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Kuala Lumpur




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Halfway Up the Banana Pancake Trail

Malaysia sits in the middle of The Banana Pancake Trail, a stretch of Southeast Asia roughly mapped as Bangkok to Bali. The route is so popular with travellers staying at the same guest houses along the way that most of these places serve banana pancakes for breakfast in an attempt to cater to Western tastes. The midpoint of the trail is Malaysiaís capital, Kuala Lumpur.

One typical sweltering, steamy morning I arrived in town needing a place to stay. I checked out the Kuala Lumpur Travellers Station, the first guest house/hostel recommended by the too-popular Lonely Planet guidebook. (The Lonely Planet series is so entrenched as The Final Word in budget accommodation that they could endorse a shanty under a freeway and there would be a waiting list.) It is conveniently located inside the main train station complex, especially appealing to travelers arriving from faraway places at odd hours.

After climbing a filthy stairwell, the kind, Sikh owner was there to greet me. I asked to see what a private room with fan looked like and he led me down a long, dark corridor. The air hung heavily, and the whole place seemed to be a series of partitions, some walls not reaching the ceiling, others with big gaps or broken window slats. It was like a studentís construction project gone terribly wrong. I was shown a cell--I mean, a room--and I mentally noted all its problems: it was hot and cramped with a grimy window opened to the noisy street; the flimsy plywood walls looked like theyíd fall if I sneezed hard enough; the fan probably blew hot air all night. It was miserable. Dejected, I sat on the bed and it promptly collapsed. The owner rushed over to help pick me up off the floor, assuring me that it would be fixed by the afternoon.

I experienced enough of that room already so I asked to see the air-conditioned dormitory. I saw that its makeshift walls were "reinforced" with masking tape. On the door was a sign: "Dear Traveller, If you are complaining about bedbugs, with all due respect, YOU probably brought them from your previous stop." I considered this as he opened the door and a rush of freezing cold air enveloped me. A horrible buzz from the air conditioning unit loudly droned. In the semi-darkness I could count 10 bunk beds in a bare room with a concrete floor and lots of people trying to sleep. It felt like being in the sleeping quarters of a slave ship. I could imagine a new disease starting from this room and then spread all over the world by these travellers. It would be named after the place it originated and 100 years from now science will still be struggling to contain the global infestation of Travellers Station Dorm Pox. I sighed, and had a moment of introspection.

Local Economics

Before arriving in Kuala Lumpur I had stayed with friends in comfort, and now I was of two minds. My initial thought of this depressing room was that I should upgrade my life. I should stop staying in places where Mom would cry if she saw where her son was sleeping. The dorm was only 12 ringgit (US$3.50). I could stay very comfortably elsewhere for maybe US$15. I pondered this, but quickly realized my flawed logic. First of all, the difference isnít about US$10, but 38 Malaysian ringgit, or more to the point, the amount of goods and services equal to 38 ringgit. Itís an important distinction. For example, it would be physically impossible to eat 38 ringgit of wonderful food from the street stalls in one day. For 38 ringgit you could buy a fake Rolex or a handful of fake video compact disks or a fake student ID and maybe still have enough money for a poorly drawn tattoo. Do you really want to throw that away to stay in just a little more comfort? Once in a while you need to splurge on yourself, but on a long trip, more often you donít. This is part of the overall Asian budget travel experience. Besides, it was hot and sticky outside and I was in no mood to tramp around town looking for a place to stay. In fact, having visited Kuala Lumpur several times before, I know the other cheap places arenít much better than this. So, I paid the owner and tried to find a low bunk farthest away from the door, the buzz and wind of the air conditioner, and the curtain-less windows.

The saving grace for any place like this is partly the price and location, but mainly the other travelers you meet. Here a few looked larcenous so I took care to padlock the zippers of my backpack while looking around town, but even then they are interesting characters. The one person I had to talk to was a Canadian girl who not only chose the bunk closest to the noise of the air conditioner, but she didnít even turn around so that her head would be on the opposite end! When I asked, she seemed a little out of it, kind of mumbling to me that it wasnít a big deal. Was she on drugs? Unlikely. Youíd have to be incredibly na?ve to get involved with drugs in Malaysia. On the immigration card everyone must fill out to enter the country they announce in big letters "DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS". Last week the main daily newspaper reported that an 18-year-old kid got life in jail and six strikes of the cane for possessing a ganja plant. In any case, that night while she was half-asleep a Swedish guy and I moved her bunk closer to the air conditioner to wedge a pillow between the bunk and the buzzing box, muffling the noise and making it more tolerableónot that she would notice. The Swedish guy appeared to be staying here a while, as his stuff was strewn all over, including piles of books. The thought of an extended stay at this hostel just to catch up on reading made my head woozy. I began to be concerned for the mental health of my travelling colleagues, but a Japanese girl uplifted me. She was stuck in bed with the flu and I donít think I ever saw her standing up, but she was relentlessly cheerful and always quick with a smile. I found her happiness in this dire situation infectious. If it was me who was sick and far from home in this dingy dormitory, Iíd be measuring my neck for a noose to hang myself, yet talking with her was inspirational and I even had a sudden desire to go to Japan. In appreciation I had her listen to my Japanese pop music cassette and miraculously she recovered the same day, so powerful is the medicine of Japanese pop!

A redeeming quality of the Travellers Station is its internet room. It sits in contrast to the rest of the hostel. For 6 ringgit an hour (US$ 1.75) you can sit in a clean, not-so-freezing room and click away on semi-slow machines. Soon, in fact, the website for this hostel will be unveiled. (I canít wait to see the pictures they use.) The internet is catching on in a big way in Malaysia. I see internet cafes all the time, and often in places no tourist would go. I think locals prefer to play games in them, judging by the number of times that I share computer rooms with screaming kids. The cheapest I have seen is 4 ringgit an hour (US$ 1.10/hour), which is a lot in a country where many people in office/retail jobs earn 40-45 ringgit (US$11-13) a day. This internet room was occupied only by contact-starved travellers loudly reacting to email.

The hostel offered a laundry service, but I wanted to minimize my time there and instead hunted around the neighborhood for other possibilities. I stopped by the Hotel Aroma in Chinatown, half-curious to see what the inside of a Hotel Aroma looked like. I discovered that there was hardly an ďinsideĒ at all per se, just a tiny reception area in glaring bright light. A guy slouched languidly in his chair at the reception, while his younger partner next to him stared at me, equally half-alive. My arrival stirred no reaction whatsoever. I asked if they did laundry. He didnít seem to have the energy to answer, as if the light had sucked it out of him. He sat motionless except for his left hand, which had a toothpick. I paused as he swirled the toothpick in his ear, wincing slightly as he scraped and poked. Some brownish muck that gobbed on to the end of it was briefly examined before the detritus was flicked on to the kid next to him, too oblivious to know or care. He grunted to the kid and a list of laundry prices was produced, but he wasnít done scooping out a lifetime of earwax. It was too much to watch, so I held my hand in front of my face and I asked when I could expect the laundry to be done. Just then someone else from the street arrived to behold the sight of a foreigner talking with his eyes covered, and he walked quickly past. I caught hold of my senses and decided to go with dirty clothes an extra day. On my way out I had another moment of introspection and a realization: maybe the Travellers Station isnít so bad after all.

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