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Kuala Lumpur

THERE'S FIVE of us sitting at a pavement cafe in Chinatown getting some authentic local nosh down our necks. We've been holed up in a five-star hotel for the past four days and it's our first opportunity to get out and about and have a gander at the downtrodden poor. There are five of us - excepting myself, all media types, I'm afraid: a freelance photographer with a reversed baseball cap, a magazine editor with square glasses, a PR bloke with a skinhead haircut, and an unbelievably attractive young lady wearing a tiny black dress who writes for a glossy fashion magazine.

We have decided to patronise an establishment called Fuk Poo. At the Fuk Poo you sit on red plastic stools at round plastic tables beneath grubby parasols in the middle of the street and the food is fantastic. Punters sit elbow to elbow, back to back, shoving noodles into their gobs with chopsticks; bicycles and mopeds inch their way between tables; and grubby young waiters shove about, bearing pails of beer bottles and paper plates piled up with delicious food. Our man wears a worn-out T-shirt that bears the logo Bum International.

It's sultry. Sticky. Sweat trickles down my body, filling my belly button. And I can feel my inferiority complex peeping through, as it does when I'm socialising with people who know exactly who they are, and where they are going professionally, and who have a precise and often surprisingly uniform set of moral values. But, apart from that, it's all going swimmingly. Either I think it, or someone says it, but the general feeling is that, in the authenticity stakes, we really have the jackpot.

It starts to spot with rain. We lean forward under the parasol to escape the drips. This is even more authentic. I'm already rehearsing telling people how we ate delicious Chinese food outside in the street and it was raining. We finish our food and I get out a cigar. I don't have a match so I dive under an adjacent umbrella (it is raining considerably harder now) to beg a light from three Malaysian men. Before I am offered one I have to answer some important questions. Am I Australian? How much did my cigar cost? Is it a Havana cigar? Do I normally smoke cigars? Do people in Australia normally smoke cigars? To his last I say that it is not only normal but it is compulsory; they smile disbelievingly.

Then it begins to rain harder than I have ever seen it rain before. Taking our little red stools with us we bolt for refuge under the eaves of the cafe. Some diehards stick it out under other parasols, but the water is already swirling around their ankles. We place our stools in relative comfort in a row, cross our legs and watch the incredible spectacle of a tropical downpour. The noise is tremendous and conversation is out of the question, so we just sit and smoke and marvel at the thundering torrent.

As we watch we are lit by flashes of lightening and simultaneous crashes of thunder apparently right overhead. The diehards under the parasols admit defeat and sprint for cover. The road becomes a raging torrent and some of the red plastic stools and the vacated tables turn upside-down and float gently down the road, revolving, until somebody draws Mrs Fuk Poo's attention to them and she starts shouting and waving her arms about.

And then the rats start emerging from the drains beside our feet. Black rats. Rattus rattus. The ones responsible, so we are told, for spreading bubonic plague. First one, then another, then scores of them, soaked to the skin and looking sorry for themselves. There is indeed something rather abject about a half-drowned rat. They neither dart nor scamper, but trudge among us, bemused, miserable, as inconvenienced as we are.

And hard on the heels of the rats are the cockroaches - big sods - hundreds of them, occupying the vacant spaces between the black rats and our sandalled feet.

Uncongenial as all this sounds, I find the experience of standing in a doorway with my fellow diners, silently contemplating the restaurant furniture floating down the road, with black rats and brown cockroaches running between my feet, exhilarating.

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