I’ve heard nothing can prepare a traveler for their first days in Southeast Asia. I’d agree. It’s a place different than anywhere else in the world. My first taste of Southeast Asia came with a quick, 24-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur.
Kuala Lumpur is a city of stark contrasts; nestled up against the Petronas Towers – the tallest skyscrapers in Southeast Asia – you have historic mosques and temples, world class shopping malls and potholed filled streets lined with open-aired food markets offering food from all over the continent, stalls with Malays from the surrounding countryside selling their wares, and WiFi enabled coffee shops (free WiFi, come on New Zealand).
Exiting my Air Asia flight at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I quickly realized how close Malaysia is to the equator. Stepping out of the plane brought on an intense wave of stifling heat and humidity; an overwhelming heat I have not felt in almost 18 months. As planes full of travelers from all over Asia were packed into the customs arrival hall, the smells of travelers who had been on long-haul flights permeated the air. We queued up in lines where there weren’t enough passport control agents and waited to be stamped into Malaysia.
Leaving the airport I was immediately greeted with dozens of hawkers selling various bus services to downtown Kuala Lumpur. With my train ticket in hand, I made my way through the humidity to the shuttle bus which would take me to the high-speed train to Kuala Lumpur. After arriving to the KL Sentral Station to hordes of people, light rail trains, shops, and taxi stands with signs in a language I knew nothing about, it hit me how this was the first time in ages I’ve been distinctly out of my comfort zone; strangely, it was a refreshing and exciting feeling.
I love the challenge of arriving to a city where you know very little about the culture, nothing about the language and being forced to make your own way. This aspect of travel that some people dislike the most is something I yearn for.
I hailed a taxi that would hopefully take me to my hostel. As we traveled through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, I began to realize the contrasts I referenced earlier. The pot-hole filled streets we traveled down were filled with scooters of all sorts and sizes that zoomed between old cars and even older buses. If you didn’t turn around to see the towering Petronas Towers, you’d never know you were in a city with one of the continents leading economies.
“That is your street there,” the taxi driver told me. He then circled the block just enough to turn my directions around before dropping me off on the busy street corner. “Welcome to Malaysia,” he said as I exited his taxi.
I was immediately overcome with the intense smells, sounds and sights of Kuala Lumpur. Locals sat outside food halls having their dinner. Garbage sat on street corners waiting to be collected. Incenses from shops, cigarette smoke from men on street corners, petrol and exhaust from passing buses and scooters and the constant beeping of horns all mixed together to make a strong humidity-filled Southeast Asian cocktail.
As I attempted to get my bearings and make my way to the hostel, I manged to slip on the wet sidewalk and stubbed my toe on the concrete. My trusty Kiwi-jandals from 11 months ago had failed me and began to puddle with blood; the absolute last thing you need on a busy street corner as night falls. Realizing I was lost, and now with an injured and bleeding foot, I happened to walk past a travelers guest house.
I walked in and asked the man at the counter where the BackHome Hostel was. He quickly explained through broken English, some scribbles on a piece of paper, and a series of hand gestures where to go. As I looked at him blankly, he smiled, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out the front door. Ten minutes, two alleyways, four turns and three to-close-for-comfort calls with passing buses later, he dropped me at a street corner and explained it was just down the block to the left.
As he left and I stood there smiling, thinking about the goodwill you see in people while traveling, another old man approached me and asked if I was looking for Chinatown (a popular nearby neighborhood). “No,” I explained, “I’m going to the BackHome Hostel, it’s just – ” and he cut me off.
“Oh yes,” he exclaimed, “a very nice hostel, come with me.” As he took me down the street by the shoulder he asked, “Where are you from?”
“America,” I told him.
“Oh, America!” he said with excitement. “My daughter’s English teacher is from San Diago. Welcome to Malaysia – you must be here on holiday.” As he brought me through traffic and the remaining 5 minutes to my hostel, he explained how he was visiting Kuala Lumpur working in the market selling miniature Buddhas. “Take one,” he said as he pulled it out of his bag. “Only 20 ringitt and it will bring you good luck.”
After all the hospitality I had experienced in the last half hour, I could hardly say no. “Enjoy your journey,” the man said as he left me at the door to my hostel.
While I typically don’t write posts in a first-person, narrative format, I felt this was the best way to share my initial experience in SE Asia.
Have you traveled SE Asia? What first experience stands out in your mind? Please leave your experiences and advice below.