Winter Vacay 2011: Kuala Lumpur

I’m back in Beibei for good now, and have spent about 25 of the last 26 hours under blankets on my sofabed (which is both softer and warmer than my actual bed, and thus, a frequent choice this winter). I could be working on planning for the semester or, you know, for the classes that may or may not start tomorrow (oh yes, I may be teaching tomorrow but of course don’t have my schedule yet, so who knows). But that sounds unappealing. Instead, let’s take a break from TV catch-up for the first in a series about some of the highlights of my recent vacation adventures, shall we?

Bukit Bintang, major shopping area near our hostel

As soon as we touched down in Kuala Lumpur, we began removing layers. Goodbye fleece jacket, see you in a couple of weeks! We grabbed a cab from the airport and settled in for an hour’s ride, most of which was spent talking to our cabbie about where to go and what Malaysia is like, in his impeccable English. Already we could tell we weren’t in China, home of sour, incomprehensible taxi drivers.

Our hostel in KL was the only one from the trip at which I’d actually made a reservation in advance, since the plan was to play our itinerary by ear in terms of when we went where. Incidentally, this also turned out to be our best lodging of the trip. Lesson learned: sacrifice some spontaneity in exchange for quality? Of course, the one other place I stayed that featured an advance reservation, in Chiang Mai, turned out to be one of the worst. But we’ll come back to that.

We wandered outside to find food (delicious, delicious Indian) and drink, on the strip of bars close to our hotel on Bukit Bintang. First shock: Western travelers are always told that Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia is extremely cheap. And yes, that’s true. If you’re coming from a US salary. But food and drink in most of the places we visited in Malaysia and Thailand turned out to be about twice as expensive as they would be in China. Zaijian qian (goodbye money). So while we can get a local Snow beer in China for as little as 3 kuai (about $0.45) at a convenience store or 8 kuai ($1.15) at a restaurant, in Malaysia the main options were foreign beers at something like 8 RM at a gas station ($2.75) or 15 RM ($5) at a bar. Although these foreign beers were certainly far superior to the formaldehyde-ridden Chinese beers (yes, this is true—and this is why no Chinese beers besides Tsingtao get exported), this still hurt. Even more than the formaldehyde does.

Indian Food in Brickfields

There are things to see in KL, but we didn’t really see them. Mainly, we walked around the various neighborhoods, ate, drank, shopped, and generally enjoyed being out of chilly China. These first couple of days of the trip were full of culture shock: so many different colors of people, and no one staring at us! So many genres of food other than Sichuan! So much availability of Western goods and services! Let’s put it in perspective: Chongqing city has some 5-10 million people (who knows exactly), and it has about a half-dozen restaurants that serve usually-mediocre approximations of Western food, other than McDonald’s and KFC. In KL, e.g., there were this many Western restaurants within two blocks of our hotel, and what they served was of legitimate quality. Our second night in the city, we met up with my college friend and local boy Jianwei, who took us to a Malay restaurant and then to a classy, Vegas-esque poolside, rooftop bar overlooking the city, with prices to match. I can’t believe I’m at a place like this again, we kept reprising. How easy it is to forget.

The only KL lowlight: we had to move hostels for our last night and ended up at Heaven Guesthouse, ie hell on earth, ie home of the mouse incident (picture the scene: 2am, Lindsay and me in bed, mouse spotting, much screaming, laughing proprietors, etc.) But it was definitely a city I’d return to, and a fine start for our travels.

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