Riding My Bike from Airport to Kuala Lumpur
Friday September 25, 2014
Somewhere lost in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport
Man oh man oh man oh man oh man. A crazy life. It’s funny how I keep deciding to do things and I just ignore all the potential problems. I assume that I will be able to handle it when the time comes in some fashion. I go blithely forward without a care or thought in my head. But when the reality strikes, it is a different story entirely. Not so easy then.
Having said that, my night sleeping on the cold tiles of the main entrance to the airport – where the evil security dudes banished me – was not that bad. I rolled out my Thermarest and got out my sleeping sheet and blew up my high-tech Ex-Ped pillow. Put it all together with my fatigue, and I actually managed to catch some sleep here and there. The largest problems were the fly and mosquito populations. This is a modern airport in every sense of the word, but there are a lot of flies and mosquitoes around. And the flies congregate on the floor. They are what I think of as “sticky” flies. Perhaps it is the cold air conditioning that makes them sluggish. In any event, they stay close to the ground and when they land on you and you wave them off, they barely even move. They fly up four or five inches and then just land again. Very annoying. Being slow, I could kill them more easily than other flies, but there were so many around that killing them would have been a thankless task.
I was not robbed during the night (that I’m aware of anyway). I slept fully clothed, of course, with my wallet in my pocket. My survival kit was next to my head, jammed between my head, the wall and the bicycle. I organized things as to make a secure spot that way. My other pannier bags were still attached to the bike and the compartments locked with padlocks. There wasn’t much else I could do for security.
I slept in a fashion and I felt slightly better when I got up than when I bedded down. Not much better, but a bit. My eyes are a total mess. I guess my eyes will be like this for the rest of my life. That’s a pain.
I brushed my teeth and washed up in the modern and clean bathroom. I hate to say it (since it’s so obvious), but I already felt like Tom Hanks in that airport movie. It’s been a long time since I saw the movie, but I remember that Tom Hanks’ character had a constant battle going on with the head of airport security. I had that battle going on right from my first night. And in the bathroom washing up, I felt just like Tom Hanks. A big difference, however, is that in this airport, the staff are in the bathrooms washing up, too. Much of the staff appear to be imports from Pakistan and such places, and they don’t live a luxurious lifestyle. They take advantage of the airport’s facilities.
I forgot to mention that on the previous night, I’d looked into taking a bus into Kuala Lumpur. That is what a sane person would do. The woman at the bus counter told me that they could accept a bicycle on their bus if it was in a box. But they could not transport just a bicycle. I bit my tongue, but I could have pointed out that a bicycle in a box was not really a bicycle anymore. It was just a big box. So, of course, they would transport a big box. But they would not transport a bicycle. I’d read online that some cyclists had managed to get their bikes onto buses. I might try again depending on how I feel.
Much of my previous night was also spent trying to find a map of Kuala Lumpur – anything that would indicate how I could get from the airport to downtown. Even if I do cycle, I still need to know at least in a general sense where to go. That search for a map led me around to many places and that is what likely got me in trouble with security. It’s a typical story for me. I lost count of the number of people I asked about maps and where I could buy one. Everyone said I could get one at the information desks. I had to tell everyone that I’d tried that and they did not have any maps. Besides, any map they had would surely be a free tourism map showing the downtown core and would not be useful for me. I was also pointed to a series of convenience stores with names like My News. These were guaranteed to have maps. None of them did. I went everywhere and I asked everyone. EVERYONE. But still no maps. This morning, feeling a tad renewed, I tried again. I can’t even remember who I asked this time, but this person said that I could get a map at the big book store on the third level. It took me a while to find the bookstore, but I did find it (with the endless security guards eyeballing me the entire time – I felt super guilty as, once again, I was just wandering around the massive airport in circles). And inside the bookstore, I found not only a wall of maps but a complete wall of Lonely Planet Guidebooks. I couldn’t believe it. Out of the dozens of people I asked about maps the previous day, not a single person thought to direct me to the bookstore with the huge travel section. Why does that always happen? I’d like to point out that this problem is not entirely my fault. I did order a map of Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur a long time ago while in Taiwan. It was to be sent to Cebu. The problem is that for whatever reason, it never arrived. So I had thought ahead a little bit. It just didn’t work out.
My brain is a total wreck (not to mention my eyes), so picking out a map was almost beyond me. I could only just stare at them and guess which one was better. A very helpful and friendly clerk opened the maps for me so that I could examine them. A normal person trying to keep to a budget would be very careful about these things, but I just don’t have the patience. I just bought two maps – one of Malaysia and one of Kuala Lumpur. The one thing that is useful to me is a map. I haven’t really looked at them yet, so I don’t know what I’m facing in terms of cycling downtown. I had better get going, as it is already getting late.
I also had to have some breakfast. Here, too, I was overwhelmed. I’m just not used to choices like this. Perhaps this is why modern people are going crazy. There are too many options. Ever since I got to this airport, I’ve been paralyzed with indecision. I don’t know what to eat or what to drink or what to buy. There is a definite pattern in my life where I like simple places. A great feature of Ethiopia was that you never had to think about food. You got injera with meat or injera with vegetables. And that’s it. The Philippines is the same. Food was simple and cheap and filling and always the same. Here, I have to decide what kind of a person I am and what kind of food defines me. And I have no idea. And I always make huge mistakes. I always order the wrong thing. I finally gave up and just picked a restaurant. I saw something on the menu that looked local and appealing. But I was completely wrong. It was a big leg of chicken in super-hot curry sauce. For breakfast. It was on the breakfast menu. I do like curry, but my stomach is not ready for it in large doses. I ate the chicken curry, but I think I will pay the price soon.
People are confusing here, too. There are people from all over the world, and I’m a bit bewildered. And then there are the travelers and tourists and business people on the move – all of them fashionable and looking great. I feel soooo out of place in my dirty tank top and stinky sandals.
I could go on and on about many things, but I really am starting to feel anxious. I have to hit the road as soon as possible if I hope to make it anywhere by a reasonable time. And the weather looks rainy, too. Time to look at the maps.
Room 8 Bird Nest Guest House
This will be short and choppy. What a rollercoaster ride. I made one last attempt to see about putting my bike on a bus instead of cycling into KL. I was rebuffed on all fronts. I was pleased when I got the guys from one bus line to come look at the bike. I knew it was a lost cause, because I had the pannier bags on the bike, and it looked huge. If I knew they were going to check it out, I’d have taken the bags off and tried to make it look small. As it was, they rejected it. It didn’t surprise me that no one would help me. I think for many other cyclists, the bus people would have been more helpful and would have at least given it a try. Why not just see if the bike would fit? I knew it would. I have a practiced eye for these things, and I could tell that the bike would fit in the luggage area lying flat. But they wouldn’t even try it. For other people, I’m sure they would – perhaps for blond female people. Unfortunately, despite needing help almost all the time, I seem to give off an air of not needing any help at all. Or maybe I just don’t know the proper way to ask for it. I follow the rules. I ask if this is possible. They say no, and I drop it.
I picked up a bottle of water, a SIM card, changed into my shorts and I rolled my bike out of the airport. I had gone over my maps as best I could, but I could make no sense out of them in terms of getting from the airport to downtown KL. Luckily – and this was a huge stroke of luck – I had no need of any maps for most of the journey. The highway system was nearly identical to that of Canada and had very good signs. The highway right outside of the airport indicated that it was E2 and it went to Kuala Lumpur. You couldn’t get any clearer than that, so I took it. When I went over my maps more carefully in terms of where I wanted to end up in the city, I saw that of all my many options, the E20 expressway was the way to go, and E2 pretty much turned into E20. And that was all I really needed to know or do – follow the highway signs that basically said “this way to Kuala Lumpur.”
That isn’t to say it was easy or pleasant. Think highway 401 between London and Toronto. That was it – a full-on high speed multi-lane freeway with cars blasting past at death-defying speeds. There was one interesting twist, and it took me – absolute blithering idiot that I am – a long time to figure it out. I stayed on the right side of the highway as my instincts are to do. But things started to bother me. For one thing, there was almost no room there. There was practically no shoulder at all. And the cars passing me seemed to be going much faster than the cars that were farther away from me. And, finally, I realized that I was smack in the middle of the divided highway. I was essentially riding between the two sections of the highway. This made no sense to me at all, and it felt wrong. Then the light bulb went off. I was in Malaysia – an ex-colony of Britain, and, as the British do, they drive on the left side of the road. Everything was reversed. It would be like a British guy coming to Canada and riding his bicycle down the absolute center of the 401, on the left side right beside the cars in the high-speed passing lane. Once I figured that out, I waited for a break in the traffic, and I rode across the highway to the other side. Then things got easier. There was a wide shoulder there, and the traffic in those lanes was going slower. Before I made the switch, the drivers who saw me must have thought I was insane.
My comparison with the British guy in Canada doesn’t make sense, obviously, because there is no way a cyclist would last long on the 401. The cops would snatch him up. That’s one of the perks of a country like Malaysia. I was clearly doing something very, very wrong and very, very dangerous. Yet, no one cared. I even rode past a motorcycle cop with a huge radar gun. This was when I was still riding in the fast lane. He didn’t even look twice at me. I kept worrying that I was going to get arrested or ticketed or hassled, but it never happened. I found it interesting that a casual system had developed that allowed slow scooter-style vehicles to ride on this freeway in the same shoulder area that I was riding. Full motorcycles were allowed, of course, and this was handy for me because motorcycles did not have to pay any of the tolls. They had built narrow motorcycle paths that go right around the toll booths, often out of sight of any of the officials. I was able to ride my bicycle along those paths and never had to go through the toll gates and get questioned by the officials. Since fast motorcycles were allowed, slower motorcycles had started to take these highways, and then it became an accepted practice. It is only a short step from that to allowing cyclists – though only the truly insane or the truly desperate would ride their bikes on this freeway system – to ride on the shoulder as well.
I was worried about spokes breaking, and I was worried about getting a flat tire. Highway shoulders are notorious for collecting broken glass, nuts, bolts, screws, and metal fragments – all itching to slice a rubber tire to pieces. I had to keep a very sharp eye out for any such sharp objects. I was successful in this, and I didn’t get any flat tires. That was a relief because I was running under something of a time pressure. I had a reservation (believe it or not) at this Bird Nest place, and I assumed they’d give it away if I didn’t show up on time. One of the reasons I got a SIM card at the airport was so that I could call or text the Bird Nest and confirm my reservation again if I started running late. But though I had planned ahead and printed out a detailed map of the Bird Nest’s location, I didn’t notice that their phone number wasn’t on that printout. My brain is a useless appendage these days, though I think I can be forgiven. I have a lot of things on my mind and flying from Cebu to KL with a bicycle and riding to and from both airports takes a lot of effort especially when you spend the night in the airport. There are a lot of things to remember, and things become much more complex when you are also changing countries. I had all my routines for the Philippines fully developed as concerned the essentials of life – food, water, and shelter. Now I was starting all over again. I nearly rolled my bike out of the airport without any water. Then I remembered and had to go buy some. It was SOO expensive. Everything here is expensive. Coming here may not have been a wise choice – as usual.
As I mentioned, the scenery was bland. Unbelievably bland. There was nothing to see. This was a big shock and a HUGE disappointment after the Philippines. I know I’ve been badmouthing the Philippines, but it’s one of those things where you stop seeing the good things because you are too familiar with them. I don’t think I ever saw a stretch of even 100 meters of road in the Philippines that was empty of people or dwellings or farms or something. The country is jammed to bursting with life, and every inch of every road is filled with shops and houses and farms and vehicles. Every patch of ground is being used for something. I just got used to that. On the 60-kilometer drive from the airport to Kuala Lumpur proper, I saw almost nothing. Nothing at all. There were highway billboards. I was most amused by a tourism billboard that had the Malaysian slogan: Truly Asia. Looking around me, I saw nothing that indicated I was in Asia. I could have been on an uglier version of the 401 or the 402. As you can tell, my first impressions of Malaysia were not great.
My second and third impressions haven’t been much better. Based on my experiences in the airport, I was expecting a modern and slick city. But when I started entering Kuala Lumpur, I didn’t see anything sleek or modern. It looked empty and industrial and rather ugly. There was nothing of old traditional Asia and there was nothing of modern Asia. It was just blah.
To get from where I exited from the highway to this guest house was a challenge. And that’s putting it mildly. The maps I had purchased now came in very handy. I had to take them out constantly and pour over them carefully with my reading glasses on. The print and detail was so fine that I couldn’t make out anything with my unassisted eyes. Even with the glasses, it was hard to find anything. The main roads I needed to follow were all under heavy construction. That always seems to happen to me, too. At nearly every corner, I had to stop and get my bearings again. There were street signs – a nice change from the Philippines – but they were really confusing and they kept changing.
At long, long last I found myself in the neighborhood of this guest house. I knew I was getting close when I started seeing white people. I was in the backpacker ghetto. I have to say that I wasn’t pleased to see the white people. It’s not that I don’t get along with the backpackers anymore. It’s just that being around them somehow alters the way I feel and how I interact with the local world around me. Had I just cycled around and found a cheap hotel on my own – as I would normally do – I’d probably head right out with my camera and take pictures. But I won’t do that here because I know that all the foreigners go out and take pictures, and this activity identifies me as a tourist. It doesn’t feel natural anymore.
I don’t know what to make of the Bird Nest yet. It is the ultimate expression of a backpacker hostel mostly in a good way. It’s very funky and lives up to its Bird Nest moniker. There is all kinds of mural artwork on the walls. Bamboo bird cages are around the light fixtures. There are bookcases full of books. There are also many negative qualities. The rooms are extremely small, and the room I was given is surely the worst room they have. I always seem to get assigned the worst room. You’d think that reserving ahead of time would get you a better room, but I guess it doesn’t work that way. People who show up choose their own rooms, and they choose the best ones. The one that is left over is given to the crazy cyclist who made a reservation.
I made a total fool of myself on my arrival. It’s just that I was freaked out and surprised when I found that the Bird Nest 2 was on a very busy and crowded street, the front door was locked, and getting in required going up three flights of narrow stairs. This is all very difficult to manage for a cyclist. The stupid thing was that I rang the doorbell and someone at the top of the three flights of stairs pushed a button and opened the door. But I couldn’t come upstairs to announce myself because that would mean leaving my bicycle on the street unprotected. So I was stuck between that open door and my bicycle. I stuck my head inside and shouted up at the woman that I was Douglas and I had a reservation. Then I had to shout something about my bicycle. It was very confusing because I didn’t want to go through the long and difficult process of securing and dismantling my bike and carrying things up the stairs only to find out that my reservation hadn’t worked or that my room had been given away. But I also didn’t want to go up all those stairs to talk to this woman and leave my bike unsecured in this neighborhood. Backpacker ghettoes attract thieves of all varieties, and I’m sure I was being watched as fresh bait right at that very moment. So I did all that shouting, and then I propped the door open and went back to my bicycle to begin the process of securing and dismantling it. I forced myself to slow down and do it right. My instinct was to hurry up so that I wasn’t inconveniencing the woman in the guest house, but that would lead to a mistake. So I went slowly and did everything as safely as possible – which includes wearing my survival kit pannier bag on my back the entire time as I carry up all the other bags and then the bicycle.
I said I made a fool out of myself, and I realized this when I finally got myself into the Bird Nest itself and discovered that it was as quiet as a tomb. Deathly quiet. Like a library run by a librarian from hell. I spotted one or two residents stumbling out of their rooms looking annoyed, and I’m pretty sure my shouting had woken them up or at least bothered them.
I had heard a lot about the friendly owner of this guest house, and I was hoping for a warm reception, but it didn’t happen. Two women – one young and one older – checked me in, and they did so with all the friendliness and charm of the usual “You pay now!” variety. The young woman was the worst by far. I didn’t even know that she worked here. I thought she was a guest, and I was confused when she demanded to see my passport. I had written down my name and passport number in their register. She wanted to check my passport against that info to make sure it was correct. I felt a tiny resistance to this, and I asked her (politely) if this was a government policy or a hotel policy and if it was a hotel policy, why they did it. She gave the worst possible answer – she had to do it because her boss tells her to do it. I hate that kind of blind obedience to stupid rules and annoying policies. I don’t mind showing my passport, I suppose, but I’d like it if the person knows what the point of the exercise is. Maybe there is an interesting story. Maybe they had a whole bunch of criminal foreigners passing through and writing down false information. Maybe they got into trouble with some government agency for having falsified info in their register. The story as it unfolded could not have been more perfect – this young woman took my passport and she opened it NOT to my info page but to my visa for the Philippines. She compared the visa number to the passport number I had written down and concluded that everything was fine. I don’t know if she noticed that the numbers didn’t match. I couldn’t help myself and I pointed out to her that she had looked at my Filipino visa page and not my info page. I opened the passport to the proper page and pointed out the passport number. She checked again and then gave me my passport back. Strike two was when she told me that room cost 40 ringgit per night. Their website and my email communication with the owner had all said that single rooms cost thirty ringgit. Her giving me the wrong figure was either a mistake (incompetence) or an attempt to cheat me (indicating dishonesty). Either way, it didn’t look good for her.
I wasn’t pleased with my room. It was very small and right off the main lobby. I think all the rooms are small, but that is balanced out by the large and somewhat comfortable common rooms. I am sitting in the common kitchen. There are three tables pushed together here with a bunch of chairs. There are two burners for cooking and the usual assortment of pots and pans, rough sinks, old refrigerators, and hand lettered signs telling people to label their food, clean up after themselves and that sort of thing. There is a hot water dispenser along with free coffee and tea. That was nice to see, and I’ve already had two cups of coffee, though I used my own coffee and creamer from the Philippines. I just used their hot water.
A lot of the rooms – including mine – have no bathrooms and guests have to use common toilets and common showers. I’m not entirely sure how many of each there are, but I have the impression that there aren’t enough and they aren’t that well designed.
I like chatting with new people, but I dislike being part of a large group. It’s interesting, too, that when you see a large group of people, you kind of assume that they all know each other and are friends. But chances are that most of them arrived at this guest house today just as I did and met for the first time in that common area. I didn’t join them because I wanted a cup of coffee, and I stink to high heaven. That’s a bit of a problem with cycling and backpacker life when shared bathrooms are common. If I had my own bathroom, I’d have taken a shower and rinsed out my clothes already. As it is, I’m still wearing the clothes I put on long ago in the morning in Cebu. (It seems so long ago already.) They were already stinky in the airport in Cebu and then I slept in them and then rode here in them. I really stink. I’m not joking about that. I can smell it as I sit here. My sense of smell is very weak. If I can smell myself, then I smell really bad.
Kuala Lumpur has not impressed me. I was hoping for a more modern city jammed with high-end bicycle gear. So far, I’ve seen an ugly dive. It doesn’t even have the charm of Asia that I can see. And if that land between the airport and here is indicative of Malaysia, I don’t think I’ll have much good to say about the overall scenery.
The people, on the other hand, have been interesting so far. I met quite an assortment so far in the airport and then on my ride. I stopped my bike at the Malaysian version of a highway rest area and got out of the sun and bought some more water. I ended up chatting with a friendly local man. He turned out to be the driver of a van that made trips back and forth from the airport. (An offer of a ride the rest of the way into KL was not forthcoming…) He was a very friendly man and he went over my maps with me to help me locate some landmarks so I could get oriented. I was having a hard time figuring out the maps and the lay of the land. This guest house is in Chinatown – a major tourist attraction – and I couldn’t even find Chinatown. It’s my brain again. The darn thing just doesn’t work anymore. Anyway, he was a very nice guy and despite a tendency to wax poetic about the wonders of Malaysia and the friendliness of Malaysian people, he was interesting to talk to. I turned the tables on him and quizzed him about the cultures of Malaysia and the different languages and the religions. I didn’t get much interesting information out of him, but it was a pleasant encounter.
I’m terrible at picking out accents and cultures and languages, so I wonder if I’ll be able to make any sense out of the people I see here. The atmosphere is so different from the Philippines. It’s early days, but I have to say that right now, I FAR prefer the Philippines. There are clearly lots of people of Indian descent and they already have started to fit into stereotypes and clichés. I stumbled across a big camera store in the airport, and I went inside to just look around. There was an Indian clerk working there – an older man – and he gave me a hard sell like I’ve never gotten before in my life. I was in shock almost and just stuttered at him. I told him that I was just window shopping, and he shouted back, “Want to buy some windows? I can sell you some windows. How many do you want? How big?” I was lucky to get out of there without buying some imaginary windows and a new camera. I was just trying to keep things casual, and I mentioned hoping to get my Olympus serviced here and perhaps fixed. He told me to throw it away. Buy a new one. “Buy this one! It’s very good.” And he started thrusting pocket cameras at me. I tried to tell him that I had an EM-5, and it was worth repairing. He had no idea what I meant. He knew nothing about cameras and cared less. He just wanted to sell. I wasn’t surprised when he found me quite amusing and he started making jokes about me to the other clerks and they all started to laugh. I’ve gotten used to the Filipinos laughing at me, but they are gentle about it. They really don’t mean anything bad. But I wasn’t sure about this Indian clerk. His whole attitude seemed harsh and mercenary – as I said, the stereotype and cliché.
So, here I am, once again, making a huge effort to get somewhere and then, once I get there, wondering why I’m there at all. I had to remind myself that the goal was to get my Olympus repaired or at least serviced and cleaned, perhaps get new wheels or new spokes, and get a visa for Indonesia. I didn’t come here with any particular interest in the country. Chances are that if I do go cycling in Sumatra, I will end up back in Malaysia and cycling north through the country on the way to Myanmar. Maybe. Maybe I’ll just skip Myanmar. The brief taste of backpacker life I’ve just had here at this guest house has kind of turned me off. It’s only been about an hour, but listening to the conversation and watching all the young folk interact and just arriving at this place has already made me yearn for the solitary life of the cyclist. It suits me better, not surprisingly.