Killer KL - days 7 to 9
Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
13Trip End Ongoing
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After an hour's flight, we landed at Kuala Lumpur's Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT). The rumble which startled us was not a crashing inferno of a plane, but our first Asian thunderstorm. Peeping through the windows, we saw a series of lightning strikes too close for comfort and the pour of torrential rain. What concerned us more was that, rather than taxiing to the terminal building, the plane had come to a stop about a hundred metres away. We started to see a stairway being brought towards the plane; we were to dash down the stairs to the tarmac-cum-waterway below, and then run to the terminal. We thought the umbrellas being handed out by a sodden air hostess would have saved us, but unfortunately not.
We waited, dripping, at the baggage carousel. And waited. People, whole flights it seemed, came and went. Then we overheard an Australian guy saying our flight number and something about some of the flight's baggage being sent on a later flight. After investigating with an unbothered attendant, particularly as to why nothing had been announced sooner once we found out that this problem had been known before we had even taken off, we were finally relieved to be reunited with our mobile homes nearly three hours later.
Taking a detour to a tourist information desk and receiving a lot of helpful information about destinations and travel in Malaysia, we found ourselves boarding a worse for wear coach bound for the city centre, an hour away.
Despite the sensible intention of arriving in late-afternoon daylight in order to search out accommodation, the baggage delay meant we were dropped-off at the central train terminal in the heart of KL in unsettling darkness. Unsettling because of the frenzied attempts of the unending body of local touts trying to persuade you here or there; our first experience of the delightful encouragement you are treated to in every SE Asia city.
After going from pillar to post at the terminal building, we eventually found the unsignposted exit, leading us to the main road. Immediately we could tell that pavements are not a priority in Malaysia, nor is disabled access; it was whilst trying to pull our wheeled bags along that Ross began to wonder whether it would have been more sensible to have brought backpacks. We found our way to a monorail stop, and decided our journey would be to Bukit Bintang; a district known for budget accommodation.
There, we descended to the road below, and suddenly we were faced with what looked like an imitation of Piccadilly Circus. Focusing on our objective, and not the hordes of people and bright lights, we reached the accommodation strip. We had in mind a guesthouse recommended in our Lonely Planet 'South East Asia on a Shoestring'; a nice-sounding place with a nice price of around 12 pounds per night. Upon viewing it, the Lonely Planet had grossly misrepresented the standard of the place. But then, we suppose that it is difficult to say anything attractive in truth about a converted concrete garage. This proved to be the same for the next few we tried. Beginning to tire, we decided to hit the hotels. This again was frustrating, because there is a tendency to indicate the quality of the rooms to you by photo alone. Some places somewhat suspiciously refused to let us view the available room(s) until we began to walk away; we wasted our time on several occasions only to find our suspicions were justified, with small, uncomfortable and shabby rooms; perhaps the photo was even of room at a different hotel.
To our relief, in only two hours we had found Hotel Rae; a vast improvement over our seven-hour trek in Singapore. Despite the used towel left on top of the wardrobe, and interesting stains on the top sheet, the room was large and the decor decidedly boutique and fresh. We had spent the equivalent of 60 pounds per night in Singapore, 300 pounds out of our 6000 budget already, so the 30 pounds per night here was somewhat better, though still well over our rough daily budget.
We couldn't afford to stay in KL long, and by the next day we were able to come to the conclusion that we wouldn't want to be here longer than a few days.
We had not looked into KL too much, knowing only that the major landmark was the pride of Malaysia, the Petronas Towers; between 1998-2004 the tallest buildings in the world at 452m. After the success of using the hop-on hop-off tour bus in Singapore to orientate and familiarise ourselves, we decided to use the KL equivalent. Expecting an opportunity for Lauren to take photos of the landmarks, we boarded to the open-top deck. We were horrified to find that the deck was roofed. We figured that this was perhaps to control the air-conditioning (but wouldn't the breeze from the bus' motion avoid the need for air-con up here?), though we soon found that air-con was distinctly lacking, as we spent the next two hours in an overcrowded (many were standing in the aisle) greenhouse, unable to take any photos and with no guide pointing-out the sights. However, it did serve to show us that there is very little in KL worth stopping to see, and it did deliver us to the Petronas Towers.
Now, we had read several times that though the entrance to the 'Skybridge' (the platform linking the two towers at 170m) is free, a certain allocation is given each day and these go on release early in the morning and are gone by mid-morning. We arrived mid-afternoon, and to our disappointment but not surprise, no tickets were left. It was pointless even going into the building, but we were more in search of cooling air-con over the Skybridge!
There is a shopping centre at ground level, and this is where Ross had his first encounter with a squat toilet. Though he had seen them in Singapore, he had managed to go the whole time without needing the full service offered. Those that know Ross know that he has a bit of a belly and will not be surprised that balance is not his forte. We have both sensibly been carrying toilet paper with us when going out, and so he did not need to go the whole hog and use the hose to clean. However, his inability to steadily balance over the hole and thus having to use his knuckles on the wet and sticky floor meant a thorough scrub of the hands was required afterwards. An unforgettable experience if he ever wanted one. Perhaps it would even be strangely satisfying, if he could ever master the squat!
Fortunately, KL has a high-rise viewing alternative; the KL Tower. We arrived by taxi at the 421m tall telecommunications tower, just outside the main business district. Four elevators whisk you up the stem to the static viewing platform at 276m, or the revolving restaurant the next level up. We paid just a few pounds more for some tea and cake in the restaurant to complement the scenic views, which allowed visibility right out to the steep hillside surrounding the city. The views were amazing and clearly much better than the Skybridge would have been. Waiting at the bus stop in the grounds outside, we were amused to see half a dozen wild monkeys from the nearby wooded area running amok and stripping some bushes of their berries.
In the evening we headed to Petaling Street, which is the focus of KL's Chinatown, with tens of dozens of stalls selling fake gear that wouldn't look out of place in Tenerife. Ross, in need of a wallet (having wisely left his Mulberry at home), decided to buy a moody Hugo Boss special, hard-haggling the guy to the equivalent of just three pounds. We celebrated with dinner and a couple of Tiger Beers at the main hawker stall centre. Wishing to leave the bustle of Petaling Street, we turned down a less busy side-street, and before we knew it were heading into a dark and covered alleyway. We were the only foreigners around lest the only people, and maybe the prolonged stare from the cruising police patrol car should have advised us that we were in the wrong place. Not wishing to bother turning back, we bravely persevered, Lauren's hand tightening in Ross'. Not two seconds into the mouth of the alleyway were we attacked; the first rat came into view and sent Lauren rigid; a few steps more and it seemed as though dozens of rats were working their way out of the cooking units and bins being rested in this alleyway behind the main strip, towards us. Lauren's hurried 'get me out of here!' with nails digging into Ross' hand, and the ensuing laughter of some men scrubbing down their cooking plate, could little mask the piercing squeaking of the multitude of rats. For Lauren, it was like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds'. For Ross, it was a highly amusing, though painful, experience.
It was time to plan our escape from this sticky metropolis. The next day, remembering the advice of the tourist information guy at the airport, we decided to investigate the promise of a tranquil island getaway at Pulau Tioman on the east coast. The Internet gave that we had to buy bus tickets in advance from the main bus terminal, Puduraya, close to Chinatown. What none of the websites listed, however, was that this building was presently closed for redevelopment, and the operation had been moved wholesale to a site well outside of the city centre. The obvious building works aside, not knowing whether we were being lead up the garden path by a couple of guys seemingly too helpfully guiding us into a bus, we took a leap of faith and boarded the bus allegedly to this out-of-town setup. A half hour journey terminated at what appeared from the road to be an open-air festival in the middle of nowhere. We followed the pack off the bus and soon were being hassled by half a dozen people each, asking us where we wanted to go (some even absurdly suggesting destinations to suit their own objectives!). Fortunately, it soon transpired that there were only a couple of services running from KL to Tioman, and so the hustlers dropped away. After passing dozens of makeshift ticketing desks (many different companies all selling the same few journeys for uncompetitive prices - what's the point?!) sat underneath a marquee-like awning (think trade fair setup), we found the company quoted on the Internet. The electricity supply had just blown, and so we had to sit it out in the heat until the electricity and therefore computer systems were back up and running, whenever that might be. Luckily, our wait was only an hour, and we managed to get tickets for the following day on an air-conditioned coach. The journey was to be by coach to a small port town called Mersing, from which we would have a ride on a ferry for an hour and a half until we reached Pulau Tioman.
We returned to the city, thanking the attendants who had earlier truly helpfully guided us in the right direction. It was at this point that we spied a McDonald's across the way, and gave into fast food temptation for the first time. So far, all we had been eating was local cuisine from hawker stalls, and though lovely was beginning to prove a bit repetitive around a central theme of a choice of three meats, spicy, and rice or noodles. After successfully negotiating the menu board and relishing a taste of 'home' (did we really just say that about dirty 'food' at McDonald's?!), the next job was to lighten our load by posting home a box full of clothes no longer required, including smart-casual shirt, trousers and shoes Ross needed for Raffles, as well as the hoodies we wore at Heathrow and on the plane. We managed to find the main post office, a huge building incorporating the sorting office, and descended into its bowels to find the package office. We opted for overland rather than air, and so the price for 5kg was reasonable at the equivalent of ten pounds, though it would take upto three months to reach home.
Regretting our naivety at not researching Singapore and KL for accommodation in advance, we spent much of the night in an Internet cafe. This was an eye-opener in itself, and we became familiarised with the culture of teenage boys sitting in a dark room staring into a computer screen playing online games, for hours on end, into the early morning. There were a few pockets of friends, and we soon learnt that online gaming was the fruit of life for these kids, with loud and excited squealing and laughter. One mother even had to come inside to drag away her past-his-bedtime son.
In the morning we checked-out and agreed with a tout a fare of about five pounds (initial asking price was ten pounds) for a taxi to take us to the bus replacement service outside Puduraya. Thinking we had a good deal, only three minutes and about 1km later (we hadn't realised how close we were to Chinatown) did we pull over. We waited until we and our bags were safe on the pavement before arguing with the driver about how he and the tout had taken advantage of our ignorance, before Ross simply thrust the equivalent of two pounds his way and told him he better take this or nothing as 'easy money', and with an admitting nod of the head and a cocky smile it was snatched away. And so, it was to be the first time someone would try to fleece us for a fare. We boarded the bus for another half hour trip to the makeshift bus terminal, and boarded the coach bound for Mersing.
We entitled this entry 'Killer KL' because our overall experience here was a bad one, observing many flaws in the way the city was run and the mentality of the people, more than we wish to describe in this blog. Some people we spoke with before and after our visit gave good reports of KL, though the majority were definitely not impressed. We came to the conclusion that we might have enjoyed it more had we not gone to wonderful Singapore first, in fact thinking that most cities outside of the Developed World would pale in comparison. We reminded ourselves, though, that we had chosen to see a part of the world very different from ours, and on that score things were beginning to be delivered.