Kuala Lumpur – Conversations

To learn why people hated this city so much, I got in touch with Sara, the Malay girl I got acquainted with in Melaka. We met at the food court of the Pavilion Mall in Bukit Bintang, a mall that looked so big and expensive, it could have been a city in itself. I ordered a laksa and she got herself a teh tarik and we talked about Kuala Lumpur.

“You may not like to hear me say this but I’m liking your city a lot”, I said.

“That’s okay”, she said with a dismissive wave of the hand, “All tourists like the city. It’s an easy place to like for 2-3 days.”

“I met this dude yesterday who hated it.”

“Was he a white person? White people don’t like this city.”

“Yeah, an American. He lives in Thailand with his wife.”

“Those are the worst. He must have come here for a visa run. These people think all of Asean is one big country and they have a right to roam around wherever they want without respecting rules.”

“I thought you would agree with him! He hates it because of the crowds and the pollution and all that.”

“Which city doesn’t have crowds and pollution? I’ve been to New York and Paris and KL is a lot cleaner and easier to live in than both of them.”

“But I thought you didn’t like this city.”

“I don’t like it for very different reasons. It’s the city I grew up in and I don’t like how we’ve destroyed the old culture to build these ugly new malls and high rises.”

“Yet, here we are, meeting in a mall.”

“That’s because I work here. If you’d come on a holiday, we would have met in Kampong Baru, where you find the best food in Kuala Lumpur.”

“But don’t you think the fact that you’re earning a living through the existence of this ugly capitalist building means it has done some good to your city?”

“I’m working here because I have to. I don’t have a choice if I want to live independently. But if this place didn’t exist, there might have been a street food market where I would have found a job. Maybe I would have been happier.”

“What’s stopping you from finding work in one of the street food markets in the city?”

“Because I have bills to pay and there’s no money in street food. This job is much easier to do. I just sit around all day and go home and get paid for it. It’s just not as satisfying as making food for people. I don’t like this city because it doesn’t have a soul anymore. It’s just become this ugly mass of buildings everywhere. When I grew up, the city used to be much greener but now you won’t be able to spot a single tree in central KL.”

“But all cities change, don’t they? I grew up in Mumbai and the city that I saw growing up is completely different from the city that exists today.”

“Do you like Mumbai?”

“I don’t mind it. That’s where my home is. So I don’t have a choice I guess.”

“You don’t like your city. If you did, you would be living there. Not traveling without a job all the time.”

“That’s true. And I probably don’t like it for the same reasons you don’t. It’s become more crowded, more mechanical and a lot busier over the years. Most of my friends live in Mumbai but it’s impossible to see them because they’re always so busy with work. But, on the other hand, lots of people travel. That doesn’t mean they hate the cities they come from.”

“Well, if I had the money to travel for many years, I’ll be very happy never to see KL again. The people who like the places they come from go on vacations. They don’t travel for years to find another place to be happy in. If you meet that American guy again, ask him what he likes better, Thailand or the city he lived in before. I’m willing to bet he’ll say Thailand.”

“Well, he found a wife and a job in Thailand. He has a reason to be happier there.”

“You can also find a wife in Thailand if you try like he did.”

“The last thing I need in my life is a wife.”

“Yeah because she’ll tell you to get a job and live your life properly instead of roaming around.”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that. Any tips on things to do in KL?”

“Yes. Don’t go to Genting Highlands. Don’t go to Batu Caves. Unless you want to mingle with busloads of tourists from your country.”

“That’s good advice.”

“If you hang around till Saturday, I could take you to the street food market at Kampong Baru.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

The Kampung Baru street market was right behind KL’s most recognizable icon, the gigantic Petronas Towers and was the oldest part of the city where a glimpse or two of the traditional timbered architecture could still be seen. Sara was highly sceptical that anything here would last.

“You’re lucky to come here now when these old buildings are still around”, she said, “In a few years, they’ll all be gone.”

We walked around, got ourselves some rojak, some nasi lemak, a few glasses of Teh Tarik, endless sticks of satay. “The satay here is good”, I said, “but the satay I had in Melaka in the restaurant we met was a lot more flavourful and delicious. What do you think?”

“Kuala Lumpur is the worst place in Malaysia for local food,” she said, “If you want to taste great Malay cuisine, you have to leave this city and go to Ipoh and Penang. But by KL standards, this is the best and the most authentic food you get.”

Then she took me to Pisco Bar, a hip new bar she loved to visit on weekends. It was a cool place, a mix of the classy and the chic, walls decorated with black and white photographs. A raunchy band lit up the stage at one end belting out 80s pop hits. Some of Sara’s friends joined in and we all had much fun, laughter and conversation.

At around midnight, Sara wanted to go back home and since her house was on the way to my hostel, I said I would drop her. We were both somewhat inebriated and Sara went on about how easy it was to connect with people if we tried. After all, we had barely known each other until I met her at the mall.

The taxi drove into a lane populated with high-rises and she pointed to one of them and said, “That’s my house. Do you want to come up? I make good coffee. We could sit down and watch Friends.”

“Friends?”, I said, “I don’t like Friends.”

“You don’t like Friends?”, she said, arching her eyebrows disapprovingly.

“No I don’t. I’m more of a Seinfeld guy”, I said.

“What’s Seinfeld?”

“Seinfeld was a sitcom from the 90s that aired around the same time as Friends. You see, that’s why I like the 90s so much. The pop culture was neatly and helpfully segregated. You had Seinfeld for all the people who liked smart comedy and Friends for those who liked dumb comedy. You should try watching Seinfeld. It’s fantastic”, I blurted on idiotically.

“I love Friends. It’s very funny. You think it’s a dumb show?”

“Well, yeah.”

She sighed. “Okay, maybe you don’t want to come up then. I like dumb shows.”

“Haha it’s okay, I could come up for coffee.”

“You think I’m calling you up so I could serve you coffee?”, she said, with a grin.

“Yeah, I could come up for anything…”, I stuttered clumsily.

“You’ve killed the mood, lah”, she said, giving me a hug, “Maybe you should watch dumb shows instead of smart ones.”

We said goodbyes and after she had gone inside the building, I got rid of the cab and walked 3 kms back to my hostel on the desolate streets of midnight KL feeling desperately hollow and stupid.

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Kuala Lumpur – First Impressions

The bus from Melaka dropped me off at Kuala Lumpur’s premier bus station, the Terminal Bersepadu Selatan, an enormous air-conditioned complex of ticket windows, food courts, arrival lounges and shopping centres. I felt like I had landed not at a bus station but in an International Airport. An electronic board announcing arrivals and departures to myriad Malaysian and SE Asian cities only served to enhance the illusion. As I walked around in a giddy daze trying to find my way to the train station to get to the center of the city, a tall, anxious figure walked towards me, stopped and said, “Do you speak English?” I said yeah, I spoke English.

“Do you know the way to Bukit Bintang? I’ve been trying hard to wrap my head around this map but can’t seem to find a way to the right station”, he said pointing at the indecipherable map on the Lonely Planet guidebook he’d been lugging around. I said I had no idea and that I’d never been to the city before. He apologized. Given the number of “Indian-like” faces he’d seen in the country, he mistook me for a local, he said. His casual racial profiling made me simmer with anger inside but since we were trying to solve the same puzzles, I chose to forgive and forget and we teamed up to find the train station.

Kuala Lumpur had many metro, railway and monorail lines connecting different parts of the city and many of them were privatized necessitating the need to buy different tickets for different legs of the journey if you didn’t have some kind of interlinking smart card. Neither Steve (the tall American guy) nor I had the card and this somewhat complex web of railway lines was making Steve very angry.

But having grown up in the chaotic mish-mash of BEST bus routes and the Western, Central and Harbour Lines of Mumbai, I thought it wasn’t too difficult a task to figure this out, especially considering the fact that the maps at the Bandar Tasik Selatan station were practically handholding you through the route and the people manning the counters were immensely helpful in answering any doubts we had. So we took the KLIA Transit to KL Sentral, the gargantuan junction where many of the lines intersected, and the monorail from KL Sentral to Bukit Bintang.

I hadn’t booked a room or a bed in the city and followed Steve to the hostel he had booked on Jalan Angsoka. The hostel (which, alas, no longer exists) was on the first floor of a building above an odorous Bangladeshi restaurant. It wasn’t exactly a winning first impression but the squeaky clean interiors and good-humored reception staff made me forgive the fishy odours we had to wade through to get there. They had run out of dorm beds and offered me a boxy single room that cost 10 RM more than a dorm bed, an offer that I gladly accepted.

Steve was hungry and wanted to have Indian food. So we went to the Nagasari Curry House around the corner from the hostel where sumptuous plates of roti cinai, tandoori chicken and rava masala thosai invaded our table. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the prices for the Indian dishes here were cheaper than what you would find in a similar setting in India.

As we washed the food down with masala chai, Steve told me a bit about himself.  He was from Indiana but had moved to Brooklyn back in 2004. There he worked in a retail store for over 4 years before being kicked out of the job when the recession hit. He had to move out of his house and live as a homeless for another year while working odd jobs. His mother lived in Indiana but he had no money to go see her and he sure as hell didn’t want to live in Indiana. But one day, his mother died and he got her house and a decent amount of money in inheritance. Sick of life in America, he sold the house, withdrew all the money he had and began traveling in Asia. He set up base in Krabi in Thailand where he worked with the ping pong bars to get white people in. There he fell in love with a Thai girl who worked in one of the bars and began building his own house from scratch on a plot of land he was given by a friend from the sleaze industry.

He had to do a visa run every couple of months to take advantage of a visa loophole that let him live in Thailand indefinitely for as long as he wished. He usually went to Penang but was sick of Penang and since he had to fly to Singapore to meet a “business acquaintance”, he thought KL would serve the purpose better on this journey. “This city sucks”, he said, “It has zero charm or character. It stinks of oil and money. I hope I never have to come back here again.”

“So why didn’t you get the visa done in Singapore and fly back?”, I asked.

“They ask too many questions in Singapore. My guy knows everyone in the Malaysian consulates. So if I’m in a pickle, it’s easier to get it resolved in this country. You have no reason to be here though. Get out soon. Come see me in Krabi on the way out. Lovely beaches, good beer and some nice girls waiting for ya.”

I drank my masala tea to that.

I didn’t find KL to be as terrible as people had been telling me. For one, there was the free bus service called GoKL which linked some of the central districts. As a perennial pennypincher, I used it frequently to get around. Unlike bargain basement services in other cities, the GoKL buses were maintained as immaculately as the more premium bus services and were comfortable to travel in. It also helped that the route maps were clearly laid out making it incredibly easy to navigate the central parts of the city like Chinatown and the Petronas area.

KL wasn’t obsessively clean but it was shiny enough. The Chinatown area of Jalan Petaling was typically old-fashioned with some sanitized chaos and hubbub revolving around its old shophouses and squares. It had a gallery of legendary food stalls and cafés to choose from serving all manner of wicked Cantonese and Hainanese dishes from watan mee to char siew to roast duck to char kuay teow to the most adventurous of offal ranging from pig intestines to chicken hearts. The street not only had a wide range of food I’d never seen or tasted before, it was also ridiculously cheap.

And that’s one of the reasons I spent a longer time in the city than I had planned to. It had the comforts, the glitz and the metropolitan air of an expensive megapolis without threatening to burn a hole in my wallet. For the price of a dorm bed in the Singaporean suburbs, I could get a small private room in a hotel in a central district of KL, eat a ton of delicious food and have money left over for commutes. Yes, it was a bit rough around the edges and not exactly as sanitised, ordered and convenient as Singapore was, but it offered a far better value for my money.

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