Monday, September 19, 2005

Reason # 437 I'm a Moron

Kuala Lumpur
July 13, 2005

Wednesday morning. Slept relatively late, and decided to have breakfast in the hotel lobby. It was a legitimate, American-style free buffet. They had an omelette guy and everything. [I wrote down in my journal "think of all the pussy he must get," but can't remember precisely why I thought that. I'm gonna assume it's simply because of how glad people like me are to see familiar food. Because otherwise . . . nah, never. NTTAWWT.]

After breakfast (and after taking one last dump for all of Malaysia to see), I checked out and left my bags with the bellman. I was taking the overnight train back to Singapore, so I had an entire day to kill. Headed out to Batu Caves. Where there were a lot of steps, and a lot of monkeys. The cute kind, not the kind that make omelettes for hookers. The hotel told me it should cost about 40 Ringgit to get there, and not to pay more than that. But I managed to find an honest cab driver who used the meter, and it came to 16.80. Sweet.

There's not much to say about the caves. I dig caves generally. These ones were pretty impressive. The walk up the stairs was as close as I'll ever come to climbing a mountain. I gotta say though, for a holy site, the upkeep leaves a lot to be desired. There was a bunch of grafitti and garbage all over the place. And don't blame the monkeys. When the guy pictured above finished his drink, he walked right over to the closest trash can and deposited the empty. He then turned to me, said, "Beastly hot today, isn't it, old chap?" and, with a tip of his hat, headed off to the opera.

Here's advice should you ever find yourself at Batu Caves. You need to pay for the audio tour headset at the bottom of the stairs. Wish somebody had told me. Thankfully, the guy who actually distributes the headsets (at the top of the stairs), was, after I asked nicely, more than happy to accept cash instead of a ticket from me. And I'm pretty sure he charged me something resembling the actual fee.

When I had seen enough of the caves (and the monkeys), I decided to head back to KL proper. Descended, and went looking for a cab back to the city. None of the guys waiting would agree to use the meter, and they wanted 30 Ringgit, which I knew was bullshit, since it cost me 16.80 to get there, and I wanted to go to the Petronas Twin Towers, which (I think) were closer to the caves than the hotel. I said "go screw yourself" (under my breath) and tried to flag down a cab on the street. Unsuccessfully. In the 100 degree heat. I had finally resigned myself to going back to one of the loiterers and agreeing to the jacked up price, when an available cab happened by. He also said 30. I told him it cost me 16 to get there. We settled on 20. And we were off.

Now, as it turned out, the driver would have done better had he agreed to use the meter, because we sat in traffic, and he had to take a few detours. So I ended up giving him 30 anyway.

The main attraction of the towers is a trip up to the Skybridge, which is only like 2/3 of the way up the buildings or something, but still pretty damned high. Apparently, they only give out a limited number of tickets per day, and people start lining up around 7:30 or 8 am. Needless to say, they were out by the time I got there. So I bought a bunch of cheesy unnecessary souvenirs in the gift shop, walked around the attached mall, and had lunch at an A&W. There is, right outside the towers, a beautiful park/outdoor space. So I went out there, walked and sat for a while. I was approached by some Filipino dude, and was a bit suspicious when he started talking to me. As it turned out, like so many people in Asia, he was simply being friendly and wanted to chat. So we did for a while. And that was that. Part of the park area was this little fountain/pool thingy where a whole bunch of kids were swimming and splashing around. And I sat and watched that for a few minutes. Until it occurred to me that, in Malaysia, a single white guy with a big camera hanging out and watching a bunch of wet children in various states of undress playing is probably a prime candidate for having his head whacked off with a dull sword. Yeah, I said "whacked off." So what?

I decided I'd take a stroll to the other landmark building in KL, creatively named the KL Tower. So I started walking toward it. But, much like my family's attempt to get to Fenway Park when I was a kid, simply because you can see it doesn't mean you can get there. I looked at maps, but there were all kinds of buildings and plazas and hills between me and it. And it was 146 degrees. So I said fuck it. I went back to the hotel, grabbed my bags, and decided to head for the train station, in hopes I could catch an earlier train back to Singapore. Which would have been a great plan. If there were an earlier train back to Singapore. But alas, the overnight train was the next departure. Which meant I was approximately 7 hours early. It was only as I was boarding the train those 7 hours later that it first occurred to me that I could likely have taken a bus, and been back in Singapore 2 hours before my train left. This was confirmed by Monkey the next day. That might be 437 and 438.

Not thinking of the bus solution, and despite the fact that I was exhausted, I decided I'd wander around Chinatown for a few hours to kill time. I checked my bag at the train station, and prepared to head out. And then looked out the windows. To see it totally pouring. Now, I don't mind the rain. Sometimes I quite enjoy walking around in it. And, unless I'm wearing a suit or going someplace where it's imperative that I look presentable, I don't carry umbrellas. I hate them. But being soaking wet for the 9 hour overnight train ride from KL back to Singapore just didn't seem like a great idea. So I went and unchecked my bag. And sat in the train station for 7 hours. With the help of a borrowed wireless signal, I was able to do some internetting. Also bought a book. And read it. And sat some more. And more. Changed my remaining Rinngit into Renminbi in preparation for Shanghai. And sat. Some Muslim woman, wearing headgear of some sort (yes, I AM embarrassed by how little I learned about the religion and culture in the places I went) came and sat down next to me, and it looked like she wanted to start up a conversation, but was hesitant. I smiled, but didn't know if it was impolite or otherwise inappropriate to start a conversation myself. Eventually, she gathered up the courage and started chatting. She was really sweet. She looked at my book and asked what it was I was reading. I believe my answer was something like, "just some airport trash type paperback." I'm sure she knew exactly what I meant. She told me that she liked to read in English too. Mostly Reader's Digest. I shit you not, that's what she said. We talked for a few minutes, then her cell phone rang, and she was off. So that's pretty much the same everywhere in the world.

Remember the bathroom in the Singapore train station that was incredibly gross? They had one of those in the KL train station too. And I had to use it. Yeah, use it use it. My own fault for eating that A&W crap for lunch. Now, my greatest fear was that I'd have to use one of those squatters. I just couldn't see it ending well. But I discovered that each mens' room had a bunch of squatters supplemented by 1 or 2 regular person toilets. Filthy disgusting regular person toilets, but at least I was comfortable with the physics of them. So, while I knew I wasn't going to happen upon any sparkling porcelain, I nevertheless set out to do a thorough recon. I checked at least 2, and possibly 3, different mens' rooms, looking for the least revolting option. It was still pretty revolting. But, like a trooper, I did what I had to do. And by the time I had finished inspecting every bathroom in the station, I REALLY had to do it. I survived, but I wouldn't feel clean again until I was back on American soil.

While still waiting for the train, I managed to watch a little bit of Malay Wheel of Fortune. Holy shit was that hilarious. I, of course, didn't understand it, but the visuals of the puzzles popping up were great. For those of you not familiar with Malay, take a look at this translation of some biblical passage the significance of which is lost on me, and you'll get the idea. It's like the opposite of Eastern European language -- there must be a different rule on vowels in the Malay version of the show, because Carlos Beltran could go broke buying them over there.

When I finally boarded the train, I regretted my decision to get a "sleeper" rather than just a plain old seat. Not on financial grounds this time -- the sleeper actually cost significantly less than even a second class seat on the way to KL. It's a weird thing about the currencies. There are about 2 Ringgit to a Singapore Dollar, but the tickets cost the same in each currency, i.e., if it's $30 S from Singapore to KL, it's 30R for the return trip, which comes out to 1/2 the price of the outbound. But I digress. The sleeper bed was like a hospital bed. But on a train. I have a longstanding, deep-seated fear of hospitals. And pulling those curtains around you made it like a hospital bed . . . in a coffin. I had a mini panic attack immediately upon boarding, but eventually I relaxed enough to do some reading, some ipod listening, and even some actual sleeping.

There was some jackass on a cellphone right as we left who was screaming and saying over and over again, "Woah, stop the train, turn it around!" It was much much more irritating than that, but I don't remember the details.

I did, in fact, arrive back in Singapore, 1/2 an hour or so late, but safe, if tired. More to follow.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Back On Track

Because 2 of my favorite people, Big Al & Sloth, have recently complained about my slow progress in detailing my trip, and because I don't have any money to bet on today's college football games anyway (that's part of my new "government job" budget!), we continue with the trip to Kuala Lumpur.

Tuesday July 12, 2005

I was pretty excited to travel by train. There's a certain old movie, romantic-type appeal to it, and I've always wanted to do something stupid like travel across the US by train (remember, I'm the jackass that drove from NY to Vegas and back). Between the annual Amtrak derailings and my vast (largely torturous) experience on their Northeast Corridor, however, it didn't seem prudent at any convenient juncture. For this trip to KL, though, it seemed perfectly appropriate. In fact, I had rejected a closer & possibly more interesting Malaysian destination (the name of which escapes me some 2 months later -- NO - it was called Melaka!) because the only way to get there was by bus. I HATE buses, and when Monkey told me it was a 5 hour ride and he didn't think there were bathrooms on the bus, it was TOTALLY out of the question.

I got to the train station in Singapore very early. It's an old building, dating to 1923, and is beautiful in a humid, sweaty, grimy sort of way. 1923 is also the last time they had someone mop the men's room. I saw some vile bathrooms on this trip, but this one might win the prize. And don't get me started on the "squatter" toilet thing. (No, that link is not to a site I visit often, it just happens to have the best description of squat toilets I found on a quick search). Thank god all I had to do was pee. Though charging to get in to a bathroom in that condition is insulting, even at .20 Sing.

I finally was able to board the train. I had, on advice from friends of Monkey, booked a 1st class ticket, rather than 2d class. It meant spending twice as much money - $68 S rather than $34 S. What a ripoff that was! The seats might have been slightly larger, and I got a free apple juice, but other than that, there was no added comfort in the 1st class car.

[Here is where my journal has a two word bullet point that I couldn't now decipher if my life depended on it. This is why I should not have dragged out this process quite so long. Best I can tell, it says "Haber behig." So, if any of you know what that could mean -- or feel like making something up -- please leave a comment.]

Most of the rest of my 1st class car was occupied by a large group of Korean girls of approximately high school age (and their middle-aged chaperone). While that would sound promising in the porn version of my travelogue, all it really meant was that I had to lift about 37 suitcases onto the overhead rack, and get them down again upon arrival. They all said "Thank you," with a little smile and bow/nod, so it was stereotypically gratifying at least.

In terms of scenery, one of the reasons I've always wanted to travel by train, there wasn't much to see barring trees and the corrugated metal shacks indicating the abject poverty of the local residents. It seemed that both east and west qualified as the "wrong side of the tracks." I did manage to snap the picture above though, which you can imagine brought great comfort to someone traveling in a train that looked just like the one that had apparently been involved in a head-on collision. The least they could do is move it out of sight of the active tracks, no?

When we stopped at Malaysian immigration and customs, we got off the train, but nobody stamped my passport nor collected the "Arrival Card" I had filled out on the train. Cue imagination/daydreaming bubble with LiAps's vision of a Malaysian jail cell.

Also in my car were a mother and son (13ish, I think) from Houston (shout out Big Al!). I forget their exact story, but apparently some older woman who was traveling with them was a local who had come to visit them the year before and they were reciprocating.

OOH - there was an additional perk to traveling 1st class. The car had a tv. Which, for a good portion of the ride, was showing "New York Minute" starring the Olsen Twins. Now, I could tell you all that I watched it because I had, by this point, been traveling for over 2 weeks and was a bit homesick, and it made me smile to see such familiar sights as the Empire State building, and to watch the traffic zooming down 5th Avenue. And that would be partially true. Like 1.3% true. Maybe another .9% of the reason I watched the movie could be described as: Jesus, I'm on a train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur - what the hell else am I gonna do? Which leaves (if my math is correct) 97.8% attributable to feeding my fantasies about the myriad ways I could violate Mary Kate and Ashley. Or Ashley and Mary Kate. Or just Ashley, as Mary Kate watched, while vigorously violating herself. Until I blew a whistle and they switched places. Or . . . well, you get the picture. And if you don't, you should totally rent that movie.

Upon arrival at the KL train station, I stubbornly insisted on taking public transportation to my hotel rather than hopping in a cab. Now, I basically had to figure out how to do this all on my own, because when I had called the hotel a few nights before and asked which subway/skytrain stop was closest to the hotel, they pretty much didn't want to tell me. They said, in effect, "why don't you just take a cab?" Well, I'm no one to give in to pressure from the man, so I looked at a map of KL, looked at the map of the public transit system, and figured out which stop was closest. And there I went. And walked across some bridge. And wandered around aimlessly for a good 10 minutes, backtracking and staring upwards, hoping to see a big building that said, in huge letters, "Sheraton Imperial, Kuala Lumpur." And sometime the next day, I actually noticed that building from afar. But for now, I asked 2 people who had no idea what I was talking about, and basically just wandered in what I thought was the right direction until I stumbled upon it.

The hotel was nice. Really nice. The bathroom was incredible, with floor to ceiling windows that I hope to God were tinted. They must have been, for if all of KL had watched me sitting on the toilet and showering, I surely would have been beheaded.

It was late afternoon, and raining, so I left my camera in the room and just started wandering in the general area of the hotel. Found a little street food area, and bravely ate several varieties of Indian-type stuff, which was totally delicious and ridiculously cheap. Ridiculously. More illegible notes, and then I went back to the hotel, after stopping into the mall and eating more food (there was a Roti stand that Orange Julius would have a fantastic trade dress infringement case against if so inclined).

Showered and chilled a bit at the hotel. It was, I admit, a bit disconcerting that I could hear, from the 20-somethingth floor and through closed hotel windows, muezzins doing the evening call to prayer all over the place. Malaysia is a very very Muslim country; there was a green arrow on the ceiling over the desk in my room pointing the way to Mecca. I had a little anxiety as a white American Jew wandering the city alone, but then remembered that they'd have to be crazy to mess with SpiderMan, so felt better.

I was tempted to stay in for the evening - it was raining, I was tired, I didn't really have much clue what to do. But I motivated myself to get out and wander; I was gonna spend 24 hours in this city, I couldn't waste too many of them watching CNN International. I hopped on the monorail (as opposed to the SkyTrain), which had a stop literally right outside the front door to my hotel, and made my way to Jalan Alor, one of the famous food stall areas of KL (I took some photos too, but don't like having more than one photo per post - that's not sufficiently teasing KtP). I walked the length of the street and back, and settled on a chinese place, about which -- you guessed it -- I can't read my fucking notes. I ordered a dish called "Claypot Chicken with Vinegar" and it smelled pretty good. I can't really tell you how it tasted, because the only utensils they saw fit to provide were a soup spoon and chopsticks. You try eating chicken on the bone without a fork or knife. The rice and beer were excellent. While I was sitting staring at my food, some crazy (I assume) deaf guy kept coming over to the tables in front of my stall and pointing to people's food, then pointing to the floor, followed up with the classic drawing-the-finger-across-the-throat sign. The message I took from this: "Your food has been on the floor and you will die upon ingesting it." I wish I knew sign language well enough to sign back: "Hah! Not if I cant get any of it my mouth in the first place smartass!"

Stopped at a 7-11 for water or iced tea and some late night snacks, and made my way back to the hotel, where I entertained the city with a shower, and just chilled out.