After George Town, we had originally planned on going to the Cameron Highlands (which would have made sense geographically). However, due to the combination of Chinese New Year (which goes for like two weeks) and the fact that we were going to be there on a weekend and Cameron Highlands is a popular holiday spot, there was absolutely ZERO affordable accommodation by the time we got around to booking. Which was 2 days before. Go figure. Instead, we decided to head down to Kuala Lumpur (KL) for a couple of days, and then back track to Cameron Highlands.
Kuala Lumpur is a big city, but it also felt like a young city. It didn’t have the historical feeling that George Town had for us. It was also tainted by the “Great Ringgit Crisis of 2016”, but we’ll get more into that in a bit. Overall, Kuala Lumpur was fine. Would we want to go back? Meh, there are a lot of other places to go, but it was interesting to see.
High Level. Bus delayed 2 hours (not unusual so far in our travels). 5 hour drive to Kuala Lumpur. Dropped off at unexpected bus station (also not unusual so far in our travels.. bus drivers just do what they want). Uber to the rescue!
- Ferry to Butterworth. We had read that it is easier to get a bus to Kuala Lumpur from Butterworth than from George Town. More options in Butterworth, supposedly. So we took the ferry to Butterworth (free) and walked down to the bus terminal to purchase our ticket.
- Bus from Butterworth to KL. Prices recently increased. They are now 40 RM (or $10) per person. Or at least that’s what we paid.
- Taxi from somewhere to our hostel. Everything I had read (and I believe our ticket) indicated we would be getting dropped off in KL Sentral. But that didn’t happen. We were dropped off in a random stop 8 KM outside of downtown KL. There were quite a few Malaysians on the bus who didn’t appear to be too happy about this change of plans. Since they were unhappy I was, paradoxically, happier (at least it wasn’t just a ‘screw the tourist over’ thing). We could have hired a taxi at this bus stop, but my phone said there was an Uber a few minutes away and with an Uber I knew we wouldn’t have to bargain and that we weren’t getting screwed over. Cost = 8 RM ($2 USD).
The Explorers Guesthouse. This was one of the best parts of our experience in Kuala Lumpur. We had a four bedroom dorm which resulted in us sharing a four bunk room with another couple. They were a Swedish couple that we had seen twice before in our travels (we shared a minibus with them from Koh Lanta to Pak Bara, and we saw them in George Town). It turned out being fun to bunk with them for a few nights! The guesthouse also had a really great common area (we’ve realized this is a huge necessity in our travels). It was large and had plenty of seating (both comfy chairs and tables). There was also good WiFi, free “breakfast” (which in Malaysia means toast), and “coffee” (meaning instant coffee with milk and sugar premixed in.. it’s pretty delicious though) and tea available free all day.
I don’t believe we had anything new or anything particularly amazing in Kuala Lumpur. I think George Town has ruined us. However, on the last night, I saw someone wearing a “Dining in the Dark” sticker. Our friend Krystal told us about this before we left. Apparently, this is a new restaurant trend in which you eat your whole meal in the dark. You are led by blind waiters and waitresses. It seems like such an interesting experience. Our friend was explaining to us how difficult it is discerning flavors when you can’t see what you are eating.. she said sometimes she was way off on what she thought she was eating. Anyway, with any trendy dining experience, it comes at a bit of a price premium. The moral of this tangent is I wish we would have known about this earlier.. we could have had the experience at a lower price since we were in Malaysia!
Figure out how to get Ringgit. So far, the biggest suck of our trip. It went a little something like this.
- Check in to hotel in George Town. Explain that we haven’t stopped for cash yet, but we will go find some, and come back to pay.
- Find ATM. Use ATM. Rejected. That’s strange.
- Use second ATM. Rejected. Hmm…these ATMs all have the “Chip and Pin” emblem on them. Maybe they don’t like our non-“Chip and Pin” card. (Side note – WHY DO WE NOT HAVE A CHIP AND PIN CARD YET…sorry, was I yelling?).
- Find ATM without the “Chip and Pin” emblem. No dice.
- At this point we are HANGRY (after several hours of traveling), so we stop to eat at a crappy sushi restaurant in a mall based solely on the fact that they accepted credit cards.
- Start looking for a money changer…at 9pm on Chinese New Year’s Eve….that won’t swindle us on the exchange rate when he/she smells our desperation.
- Find one money changer. He’s the swindling type. Oh well, we need the cash.
- Pay hotel. Get more food because crappy sushi didn’t cut it.
- Call TCF Bank and tell them our issue. Tell them we put a travel alert on the account, and we had no problems in Thailand. After a lot of back and forth, they tell us there is a hold on the account. They have removed the hold and the card should now work. Okay, annoying, but glad to hear it’s fixed.
- The next morning (after TCF Bank is closed thanks to the 14 hour time difference) we try the ATM. Big ole’ fat NOPE.
- Wait 12 hours for TCF Bank to open back up. Call them back. This time, they tell us that we need to call Visa because Visa has blocked the transaction from coming through to them so there is nothing they can do. Wonderful to hear.
- We call Visa. They tell us the issue is with our bank, and that we need to have them fix it.
- Running low on cash again. It is a Monday. Banks don’t open again until Wednesday in Malaysia (Chinese New Year FTW). We have 0 ringgit. Fortunately, we find the one open money exchanger in George Town. And they give us a good rate! Rejoice!
- Two days later. Now we are in Kuala Lumpur and, once again, low on cash. Also, our bus was late, so the banks are closed.
- Find a money changer. He offers a ridiculously low rate. Like, “I don’t want there to be any doubt about it that I am completely and utterly screwing you over with the rate I’m going to give you right now” low. Sam gets snarky. I keep the peace. We reject the offer and move on.
- Walk around for a long time. Debate taking horrible exchange rate. Finally, after wandering around inside a mall that is mostly closed up, find a different money exchanger with only a slightly swindling rate. Take rate, get cash.
- We run out of minutes on our cell phone. Because we didn’t plan on making a whole lots of calls since we know NO ONE in Malaysia with a cell phone. We go out and buy more minutes.
- In the meantime, I apply for another checking account that has no foreign transaction fees (through Charles Schwab). We plan on having it expedited to us in Singapore (about 10 days out).
- Because we’re not getting anywhere with TCF Bank, we go try some other options we read about online the next morning. We go to a bank and speak to a teller. We tell them the situation, and ask if they can help us get money out on our card, not using the ATM. Nope. They tell us to try an American bank.
- Wake up early the next morning to be at CitiBank when it opens. Their ATMs are old fashioned swipe ATMs! This could work! But it doesn’t work because TCF Bank hates happiness.
- We try asking their teller if she can help us.
- Us – “Our card isn’t working, could you help us get cash?”
- Teller – “Sorry, there is nothing I can do.”
- Us – “Could you call the Visa contact or something…anything? We have the money! Please?!”
- Teller – “Sorry, there is nothing I can do.”
- Next, we try opening an account through CitiBank. Nope, you can only do that if you have a working Visa or are a student. Again and again we heard from people that this is an issue you need to work out with your bank.
- AWESOME. And now, it’s mid-morning in Malaysia again, so we have to wait 10 hours for TCF Bank to open…again.
- Then we find out we can’t open a Schwab checking account from an international computer address. They have flagged the request and would require us to go in person to a branch for identification verification. So Schwab is a no-go.
- We call TCF Bank back and tell them we have tried EVERYTHING and all we have heard is our bank is the problem. After a few minutes of back and forth, we hear “I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do.” Okay.. so how do you propose we get money? Can you perform a wire transfer to us? “That is against TCF Bank policy.” Wonderful, so we are in a foreign country, with an economy based almost solely on cash, and we have no access to cash. What do you propose we do? “I would suggest you have your parents wire you some money.” Are. You. Kidding. Me.
- First, we try to wire money to ourselves. But that doesn’t work. Probably due to our IP address, but also if it did work, that might have freaked me out.
- Sam works with Mama Johnmeyer to wire money to us in the short term through MoneyGram.
- We have now converted some of our emergency US dollars twice, but we don’t have nearly enough for the whole trip (plus we are visiting a few countries that use primarily US dollars, so we want to save some for those countries). I realize that we have another checking account already opened with Capital One. I requested a debit card be expedited to our guesthouse in Singapore (we had to plan ahead about 10 days the where/when of Singapore, which was a pain in itself, since we literally plan nothing ahead, you know, kind of the point of travelling for so long so you can stay longer in a place you really love if you want to). We top up our cell phone minutes again so I can call Capital One and give them the address and permission to send a new card.
- Mama Johnmeyer has her own issues transferring the money, but we’ll just continue to focus on how miserable we were (because we are millennials dammit). She gets it sent. We head to a Maybank to receive the transfer. The transfer doesn’t have Sam’s middle name on it, so MayBank won’t give us the money. We call Mama Johnmeyer from the bank (more international minutes). She calls MoneyGram (who did have Sam’s middle name on the transfer, but because the formats and systems are different in different countries, it wasn’t coming through). MoneyGram tweaks some things, and tells her (who tells us) that it should now work. We tell Maybank that it should now work. We wait for two hours (TWO HOURS) while they try to figure out things. Finally (after TWO HOURS) they tell us that the line isn’t working, and they can’t give us the money. They tell us we should try CIMB Bank (oh, I forgot this part, we did try them, but you need an account to receive a MoneyGram there). We tell them this. They say we need to try somewhere else because the Maybank MoneyGram line is down and there is nothing they can do. (All we heard everywhere: “So sorry, nothing we can do.” Is the standard response every banking institution teaches their employees? Like Banking 101 or something?). I ask if it had happened before, and they said that it had, about two weeks ago. I ask how long it took to be fixed, and they said they didn’t know, since the person left. So, my guess, is that it was never fixed. And they let us waiting for hours before telling us anything.
- We go to a random little shop on the street that has a MoneyGram sign outside (you know, instead of the reputed bank down the street) and BAM. 10 minutes later we have CASH.
- I write a scathing comment about TCF Bank on my Facebook. Within a few hours, I receive a reply from TCF Bank saying that they can fix the problem and to please personal message them on Facebook. The problem seemed to be fixed almost immediately once their marketing department got involved, and the representative also was willing to work with us during off hours if we have any future problems. We used our TCF Bank card when we got to Singapore and no problems. We received our second debit card in Singapore, so we now have two debit cards going forward.
So, kids, morals of the story are:
- Bring emergency cash. More than you think you need. Without this we would have been in dire straights.
- Always travel with two debit cards (and do research about the cards with the lowest fees.. Schwab definitely looks like the winner here, but we couldn’t make that work out).
- If worse comes to worse, cry on social media to get the company’s marketing involved. They seem to be the ones who actually care about the customers (rather than the customer service reps).
The Ringgit Crisis took up most of our time in KL, but we were able to explore areas around the city a little bit.
- Bukit Bintang. Essentially an area with a bunch of malls, high end shops, restaurants, etc. I think maybe it would be a draw if you liked shopping, had cash to spend (or just had cash), or hadn’t seen a major city with all these shops before? I’m not sure. We walked through it, but didn’t have a desire to look around too much.
- Jalan Alor. I guess this is the “eat street” of Kuala Lumpur. Some of the Chinese stands were still closed down due to the New Year. Coming from Penang, it seemed overly touristy and expensive. We tried one restaurant, but it wasn’t that delicious for the premium price. We got out of here pretty quickly too.
- Little India. Another strike out for us. We wandered through this area, but didn’t find any really cool streets or areas that we loved. We ate at a vegetarian Indian restaurant (I was super excited to see it), but the execution just wasn’t there for us. We left a bit disappointed.
- Central Market. I fear that I sound really negative, but we also didn’t love Central Market. I actually had to look it up while writing this, because I couldn’t remember what it was. That was the impression that it made.. two weeks later, and I forgot what it was. It is basically another shopping area (but supposed to be more legit and Malaysian craft I think?), but it felt like all the stores were selling the same junk at a premium price. I could have bought some of the things in Bangkok for half the price. I personally didn’t see a whole lot of “crafts”. We got out of there pretty quick too.
- City Gallery (and surrounding park area). I would say this is maybe the coolest thing we did. City Gallery is a small little museum. There is an exhibit with Kuala Lumpur’s history, a special exhibit that changes (the one we saw was on Chinese New Year), and then an exhibit upstairs that was a full miniature city landscape of Kuala Lumpur (it was on a huge table that took up the whole room). Then, there was a video that went along with it, describing the city and its history, and lighting up portions of the miniature city as it went. There was also a huge green space near City Gallery that people were just hanging out in. I liked it.
- Petronas Towers. This was also cool, but our bar was pretty low by this point. The Petronas Towers were the only thing I knew about Kuala Lumpur before we got there. It turns out they are the largest twin tours in the world. I think. I don’t know, but they are big and look pretty at night. There is also a large park near by with some walking trails and a filtered drinking fountain. Free water! Score! Lastly, they do a lighted water show at night à la the Belagio in Vegas.
One run. I thought it was miserable. We ran to a park in the city, which was practically impossible. We had to cross a million busy roads. When we finally got to the park, we couldn’t figure how to get in, so we tried to run around it. Once we finally got in, all the paths we tried to take ended in dead end of some sort. I thought it was miserable. Boo Kuala Lumpur. You have won the title of the “worst run thus far on our trip”.
Common room at hostel (including free coffee and tea all day!). It’s so nice to take a break throughout the day in a big common area with a free coffee or tea. You don’t feel like as much of a recluse when you spend two hours in a common area compared to two hours in your room by yourself.
Uber in Malaysia. We had a young girl pick us up from the random bus stop we were dropped off at and bring us to our guesthouse. She was so sweet. I love Uber.
Don’t eat the peppers. Sometimes food has big peppers in them. I would advise not eating them unless you want your mouth to burn for 30 minutes (and let’s leave out what happens when it exits the body). Not that I know this from experience.
TCF Bank (sort of) and Maybank. TCF Bank has fixed our issue, but in my opinion, it was still completely ridiculous how long it took and the efforts we had to go to to get it fixed. Whatever, they’re fine. Maybank, you suck.
The town that Sam couldn’t navigate. Sam is very good with directions. You can bring him somewhere once, and he will forever remember how to get back there. Except in Kuala Lumpur. I’ve never seen him consult the GPS on his phone so much.
Video and Pictures
We had very little footage for KL. As such, Sam decided to forego the typical summary video and focus solely on one event.
Some background on the video. As I mentioned above, there is a water fountain at the base of the Petronas Towers which has a choreographed fountain show set to music every 15 or 20 minutes during the night. A Belagio-lite if you will. We sat down to watch one of these shows, and Sam started filming it. Shortly after it began, we noticed a lady getting closer and closer to the water and acting strangely. At first we just ignored her (“Just another strange person! Ignore.”) but eventually we realized she was posing for pictures and her husband/boyfriend was back back in the audience snapping off pictures.
- At first we were annoyed – “Really? You are getting in everybody else’s way so you can have a bunch of pictures you won’t look at?”
- Then we were amused – “Man, she is REALLY getting into this. Nice pose!”
- Then we thought it was hilarious. I don’t want to ruin it, but let’s just say karma had its say.