Village Voice


Amy Salmon continues her stories of adventures in Southeast Asia

Here I am again with more from my trip around Southeast Asia.  My last day in Vietnam, I wasn't able to get "late check-out" at my hotel, so I ended up having to check out of my room at noon, which didn't thrill me.  My flight out to Kuala Lumpur was leaving around 8:30 that night, but I decided to leave the middle of the city for the airport around 4:30, in case there were any snafus once I got there.  That still left me with almost five hours to kill in the Southeast Asian sun.  When I put the trip together, I assumed I'd be happy with the extra time in Hanoi, because on paper there are a lot of interesting things to do there.  But in reality, I was just tired and ready to move on, before I left the hotel.  Always an inauspicious start to a day of international travel.

Which is probably why I immediately got lost, in spite of my best efforts and a map, and had to spend at least two hours wandering through seemingly identical streets with markets in them.  In Hanoi that meant, essentially, people camped out on the pavement, surrounded by merchandise -- a lot of it not-very-fresh-looking food -- which they never stopped trying to sell me.  One reason I was lost for so long was because every time I even hesitated, someone pounced on me for one reason or another.  "Madame! Motorcycle! Madame! Books!  Madame! Madame! Madame!"  I absolutely hate being hassled like that no matter where I am or what they are selling.  So I just didn't stop very much, and got more annoyed and dehydrated with each wrong turn. 

I had been in search of a park surrounding a lake that I'd seen on the map, which also had some temples and such, and I had read that there was a mall on the other side of it.  I was looking for someplace air-conditioned, with a bookstore, benches, and a restaurant.  I eventually found it, but it wasn't what I had hoped.  It was air-conditioned, but it was really just a department store, and again, every time I hesitated, I was accosted.  There were no bookstores, no benches, and no restaurants.  Argh. 

I went back outside and tried to enjoy the stone pagodas in the lake.  They were pretty.  I sat on a bench for a few minutes...and got approached again by someone trying to sell me something.  At this point I was suffering from "temple burnout" in the extreme, not to mention "annoying vendor burnout", and I just couldn't muster up that much enthusiasm for any of the attractions on offer in Hanoi.  All I wanted was for the day to be over.  I needed something to read on the plane, and I knew that I wasn't going to be able to find anything in English at the airport, so I gave up my search for the bookstore, and bought some Xeroxed Bill Bryson travel books from one of the kids who had been trying to sell them to me in the street. 

Spoiled by the excellent used bookstores in Chiang Mai, which are constantly re-supplied by an ever-changing stream of backpackers and other travelers passing through the city to and from places all over the globe, I found the selection of books in Vietnam somewhat lacking.  Even in the tourist hotspot of Hoi An, a centuries-old Chinese and Japanese trading post city on the central Vietnamese coast renowned for its excellent and cheap tailors  where I spent a weekend, there was nothing but the same measly selection of Xeroxed books, most of which don't appeal to me, or which do so only rarely.  Travel books like "On the Road" (Jack Kerouac) and "The Beach" (Alex somebody whose name I can't remember, but whose book is very popular on the backpacker circuit, because it's set in the islands of southern Thailand and was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and is all about rejecting authority and finding enlightenment by staying in really cheap guesthouses and doing a lot of drugs.  At least that's what I got from the five minutes I could sit through the movie before I changed the channel.).   

I do find Bill Bryson's travel narratives both hilarious and insightful, but I'd just finished reading two of his books, which I'd bought in a similarly desperate reading situation from a similar vendor on the street in Ho Chi Minh City.  I was looking for a change, but it wasn't to be, unless I wanted the heavy political or hippie stuff, which I didn't.  For my purposes, Bryson was the best of the bunch.  I moved "Find a good English bookstore and spend a lot of money there" even higher on my mental "Things to do in Kuala Lumpur" list. 

When I finally made it to the airport, I was in for more headaches, in the form of long lines with lots of groups traveling together that I was stuck behind, waiting to check in for my flight.  It wasn't air-conditioned, and it was really hot and really crowded, and my bags were really heavy.  So heavy, I discovered when I eventually got to the counter, that I had to pay extra baggage charges.  They told me to pay in dollars, which I didn't have.  Being in Vietnam, they hadn't seemed necessary.  "How much in dong?" I asked.  They told me, and it was more than I had left.  I found an ATM, had to withdraw more dong than I actually needed, made my way back to pay the fee, and then had to double back to the currency exchange.  The Vietnamese dong, like the Cambodian riel, the Lao kip, and, interestingly, the Korean won, is a non-transferable currency.  Basically, if you take it out of the country, you keep it, because no one outside the country will buy it or change it.  At this point, I was getting concerned I'd miss my flight, since it seemed like I'd been trying to check in at this bloody airport since the beginning of time, and I still had to go through customs and immigration.  Good thing I'd allowed extra time for snafus, because I was having some.  

There were lots of currency exchange booths, but only one of them had people in them, which didn't surprise me.  Malaysia was looking better all the time, just because it wasn't Vietnam any more.  It also didn't surprise me that the people in the only open currency booth wouldn't give me US dollars for my Vietnamese dong.  Don't ask me how I would have gotten dollars to pay the extra baggage fee, had I not asked to be able to pay in dong. That way madness lies.  Keeping a firm leash on my temper, I was about to just give up and keep the blasted dong as a souvenir, when I had a flash of inspiration and asked if they would give me Malaysian ringgits. (I'd been focused on making sure I had US dollars on hand before I got to Cambodia and Laos.  Dollars are the preferred currency in both countries, and in both countries ATMs are scarce or nonexistent.  I'd planned on mostly paying by credit card or using ATMs to withdraw whatever local currency I needed in Malaysia.)  They said “yes,” I made the change, and fled to immigration.   

I got to the gate, and boarding happened shortly thereafter.  That's when I remembered that Air Asia is like a bus in the sky, and the first time I'd flown the airline I'd vowed it would be the last.  Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that vow when booking my trip, so here I was again.  There isn't assigned seating, and it's a cheap airline, so there are inevitably tour groups and large families with lots of small children.  I muscled my way onto the plane through the crowd, wondering as I do every time I board a plane what the rush to get on board is all about, and found a window seat.  I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, trying to block out the sounds and relax.

Next thing I know, there are two guys in my row, to whom the idea of "personal space" is obviously a foreign concept.  They're carrying on a loud conversation with friends of theirs who have apparently taken all three seats in the row behind me, and don't seem to know or care that someone is sitting in the window seat.  I turn my body further toward the window and try to ignore them, until I see one of them reach into my seat pocket and take out my book as if it were his.  Straw that broke the camel's back, there.  "EXCUSE ME!" I say, giving him my best glare and snatching back my book.  "THAT'S MINE!"  He gives no evidence of understanding, and looks mildly surprised, but I give him a second glare for good measure, take my extra book out of the seat pocket and throw it into my bag, and shift even further over toward the window, turning my back all the way to him.  It's going to be a long three hours, I thought, as I felt one of his buddies kick me through the seat. 

It was.  By the time we landed in Kuala Lumpur around 12:30 am, I was more than ready to get off the plane, get some dinner, and get to my hotel.  My thought of taking the monorail was derailed by the late hour, but I reserved a taxi at the transportation desk.  The fare was more ringgits than I had, but there was a bright, air-conditioned terminal with English speakers and signs, which made finding an ATM and currency exchange much easier than it had been in Hanoi.  It turned out that the ATM dispensed dollars, so I withdrew what I hoped was enough extra to see me through Cambodia and Laos, and converted the rest into ringgits. 

Even better, there was a convenience store with English books inside...that weren't only cheap photocopies of the same fifteen books!  I smiled for the first time in hours.  And across the hall from that was a 24-hour McDonald's, which solved the problem of finding someplace to eat in downtown KL in the wee small hours of the morning.  Although I couldn't get breakfast in the middle of the night, my flight to Cambodia in three days' time was a morning one.  Things were looking up!     

The taxi ride was long, but very pleasant.  I got a kick out of seeing the Petronas Towers, which I've given a place and number to in the art log of more Guinness Book of Records editions than I care to remember, up close and personal.  They're not the largest or tallest skyscraper any more, but they're still in the top ten, so they're still in every Tallest Buildings spread.  I have to admit, they're impressive.  But not nearly as impressive as the World Trade Center was.  As opposed to the Twin Towers, which seemed to me to almost get taller the closer you got to them, the Petronas Towers seemed to get smaller.  In the pictures I'd worked with, they'd seemed really tall.  But in the middle of downtown Kuala Lumpur, they weren't even as tall as some of the office buildings and hotels that surrounded them, and there's a much taller single tower fairly close to them.  It really surprised me to see that they didn't dominate the skyline.  They're closer in scale to the Empire State Building than the Twin Towers.    

By the time I finally got to my hotel, it was after 3 am.  Fortunately, the hotel was swank.  I had a huge room, a bathtub and a separate shower, two extremely comfortable beds, Internet and room service access, a flat screen TV, a robe and slippers, a coffee maker, and a refrigerator.  It was quiet, and the curtains were heavy and dark.  All was once again right with the world.  It was a long day, but it was worth it.  The Petronas Towers -- and their large surrounding mall, which no doubt had benches, air-conditioning, English bookstores, and lots of international restaurants -- were just down the street.  I went to sleep with a smile on my face.

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