An F1 weekend in KL
Since the establishment of F1 in Malaysia in the late 1990s, the country has attracted even more tourists than before, says VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.
In the limelight the F1 is a new formula to attract visitors.
A SHORT, bald and rather round gent in his late fifties waits in the arrival lounge carrying a placard that reads my name in bold capitals. I pause and stare at it blearily, calculating the odds of another passenger on the same flight bearing my name; then reach forward and put out a tentative hand.
"Hi, I'm Shaan, welcome," he says with the glib savoir-faire of a tourism and travel operator, as he peers at me from over his glasses. We step out of the imposing confines of Kuala Lumpur International Airport and get into his fancy-looking Mercedes Benz C class parked 20 feet from the exit, adjacent to the curb. "Had a good flight?"
He looks typically Indian, but speaks with a thin foreign accent that I can't quite pin down: it isn't to my knowledge local; perhaps it's the mixed up legacy of immigrant forefathers. "My grandfather lived in Kerala," he remarks chattily, as he turns the key and accelerates from zero to 100 mph in less time than it takes to sneeze. "I have never been to India but I grew up speaking Tamil. A lot of people, by the way, speak Tamil here; you want to get them all excited? Talk in Tamil."
But Shaan isn't really a South-Indian name, I inform him somewhat apologetically, in the sorry-to-burst-your-bubble kind of tone. He grins turns out he's your regular, bona fide Shanmugam. "Shaan is easier to remember, that's all," he explains.
It's five in the morning and dawn hasn't broken yet. The roads are wide we are zipping down a three-lane highway and empty of traffic. Less than 10 minutes into the ride, my companion points to his right: that's the route taking you to the Formula One racing circuit in Sepang.
It's the weekend of the Malaysian Grand Prix, and most F1 fans arriving in the country will shack up at the dozen-odd hotels that exist in the heart of the capital city. Sepang is only a short ride away from the international airport but it's about 60 km away from the central business district of Kuala Lumpur; it's, in fact, a different state altogether, and there are at least two toll-points on the way. On race day, Shaan warns me, roads leading out of KL will be clogged from early morning. F1 tickets cost anything between RM 250 to RM 2,500 (one ringgit is worth over Rs. 11), but that isn't about to prevent diehard motor sport fans from taking in the ambience of the track firsthand, after spending years as couch potatoes relishing the prospect of watching classy overtaking manoeuvres on television.
The F1 `circus'
Tourism is a booming industry in Malaysia, and this is peak season for the tiny country. Crossing any random street in KL feels like a practical lesson in the economics of globalisation. Brands pop up without warning from kerb-posts; they leap at you from under awnings. A McDonalds might jostle for space alongside Ralph Lauren, and a seedy local massage parlour that advertises through muffled whispers might share walls with a supermarket store. The readiness to co-habit is even more evident in areas like Chinatown, upon which people descend in droves to pick up everything from cheap DVDs to fake F1 merchandise. Not surprisingly, since the F1 circus put up its tent here in the late 1990s the country has attracted even more tourists than before.
Vacations, says David Lodge in his novel Paradise News, produce in people a state of artificial cheerfulness, fuelled in many cases by double martinis. They know how people going on vacation are supposed to behave; they have learned to do it. "Look deep into their eyes and you will see anxiety and dread," says a character in the book.
While in general that's a remarkably perceptive observation, somehow it does not seem to apply to this place. To some extent, that's because this is a relatively cheap place to head out for a spell of relaxation that's if you resist the urge to buy a ticket to the race. But mainly it's because Kuala Lumpur is a genuinely attractive destination for folks wanting to do their own thing, to live life for a few days at their own pace.
The night of my arrival I decide to go out, do a spot of on-site investigation. This city is clearly obsessed with tall structures: as I walk down Jalan Sultan Ismail, my gaze drifts from one 40-storey construction to another until my neck hurts from the effort. It's past midnight nearly 1.30 a.m., actually but the street is crowded with teenagers and foreigners spilling out of discotheques. F1 banners are all over the place, and practically everyone is sporting a shirt or a cap with some racing insignia inscribed on it. A little cheesy, perhaps; on the other hand, it goes with the flavour.
I follow the curve of the overhead Monorail bridge construction for a bit, then take a right and stroll across the road to a pub where the jukebox is playing "Time" by Pink Floyd. From here, I can see the mother of all big buildings the twin Petronas. As far as the architecture goes it looks unexpectedly ugly, close-up and admittedly, there's a lot of it to look at. But it's quite an experience, all the same; one thing I can remove from my "to do" list.
The sun is the same in a relative way but, as it goes, you're older.
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