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21 November 2008
Kuala Lumpur: many lessons learned
crabby cabbies, cool caves, and classy couchsurfers

Petronas TowersOur time in Kuala Lumpur, or "K-L" as it's known locally, was a series of great travel lessons. We got to meet lots of fellow travelers, had an amazing local dinner, and saw some spectacular sites. But overall, our time in the Malaysian capital left a bad taste in my mouth.

typical Malaysian street sceneWe arrived early on Friday, Nov 21, via the shiny happy Aeroline bus from Penang. As before, it dropped us off a few blocks from KL's main attraction, the Petronas Towers. We stashed our bags at a nearby hotel concierge desk, and trudged over in the blazing midday heat to see about some free tickets to the top of the Towers. Oops, turns out that in order to get one of the allotted free tickets, you have to show up at the crack of dawn. Not the crack of 1:30pm. Oh well. What about Menara KL, the other big tower in town? It didn't seem to be within walking distance, plus we also wanted to check out Batu Caves. So we decided to visit the tourism bureau, located nearby and recommended by the folks at Petronas. Once we finally found the place, we were doubly pleased to find both AC and free internet. The headscarved woman behind the desk cheerfully told us there was a bus heading to the caves in about 20 minutes. Perfect! Just enough time to check some email and cool down a bit.

Hey friends and neighbors, what's that I hear? It must be time for another Travel Lesson Learned the Hard Way! This one can be spun in two versions...

1) Don't bother with tourism bureaus! Indie travelers should find their own way around.

or

2) Always ask lots of stupid questions, like "exactly where does this bus go, and how many obnoxious tourist stops will there be along the way before we reached our desired destination?"

goddess of mercy and moneychangingWe should have just taken a bus, or even a cab, straight to the caves. Instead we got loaded into a stifling mini bus with five other people, and schlepped to not one but two shopping stops! First the stupid pewter factor (and wouldn't you love to buy a big heavy useless somethingorother from the lovely gift shop?) and then the only slightly more interesting batik shop (and how 'bout a lovely silk scarf or ten?). ::: sigh ::: By the time we reached Batu Caves, we only had about 45 minutes to explore. Right. Got it. Lessons. Learned.

Batu Caves complexaddiction to high-fructose corn syrup, a family affairThe caves *were* very cool, and just about worth the headaches to get there. Guarded by an enormous gold statue, 272 steps take pilgrims to the caverns at the top. Two Hindu shrines, tons of monkeys, it's quite a spectacle. Once you reach the top you cross an enormous chamber to get to another opening with sunlight streaming in. There were some Hindu ceremonies taking place, but it was hard to take them seriously with people crawling over each other to snap pics and monkeys running through the proceedings. Monkeys drinking leftover soda from Coke cans. Ah, Western culture rears its ugly head yet again!

Petronas Towers begin to light up at duskWe got dropped off back at the tourist bureau, after sitting through about an hour of KL's gnarliest rush hour traffic. It turns out the KL Tower (Menara KL) was within walking distance after all. Armed with several maps and somewhat-explicit instructions from the van driver, we walked about 20 minutes to the base of the tower. Fortunately there's a shuttle to take weary visitors to the tower entrance. It was a pretty well-organized place, with audio headsets and numbered viewing stations to explain the vistas in each direction. Through a murky sunset, we watched the lights come on at the nearby Petronas Towers and across town.

Touristy items crossed off the list, it was time to rendezvous with Ken, our CouchSurfing host for the next two nights. We tried the public phones, but couldn't find one that actually worked. No wireless around. Hmm... we decided to ask if we could use the phone at one of the nicer restaurants at the base of the tower. Scoping out an Indian place that looked decent, we asked if we could make a local call, and fortunately the cheery manager agreed. We called Ken and got his address, which turned out to be a mind-boggling page of complex catenations of words and numbers and more words. Oh boy. He recommended taking the train out to a nearby MRT stop and grabbing a cab from there.

In retrospect, this is really what we should have done. But we were pretty pooped from a day of humid siteseeing, and thought it would be easier to grab a cab out there.

Uh-oh, do you hear that? It's the sound of another Travel Lesson Learned, boys and girls! Strap in for this ride!

We started at the first taxi stand, a respectable-looking kiosk that turned out to be run by the Malaysian version of The Three Stooges. Not only did they have no idea where Ken's place was (despite the reference point of a nearby MRT stop... that only seemed to confuse them more...) but they also wanted to charge us a small fortune to get there! No way, man. The second taxi stand quoted us about a third of the price, and the dispatcher seemed to think it would be no trouble for the driver to find the place. So we paid the dispatcher, got a receipt, and hopped into the next available cab. The driver first took us to the hotel where our bags had been stashed for the day, and while Mark was inside collecting our stuff, I asked if he knew how to get where we needed to go. He waved the receipt in the air and muttered "airport, airport." No, I insisted, we weren't going to the airport, we needed to be taken to a specific address, as agreed upon! I showed him the address, and he snarled something about not knowing where that was. Great. Well *I* sure as hell don't know how to get there! I offered him Ken's phone number to get the directions, and he insisted we'd need to use a pay phone to make the call. Lovely. So we got to see firsthand the legendary surliness of KL cabbies, how delightful.

When Mark got back in the cab, we took off. With no idea of where we were going, or how we'd get to Ken's place from the airport, it was a somewhat tense ride. At some point the cabbie's cell phone rang, so he was totally busted about not having a phone to call for directions. Ha! As we started to get a little closer (maybe?) to Ken's neighborhood, the cabbie pulled over and went into a gas station to get some smokes. Great, now what? When he came back we gave him Ken's number and he got more explicit directions. OK, now we're getting somewhere we want to be! But when we got to the apartment complex, the security guard said we were at the wrong end. Too late, the cantankerous f'er dumped us out on the curb and sped off. We had to walk about another half mile to get to Ken's place. *&#^! I haven't been so furious at a random stranger since... well, maybe never.

We did finally make it to Ken's apartment, about a half hour later, bedraggled and fairly surly ourselves. Ever the gracious host, Ken got us situated in our room and we were able to shower and calm down. He cooked us a fantastic homemade Cantonese dinner, and we got to chat with him a bit. A sociology professor who once worked for an airline and used to live in Europe, Ken also happens to be a great cook and an active participant in the KL couchsurfing scene. We enjoyed a lively conversation and were able to bring this frustrating day to a pleasant close.

animated conversation on Ken's couchchef Ken with his Baba Nyonya masterpiecesThe next day, after sleeping late and getting some laundry done, we helped Ken prepare for a couchsurfing dinner party. We were expecting a potluck-style meal where everyone brought a dish of some sort. Instead, it turned into a showcase of Baba-Nyonya cuisine, all cooked by our host! Whew. The party itself was an international melange of about 20 locals and surfers from all over the globe. As usual, we were the only Americans. We got to meet a French-Canadian divemaster living in Vietnam, a funky little British dude who sells lap pools in Thailand, a twitchy German who seemed to hate everything, and many vivacious and friendly Malays.

All in all, our time in KL was pretty challenging. We saw some cool stuff and met some cool people, but I was pretty happy to wrap up our visit to Peninsular Malaysia and cross KL off the list. Next stop: Malaysian Borneo!


Related links:
* all our pics of KL
* Indie Travel Podcast's excellent KL recap (blog article and podcast)

Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
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