I had a layover for about 16 hours in Kuala Lumpur. The first thing I noticed on the bullet train ride from the airport to downtown is how modern the place seems. Especially after leaving India. Even the slums seemed nicer and not quite as numerous. There is light-rail, monorail, and metro buses. Less dust, dirt and construction. Lots of flashy tourist stuff. It’s not as crowded here on the roads, either. And the sound of horns is all but absent!
There’s lots of cookie-cutter buildings, but some very unique ones too. The cookie cutter seem to be high-rise apartments. If you’re familiar with the Petronas Twin Towers then you’ll know at least two of the unique buildings. Some others are scattered across the cityscape as well. I went to visit the towers to go up to the observation area, but they were out of tickets for the day. So get there early.
I ended up walking around in the park behind the towers. It was nice. Lots of young folks hanging out. Lots of old folks walking around. Some playgrounds. A cool place to have sitting in the shadow of that used to be the world’s tallest buildings.
I dropped in on a Hindu or Hare Krishna wedding. I’m not sure which it was, but it was interesting to watch. The video below is just a short part of the whole ceremony. The music was pretty interesting – what you can hear in this clip was not as interesting as what was going on during the rest of the ceremony. This was back in an alley adjacent to a Buddhist temple and a Christian monastery.
I ate at a street vendor. Food I didn’t recognize. Some strange fish or eel or something. It was odd – there was only one bone in it, but a big one right down the center. It was like a t-bone steak with a tail on it. If anyone can identify this ichthyoid I’d appreciate it. The sauce there was very spicy, but it was a slow gradual burn. Nice.
Kuala Lumpur reminds me of Hong Kong. That makes since, because Kuala Lumpur was founded when Malaysia was owned by the British. So there’s obviously a large influence. But it’s more diverse ethnically, religiously and in language. That may just be foreign tourism, but I doubt it.
I ended up the afternoon watching the grey sky lose its color from a place called the Sky Bar on top of the Trader Hotel. By day it’s the hotel’s pool, by night it’s a modern dance club. Pretty awesome concept!
Then I caught a cab back to the train station which took me back to the airport. It was a good day of sightseeing.
While in India I visited a great place called Tranquil Resort. It’s set on a 400 acre working coffee, vanilla and pepper plantation, tucked into the hills above a small but busy village of Sultan Bathery. Treehouse huts and more traditional rooms await you, but it’s doubtful you’ll spend much time indoors. 5 hours drive from Bangalore and 2 hours from Mysore.
I found myself hiking up the “Braveheart” trail to the peak of the mountain behind the resort. I was followed by a boxer named Shadow – one of the house dogs. He encourages me along in a friendly way; much less friendly are the winged insects buzzing around, though they do encourage you to move. Local monkeys sat and watched me curiously from a distance in the trees and on the rocks as I awkwardly bent to get a good line of sight through the leaves to take photos. The sun faded in and out behind the clouds. I was certainly happy for the shade; the jungle was hot and wet enough without the sun’s contribution.
Unfortunately I overdid it on the walk. It’s only about 5km but rugged. Someone who’s actually in shape would have been just fine at the pace I was going, but I wasn’t smart enough to slow down to my speed. I moved from “Braveheart” to “Terminator” to “Indiana Jones”. I skipped a route called “Cliffhanger” not because it was harder, but because it was a bad movie. And also because it was hard.
I got back down after about 5 hours walking. It was made harder since I had a touch of “Delhi Belly” and not enough water. I went to my room and changed, then hopped in the pool. Cool and refreshing. Ahhhh. Then to a nice hot shower. Towel off, change clothes and get to lunch. Wonderful morning.
After lunch I went off property to a nature preserve. The resort is only about a half hour from the preserve. I took the trip with a driver in an open jeep. We stopped at the gate long enough to get a guide – required for entry – and continued. We went around inside and almost immediately saw an elephant. But it was a work elephant. The day before on the way to the resort I’d seen another one. This one was not tame and was in fact charging a motorcyclist who’d been taunting it. Good for the elephant! But we hadn’t paused long enough to grab a photo of the beast. In the park I had the opportunity to see lots of spotted deer, sambhar and monkeys, but no tigers. The driver and guide were happy with that but I was a bit disappointed. Se la vie.
I’ve had quite a few haggling sessions with local vendors, cabbies and others. But a technique I saw used in India is different than those I’ve seen elsewhere. It’s pretty effective though.
When hailing an autorickshaw (also called a tuk-tuk) from one Mumbai airport to the other, one of the police officers told me that I shouldn’t pay any more than 100 Rupee – but that the drivers would try to charge more because of time of day. Good information. So I flagged down one of the drivers and he started me off at 150. I countered with 80, he went to 120, but wouldn’t go lower. “Ni-time cost moah.” He continued, “Eet ees not pah-mitted to peeck ahp heeah. Beeg fine.” “Mahch chiper dan taxee.” I went to another driver and he started at 180 INR and gave me the same lines about higher cost for night time and being the wrong area for picking up customers.
I walked away from him too and the first guy came back and told me OK, he’d take me. For 100, I asked? 120. Back to where we left off – that’s not a negotiating technique. So I turned and started to walk away. He said OK 100.
In the vehicle he told me why he wanted more. Night time. Wrong area. Taxis cost 2x. Yeah I got it. A few short minutes later we’re at the other airport. I hopped out and went for my wallet. “Plis sah. 150.” I handed him 100. Again he told me of his woes. Night time. Big fines. He looked at me with big brown eyes. “Plis.”
That’s a similar technique some of my neighbors use when I have them do yard work. We negotiate to a rate I’m happy with, then after they’re done ask for more because it was bigger than they’d thought. I turned away the tuk-tuk driver. I usually give in to my neighbors.
It’s not that I’m a softie for Americans, it’s that the situations are different. I’m never going to see the tuk-tuk guy again. My neighbors know where I live. And a lot of the times they’re looking out for me when I’m not around so it pays to keep them happy. And if I know their tactics I can get to the real rates for things and not get suckered. Well not too bad anyway. And each negotiation becomes a reference point for the next one. “Last time you came back and asked for more – are you going to try that this time?”
Just beware this haggling technique when in India and understand you may get hit up for more after you get what you want.
Half a world away, across 13.5 time zones, enduring 18-20 hours of flight time and a layover, endured four straight airplane meals, I have arrived. Mumbai. Formerly Bombay. The airport was a good welcome to the country. Hot, sticky, dusty, loud, smelly, crowded, and chaotic.
As someone told me before I left, India is an assault to the 5 senses. That’s not always a bad thing – sometimes the combat does you well. For example, the smells of a very spicy curry wafting from a roadside stand. Or the overpowering taste of some new and unknown fruit. Or the shocking blast of air conditioning upon stepping out of the sweltering heat. Yes, India is a land where your senses will be overwhelmed. The whole country seems to live like that, going from one extreme to another.
India’s clash between its history and its future is also a contrast. In many ways it still operates in its historical pattern and in some ways it has left that behind. In India much moreso than in any other place I’ve been, people still wear the traditional dress. Sarees, Bindis, Kurtas, are everywhere. Traditional garments seem to outnumber western ones, even in the cities. And bureaucracy reigns supreme in most places. At the airport going through security I was stopped because my ticket wasn’t stamped. It was one guy’s job to simply stamp the ticket at the counter. Even though I’d used the automated kiosk a red mark needed to be put on it for it to be valid.
India has a large upwardly mobile population, as well as a large population stuck in poverty. Still somewhat stuck to its old ways, India’s caste system is still somewhat in place, though on shaky ground. This also means that the tradition of servility is in place. Many of the wealthier Indians and foreigners hire full-time servants for things like driving, cleaning and cooking. I’ve been told these salaries may range from $40 to $250 per month. But that is changing, too; as opportunity comes to India money and business success is becoming the new caste structure. Some formerly from the lowest caste have become multi-millionaires.
And India can be very confusing. For example, Mumbai has two airports separated by 7 km – both with the airport code BOM. So if you’re flying into the country there, then on to another area keep this in mind. Nothing like getting caught at the wrong airport and wondering where your flight is. By the way, the going rate for an autorickshaw (also known as a tuk-tuk) ride from one to the other is about 100 Rupees – $2.50. Learn how the Indian drivers haggle.
India reminds me somewhat of China. And that’s not surprising. Both countries are climbing their way from third-world to first-world status seemingly in a generation. The pace at which each country is modernizing is shocking. And with that modernization come the natural byproducts of construction, squalor beside luxury, cultures intermingling, over crowding, breakdowns in etiquette, etc. It’s very much the feeling of a runaway train going at full speed. You’re going somewhere really fast but staying on the tracks is problematic.
In India this is more of a problem than in China because India is a democracy. Whereas China can shut down production in one area and relocate it overnight, India must nudge the free market. And controlling the direction of the economy means that bribery and corruption are natural outgrowths. This is something both countries have been struggling with in recent years; trying to get it under control. China simply executes those it deems guilty, but India cannot take such a harsh stance. From the feel of things, India seems to be doing a better job of reigning in corruption. China seems to be paying lip service but only needs an occasional scapegoat.
But despite its current challenges, India is a great place. It’s a country moving upward in the world. Quickly modernizing and becoming connected to the rest of the world.