I arrived back into Kuala Lumpur in the late evening, with messages from my friend Joss announcing her arrival both in the city and in a bar in Bukit Bintang. I should make my way there at once, to meet her for the first time in nearly a year, and her boyfriend, for the first time ever.
I got myself a bed back at the Explorer’s Guesthouse, and then quickly dropped my things and caught an Uber to the most touristic and expensive road in Kuala Lumpur.
It was great to both to see Joss again and to meet her young lad Stru, but after a few £10 drinks I wasn’t really feeling it; the 6am start in Brunei and a whole day of traveling had done me in. So, I wearily returned back to the guesthouse, and headed back to my room. On the way I bumped into a girl who happened to live just half an hour away from me back in the UK. The girl, Hannah, was heading to Penang and the Cameron Highlands in the next couple of days; both of these were destinations on my Malaysian tour route, so we swapped contact details in case we ended up in the same location. As I’d learnt from traveling round central Asia; it’s always nice to have friends.
The next morning I went down to extend my stay in the Explorer’s for another night, only to be informed that they had no space for me. So, I sat in their lobby and booked another hostel; POD Backpackers, in Little India, just a single metro stop away. I packed my stuff and made my way over.
I spent the day with Joss and Stru, though if I’m completely honest I can’t recall 100% what we did. I am nearly entirely sure that it involved wandering around some markets and temples and the like, and it was a pretty good day. We went to Sangeetha, a phenomenal vegetarian Indian restaurant that had been recommended to me by Hannah’s friend Charlotte, that I can honestly say was some of the best food I’ve eaten. I got to know Stru a little better too; a friendly guy who is pretty much the epitome of what you think of when you imagine an Aussie, in that he throws around the word c*nt like it’s going out of style, has a lot of friends whose names end in ‘o’ (Tommo, Stevo, Benno), and loves a good drink. He was a good lad on top of that, and though I didn’t quite have the same amount of energy and enthusiasm for drinking and partying, I did my best, and we got on pretty well.
After a day of sightseeing on day two – probably – we headed to the famous Sky Bar in the Trader Hotel, overlooking/underlooking the Petronas Towers at night, before deciding that their £12 cocktails were out of our budget, and heading to a rooftop bar at a hostel called the Reggae Mansion. Their £2 double shot mixers were much more our speed.
The third day in Kuala Lumpur was my last with Joss and Stru, as they were heading back to Brisbane to return to their lives in Australia of throwing shrimp on the barbie and chasing kangaroos. I made a snap decision to head to Singapore, because I needed somewhere else to go and something else to do. Fortunately, my hostel was able to book the bus ticket for me. What they were not able to do was book me another night in their dorm room, because they had sold out.
To be fair, whilst the hostel was nice, my dorm was filled with approximately ten middle-aged permanent resident Indians, who had forced me to fall asleep listening to sitar music the previous night. They had then woken me up with a loud Bollywood film being played on a phone, so I wasn’t too annoyed to be leaving. But moving between hostels is such a faff. And I didn’t want to have to go to my third hostel in three nights.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice.
So, I went to Dorms KL, a highly-rated hostel very close to Bukit Bintang. They also offered a free breakfast that was provided by the Indian restaurant next door, which meant chapatis and dahl all morning. Which is hard to complain about.
Our last day was spent wandering around a large central market, looking at Chinese temples, then swimming in the pool at Joss and Stru’s hotel. I had yet to stay in anywhere that had a pool, mostly because most places that only charge $7 a night can’t afford them, so it was nice to go for a swim. Unfortunately, it was then time to say goodbye.
So, Joss and Stru headed back to the airport. Determined not to go back to my hostel and have to make new friends, I headed to the Central Station. I had just received a message that Moira was back in town, and was hanging out with her friend Kevin. It was her last evening in Kuala Lumpur before she headed up to Penang, so we decided to go grab dinner.
I was introduced to Kevin, a tall, bearded Californian, before being led to a restaurant in Little India with no name and an over abundance of cows. We were there because they did a good banana leaf curry. Whatever that is.
So, we all ordered a banana leaf curry, and shortly after had a huge leaf placed in front of us. Onto this was dolloped a few piles of veg, followed by some rice, and then a chicken leg. And then a curry sauce.
This, apparently, was what we had ordered. It seemed that we hadn’t ordered any eating utensils. Forks and spoons are for losers. This was a hand only meal.
‘But wait, Alex!’, you may shout, frantically into the screen. ‘That’s not a sandwich. There’s no handle there. That’s rice! Who eats rice with their hands?’
That’s a good question, young reader, and I’ll tell you who.
Absolutely no one with common sense.
Maybe I lacked technique, maybe I was too self-conscious, maybe I just need to practice getting the majority of my hand in my mouth, but I made it less than halfway through before giving up, looking at my sauce covered hand in disgust, and then at my actually-quite-tasty meal in sadness. But I wasn’t going to continue.
I had previously thought that I had fallen in tune with the deep Indian eating by hand method when using naan and chapatis to eat curries, but I realised then that all I’d really been doing was making clandestine sandwiches. When push came to shove-all-that-food-in-with-your-fingers, I had failed.
Then we went bowling. I think I won.
After that I said goodbye to Moira, probably for a little longer than three days this time, and farewell to Kevin. Then I went back to my hostel to get an early night.
Not that that happened. I ended up meeting some people in my dorm and going out to a bar or two. But the Bukit Bintang bars did their work on my wallet, so I headed back at just after one in the morning, and found to my delight that the Indian restaurant was still open. So I ate chapatis and had a discussion with a very pessimistic Australian girl about why maybe the whole world wasn’t going to end soon and maybe we didn’t deserve it. Apparently I wasn’t very convincing.
The next day I headed to Singapore.
The bus journey to Singapore is an easy 6 hours, with a nice break in the middle where you go through customs and get reminded repeatedly that trying to smuggle drugs carries the death penalty. I read that only a couple of decades ago Singapore had the highest execution rate in the world, just trailing behind Turkmenistan. Instead of rising up to the challenge it seemed that they decided to back down, and nowadays they only execute quite a few people, as opposed to lots and lots.
My mind filled with warnings about naïve people inadvertently acting as drug mules, I was suspicious when the man next to me on the bus offered me a slice of cake just before customs, but it turned out to just be a sponge cake, and not a cocaine balloon cake. Still, you get nervous anyway, don’t you?
I had booked myself into a hostel in Little India (everywhere seems to have its own Little India) called the Inncrowd Hostel. I think I booked it mostly for the name, but it turned out to have a decent location and a nice atmosphere. But best of all, it had a scooter tour.
I had booked two nights in the place, and fortunately one of those nights was the night of the tour. I booked on immediately – it was a free tour in a very expensive city – and looked forward to hopping on my electric scooter the following evening.
The first evening I spent being led around by a Canadian who swore he knew a good restaurant to eat in, just five minutes further on. We never found it. I wasn’t impressed.
The morning of my first full day I awoke bright and early, and decided to go for a wander around the city. One of the lads in my dorm had told me that he’d just picked a direction and walked for hours, and had seen some great parts of the city and its inland jungles. I hoped to do the same.
It started off well, and I found myself at first in Chinatown; hundreds of market stalls, dozens of people attempting to read your future, a multitude of Chinese bakeries offering delicious parcels of pastry and pork. I felt like I was back in Beijing. I also found my way into the Goddess of Mercy temple, where a helpful temple attendant helped me use some numbered sticks to get my fortune read. I was informed that I was going to do very well in my Imperial exams, a promise that I was glad of, for it meant I wouldn’t have to study.
After Chinatown things took a turn for the worse, and I found myself on a dusty road that seemed to be mostly construction site. Then it turned into a dual carriageway. This dual carriageway then had another dual carriageway above it, in some strange double decker circulatory system. I checked my map, found something green to aim for, and kept on going.
I found my way to the base of a rainforest style park, into which a cable car climbed to the peak. I skirted the edge of the park for a little while, before heading to the base of the cable car tower, to see if I could enter the park that way.
It turns out that I could, but it would cost the princely sum of $30 Singaporean, or approximately £22. Extortionate.
So I bailed on that, making my two hour walk a complete waste of time. Realising that the scooter tour was starting in under an hour, I caught the metro back to the hostel, and then waited around for the tour to start.
Thirty minutes later, the hostel manager started getting the gear ready. I was shocked and appalled to see that instead of wheeling out electric scooters for us all to ride, he was instead carrying out push scooters, of the kind that we all used to ride as kids many years ago.
And we were expected to ride around on these for 5 hours? Were they insane?
Probably. But we did it, and it was the best thing I did during my whole time in Singapore. We were like a gang of kids, taking over high end shopping malls, back alleys, even small streets, with over a dozen of us streaming along at a solid 9 miles an hour. Our guide, Dan, took us to some of the historic spots in the city, followed by the best street food around, and ended it with a collection of amazing sights and shows along the waterfront and the metal forest. I cannot recommend the tour enough, if you end up heading to Singapore. If you don’t make it there, here are some photos, which are almost as good.
The tour ends at 11pm, where the sensible will go to bed because their clothes are dripping with sweat and they’ve been pushing themselves around on a fold up scooter for the best part of 6 hours.
The rest will go to the Marina Bay Sands hotel, to drink Singapore Slings in a bar shaped like a boat on top of three skyscrapers.
The view was good, but for £19 it was not the best Singapore Sling.
The next day was my last in Singapore, so I made the most of it. By which I mean, I went for a slow run in the merciless Singaporean sun with a Swedish girl and a British guy from my dorm, and then went out for a burrito with both of them. Undertaking these typical Singaporean activities made me feel like I had truly seen all that Singapore had to offer, and I was at peace with the fact that I had to leave. I packed up my gear, and headed to the airport.
I won’t go into huge amounts of details on Singapore’s airport, but suffice to say that the free cinema, free gaming consoles, free foot massage machines, and orchid gardens, make it a great place to spend some time. I have never recommended getting to an airport early before, but for Singapore I would change that. Make a day of it. Try to ignore the Pokemon obsession.
My flight to Penang was just under 2 hours, and to my annoyance I found that my ability to fall instantly asleep on all forms of transport was failing me. I remained grumpily awake for nearly the entire flight, landing into the outskirts of Georgetown, Penang, feeling sad for the lack of a good nap. But I rallied, and found myself an Uber driver to take me to the old town. I was staying at the Journey Inn, a hostel recommended to me by Hannah, the girl I’d met in Kuala Lumpur, who was currently staying there.
I arrived at hostel and was used as a training exercise for some new staff in using the booking system. I was shown around by a Spaniard called Inigo, who somehow had never met anyone who recognised the name from The Princess Bride. I can imagine that he must have spent every day disappointed, until I arrived and brightened his day. Probably.
There was also a note on the front desk, that had been left for me by Hannah, with a detailed map showing the way to the local drinking spot. I assumed this would be a bar, but it turned out to actually just be a collection of chairs outside of a shop that sold cheap beer. It was very popular, with a large crowd of travellers and tourists sat outside.
I found Hannah and Charlotte in one of these groups, a few drinks down, sitting with a few people from the hostel. I bought a beer from the shop, happy to be paying only a fraction of the price I’d paid for drinks in both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Then I sat down and introduced myself, whilst Hannah congratulated herself on her map drawing skills. A few beers, and an unexpected argument with a local about the rules of rugby, later, we headed back to the hostel.
The next day I was given a tour of the street art that Georgetown is famous for.
This took about an hour and a half, including getting lost and taking part in a mirror maze that was surprisingly fun. It was horrendously hot, so after a long morning we retired to a nearby café that sold bagels. Then we ate one.
Charlotte joined us then, but with the best known activity of the island completed, we were at a slight loss as to what to do. So we headed to a pier and dipped our toes in the water. In doing so we discovered a small fish in a large tank by the pier; a man walking by informed us that this fish was likely to be used as bait to catch other fish.
Hannah and Charlotte, who had somehow bonded with this fish, decided instantly that this injustice could not be allowed, and resolved to rescue the fish. They had already named it – Julian. Finding a net, Hannah attempted to catch Julian and throw him back into the sea. After several minutes in which Julian managed to evade Hannah’s stabs with the net, he was finally caught and thrown back into the sea, to live a rich and fulfilling fifteen minutes before being eaten by something bigger.
We wandered back to the hostel in the evening, stopping in at a Buddhist temple on the way to look at their preparations for Chinese New Year. Surprised to see a small collection of chocolate bars still in their wrapping resting on one of the larger Buddha statues, Charlotte asked why the food had been left there. We were informed, quite sincerely, that these chocolates would be eaten by the Chinese ancestor spirits at some point in the future.
I assumed this was after they learnt how to grow corporeal fingers and open the wrappers. Either that or they got their monk friends to help them. One seemed more likely than the other.
The following day, the 18th January, was my last day in Penang; I felt like I’d seen a small part of the island and town, but I needed to head back to Kuala Lumpur soon – for my third time – and wanted to see the last bastion of Britishness in Malaysia: the Cameron Highlands. I say this, despite the fact that the town I was staying in was called Georgetown, and I would have to pass through Butterworth to get back to Malaysia proper – two names that don’t get much more English. But these places felt very authentically Malaysian; they’d been reclaimed again. I’d heard that in the Highlands it was cold, rainy, and the only thing people were more concerned about than the weather was the state of the tea. Sounded like my kind of place.
I had one last thing that I definitely wanted to see before leaving Penang island however; the Snake Temple. The name pretty well defines the idea behind the place, but to straighten out all confusion, this is a temple that is supposed to be full of snakes. Researching it online, I read stories about people being careful to avoid treading on poisonous fanged vipers and old monks that lived in tune with the snakes. I realised that I’d even read about this place in a book that I’d read early last year: the Gift of Rain, centred on Penang discussed the mysticism behind the temple and its snakes.
I told Hannah and two other girls, Hannah and Helen, about the temple, and we decided to grab some scooters and to go and check it out. It would be a twenty minute scooter ride, a quick journey on roads that were designed for scooters it seemed. In Penang, scooter drivers were king.
A stressful conversation with a scooter salesman called Happy, one of the most unapologetic bastards I’d met since Central Asia, had us two scooters twenty minutes later, and then we were off.
Three hours later we arrived at the snake temple.
It turns out that a single wrong turn on Penang can put you on the 15km bridge back onto the mainland, with no way to turn around at any point along its span. The low amount of petrol in the scooters meant that by the time we finally reached the other side, we were low enough on fuel not to want to risk heading back. So we spent the best part of an hour driving around the mainland trying to find a petrol station, awkwardly amalgamating multiple directions from different people into a real location.
By the time we were topped up with fuel we were about 25km from where we needed to be, a toll gate and a 15km bridge also in the way. So, we headed back.
When we finally got back onto Penang island, Hannah and Helen had to head back to town to visit the embassy for a visa issue; their snake temple trip had ended up basically being a Mainland Bridge extravaganza, with no actual destination.
And who’d have thought that they were the lucky ones?
The snake temple is not what it once was. Or, it is what it once was, and every bugger on TripAdvisor is part of some conspiracy to trick people into going into a temple bereft of anything apart from a single domesticated python in a cage (40 Ringgit, You Hold and Take Picture!), and about three snakes wound around a wooden pole near the entrance. I’d heard tales that snakes filled the temple, that the smoke in the place kept them docile, but you still needed to watch you step.
I didn’t watch any of my steps.
What a disappointment.
Apparently, something had happened recently, in the last few years; whether it was nearby building work or a mass emigration to Thailand for a better life, I was unsure. But the temple was empty. Well, nearly empty.
So, we left, heading back to the town. We had about an hour left with the scooter, so we nipped into a café that a friend from the hostel Sami, worked at. Sami was an awesome guy who actually lived in the hostel, trying to work while completing his studies in mainland Malaysia, whilst simultaneously managing the issues that come from being a displaced refugee from Syria. I feel like I should mention him specifically, because it’s the first time I’ve met someone that’s suffered first hand from the awful things going on Syria, from the war and destruction. These refugees have no homes, nowhere to go, just terrible memories of the place they used to live, and awful dreams about what might be happening to those who are still there.
And there’s Sami, speaking fluent English, Arabic, at least two other languages, about to graduate, but unsure of his future, or even where he’ll be allowed to live.
The world, these days, eh? Who’d live in it.
We handed the bike back, and sat down in the hostel, waiting for the bus. The Cameron Highlands were a 10 hour drive away; I was splitting this into two by stopping off in the small town of Ipoh for the evening, before heading onwards. Hannah was coming along too, although she’d be heading down to Kuala Lumpur after Ipoh in order to start an adventure in Australia.
We got to Ipoh late-ish at night, and found that our only dorm buddy was a grumpy French woman in her mid sixties. She glared at us when we came in, and continued to mutter under her breath as we dropped off our stuff and got ready for bed. I can only assume that we had broken her deep concentration on a Facebook comment, for her laptop stayed on after we’d gone to bed, and was brightly lit when I awoke.
The next day we got ready to head to our separate ways. The night beforehand I had met an Austrian girl called Christa, who was traveling through Malaysia with her boyfriend, Rafael. It appeared that they, too, were heading to the Cameron Highlands, so we would be bussing it up to the mountains together. Hannah’s bus left not long after ours, so we headed to the bus stop together. Hannah and I said our goodbyes, and then I was on the bus to the Highlands.
I had had a hostel – the Orchid Guest House – recommended to me by Hannah, and after accidentally missing their stop, Rafa and Christa decided to come along with me. After five hours on the bus, we found ourselves in Tanah Rata, wandering up a very recently rained on street.
The hostel was a small one, with a Muslim owner that banned all alcohol and pork from the premises. But that was alright. We immediately signed up for a half day mountain/forest tour for the following morning, and for a cooking lesson later on that day. Then we went for a wander into the forest.
Despite what Christa may say, I was a fully functioning, helpful member of the team that made a huge meal for everyone at the table. I can’t quite recall how to make any of the meals, but I know that if you start with a few tablespoons of ghee/clarified butter then you’re on the right track.
A huge dinner, and a few drinks at a bar with some new people from the hostel had us in for an early night; we were getting up at 8am for a 4 hour trek through tea fields and mossy forests the following day.
Apu, our guide, was a friendly and knowledgeable computer programming graduate, who had decided that computers weren’t for him, and preferred to spend his time walking through the forests and tea plantations of the Highlands. He was also a huge photo enthusiast, ensuring that every person on the trip got a photo of the whole gang, at every view point on the walk. He also required a normal photo and a crazy photo!!, meaning that at every stop we had approximately 10 photos taken. My enthusiasm for crazy photos, never particularly high, dropped to a low after the first round, and my crazy photo pose became remarkably similar to that of my normal photo, in that I pulled an unconvincing smile and tried not to blink.
Apu took us through the mossy forest, telling us about the different mosses and plants, noting those that could be used as medicine and those that could cause instant death if eaten with durian or mixed with Redbull. We took some of this information with a pinch of salt.
He pointed out several fences and closed off areas that had been newly erected, but refusing to tell us the reasoning behind it until he had the perfect location in which to do it. He wanted us to know, however, that it was due to two Western lads, and he would kill them if he had the chance.
I’m sure he was joking.
We wandered through the forest, taking crazy photos and stumbling across tree roots until we finally found the perfect location. A tree, with half its moss missing; it barely deserved to be in the mossy forest.
This tree, it turned out, used to be as mossy as the rest of the trees. But one day there were two western boys who wanted to take a photo of themselves on a high branch of a tree. So they climbed up and took a photo on one of the moss covered branches.
Half the moss on the tree died and fell off the tree because of it, and the photo went viral in Malaysia, as horror at the destruction of the ecological system spread. Panic set in across the world, and a witch-hunt was started in every major European city. Lynch mobs ravaged the countryside, and tsunamis hit the coast, in representation of the gods’ fury at the desecration of the trees.
Only some of that is true. But still, the tree was in a sorry state, and Apu held a newspaper clipping showing Malaysia’s outrage. There had been some real damage done, and as a consequence, more and more parts of the mossy forest were being closed off to visitors. Soon, only a small part of the prehistoric woodland would be accessible.
After the woods Apu took us to a strawberry farm, on the understanding that we would not tell his bosses that he had done so. I’m still not sure exactly why it had to be a big secret, unless he was making commission from the jars of strawberry jam that they were selling.
Which he almost definitely was.
And finally we stopped off at a Buddhist temple that was absolutely rammed with statues of many armed deities with angry looks. As per usual, there was no explanation for any of these, and it was therefore open to interpretation as to what they represented and what they were.
We then headed back to town. We had booked another night in the hostel, but a quick wander round the town centre and a half hour spent sheltering from the rain had us realising that there wasn’t really much left in the Highlands for us. So we booked ourselves a bus out, went and asked for our money from the hostel back, and went on our way to Kuala Lumpur. This was to be my third visit to the city in 4 weeks. I wasn’t particularly excited about visiting the city itself, although there was something special about this trip.
My dad was born in Malaysia, and spent the first 8 years of his life growing up there. He had lived there with his parents and his brother in a colonial style house just outside the city of KL, before being sent off to boarding school, I assume to be brought up as a proper British gentleman. Something must have gone wrong along the way.
Just kidding, dad.
Despite the family shipping out Malaysia at varying points during the last 6 decades, there were still some that remembered the Wilson family and their legacy; specifically the daughter of the maid that used to work for the family. Her name was Molly, and she was now a well to do pensioner, living in Kuala Lumpur and spending most of her time in country and golf clubs. Apparently she wanted to meet me.
I told Molly that I would be back in KL on the 21st, and that I had until 25th before I needed to leave. Molly replied telling me that she was very busy with Chinese New Year preparations, but would be free on 23rd if I wanted to go for lunch and a city tour.
I spent the two days before meeting Molly with Christa and Rafa, touring Kuala Lumpur for a third time. Their first priority was, strangely enough, finding a gym to get a work out, so I tagged along, doing more exercise in that morning than I had done in months. Then we got a Hop On/Hop Off bus, on which I promptly fell asleep as soon as we completed our first hop on.
Later that night we went out to the Reggae Mansion. On the way back, despite the Mansion only being fifteen minutes from our hostel, we got monumentally lost. Somehow we found ourselves having walked for over an hour, and on a dual carriageway, with no recognisable landmarks in sight. For some reason I was blamed for this temporary misplacement, just because I had been reading the map and directing us. Despite having done a phenomenal job leading the Austrians around the city during the day, this small lapse of navigational ability seems to be the only thing they focus on, and to this day I still get snarky comments.
You can’t please some people.
On the 23rd Christa and Rafa flew off in search of sunshine and beaches. I waved them goodbye, promising to visit them in Vienna whenever I made it back to real life. I then put on some chinos and a button up shirt – which, some of you may be shocked to hear, I don’t always wear these days – and got ready to go and meet Molly. We were going to a country club, and apparently I had to look respectable. I got myself ready and headed out to the Royal Selangor Club.
Molly met me outside the grounds, her husband Roy in the front passenger’s seat. I’d never met nor seen her before, so I was going purely on the car make and registration plate, but fortunately managed to avoid getting into a stranger’s car and making them uncomfortable. I’d had warnings about that before.
Molly was a lovely woman in her late sixties who, having made a good living in the hotel business in her youth, now lived a life of relative leisure that focussed on dining in private clubs for the elite, or playing golf in private clubs for the elite. Fortunately one of these clubs, the Royal Selangor Club, allowed commoners like me in, as long as I covered up my grubby knees and grubby shoulders. This club was one of the oldest in Kuala Lumpur, and still held its colonial look and pride from when Brits needed to spend some time with their fellow well-to-do Brits, and away from the locals that may have been overtly and aggressively poor at them. It had toned it down a lot since then, though they still held certain rules about things such as women not being allowed in certain bars. Quite rightly so.
I was told a story the following day that one woman had argued so ferociously that she should be allowed in that, due to her husband’s influence, she was actually given permission to enter the bar. However the bar insisted that the woman leave her dog tied up outside the bar, because whilst they would lower their standards to allow women, dogs were a step too far. This had the benefit of allowing every man to see if the woman was in the Man’s bar by checking for a dog tied up outside. If there was no dog, the bar was safe to visit. If the dog was lying in wait then it was best to go elsewhere, or be forced to listen to womanly things like shopping and make up.
The lunch was nice, although not as fancy as I had been led to expect. We ordered a range of Malaysian and South Eastern dishes, mostly for my benefit, and I helped myself to a variety of noodles and fried rice dishes. It was tasty, but having been in Malaysia for nearly three weeks at this point it wasn’t anything that novel. While we ate Molly told me about herself, life in Malaysia, and my dad and Fairlie’s visit from a year or so back. She also apologised for not inviting me to stay, for there had been a major leak in the main bedroom’s ensuite, and Molly herself was staying in the guest room. I told her that I was more than happy to stay in my hostel.
After lunch, we got in the car and went for a drive to the old Wilson domicile.
It was really interesting to see where my grandparents had once lived, and where my dad and uncle had grown up, in days long past, when the Empire was still measurable and extant. Nowadays it’s all owned by the government and other large organisations, taken over from the void left when the British relinquished its grip on Asia.
I’m sure it’s all for the best.
Then she decided to show me her neighbourhood.
Suddenly I was transported to some strange dystopian future private security story from another world. As Molly drove us through the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur she told me about the issues that even the edges of Kuala Lumpur had gone through; how her sister had been robbed at machete point whilst standing on the driveway of Molly’s house by a gang on motorbikes; how people lived in fear of being robbed and mugged and beaten up.
So, what was the solution?
She told me this as we passed through a checkpoint manned by a scruffy, but uniformed, young man, who checked he knew who was driving the car before lifting the barrier. We passed through without incident. This, it turned out, was the first ring of houses in a three ring system. For the houses on the outer ring, this barrier was their first and only shield against the gangs. There was 8 entrances into this first ring, and each one was guarded by a private guard and a barrier. This was an initiative set up by Molly, and she was very happy about it; a defence set up by the people, for the people. However, as we moved through into the second ring of houses she showed me something that she was less happy about.
We passed through another barrier; noticeably better built, with a brick house in which the guard sat and operated the gate. He, too, checked Molly’s ID, before opening the gate and allowing us to go through.
It seemed that the second ring of houses had a second level of protection. This, I believe Molly agrees, was fair enough for Ring 2 houses to want, but it turned out that as soon as their gates were built they decided to stop paying for the Ring 1 gates. There were 8 entrances into Ring 1, but only 3 entrances into Ring 2, so it was therefore much more cost effective to only pay for their 3 gates.
Molly was in Ring 1, and was therefore outraged to hear that Ring 2 was happy to let Ring 1 cover the whole expense of the outer layer. Petitions, arguments, and dips into politics had had no effect, because Ring 2 had both money and political sway. It seemed that the only thing Ring 1 could now do was make it difficult for the Ring 2 homeowners to get through the first level of security. The aim was to be so annoying that the Ring 2 people started paying their way.
Apparently it wasn’t going well.
Ring 3 was a very small ring of about 8 houses, with seemingly most of them owned by the owner of the very central mansion. Molly told me that this was owned by the owner of Battersea Power Station back in the UK, and that he was a great guy who helped pay for the Ring 1 gates because he could see how it helped him. He was a sensible. Not like the Ring 2 people.
I promised that I would have a think about the problem and see if I could come up with any solutions. I’ll admit, that was two months ago now, and this may be the first time I’ve actually remembered that I said that, but now that it’s actively in my head I’m sure I’ll think of something. Maybe arson.
I was then given a quick tour of the city and dropped off at the largest mall in South East Asia. I think. I’m not really one for shopping, so after a very quick wander I called an Uber and headed back to the hostel.
The next day was my last full day in Malaysia – on the 25th January I would be flying to Shanghai, China. I crawled out of my room at 10am at headed downstairs for the peanutbutter and jam toast that had become my standard breakfast at Explorer’s Guesthouse. I had absolutely no plans for the day, except relaxing and writing the blog. So that’s basically what I did.
At some point in the afternoon I heard my name called, and I turned to see Charlotte walking across the Explorer’s Guesthouse common area. It seemed that she, too, had ended up back in Kuala Lumpur, and back in Explorer’s as well. It seemed to happen to a lot of people.
We grabbed some dinner at Sangeetha’s, my third time in three days, and discussed plans for the next day. It turned out that we both had flights in the afternoon, so we decided to get the same bus to the airport. It would be the first time that I wasn’t in a rush, and could therefore afford to take the slow bus to the airport for 10 Ringgit, instead of paying an extortionate amount on a taxi or fast train.
Or so I thought. The next day, after my first run in a very long time, in the rain around Kuala Lumpur, we caught the bus, and I hopped off with Charlotte at Terminal 2, where all international flights left from. Or so I thought.
Swaggering up to the departure board (I don’t really swagger), I noticed with concern that my flight to Hanoi was not on the list. I asked the man at the information desk where on earth my flight might be, and he told me that I was at the wrong terminal. My easy 1 hour 45 minute early arrival was about to be drained into a sprint finish.
I said goodbye to Charlotte, and rushed down to the train that I had previously eschewed and complained about. 5 Ringgits and twenty five minutes later I was in the basement of Terminal 1, with approximately one hour until my flight. No big deal, I’d done much worse. I made my way hastily to my check in desk.
I’ve explained in previous blogs the transit visa that China has recently put into place that allows you a certain amount of time in the city you fly into without previously applying for a visa or paying any money. The rules are always the same; you must be flying in from one country and flying out to another. You must have proof of a departure flight. And you must leave before your time in the city ends. In Shanghai the time allowed is 144 hours; in Beijing it’s 72. It’s all pretty well explained if you research in online, which is what I pleaded with the woman at the counter of the Vietnam Airlines desk to do, as she looked at my passport critically and told me that I would not be allowed into the country.
After a phone call to a colleague she informed me that the 144 hour transit visa did in fact exist, but only if you caught the train into the country. I asked her how that could possibly work, as a Shanghai visa only allows you to be in Shanghai, and getting a train in would mean going through about a thousand other locations. This didn’t sway her.
It got to within thirty minutes of my flight leaving before she finally decided that either it wasn’t worth the hassle, or that my arguments had rang true. Either way, she let me go with a freshly printed boarding pass and a gate number. I had 30 minutes to get there. Well, technically fifteen minutes, since the gates were supposed to shut early.
But that still left security, immigration, and a train to the gates.
I’ve complained about queue jumpers before, so it almost physically pained me to have to jump to the front of every queue and ask if I could go ahead. But it had to be done, as the unexpected train cut off another ten minutes of waiting and transit time.
Eventually I made it to the gate. There hadn’t been a security line; they were doing all the x-ray scanners at the actual gate. And they were running twenty minutes behind.
I dropped my bags on the floor, caught my breath, then went and bought myself an ice cream. Apparently I now had stacks of time. Might as well relax – in two flights and a 9 hour layover I would be in Shanghai.