Saturday, May 3, 2008

A Trip To Kuala Lumpur (Part I)

From Singapore, By Bus

The Golden Mile Complex in Beach Road, Kallang is the place to buy bus tickets for the 5-6 hour trip to Malaysia. The ground floor of the high-rise commercial and residential building houses several tourists and ticketing agencies. If you take the time to go from one ticketing agency to another, you’d find out that the prices are more or less the same.

As of April 2008, bus and coach tickets range from 30-40 SGD, with the $40 affording the luxuries of a larger leg room, a seat that can be adjusted almost to 180° and a TV monitor that allows you to either play games or watch movies. Of course we chose the most luxurious one, taking the trip was part of Angie’s celebration in passing the Architecture board exam after all. There were six rows of seats excluding the driver’s: three passengers per row, two on the driver’s side and one on the left. My TV monitor wasn’t working, which wasn’t unfortunate because I preferred to doze the night off anyway.

As luck would have it –again, because this was neither the first time nor the second– we got the furthest seats from the driver. With the high barrier in front that houses the monitor, you’d almost feel like you were in a private room. Except for one thing, that is. Behind the flowery curtain that dangles innocently from the ceiling lies the driver’s companion’s own private world. This time around, I was expecting to hear intermittent snores coming from behind for the duration of the trip but I was to be happily disappointed.

About 30 minutes after departure, the seats automatically rise to their upright position – undoubtedly the driver’s doing – signaling our arrival at the Woodlands Checkpoint of the Singapore Immigration. The driver makes a cryptic announcement but the word passport unmistakably stands out and when the bus comes to a full stop, everyone gets off the vehicle with their most important piece of document, at least for the time being.

The exit at the Singapore Immigration is usually uneventful and takes only a few minutes, depending on the number of people heading off to Malaysia. At the time of our exit, at about 1 a.m., there were only about forty travelers and so were back in the comfort of our seats in less than 10 minutes.

The bus crosses the Johor-Singapore Causeway, over a kilometer long, where the Malaysian checkpoint lies just on the other side. Again, with the driver’s obscure message as cue, the passengers leave the bus, this time with all their belongings in tow in case entry to Malaysia becomes an issue. Needless to say, the bus will not wait indefinitely for all passengers to come back.

Pudaraya To Petronas Twin Towers, By Train

The bus made two stops in the course of our trip. I awoke on both occasions but I was fast asleep even before the vehicle started moving again.

We arrived in Pudaraya, Kuala Lumpur at about 5:30 a.m., almost 5 hours after the bus left Beach Road. People were everywhere: along the pavements, in 24-hour food stalls, by the stairs leading to the lobby of the once tallest building in Malaysia, the Menara Maybank, and even in the nearest McDonald’s where a number of people were taking a nap. Everyone appeared to be waiting for someone or something – for a bus to come or for the sun to come out.

As for us, we spent a few minutes in McDonald’s to have breakfast and to take the chance to chat for a while. Afterwards, we climbed the stairs to the Menara Maybank and then lay down on the marble benches near the ATMs to rest. When the guard came and asked us to leave, we decided to take a stroll on the nearby surroundings.

Except for the obvious Islamic architecture of a few buildings, the place almost looks like Manila: dingy, perennially wet sidewalks; side streets with the unmistakable smell of urine; ubiquitous street food vendors offering local treats. Several hotels, hostels, inns, pension houses and all those places that mean you can stop there for the night are found all around. We found out much later in the day that Petaling Street, the Chinatown of Kuala Lumpur, was also just about a hundred meters away from the terminal.

Getting to the Twin Towers from Pudaraya is simple enough via train. Of course, in terms of speed, nothing beats taking a cab. Unfortunately, just like in some other Asian countries, foreigners are easily taken advantage of -- the taxi drivers insist on a fixed price and refuse to use their meter. This makes you appreciate Singapore, where taxi drivers almost always charge by the meter. (The 8-seater Maxi Cab would sometimes insist on a fixed charge especially during peak hours in tourist spots). In fairness, albeit in a misconstrued notion thereof, the Malaysian cab drivers do the same thing to locals.

The Plaza Rakyat train station in Pudaraya is just behind the bus terminal and a 3-minute easily walk takes you there. In our case, the steady stream of students in uniform striding along the walkway served as our trail.

Getting to the KLCC station, where the Petronas Towers are located, first entails getting to the green line of the Integrated Transit Network of KL. This is accomplished by getting off at Masjid Jamek, a mere one station away from Plaza Rakyat (Pudaraya) and crossing the street to take another 3-minute walk to the ticket counter of the green line.

You can turn this minor inconvenience to your advantage, like we did, by taking pictures of the Masjid Jamek, one of the oldest mosques in Kuala Lumpur that was built on the first Malay burial ground in the city. KLCC is now just 3 stations away and the twin towers is a short walk from there.

Skybridge, Petronas Twin Towers

During our first visit, we had to ask one of the guards for quick directions on how and where to queue for access to the skybridge. On our second time around, we knew exactly where to go. The ticketing counter is located at the concourse level of the Petronas Towers. It’s hard to miss especially during the weekends because people start queuing up as early as 7 a.m. Twice we thought we were early but then there were always people ahead of us by the time we got to the booth.

At about 8 a.m., a staff went around to ensure that the queue was how they wanted it to be, asking only one person per group to stay while the rest waited somewhere else. We were informed that each individual can get up to five (5) tickets, free to choose the time of visit from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 15-minute intervals, as long as the slot is not yet filled up. The tickets are free but only the first 1,300 people can be accommodated for the day.

At 8:30 a.m. when the ticket counter opened, as many as two hundred fifty were already lined up. Also by this time, another staff member goes around asking each person what country they’re from and how many tickets they need; he writes these two bits of information on a coupon, which he gives to each group representative for later use.

Once at the counter, the person issuing the ticket asks for the coupon and further inquires what viewing time is preferred. On both visits, I’ve only asked for the earliest available slot. We were lucky enough to be included in the 9 a.m. slot the first time and 9:30 a.m. during the second. Viewers are reminded that they need to be in the ticketing counter 15 minutes before their chosen timeslot.

While waiting, you can stay in the exit room and engage in some fun-filled activities such as solving mind-boggling puzzles, watching a short movie on how the towers were built, learning from a video how the building is made lightning-safe, and taking a look at the surrounding view of the Petronas Towers through a telescope. It took me some time to solve one particular puzzle. I was in the middle of working on the next one when the infallible signal was given that it was time to see what we’ve came there for.

At precisely 15 minutes before each viewing slot, an announcement is made through the public address system that the next set of viewers can now enter. Upon entry, we were handed 3D glasses and escorted to a small viewing room to watch a 5-minute primer about the Petronas towers and the company behind the magnificent structures (PETRONAS: Petrolian Nasional Berhad).

After viewing the short video clip, we were guided to a counter where all our baggage and personal items were scanned by the security. Food, drinks and other items were asked to be left behind and stored in the safety of their lockers. I had to leave my Swiss Army knife and was given a tag that I used to claim it back afterwards.

Child and adult, men and women, black, white, yellow and brown, we were taken to the 41st level, where the skybridge is accessible, via a high speed double-decker elevator that soared at about one story per second. The guide proceeded to give a 1-minute spiel about the twin towers, mentioning that Tower 1 was built by the South Korean multinational Samsung Engineering & Construction and Tower 2 by Hazama Corporation of Japan and that the skybridge was actually a 2-story bridge but the upper story is not made accessible to the general public. As we listened to some other quick facts about the twin towers, the visitors from the previous slot make their way out.

Finally, we were given about 10 minutes to take pictures and enjoy the spectacular view 170 meters above the ground, from the skybridge of the tallest twin towers in the world!

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