A few years ago, I found myself in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at the end of December and got to enjoy my first New Year’s Eve in a Muslim country. My night began like so many, on the rooftop of my hostel, where a bunch of people, including eight or nine Finns, were having a few overpriced beers. The Finns had arrived in four separate groups and had found each other purely by coincidence. Everyone agreed this was the largest gathering of Finns ever outside of Finland or a NHL hockey arena.
After a few beers everyone wanted to move on to the Reggae Bar, which was exactly like every other bar with that name in Southeast Asia: full of dread-locked backpackers. If, for some completely unfathomable reason, you ever want to attract dread-locked backpackers, just put up a sign with the words “Reggae” and “Bar”. Like moths to a flame, within seconds you’ll be surrounded by ratty hair, over-sized, brightly colored pants and fascinating discussions about who bought something or went somewhere for less money than everyone else.
This particular version of the “Reggae Bar” clearly had never in its entire existence played a single reggae song, but that was nowhere near enough to save it. I figured I would hate it when I heard the name and was certain of my dislike the second I stepped through the doors and had a look around. Luckily, a German guy in our group quickly got kicked out for having a bottle of water in his bag, so I left with him.
The German guy had spent a lot of time in Kuala Lumpur and he was convinced that the New Year’s Eve festivities at Independence Square would be more interesting than the more standard and, in his opinion, much more touristy celebration near the Petronas Towers. Independence Square was a lot closer, so I didn’t need much convincing.
At the square, a large crowd was being inexplicably entertained by some apparently famous, yet completely talentless, Malaysian singer. As bad as he was, I couldn’t argue with the results. The crowd was really into his cheesy-even-for-Asia pop routine, making for a great atmosphere. Fifteen minutes before midnight, the ‘singer’ was shooed off stage in the middle of a song and replaced by the mayor or some other public official who proceeded to kill the merriment of the crowd in record time.
Even though we couldn’t understand a word of his speech, the effect on the crowd was undeniable. He was clearly so boring, that he could have easily been the Republican frontrunner somewhere between Cain and Santorum, if he had bothered to learn even ten words of English in the time since. At midnight, fireworks lit up the sky and the LCD screens of thousands of cellphones taking pictures lit up everything else. At ten after, everyone went home.
The whole thing was surreal. I’ve never seen such a subdued New Year’s celebration. When the German guy and I started walking back a few minutes later, we scanned the thousands of empty cans and bottles on the ground to see if we could find any that had once been filled with alcohol, but there were none. Eventually, we did find a little pile of vodka and rum bottles and immediately after, a pile of drunken Australians, so that explained those.
A few days after the huge New Year’s Eve blowout, I found myself passing through the square again with a neighbor in my guesthouse. We were just going for a quick bite to eat, so we didn’t bring our cameras. That was very unfortunate.
On this night, the square was home to some kind of festival, with a band set up in the middle of the street playing something vaguely resembling rock music, while a really skinny, middle-aged Malaysian guy danced his ass off. It actually looked more like an epileptic having a seizure while being electrocuted and dodging bullets fired at his feet, like in the old Westerns and it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen and the first time, of many that night, where we were cursing ourselves for not bringing a camera.
The next time came fifty meters down the road, where a Malaysian folk band that was clearly formed in the fifties, judging by their look, was entertaining the crowd, while two old couples, who probably got married around the time the band was formed, were dancing.
A short while later, they were replaced by what can only be described as the Malaysian Michael Jackson. He was about half as tall and half as fat as MJ (I’d say 1,45m and a solid 45 kg), couldn’t dance, moonwalk, or sing, but tried all three over and over and over. And the crowd loved him. I think he might have actually been famous. Just when we thought we couldn’t take any more, the MC started pulling volunteers out of the crowd.
As soon as he came near, everyone took off, leaving him with the only people he could catch: four middle-aged and completely out of shape guys. He then proceeded to teach them how to dance like Michael and depending on your perspective, either failed miserably or succeed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. If you judge the results as a dance, he was clearly the worst instructor ever since Britney Spears’ vocal coach. If you judge them as comedy, he redefined the genre.
I am really racking my brain for the words to accurately describe the twitching and gyrating they were doing while wearing facial expressions of such profound misery that I could imagine them on Soviet prisoners breaking rocks in Siberia in the winter, but I’m drawing a blank. All I can say is their display topped all of the above as the funniest thing imaginable and every single person watching was practically rolling on the ground in actual physical pain from the laughter.
After that they brought out two fat ‘R&B’ ‘singers’ (yes, those quotes are all intentional) and with that we left. The high pitched, tinny, screeching sounds coming out of those speakers were unbearable—I guarantee you every dog in a 50km radius was cowering under a couch with blood pouring out of their ears. Our only words as we left were WHY DID WE NOT BRING OUR CAMERAS?!?
A few months after this, I actually did have my camera with me when I stumbled into a karaoke and dance contest 150 km down the road in Malacca’s Chinatown. Unfortunately, the performances weren’t quite as crazy as the ones on New Year’s Eve.
Chubby Chatterbox says
I’ve never been to Malaysia so your well-written and funny commentary was very interesting. If New Year’s Eve was celebrated in a tepid manner, I wonder if they have bigger, more important holidays. My guess is—yes.
Because Malaysia is so diverse, each group has their own important holiday, but none of them really celebrate our New Year’s Eve that much. The Chinese celebrate Chinese New Year (of course) and the Muslims and Hindus both have their religious celebrations.
Daniel recently contributed to world literature by posting..Holy Cows in Goa
Lawrence Michaels says
When I saw the title of your article, I had to check my calendar to make sure it was still July. You never know in Asia, the way time passes here. Today it will be some random Friday in July, tomorrow it will be some random Wednesday in 2015. But I digress.
You know that cellphones are the lighters of the tech generation, so seeing such a display at a concert really isn’t that out there, although I agree it is a bit surreal, especially if you’re a little drunk. Interesting to read about something actually happening in KL, whenever I’ve been there, there has been nothing to do really.
Lawrence Michaels recently contributed to world literature by posting..Phuket Weather
Yeah, my posts are not in chronological–or any kind of logical–order. That would require planning.
Daniel recently contributed to world literature by posting..“Fan Death” — Korea’s Killer Electric Fans
Sounds like you had a lousy new year’s eve at KL.. and yes, you should’ve brought your cameras! 😀
You are a very entertaining writer! If you are this entertaining and not a jerk in real life then I’d actually love to travel with you! That coming from a guy who habitually travels alone is quite a comment!
I’m actually doing research on traveling in KL, and your blog appeared! I love it!
Keep doing this, you’re good! I hope that you land a highly paid writing career for a chilled out travel guide. Not the Rough Guides / Lonely Planets / etc of the world.
Take care in your travels! And hey, if you have any funnies about anywhere in SE Asia, I’d love to read them. Oh, have you been to Apocalypse Now in Saigon? OMG! That is an experience! For what it’s worth, I went there last year, and was gobsmacked! The usual bouncers at the door, that’s pretty standard fare for clubs. But this is different! The entire venue is crawling with dozens of uniformed and armed security guards eye-balling every square centimeter of the place! Not even a roach would pass through undetected! It’s by far the creepiest place I’ve ever been to! Now when I go to a new place I tend to wander around to check out the lie of the land as it were. Barely twenty seconds into this, and before I’d found the loo (always important if you’re planning to drink), I was “escorted” by one of the dozens of security guards to a little round table in front of the bar and instructed through gesticulation to sit on a particular seat and remain seated! A waiter arrived, took my order, and returned with the beer. A few sips into the beer and a security guard escorted a woman to my table to occupy the only remaining seat. She didn’t speak a word of English and I can’t speak a word of Vietnamese, so we sat there looking at the bar and occasionally at each other! That rates as my most bizarre venue ever!
Even more strange than the really weird place close by where there is no sign but it’s upstairs and through an unmarked door. The place was completely dark, as in completely! The only light was from the DJ desk and the bar itself, both so poorly lit that the bar staff have these dim torches (flashlights) to read the menu, bottle labels, money, and so on! The music was a bizarre blend of some type of house music and some strange percussion things clanging together. There were about four people in there, well, from what I could make out after about half an hour of becoming accustomed to the intense darkness. Oh, and I ordered what the drinks menu indicated was a beer. Now this was my first night in Saigon, I’d arrived only about two hours before, so I was keen to try the beers. I like beer… Well, this one was, from what I could see in the darkness, a pinkish colour, and tasted like some highly artificial chemical blend that might have been supposed to resemble rasberries or something similar. Definitely nothing close to beer!
Having said all this, Saigon is a fascinating place! I found probably the most awesome restaurant there, with delicious food, fantastic service, and cool decor! Oh, and one Vietnamese woman at the table next to mine actually spoke enough English to conduct a meaningful conversation. They’re really friendly if the language barrier is absent. I’m keen to go back just to eat there again!
Ok, that’s enough of my essay!
Greetings from Cape Town, South Africa.
Hey! If you’re ever in Cape Town, please look me up!
Thanks Brian, I’m glad you enjoyed my story. I know what you mean about traveling alone; I generally prefer to be on my own too, although I will team up with people for shorter periods of time along the way.
I’ve never been to Vietnam. It’s one of the few countries in Asia I haven’t visited, but from your description, it sounds like I wouldn’t much like the night life: pink beer and seating charts are not my idea of a good time. I actually haven’t really enjoyed the nightlife anywhere in southeast Asia. It does make for some great stories though.
Daniel recently contributed to world literature by posting..Who Says Trekking in Nepal Has to Involve Lots of Walking?