When it comes to traveling, my wife and I have one rule: everybody is allowed one stupid tourist mistake a day. Let’s take, for example, eating gelato in Rome. You can pay exorbitantly at the gelaterias within sight of the Trevi Fountain, or you can walk three blocks away and find a hole-in-the-wall joint at half the cost and double the delicacy. But Rome is hot, and you walk a lot. Your feet hurt. The gelateria by the fountain is sitting right there. It’s fine. Eat the damn gelato and cool off. There are worse mistakes than paying 10 euros for dessert. This strategy has helped us keep our heads on four continents. There’s only one place our rule didn’t work out, and that’s Kuala Lumpur Sentral Station.
I hesitate to say I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur. Technically I saw it, or what parts there are to see from the KLIA Ekspres train that runs non-stop from the airport to KL Sentral. Maria and I were on a seven-hour layover on our way to Australia, which we figured was enough time to head into town, eat lunch, and take in an hour or two of Malaysian personality. I thought these were doable goals and so did Maria. It’s not like we signed up for a tour or dreamed up an ambitious itinerary. We knew we had a finite amount of time and decided to keep things low-key.
Our plan went as follows: the train ride to KL Sentral was about a half hour, so we allotted 45 minutes each way to account for waiting time. We knew Kuala Lumpur International Airport was one of the world’s busiest, so we agreed to return to the airport with no less than two and a half hours before our departure time. On deciding a destination, we didn’t want to waste time getting somewhere, so we nixed any places that required a transfer and focused on the Brickfields neighborhood just outside of the station. On this last point, Maria was more interested in going just a smidge further out, but I persuaded her otherwise. The nickname for Brickfields is ‘Little India’ and the brochure at the information kiosk promised an interesting and dynamic neighborhood. Plus, it was right outside the train station. Low-key.
We made our way to the platform and hopped on the bright and comfortable KLIA Ekspres. In short time, we were off through the monotonous palm oil plantations between the airport and the city. Smoke from distant brush fires softened the sun with an orange haze, through which urban sprawl emerged. We zoomed past outdated high rises with air conditioning units hanging for dear life out each window. Old colonial buildings looked like they’d stewed in the humidity for a couple decades too long. In the distance, though, was the smoky silhouette of the twin Petronas Towers, which I’m sorry to say was the most we saw of the iconic structure. The further into town we rolled, the nicer the buildings became. Gleaming condominiums, hotels and office buildings bore a stark contrast to the jungly suburbs. At last, the train pulled into KL Sentral and we walked off.
Going through customs at the airport had taken longer than we anticipated, and by the time we stepped into the lobby at KL Sentral, we only had a little over an hour to do something before we needed to head back. We found an ATM and tried to pull some money out when I realized I didn’t know the PIN for my credit card. I’m fairly confident my card didn’t have a PIN at this point. We wasted about five minutes trying to get my card to work before we switched to Maria’s debit card. We had no idea how much money we’d need for lunch, and we hadn’t checked the account’s balance beforehand, so we took out 30 MYR, about $10, and headed outside.
I thought I had looked at the map correctly, but outside this door the city looked more Atlanta than Little India. A tall Le Meridien hotel stood in front of us, as well as some generic office buildings and parking garages. Perhaps we needed to keep walking, we thought. We took a shortcut through the hotel’s swanky lobby, but on the other side was more of the same. Busy roads led to what appeared to be more skyscrapers and deterred us from continuing in that direction, so we returned to the station, eating up another 10 minutes. We found a map of KL Sentral and the surrounding area and realized we were completely turned around. We needed to get to another corner of the building to see the Brickfields. We went back outside and rounded the corner to what appeared to be a more main entrance to the station. Outside of this entrance didn’t look very ethnic either. We walked into the train station again through this new door.
At this point, I became a little flustered. We’d spent almost a half an hour in Kuala Lumpur and we’d managed to see a Le Meridien lobby and a bunch of concrete. The lobby of the station was pretty enormous and imposing, but to the left was a cell phone stand. Hoping the young man in the booth spoke English, we asked him how to get to the Brickfields. He smiled and said to walk through the station to the other side. At last, we had some direction.
What the young man had failed to explain was the vastness of this so-called train station. It was soon clear that this building was more than one thing as we found ourselves on the ground floor of a sparkling luxury mall. The main flow of the building didn’t appear to stay on one story either, and we walked up escalators two steps at a time hoping we’d emerge on the ground floor on the other side. Meanwhile, shoppers with their H&M bags and Auntie Anne’s pretzels watched as the clueless foreigners huffed their way to layover oblivion.
With the assistance of an elevator, we popped out of the train station on the other side. To our relief, the opposite side of the street looked decidedly older with drab row buildings and signs for Indian restaurants. We’d finally found, if not the Brickyards, the direction of the Brickyards. The clock was ticking, though, and we had a new problem arising: I was hungry.
My wife knows this: I cannot make good decisions when I’m hangry. It’s not my fault. I feel physically ill. We needed to make a choice fast, or we were in danger of hangriness offsetting what little progress we’d made. But which restaurant to choose? And here, another problem arose: 30 MYR was an awkward amount of money to buy lunch. It’s plenty to buy snacks at 7 Eleven or some combos at Burger King, but not quite enough for a decent meal. We glanced past menus, adding up that both of us would not be able to afford a meal at most of these places. Had we taken out 40 MYR, all would’ve been fine. It was too late to track down another ATM. We had no choice but to walk into a place and order something.
Yet another problem was that we couldn’t seem to find a street that took us into the neighborhood. There were no intersections, just a wall of buildings. There was a narrow alley, which I should’ve realized at the time can count as a road in Southeast Asia, but I didn’t recognize it as such. Tucked in the alley was what appeared to be a self-serve food stall. Unsure of the sanitation or price, we moved on. After walking up the street and back, we picked a place that looked reasonably clean and affordable. A man wearing a long shirt ushered us to sit and brought us menus. Everything looked good, so I pointed to a dish on the menu and Maria did the same.
“The kitchen is closed,” the man mumbled. “We’re only doing curry now.”
Upset that the man didn’t find it useful to say this in the first place, I flipped to the page with curries and saw they were too expensive. I flipped back to a rice dish and pointed to that.
“You don’t want curry with that?” he said.
“But it should come with curry.”
“I don’t want curry.”
He turned the page and pointed to a curry. “This is what you want.”
I stood up. “I’m sorry. We can’t eat here.”
This was more or less true. We’d spent probably 10 minutes looking for a place, and another five to find out the kitchen was closed at this particular restaurant (not that far after lunchtime, I’d add). We had less than a half an hour to eat and get back to the platform. I stormed out of the restaurant, Maria close behind. If hangrious were a word, that would describe my disposition best. I was hungry, and I was furious at our luck. I would barely speak to Maria, who did her best to come up with options. We could grab snacks at the 7-Eleven, she said, or go back to the mall and eat Burger King.
“No,” I finally managed to say. “We came here to eat something interesting and that’s what we’re going to do.”
There was only one other choice at this point, and it was the food stall we’d passed earlier.
In some respects, the food stall was the best choice. It’s a good rule of thumb in a foreign country to eat where other people are eating. While most of the other restaurants we’d passed seemed deserted, the food stall was busy. Boys parked their mopeds along the wall and then stood in line to grab a tray and load it up with curry. We were unsure if we needed to pay first, if it was a per-item price, or if weight determined the price. Nobody seemed to be paying first, so we grabbed trays and sparingly spooned rice, one curry, and a piece of fried chicken onto our trays. We pulled out yellow plastic chairs and sat at one of the few remaining tables when a man came up bringing silverware. We ordered a can of Pepsi to share, afraid we’d go over 30 MYR. I don’t remember much of that meal, since I ate it in about three minutes, but I assume it tasted like rice, curry and fried chicken ought to taste. I was hungry, it filled me up, and I allowed myself about 19 seconds to appreciate the low-keyness of the food stall and the clientele. Here, I suppose, was the measured dose of Malaysian flavor we were after. We took a high speed train, walked half way around and through a gargantuan train station/mega mall, upset the balance of an open restaurant with a closed kitchen for lunchtime, and suffered through the worst bout of hangriness in a good long while all for a half-filled tray of cheap Malaysian street food. Such is travel sometimes, and it would have to do.
After we ate, I prayed we had enough cash to pay. Our total came out to 15 MYR, exactly half the Malaysian currency we had. Thankful for our one success, we paid the man at the register and left the stall. Next, it was time to review our failure in reverse. We power-walked back across the street, through the mall, to the platform, and onto the train back to the airport. We successfully returned to the terminal within our designated time, almost three hours ahead of our flight. It was good, we told ourselves, that we gave ourselves plenty of time to navigate what was sure to be a hectic line through security and immigration. We’re not so bad at this travel thing.
We made it to our gate in ten minutes.
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