The state of our capital – by leesan

Kuala Lumpur is one of the top cities in Asia to visit, but when it comes to cleanliness, we need to do so much more to compete with our neighbours.

Copenhagen is best explored on two wheels. Its bicycle infrastructure currently includes hundreds of bicycle lanes, curbs and routes. – Shutterstock via Apple Vacations.

LOS Angeles is LA, and Kuala Lumpur is KL – two very different cities in two different corners of our planet that really should not be compared.

But, if we were to spread a map of the world before us, we would come to realise that we are all actually part and parcel of the “global village”. And because of that, each city has aspired to promote its unique characteristics in order to stand out among their peers.

My job requires me to travel around countless cities across the globe. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I have problems remembering which city I am currently at. And very often I have to gain better insights into the unfamiliar city through my personal encounters with its ambient environment, colours, smells, murals, patterns, weather, sounds, music and other attributes – an experience that I actually enjoy tremendously!

Each city has its own style and appeal, which I believe will etch a great impression on a traveller’s scope of vision as well as on his or her feelings.

For example, I love to sit inside a cafe that’s tucked in one of the small streets in the city Tunis in Tunisia, sipping thick and aromatic robusta coffee while staring at the demonstrating crowd making their voices heard just across the street at the public square. I believe it is the fundamental right of humans to fight for a better quality of life.

That said, I can see from the facial expressions of these people that they are frustrated with their city.

Meanwhile, Algiers in North Africa is a gem of a destination with 132 years of French mastery in urban design and architecture. Unfortunately, after the departure of the French in 1962, the city has lost much of its lustre. Its dilapidated shells lining the littered streets are testimony to the now depressing state of a once glorious metropolis.
A local guide once told us: “We are worlds away from being an international-class city.”

Every city has its glossy as well as less glamorous sides. Nonetheless, I still revere the inner soul of each one, from the bottom of my heart. Other than appreciating the city’s beauty and charms, I am more than willing to view its imperfections with a calm demeanour, just because the city to me is only a transit point where I will put up for not more than a couple of nights as a passing traveller.

The back alleys of Taipei are clean and tidy and the roads are pothole-free. There are many specialty stores too, creating a sort of ‘back alley economy’ – Photos: LEESAN

While every traveller may have very different perceptions of an unfamiliar city, their yearning for safety is universal.

Perhaps you have heard that India is not the right destination for a solo female traveller. Yet somehow we read of independent female travellers who still go there.

Likewise, Buenos Aires (Argentina), Rome (Italy) and Paris (France) may be the much sought-after destinations for globetrotters, but there are many real-life stories of travellers getting pick-pocketed or robbed there.

Safety aside, some travellers are more concerned about the number of Michelin-starred restaurants you can find in a city, or how tasty and cheap the local food is.

The most pertinent issue, nevertheless, is the level of cleanliness and hygiene in a city.

Travellers who visit Japan and New Zealand love to check out the public toilets there. A female travel buddy once said to me: “I don’t have to worry about my constipation problem whenever I travel to either country!”

Once travel resumed after a series of lockdowns during the pandemic, I discovered that the public toilets in Bangkok (Thailand) and Taipei (Taiwan), and even the back alleys of these cities have improved so much. I’m pretty sure the liveability index of these cities will improve remarkably in the near future.

Lastly, let us look back at our own capital city, KL. Over 20 years ago, Peru’s president Alberto Fujimori told reporters after a night walk in the city that KL was not a walkable city. I would like to update Fujimori, who is now serving his jail sentence in a Peruvian prison, that KL is still not a very walkable city today.

And that’s not all. Many foreign tourists have complained that they fell into potholes while walking in the city. As the nation’s capital, why are the roads in KL always full of potholes, with rubbish on every side of the curb? What a disgrace.

If the authorities cannot shed the city’s “ugly image”, we need to at least put up signs along the streets to warn pedestrians of potholes. Perhaps we could also caution tourists not to venture into the rubbish-strewn back lanes or tell them to be wary of motorcyclists approaching from behind. We may also need to advise our visitors not to walk into a public loo, unless absolutely necessary!

A young female Japanese traveller once said that the toilets at KL’s coffee shops are stinkier than those that she has been to in Kenya, which is a developing country just like Malaysia.

Indeed, a city’s outward beauty can be amplified with glitzy neon lights and a fresh coat of paint, but the inward beauty will need to be cultivated by its sincere, kind-hearted residents. Perhaps a combination of both will maximise its appeal.

The grimy alley behid KL’s infamous ‘food street’ in Pudu. The other areas with heavy tourist traffic such as Jalan Petaling, Jalan Alor, Bukit Bintang and Chow Kit are just as repulsive!

Leesan, the founder of Apple Vacations, has travelled to 137 countries, seven continents and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.

Published in STAR 2, 18 Mar 2023