The Strategic Retreat

Chow Kit Market; The Journey

Patronas towers in background

It’s been nearly a year now since I first went to Kuala Lumpur and I’ve written nothing about it. At the time, I wanted to put off putting words to paper because I wanted to do it right. Now, as my memory fades and many of the captured images have been liberated, due to limited hard drive space and lack of supervision, I regret that. Forgoing the good for the perfect is something I’ve long done in my life and it’s something I wish to mitigate as I continue traveling towards the unknown. That’s why I started writing again, to attempt to tell my current tales whilst learning how to tell my future tales clearly and completely. As my friend Chris says, the best way to improve is to sit down and do it. The more days that pass, the more I realize that my lack of “sit down and do it” has been the biggest hindrance in my personal development.

Recent unpleasantness has had me thinking about KL, it’s the first place I had ever really traveled to and that initial trip matured me by years. Previously in life I had been to Cancun, Vancouver, Windsor and myriad U.S. cities but that’s not travel. Cancun may as well have a protective dome over it and, as much as I love Canada, simply being nicer and cleaner than Americans doesn’t make for a profound cultural experience in itself. KL was different. A different circumstance and a different world. It opened up my eyes to how naive and sheltered I was, and still am. Like somebody who learns entirely from reading and ends up mispronouncing words, that’s how I saw the world. I could cite populations, geography, major industries and military history but I didn’t really know shit about anywhere outside of the few cities I’ve lived in. The main difference between now and then is that by knowing so much more than I did a year ago, I have a better understanding and acceptance of how little I actually know.

I had crossed the border via bus to Malaysia from Singapore, just past midnight on April 1st. The first solo travel of my life, having decided to take the bus in order to see the Malaysian countryside. There were palm oil plantations, that’s the Malaysian countryside. I had arrived in Singapore days earlier and was to stay in Singapore for an unknown amount of time. I was staying with my sister’s family and since they were going on a trip to the Maldives I would be alone for the week following Easter. I knew one person in the country who wasn’t related to me. She was going to KL for the week on business and asked if I wanted to tag along. When a girl I’ve only met, in person, 2 days ago asks if I want to go to a strange foreign city, I say yes. Every time. My travel policy is exactly the same as Winston Zeddemore’s god policy. I was in Singapore to change my life and it would have been contrary to my goals to have been overly cautious.patronas towersThe time between the bus ride and Chow Kit weren’t uneventful, nor was the time before it, but there’s only so much room for each story when writing in a blog format. Starting from the beginning would make the most sense but a few days into the story is the best I can do, for now. I have to write about what I know and what inspires me and for now, that’s Chow Kit. That’s the origin point of my life of travel and adventure, not flying to Singapore, not busing solo to KL. It was a rather uneventful early evening during my second trip to Chow Kit that changed what I care about in life. I guess I can back it up just a tad,to the previous day, before moving forward.

Chow Kit had taken me several hours to discover, despite being a relatively simple daytime destination. Having previously decided to never take a cab or make use of a map(I didn’t want to look like a tourist, after all) I often got turned around on KL’s inwardly spiraling roadways or non-connecting rail system. After spending an excessive amount of time walking along blind alleys lined with shards of glass set into raised walls I vowed to be more cautious about the routes I would choose. That is to say, routes I would take in the future, after I found Chow Kit. Luckily, it’s not actually a hard place to find, being on a major roadway and across from a monorail. It being a simple place to find in theory didn’t teleport my stupid Ang mo self out of the fortified neighborhood but it did make my return visit much less trailblazing.

klang river

Once I finally located Chow Kit I realized that physically I was a mess and was in no condition to squeeze through narrow, covered corridors or interact with strangers in a bustling market. The confluence of dirt and sweat from my poorly planned ambling formed a brackish muddy grime that ran from my face, down my neck to my chest where it permeated several layers into my psyche. I was no less soaked than had I emerged from the Klang River herself but, luckily, only half as filthy. I had arrived too late for the morning market and too early for the night market so being a foreign mud monster wasn’t as bad of a situation as it otherwise could have been. By that time in the afternoon the wet market had largely dried up, leaving just the humidity and rotten scraps behind. Raw meat is not meant to be left out uncovered in 90(32C)+ degree heat and regardless of lax sanitation standards the dead flesh business wanes by the early afternoon. This respite gives additional stall space to those selling counterfeit blue jeans and designer underwear until the night market and live flesh trade commences.

wet market in kuala lumpur

I took few pictures during the light and none during the dark during my time in KL. Of the few photos I had taken, most have been lost. It matters little, as those were snapped too quickly and almost exclusively taken with my phone. It seems to follow a theme with my travels; the amazingness of a photo opportunity negatively corresponds to how many pictures I actually take. Some experiences are meant to be savored by memory alone, some happen too suddenly to record and sometimes… Sometimes I just don’t want to get robbed for my electronics. There weren’t a lot of Ang Mos in KL which is a fact I hadn’t noticed in the Suria KLCC Mall, beneath the Patronas towers, but that reality started to shimmy forward from the back of my mind as my fatigue let go to my perception. The sun had set behind me and as I adjusted to the darkness of my immediate surrounding the towers in front of me began to light up, showing me how little space and time is needed to separate different worlds. Although I appreciate the contrast upon reflection, my immediate thoughts were simpler; dark, poor, sketchy, danger.

From what I hear, KL is a dangerous city. I didn’t know that at the time and currently don’t believe it to the extent it’s claimed today. At the time what I knew was that I was out of my element. I knew that cabbies would cheat me, homeless people there were actually homeless, I was an American in a Muslim country, I don’t have a phone and know only a single person within 10,000kms I can contact. At the time I was in less fear of being mugged than I was overcome with stimuli overload. It’s not that KL was like a Laser Floyd light show, it’s that everything was new to me. The language, the customs, the way traffic interacted, the food, the dress, the toilets, everything. Nothing fit into previously stored classifications. Every time I opened my eyes the entirety of what I saw sought new labels and understanding, for entirely new memories. Nothing could be filed away as a redundancy or sorted with experiences witnessed in the past. Everything that was occurring was carving a unique space in my mind. Like a child first experiencing a sunset I was bombarded with new information to the point of not knowing what to focus on.

That’s where I was at, mentally, when I crossed the street to enter Chow Kit. A bit on guard and way overstimulated.

About Jeff

Jeff was born in the back of a War Game Store on the day the first Star Trek movie came out, to a computer programmer mother and a father who wrote the story for Dragon's Lair. Jeff has an MBA, a CSM, and a penchant for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.