Although the rent on my apartment was paid up through Tuesday, I spent Monday night in a hotel in Singapore called the South-East Asia Hotel (getting a little flavor of the up-coming trip). Then early Tuesday morning, I hopped on the first train to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After two years of living in the sterile conformity of Singapore, I was more than ready for a little adventure. And I thought that beginning my journey by traveling through a Muslim country during the height of Bush’s holy war might be just that.
The train ride to Kuala Lumpur was indeed a bit of an adventure. Extremely heavy monsoons and bad floods during the previous few weeks had washed away houses, people, cows, villages and train track bridges. My train had to practically crawl over some bridges at 5 miles per hour (about 8 kilometers per hour) while guys with wooden shovels furiously packed dirt to prop up the trestles supporting the already rickety wooden bridges.
I paid an extra twelve Singaporean dollars to sit in the first class car and it was worth every bit of twelve dollars (actually $7.20 US) and not a penny more. Since people in first class should arrive at their destination sooner than those in the economy cars, the first class car was right behind the locomotive. And because the passengers from the first class and economy sections were not allowed to mix, I was stuck in that one car with only two other people, which meant that I got to breathe the sweet smell of cheap diesel for the entire eight plus hour trip from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.
I couldn’t wait to get off that train, breathe some fresh air and take a long walk on some unfamiliar streets. After stretching my legs that first night in KL, I found myself sitting in a little cafe on a backstreet drinking Chinese herbal tea, listening to some guy playing flamenco guitar while watching it rain like it rains only in the tropics and thinking that other than having no source of income, quitting my job and going walkabout was the right decision (at least so far).
Kuala Lumpur is an interesting place, like a mix of Singapore, Las Vegas and Tijuana, with a little history thrown in. I wandered around for a couple of days checking out some cool old buildings, historical sites and the national museum. And of course, I did a lot of eating - the food there is very good. The history of Malaysia is wrapped up with that of Indonesia and a bunch of European interlopers. And the food reflects those eclectic influences, with a little Indian thrown in just to make it even more interesting. Later on in my trip on the island of Sumatra, where I had gone for some uncrowded surf, I noticed also a great similarity between the languages of Malaysia and Indonesia.
Even though Singapore is a tropical island, it has no surf. Not that you would want to go in the ocean any way, as it is extremely polluted in that special third world way. So when I heard that there was a wave pool outside of KL, I didn’t hesitate to take the elevated train and a couple of buses on a two hour trip to the Selangor Resort to have a crack at an artificial wave, only to find out that the wave pool was open just one day a week and it wasn’t that day. I was feeling ready to move on and didn’t want to wait around three more days for it to open.
So, after another night in Kuala Lumpur, I caught the morning bus to Tanah Raya in the Cameron Highlands. I decided to splurge again and go on the first class bus, this time it cost me $1.20 US. After storing my bag in the luggage compartment of the metal flecked pink and yellow bus with velvet curtains on the windows, I was off to spend a few days in the mountains checking out some waterfalls, hiking in the forest/jungle and cooling off a bit. Actually, Kuala Lumpur was noticeably cooler than Singapore. But Tanah Raya was the first place in Asia – other than my office or the movie theater – that I ever wore a jacket for warmth.
I found myself lost one day while hiking through the cool hilly jungles when I happened upon a tea plantation where I stopped for a break on the patio of their British style tea house. I never did find the waterfall I was searching for that day, but sitting in the sun sipping tea while eating scones with clotted cream in this most unlikely place had just the effect that I needed. It had been only two weeks since I had quit my job and I couldn’t even remember what it was like to go to the office every day and solve other people's problems. I was finally starting to relax for the first time in donkey years, which is Chinese/Singaporean slang for a very long time.
Next stop, Penang and the Pearl of the Orient.