I want to add a random note before I talk about my trip to Malaysia. Numerous friends and family members have asked if I need them to send me money. You’re all incredible, and I am so grateful to have such a supportive team on my side. I think that in a previous post I might have given the wrong message about my financial situation. I have saved up a comfortable amount for this trip, but I have just been a total cheapskate since I’ve been here (thanks, Thailand!). While living here, it’s easy to get into the mindset that $6 is an expensive meal, $10 is an expensive pedicure, and $20 is an expensive day trip. I want everyone to know that I’m doing just fine, the only difficulty that I’m experiencing is coming to terms with being able to spend money on fun. I’m not broke, I’m just cheap!
I have spent the last 4 days and 3 nights in Malaysia, and I don’t even know how I’m going to keep this post from becoming a whole chapter of a book. I went into Kuala Lumpur (KL) with no expectations, and ended up having an amazing experience. I could try to explain the trip in a chronological order, but this post would never end.
The overarching theme of my trip was the haze from the Indonesian forest fires. It was literally overarching.
On the plane ride over, about 10 minutes after the captain had announced to prepare for arrival, I looked out the window and it didn’t seem like we were descending. All I could see were clouds, and the cabin started to smell like fire. Although I had anticipated the haze, I had no idea how bad it was actually going to be. Before I could even see the ground, the wheels came out from under the airplane and we landed. I have no idea how it was possible for the captain to even see the runway. It was much worse than I thought.
I reserved an apartment through Airbnb that was right outside the downtown area. I booked the place because it’s about 1 mile from the city center, and it had stunning views of the Petronas Towers- the tallest twin towers in the world. The drive to the place took about an hour, but my taxi driver was awesome, so it went by really fast. He spoke English very well, and we mostly talked about the haze situation. I quickly realized that the Indonesian fires are not only an environmental catastrophe and a general inconvenience, but a serious human rights issue.
The driver told me that he hadn’t seen sky in two months. Apparently he was used to it, as he said it happens every year, although, he said that this time was worse than any he’s ever seen. He had sores on his eyes and a lung infection. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the fires were started for slash and burn agriculture for palm oil production, but quickly grew out of control due to the dry season and the nature of the fires. They’re peat fires, so they are able to exist at 25 feet under the ground. Small, contained fires are legal, but it’s tricky to keep them contained and manageable. My driver told me that even though the Indonesian government claims to want to keep them in control, they always turn their head and give the corporations a slap on the wrist when the fires lose control. Slash and burn agriculture is much faster and cheaper than the alternative, and the corporations and government alike make some serious cash off of palm oil production. Indonesia is going through an exceptionally dry season, so there is no end in sight for the haze situation.
Schools nationwide have been cancelled for over 14 days of the month of October, and they’re not even in the same country as the fires. Children in Indonesia have died from respiratory infections resulting from the haze. I could rant and rave about this all day. It’s absolutely unbelievable. Sigh. Sorry to be super heavy, I’ll switch it up and tell you about my trip now.
My taxi driver from the airport was awesome, and he was definitely an exception to the rule of taxi drivers in KL. In the city, it is illegal for a metered taxi to fix the price of a trip and not use the meter. It’s posted on signs in both Malay and English on their taxis, yet, it’s hard to find a taxi that will actually abide by the rule.
I was used to haggling prices in Phuket, so my first few taxi rides were based on negotiation. Without realizing it, I was being charged double the normal rate. In front of the place I was staying, the taxi drivers were all congregated in front of the building, and they all offered me rides by quoting a price. I had intended on using my GrabTaxi app, but it doesn’t work without cell service. Once I had the information about taxis being required to use a meter, I tried to point out to the drivers that I knew what they were doing was illegal. I was astonished at their reaction.
Each time I pointed it out, I was met with an incredibly offensive response. To put it into perspective, here is a list of things that happened when I mentioned it was illegal to forego the taxi meter:
-A man spit at my feet
-One man burped in my face
-I was told to “F off”
-I was completely ignored and shooed away
-They tried to tell me that during high traffic, the law doesn’t count,
-The law doesn’t matter after sundown,
-The law doesn’t exist in the city of KL, and
-They don’t have to use a meter on the way to tourist attractions
To humor myself, I asked a police officer if any of the things these men were saying were true. I simply asked, “hey, is there any circumstance in which a taxi doesn’t have to use a meter?” The cop looked really concerned, and said, “who said those things to you? Please show me who. This is highly illegal, and we want to tell them it’s wrong!” Considering that 90% of taxi drivers in front of tourist attractions refused to use the meter, I was extremely doubtful that this cop was being sincere. I eventually found that it was most effective to flag down a taxi that was already driving, and say “meter, please” as soon as I got into the vehicle. I only ran into 1 driver who refused to use the meter, and I simply rejected his offer and flagged down the next one.
The apartment I was staying in was great, but the whole setup felt like it would’ve been a disaster if the building were to catch on fire. For starters, the building’s fire alarm was going off the entire time due to the haze. They couldn’t turn it off, so they just turned it down. There was a quiet beeping throughout the duration of my stay. Additionally, the key card that I was given was required to get through the front door of the building, into and out of the room with the elevator/stairs, to access the elevator/stairs, and to access the room I was staying in. It was great security, but I’m not sure anyone would be able to make it out of there in a hurry without their key card.
The whole purpose of my trip was to renew my Thai tourist visa for another 30 days until my work permit is approved for a 1 year visa. The night before I went into the embassy, I was double checking that I had all of my paperwork in order when I realized I didn’t quite have enough cash for the visa itself. I went down to an ATM to withdraw cash, and my card was declined. Since I’ve been out of the country, I’ve had to call my bank at least 5 times to remind them that I am not in the United States. Granted, I am glad they are keeping a close eye on my account, but it’s become quite a hassle. In Thailand I am able to call internationally with my phone, but I didn’t have service in Malaysia. If I was unable to go to the embassy the following morning, I would’ve had to wait until Monday to complete the process. Needless to say, I was in panic mode.
I had WiFi at the apartment I was staying in, but there isn’t really such thing as free international calling, even if it’s through WiFi. The internet connection was horrible, and it took an hour to download an app that promised the first 10 minutes were free. After having downloaded the app, I got a hold of my bank and explained to them my situation. “Thank you for calling First National Bank of Omaha. My name is David, and I am happy to assist you with your inquiry today. May I please start with your full name, the last four of your social, and a good number to reach you?”
GAAAAAHHHHHH!!!! “Yes hi, David, despite having told the bank 100 times that I now live outside of the country, you all continue to leave me without access to MY OWN MONEY!!! I’M GOING TO BE STUCK IN MALAYSIA FOREVER!!!!!”
Just kidding. I didn’t say that. Call center employees do not deserve the wrath of anyone’s frustration. I politely explained my situation, and he said “Everything appears to be okay on your card ma’am. Oh wait, I do see here… let me put you on a brief hold while I speak with another department.” After waiting on hold for 9 minutes, I watched as the free 10 minute call dwindled away. I felt hopeless at this point. To be incredibly dramatic about it, I felt like I was Rose from Titanic, letting Jack slip away into the ice cold water. DON’T GO!! I begged. I couldn’t buy another 10 minutes through the app because my account was on hold.
To make a long, winding, overly dramatic story short, I ended up finding the app “Dingtone” which gave me a free 30 minute phone call (thank you Dingtone!! I’m forever indebted). Apparently the bank decided to change my debit card to a “compromised” status, because I had “tried to use it in Thailand.” I had a wonderful 20 minute wait for them to tell me that they’ve temporarily changed the status of the card to active, and they’ve sent a new one out in the mail for me to use when I got home. I reminded them that I won’t be home for another year, there should be a note on my account, and they said, “Oh, really?” Yes, really. Someone find me a new bank.
After two and a half hours of dealing with them, it was 12:30am. I went to bed but had a hard time sleeping, wondering if my card would work at the ATM the following morning.
The Thai embassy in KL is only open from 9:30am to 11:30am, and I had been advised by multiple people to show up at 8am in order to be able to process everything on time. I left my apartment at 7:30am and had a taxi take me to an ATM to withdraw some cash. We went to 4 different ATMs before we found one that accepts Visa. A tip to anyone considering a trip to KL- bring a MasterCard.
I arrived at the embassy at 8am and there were already 9 people ahead of me in line. It’s not like you can arrive and take a number and sit down. The line is at the gate in front of the building with standing room only. This was the only time I was grateful for the haze, as the sun was merely a red dot for decoration. It was about 80 degress out, when it should have been 90+. I had brought my Kindle, and the time went by quickly.
Directly behind me in line was a Buddhist nun. She had her head shaved and was wearing a white robe. I was previously distracted by my reading, but I wish I would’ve struck up a conversation with her sooner. For the past year she has been living in a Buddhist temple in Chaing Mai, Thailand. She was born in California, but has spent the majority of her life in Japan and Australia. She was such an interesting woman! Currently, Thailand does not allow a woman to be ordained as a monk, and trying to be a female monk is considered rebellious. She continuously has to leave the country to renew her tourist visa, because the Thai government will not allow a woman to stay on a meditation visa. I was so intrigued by her story.
At 9am, two men and a woman in their twenties walked up to the front of the line at the gate. Everyone was giving them the death stare, as we had all been waiting in line for an hour already. The Buddhist nun walked right up to them and politely told them that we had all been waiting, and suggested they head to the back of the queue. I was absolutely shocked to see that these people were incredibly rude to her, and basically told her to go away. The woman walked back to her place in line and said, “Some people are just going to be that way. Don’t let it ruin your mood.” LET THIS WOMAN BE A MONK ALREADY!!! (p.s. Once I got back to my Airbnb, I read a very interesting article about female monks in Thailand. Now that I’m back in Thailand, I can’t access the site because is blocked by the government. If you’re curious, google “female monks in Thailand” and click on the “daily mail” link. It’s incredibly interesting).
The line-cutters (Russians, go figure) got into an altercation with the woman at the visa counter, and they ended up having to wait much longer than anyone else who had been in front of them. Processing my visa only took about 15 minutes once I had got in, and I was on with my day. If you have any questions about the Thai visa process in KL I would be happy to answer any questions you may have via e-mail.
Another major part of my trip was experiencing Islamic culture. In Malaysia, roughly 50% of the people are Muslim. Coming from the U.S. (especially CO), culture shock was definitely real. I knew that Islam was dominant in Malaysia, but for some reason it didn’t really sink in until I arrived. I will admit that this trip increased my knowledge of Islamic culture 110%.
I saw on TripAdvisor KL that the Islamic Arts Museum was the #2 attraction in the city. I decided it would be a good place to learn. After having visited, I can understand why it is so popular. The museum cost about $1 to get in (I used my old CSU ID for a discount, haha), and has four floors packed full of artifacts from different Islamic Empires throughout the centuries. I learned about everything from ancient jewelry to environmentally sustainable mosque construction.
The National Mosque of Malaysia is right across the street from the museum, so after spending 2 hours in the museum, I decided to have a look. It is open to tourists on and off throughout the day in hour and a half intervals (they close to non-Muslims to allow for prayer). I was dressed conservatively enough for a Buddhist temple, but showed up under-dressed to peek inside of the mosque. Right when I showed up, a woman grabbed a robe for me and got me dressed. I didn’t even have time to react. I got the full on hijab. Oh man, I was out of my element. I had a guy take my picture, and after I’d looked at it, I had to try really hard to keep from laughing. I don’t think twice about it when I see a Muslim woman dressed like that, but I felt ridiculous wearing it as a non-Muslim. Chalk one up to the experience, I guess.
The mosque itself wasn’t really extraordinary in terms of architecture. I wasn’t allowed to enter the prayer hall, so I really only walked up and peeked in. The whole ordeal took less than 10 minutes. I picked up some brochures to gain a little insight into the Islamic faith. Let’s be clear here, I picked them up because I wanted to know more about the unknown. I think the most interesting quote from all of the brochures was, “Women will never reach true liberation until they stop
imitating men and value the beauty of their own God-given distinctiveness.” I’m not here to condemn the religion or say what’s right or wrong, but we’ll just say that I wouldn’t last long as a Muslim. I hope you appreciate the picture, because I really had to talk myself into posting it. I know I’m not going to live that one down.
The most awkward part of the entire ordeal was taking off the robe and headscarf once I was outside of the mosque. The men that were standing outside had an absolute field day with it. I was getting cat calls and kissing noises, and was incredibly uncomfortable. After living in Central and South America I have learned to ignore the behavior, but it was something I have yet to experience from Thai men. I’ve never been shouted at or harassed since I’ve been in Thailand. KL was an entire different story.
The majority of women in KL were dressed extremely conservatively. I was dressed very modestly by American standards. One of the days I was out walking in a sleeveless shirt and jeans, and a woman called me a prostitute. I saw many non-Muslims who were dressed less conservatively than I was. The whole thing was intense.
As for the sight seeing in KL, there is a “hop on hop off” bus tour, which is like any other city’s big red bus tour. The ticket lasts for 24 hours and costs under $10. It was a great way to sight see and hit the major tourist attractions with limited time. My only problem with it was that sometimes it was faster to walk from point A to point B because the traffic was so bad. Also, as nice as it is to sit on top of a double-decker bus, the haze was burning my eyes and making me cough.
Tickets up to the sky bridge in the Petronas Twin Towers were half off because the haze was so bad you couldn’t see anything. They were booked, so I opted for the Menara KL Tower. They were doing a haze promotion that was free entry to the aquarium with purchase of tower ticket. The KL tower was completed in 1996, and I have to say, the place looks like it hasn’t been renovated since 1996. It’s not like they don’t have the money, either. It’s one of the busiest attractions in the city.
The “aquarium” was a bunch of small uncleaned fish tanks that were jam packed with fish that were way too big to have 14 of them in the same tank. It smelled like someone threw up a tuna sandwich inside of a city park bathroom, but luckily the walk through it only took 5 minutes. It was hardly a consolation for paying full price for the KL tower ride up. The view would have been incredible if it weren’t for the haze. They took my picture in front of a green screen and photoshopped in the normal view in the background, then wanted me to pay $10 for the picture. It felt especially fake, because I had only seen about 1/3 of the actual view. I didn’t buy the picture.
The setup inside the tower was also rundown, and I don’t think the carpet has been changed since the building’s construction. At one point I walked by the room with the elevator and watched a man spraying an aerosol can full of fragrance onto the carpets. Despite the haze, the view was still pretty impressive, and I think it was definitely worth the trip.
My major splurge of the trip was the 96 hour binge eating food tour of Kuala Lumpur. Because it’s a big city, I was able to eat Mexican, American, Mediterranean, French, Indian, and Japanese food. I haven’t had much for food diversity since I’ve been staying in Thailand, so I was having a hayday with international cuisine. The Indian food was the best I’ve ever eaten, and I ate a four course meal at a four star restaurant for under $15.
I also found a breakfast place that had a “bagel with cream cheese” on the menu. I was so excited until the waiter brought it out. There are only a few things that will make me throw a toddler tantrum on the inside, and one of them is the bagel impostor. I felt deceived. I wanted to cry.
Just kidding. It was almost representative of a bagel, but not the real thing. My least favorite part about living abroad is the lack of bagels. Cry me a river.
I haven’t nearly said all that I wanted to say about my experience in Malaysia, but I have to cut this off now. Let’s just say that KL is an incredible booming metropolis that is definitely worthy of a visit. Having only experienced the major city within the peninsula, I’m now curious to discover the rest of Malaysia.
One last thing I’ll add:
Even in a city of 1.5 million people, I hardly saw any Western tourists. I had multiple people ask me if they could take their picture with me. I felt like a movie star. I made sure to get a picture on my own camera for some of them, because they were pretty hilarious. I’ll leave you with these….