Kuala Lumpur: February 22, 2019
I have one day – well, not really – I have a little over six hours to accomplish my mission. The lady sitting next to me in seat 10E aboard this Air Asia flight from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Kuala Lumpur says, “Flying to KL for one day for shopping – you’re funny.” She said “funny”, though I think she meant crazy. It’s not really even six hours, it’s more like two, but I’ll get to that shortly.
Every moment during this day has been plotted in my mind over and over again since I first bought the ticket 52 days ago. It was New Year’s Day, and I realized that my wife and I wouldn’t be passing through Kuala Lumpur (KL) at anytime during our fall/winter seasonal stay this year in South East Asia. But KL is one of the two places in the world where I shop during the year.
Actually, I hate shopping. I don’t like going from store to store, trying on different things. I don’t wake up dreaming about buying a new outfit. I like to spend the least amount of time in stores. I get in, get out, and I’m done.
In California, during my annual swing home, I hit my handful of stores. I know the racks, the prices, and the sizing. I know the styles and the fit. With so little time to browse and so little enjoyment in it, I simply shop for form and fit – not fashion.
KL is my other place in the world where I stock up. The time in between both stops is usually about six months. It’s a good amount of time to replenish some of my stock, which gets a bit tattered given that my entire wardrobe fits in just a single 20-inch carry-on suitcase and gets thrown in the spin cycle at a higher than normal rate.
And so, I was on a mission. I had the route in my mind. I had to make all connections – planes and trains. There wasn’t much room for contingencies. But such is life that contingencies would emerge. So, I summoned the focus of Phileas Fogg and readied for landing.
“He was so exact that he was never in a hurry, was always ready, and was economical alike of his steps and his motions.” – from Around the World in 80 Days (Jules Verne, 1873)
Exactly 90 minutes after departing Saigon, we’re descending (rapidly) over a field of what looks like a mix between olive and coconut trees, 50 kilometers south of Kuala Lumpur. It’s sunny and windy, hence probably why we’re approaching fast. But I’ll take it. We land safely 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I need all the extra time I can get today.
As I depart the plane and enter the jetway, I press play on my iPhone and the song “Kisses” starts. It’s the first song of my soundtrack for the day, and it’s a fitting song to start the adventure. The song feels sunny and upbeat. I snap the first of just three photos that I would take to capture the day.
Not only did we arrive 15 minutes early, we also parked at the absolute closest gate to the Immigration Arrival Hall. Anyone that has ever flown to KLIA2 knows how much of a crapshoot it is in terms of your arrival gate. Sometimes it can require another 1-2 mile walk to reach the Immigration Arrival Hall. Today, again, I was lucky but even the closest gate feels like it’s a mile away.
The lines are long – ridiculously long. It’s amazing how much traffic comes through this airport nowadays. When I first started coming to KL three years ago, there was barely ever anyone in the immigration lines. Now, both sides of the hall are several hundred people deep. I guess that extra fifteen minutes was a blessing in disguise.
I finally make it beyond the seemingly disorganized zigzag lines to a single file queue. There’s a middle aged Caucasian gentleman standing right in front of me. Complete with a dark blue blazer, business slacks, a briefcase, and glasses fit for a college professor, he looks anxious. I think he’s trying to calculate if he should stay in this line or switch.
Two minutes later, he makes the leap. He skips my line and joins the one beside me. He’s fidgety, constantly looking at his phone, constantly looking at the line. His eyebrows, tone, and anxiety rise when an older Asian gentleman cuts him in line. Perhaps it was throwing off his calculation. His temper subsides, involuntarily, when he realizes the guy is the husband of the woman standing in front of him.
Twenty-six minutes later, I’m stamped and fingerprinted into Malaysia. The Caucasian miscalculated. He’s still in the other line and I can tell he’s a little miffed at his decision. But I’ll take it – I can use every extra minute on this trip. I dash like a marathon-walker through the Duty Free section, customs, and out to the KL Express Train ticket booth. One hundred Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) swiped onto my credit card and I’m headed down the escalators.
That first fifteen minutes saved was crucial because I was able to make the 12:55 train to KL Sentral Station. I plotted that it would be about an hour from the airport to the mall, taking two separate train lines, with a 5-7 minute walk in-between connections. Thirty-two minutes later, I step off the first train and walk (briskly) through KL Sentral Station and the NU Sentral Mall to catch the monorail. I bypass the escalator – too many people, too much time. Instead, I opt for stairs at every chance and I climb them in pairs. I’m focused but I’m calm. I have the soothing sounds of “Alone in Kyoto” playing in my ears.
I always travel with spare money from every country that I visit and today it comes in handy. I need 2.50 MYR to buy a monorail ticket through the machine. I opt to use bills rather than coins. Again, time is of the essence. But damn it…the last bill is crinkled and taped. The machine rejects it, once, twice, and a third time. Man, I don’t have time for this shit. I dig in my backpack and fiddle through the coins. Malaysia doesn’t make it easy either. 20-cent coins look like 50 cents, and both have multiple-sized coins of the same value. I find a 50-cent coin, pop in the machine, grab the plastic train coin, and head for the turnstile.
There’s a train waiting at the end of the track. But wait, am I on the correct side to board the train? It’s the first/final stop on the line – it doesn’t matter. I can board from both sides. That minor hesitation cost me precious seconds. I pass the turnstile and the train departs. I’m not on it. Instead, I’m wasting precious minutes standing on the platform waiting for the next train.
That brief moment of doubt costs me 10 minutes. Instead of arriving at my destination exactly an hour after leaving the airport, I arrive ten minutes later than expected. At this point, I have exactly two hours to complete my mission – well, actually just one and half hours. I have one and half hours to shop and want to give myself thirty minutes to enjoy the world’s most delicious lamb burger.
I enter Sungei Wang Mall, perhaps the largest “Asian” mall in KL. It’s a maze of stores and stalls with multiple levels that can be very confusing upon first entry. I’ve entered this mall tens of times and yet each time I find a way to get lost (briefly). Is the first floor the ground floor or lower ground? I thought that first store was right here but I don’t see it and now my orientation is off.
I take the escalator up one level and I find myself in a lost world. Have the stores closed? This can’t be right. I went up one level and yet I’m on the fourth level and it’s named second floor. I head back down a level and walk to the other side. Bingo! I arrive at the first of my five stops.
The clerk must think I’m nuts. I’m feverishly looking through racks and folded shirts. I’m grabbing multiple shirts of the same styles, yet different colors. I’m asking if they have this shirt in that color and that shirt in this color? I hate trying things on but with limited time and no return policy, I have to get this right. Seven shirts and twenty minutes later, I’m at the cash register waiting for the credit card machine. It seems their machines are always slow. The same thing happened last year. Precious minutes tick away as I wait for their slow connection to process the transaction.
Five minutes later, I’m circling the mall again trying to find a store for my wife. I know what it looks like and remember the general area of where it is but, again, I can’t find it. This place is like a mouse maze. Soon after I text her communicating my trouble, I see it out of the corner of my eye.
The ladies in this store are not happy with their day or their lives, and their attentiveness shows it. I’ve never shopped for what I’m here to buy, so I need their help. Eventually, I get some assistance and now I’m feverishly texting my wife pictures of the selection. Meanwhile, the battery on my phone shows 43%. Twelve text messages, seven photo messages, and just 7 minutes later, my battery is dropping fast to near 10%. Yet, my heart rate is rising.
Ok, items selected, I head to the cash register – 49.60 MYR – yet, they won’t take my credit card. The minimum transaction amount is 50 MYR. You have got to be kidding! “C’mon, I don’t have cash. Can you just take the transaction?” Nada! Contingency number 1 has arrived. These ladies don’t realize that I have don’t have time for this. Annoyed, half-sweating, and short with words, I tell them, “Ok, just hold it. I’ll be back later.”
I exit the store recalculating my route through this Asian mouse trap to hit four more stores in the next forty minutes, while also hitting the ATM and returning to pick up my wife’s items. I head to the back of mall, hit store 1. I head downstairs and hit store 2. On my way to store 3, I realize my priorities and make an adjustment. I originally booked this trip to shop at two stores, one of which I’ve already hit. All of these other stores were lesser priorities. I change course and realize that the ATM is on the way to the store of second highest priority.
ATM cash grabbed and I’m walking into the store of second priority. “Hello! You came back?” The lady who helped me one year ago remembers who I am and knows exactly what I’m looking for. She’s so nice – a middle-aged Asian woman, with a welcoming smile, keen memory, eyeglasses like a school librarian, and truly helpful demeanor. We fly through the items, sorting, resorting, and confirming my selection. As we finalize the transaction, she asks, “How long are you in town for?” I say, “I’m only here for the day – actually, just a couple of hours. I flew in specifically to come to this store.” Apparently, I’m not the only one who has flown in for a day to shop at this particular store.
As I exclaim to her how hard it is for me to find this brand, in these styles, at these prices anywhere else in the world, she clarifies the reasons for my difficulties. The clothes are manufactured in Malaysia and her boss has the inside connection on the factory. No wonder these items cost one-fourth of the price at the malls in Bangkok and the styles and selection are better here. It’s also no wonder why I’m not the only one she’s seen fly in specifically to shop at this store.
Leaving the store, she asks, “Where are you heading? You have a lot of bags. You can leave them here while you shop for everything.” She’s so nice. I decline. I don’t have time to retrace steps. I leave and walk, perhaps two city blocks inside this maze, to the fifth and final store. They don’t have the exact items I’m looking for but what they have is close enough. I’m starting to relax. It’s 3:20pm once I pay for the items and I have just ten minutes left. I only need to return to the earlier store to pick up my wife’s items and my mission is complete. Well, almost!
Though I have a backpack on my shoulder, it’s empty. I’m toting all of my shopping bags in my hands and walking as efficiently as I can (without looking like a suspicious black man moving quickly with bags through an Asian mall). I turn the corner and head down the multiple flights of stairs past an older Asian couple, who seem a bit jolted that I’m sliding by them so quickly, and a pair of young westerners head down on their phones taking slow, single, cautious steps in front of me. Don’t these guys know that I am hungry and haven’t peed in 8 hours?!
I exit the mall to head across the street and am quickly reminded that traffic drives on the other side of the road in Malaysia. Good thing I used that extra second to look both ways.
As soon as I enter the Fuel Shack, the place of best lamb burger in the world, I don’t even sit down to order. I immediately request a burger and a Pepsi, and ask if they have a restroom. Nope, there’s one in the mall. I don’t have time. So long as I sit down and eat, I’ll be fine.
While the burger is being cooked, I feverishly start stuffing the items purchased throughout the day into my empty backpack. Everything fits in just right. And that burger tastes just right, just like I remember it. I haven’t found this burger anywhere else in my worldly travels and it may be another year before I can bite into it again. I savor every bite, even though I’m eating it in a flurry.
My flight is at 6:40PM and I know that I have to get on the monorail no later than 4:15PM if I’m going to make it on-time. The monorail arrives at NU Central at 4:23PM. Again, I’m walking like a marathoner, making swift moves through the crowds, taking the stairs when possible. I swipe my transit card and walk through the turnstile for the KL Express train, but these people won’t get out of the way!
Halfway down the escalator, I notice that everyone that exits the escalator is making a mad dash for the train. So I, and the guy behind me, squeeze by the seemingly clueless travelers with several suitcases of luggage in tow blocking half of the escalator. I usually don’t like to run in public areas (I mean, I am a black man for goodness sakes), but today it didn’t matter. I had to make that first train.
Five seconds after entering the train, the doors close. I made it, just in time. Had I not, I would have waited another fifteen precious minutes. Arriving back to the airport at 5:05PM, I’m starting to relax again. I should have enough time to get my boarding pass, go through the Document Check line, Immigration, Customs, and security to reach my flight. But first, the self-service check-in machine tells me it can’t find my flight information. Next, the Service Center (which the machine told me to go to) says they can’t help and I need to stand in the Document Check line.
Minutes later, I’m walking into the Immigration Hall with my boarding pass in-hand and lo and behold, the queue is once again ridiculously long. It’s 5:23 PM when I enter and I have fifty-seven minutes to be at my gate before the flight closes. There are at least several hundred people in this line. I resist calculating time because these lines never move in an understandable way.
Surprisingly, I’m through in twenty minutes flat and now speedily heading through the customs screening and then the long 1-2 mile walk to my gate. I have just enough time to reach the gate, catch my breath, and lower my blood pressure after dealing with inconsiderate travelers cutting in the security line. But I’m in Asia and it’s typical. I always find it strange how people can be so nice and polite in their general culture but put them in any type of transportation situation and those customs fly out the window.
Seven hours and five minutes after my original touchdown, I’m back in the skies again. The sun is setting on the left side of the plane as we depart and the song “Run” is playing in my ears. It’s a fitting song to end the day. The entire day I was running and now I’m waiting to enjoy a nice cup of coffee with the white chocolate chip cookies I purchased before boarding. The day, even with its minor hiccups, went as well as could have been expected. The night, on the other hand, was a different story.
I could end this story with my coffee and cookies, but it would be best to end it a few hours later. Upon my return to Saigon, I decide to take a taxi home. I want to practice my Vietnamese, anyway.
I walk into my apartment, saying nothing. I’m tired, sweaty, sticky, and highly annoyed. I just spent the last thirty minutes walking home after a bad taxi experience. I tend to like to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I seriously think the taxi driver wasn’t the nicest of gentlemen. The route home is pretty much a straight shot. Though he responded to each of my Vietnamese phrases with an angry, annoyed tone, he clearly confirmed where he was taking me.
Yet, he diverted on the route and when pressed to turn a different way, he objected. So finally, I said, “Out!” (in English). My ability to calm down and find the words in Vietnamese while considerably angry was gone. I paid the fare and used the 1.6-mile (2.5 km) walk home along the river to try to relax. Yet, the traffic, the fumes, and the noise all hit me like a brick. I was back in my personal purgatory for another two weeks.
Well, at the very least, I had just had an awesome day, on an international jetset to do some much-needed shopping, and returned to a chilled glass of wine on the rooftop above Saigon. You could say that I moved similarly to the fictional Mr. Fogg; I was ‘so exact that [I] was never in a hurry, was always ready, and was economical alike of [my] steps and [my] motions.” And like Phileas, I was handsomely rewarded at the end of my adventure.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.