From Bangkok we hopped on a Royal Jordanian flight and about an hour later descended into Lapangan Terbang Antarabangsa Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s main airport. Sure, the name’s a mouthful but you do get a pang and two bangs for your buck.

The airport, seemingly cut right out of the jungle, lies about 25 miles outside the city—but right next door to Malaysia’s Formula 1 track, in case you’re ever on layover and want to get in a few hot laps.

Instead, we raced to get a train to Kuala Lumpur (KL, as it’s known) and by the time we arrived in its hot, sweaty, jackhammering heart, it was late. We were anxious to square away our hotel given our lack of a reservation and headed for an area called “Golden Triangle” via the KL Monorail (Bukit Bintang stop). The area looked like any other modern city: a mall, a shopping center, restaurants with themes. A street called Jln Alor was the neighborhood’s saving grace. It was lined with lights, tons of people, food carts, and (non-themed) restaurants that spilled out onto the pavement. We’ve read that you can find a bite to eat here until 4am.

But a hotel, not food, was our priority. The first place we checked was full. The second was at the intersection of plain and ugly. Weird vibes were a no-cost extra. Somehow I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be our night but then we walked around the corner and discovered a nice looking place. The owner’s kid played in the lobby. We thought, “Great!” and checked in.

The room was a little dingy and barely bigger than the bed but whatever—it was for one night. I jumped into the bathroom/shower (one little space, multiple functions) and things started going downhill before I hit the rinse cycle.

“I just saw a bug!” I heard Natalie call. By the time I got out of the shower the critter had hoofed it. What was it? We weren’t sure but we figured spotting insects within the first five minutes wasn’t a good sign. Leaving our zipped up bags on the bed, we headed out to find another hotel.

By half past midnight it seemed like we had looked at them all, and finally settled for one on the neighborhood’s main drag. It was clean and nice in an upscale Tijuana sort of way. On the way to have a look at the room we noticed an older guy waiting by the elevator with three or four girls. Party hotel?

Back at the first hotel, on the way to get our backpacks, we shared the elevator with a middle-aged European guy and two Asian women. They all got off a floor before us. Natalie and I looked at each other: the relatively expensive but dingy hotels, the descriptions we read of the Golden Triangle being KL’s entertainment district, it was all starting to make sense. Back in the lobby we checked out a couple of hours after checking in and the guy behind the desk didn’t bat an eye.

We heaved our backpacks over to hotel number 2, had another shower, and fell into bed, exhausted. On the ceiling an arrow pointed west.

The bedside command center at our second hotel, KL

One day wiser and about $80 shorter, we headed to KL’s Chinatown/Little India neighborhood (Maharajalela monorail stop) and checked into the Original Backpacker’s Travellers Inn (sp). It had a rooftop patio bar/restaurant, internet connection, and a friendly, helpful staff. Other than that it was super basic (concrete floors, no sheets, but A/C). Our en suite room was RM66 (about $22).

We spent the day sightseeing and making arrangements to get to the Perhentian Islands where we planned to learn how to scuba dive. This time we booked ahead. We asked how to get to the islands. The woman behind the desk said there was a minibus leaving that night, and that they’d even sell us the boat ticket to the islands. Was there a bus tomorrow? No? Good timing. We had a nap, checked out of our room at 10:45pm and were on the minibus a half an hour later, sitting in traffic back at Jln Alor but heading out of town.

Sri Mahamariamman Temple, an Indian temple in Chinatown

Wow, so bright, shiny, and clean!

Technicolor deities

Masjid Jamek, a downtown mosque built in 1907

A view of Menara Kuala Lumpur (the tower) with the Patronas Towers in the distance

Downtown, another view, this time from Merdeka Square

Monorail and minarets

Graffiti is universal. I checked the URL. It’s dead.

The bus was cramped but convenient. We drove through the night stopping here and there for breaks. 2:30am found us at an open-air, roadside shack-staurant at the jungle’s edge. We emerged into the warm night air, a welcome change from the air-conditioned chill of the bus. “Roti canai” read one of the featured menu items but I was bleary-eyed and not sure how much time we had. We used the squat-style outhouse toilet, complete with flush bucket, and then stood by the road taking in the scene. A little later we were in our seats again, twisting through the darkened jungle.

 

Open-air, roadside restaurant at the jungle’s edge

At dawn we found ourselves in the coastal town of Kola Besut, as planned. Among the clucking chickens, wandering cats, and (according to Natalie) swooping bats, a guy wandered up wanting to sell us boat tickets. We already had them. Insistent, he wanted to inspect our tickets. What? Who are you? I thought. Our minibus driver, a super nice guy, deflected him. So many hustlers. No matter. The bats by the way: birds. Several houses in town had upper levels given over to nesting swifts. The owners then collected the nests and sold them for bird’s nest soup. “More valuable than gold,” said our driver. Wow—the first person who figured out how to turn bird spit into gold must have been patting themselves on the back for quite a long time. And, by the size and fine condition of the houses, it looked like the alchemy was still working.

By 7am the boat company was open and we turned our attention back to getting from A to B. We showed our tickets and headed for the pier. Shortly after eight we, and our packs, were on a twin-engined speedboat heading out into the South China Sea. Ahead, on the horizon, through the sun and salt spray, we could just make out the dusky silhouettes of the Perhentian Islands…

Perhentian Islands, here we come!