Moving On To Malaysia

Butterfly Fields, Forever

“Kuala Lumpur. How do you even spell that?”

–My mother, upon learning I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

 If the main thing I learned in Bali was how bad Lonely Planet phrase books are, the lesson of Kuala Lumpur was how truly bad the book’s maps are. I understand that books like LP are “guide books” with a small g, and aren’t meant to be ultimate arbiters of what’s hot and what’s not, but it seems like the landscape wouldn’t change that much. At the time I was visited there was so much building going on all over Southeast Asia that people were talking about the growth of the “Asian Tiger,” but that’s still no excuse for missing whole streets on these maps, or omitting some just because they’re inconvenient to list. I don’t know how other people use maps, but when I look at a map, I count the number of side streets to see how far away I am from my destination. With LP, I had to guess and, unfortunately, most of the time I was wrong. Hell, I wasn’t even close. 

The saga of my search for a guesthouse is a case in point. Although the bus arrived in KL at 4 a.m., I waited in the city’s huge bus station until dawn, when I would be able to see where I was going. It’s a good thing, too, because I probably would have spent all that time being lost anyway. Once I left the station, I was able to get as far as a traffic circle on my map before I got completely lost. I spent more than an hour walking the same square block again and again trying to find the Traveler’s Moon Lodge, or any of several guest houses listed as being on the street I was traversing. I finally ignored the map, walked a block west and immediately found Moon Lodge.

I know my friends might accuse me of being unable to read a map; and I would be inclined to agree with them if this situation hadn’t repeatedly played itself out in cities throughout the region. Others might argue it’s hereditary. After all, my people did wander the desert for 40 years because Moses wouldn’t stop at a Chevron station and ask directions, but I think it’s bad cartography. If I could have, I would have resolved the problem by stopping at a map store and getting a better map of the city, but there was one problem with that strategy: I would have had to follow an LP map to find the store.

The first order of business, besides sleep, was visiting the American Express Travel Service office in this highly confusing city to check my mail. The guesthouse owner told me where to catch the bus, what bus number to look for and what to ask. No matter which bus I stopped, every driver said it wasn’t on the route. After standing on the same street corner for two hours I decided maybe I didn’t need to check mail all that much. So I gave up and had lunch at an A&W across the street from a McDonald’s, which was just north of a Baskin-Robbins, a Dunkin-Donuts and not far from a Kenny Rogers Roaster.

A visit to the National Art Museum was next. There was just one problem: figuring out how to get there. Riding a bus meant waiting for a vehicle that never came, while walking meant relying on my LP map again. The museum was easy to find, but closed to the public for an art exhibition, which just proves that no matter how hard you try to get somewhere there are times when events conspire against you. 

From there, I ambled to Muzium Negara (National Museum) to learn more about Malaysia and its treasures. I can’t say I learned much, but I did see some interesting stuff. My favorite was the skull of an elephant that caused a train derailment. I wish I knew the story behind the incident, but I saw no explanation. The displays of wedding rituals, native clothes and shadow puppets ran a close second on my list of favorite exhibits. As a result of a lack of food and sleep, I began to lose the will to stay awake somewhere near the displays of the slippers of royalty and the 10 cases devoted to magical and holy knives from the country’s history. Far be it from me to poke fun at another country’s culture (although that’s exactly what I’m doing) when I come from a place that gave the world fuzzy dice, shag carpeting and Amway, but I still think five or six display cases filled with curved, obscenely pointy knives would have been enough to get the point across. But, hey, that’s just me. 

What the heck is up with all the knives at the national museum?

I would have walked to my guesthouse but I was tired. Besides, the sky opened up and spewed forth a tremendous shit-rain just as I left the museum and I had left my rain gear in my backpack, so I hopped a 33 bus back to Moon Lodge. 

Big mistake. 

When the bus reached the end of the line, I still didn’t know where I was. I had been smart enough to drag along LP complete with its lovely maps, which were no help at all. 

I made it to the right neighborhood an hour later and I’m still not quite sure how I did it. 

By the next morning, I was so frustrated I was going to leave until I stumbled across WIZASIA, an internet cafe, in the A&W Plaza near my guesthouse. I almost didn’t stop in because I had gotten tired of explaining that I was a backpacker with a laptop, an America Online account and a local phone number that allowed me to check e-mail free if only I could please borrow a phone line. It wasn’t repeatedly explaining the situation to everyone at the cafe (which got old fast) that made it such a pain. It was knowing no matter how many times I asked and no matter how many people I talked to, the answer would remain NO.

That was until I met Jason Lee, the manager of WIZASIA.

The husky, bearded, red-haired southern California guy had been running the store for two months and expected to be there a year. He not only let me use a phone line to check my e-mail messages via AOL, he also told me he knew a guy from Seattle I should meet and that he was planning to see this guy after he closed. Since both men had been living in K.L. a while, I agreed hoping they would take me to some place tourists and backpackers miss. The chance to get news from home and my desire to see an area of Lake Gardens park that my guidebook called the Butterfly Field gave me enough incentive to stick around another day.

Lake Gardens is Kuala Lumpur’s Central Park, a recreational area on 100 hectares of land in the middle of the city. The more I wandered along the park’s walking paths admiring the closely cropped lawn and ornate bridges over a canal that ran throughout the area, the more stunningly beautiful I thought the Butterfly Fields would be. I got so carried away I imagined myself being in a field like the one in “Leap of Faith” where a Kansas sheriff takes Deborah Winger, then claps and hundreds of butterflies come up from nowhere and land on both of them. I even tried to figure out what I would do if I couldn’t snap pictures fast enough to keep up. I was still curious how the park kept wild insects confined to one area if they were roaming free, however. 

What the hell was I thinking? Me, a man who had covered government long enough to be a cynic was foolish enough to think insects would voluntarily hang out in one field.

A butterfly on the ground at Kuala Lumpur’s Butterfly Park.
A butterfly on a plant at Butterfly Park.

No such luck. Instead, they were in a screened-in area at the back of a non-descript building filled with all sorts of relics. While there were indeed plenty of butterflies of all sizes and colors, most were hanging on the netting as if they’d been stuck there after they died or as though they were hanging on for dear life, hoping no more elementary school kids were scheduled to tour the facility. There were a few larger, braver ones flying, pollinating flowers and trying to pick up butterfly babes, but most were too far out of range of my telephoto lens. 

What really stunned me, though, was the live scorpion display and exhibits featuring spiders and beetles big enough to trap, rip open and suck the blood out of a 1970 Buick Le Sabre. And then there were the bugs that specialized in unusual forms of camouflage — one favorite looked like a leaf, another a stick. 

I’m still trying to figure out why the people who named the attraction didn’t just call it The House of Creepy-Crawlies or The Big Ass Bug Museum. I may know more about taxation than taxonomy, but the last I heard the family that includes beetles and scorpions (pesticus butt-uglius) does not include butterflies (insectus decoratum).

My evening with Jason Lee and Seattleite Jim Ludwig was equally uneventful. I expected an exciting night wandering outside the tourist areas, roaming from dive-to-dive as we explored the seamy underbelly of KL. Instead, we hung out, spent a few hours talking about Seattle, KL, women, traveling, food and the lack of pornography in Malaysia (perhaps because its sale is punishable by death). Then we walked the streets and ended up at an exotic restaurant called McDonald’s before parting at 10 p.m.

It was time to move on.

As we said our good-byes I took out my address book, wrote down their addresses and accidentally left the book at the restaurant. I never saw it again.