Monday, September 25, 2006

Kuala Lumpur, Sept. 2006

I went to Malaysia’s capital last Sept 10-13 to attend 2 conferences sponsored by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF). From the air, areas around metro Kuala Lumpur has thick vegetation, could be natural forest or plantation forest. As the plane descended further, I admired the capital’s land zoning: there is clear demarcation among natural forest, palm and other agricultural plantation, and the sprawling urban landscape (residential, commercial and industrial). There are scattered patches of land clearing and land conversion – from forest land to agri land or industrial and residential projects.

The plane descending further towards KL International Airport (KLIA) and away from the city center, the wide palm plantation became more visible. Thousands of hectares of this plantation almost everywhere.

My plane (Air Asia) landed at LCC terminal; this is the terminal for budget airlines and some cargo planes. Although this is not the main airport, the passenger terminal is bigger than Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) in Manila, the Philippine’s biggest airport. Getting through the immigration section takes about 15 minutes.

There is no train from LCC terminal to KL city proper. Take the green bus to KLIA, fare RM 1.5 (Malaysian Ringgit; average exchange rate then was RM3.60/US$). The bus ride is about 15 minutes, could be around 12 kms. between LCC and KLIA terminals. Road infrastructure is good, no houses near the 2 terminals.

KLIA is really one of those gigantic airports in the world. Well, Malaysia hosts one of the races of Formula 1 and motorbikes grand prix every year in Sepang circuit, so its airport should be as impressive as its race track and the grandeur of the Petronas twin towers.

From KLIA to the city proper, you have 2 options: taxi would take about 1 hour and would cost between RM70-95. Or take the KLIA Express train, that takes only about half hour to KL central station, fare RM35. This train is really modern and fast. There are tv monitors that flash international news, exchange rate of the ringgit with other major currencies, cities temperature around the world, etc.

As the train moves from KLIA to KL central station, the views change: from a dark subway to the wide palm plantation and patches of land clearing, to the sprouting new buildings and real estate projects of KL’s periphery, then to the dense buildings and skyscrapers of the city proper, and back to the subway.

My destination was Corus Hotel, the venue of the 2 conferences. From the KL central station subway, I moved to an elevated train station, the Putra LRT line. After a few stations above ground, the train went underground. I did not check how many LRT lines in KL, but the stations in the city proper, especially around the twin towers, are all underground. Fare to Ampang Park station (after KLCC station) is RM 2, and Corus Hotel is just a 5 minutes walk from there. Wow, the Petronas twin towers is just about 3 blocks away from my hotel, only about 5 minutes walk!

After day 1 of the conference, Atlas treated us to a sumptuous dinner at a Chinese restaurant at KL City Center (KLCC), a big mall at the foot of the twin towers. The mall is big, about 6-stories, the roof is transparent, so you can see the twin towers above it. After day 2 of the conference, FNF treated us to another yummy-yummy dinner in a big restaurant on the other side of the twin towers.

After day 3, no more free dinner, we’re on our own. I joined a big group of fellow conference participants and we went to the central market to buy some food and souvenir items for our trip to our respective countries the next day. The central market is not big, well not big compared to a shopping mall. But from its 2-storeys structure, there are lots of shops. I bought a few white t-shirts with various KL designs at RM 5 each.

By the way, there was a live band that performs every night (except Mondays) near the lobby of Corus Hotel, composed of 3 ladies and a male musician. One night as our Japanese friend treated us to a drink at the lobby, I heard the girls sang the “Otso-otso”, they’re Filipinas! So I approached them, learned later that they’re all Cebuana. I even danced with one of them on the dance floor, and jammed one song with them.

Departure day, my flight was 7:20am. I shared a cab with 2 Nepali friends to the airport, we left the hotel a little past 4am. Malaysia’s road infrastructure is indeed impressive. The Philippine’s infrastructure is a joke compared here, except for the privately-operated toll roads in North and South Luzon. Midway between KL city proper and the airport, we stopped on a red light in an intersection. Beside our taxi was a police car, and it also stopped, even when there were no other cars moving from 3 other directions. If it’s in Manila and other Philippine cities, police cars and other government vehicles seldom stop on red lights, especially when there are no other vehicles moving from other directions.

So, if I were to compare KL with Metro Manila, here are my quick notes:

1. Road infrastructure, KL is way more advanced and developed. Potholes are non-existent or very few.

2. Trains, again KL is more advanced. In MM, only the 3 LRT lines operational and only 3 subway stations (Buendia, Ayala & Katipunan).

3. No jeepneys and tricycles in KL, while there are tens of thousands of those smoke-belching vehicles in MM.

4. Manila’s international airport is way, way inferior compared to KLIA, including the infrastructure linking the airport to the city proper.

5. Beer and alcoholic drinks in Malaysia are very expensive. A beer that would cost only around US$0.40 in a supermarket in MM would cost about US$2 in a supermarket in KL. Heavy taxes on beer and alcoholic products explain for the big price differential, not to mention that Malaysia is a Muslim country.

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