My favorite thing to ask accomplished travelers is, “where is your least favorite place in the world?” Though goal of this question is to shorten my ever-growing mental list of Places I Must See, the effect is the opposite. Take, for instance, my most recent travels and the four most common answers from travelers in this region: South Korea, Singapore, Jakarta, and Malaysia.
I become convinced that the people who disliked Seoul or Kuala Lumpur simply did it wrong. Perhaps these tourists grow scared of squat toilets when they’re not surrounded by the quaint trappings of rural village life. Perhaps foreign living becomes too, well, foreign, when they lack the novelty or shininess one craves when stepping off a plane.
After hearing how much a locale sucks, I not only become determined to visit, but I become determined to LOVE it. Fortunately, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and I do end up loving places everyone else hates. Or perhaps my suspicions were right: I am actually better at travel than everyone else. I am the winner of the travel competition that I just made up, and the only other competitors are the people who dared to answer my probing questions honestly.
I definitely won the Liking Kuala Lumpur Travel Contest, and after all the trials and frustrations of the journey to the city, that’s a good thing. KL is this huge, vibrant, multicultural, international city with shopping steals and incredible food.
Here is what I did in my very short time in Kuala Lumpur:
1. Take a ride on the metro rail, which is hilariously inefficient with its two rail cars and hoards of passengers. You know how in most cities the train doors won’t close on people passing through them? Not in KL. At our stop, we barely made it off, and very few people made it on.
2. Shop in what’s rumored to be the largest mall in the world. Though I don’t know when Mall of America knows it lost the title, or if the mall in KL was indeed bigger than the one in MSP, I enjoyed stealing free wi-fi, people-watching, browsing in an English-language book store, and spending some time in the bathroom on the top floor, with its views of the whole city. Andy also bought a camera lens that retails in America for double the price he paid. I was most struck by the vibrance of the mall — it wasn’t at all sterile or homogenous.
3. Eat on the famous Jalan Alor strip of street food paradise. It took some time to find a table away from the stench of durian, but I really liked our experience. Though the restaurant we chose was out of our first choice, our random pick ended up being quite delicious. After some investigation, it turned out we had eaten Bah Kuh Teh alongside our barbecued snails. I wish I hadn’t taken to the internet to find out exactly what it was I probably ate, because the memory would be a lot shinier without knowing I ate pig intestines, stomach, ears, etc. I do, however, feel brave.
4. Sample a dessert with a kidney bean topping. My dessert came with balls of watermelon and other unidentified fresh and dried fruit, shaved ice, sweet milk, peanuts, and red kidney beans. I loved it washed down with a beer.
5. Observe women in hijab with a level of envy. All through Malaysia I saw confident women with a great sense of style that had fully covered their bodies except for face and hands. While I’ve always thought European “burqa bans” limit women’s freedom of choice rather than empower, I still have had personal mixed feelings on being told to cover one’s body for reasons that basically come down to men being unable to control themselves. However, in KL, with my dirty body and frizzy hair, I caught myself thinking how freeing it might be to be considered for one’s wits and character alone, to completely forgo the beauty myth… I’ve since found the website We Love Hijab, which has been a fun and educating read.
6. Decide that Kuala Lumpur is sort of like the best parts of Houston mashed up with vitality of Bangkok with the hustle and bustle of NYC. Diversity, cars, street art, street food, hawkers and vendors, taxis, malls, pedestrians, jay-walking…
7. Learn that our train to Singapore would have…complications. Of course our last leg couldn’t be easy. For this final train journey, we had splurged on a first class cabin with our own private bathroom so that we could be rested and fresh for our first day in Singapore. After dealing with delays, we got to lay awake for about three hours in a frigid room with missing towels and a broken toilet and TV that wouldn’t power off before the train stopped and we were ordered off. We were shuffled off onto a bus on which we traveled for several hours before being switched back to a train. Normally I’m not very much of a princess, but I was sort of pissed that our cabin cost so much more than a regular seat when we only got to “enjoy” it for half of the trip.
This trip to Kuala Lumpur was part of a four-day journey between Chiang Mai and Singapore via train. To catch up on the earlier parts of this journey see the posts below:
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