BootsnAll Travel Network

Wonderfully Lost

Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, is a sprawling city of 1.5 million people. Huge skyscrapers, most seemingly with names of banks on them, loom in the center of the city, surrounded by endless neighborhoods of Malays, Chinese and Indians. Petronas Towers, the huge two towers which pulled rank on the Sears Tower as the highest building in the world, only to be overtaken by Taipei 101 in 2004, is the city’s pride and joy. A sprawling complex of offices, apartments, and shops, surrounded by huge fountains, parks and a mosque, it is never quite out of sight. It disappears around a corner, only to appear a second later in between two other buildings. The two towers, linked by a skybridge on the 41st floor, is I think the main tourist attraction in Kuala Lumpur, but somehow stupidly so. This city, with hectic Chinatown and fragrant Little India, plush gardens and a swirling mass of people dodging cars, has so much more to offer.

I arrived here  a few days ago from Melaka to the south, after spending a quiet two days in that coastal town. The day after my arrival, I spent the morning strolling through the town square, the center of the city. Since I was staying in Chinatown, the town square was a quite jaunt over the river, a dirty muddy mass flowing like a clogged artery under your feet. The town square was centered around the Stadthuys, a massive red building built by the Dutch. There was a museum inside, but I skipped that in favor of another museum around the corner which was recommended to me called The People’s Museum. It s also called The Beauty Museum, for its’ main exhibit was an enthralling look at how different cultures maim and disfigure themselves in the name of beauty. Lip plates, foot binding, corsets, tattoos and cranial elongation were all given lengthy explanations as to their reason for being, and pictures and examples of some accoutraments were also on display. Oddly enough, high heels weren’t part of the exhibit, but I for one have experienced many a torturous day in those.

After spending a long time at this exhibit and in the air conditioning, I climbed up the nearby hill to visit the ruins of St. Paul’s Church, built by the Portugese. The church includes the graves of some Portugese and Dutch settlers, and offers nice views of the water and surrounding neighborhoods. Working my way back down the hill, I found myself in Melaka’s Little India neighborhood, much smaller than its’ counterpart in Singapore, but not less busy. I bypassed the restaurant recommended by my guidebook, though it was full of locals, and found another one off the main street, with enough customers to make me comfortable eating there, but not so many that I didn’t feel overwhelmed. But my white skin and fleeting look of confusion at the choices of food quickly brought over a young waiter who ushered me to an empty table. After asking me what I wanted, ie chicken, mutton or fish, and asking if I could “eat spicy”, he set off to get my food. He quickly returned with a huge banana leaf, or in this case, my plate, and set it before me, dispensing a huge amount of rice in the center. Two other waiters behind him began to spoon out different kinds of vegetarian curries from big metal containers they carried around, and my waiter again came back with a bowl full of chicken curry, and another of lentil daal. While mentally prepared to eat as the locals do, taking the rice in your right hand (not the left, as that is for toilet purposes), and using it as a sort of sponge to mop up the different curries, I hesitated again. Reading my mind, my waiter appeared again, and silently handed me a clean but water-spotted spoon, and I cowardly accepted.

After lunch, I walked around the street surrounding Town Square, with no destination but never getting truly lost. Sometimes this is the best way to explore a city and get some much needed exercise. One thing I saw that I thought was really interesting, was a water dispenser on a side street. Much like a fountain pop machine, this contraption was sitting on a non-descript sidestreet. For RM 0.20, or about 7 cents, you could fill up your water bottle with a liter of clean water. I consider this a wonderful idea, perfect for tourists who drinks liters and liters of water in a day, and feel guilty contributing those water bottles to the growing mass of discarded plastic. Unfortunately, the machine was out of order, but I couldn’t help thinking how great of an idea that would be in any city. Though Melaka is quite a sizeable city, about 600,000, it had a quiet charm about it, and with that I realized there was not much to do. Aside from visiting some temples and museums, there wasn’t a lot to keep a tourist occupied for more than a couple of days. Accepting defeat, I returned to my hostel for another shower, and a rest.

That night after dinner, I again walked through the night market in Chinatown, and just as I was heading towards my street, I ran into Chris from Singapore and his group from Intrepid. They were heading out for a drink, so I happily joined them at a nice bar overlooking the river next to the Stadthuys. I was happy to find my friend again, especially since my hostel was practically empty and I was looking at a second night alone. They were heading to Kuala Lumpur the following day, as I was, and after a few beers, we decided to call it a night as they had an early bus ride. I hadn’t booked my ticket, but my hostel assured me I didn’t need to prebook, as a bus runs every half hour to KL. After what I thought would be a quick trip to the post office, but what turned into a very long errand, I grabbed a taxi and headed back out of town to the bus depot. A huge station situated underneath a Tesco supermarket, I easily found the ticket counter and bought my ticket for KL. For RM9.50, less than US$3, I headed off on my bus and my 2 hour ride to the capital.

After arriving at the main bus station in KL, I quickly made a beeline for Chinatown. What was becoming a habit also made the most sense for various reasons. Chinatown was right next to the bus station, so I didn’t need to figure out the confusing public transport system in a new city with heavy bags, and it offered a vast array of budget accomodation. It was also where Chris was staying with his group, so meeting up with them for dinner or drinks would be no problem. I quickly checked in to a hostel, where the price had doubled from Melaka for my own room, but was still in the realm of cheap. The traffic had been crazy coming into KL, and the two hour trip turned into almost three. It was almost 5pm now, and too late to make any attempts to see the city. After showering and resting a bit, I checked my email and got a note from Chris that they were meeting for dinner at 8 at his hotel, so I got ready quickly and went through the hectic streets of Chinatown looking for his hotel. Though it was just around the corner on the next street, it took a while to navigate around the hundreds of shops and hawker stalls that had been set up for the night market. Fake Louis Vitton bags, Diesel shoes and pirated DVD’s of the latest movies were all for sale, as were stalls of frying food set among larger restaurants and shops. It took almost 10 minutes for me to walk the two blocks to his hotel, winding my way through the stalls and under awnings. I finally found it, and met up with his group for dinner.

For anyone who is a little scared of traveling Asia alone and independently, or if they are short of time, Intrepid tours offers a welcome option. With small groups and a local guide, they arrange transport and accomodation for you, along with day trips around the cities. The nights and some parts of the day are yours to do what you like, more sight seeing, sleeping or shopping. I fell in easily with the group whose guide was an American living in Asia, and we quickly settled on a small restaurant on a hawker lane for dinner. Following dinner, we headed towards a well-known reggae bar for more drinks and chatting. Bars in Malaysia were the same as in Singapore, offering fluid drink specials, usually much better deals for women than the men in the group. Somehow we were offered RM5 mixed drinks, while the men had to settle for RM8 beers, whose price increased following an undisclosed hour. Not quite tired and looking for some dancing opportunities, Chris and I headed to another part of town known for restaurants and discos. After bypassing a sketchy club, we found another one down the street offering relatively cheap beers for Chris, and free drinks for me. Seriously, free drinks, no cover. Agreeing to split the difference, we went in. After ordering the drinks, I realized that the bartender had charged me for my vodka-tonic. I asked her about it, and in an endearingly, shit-eating grin kind of way, she laughed and said, “Oh, you have to tell me you want the drink for free. Now it is too late. But the next one now is free, yes?!” she said, laughing and giggling. I could have been mad ,but it was too ridiculous and not worth getting upset about. But she kept her word, and following that, she anticipated my empty glass and set new ones in front of me, for no charge. The club was hilarious in other ways, most notably that I was one of about 3 women, and the DJ booth was overtaken by young Indian men rapping and calling out to their friends on the dance floor. After a few drinks, we headed home, somewhat deflated about our dance club experience, but still realizing it was fun all the same.

The following morning, after a quick breakfast and an even quicker tour of the Natural History Museum, I headed towards an area called the Lake Gardens, a large park with trees and greenery offering cool shade in contrast to the polluted city, I found myself walking there. Still not learning my lesson from Singapore, by the time I arrived a few kilometers later, I was hot, sweaty and tired. I found my way to the Butterfly Park, and after paying the RM16 fee, walked around this canopied area swarming with butterflies. There was almost no one else there, and it was nice and cool among the trees and plants. There were vast varieties of butterflies and I found a bench to just sit and watch them. My rest was interrupted by screaming children, who were frightened by the butterflies as if they were flying cockroaches and swatting at them. I decided to leave then, and started my walk towards the Orchid Garden. WHen I asked an older couple for directions, they told me it was closed for renovations, but told me to go to the Bird Park, so I made my way there. The pricey fee, RM28, again, not learning my previous lesson of paying to see enclosed animals, was not worth the long walk around the park, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the zoo. Some birds were cages, but many flew free in the park and lagoons. I spent over an hour there, walking around the many cages and areas in the park.

Realizing it was well past lunch time and I was hungry and tired, I made my way back to my hostel, and Chinatown. After a cheap cheap meal of noodles from a street stall, I went back to my hostel exhausted and feeling slightly dehydrated. It is sometimes difficult to drink enough to keep you hydrated, especially with the amount of sweating that I do, and realizing I wasn’t getting the job done, I headed to 7-11 and quickly bought two cans of Gatorade. I needed to be more careful, as not only was dehydration dangerous, but it takes a long time to recover from. I checked my email, and Chris sent me the meeting time for dinner, so I had time to sleep and rest. Feeling slightly better when I awoke, I showered and changed and headed out for dinner. His guide brought us to a nice Malay restaurant off a side street of Chinatown, away from the glaring lights and piped pop music. The food was good, cheap and plentiful, and we all tasted each other’s dishes with open enthusiasm. Following dinner, Chris was determined to find a view of the city from a higher point, and after getting drirections from his hotel, we found a taxi that said he knew where it was. Four of us, Chris and me, and Paul and Carla, headed off in the taxi to this unknown destination. After what seemed like eternity, but probably was about half an hour, we realized that the towers were getting farther and farther away. Our taxi driver asked us suddenly if we knew what road to take. His English was not very good, but we determined that he clearly had no idea where we wanted to go. Hopelessly lost and nowhere near our destination, the taxi driver pulled over to ask some security guards at a complex, and we sent Paul out with him to try and explain what we wanted. What followed next was 5 minutes of hilarity, as we watched from inside the cab as Paul’s arms motions upwards and high and with huge sweeping motions, trying to explain we wanted a high view of the city. One, two, three men were now summoned and were all pointing and motioning to our taxi driver. Finally, the driver and Paul headed back to the cab. “Sorted,” said Paul, but we were unconvinced.

After a quick turnaround, our cab made it’s way up a dark hill, covered in trees. Higher and higher were climbed, and we breathed a sigh of relief. He finally understood, we wanted to go high up, and had found a nice park or hill for us to take our pictures. But then we arrived at an apartment complex, and after quick words with the security guard, we were escorted into the building and up the elevator. Our taxi driver had talked his way into a private residence for us to take our photographs. The security guard, probably welcoming a diversion, quickly agreed to bring us up to one of the higher floors with an outside view. Once we arrived outside, we were disappointed to see that the view, while lovely, was partially obstructing the towers and other larger parts of the city. Not wanting to show our disappointment, we laughed and took pictures of our guide and the security guard, and cracked open some beers we had brought with us. It was a complete and totally weird little accident, how we came to be in that apartment building. We headed down and back towards the city, never really figuring out where our original destination was supposed to be. Arriving back in Chinatown, we had a few more drinks to round out the evening, and replay again and again how totally weird and hilarious the night had turned out. As 2am reared it’s ugly head, we said our goodbyes, as they were headed out of KL the following day.

The next morning, I turned off my attempted alarm and slept in. To visit the Petronas Towers, you have to get in line at 8:30 for a ticket, and I stupidly thought the night before I would be able to get up. In my dark, windowless room, the alarm seemed fake, like it was coming from the neighboring cell, and I quickly turned it off. Sleeping in a windowless room is very disconcerting. Getting up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, I realized it wasn’t the middle of the night, but 6am. My alarm went off at 7, and the room looked the same, as it did when I awoke at 9:30. I didn’t like the feeling, but it did have one advantage in that it kept out the noise of life on the street. Dragging myself out of bed and downing half a bottle of water, I went to find some breakfast on the surrounding streets. I ran into some Intrepid people, and headed back to their hotel with them, putting off doing some sightseeing as long as possible. I hung out with them for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, after they ran last minute errands, and had lunch before their long bus ride to their next destination. Finally, it was time for them to go, and I walked them to the bus station to see them off. Making plans to meet in Thailand after his tour was over,  I said goodbye to Chris and my new friends.

Alone again, I headed out towards another bus station, this one just a side street full of idling, exhaust spewing buses. I found the one I needed, and after paying RM2, I found myself on a local bus heading out of town. After an hour ride through the clogged streets of KL, and the quiet neighborhoods surrounding it, the bus driver motioned for me to to get out, as I had reached my destination. The Batu caves loomed over the street on a huge hill covered in green forest. A giant gold statue guards the entrance, as does a daunting 272 steps and crazy monkeys who grab at any food or shiny object in your hand. I huffed up the stairs and entered the huge cave, which curiously had a paved floor and other unnatural areas. Disappointingly, the audio tour was not available, and I wandered around the cave, looking at the all the shrines and statues, not having a clue what I was looking at, but guessing it was a place of worship for Hindus. The cave was remarkable, however, and it was nice to be in the cool air.  I made my way back down, and waited for the bus back to the city, and the same driver picked me up, seemingly on his way back. It had started to rain, and the cool water dispersed the pollution in the air, leaving clear, cool breezes. Unable to pry myself away from cheap eating, I had dinner again in Chinatown. Craving vegetables, I ordered a huge stirfry and noodles, and sat at the corner restaurant people watching. The past three days had exhausted me, and since I was without company, I headed back to my hostel, and joined the other guests in the open air lobby to watch The Italian Job, a welcomed entertaining movie.
This morning, I gave in to my alarm and headed out to Petronas Towers. Though I arrived at exactly 8:30, the line was already pretty long by the time I got there. Since they only take up small groups at a time, I was given a 9:45am time, and waited with the others in a waiting room with displays on the towers, including a cool little machine where your height is measured in comparison to some large buildings around the world. I of course, chose the Sears Tower, though everyone else chose the Petronas Towers. I was not surprised to find that I was very short compared to either structure. We were finally escorted up to the skybridge and given about 10 minutes to look around, plenty of time. The view was not that spectacular, since the two towers obstructed half the city. But it did finally give me a clear sense of direction in KL, as I had been unable to find my bearings for three days. Some cities are easy to find your way around, and some, like KL, are harder, and I had been getting unintentionally lost for days now. Following my quick view, I headed back towards Chinatown, and detoured up the hill of the “city forest” to the Kuala Lumpur tower, a large communications tower at the top of the hill. What could have been a nice cooling escape on the forested hill was interrupted by screamingly loud heavy metal music coming from the parking lot of the tower. I forgave myself, and decided to not head to the tower for more views of the city. I stoped at the tourist information center, and got some information and booked my bus ticket to my next destination, the Cameron Highlands. Heading towards the interior, the highlands are a main farming area, high in the hills, offering cool air and relaxing days. My waiter in Melaka one night told me that the Cameron Highlands were too cold for him, and he didn’t like it there. But the promise of actually being cold for a change has convinced me to head there, also a major weekend destination for Malaysians. I’m ready for the countryside, away from the lovely, exciting, but swirling mass of Kuala Lumpur.

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