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Before getting to the new world of Indonesia, a few final notes on Kuala Lumpur.
- Apparently their superstitious number is 4/14. There was no 4th or 14th floor at my apartment building, replaced with a 3a and 13a. It's the little things.
- The professional ladies of the night are very aggressive in the tourist area. One of them grabbed my hand and wouldnt let go until I pretty much ran away. They want money, and TOURIST MAN looks like ATM MACHINE.
- The sunglasses salesmen are even more aggressive than the ladies of the night. There was a pair who asked me to come into their little stand to take a look, I made the mistake of saying ok, then I asked how much, they asked how much my sunglasses were (about $30 USD), and then they offered a price of $25 USD for FAKE RAY BANS. I laughed and said no, and they quite literally held me and wouldnt let me leave. This was the hardest hard sell of all time. They asked me how much I would pay, I said $20 Ringgit (about $6 USD), but honestly didnt want anything. They of course immediately agreed to the price (these are fake Ray Bans were are talking about, so they likely cost about $1 to make). They held me and blocked my way out until I said no enough times and forced my way out of Sunglass Hut Jail. Never have I experienced a harder sales attempt than that.
- The drinks at the main bars in the city were extremely expensive. Bottles of beer were $6-8 and pints were about $10. That is NYC/ Tokyo prices. I wasnt quite sure if it was ex-pats, tourists, rich locals or some combo of the three paying those extreme prices. I only bought a few beers with dinner, and those were $5 for a big, double beer. Not insane, but not a good deal either.
- I am still not sure if the extreme security (front gate with a security guard, key card for the elevator bay, key card for the elevator, iron gate, dead bolt door, apartment door) is because of paranoia or a high crime rate. Either way, I have never experienced such extreme measures to get into or out of a single residence. It was a bit discouraging to ever leave, knowing that it was a multi step and multi minute process just to depart the building.
Overall, I cant give KL a full stamp of approval. It is a big international city, the Petronas Towers are cool, and it is a good hub for the rest of SE Asia. Beyond that, only if you want to visit the real life Sim City (Apartments! Traffic! Shopping malls! Construction! A monorail!) would I recommend KL.
After my Monorail to Train to Plane to Train trip (about 6 hours door to door), I safely arrived in Medan, Indonesia- which is in the northern part of Sumatra. My hotel happened to be quite literally AT the train station, which was the easiest, luckiest and most convenient location of anywhere I have stayed so far. I got off the train from the Medan airport, saw signs for the hotel I happened to book that morning, and thought "Is my hotel IN the freaking train station?" The answer is yes. Taxi from the train station averted.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but the word "Sumatra" makes me think of endless jungles and monkeys riding rhinos in the middle of the street. So far Medan reminds me the most of Vietnam in a lot of ways. Medan is Indonesia’s 4th largest city, so there are thousands of scooters zipping all over. Crossing any major street without an official crosswalk is a test of courage, as there is rarely a full break in traffic, meaning you just have to start walking and hope no one runs you over. The main form of transit are Becaks- basically scooters with a covered side car. ANYWHERE I go anywhere from a handful to dozens of handfuls of Becak drivers ask me if I want a ride. No thanks, Mr Becak Driverman. I dont even know where I am going. It seems as though half of the city is a becak driver waiting for a fare.
Prices in Medan are more in line with what I like in this part of the world (again- reminding me of Vietnam). My nice, clean hotel is a bank breaking $27 a night. I just ate a chicken ramen meal for less than $2. My first meal was at a big shopping mall (I got lost and was hungry), and that set me back a whopping $4. The 40 minute train ride to the airport was $5, and my 4 hour car ride tomorrow to Lake Toba is $7. My hotel in Lake Toba will be either $9 (cold shower) or $18 (hot shower) a night. These are the type of expenses I fell in love with while in Vietnam. Thailand and Malaysia are definitely not expensive compared to the States (except for KLs booze, as previously discussed), but being able to get full meals for under $2 is awesome. Free food!
Medan is far from a tourist hot spot, and I am clearly one of the rare MR TOURIST MEN walking the streets. Nearly everyone looks at me and waves, says hello, laughs, or does some combination of the three. They actually say "Hello, Mister" a lot, which is amusing. When I have my camera out, locals ask me to take photos OF them, which has barely ever happened to me before. They will clearly never see these photos (unless this website has gotten big overseas without my knowledge), so it is an interesting request.
Walking around, I stand out like the sorest of sore thumbs. MR TOURIST MAN cant hide anywhere. Everywhere I walk around people stare, wave and laugh. When I sit down to eat people stare, wave and laugh. It is like they know what I am but they have never seen one of me in the wild. “There is one of those tourist men I have heard about!” I realize that isn’t true (I know the locals here have seen other white tourist men come through their city), but that is definitely what it feels like.
It isnt clear to me if they are laughing AT me (look at silly MR TOURIST MAN walking in this heat with his stupid clothes and big bag) or laughing because I smile and respond (HAHA! MR TOURIST MAN TALKED TO ME!). Either way it is mostly amusing. I am genuinely curious as to what they are thinking. In a few weeks I will visit some relatives in Bandung on the island of Java, so hopefully they can explain people’s reaction to silly tourist man. There are definitely times when I would like to put on a LOCAL MAN mask and blend in with the rest of the people to be anonymous for a bit. Everyone has been insanely nice (sometimes to the point of awkwardness), but the staring and laughing doesn’t maintain its appeal forever. Especially when I don’t know their language. I am trying to remember simple phrases, but even if I memorize the "thank you" and "goodbye" phrases, it wont be enough to have a real conversation.
The staring would also be much more off putting if people were hostile towards me, but all of the locals so far have been insanely nice. It is hard to get annoyed when everyone is just curious about the alien walking their streets. I have felt the experience of being the obvious outsider in other countries, but so far in 24 hours this has been the most outsider-y I can remember feeling. From the locals perspective, they likely don’t get THAT many tourists cruising the streets (most people come here for a day or two as a hub for other locations in Sumatra). I haven’t seen more than 5 other westerners, so either tourist men aren’t in Medan this time of year or most of the them stay in a different part of the city.
The tourist infrastructure here is also not to first world standards, which makes it both fun and frustrating. Fun because I dont see countless other travelers in their Full Moon Party tank tops. It feels like I am somewhere not on the well worn backpacker path, which is refreshing. It is nice to get away from areas that the rest of the western world visits on a regular basis. It is a unique feeling to be somewhere where I am clearly different from everyone else. It is frustrating because it is really hard to get easy answers about how to get from point A to point B. As I said, everyone has been overly nice, so they want to help. Often, they just don’t know the answers. Even asking about big tourist stops (like Lake Toba for example) get met with blank stares. Because there are not a steady stream of western travelers come through here, there are not streets lined with tourist/ travel offices that exist all over Thailand and many parts of Vietnam. Locals rarely leave whatever city they live in, and if they do, they aren’t going to the same spots I have read about on Wikitravel.
I have only been in Sumatra for a little over 24 hours, but I can already tell I will like it here. For anyone who enjoys getting off the well worn tourist path, looking up and not seeing one westerner anywhere in sight, eating $2 meals, staying in nice $20 hotels, and getting treated like a celebrity/alien then I recommend making it over here before it becomes the next Bali.
Next stop is Lake Toba- one of the largest freshwater lakes on earth, created by one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever (estimated to be 70,000 years ago). Supposedly the roads to get there are NOT ideal which makes the journey extremely slow. Should be quite an adventure.