Friday, April 13, 2007

Operation "Malaysia"

Over the long Easter weekend I was able to rally three others for a trip to Malaysia and the Petronas Grand Prix Formula 1 race at the Sepang Circuit. I'm not an F1 afficionado, but I firmly believe in coupling experience with exotic location. We did international cricket in Chennai, and a horse derby in Mumbai. If you're going to ride a camel it should be in Dubai. If you're wanting to ride an elephant and see F1, why not Malaysia?

Upon Friday arrival from Hyderabad via Chennai (Anna International Airport), we checked into the swish Mandarin Oriental at around 7am. Upon arrival we knew we were in for a weekend, as aside from innumerable Travel & Leisure awards, the lobby was adorned with the F1 Ferrari pit crew. I say adorned because an F1 entourage is comprised of more than just drivers and mechanics. Let's just say Ferrari isn't the only *model.

Our Petronas Tower suite was pretty sweet, and our 21st floor vista put us 20 under the double-decker skybridge that made 'Entrapment' more than just another Catherine Zeta-Jones film. We spent Friday meandering the city, snacking on dubious roast duck in a dingy streetside eatery, pondering the notorious Durian and its unfortunate smell. After Chinatown, we survived the scorching equatorial heat by absconding to the shaded park where the national mosque and butterfly farm were kept. And following a poolside evening, mojito in hand, watching the sun set over a James Bond infinity pool and South Asian skyline, we dined at a hard-to-find, but exceptional, restaurant.

Our concierge at the Mandarin, a man who not only remembered all our names, but our room number and preferences, recommended the Gulai House. A former mansion used to house visiting heads of state, when we arrived we realized that we were the only table. Dining with a wait-staff of half a dozen on an immaculate jungle-fringed, white-pillared veranda, we thought of our fortunate circumstances. As thunderclaps and gray rain clouds obscured the moon and bats circled above, there was an eerie perfection about our grand solitude and privileged night. But a car was called, and we returned to the Mandarin for our next adventure...

On Saturday we journeyed north two states to an elephant sanctuary called Kuala Ganda for relocated elephants. Surprised by the immaculate and streamlined Malaysian infrastructure, we were able to cruise at nearly 180 kph, autobahn-style. When we arrived, after feeding the elephants by handing them chopped bananas, cucumbers (which most did not enjoy), and watermelons, we rode elephants bare-back until it was time for them to bathe. With half a score of baby elephants only 2-3 feet tall, we splashed around in a muddy-banked Malaysian jungle river. Their vibrant energy, loud playful shouts and trunk waving induced euphoria in the cool water. Hairy-backed, big-eyed, and clumsily independent, the elephants were truly endearing. After an hour in the water, and half a day at the sanctuary, it was time to return to Kuala Lumpur (Kuala=river, Lumpur=muddy, this name in reference to its former history as a mining town, primarily for tin). Upon return to KL we unsuccessfully attempted to enter a VIP BMW F1 party. Given our elephanty smell and disheveled appearance, our surprise was that we were not ejected sooner!

On Sunday we made our way from the Mandarin to the Sepang Circuit, the F1 course 50km south of KL. Via subway, train, bus, taxi, running, and bus, we made our way to the race. The incredible infrastructure of KL proved itself again with enabled remote check-in for Malaysian Airlines from the train station, 12 hours pre-flight and 50km from the physical airport. Not to worry, we got our seat assignments, boarding passes, and confidently checked our bags before watching BBC and seeing Google news on the speeding bullet train to the airport. Coming from India, the word novelty is a relative understatement. Once to Sepang the traffic was appalling. A bus and taxi proved ineffective so we ran for it, 2km down a sweltering freeway through bumper-to-bumper traffic. At the checkpoint, the impetus for chaos, a cop asked us how we'd arrived. When we stated we'd ran, he smiled and said 'Welcome to Malaysia,' a funny line at the time given that his response indicated that he thought we'd literally run from abroad.

We eventually arrived at the Sepang Circuit about 20 laps into the 56. The audible buzz of cars signaled our arrival before sight could confirm affirmatively. We mounted the hill station that was our uncovered 40 ringit seat ($13), and endured the heat that was 56 degrees C' on the track. I'm not quite sure how we survived, but we managed to track Alonso and his McLaren car to the checkered flag, and enjoy our debut with the global F1 craze.

Next year, Monaco.

No comments: