolk tag along in black headscarves or burkas, my first thought is ‘It must be awfully hot in there’. I was sweating profusely in spite of my loose, light-coloured clothing and planning a shower back at the airport. Maybe burkas are more comfortable than they look, and I am sure many women wear them of their own free will, but it seemed incongruous that these women were expected to wear modest traditional dress, while it was apparently fine for men to wear whatever they liked.
Having no religious belief myself, the idea that an all-powerful creator of the vast Universe would be so petty as to be offended if a woman bares her shoulders on a hot day seems ridiculous to me. Such cultural norms are surely man-made, and only other human beings take offence.
Yet I was pleased to see people in burkas apparently having just as much fun as the rest of us. If these women were fanatically plotting jihad against the west, they were disguising it very well, by smiling, licking icecreams, and having their photos taken with parrots on their shoulders. I liked them and was glad to spend a day in their company.
STOP PRESS: I did stay awake till 10, caught the plane, watched Clash of the Titans till it bored me to sleep, and arrived jet-lagged anyway.