‘Kuala Lumpur’ means ‘muddy confluence’, referring to the meeting of the Gombak and Klang Rivers. This name was probably appropriate when it was a small tin-mining settlement in the 1850s, but it doesn’t quite capture the vibrant mood of the gleaming city that stands there today. Now you’d be hard pushed to find the confluence of those rivers, hidden somewhere between overpasses, underpasses and soaring skyscrapers; in fact, ‘cement city’ would be a more accurate, if unflattering, title. I’m not sure whether it’s because Kuala Lumpurians want to disown their muddy heritage, or perhaps because acronyms are currently fashionable, but these days the city’s inhabitants prefer to be called KL-ites, and their city simply KL.
I’ve been to KL several times before, but never got nearer to the city than Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), which is over 50km away, to the joy of taxi drivers. Now I find myself based in the city for a few days researching a story on Malaysian starfruit, and find time to check out a few sights.
The one ‘must-see’ sight in KL is undoubtedly the Petronas Twin Towers, the city’s most prominent icon. It’s not far from my guesthouse, so I decide to brave the heavy traffic and walk. Luckily I check with the receptionist, who sends me in the opposite direction to the route I’ve planned, to take a raised walkway that isn’t marked on the map, and which leads all the way to the towers. I notice that pedestrians on the walkway are protected from the fumes and noise of traffic choking the streets below, so well done KL! One of the few cities I know that makes provisions for pedestrians as well as car drivers.
The ‘towers’ experience is as I expected—a rigid routine of ten minutes on the skybridge (41st floor) and twenty minutes on the observation deck (86th floor), ushered around by staff sporting fixed smiles. It’s difficult to compose images creatively in a place that’s been photographed a million times, but I have fun shooting architectural details and people taking selfies.
On leaving, I pass through the enormous Suria KLCC, one of the city’s most popular malls with several floors of designer shops, and I notice smartly dressed KL-ites pondering purchases that are way out of my league. I head into KLCC Park looking for an image of the towers from the outside and am immediately relieved to be among trees, ponds and lawns. Here’s another treat—a precious green lung right in the city centre, even if it is surrounded by cacophonous construction.
The towers may be Malaysia’s best-known symbol, but for a taste of the country’s multi-cultural character, I make my way to Chow Kit, the city’s biggest fresh market. Indian, Chinese, Malay and mixed-race vendors sing out their wares such as mangoes, jackfruit, and guavas. The vast, covered area displays a staggering variety of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish, and helps to explain the rich diversity of Malay cuisine.
After a few days in KL, I realize that the entire population is obsessed with food. It seems that the main thought on everyone’s mind is “What shall I eat for my next meal?” This question comes to a frenzied climax each evening along Jalan Alor, a street dedicated entirely to eating, and along Bukit Bintang, which is lined with trendy bars and restaurants. Locals and tourists wander up and down, gazing at displays of seafood on ice, barbecued meat on sticks, spicy curries and durian, all the while being badgered by barkers to sit down in their restaurant.
I join the throng to sample a pan-Asian fusion meal; Cambodian amok (a seafood curry) a Thai tom yam (spicy, sour soup) and a Malay mee goreng ayam (stir-fried noodles with shallots, egg and chicken). As I wash it down with a starfruit shake, I’m beginning to understand the KL-ites’ fascination with food. With so much to choose from, it’s easy to experience new taste sensations every day.
Getting around a city is always important, and KL gets a big thumbs-up for its user-friendly transport system. Well-marked and regular trains and buses run a great service for just a few cents, or in some cases free. From Raja Chulan, a KL monorail station just five minutes’ walk from my guesthouse, I can get almost anywhere in town.
While riding the monorail, I notice the sharp contrast between the rigid lines of high-rise towers and the intricate and colourful carvings on Hindu temples tucked away in the backstreets. So I head round to the Sri Maha Mariamman temple and marvel over the craftsmanship of carvings that adorn the temple, and the quietness of its courtyard induces a relaxed mood.
Not for long, however. Round the corner from the temple I hop on a bus to the Batu Caves, about 15km north of the city centre, to see something of Thaipusam, KL’s biggest annual Hindu festival. At the caves, amazing scenes are unfolding—men performing the kavadi attam, or ‘burden dance’, while carrying circular decorated canopies above their heads, spinning round in a trance. Many of them have hooks in their backs and are restrained from charging forward by someone holding chains behind. On the steps up to the caves, a solid mass of humanity surges up and down beside a giant-sized statue of Lord Murugan, to whom the festival is dedicated.
As I leave the city on the KLIA Ekspres train, having already checked in for my flight, I feel strangely calm before the experience of passing through an international airport, which can be fraught with anxiety-inducing delays. After undergoing the security checks, I sink into a vibrating massage chair and ask myself if I’ve ever had a smoother introduction to a new city before. The answer, I think, is no.
Time to freshen up the website for the new year, so I’ve made a few additions and changes. Firstly, I’ve added a few scans of stories that appeared in printed magazines (an increasingly rare form of media!) during 2016. These are:
- Deep in the Delta, a photo essay on the Mekong Delta for Jetstar Asia magazine.
--Strange Town, a focus on Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar, for the South China Morning Post.
--Blissful Bloom, a story about the sacred lotus for Morning Calm (Korean Air inflight).
I’ve also changed the sample story from my collection ‘Searching for Shangri La’. ‘Sweeping Meditation’ is a chronicle of my changing attitudes to the fascinating activity of sweeping leaves. There’s also an audio version of the story, so rest your eyes for ten minutes and listen to the tale unfold.
Recently, I’ve been on the trail of vanilla, the magical spice that flavours our cakes, custards and ice creams. Along the way, the trail took me to Madagascar, where they produce the finest vanilla in the world. It’s called ‘Bourbon vanilla’, after the former name of nearby Reunion Island.
Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid (vanilla planifolia)? That its flower has to be pollinated by hand in order for the vanilla pod to grow? That the pod must be picked on a particular day of its growth, and then go through various stages of conditioning for almost a year before it is ready to use?
I didn’t know any of this; I didn’t even know what a vanilla pod looked like, but I found out pretty quickly before boarding a plane to Antananarivo (better known as Tana), Madagascar’s crazy capital.
I started tracking down vanilla in the city centre, at the huge Analakely Market, which was teeming with produce, and I went bananas shooting images of the vendors with their artful displays of bell peppers, shredded carrots, shellfish, succulent strawberries and gleaming tangerines. As for vanilla, after a careful look I was able to distinguish top-quality beans (long, slender, dark, glistening) from the cheaper stuff, which was short, stubby, lighter in colour.
I had to be on my toes all the time, because—as just about all Tana’s citizens keep reminding you—this is one dangerous town. Thefts and muggings are regular, which may have something to do with the fact that about half the population have no work or income. Fortunately I emerged unscathed, and was even brave enough to join the crowds at the annual Madagascar Carnival—wow, those Malagasy can dance!
In the kitchens that I visited to see what chefs are doing with vanilla in Tana’s top restaurants these days, it was invariably the top-quality vanilla pods I saw stored in tall glass jars. I got to photograph (and eat!) some amazing dishes, such as chicken escalopes with vanilla sauce and pork and sweet potato with vanilla. And much as I enjoyed these exotic dishes, nothing could beat the vanilla soufflé for its uncompromised vanilla-ness.
Before leaving Tana, I bought a few bunches of vanilla pods to experiment with at home. Now I’m a vanilla addict and each time I head for the kitchen I’m dreaming up new ways of adding it to any dish. Its sweet, creamy and smoky aroma has got me under its spell.
I’m sure I’m not the only photographer who has watched with dismay as online stock photo (or microstock) libraries have mushroomed over recent years. Why dismay? Well, I used to sell my travel stories to clients as a package of words and images, of which the images would often be worth half or more of the fee. Yet since these image libraries have expanded to cover every destination and topic under the sun, and since their images are available for use at US$1 or less, most publications I work for now want me to provide text only, which means I’ve lost about half my previous income.
To give an idea how fast these sites are growing, Shutterstock (the biggest) has over 70 million images available, and uploads over half a million more each week. This works out to a staggering 50 images uploaded EVERY MINUTE! The downside for contributors to SS is that no sooner have they uploaded new material than it gets pushed off the first page and so has less chance of selling.
Despite these problems, I finally decided to stop grumbling and adopt the attitude of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. So I recently submitted a selection which was accepted, and you can see my tiny portfolio at http://www.shutterstock.com/cat.mhtml?gallery_id=3496445. I’ll post a few samples below, and I’ll be submitting images quite frequently. After all, as SS contributors know, this is a numbers game, and only those who are constantly uploading make any money. Even then, at US$0.25 per image, you’ve got to make A LOT of sales to be successful. Nevertheless, I’ve made a steady start and already my earnings stand at US$1.50!
Usually when I travel, I’m updating a guidebook, so I’m rushing around from dawn to late, checking hotels and restaurants for inclusion in the next edition of the guide. But a few weeks ago I lucked out, spending ten days on a Pandaw cruise around Ha Long Bay and the Red River Delta in Vietnam in order to write and photograph a story about it for the company’s magazine, as it was a new route that they wanted to publicise.
Loved it! Sprawled on a sun lounger, taking in the endless change of view, from towering karst outcrops to container cranes, brick kilns, fields of rice and passion fruit, locals waving from the riverbank. Wandering around small villages, watching water puppet shows, seeing conical hats made, listening to traditional songs sung by teenagers. Writing a few notes about the experience and getting to know my fellow passengers, gorging on gourmet food three times a day. Following are a few images from the trip.
If you want to read the full story, take a Pandaw cruise and read it in the Pandaw Magazine while aboard, or sign up as a subscriber on their website—www.pandaw.com.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.