I stand, waiting in line at the Hong-Kong airport for my Metro card. A Chinese man steps up behind me, and his bowels decide I need a proper initiation with a long-winded, open-armed flatulent vibration as if to say “Welcome to Hong-Kong”.
I’ve just landed after an 8 day trip around Taiwan (read more here), which was filled with charming people and equally charming landscapes. Now, I find myself in one of the most densely populated areas of the world. This immediately sinks in on the bus ride to Lingnan University, where I’ll be staying for my second to last semester at university. The bus goes directly from the airport to Tuen Mun, a city close-by, and takes just over an hour through the coastal roads and mountainside. But in between the mountains, I see apartment skyscrapers that must house more people than the entirety of my Danish town. In the rain, they look run-down and overused, as I’m sure far too many people have been living under those roofs for too long.
After the hour is up, I get off in Tuen Mun where I stumble around trying to find the bus that goes to Lingnan. I completely forgot that they drive on the left side of the road here (because Mainland China drives on the right), but I guess it was a British colony so it makes sense. Eventually, I find the correct bus in the rain and make my way to my new University.
I completely ditched the orientation week (Taiwan was calling me!) so I had no idea where anything was located, or where and how to get to my hostel. Google maps led me to an administration office, where a nice woman is surprised to see me arriving so late, but checks me in none the less. She sets me up and points me in the direction of my dorm.
Here, a portly and bald Hongkongese man with a huge booming voice checks me in and gives me the keys. I run upstairs, and see that my room is completely empty. There are cabinets that I suppose a mattress is supposed to go on, and my desk, and my roommate’s stuff with no roommate in sight. I run back down and ask “is there a bed?” to which the security guard laughs and looks around at all his papers before yelling,
“Oh! Yesss sorry sorry.” He gets up and goes to the back of his office, and comes back with a bag full of bedding, smiling “Welcome, to Hong-Kong!”
Now that I had my bed sorted out, I unpack and settle in.
My IKEA bag is still going strong!
I’ve found a Singapore coffee cup in the hallway and make it my own, and get everything squared away and ready. Then finally someone opens the door. Having a roommate was the part of this experience I was most dreading. Dorms aren’t a thing in Denmark, and everybody has to find accommodation on their own. So back home, I live in a large private room with a shared kitchen and bath. Here, I would have no kitchen and a large shared bathroom and a small room. So I was obviously worried, thinking I would get some freshman Hongkongese kid with no life experience who would be struggling the whole semester. To my delight, Johnson walks in, a local in his Junior year with a good social life, Johnson is the least Hongkongese person I’ve met so far. Most people from his country see life in a very definitive way. They follow all of the rules to the dot, and anything outside of those rules is unimaginable. But Johnson seems to be quite the opposite and is extremely talkative and friendly. So far so good.
Now it’s Wednesday, I’ve only been here for one night and I’m already restless. The canteen is closed, so all food has to be from restaurants since there’s no place to cook. Nobody is on campus since classes don’t start for a week, and in general, I’m already a bit ready to see new things. But first, I want to head into town to do some shopping. I’ve been living out of my IKEA backpack since the end of June, so there are some basic things I’d like that I really miss. Like a large towel, for example. I walk to the nearby train station and am reminded just how huge this place is. Keep in mind, I’m living in the ‘suburbs’
I head downtown, about 30 minutes to Mong Kok district, where you can buy anything and everything. I’m confident that if you wander around Mong Kok, you’d be able to find whatever your heart desires no matter how ridiculous or impossible. Ski boots? We have several ski stores. Parachutes? Right around the corner. Unicorn horn? Sure, what color would you prefer that in? It’s a jumbled up mess of stores and people and is an unforgettably eclectic experience for anyone that wants to do their shopping in a couple blocks.
There are some really touristy blocks, and some off the beaten path areas as well. I head to Mee & Gee second hand, Hong-Kong’s version of Goodwill, for some cheap goodies. I’ve pretty much been wearing the same white Hanes t-shirts from Target for the past two months and could use a spice up. I bought three pretty nice shirts for $10, and decided that when winter rolls around I’ll come back for sweaters and parkas. This place has everything, even things that fit my long proportions.
Finished with shopping, I head back out and down to Hong-Kong island to see the neighborhood my roommate recommended I go see. It’s an old market area, with a lot of traditional medicinal shops.
About now, the rain is beginning to pour while the weight of 7.6 million people stands on my shoulders. It’s raining, I’m struggling to find my way through all of the people, and I’m beginning to lose my composure. I’m usually great with big cities and stressful situations, but something about Hong-Kong’s downtown makes me irritated quickly. I hop back on the metro and head home before it gets too late and rush hour traffic sets in.
I get back and relax a bit. I figure I have four months to explore the area better, and that it’s okay to do it in little bits. My biggest goal, now, is to find where to go next. I have until Tuesday before classes start, and I most certainly do not want to be in a quiet school for that. My entire Thursday was spent on my computer, looking at flights and prices and hostels deciding what to do, and where to go. I would stand up, walk around a bit, then come back and sit back down pondering where to go. Then all of the stars align perfectly, flight times and prices and hostel availabilities, and I decide:
My only exposure with Malaysia comes from going to the only Malaysian restaurant around in Denver. We discovered it once when I was a teenager, going to the Pearl Street farmers market on Sunday’s. One time, we discovered a little restaurant freshly opened up called Makan. It was their first week open, and the owners treated us to a tasting of all of the goodies and drinks that they made. My tongue danced to Nasi Goreng, a delicious stir-fry, or perfect Malay curry. To wash it all down, I had a sweet and creamy glass of cold Teh Tarik, Malaysia’s answer to Chai tea. I grew interested in this country I had rarely thought about and decided I’d add it to my future backpacking trips when I was an ‘adult’. Now, I found myself on a four-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur.
My first impressions were great, simply from the kindness of the stewardess’. I hadn’t eaten anything and decided I’d just buy a muffin and a coffee on the plane. When she came around, she said cash only, so I held out a HK$10 note (about $1.25) and asked: “Is that enough?” She shook her head, poured me a coffee, and brought me some chicken pasta free of charge. I didn’t really know how to respond to such an act, but just said thank you and did my best to be a good passenger.
Soon, I’d be in Kuala Lumpur for only 3 days. A proper Weekend Rambling adventure.
I arrive pretty late and take the train into town. Instantly, I don’t know how to take it all in. It’s certainly one of the most multicultural places I’ve experienced, just from sitting down on the train. Caucasians, Indians, Chinese, Buddhist monks, and women in burkas, all on my tiny train car. It’s an amazing group of people to hold under one city. Kuala Lumpur itself is pretty up and coming, with a lot of highrises popping up throughout.
My hotel is in Chinatown, which is conveniently just one stop away from Central Station. I walk about ten minutes to my place, the Space Hotel, which was much nicer than I had expected. I wanted a quiet place, in a decent location, and I only ended up spending $9 a night for this place. Oh, it was so nice. It’s like staying in a pod on a spaceship. But not those little pods you see Japanese businessmen stay in. This pod was huge, with its own air conditioning, TV, and lighting. It was honestly the most luxurious place I’ve stayed in for $9. I don’t really want to leave the pod, so I Facetime Ivana and share the moment for a bit.
Now, I’m getting a bit hungry so I put out a hangout on Couchsurfing that I want to grab some food. Some people are interested, but I’m way too hungry to wait so I head out to the street in search of goodies. I come upon a little stand serving Tandoori chicken with fresh baked naan and daal on the side. I sit and wait for some couchsurfers, enjoying my spicy and tender chicken. Soon enough, Saaiyed, an Omani engineering student with a big smile, shows up and we talk for a while. He’s incredibly curious about my life, and we end up having a great time just sharing our lives before Oregonian Hannah, who is also staying in my hotel, shows up. It’s so refreshing to talk to Americans when you’ve been on the road, just because you can make obscure cultural references that no one else understands. Hannah and I instantly hit it off, doing Scottish accents and making obscure jokes from The Big Lebowski or Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Saaiyed is pretty much in the dark here, but he keeps a smile on his face and enjoys our nonsense. Then later on a Somali bio-engineer, Mohamed, shows up and joins in. He’s just as confused as Saaiyed about our jokes, but they have a good attitude about it.
We head to the main bar street, where Saaiyed and Mohamed grab a juice while Hannah and I grab some beers. Fireworks start setting off in the building across from us, for unknown reasons, and we have a great time sharing stories underneath the explosions.
The space pod is so comfortable and luscious, it’s like sleeping in a little cave. I sleep in a bit too much, until about 11 am, and head out for some breakfast. I don’t have a direction, I just wander. Along the way, I walk past the China Town market which is full of little plastic trinkets.
The streets are relatively empty on a Saturday morning, and the sun is out and blaring which makes it unattractive to walk around. Luckily, a lot of the streets are covered like in Taiwan.
It’s not the cleanest of cities, but it does feel a lot cleaner and less populated than Bangkok or Hong-Kong. It’s a lot more relaxed, which makes me happy to be here.
Along the way, I pass by the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, which is the oldest Hindu Temple in Kuala Lumpur. The figures outside are sun bleached, but still beautiful.
Finally, I come upon a restaurant worthy of breakfast (more like lunch) dining. I find Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock Kopitiam, which seems like a pretty local place because only one other Caucasian guy is eating here today. The walls are coated in a patina of chipped blue paint, with posters and pictures of old Malaysian celebrities along the walls.
A long-haired waiter serves me one of the best pieces of fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life. Nasi Lemak, a chicken leg coated in shaved ginger breading and deep fried until perfectly tender, served on rice with a ginger chutney. On the side, a pulled and perfectly creamy Teh Tarik. I only wish to have breakfast this good for the rest of my life. Total cost: US$2.90.
It’s making my mouth water just to think about it. Yes, I licked the bones clean.
I consider getting one more but decide it’d be best to get out and see the city. A quick train ride back to central station gets me to Brickfields, the Indian neighborhood.
I had a big plan of wandering around temples and stopping in for flawless Indian food, but I didn’t find too much here. I began to wander, and was quite disappointed by everything. The neighborhood is run down and broken in many areas. A bit sad, I begin walking back to the train station. Then, I hear drums in the distance.
I follow them through broken concrete streets until I come upon a temple with a full-on party and feast going on out front.
I wish I could have stayed, but I didn’t have a good way in. Instead, I headed back and found a little shop to sit for another teh tarik.
Next to me, a blind man sits with a box of Malaysian flags he’s selling. The seats are different shades of bright greens and yellows, and the waiter is a little disappointed that all I want is tea. It’s a great people watching spot, so he’s going to have to get over it.
When I emerge from this photo, an Indian man is standing over me, smiling keenly. “Where are you from?” he says with a thick accent.
“The US.” I say, not quite trusting him yet.
“Oh ok.” His features soften and he steps back a bit. “I don’t have anyone in the US, but a lot of my family lives in the UK. I work for the schools, so I get sent all over the world for conferences a lot. UK, Kyrgyzstan, Denmark, everywhere.” His teeth aren’t quite straight but crooked in an endearing way. Fernandez, a Catholic from Karala, tells me of his story and how he’s just come here to scope out the office he has an interview at the next morning. Smart plan, Fernandez. We talk for a while, then he decides to leave and shakes my hand goodbye.
The blind man sitting next to me then reaches across the space dividing us, handing me a piece of paper, “Please, can you read these numbers please. I can’t see them well.”
“Of course,” I read the long list of numbers on the sheet he’s handed me while he holds an old Nokia directly up to his right eye, punching in the numbers as I read them off. There are a lot of blind people around here (there must be a doctor or a center), which I notice as a blind man quickly crosses a busy street. I can’t imagine how terrifying it is to navigate a city blind. It’s terrifying and difficult enough to get around a city with sight.
I pay for my tea and start heading towards the Islamic Art Museum. I love the geometry of Islamic Art, and I hear Kuala Lumpur has an amazing collection.
Near a big park, the Islamic Art Museum is in a sort of ‘Muslim Heritage’ park, with the National Mosque and some other important buildings.
The Museum itself is huge, encompassing a large amount of antiquities and models of Mosques from around the world. The architecture itself is amazing, with giant domes encompassing the complex.
I’m happy, and head out next to walk around the park near the Museum.
It’s a huge jungle, with one of the largest walk-in aviaries in the world. Had I had one more day, I would have gone to the Bird Park. But just then, I got a text from Hannah who had just woken up and was ready to go hit the town. We meet up in Brickfields with another girl from the hostel, Tatiana from Buenos Aires.
We have a plate of biryani served on a big banana leaf, eaten with our hands. This is my first major exposure to Indian culture, other than spending the weekends with my Indian friend’s large family growing up. It’s interesting to have that experience in Kuala Lumpur, but it’s so massively diverse here that I’m not surprised. I don’t feel out of place here. No one gives me a second look. There’s everything, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, from all countries and ethnicities. Nothing is weird or different in this city, which is beautiful.
This beauty extends to one of the greatest skyscrapers I’ve ever seen.
Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers offer one of the most pleasing geometric compositions on modern architecture (in my opinion). We walk around the park in the back, among the many cultures looking and enjoying the weather and the view. It’s the perfect time for one of my invisible selfies.
Nearby, there’s the Lot 10 Hutong, a food court in the basement of a department store. Here, the owners asked the city’s best food stalls to open up a shop.
It’s a collaboration of all of Kuala Lumpur’s best spots, everything from Indian to Chinese noodles to Malay Nasi Lemak or shaved ice. It’s everything in one spot, so we sit and enjoy for a bit. Saaiyed shows up eventually, and we decide to head out and go walk for a bit.
We go bowling for a while, but there’s no beer served so I can’t feel like The Dude from the Big Lebowski. Hannah’s a little white trash so she wins it all. Along the way back home, we stop at a little smokey bar for a game of pool and an expensive beer. I’m also a little white trash, so I clean up at pool. Bars are expensive everywhere I’ve been in Asia, I guess because there isn’t much of a bar culture here. In Denmark, bars feel like the only place to socialize in the winter time. You just show up in the dark for a few pints with some friends for a good time. But in a place with no winter, I guess you can meet your friends somewhere a bit more normal. So places like the bowling alley work for us, and it gives us a good memory for the night.
Hannah and I come back with a can of Tiger from the 7-11 and decide to drink it on the hostel porch. We make eye contact with a couple of blonde people, and decide to go over and talk. We meet Justin and Anna from The Netherlands, and talk for a while over their recent trip to Sri Lanka. They’re staying in the two-person space capsule, which sounds amazingly luxurious. A pact is made that we’ll meet up for breakfast at 10:30, so we all head to bed and get back into our spacey chambers.
I wake up and meet Justin and Anna promptly. I tell them about the restaurant I had for breakfast the day before, and they seem pretty interested. So we make our way, looking at food stalls and shops on the route.
Sunday is a much busier morning at the restaurant. I order the same thing and Justin follows suit, while Anna gets two boiled eggs with a side of toast.
I’m not sure if it was as religious for me as it was for them, but I’m just happy I got to eat some more of that Nasi Lemak I love oh so much. Anna’s eggs come out softer than soft boiled, so she asks for harder eggs and gets a couple cooked like a rock. Maybe I should stop giving recommendations for places. But they have a good attitude, and I hope they enjoyed.
We walk back, and by that time Hannah was finally awake. Justin and Anna want to go to the big shopping center to look for some electronics, and Hannah and I want to go see the tigers at the National Zoo. We hop on the metro and make our way there, stopping in a tiny town just off the metro that seems to have a large Chinese population. There are some festivities for the Hungry Ghost Festival, with fires being stoked for money burning and a puppet show warming up.
We stop for a bowl of noodles, and get a Grab car (Malaysia’s Über), for a ride to the zoo. We arrive around 15:00, excited to finally see the animals at this zoo, which is supposed to be amazing. I don’t know why, but I’ve really been wanting to go to a zoo for a while. I try not to anymore, just because it’s not the most pleasant place to be. But every now and then I just really want to see a bear or a tiger, and there aren’t many places to do that. We walk up to the ticket desk, and find out that it’s a steep $20 to enter. As well, it closes in an 1:30. The woman working behind the desk says “Don’t even bother today,” so we head back out. It’s a bit unfair, because Malaysians only pay a fraction of that price. We get another Grab, and tell the driver how expensive the zoo was.
“That shouldn’t be too much for you,”
It was enough, my friend. Our grab driver takes us a 20-minute ride to the Batu Caves, something I had had on my list but did not think I’d be able to make. It’s a Hindu temple complex made into a giant cave, with a large marketplace out front. We arrive at a hectic Indian market scene, of people selling beads and sarungs and blankets for low low prices. Out front is a large temple, certainly the largest I’ve seen, which has been freshly painted to look as crazy as the party that must have happened in here earlier today. The ground is littered with all sorts of little pieces of garbage, but it must have been fun.
Hannah’s been on the road traveling through South East Asia for the past few months, but this is the first Hindu temple she’s ever been to. Come to think of it, it’s probably my first as well.
Next, we go outside and gaze upon the rainbow stairs leading up to the caves.
The caves are guarded by the giant statue and a hoard of monkeys.
We climb the many stairs, weaving through the monkeys and tourists.
Finally, we make it to the top and come upon a scene out of Indiana Jones.
Prayer drums are beating through the cave walls, horns are blaring, and incense smoke wafts through the moist air as bats scurry overhead. It’s a serenely unique experience, and feels to be a truly holy place.
The souls of all of the people that have come here to pray can be felt in the cave atmosphere. It’s a ‘good energy’ kind of place, offering more positivity than I could have imagined. This was completely worth the trip, and I’m glad to have seen this over the zoo at this point.
Outside the prayer cave is a much longer, darker natural cave which gives tours on cave life. The line is a bit too long, but if I had more time a cave tour could be pretty interesting.
We descend back down, weaving again through monkeys and tourists back to the market.
The rain is beginning to fall, and as soon as salesman start covering their wares, people start heading to the metro to get on the train back into town. It was packed. So we took another Grab car! But it’s cheap, so we feel little shame in doing so. The driver tells us there were just 12-year celebrations at the temple, which explains why there was such a huge party. I wish we could have seen that, but it must have been the reason for the party at that first temple in Brickfields.
The Grab car drops us off at Heli Bar, a rooftop bar that a local couchsurfer told me to check out. I didn’t want to go to the top of the Petronas Towers because of the price ($20), so instead went to a bar and bought a cheap beer. Can’t beat this view.
Hannah and I sit for a few hours, waiting for the towers to light up in the dark night. A dress code is imposed at the bar after 21:00 so our flip flops won’t fly soon enough. We wait, just in time to catch a glimpse of a beautiful nighttime cityscape.
This is a great people watching the spot, seeing all of the characters from all walks of life showing up for a view and a drink. All to see this.
Magnificent, no? We’ve seen our view, and our bellies are full so we head back to Lot 10 Hutong, right around the block, and meet up with Saaiyed for some dinner. I’m starting to get pretty tired, so we head back and grab a 7-11 beer for the balcony along the way. We sit with our beers, talking about movies and shows until I decide I have to get some rest before getting up at 4:00 am to catch my flight.
People always ask me something along the lines of “Aren’t you lonely traveling alone?” but the truth is, you’re never alone when you travel solo. There’s always someone to meet, someone to talk to, and hundreds of beautiful souls to share a moment with. We’re all just social creatures looking for other people to spend time with, and traveling always reinstates that feeling in me. Whenever I do truly feel lonely, I force myself to travel. I believe the feeling of loneliness is the mind craving its own solitude. The mind wants to be alone for a second and to discover that there truly is no such thing as loneliness, just appreciating time on your own. I think about this, as I lay alone and happy in my little pod before drifting off to sleep.
Thank you for reading this long long post. I apologize for making it so large, but I just wanted to talk about my travels. Thank you for your support, and please leave comments if you liked it or feel I can improve! I won’t be traveling for at least a month, but I’ll be writing about my little trips around Hong-Kong, so please subscribe and stay updated with everywhere I end up!