Of islands, cats, and second chances

“Hon, I swear I’ll change,” Kuala Lumpur begs, stomping out a cigarette in the midst of the Bukit Bintang bustle. “I’ll quit smoking, finally put a helmet on our kid when he hitches a ride to sekolah on my motorbike… Heck, I’ll even start to recycle. Just gimme a second chance, lah.”

Okay, so Kuala Lumpur isn’t your typical clueless man-boy in a rom com and I’m not Carrie Bradshaw. But, now at the end of July, I’m thinking of giving the city a second chance to woo this Canadian.

From the Sarawak Rainforest to the comforts of air con in KLCC, the past couple of weeks have shown us the two sides of “1Malaysia.” When Kyla and I first arrived in early May, we got a bad first impression. Chinatown isn’t necessarily known for its fresh air or friendly faces, and our hostel stay lead us to grow hostile to our second home.

First, let’s hop on an Air Asia flight to Kuching (Malay for “cat”), a quiet town home to the rambunctious Rainforest World Music Festival.

Kuching’s small town charm

Life is easier on the East side of Malaysia. There’s a reason we left the haze of KL for Sarawak, Borneo, praised for its jungle and timeless hospitality. Home to over 60 tribes, Borneo boasts a colourful history much different from the peninsular coast’s Western feel. We honestly felt as if we saw the real Malaysia.

While Canucks are Osheaga-ing, we became honorary members of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys and hit up the Rainforest World Music Festival.

The Orang-Ulu longhouse, only one of the many tribes of Borneo

Once a year, the Sarawak Cultural Village is transformed into a Heineken-sponsored musical playground. For the weekend of July 13th, we sampled sounds from Norwegian concert band power-pop to Palestinian classic guitar to mighty Malaysian rhythm. Before the big-name entertainment, the days were filled with native dance workshops and interactive art exhibitions. We learned the intricate steps of the Iban tribe (including a wedding dance. I think I accidentally got married… again), I got to test out my skills as a metal wire sculptor (verdict: despite the metal elbow connection, I should just stick to writing), and we shared our love for Malaysia in a traditional longhouse.

Kyla gets a lesson in bracelet making

A local artist’s future self-portrait

9 Ringgit Heinekens in hand (that’s about 3 bucks Canadian), we descended to the slip-n-slide land of mud pits and massive stages. When you dance with as much senseless white girl vigour as I do, you don’t necessarily want your $1000 camera grinding with the crowd (so James Dean, my Canon Rebel extraordinaire, didn’t take any live shots).

Sarawak’s own export sensation, Zee Avi, extended her usual ukulele routine to a full-out band. Originally discovered on YouTube, Avi has made Borneo proud with two successful albums and plenty of American press coverage. Showing her love for hometown Miri, the pint-sized star incorporated chilling warrior cries into her radio-friendly pop. The crowd couldn’t resist joining in on an alternative rendition of latest hit, “Concrete Wall.” Avi formed a percussion brigade on stage with members of the Cultural Village, hammering out the heart-wrenching line: “You say that I need therapy. Well, my darling… so do you.”

It was a homecoming show suited for the appetite of all of Borneo. The sky opened up and sing-a-longs rang from the infamous mud pit. Avi is a class act, combining traditional Malaysian instruments with her pop appeal. Here’s a shot of the sapeh, a string instrument from the lute family:


Another favourite Malaysian act was Rhythm of Borneo. Fusing elements of jazz, funk, rock, and pop, this young group is bright-eyed and boisterous. Winners of the Rainforest Talent Search last year, they definitely have a strong, somewhat One Direction-esque fangirl following (count me in).

While Francine flew back to KL, Kyla and I had our hearts set on Bako, a short 20 minute drive from Kuching. It was hard, like most experiences in Southeast Asia, to not feel like a voyeur. When we arrived at the dock of this little fishing village, we were surprised to find every hostel booked. Instead of lounging on the beach or hanging with orangutans in one of the National Parks, we decided to save our cash and take a little tour around the town.

It wasn’t some cheap tourist thrill that changed our day. It was a little girl, with as much curiosity as a kuching, that gave us the best souvenir: a Malay conversation. So we only said “Nama saya” (My name is) and asked her if she liked cats… but for some strange reason, I’ll always remember that part of our trip.

She likes cats, too

Island living has seemed to have rubbed off on us.

With this new laidback mindset, we came back to the grind and grunge of the city. Each day, I’m reminded that there are still new experiences to be had. With only 17 work days left of our internship, we’re discovering the trap doors of KL. This past weekend, Francine and I oogled over the green areas that apparently only gas money can buy.

A park? In our city?

Allow me to adopt the Amelia Thermopolis persona once again (last time used: the Queen’s Bday Bash).

Shut. Up. 

Art + park? Okay, we’ll take it

Thanks, Petronas.

We’ve been likening this secret hangout spot of ours to Central Park, only in Malay it would be called “Sentral Park” (no C in their lingo). It’s tucked right under the Twin Towers and serves as the backyard to high-end shopping centre, KLCC. Over the next few weeks, we’re planning on doing some writing and sketching here. You know, truly embracing the artsy side we sometimes hide during the hectic school year.

All of a sudden, we’re awakened to urban possibility. The arts & culture promotional initiative in KL, http://alive-my.com/, sparked my interest in a few spunky local businesses and collectives. Despite the racial tensions, the skewed politics, and the hazy days, this city is finally unafraid and releasing its pent-up creativity.

You can actually breathe here!

KL, you’re not such a bad guy after all. Even though I’m leaving you in about a month…

Here’s to second chances.

Coming up: I swear to ramen, the William Beckett interview (travel has gotten in the way), a chat with The Annexe Gallery’s Pang Khee Teik, and tidung (hijab) fashion with my lovely friend Hannan


One thought on “Of islands, cats, and second chances

  1. Thanks Emily for giving my city a 2nd Chance. Wish you can stay longer……and know that we welcome you back:-)

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