Anyone getting off at Kuala Lumpur airport and hearing the residents gripe could be forgiven for thinking the End of Days is at hand. If it’s not the searing heat, it’s the dry spell (if it doesn’t pour every other day everyone starts saying “drought”); or the haze (an Indonesian import that comes with the smell of burnt air and hangs like a miasma over the city); the second conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy; the clogged roads, or water rationing, the latest horror show to hit the capital after a virtually dead monsoon. It’s a little hard to imagine water shortages in a country so wet, but the rationing has led to dark talk about changing climate and further doom to come.

Driving out of the airport into the city is usually a visual delight for someone from dry, dusty Chennai. The fresh greenness and the feeling of driving through a tropical garden is a sensation hard to describe. The damp heat is, of course, considerable but you can almost feel the trees and green things growing as you move into the city.

This time, however, arriving in late February, one couldn’t fail to notice the difference. For once, Chennai seemed to be the garden left behind. The trees and shrubs in the traffic islands on the way to Kuala Lumpur were visibly wilting, the grass on the verges was brown and tinder dry, the firemen were busy with hose and reel putting out hundreds of small fires all over the valley. The haze hung heavy, a grey blanket that leached the colour from the air.

One thing, however, was constant, the birds were everywhere even in these hard times. In Chennai, the ubiquitous crow has pushed virtually every other bird into oblivion. Even hardy species such as the mynah and the pigeon find it difficult to compete, while the sparrow—so much a part of the home even 10 years ago—has all but vanished. Even in the suburbs, where the older native species manage to hang on, all you hear is the harsh or triumphant cawing (depending on your preference) of battalions of crows.

Around Kuala Lumpur, by contrast, the air is full of the sight and sound of birds, irrespective of the location. On any given morning, if you’re going for a walk or a run, almost the first sound is the warbling of birds waking to a new day. As the sun comes up you hear them one by one: the koel with its distinct liquid tones, the mynah and its bewildering range of sounds, or the busy chirping of foraging sparrows, a feast of bird song.
There are others, too, including finches, pigeons and crows as well, though you’d be unlikely to hear the distant trumpeting of a passing hornbill. It hasn’t been seen around for ages, but wasn’t uncommon in the days when the city was surrounded by plantations.

Even in the densest urban centres there’s no shortage of birds. In fact, a busy road intersection might have a “bird island”, mature roosting trees, on the grass verges. Bangsar, one of Kuala Lumpur’s busiest shopping and leisure neighbourhoods is always buzzing, roads choked with traffic and thousands of people in the restaurants and pubs, or walking, eating, talking and, of course, playing with their mobile phones, but around sunset birdsong trumps them all. Just stand around the mosque at dusk and the collective cacophony of tens of thousands of birds getting ready to roost in the trees that overlook the area drowns out every other sound. It helps that few drivers honk as enthusiastically they do in India.

The tourist brochures expend reams of breathless PR prose on the so-called Golden Square Mile, or Kuala Lumpur City Centre with its iconic Twin Towers and other skyscrapers, an intimidating monument to cosmopolitan aspirations. Few of the same brochures, however, mention the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia’s painstaking recreation of a rainforest in miniature just a few miles away.

That is a monument to perspective, showing what the country used to be like. It’s an experience to walk among the young meranti and chengal trees, forest giants that grow up to 300 feet in the wild and are too shy to be found around a city. Locals need no reminders and FRIM’s forest gets almost as many visitors as the malls and shopping complexes.

Delhi has its parks and roundabouts, and Chennai has both rich marshland (now being built over, alas) and the country’s smallest national park, but for the most part there are few reminders of old Madras in the city. It’s only around the numerous beaches, in the fishing villages, that you get a sense of the past. These villages are older than the city that has swallowed them whole, but they do serve as a reminder. In Kuala Lumpur the reminders are everywhere; all you need is the eye for detail.

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