Kuala Lumpur: The Real Asia

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It begins at the airport in Chiang Mai, where I’m about to board a flight to Kuala Lumpur.

“Excuse me, miss?”

I turn around and see a crowd of teenagers staring at me.

One tentatively steps forward.  “You have something in your hair.”

I reach up and pull off a red luggage inspection sticker.  “Oh, no.”

They burst into giggles.  I know I shouldn’t be, but I feel a bit embarrassed nonetheless.  The teenager, a Malaysian, goes on to ask me where I’m from and tells me how much he wants to visit the United States.

People have said that would happen all the time, but it never really happened in Thailand.  Aside from posing for a few photos of my blue eyes, I’m not that exotic there.  Farang rule.

But Malaysia is something different.

I land in Kuala Lumpur and it’s hot, hotter than Bangkok, and though the sky is blue, a light rain is somehow falling.

And then come the stares.

I know stares.  I love stares.  In Italy and Argentina, you feel like the hottest person in the country when walking down the street, the men laughing and commenting on the things they’d love to do to you.

Not here.  I walk by and the Indian men go silent.  They watch each step I take as if to memorize the gait of my walk, no trace of humor in their eyes.  I decide then and there to cover head to toe wherever I go out in this city.

I step on the shuttle bus, the one that will transfer me to the high-speed train downtown, and the men on board are screaming and attempting to wrestle the fire extinguisher out of the wall.  The car next to us?  On fire.

Finally, they succeed in freeing it from its case, and the fire is extinguished.  There are no further events beyond the bus driver, his hair a mullet highlighted with orange, hitting a parked car and driving away.

This is the real Asia.

Did I really call Bangkok chaotic?  It’s got nothing on KL.  The street vendors are more persistent; the yells are louder.  The streets are potholed and every sewer makes me want to retch.  And why is street food so damn hard to find?!

After that arrival, I wanted to get out as soon as possible.  Was I crazy for booking two full days there before heading to Krabi?

I had to do something.

I walked into the hostel and introduced myself to the first person I saw: a Finnish firefighter who just finished a diving trip in Sumatra.  And right away, my spirits improved.

An hour later, we’re eating pizza and drinking margaritas at a Jamaican bar in Malaysia, talking about Conan in Finland and yelling, “FAGELSTROM!!!”  Joining us are an Australian guy and American girl, discussing Finno-Urdic languages and laughing at the absurdity of it all.

Sometimes, a little human contact is all you need. The next day, I explored modern KL — and while it was no Bangkok, it was still pretty fantastic.

19 thoughts on “Kuala Lumpur: The Real Asia”

  1. Weird… I found KL to be a lot calmer than Bangkok. But maybe that was because I had already been in Malaysia for a number of months before hitting KL so I was pretty used to the culture by then. Or because I spent most of my time in KL cooling off in my air conditioned hotel room or the mall.

    1. I kept hearing about Bukit Bintang but never made it there! I’ll be in KL again, unquestionably, considering how many Air Asia flights I’ll be taking, but you’re right — Krabi is MUCH better. And our adventures have been hilarious.

  2. I found KL to be much more chilled out than Bangkok. In my opinion, KL was annoying. The taxi’s were always so dishonest in KL and the malls were way more overwhelming. Times Square mall is insane. The food in KL is really good though. I loved the street food ssoooo much there. KL is completely different from the rest of Malaysia and loved Malaysia outside of KL so much more. Oh and it’s much more expensive than the rest of SE Asia.

  3. I never did witness a hit and run before. But since there are many drivers in KL who love to park illegally at the sides of the roads, getting hit was bound to happen. hehe

    nice to read a post on my country on your blog. looking forward to read more. =)

  4. KL has many sections, while some are chaotic, others could be much better. The food-hmm, some of then best in SEA, and the variety is awesome. You just have to ask people on the streets where to find good food within 50 meters, and chances are that nice hidden gem is just around the corner at the side alley. 🙂

    And then the rest of the country? What do you want to see in a tropical country? You name it, they have it: first class tropical islands, white sandy beaches, oldest tropical forest in the world, highest mountain in SEA, indigenous people, wildlife, orangutans, best coral reefs, best diving sites, most variety of street foods, multy-ethnic society, multy-religion, best caving, colonial townships, reliable domestic transport system, tropical fruits, the list is endless…

    Kate, come back to Malaysia and rediscover its hidden treasures.

  5. I’m really nervous/excited about Malaysia. I will be travelling through it on sleeper trains and probably stop off at KL and Penang. It seems so diffferent to the rest of SE Asia1

  6. Aside from the cool people at the hostel (and maybe the stares), I’m pretty shocked at your experience in KL. Even eliminating the awesomeness of having a couple of Malay buddies in the city, I didn’t find anything especially difficult. Traffic was hectic, but generally polite. Even more so than Taiwan where I’ve settled in. But I’m especially shocked you couldn’t find street food. I stumbled across it everywhere. And I shall always have a special place in my heart for roti chanai with pulled tea.

    But I don’t see where you stayed in the city… For travelers, get over near BB Plaza. It’s a big, cheap shopping mall in the city center-ish. Two blocks away is a street of ALL hostels and guesthouses. Very reasonable. One block away is street food central… Anything and everything cheek by jowel. And hang a left away from the street food is a strip of the best, most economical-yet-cool lounge bars in town. I’ll even plug the place where I stayed: Tropical Guest House. The owner and her friends are awesome (free tour to Melaka anyone?), the beer is cold, and if you’re there at the anniversary of the guesthouse, then free food and drinks until you fall over.

    I kinda liked it there… 😉

  7. Hey, you have a great blog! I love to travel solo too, so far only been to 11 countries..I think you missed the best part of Malaysia. It’s in Borneo island, Sabah and Sarawak! You should travel to these two states if you are nature lover and you’ll be amazed!. Let me know if you are coming to Sabah, it would be great to meet you and get some insight from the real person :). I had dream to travel around the world but had done it..isn’t that great!

  8. Hi there. I stumble upon your blog when teaching my class about blogs. The pupils said that your blog looks cool and you are very adventurous. They told me to suggest to you to come to Sarawak, the other part of Malaysia. You may think “What is special about Sarawak?”. The cultures, the interesting places and the most important thing is the FOOD. Look up about Sarawak and that will make you want to experience Sarawak even more. Oh, one more thing. If you are into music, we also have the annual Rainforest world music festival. If you want to know more about Sarawak, email me and ill share you more.

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