The first leg of my recent trip was to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about Malaysia. I may, or may not, have made a few jokes from Zoolander about the Prime Minister to highlight my lack of knowledge.
Perhaps it was best to go in with limited preconceptions, because the city and surrounding areas really blew me away. The first day, I walked out of my hotel in Kuala Lumpur into a busy throng of corporate high rises, ritzy hotels, and shopping malls that dwarfed the one I was used to going to on Long Island.
I spent that first day wandering the streets and taking in my new surroundings. I was approached by school children to participate in the Mannequin Challenge with them, they said they needed to find an American tourist to join them (I guess I stood out more than I thought).
As I continued to walk, I found myself slightly outside the main hub of the city and there was a sudden change: chunks of pavement missing from the sidewalk, women trying to convince me to get a massage in shady looking spas, street vendors with food that ranged from Thai to Middle Eastern to Malay, and little shops that seemed to exclusively sell knock off sneakers and the widest array of selfie sticks on the planet.
It was quite a change from metropolitan Tokyo, which I have gotten used to, and even a shift from the city I started my day in the middle of.
God bless TripAdvisor, because after a nice long walk, I found the 3rd rated massage parlor in Kuala Lumpur: Chaang (not a spelling error). For a budget friendly US $25, I got an hour and a half Thai Massage. Now, I had never had a Thai Massage before, but it was the best experience you could ask for after a 7 hour flight and an afternoon walking around the hot and humid streets of Kuala Lumpur.
Thai Massage is a combination of deep tissue and intense stretching. There were a few instances when I almost told the therapist that I didn’t think my body was meant to go that way, and then she would push/twist my leg, arm or back in a manner that completely loosened muscles I didn’t know existed.
My only complaint was that the rooms were not totally private, there were curtains dividing each “room” and the guy next to me was snoring so loudly, I thought a wildebeest was being tranquilized. I don’t know how one even falls asleep during such an intense massage but, to each his own.
I emerged from the massage a new man, ready to see what else Malaysia had in store.
The next day, I took an Uber, yes an Uber in Malaysia, to the Batu Caves. While I had some desires to check out places and neighborhoods off the beaten path, the Batu Caves were one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Kuala Lumpur area. I soon learned that sometimes the road most traveled, is most traveled for a reason.
On the trip to the caves, my Uber driver says, “Oh you’re from the USA? You’re President isn’t doing too well, eh?” I guess I had a pretty well-informed Uber driver.
After getting the political small talk out-of-the-way, I got to see a different side of Malaysia. There were far fewer businessmen and women, virtually no hotels or nice looking restaurants. Instead, there was intense poverty. People working on construction sites in sandals. Kids running around yards of dirt and rocks in front of shacks with no shoes or shirt.
Sadly, this was more of what I expected out of Malaysia.
Upon arriving at the caves, I bought a Gatorade that looked like it was packaged in 1997 from a convenience store that was light on the convenience, and products for that matter.
Beyond that, my eyes were drawn towards a giant (Worlds Largest) Murugan Statue standing in front of a steep staircase that leads into the mountainside.
At the base, each man was handed a bucket of dirt, seriously a bucket of dirt, to carry to the top of the stairs (I assume for construction purposes). The rest of the journey up saw more monkeys than people. These monkeys were savages, waiting for unsuspecting tourists to drop their guard or snacks, for them to scoop up and run off with.
The top of staircase opened up to this beautiful cave where I dropped off my bucket of dirt and went into full-tourist mode, taking pictures of all the beauty these limestone caves had to offer. There were many more monkeys, birds, and even a random rooster, roaming the cave. It was nothing short of breathtaking.
After wandering around the expansive cave area, I was about to make my way out when I noticed a sign for “The Dark Cave.” I went and checked it out, and it was a tour of this beautiful preserved (for the most part, it was briefly opened to the public in the 70’s and some of the walls had graffiti on them) limestone cave that went deep into the mountain.
The cost of the tour, 35 Ringits (~$8.50) which went entirely to the organization responsible for maintaining the cave and conducting research, was well worth it. Our tour guide, Zhu, was amazing, very considerate of the wildlife and preservation of the cave.
Zhu warned us that there were poisonous snakes and spiders, among a variety of bats and other insects inside the cave. However, she reminded us that the most dangerous species alive were us, Homo Sapiens, and should we run into any of those in the cave, we should run away (Zhu had a sense of humor).
I have a confession to make; I am pretty afraid of snakes and spiders. So, it was slightly unsettling to see a poisonous snake a few feet away but, Zhu reminded us that we are not their prey and that unless bothered, they would not bother us.
At one point, deep into the cave, Zhu instructed us all to turn off our little flashlights and to be silent, taking in the silence and darkness of the cave. Once those lights went out, you realize why they call it the Dark Cave. It was pitch black, and besides the woman breathing heavily next to me, all I could hear was the dripping of water off the stalactites and bats fluttering above our heads.
In that moment of silence and darkness, I had a very cool realization that I am on the other side of the world, the only American on my tour, in a cave surrounded by creatures that usually scare the crap out of me, and I could not have been having a better time. Getting out of your comfort zone is quite a thrill.
That night, after dinner, we went to a bar called Sky Bar in the Traders Hotel. The view of the city skyline was spectacular, while sipping on a refreshing Selangor Sling (gin, 68% absinthe, hibiscus syrup, elderflower syrup and pineapple juice). The bar had a swimming pool that I desperately wanted to see a drunk person fall into (unfortunately didn’t happen).
The following day, we went to the KL Tower tower which gave a stunning view of the city on a clear and sunny day. Followed that up with a walk around the KL Eco Park which had these suspended walkways up around the tree tops.
The night wrapped up with dinner at this delicious ribs joint, a tour of the Petronas Twin Towers and drinks at a bar called “Heli Bar.”
Heli Bar was located in a very ordinary office building with no distinguishing signs. Beyond that, it is exactly what is sounds like: a bar that they set up every night atop a helicopter pad. A definite theme of these Southeastern Asian countries is certainly a lack of safety equipment, indicated by the lack of barriers between the people drinking booze and the end of the heli pad. Having said that, the minute risk was well worth the view.
The next morning was a flight to the next country, Singapore.
In a previous post, I talked about Japan being very different from what I expected it to be, and how those differences were not as intimidating or scary as you might expect. I left Malaysia thinking the same thing. Was there poverty, and some areas of sub par cleanliness and safety-precautions? Absolutely. But, like anywhere else I have been in the world and United States (so far), there were places that looked incredibly wealthy and devastatingly poor.
My expectation of Malaysia to be more of a third world country turned out not to be the case. I never felt unsafe or scared (except of the snakes at first). I am sure it’s different the further outside of Kuala Lumpur you go, but it turned out to be an international, diverse, mostly English-speaking, hospitable, and all around fascinating place to visit and a place I would love to see more of.