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.

Continue Reading

Tommy Emmanuel, middle age crisis, touristy stuff

When we met at the Esplanade to watch Tommy Emmanuel play, I learnt that C had a friend circle so extensive, it would fill up an entire row in the hall. I asked him if they were all rabid Tommy Emmanuel fans like he was. He replied dismissively saying, “None of us are fans, lah. We just here to have fun. He’s good but not ‘that’ good also.”

But I, on the other hand, thought he was quite good. Emmanuel played with no back-up band or metronome and used the entire body of his guitar to create both the music and the percussion to go with. It was electrifying to watch as he launched into dazzlingly fast arpeggios to go with speedy percussive rhythms. In the middle of his gig, he had an impromptu workshop where he showed how a novice could learn to play The Beatles and spoke about how he would want everyone to pick up a musical instrument and play because that’s the most positive change one could make in a life, an idea I vehemently disagree with having spent large chunks of my teens hanging out with terrible guitar players. After this little digression, he went back to shredding his fingers off and I was going to turn to C to thank him for introducing me to such a good musician when I found C turning to me and whispering, “Hey, we’re getting out of here. Do you want to go have some fun?”

“But isn’t this already fun?”, I said.

“No, this is getting boring now. Come with us. We’re getting late.”

“Can’t it wait after the gig? I’m guessing it’ll be over in less than an hour.”

“No, we’ll be late. Come fast”, he said.

I was angry at my concentration being snapped out of the gig. But I was also curious to know what these guys were up to. So, highly reluctantly, I joined them outside where once we’d assembled, we had to run to the metro to catch a train to Tanah Merah.

Inside the train, I asked C where we were going in such a hurry.

“Pulau Ubin”, he said, excitedly, “It’s an island in Singapore. We have to hurry because if we don’t, we’ll miss the last boat. We go there to camp on the beach all night.”

“But I have all my things in the hostel”, I said, “I can’t just leave it there.”

“It’s okay, lah. Only one night. Do you have anything important? You go back tomorrow.”

“What about food? We haven’t eaten anything.”

“Haha, we just hunt for something, lah”, he said mirthfully, with a pat on my back.

There were 25 people other than myself, with three girls from South Korea, two guys from Kenya, four American dudes, half a dozen Malaysian boys and girls, three Indonesians, a guy and a girl from Australia, two Indian boys, a girl from England and the two Singaporean friends of C that I had already met earlier that week. All of them studied at different Singaporean universities. Until I met this bunch, I had considered myself young but surrounded by college going kids talking about their espadrilles and fizzy hairstyles and Justin Biebers, I felt like an elder statesman with grey hair and arthritis watching his grandkids talk about stuff beyond his understanding. I was also on a different plane of consciousness altogether because most of them were already high on alcohol and I felt like a sober elder gent trying to keep up with their non-stop rickety rack.

C then justifiably got bored of my company and went over to go talk to the girls and I was left all alone to fend for myself. I’m ordinarily quite uptight and terrible at non-nerdy small talk but this crowd of people was so strange, unfamiliar and out of my league that I felt even more alienated and awkward than I would otherwise. I hated myself for ditching a perfectly good gig for some kind of impromptu Spring Break party with tweens. I thought, if I felt so out of my depth at the very outset, an entire night on a beach with these kids was only going to make me even more depressive and lonesome. So I ditched the group by getting off at the next station and took the train that went back to Raffles Place.

I walked down to Esplanade Bridge and Marina Bay to get over the mildly depressive blues I had been feeling. Here, Chinese tourists were faking pictures of themselves drinking water pouring from the mouth of the Merlion, the Singapore flyer was gleaming in the distance with tourists taking overpriced rides on its giant wheel, the Singapore River Cruise was floating daintily in the waters with the people inside flashing their cameras at the skyscraper ship of the Marina Bay Sands.

These scenes felt familiar and comforting and I felt, at that moment, that however much an “outsider” may try to “blend in” and have an “authentic” experience, it’s never possible to see a city one doesn’t belong to like the people who live there do, especially not in the short amount of time one is allowed to spend in a foreign city. Arguably, going with the kids to a part of Singapore a lot of people don’t travel to might have given me an insight into the lives of college going kids in the city but I doubt I would have learnt any more than what I already had from my conversations with C. I consoled myself with the thought that it would have largely been a long night of alcohol and partying where, knowing myself, I would have felt too awkward to get a word in edgewise.

So, to perhaps compensate for this aborted trip, I chose to be an ordinary tourist in Singapore for the next 3 days. I went to the Asian Civilizations Museum to have a look at the spectacularly organized ancient artifacts from all over Asia where I learnt more about Indian art than I did in Indian museums, I walked around the Botanical Gardens for a slice of peace and tranquility, I walked up and down the electronic malls at Sim Lim Square and Funan to shop for electronic gadgets, I visited the Peranakan Museum housed in an old, sprawling Peranakan house with two Chinese dudes from my hostel where the Singaporean guide who took us around was highly curious to know how what he was showing me compared to what I had seen in India, I fought vertigo and the humid heat to walk the 11 km trail in the MacRitchie reservoir over the canopy of the tropical rainforest to the mighty suspension bridge dangling hundreds of meters above the ground and of course, I wasted my money at the Raffles Hotel doing that much maligned touristy thing of having a sugary sweet Singapore Sling in its colonial garden on a warm afternoon.

The more you did in a capitalist construct like Singapore, the more you felt you had to do. And it was only a conversation with an Australian backpacker who was staying in the same dorm as I was and who had travelled on a bicycle all the way from Japan via Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos etc. that I realised there were other places I wished to see and that if I wanted to do so, I had to get the hell out of Singapore. The next morning, I packed my bags and took a bus to the border at Johor Bahru to cross over to Malaysia. Although it’s undoubtedly a city made of and for money, I had a terrific time in Singapore. It wasn’t as cold and sterile as some travel literature led me to believe (I’m looking at you Paul Theroux) with a true cosmopolitan core that gave it diversity and life, a place I could easily go back when I needed some comfort and order.

Continue Reading