Flying to Kuala Lumpur for only two days, felt like a bit of a waste, especially since I would willingly have stayed longer. But this was just a visa run. I’d done visa runs in various places before, and when on occasion I’d mentioned this administrative matter to friends at home, they’d responded, a tad critical or jealous, that it was fine for me to go to exotic places and say casually that I’d just nipped over into Myanmar on my Thai visa run, while they were stuck in nine to five jobs. Some of these visa runs had been more of a chore, but some I had very much enjoyed. And I knew KL would fall under the latter category. And, as a mental nod to my friends, I acknowledged that even needing to do a visa run, on my travels, was a great privilege.
I like KL. I like the hot, often humid weather. I like the contrast between the huge modern buildings, wide roads, and sky train, with the shabbier, more close knit areas off the main highways, scattered with eateries and cheap hotels. I like the rundown apartment buildings there, with paint flaking from their facades, and colourful washing drying on makeshift lines outside the windows, (though I might like them less if I had to live in one). I like Chinatown. I like the aliveness of the city, thronging with people going about all manner of daily business. And I like the mixed smells – food of all denominations, the pungent ripe rubbish and sickly sweet rotting fruit, the smoky exhaust gas, and here and there, incense.
When I walked out of the airport, I bought a bus ticket for KL Sentral station, found a window seat on board, and began to study my free tourist town plan. My idea was to go to the Bukit Bintang area, and find a modest hotel for the night. Just when the bus was about to leave, a slender Chinese Malaysian woman, with shoulder length hair, took the seat beside me, and proceeded to lose herself in some game on an Android phone almost the size of an iPad. Deciphering the map was harder than I thought, so I took the liberty of interrupting the young woman to enquire. Her Malaysian English was musical and fluent, and she told me I could, she thought, take the sky train from the town centre.
“Is it too far to walk?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, “but it’s dangerous.”
“Why, because of the traffic?” I asked again.
She turned to face me properly for the first time, then replied matter-of-factly, “There are snatchers!”
I resolved to have nothing to snatchable. I learned she was not actually Malaysian, but Thai Chinese, and that she had recently got married to a Malaysian. But she spoke no Cantonese, nor even enough Hokkien to barter for groceries at her local shop, and almost no Bahasa either, so life was still a bit hard, she said.
When I arrived in central station I was hungry, so I walked into the multi-floored modern shopping centre to look for food. I noticed there was a food court on level three, but after going up three escalators I could still see no sign of it. The nearest person to ask was a slightly chubby young Moslem woman in light blue uniform (I assumed) colours and a burgandy headscarf. She was arranging ladies underwear in a lingerie shop. “Two floors up behind me,” she answered, nodding vaguely in that direction and looking me straight in the eye, as though directing lost foreigners while folding panties was the most normal thing in the world.
At Sentral I discovered I could take the monorail to Bukit Bintang – so no braving the snatchers after all. I waited at the ticket machine behind another Moslem woman in loose grey and black clothes and a pale grey headscarf. The machine beeped each time she prodded the touch screen, but when it came to pay, she fumbled unsuccessfully for her coins.
“You first,” she said, as she retreated from her spot in front of the machine, and I noticed her strikingly beautiful face, the pallor deemed desirable in many parts of Asia, and her delicate features. I noticed almost no make-up, except for painted eyebrows and rose-red lipstick.
“Thank you,” I said, to which she replied frankly, “You’re welcome.”
I had my own coins at the ready, but in spite of choosing English for my ticket buying proceedure, I couldn’t find which train line included my stop. I turned to the woman for help, and she obligingly came and stood by me while she showed me. I slotted in the coins I had prepared, retrieved my round plastic magnetic ticket coupon, then turned to thank the woman once more.
“You’re welcome,” she said again, courteously looking at me as she spoke, and sounding genuinely sincere. So much for the image of the disempowered, submissive Moslem woman, I thought, and I was glad of it.
The train arrived, and I was surprised to get a seat. A group of five women, no doubt staff from the same store judging by their uniforms, crowded into the standing space in the carriage, and the two nearest to me were so short my head was almost aligned with theirs even though I was seated. In spite of this, and although they were forced to stand so close they almost touched my seat, they stared right over me as though I didn’t exist, and chattered gaily, now and again giggling beneath their scarves. As the train rolled from one station to the next, they clasped each other’s hands, so naturally that I wondered if they even noticed they were doing it. Every time I’ve seen this spontaneous gesture I’ve found it heartwarming, this simple show of friendship, closeness, and unabashed pleasure in a moment of shared companionship. A moment later I moved my right foot a little, touching that of my neighbour, but she said, “Oh, sorry, sorry!” before I had even had time to open my mouth and apologize (a little less profusely) myself.
“No problem,” I said, “my legs are too long,” and although it was only half a joke – the leg room was limited – I received a radiant smile.
Third time lucky, we say, though after arriving in Bukit Bintang, it was the fourth hotel I saw that seemed to fit my purpose and budget. The room had no window – the ones that did were already taken – but it was very clean, and there was a public sitting area on the floor below, and chairs and tables outside. And it cost only 70 ringgit. I showered and changed, as walking around in the afternoon heat with my backpack had left me damp with sweat. I wiled away the afternoon shopping for books at the incredible Kinokuniya bookshop in the KLTC shopping mall, walking for a couple of hours round the back streets to imbibe the atmosphere, and getting a foot massage. Back at my hotel, I showered again, then went in search of dinner. I walked three times around the block before finding the exact Indian food I had been craving – simple rice, dhal and veggies. Middle Eastern, Chinese, Malay, Thai, and a number of other options were there, but who would travel to Kuala Lumpur and eat in an expensive steak house, I wondered. And then, since I had risen at 3 am for my flight, I retired for an early night.
I stepped out into bright sunlight the next morning, and was reminded of Penang mornings, and how I loved them – the bustle of life, the slight sensory overload of sights and colours, smells and sounds, the mild excitement in the air I had felt, as though the day was promising good things. I walked down the steps into the street in search of tea. It’s funny how the brain and senses can so accurately associate smells and tastes with places, and I wanted tea that tasted of Malaysia. And I found it, reddish brown with a hint of orange, milky, and sweet. It was served in a glass mug, and I would willingly have drunk a second, but moderation prevailed. What’s more, the canteen-style restaurant seemed to be running low on dhal, and, sticking with my theme, I wanted more of the thick, Indian yellow lentil paste with fresh chapatti for breakfast. I ate and lingered a while, leaving the book I had brought unopened, feeling an odd sense of peace and security in this simple, and none-too-clean place, comforted, perhaps, by the ordinariness of my surroundings. The comings and goings of the locals, of many races, creeds and dress codes, some noticing me but none paying particular attention, felt pleasantly soothing. Yes, I thought, I could happily spend a few days here.
But by nine o’clock it was already hot, I had an airport to get to and a flight to catch. I shouldered my light pack and began to sweat as I walked in the sun to the station. On the train I felt a pang of regret at having to leave so soon. Ah well, I said to myself, you’re heading back to Bali – there are far worse fates! And I pondered the fact that this complete change of place and surroundings would make me feel, when I did get back, as though I’d been gone much longer.