“Malaysia truly asia, the mountains and the sea”, the ad from tourism Malaysia jungles. India has 7,500 kilometers of coastline and the mother of all mountain ranges – the mighty Himalayas. Wonder what they were thinking when the designed the ad to be aired in India. Anyway, neither the mountains nor the sea were really my driving force behind visiting Malaysia.
What was my motivation to go to Malaysia? After all, I had been to the country before – in 2007, in a company sponsored trip. I had been to Kuala Lumpur’s massive shopping malls and the amusement parks up the Genting highlands.
Well, actually there were couple of reasons. The first one is best illustrated with the story about a few blind men trying to “see” an elephant. It is said that each one had a fantastically different view of what an elephant was like. The man who touched only the elephant’s leg saw it as a tree trunk. The one who touched its tail saw it like a snake. The one who touched its ears saw it as a sail and so forth. My impression is that all foreign travel is essentially an experience like that of the blind in the story above. Countries are vast, number of people in them even more so – cultures are often only as good as the people who transmit them. The initial impression, in 2007, I had of Malaysia was that it was very commercialized and a bit gaudy. Of course, this was heavily influenced by the places I visited (Genting, KL) and the time I spent (of the order of three hectic days) in that trip. I always like the impression of countries that I get when I backpack. A genuine smile of an ordinary person often outshines the most practiced smiles of the “hospitality” sector. So my first reason was to experience Malaysia and Malaysians in such a light.
Secondly, and perhaps more important than all my pontifications, my airline of choice, Air Asia, flies to almost every destination via Kuala Lumpur. Hence the question was rather “why not Malaysia?” than “why Malaysia?”. Given that I was going to spend some time in Malaysia, but wanted to spend most of my time in Australia and New Zealand, I had decided that I was going to spend a week in Malaysia. I didn’t have a very clear idea of what I’d do in the week. I could visit Kuala Lumpur, and may be two other destinations of choice. These could include the likes of Malacca, Penang and Cameron Highlands. Anything too far from KL would disrupt my schedule. But, as usual, I did not have solid itineraries or plans before arriving in Malaysia.
My first surf
I had mentioned in my previous post backpacked that there was not much preparation that I did other than mentioned in that post. Well, actually I missed mentioning a pretty important thing that I had done and that was to send out lots of couch requests on couch surfing.1
Hence I had a couch to surf in Kuala Lumpur.
My flight from Bangalore to KL was five hours late. So I arrived early morning in KL instead of some ungodly hours post midnight. I took some rest at the airport so as to not arrive too early at my host’s place. Although I had used CS for meeting fellow travelers in my previous trip and I had hosted travelers in Bangalore, I had never surfed before. So I was excited to do my first surf.
The Nepali connection
At around 6:30 AM, I took a bus from the low cost terminal of the airport to the KL international airport terminal. Then I took train and changed to a bus to arrive at the KL suburb where my host was located. My host had warned me that I needed a security badge to swipe to get into the building and that I had to ask the security to let me inside. The security guard posted at the apartment, however, had made up his mind to make me walk around a bit. He refused to let me in despite my showing the email from my host. He threatened to call the police if I did not leave. He would only let me inside if my hosts could come down and personally escort me upstairs. Since I had arrived with a cell phone with no international roaming2, I had to run around quite a bit to find a public calling phone. Travelling light definitely helped! To my dismay, however, the public telephone booths I found weren’t working.
So I went back to the security, I had to convince him somehow. To my delight, however, this time along there was a Nepali guard along with the other, Malay, guard. I spoke to the Nepali guard in Hindi. I was able to convince him that the hosts were my friends. He was totally incredulous. He had seen my hosts host other foreigners and he was asking me how they have so many friends abroad. I told them “internet”, he seemed convinced. The Nepali guard and the Malay guard (who seemed to be the one in charge) spoke among themselves in Malay. Finally they opened the door and took me upstairs.
Finally at around 8:30, I had arrived at my couch in Kuala Lumpur. My hosts, turned up at the door and welcomed me in. They were still groggy. Apparently I had woken them up! In what was to become a precedent for most hosts I was to interact with, they turned out to be awesome. Although they had to leave the house that morning to manage some chores or some such thing, they left me with a set of keys so that I could sleep after my sleepless red-eye flight the previous night. Take a moment to think about that: would you give your house keys to someone you just met? I had arrived fully expecting them to throw me out and that I’d snooze on some park bench for a bit later during the day, but instead I slept in a nice bed that day.
I spent the next couple of days exploring Kuala Lumpur. I basically roamed around in the the city, met up with other travelers and generally had a good time. I didn’t do anything very touristy except visit Batu caves. No, I didn’t get a picture in front of twin towers! My impression of KL is that it’s a nice city where people follow rules. It’s a clean city although neither excessively nor obsessively so like Singapore. There are three distinct cultures in the city: Malay, Chinese and Tamil. The people of these different races don’t seem to mix very much. It’s hard even to see interracial friends, forget couples or families. Maybe the language bond is very strong, or perhaps there is an undercurrent that I couldn’t read. In any case, do keep in mind that I’m a blind guy trying to see a very large elephant here.
Food in KL was good, there three different fares as noted above and except Tamil food everything else was good in my books because it was different and sometimes exotic. Although the Malaysian Ringgit is about 15 Indian rupees, the cost of living in KL was not much different from Bangalore and as such I had a little more money than I’d burn for this part of my trip, especially given that I was couchsurfing in the most expensive place in Malaysia.
When I had sent my request to my hosts in KL, they had kindly invite me along to a Cameron highlands trip that they were planning. It was awesome that they had included me despite not knowing me. But I had agreed to join them. I will write about this portion in the next post. Stay tuned!
- Since my readers may not all be aware of what Couchsurfing (CS for short) is. I’m going to give a very brief primer here. If you are aware of what it is, you can skip this note. Couchsurfing.org is a place that links travelers. The basic idea emerged when the Casey Fenton, a co-founder of CS was visiting Iceland. He wanted a basic place to sleep for free, as he was under a very tight budget. So he emailed thousands of students at Reykjavik university asking if he could crash their couches. He was amazed that quite a few agreed and even offered to show him around. Couchsurfing creates a platform to do this in an organized way. Would be hosts and guests create profiles on the site. When one of CSer is traveling, he or she simply looks up hosts in the city that they find themselves in and then send the requests to host them. That’s the basic idea – there are lots of other things that go into making it safe and lots of features that lets you plan other stuff, but that’d be tangential here. [↩]
- Airtel wanted a INR 5000 deposit to enable roaming! While my Indonesian cell phone with just IDR 3500 pulsa (~INR 20 credit) in it was roaming in Australia! [↩]