18 April 2013 - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Feels like a very long time since I've done any travel on my own. Because I am not yet 50 years age, I am ineligible for a retirement visa; thus I am flying from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur for a day to renew my Thai visa. A nice guy on the plane told me about the KLIA Ekspress, a 33-minute, 35 Ringgit (about $10) train from the airport to the city center instead of the 80-100 Ringgit ($25) taxi the flight attendants suggested.
I enjoyed the flight over Phang Nga Bay, Koh Phi Phi, Langkawi & the many, many palm oil plantations of central Malaysia. We also flew right over KL, which was cool.
I need to concentrate this short vacation from the boat on getting out of this funk I've been in for a week. When things began going quickly downhill with the refit - the tent collapsing, Gig being unresponsive, the workers clearly not being as skilled as we hoped, I realized that we'd made a huge mistake coming to Thailand for this refit & that it was mostly my fault since I've been here & should've realized what a bad idea it was. But I was only a tourist when I visited Thailand in 1988, & wasn’t aware that the slight difficulties I encountered while backpacking (mostly language problems) would be exacerbated tenfold when we were trying to get work done.
When I arrived at KL Sentral station, I tried to walk to the hotel, asking for directions to the old railway station on the way, but was sent in the exact opposite direction. So, hot, sweaty & wanting to get to Batu Caves, I took a 10 Ringgit taxi to The 5 Elements Hotel, & was pleased with my choice. In the middle of Chinatown, it has a spacious, clean lobby, friendly, helpful staff, & a nice quiet, clean room on the 11th floor. I dumped my pack & carried only my wallet & camera in the fanny pack. I walked back to Sentral (now I knew the way) & in trying to figure out which line to take to Batu Caves (Sentral is a big hub of many transports), I asked a young girl who exclaimed, "I'm going there too!" She was with another girl, both from Vietnam, so together we figured out where to go & were all pleasantly surprised to learn that it's only 1 Ringgit for the 30-minute ride to the end of the line. That's a bargain at 33 cents.
Hang talked non-stop on the ride while Ang slept. We stayed together while exploring Batu Caves. I offered to buy them ice cream but instead Hang bought me a fresh coconut. We took pics in front of the giant golden statue at the entrance to the big cave. The statue of a Hindu God is probably 50' tall. Really something. The steps to the cave entrance were very steep & there was much discussion about whether men would be able to see up their short dresses, but finally they proceeded. They were dressed like typical young Asian girls in little-girl sundresses & completely impractical flats. Hang had a big handbag, but carried her iPad separately for some reason. Ang had only a plastic bag which was an immediate attraction for the monkeys, which were everywhere & were quite aggressive. There were signs warning people to not carry food in that area, & although Ang didn't have food, she had a bottle of water & a nondescript box in the bag. These were visible to the monkeys, one of which attacked the bag before we had gone 10 steps. Ang shrieked & tugged at the bag, which ripped in the monkey's grasp. Other tourists stopped to watch. Ang flailed helplessly, so I took the initiative to swat the monkey away, at first using my hand, but when the monkey bared his teeth at me, I used the sole of my shoe instead. He soon gave up & Hang hastily stuffed the attractants into her big handbag, so there were no further incidents. Ang was too shaken to thank me for saving her from the evil monkey.
They walked very slowly up the steps. I wanted to move a little faster, as I was feeling energized & wanted to see the whole area before it got too late, but I politely kept moving with them at their snail pace. Hang took millions of photos with her phone while Ang took none. Curious, since Ang had her own phone….
The big cave was huge, with full-sized temple buildings in the middle & small shrines in the nooks & corners. There were nice stalactites with lights highlighting them, but there was also natural light from the holes in the ceiling of the cavern. There was a small procession at one of the temples with drum & trumpet music which resonated throughout the cave. It all felt very exotic & strange with the temples in such an odd setting - very surreal.
I wanted to spend more time exploring the temples as the crowds began to clear out, but Hang & Ang were not into it, so they went on back to the city without me. I was very much enjoying how peaceful it was in the area once the tourists began to leave, but I had big plans for dinner, so after about an hour I got moving.
I was surprised how many people were now at Sentral Station - rush hour. I transferred to the city monorail, which was just like a ride at Disneyland. Big windows with passing views of temples, fancy shops, outdoor food stalls, & even a nice view of the needle & the Petronus Towers. I got off at Bukit Bintang, the area where I had found so many hotels online, but I chose not to stay there cuz I thought it'd be too touristy. And it was, a bit, but there was a big night market being set up all along Jalan Alor, which nearly tempted me from my intended destination, especially since it proved difficult to find. I had seen a review in the Malaysia Airlines onboard magazine about a restaurant where they serve the meal entirely in the dark & I was intrigued, but the review only gave the street name, not the entire address. Amazingly, I was right across the street from it when I asked at the Radius International Hotel. It was such a new place that they didn’t know of it, but the article had provided a phone number, so they kindly called for me. It turns out the name of the restaurant is actually ‘Dining In the Dark’, which I thought was the heading of the review, not the restaurant name!
I was welcomed by a young guy named Jack who spoke nearly perfect English. He explained the process of eating at this unusual restaurant & offered me a sangria. The dinner was gonna be more expensive than I wanted to pay (~ $35), but I really wanted to do it, so I indulged myself. I was given a game to play while I waited for my table: trying to find paper clips in a box of rice & beans while blindfolded. Very difficult! Jack explained that they do this because some people freak out in the dark. I was taken to my table by Derris, a young blind man from Borneo. I was told that all the servers in the restaurant are blind. I held onto his shoulders as he led me through a maze of curtains into a perfectly pitch black room. Once I was seated, he instructed me to explore the table to find my utensils, drink coaster, & napkin.
First course was an appetizer of three different things. It was a fixed menu & I didn’t know what I would be served; however, I had been told it was an Italian theme, so the mozzarella & tomato with basil was easy to identify, but the other two dishes were a mystery. After a brief attempt to eat with my fork, I gave up & used my hands for nearly the whole meal. Much simpler. Between courses, Derris came to talk to me. I realized that it's rare that people come alone to dine in the dark. A server named Nicole asked me point blank why I had come alone - she was the most interesting person to talk to. I told her it made sense to come alone to eat in the dark, since I would not be uncomfortable being alone & I wouldn't be influenced by anyone in determining what food I was eating. I asked her lots of questions about being blind & she answered frankly.
The servers all asked me to guess what I was eating, but I had a hard time with that. For some reason, nearly everything tasted like leeks, which I rarely eat, so that was an odd flavor choice…. The soup (which was mushroom) tasted like leek, & I was sure the puree on the chicken (which took me several bites to identify) was also leek. The bow-tie pasta was easy to identify, but the vegetable was a complete mystery - it turned out to be spinach. It was disconcerting to discover my poor ability to discern tastes!
It was also very difficult to imagine the colors of the foods — it was all delicious; however, everything tasted brown to me. Afterward, when I was shown the menu, I realized how colorful food usually is. I described my feelings of inadequacy in eating with the utensils to Nicole, & she admitted that she eats a lot of air. The strangest sensation, however, was my inability to focus when I closed my eyes. It seemed to dull my other senses. There was no reason to have my eyes open, yet, if I closed them, I found I could not smell, hear, or feel as well as with them open. It was really odd. Also, there were two small circles of red light at the exit (for safety reasons), which I had difficulty averting my eyes from fixating upon. Most annoying!
One of the nicest surprises was the sudden infusion of live piano music in the room. Nicole, the server I’d spoken to quite a bit, played several pieces — a nice touch.
I came away with only a little food in my hair from a tray that went by a bit too close. I only hope it was on the way back to the kitchen! I was told that I was an especially challenging patron both because I was alone & because I chose to eat with my hands. The servers depend on sound to navigate the dining room, & I simply wasn’t making enough noise.
Overall, it was an incredibly worthwhile experience. It gave me a huge appreciation for blind people & their accomplishments. I’ll definitely recommend it to others.