Snoozing All The Way to KL…
It's 6:20 in the morning and I'm due to fly out on a flight at 8:50 for Kuala Lumpur. But for now, that doesn't matter – I'm deeply asleep and have been since I went to bed 1 hour and 20 minutes ago following the supposed ‘family party' downstairs in Duc Vuong Hotel, Saigon. Beers were had – quite a number of them – and as a result, I set my alarm for 4:30 in the morning when in fact it was already later than that. Suddenly, I'm startled awake by the phone ringing and as soon as I come round to some level of being conscious, I don't even need to answer the phone to know what's going on; my flight's leaving in just over 2 hours, I haven't packed a single thing and am currently in my pyjamas, perfectly content with where I am. Or at least I was perfectly content. Without a seconds delay, I'm out of bed and picking everything up off the floor while using my free hand to try and reach the phone. Needless to say, they're wondering when I'm planning to present myself for my lift to the airport. In all, from that horrible moment of being rudely awoken to falling into the back of the taxi, there was only a delay of 12 or so minutes. No time for showers, trips to the toilet or any of that – it's straight into the back of the taxi, accompanied by a team that'd make a Formula 1 pit-stop look pathetic; a man loads my bags into the boot, while the taxi driver starts the engine, the security guard from the hotel has rushed out to hand me a lock I dropped inside and for no reason in particular, the manager has come out as well to wish me and my family well and give me an assortment of items from the hotel's breakfast selection. As he closes the door, the other man closes the boot, the guard retreats back to the entrance and with that, we take off, the taxi driver grinning wildly as he contemplates this idiotic Westerner looking so flustered in the back seat. Nevertheless, he speeds down the streets, accelerating the car into turns so tight it looks like our wing mirror will be taken clean off. When we do arrive, he goes even further, driving into the car park and parking, before taking my bags for me and bringing me right to the check-in queue.
11:43. What's going on? I see an arm in front of me and struggle to focus – finally, I realise that the man beside me is struggling to put the window blind up as he's been instructed to do on my behalf, but failing miserably since my head is still leaning against it. I wake up just enough to open it the rest of the way for him before falling back to sleep, waking up just as the plane settles down onto the runway in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Against my own self-imposed odds, I made it and so did most of my belongings. But it's certainly not an experience I ever wish to repeat. And that was the story of my less-than-enjoyable journey to Kuala Lumpur. I wandered into the airport and arrived at the health desk; it's important to note by now the side-effects were settling in of my consuming quite generously some of what the Vietnamese term a ‘social evil' the previous night. I didn't feel the best and a quick glance over the health questionnaire made me absolutely positive that only lying would suffice to get out of the place without being quarantined. It went a bit like this;
Have you any of the following symptoms?
Headache – Absolutely, a real thumper, but needless to say ticked no.
Fatigue – Fatigue? Don't talk to me about it, I could sleep for a week! No.
Muscle Pain – Listen, I'm basically not good at all, I'm sure if I stopped for a second I'd realise I'd chronic muscle pain – but am I going to admit to it? No.
Nausea – After the family party, I'd say everyone was feeling at least slightly nauseous. But again, do I want to have my temperature taken and have someone checking me over? No.
No more than 20 minutes later, I'd picked up my bag and was outside and into the Malaysian humidity. Getting to the hostel required a far greater expenditure of energy than I'd really hoped and as we walked through the hostel and I had the rules explained to me, I felt like I was liable to fall asleep even standing up – thankfully the tour concluded in my room and with that I set the alarm clock for 4.30pm and, still in my clothes, lay on top of the bed. The first few seconds convinced me there'd be no sleep – lots of construction work going on outside, no air conditioning during the afternoon so it was roasting and I was starting to get hungry. But a few minutes on, somehow all these factors blended perfectly to make me sleepier than ever – the drill sounded almost rhythmic and the heat just seemed to be making me more tired than ever. Even the hunger eased off more and more as I slowly dozed off. When the alarm clock went off, I discovered that 2 others in the room had similarly succumbed to an afternoon nap in spite of the raging noise outside and the crazy heat inside. In the end it wasn't until 6 that I got up to find that unlike Vietnam and Thailand, the sun was staying out significantly later. So I braved the ridiculous humidity and went outside. It didn't take long at all to figure out that KL was not at all like many of the other South-East Asian countries; nobody hassled me on the streets as I walked along and the area I was staying in, Bukit Bintang, had streets just lined with huge shopping centres and signs in English pointed the way to everywhere that I might want to go. I wandered from one shopping centre to another, enjoying the air conditioning each time for as long as I could. I walked past restaurants and nobody came racing out to grab me by the arm to try and drag me in – I couldn't understand what was going on at all; was this definitely still Asia?
That evening I made it (without much effort, or hassle) as far as the Petronas Towers, the twin tower icon of Kuala Lumpur. It turns out they're more offices than anything else but thankfully at the very least they'd thoughtfully placed a shopping centre right beside it so once you got there, you can at least fritter away your hard-earned ‘ringgits' by going shopping! Outside, there was a beautiful fountain and view up-close of the towers as they lit up increasingly as the daylight faded away. I committed myself to take a day trip the next day to a small fishing island called Pulau Ketam.
So it was with that, despite a serious onset of fatigue and an almost unbreakable desire to stay in bed, that I was up, dressed and ready to be on my way by 11 in the morning. It turned out it was just as well I was; first up, I had to take the monorail to KL Sentral; no problems there, that took about 20 minutes. Then find my way to the KTM Komuter and get a ticket for Port Klang. Again, not too much worry there until I got to the platform to find that the next train out that way wasn't for 40 minutes – hmm, not so much part of the plan but I reasoned even looking at the worst case scenario and it took an hour to get there, I'd still be in the port ready for the boat by 1. Not so. When the train finally arrived, I looked up at the list of stations; the good port of course being very last stop and that was after it'd make about another 17 stops along the way. It took a good hour and a half by which time I was actually hungry and cold from the overuse of the air conditioning. As soon as I stepped out the heat hit me once again and I shuffled on, determined in spite of the serious delay to make it to the island. So, to the right was a pretty large looking port with two signs, one printed declaring the fast ferry to the island on the left, while a handwritten sign saying ‘Ferry ke Pulau Ketam JETTI ->' with a hand-drawn arrow very much like what I've attempted to illustrate pointing right. Fearing that this was a poor attempt at tricking me into walking down the narrow road, where I'd be promptly robbed, I pressed on to the left and wandered into the port.
At a table, three men sat playing cards. I tried to walk out onto the pier but some angry dog came out and started barking at me and getting quite worked up about the whole thing. I reasoned that perhaps I should interrupt the card game and ask but instead wandered around the entire perimeter of the port hoping to find some clue as to where the ferry to Pulau Ketam actually departed from. I was starting to convince myself that I mightn't make it out to the island at the rate things were going. One last effort – I started saying ‘Pulau Ketam' with that rising intonation thing as if I were asking a question while holding my hands up like I used to do when I was asking my dog where something was – the only difference is, I was asking a group of fully-grown men trying to play cards. Some debate occurred in Malaysian at which point one man announced it was backwards, where the handwritten sign pointed on the right, about 50 metres further down. Another man quickly waved his hand in complete dismissal of this distance estimation and said ‘no no, 200 metres' – not wanting to chance it and see if it became any further down the road, I decided to leave and went off that way, in the direction of a concrete pathway out into the water; hardly what I'd have estimated would be the normal location for a fast ferry. Somewhat comically, as I wandered down towards the sea, I came across another group of men sitting at a table, not even bothering to hardly communicate though and as I carried on further to the edge of the makeshift pier, a 3-legged dog made a half-hearted effort at scaring me away. Although I should have learnt by now, I still walked around the area until I became aware that all eyes were on me – time to once again ask, using the power of hand gestures, where the fast ferry was or when I might expect to see it. This time there was no debate, one man gestured to a wall beside us where a white boat stained with spots of blue and red paint, around where they'd painted the logo without too much care, waited. That was it – as I had my sudden revelation that this was what a fast ferry was, he grunted and sat back down.
The boat ride was pretty funny. Similar to my boat trip in Thailand, the boat was very loosely attached to its moorings, meaning that every now and again the queue would stop as the boat drifted too far away for the next passenger to jump and so we'd all wait for it to drift back closer to the pier. As we got close to the queue evaporating completely with maybe only 10 or so people left waiting to board, the engines coughed to life and we began reversing from our dock. Evidently this was a normal part of the boarding procedure in the interests of keeping to schedule and as we began reversing, the remainder of the queue literally threw themselves to any part of the boat where they could secure adequate purchase until they made their way to the door. The whole thing was pretty dangerous but yet strangely hilarious to watch from the inside. It took us about another hour on the boat to finally reach what I presumed was Pulau Ketam. Similar to the rest of Malaysia, in spite of how visibly poor they were, nobody made any serious attempt to sell anything – for all intent purposes, it was a working island. As I walked off the pier, through a narrow street that led me onto the ‘main street', people all around busied themselves; a man pushed a wheelbarrow of crates he had just unloaded from the boat, two men tried to secure a boat to its mooring (the ferry could probably have hired them), a waitress ran around outside a restaurant bringing a table plates of fresh seafood. It was pretty obvious that fishing was what kept things ticking over here – nearly everyone's house seemed to just back out onto a makeshift wooden pier that looked ready to collapse any moment, which in turn nearly always had some mud-covered battered looking boat moored to it, the reliability of all of which I would have called in to question. Out on the beach, you could see hundreds of crabs clamour across the sand for shelter every time a bird passed overhead and everyone just left their doors open for all to see.
As I walked past houses, there were women mending fishing nets, men trying to repair the wooden planks that constituted their back garden ‘pier' and occasionally, unkempt looking dogs would appear instead and try and chase me away by half-barking, half-yelping. The place was certainly not ‘developed' but nobody seemed to be jobless or unhappy – everyone seemed to have something to do; certainly they'd no time to be bothering me with trying to sell anything. Pulau Ketam was a great place, even if it smelled of fish and the water running through it was brown and almost certainly unsanitary. Everyone just got on with it and I thought as I headed back to the ferry port, if it was an act for tourists, it was the best performance I'd ever seen. With this thought in mind, it was time to begin the lengthy journey back to the hostel though – once again, I had a man beside me who proceeded to fall asleep on the ferry and slowly tilt more and more in my direction until my shoulder was serving as a pretend pillow. Fantastic; it'd be a long journey before I'd see the hostel again. But if someone were to ask me on my final thoughts?
I'll be back in KL in about a week and am already looking forward to it…