We arrived at Malaysia’s LCCT airport late on a Sunday evening with no luggage, no hotel reservations, and a pocket full of Ringits. Uncharacteristically we had done no research and were just going to play the next two weeks by ear.
The lady at the airport information desk suggested that we catch the No. 6 bus to a nearby station, where we could catch a train into Kuala Lumpur. This proved to be an inexpensive and excellent idea, but on our arrival at KL Sentral we were a bit puzzled to find that the only hotels in the neighbourhood were the Hilton and the Meridien, both well over R600 a night where our budget was a sixth of that. The concierge at the Hilton cleared up the mystery, as KL Sentral station is not central at all, and we needed to catch another train to get to the real main station in the city proper. Bronwyn remembered hearing about a restored Heritage hotel above the main train station, so in the absence of any other plans, we hopped the local Komuter train to see if they had any rooms there.
The hotel was built on the station platform as promised, but the windows were suspiciously dark, and when we eventually found the front door, we discovered that it had chains wrapped around the handles.
A little nonplussed, and aware that all the cafes and coffee shops that we had seen were closing, we stopped at a small street cafe to get something to eat. I picked some hawker food at random from the display of semi-congealed dishes (this place also seemed to be closing down for the night), and found myself with a very hot liver curry and some kind of hot-and-sour smoked fish. Bronwyn ordered some fresh chicken noodles from the counter, and we washed it all down with fresh young coconut juice from the shell.
Halfway through our meal, the power went out and amid some cheers everybody stayed very still in the darkness until one of the chefs found and reset the main fuse.
I asked the waiter what had happened to the Heritage Hotel, and he laughed and said that there were labour problems and that the government had shut it down. He also gave us directions to another suburb where we might find a hotel, but when we climbed into a taxi, the driver poo-pooed the idea and drove us to a hotel in the centre where obviously he got a kick-back, but it seemed clean enough and the driver was content to wait for us to check the room before being paid, so – after running the hot water and air conditioning – we booked in for a couple of days.
After a long and much-needed sleep to beat the jet lag we emerged blinking into the sunlight. We ambled around the busy streets of KL, mopeds weaving in and out of the traffic. Everybody was cheerful, the women were often beautifully dressed in vibrant colours. Although the city are at least superficially similar to Bangkok, the streets and buildings are clean and nobody pestered us to buy anything. In fact, whenever somebody approached us in the street it was usually to offer helpful advice.
Without much of a plan, we strolled over to the Petronas towers (very impressively shiny) and mooched about in the shopping mall beneath it. The mall was shiny and clean and full of high-end shops, but it is difficult to see why foreigners get so excited by the shopping here because the mall prices are much the same as back home. Food, drink and groceries, on the other hand, are very cheap indeed.
Aware that the daily monsoon was due to start in a few minutes, we popped in to a Belgian bar to wait it out. The rain persisted for an unusually long time, but the Formula 1 was showing on TV, one thing led to another, and it wasn’t until twenty-two beers later that we staggered back out into the night.
Events from then on became blurry, but we do remember playing pool in a nightclub and being propositioned by a prostitute.
We vaguely remember the taxi that eventually decanted us into our hotel, where we slept like the dead until checkout time.
Emerging blinking from our Kuala Lumpur hotel, we broke our fast at a nearby cafe. Nasi Lemak is the perfect morning-after food. A big pile of rice, hot sauce, dried fish, boiled egg, nuts and some meat on the side, washed down with ‘Coffee O’ which turned out to be hot, black and sweet.
Feeling much refreshed, we bought some essential supplies – sun tan lotion, insect repellent – and headed for KL Sentral station to see if we could get aboard a train to Penang. We had previously managed to register at the train station website, but Internet bookings were only accepted three days in advance and, having already checked out of our hotel, we were hoping to leave that same day.
Locating a meter taxi – the other kind were working out far too expensive because we don’t know enough about the local area to haggle effectively – we bought a prepaid token, which worked OK except that the driver was convinced that the only reason that a foreigner might want to go to the station was to catch the airport train, and kept trying to convince us that it would be cheaper to travel by taxi.
Nevertheless, he did get us to the station in time to purchase a first class ticket half an hour before the afternoon’s departure, which all worked out rather well.
Our first class seats were nice, wide aircraft-style with loads of leg room, just as well because the trip takes over six hours. Every now and then a pretty girl came past handing out complementary cake, sweets and water. The only irritating thing was dreadful music being piped over the PA, sounding a bit like a five year old playing with a mobile phone. Thankfully it eventually also irritated the conductors who were trying to get some sleep in the empty seats behind us, so they turned it down.
For the first hour, the countryside was lush with banana palms interspersed with dwellings ranging from mansions to shacks, often with a backdrop of mine spoil heaps.
During the second hour, the landscape became largely agricultural with occasional paddy fields. Enormous and unlikely-looking hills project steeply upwards here and there, some being whittled down by mining machinery. We passed at least one processing plant, which I gather is for tin.
Three hours in, we were once more treated to the inane electronic music as the train’s infomercial played out on the TV screen at the far end of the carriage. On its fourth loop I had just decided to go and ask the conductors to turn it off when thankfully it started to show a cooking program instead.
Four hours in, and as the sun set pinkly over the distant and misty mountains, we climbed steeply up into the highlands to Tai Ping, passing more mines and refineries on the way.
Five hours in, full dark, and everybody was dozing off. Then the bloody music started up again.