Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Why I Will Never Go Back.

6:43 AM Jmo 2 Comments

    Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I'm not exactly its biggest fan... 
    Here's my story to explain why.
      Winding down on my SE Asia bender, I hadn't planned on ever stepping foot in this city. I'd heard stories from other travel buddies of mine saying that the city itself was expensive, a bit on the unsafe side for women, and more of a living destination rather than a traveling one. I went in with a precautional mindset and my ultimate goal of reaching Sabah, Borneo in a few days time. I did however plan on exploring it and making the upmost time of my few days there. That being said, my time spent in Kuala Lumpur was a lull in the momentum of my otherwise stellar backpacking adventure. And all those whispers in my ear about this place had unfortunately reigned true.
     I arrived into Kuala Lumpur late afternoon and followed airport transportation into the heart of the city. The boom and surge of this South East Asia wealth-powerhouse was evident as soon as I stepped foot onto the KLIA express train. Not only was the ticket price far more than any transport I'd taken in SE Asia (35MYR, 10USD one way for appx. a 20 minute ride), but the TV monitors in each cabin promoting high end hotels and luxury sights clued me in to the eventual budget-buster that this city would be. 
    After a short walk from the metro station I made it to my hostel, dropped off my bags, and was ready to go on the hunt for some of this amazing Maylay food I've heard so much about. Veggies and curries await! I was meeting up with a friend of mine from Korea later on that night so I had the entire evening to myself to explore around and taste the sites. My backpackers was located in the Central Market area of downtown Kuala Lumpur just a street away from the ChinaTown district and a stop away from the National Mosque. (This is the typical "backpacker" area if you're ever inclined to go.) Walking the streets, Kuala Lumpur was already noticeably different than any other Asian country I'd visited before. The architecture, the color, the dress, and the people jumpstarted the gawker in me. 
     I didn't have any warm and fuzzy feelings though. I began to feel watched and unwelcome. So many eyes were following me as I walked down the sidewalk. I usually have a good street sense about me and the little red buzzer inside my head was going off. Something just wasn't right. I ducked in and sat down in a large local diner with take-away buffets full of pools of beautifully smelling curry and breads. I was excited for food, yet completely ignorant, of what to order off the menu walls. My waiter came and I asked him what I should order. He was definitely unimpressed with my lack of know-how and annoyingly chose for me, avoiding any sort of eye contact, after a few moments of silence. The chefs in the back were also looking at me with disparagement. The waiter came back with my food, accompanied by an overwhelming lackluster to my presence, and returned to the chefs to watch me eat. I ate quickly, payed, and left just as the sirens for evening prayer sounded off from the nearby mosque.
Beautiful mosques and modern transportation in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

      Sixty percent of Malaysians identify as Muslim. Therefore; when traveling, I was sure the adhere to a more conservative way of dress. (Conservative meaning: No exposed shoulders, legs, etc.) This was my first time traveling inside of a predominately Muslim country and wanted to treat the country with respect. I had done my research and wished to follow the rules accordingly to ensure that my time here would be smooth, fruitful, and below the radar. I chose to wear a shawl around my neck and shoulders most days, and refrained from wearing shorts. I opted for ankle lengths skirts or pants. I suggest that you do the same when traveling alone as a woman. It was hot! But, as it goes with conforming to cultural norms, you are seen as respectful and will ultimately be treated better. 
     My friend had a similar mindset as we dressed for a morning at The Batu Caves, but others on the tram did not. We saw a group of backpacker girls, looking completely unaware, wearing short booty-shorts and low cut tank tops exposing the sides and backs of their bras. Another thing they were unaware of: An entire tram car of men staring them up and down. Be smart ladies. Be smart. 
     Sitting directly across from us; however, was a beautiful family of women dressed in traditional Indian saris. Every bit of them dripped with adornment: Rings, bracelets, anklets, bindis, headbands, nose rings, and long necklaces that flowed down their backs, complete with tassels... They were all so stunning and happily smiling to one another that we couldn't help but look and smile back. We were greeted with head nods and my friend was able to take their photo. Such a beautiful group of faces.
Entrance to the Batu Caves complex

     The Batu Caves was by far the jewel of my time in Kuala Lumpur. Far outside the city at the end of the tram, this system of caves was as interesting culturally as it was geographically. The outside entrance of the caves was flooded with touristy-business, but, if you sneak past all that and climb the stairs to the top of the main cave it is well worth the time. 
     Climbing the stairs was a bit shaky on my part. If you recall from previous posts, I have a slight fear of heights. This fear kicks in at random moments and claims some of my motor skills. I start to wobble a bit. I can't help it! This wobble increases once I start thinking about wobbling and what I am wobbling on. Not the best situation when you're walking up tiny, stone, steps with a small army of people behind you, next to you, and in front of you stopping to take pictures. 
     My wobbles subsided once I started to take in my surroundings. I relaxed, took a breath, and was finally able to not let my thoughts get in the way of enjoying all the little monkeys running about the steps. These monkeys lived and thrived on these steps! Most of them carried and munched on oranges or coconuts left by visitors. Some of them begged, some of them stole, but mainly they all guarded their fruit prize with clawed paws as you walked by. Such personalities! Incredibly human. 

Up, Up, Up!

       Located inside of the Batu Caves is the most visited Hindu shrine outside of India. I've always marveled at Hindu iconography. I find the images and artwork incredibly beautiful and intense, the stories complex and at times, terrifying. To have my first experience of visiting a Hindu temple in person to be the shrine at Batu was quite the experience. Inside the main atrium of the cave was the main shrine and remnants of tents that were set up for the festival of Diwali that had just passed surrounded it. Holi leis and petals littered the ground leaving an old aromatic smell.
     I walked a bit further up through the atrium and looked on as a group drummed and prayed at the base of the shrine. The drumming became more intense and I think they were starting a prayer mass or ritual. Past the main shrine was another small flight of stairs that led to another atrium of the cave. This room of the cave shot upwards and opened up the sky. Vines and shards of light cascaded down the rock faces and little monkeys, almost camouflaged against the color of the rocks, scurried about to collect more fruit. The air was muggy, yet cool, as it was pulled up through to the sky. This area was truly breathtaking. Magical, maybe. I felt a dose of peace here, purely based on aesthetics. (I chose not to include a photo of the cave's interior because I don't want to ruin the surprise!)

     We returned from the caves and booked an impromptu fireflies tour far on the outskirts of KL for later on that evening. I wasn't too keen on booking this tour. It was expensive (300MYR, appx. $80USD!) and the content didn't really interest me much, but my travel partner was all in. It was the first leg of her backpacking trip and she was also feeling down about the state of Kuala Lumpur. We both needed a defibrillator jolt to get this trip back on track. I went along with it though on the thought that, yes, it would be nice to get out of the city and see the countryside. But, for $80... Gah! No, No, No! If I only I had known what my $80 was getting me..
     We were picked up in a van and were introduced to the two young, barely 18 year old, German guys joining us on the tour. The drive out of the city was over an hour so we had plenty of time to chat. They had already been in KL for five days and were decidedly fresh out of things to do, hence the tour.
     Our first stop, approximately and hour and a half outside of the city, was Kuala Selangor. The drive out was relaxing and the scenery quickly changed from concrete to palm leaves. Reaching Kuala Selangor, our van climbed up a small mountain and parked to give us a view of the surrounding countryside and some exploration time. We hopped out of the van and walked along a ridge lined with cannons from the abandoned Fort Altingsburg. Further up the path the rolling hills gave way to open power lines that were covered in monkeys. Our guide warned us that most were friendly, but some were "naughty" and to stay away from the brown ones. The grey ones could be fed by hand and were quite used to being so. You could purchase a bag of fruit from a local vendor and have at it. There were a few groups and families already taking part in the feeding frenzy and it was great to watch them jump when an overzealous monkey decided he didn't want to wait for his food and would rather climb up your arm and take it directly from the source. haha!

Baby Silver Leaf monkey. In infancy, Silver Leafs are bright orange compared to the dark grey of the adults. So cute~!

     We climbed back into the van and continued on to our dinner destination as pre-packaged in the tour. We ate at a Chinese restaurant along the sleepy Kampung Kuantan river and watched the sunset. The food was unmemorable and the drink prices were through the roof but the setting and conversation made up for it. Subtle pinks and yellows painted the tops of glasslike ripples as they moved down the stream. It was silent and beautiful and all we could do was sit and wait for the sun to disappear.
     Once the sun was completely gone from view, we boarded a small longboat with another group of local tourists and took to the river. We cruised in darkness for a few minutes then paused along the mangrove line to watch a large group of sleeping cockatoos. We putzed along further and came across the mission of this trip. A blinking curtain of tiny pinholes poked in the black curtain of darkness. Fireflies! They twinkled, they fluttered, they pulsed rhythmically. It was enchanting to see. But. This awe-inspiring moment was quickly ruined by camera flashes. Yes. People thought you could photograph light with... more light. Not the case and you just end up ruining it for the rest of us, not to mention disturbing the fireflies who then become shy. C'mon people!
     Nature is beautiful and it happens to be %90 of why I venture off and travel. But there are far better ways to experience it than this. This trip was definitely not worth the $80USD. I felt duped and down and slightly broke. But, that happens sometimes. You don't know until you try it!
   (In comparison, I only spent $30 for a guide to the Jinshanling portion of The Great Wall of China, a bucket list destination. This $30 included breakfast, lunch, a guide, and round trip transportation three hours outside of Beijing. Yah.)

     The next day I had my heart set on going to Little India, a sub-city within Kuala Lumpur composed of a high population of ethnic-Indians. I was destined to find yummy paneer, a samosa or two, and was eager to bask in the beautiful colors of Indian dress. Little India, also know as Brickfields, was a short tram ride and walk away on the other side of town.
     A lot less crowded than I'd imagined, Little India's empty streets were offset with shop after shop of costume jewelry and embellished fabrics. We sat down at the first restaurant that looked good and did away with lady like facades and ordered anything and everything we wanted off the menu. I believe we ordered three curries, two types of bread, and two different appetizers. Split between the two of us, there were few survivors and more than full bellies as a result. Amazing.
     We walked about Little India for the better part of the afternoon to take in its atmosphere before settling back in and preparing for our flight the next day. I was relieved to be leaving Kuala Lumpur and to be heading to Borneo. Borneo was a childhood dream destination of mine. And, if I had to complain to my spoiled self about having to stay a few days in Kuala Lumpur in order to get there... then so be it. I let this city get the worst of me.

Bangles! So many bangles in Little India!
     After Sabah, Borneo (Borneo post out next Thursday!) I returned to Kuala Lumpur and had two days to myself to explore the city once more. To, give it a second try. I did some touristy mumbo-jumbo like seeing the Petronas Towers and what not but I still wasn't buying into it.
    Overall, I think Kuala Lumpur is trying really really hard to be a SE Asia backpacker destination. It's trying hard, but not quite hard enough. The atmosphere is a bit unwelcoming, prices are high, and what you do get for your money here is a bit lackluster. It's not that anything incredibly horrible happened. I am glad that I went and experienced it. It was unlike any place that I'd been before and have no doubt grown because of it.  But. It just wasn't for me.
    One last word of advice: If you do find yourself in KL, use it as a jumping-off point. I don't recommend spending more than a few days here:  Five at the max.

     I apologize if this post was seemingly routine, bland, and overall bad.  But this leg of my trip was difficult to write about. I didn't have the best time so getting around to writing about it was akin to going to the dentist. It has to be done but actually getting up and going is the main battle. I can attribute this to three factors:
                     1) Not feeling safe.
                     2) A big city with little to do.
                     3) Costing the big bucks.

Required Kuala Lumpur Tourist Photo: The Petronas Towers

     How was your trip to Kuala Lumpur? 
Did you feel the same? Or are you angry at me for dissing your favorite city? 
Let me know what I missed out on in the comment section below.
 I'd love to hear from you~!

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  1. Having been to KL a few times I agree that it's not the most wonderful of cities and there are far nicer places to visit in Malaysia. The greatest thing on offer in Malaysia is its wonderful cuisine, but you really need to get out to the local areas for this, which can be a challenge. Local knowledge is very handy.


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