I knew it was going to happen at some point. Infact, I’d been preparing for it to happen. It was well overdue. I was surprised it hadn’t happened weeks ago.
No, its not meeting someone from Grimsby…although that did happen – sort of – more later!
Nope, this was something else, and boy, did I know about it.
I got sick. Over Christmas. Thousands of miles away from home. Its not what I’d had in mind for the festive period in the sun!
Arriving into Kuala Lumpur, I checked into a fantastic new hostel called the Reggae Mansion. I’d arrived early, pulling into KL’s Central Station at 6am. I’d not eaten since the day before, but at that time of the morning breakfast options were limited to Mcdonalds, so I went for a Mcmuffin meal. It was my first Mcdonald’s for weeks.
The dorm was beautifully air conditioned and completely different to anything I’d stayed in before – each bed was in its own little compartment, complete with light, power supply, cabinet and mirror. It was like a mini bedroom, with a curtain that pulls across at the foot of the bed.
I climbed in to my little bit of Kuala Lumpur for a few days and caught up on sleep that I’d missed by being sat upright all night on the overnight train. It was mid afternoon before I woke, and I felt groggy. I put it down to irregular sleeping. I went out to explore the surrounding area, buying myself a new plug adapter and taking in the Little India area I was staying in.
That night I ate pizza in the hostel bar, having a bit of a Western day away from noodles and rice. And that might just have been my downfall. Overnight, someone implanted a washing machine in exactly the same place my tummy once was.
The next morning, having had very little sleep overnight, I felt terrible. I put it down to food poisoning, with a good dose of fevering and everything else that comes along with it!
The next two days were a write off – completely bed ridden, unable to wake up, no energy. Thankfully I had wifi, so could keep myself amused by looking at everyone’s Facebook updates back home stating how they were all excited to be finishing work, going home for Christmas, travelling to see families. What a tonic to make me feel better!
I must admit, it was a little depressing, and again it hit me how far away and isolated I could be. People in the dorm must have thought I was some kind of hermit, shut away in my bed and tapping away on my laptop instead of seeing the sights and enjoying Christmas. The knock-on effect was that very few made any effort to talk to me. Not that I was in the mood for conversation anyway – and nor could I stick around too long before having to, shall we say, dash off somewhere…
Thankfully, by Christmas Eve, the stomach cramps and fevers had become much better. There was a countdown party organised on the rooftop bar, in the shadow of the famous Petronas Towers and KL tower. It was a fantastic setting, complete with a Christmas tree and decorations. I felt anything but Christmassy, not only due to my illness but also because life in Kuala Lumpur was just continuing as normal. Being a majority Muslim country, there were very few signs of the extravagance and spending that you see in the West when it comes to the festive period.
It was time to try to meet people. I went to the bar and got speaking to a German guy called Martin. We spoke about football – always a good starter – and then a bit about how we both found ourselves in KL for Christmas. He was visiting Thailand for a wedding and had just flown into KL from home with his friend Philipp. He invited me to sit with them, and we immediately hit it off with lots of banter about England and Germany football results over the years, World Cup goals that should have stood, the usual light-hearted fodder when it comes to our national rivalry.
After a while we moved over to the main seating area, sitting with two girls who also looked to be on their own. They were Danielle and her younger sister Alannah, from Canada. It turns out Danielle is working as a teacher in South Korea, and her sister had flown over to spend Christmas with her. After some time in Korea – at a time when it all kicked off over Kim Jung Il’s death – they’d travelled to Malaysia for some time in the sun.
I risked a beer, knowing I’d probably pay a price, but it was almost Christmas and everyone else was making the most of it. So much so, that the party was in full swing. The Petronas Towers shimmered in their silvery bright light, the KL tower, complete with its revolving restaurant, was full of diners enjoying a Christmas meal. They were looking down on a rooftop full of backpackers who were waiting to count down the minutes until the big day.
Everyone had been given a party bag full of noisy hand clappers, those blowy whistles that you get at kids parties, face masks and a few had some spray snow – and over the impressive sound system (you wouldn’t want to live within at least a mile of the place!) the countdown began, just as you have at New Year.
Three, two, one…Merrrrrryy Christmaaaaas!
Everyone went crackers, shaking hands, giving kisses, running around with balloons. It was great – with a few classic Christmas songs, finally, I felt a little Christmassy for the first time this year. It was mixed with emotion too – it’s the first time I’ve ever spent Christmas away from home, and I knew that back home the usual meet-up in the local pub would be taking place, catching up with friends I haven’t seen for a long time, and then heading to see mum and dad for a few glasses of port and nibbles.
On Facebook, thousands of miles away, I could sense the excitement building back home with people counting down the hours. I let everyone know that Father Christmas had just flown over the twin towers and was on his way west – prompting a funny reply from one friend who’s son had told her I wouldn’t get any presents because I’d actually seen Santa Claus. It made me smile, and the party continued.
Father Christmas dropped by on his way and offered us all a free drink if we gave him a kiss. There was a huge line of people waiting to take him up on his kind offer, which naturally I joined. It was good of him to get a round in, but I worried we were holding him up on his busy night!
The party went on until the small hours, with more balloons and dancing on tables providing much hilarity. I went to bed at a decent time though – I still wasn’t feeling too well, but I had agreed to finally see the sights on Christmas Day with Danielle and Alanna, as both the German guys were leaving to catch their flights.
Rested, and just about feeling well enough for some sightseeing, I met the girls in reception and we headed out to find the sightseeing bus that does a loop of the city. It was Christmas Day, but you wouldn’t know it. Outside, the city was a fully functioning city – people were heading to work, there were queues for the underground railway, McDonalds and Burger King were doing brisk trade and there was not one ‘Merry Christmas’ uttered by anyone. The only tell-tale sign was the odd Santa hat sat on a tourist’s sweltering head here and there, and a Christmas tree every now and again outside only the largest of department stores. It was a completely different experience to anything back home.
Thankfully, the sightseeing bus was air conditioned – it really is such a humid city, and the sun was hot when it broke through the clouds. Our first stop was China Town and Petaling Street, full of street hawkers, street food, noise, hustle and bustle. We walked through to one of the city’s most important Hindu temples before catching the bus again.
It was around lunchtime when we decided to visit the Batu Caves, which I had seen advertised on day trip posters, but Danielle and Alanna told me it was very easy to reach. I had been tempted to visit but presumed it was quite far away. Infact, a train goes directly there in about 20 minutes, so we headed to Central Station, bought a ticket and the train was waiting at the platform.
By now the sun had come out and it was scorching. We were confronted with around 200 steps to get into the cave. I was making my way up them when suddenly there was a commotion ahead of me, and a rustling of bags. I thought someone was having their bag snatched, and it turned out they were – by a monkey.
I’d been too busy concentrating on my footing and trying not to keel over with yet another passing fever to realise there were dozens of wild monkeys lining the sides of the steps, eyeing up tourists and working out who would be their next victim. One of them looked at me and jumped off the wall, walked over to the man in front of me and reached for his bag. I put my small daybag on both shoulder, which the monkey spotted. He then turned his attention to me, and more importantly, to my camera that was half inside its case.
He came right up to me, made a grab for it and then hissed at me when I quickly pulled it away. Now, I really like monkeys, but something told me this one wasn’t quite the king of the swingers but more the king of the stealers. He was really aggressive and was determined to get something. He snatched at a carrier bag, and then someone behind me made an even louder hissing noise and shooed him away, much to the relief of everyone around me.
As I’ve said before, I don’t have too much luck when it comes to cameras, but having to tell the insurance company my Panasonic Lumix had been stolen by a monkey would have been plumbing new depths even for me.
Others on the hike up weren’t so lucky though – apparently, they presume anyone with bag will have some sort of food tucked in it. Rather than being picky, they just make a grab for any bag they can find, scattering valuable contents throughout the trees and cliffs. I do wonder whether the vendors selling crisps, snacks and even milk at the bottom of the steps work in cahoots with the vendors selling exactly the same at the top – their pink carrier bags were prime targets for the primates. One grabbed a bag of crisps to feed to its baby. It was fascinating to watch, mainly because once you’d twigged, it was just a waiting game to see which unfortunate tourist would be picked on next!
The caves were, well, caves really. There were a couple of temples inside, and the dampness and shade was welcome relief from the Kuala Lumpur heat. Another cave nearby offers the chance to see bats and rare spiders – and that’s when I realised I’d seen these caves on a BBC Planet Earth programme – before we decided to watch the monkeys in action for a bit longer.
One woman, possibly American, was bashing a plastic bottle on the floor, trying to attract the attention of a monkey close to where she was sitting. A few seconds later, there was a scream – while she was ok, the expensive-looking camera wasn’t, and one of the monkey’s mates had disappeared through the trees with it. Its owner decided it would be a good idea to step over the fence and wade through the trees after it – close to a few baby monkeys. Cue an onslaught of monkey paws and screeching as he was slapped and scratched back to where he had come from. Served them both right!
On the way back I was talking to Danielle and Alanna about life at home in Toronto when I was mentioning about how I’d visited many years ago. That’s when I discovered a brilliant – and coincidental – fact.
Danielle was born in – wait for it – Grimsby! The only other place in the world called Grimsby is in Ontario, Canada, about an hour or so away from Toronto. I was making small talk about how I’d visited and had a photo taken with the sign when Danielle stopped me in amazement. She never normally tells anyone she’s from Grimsby (insert your own Grimsby joke here!) as its such a small town that people in Canada don’t usually know where it is, let alone someone from the other side of the Atlantic.
We were amazed at the coincidence. Both of our passports have the same birth town listed, albeit with a few thousand miles in between. It had taken two months, but I’d found one – I was travelling with another fish out of Grimsby!
We headed to the Petronas Towers for photos with the famous buildings, and I donned a t-shirt that my two Spanish friends Santi and Galli, from the trans-Siberian railway journey, had given me. I tagged it on Facebook complete with a Christmas message in Spanish for them, knowing it would make them smile.
That night I felt ready for something to eat. I’d not had anything proper for three days, and what better to start again with than a turkey dinner at the rooftop bar.
I had turkey, beef and lamb, along with an attempt at a Yorkshire pudding and a few vegetables. It was hardly one of Mum’s dinners, but it had to do. It was certainly a different backdrop to my parents’ living room. I met up with Danielle and Alannah for dinner, and we spent much of the time talking about how we spend our respective Christmas days and thinking of our families back home, who were by now waking up for the start of the big day.
Speaking of which, it was time to Skype them. The eight hour time difference meant it was getting on towards lunchtime back home, and I knew my package of gifts from Thailand had arrived a couple of days previous. We’d agreed to have a video call where they would open them on camera, and it was brilliant fun for an hour.
While I couldn’t be there in person, it was the next best thing, and it was great to see their faces as they delved into the large Thailand Post box and pulled out the newspaper wrapped presents I had packed inside less than two weeks ago.
Somehow the hand-carved flower shaped soaps for mum had just about made it home in one piece, my brother put on his Angry Birds t-shirt, even though it was slightly small, and dad laughed about the daft elephant slippers I’d bought him from the Chiang Mai walking market. They read the individual notes I’d wrapped inside the presents, and hung the Buddha charms from the White Temple in Chiang Rai on their Christmas tree.
I might not have been there, but it was nice to know that items that I’d picked up and thought about my family back home had made it, and it was slightly strange to see them in everyone’s hands, on the other end of an internet phone call, thousands of miles away back home.
Later, or should I say early in the morning, I called them again. Dad had only been half joking when he said I should join them for Christmas dinner, so I Skyped again at 3am and while they tucked into turkey, stuffing, pigs in blankets and roast potatoes, I’d been maximised on the computer screen and became a virtual guest at the dinner table!
Technology played a part the following day too, thanks to Twitter. My friend Simon Clark, the sports reporter for Look North, had seen my tweet stating I was in Kuala Lumpur. He’s a huge fan of Malaysia and travels to the country a lot, and sent me an article about a top English pub called Sids Pub, which is highly commended.
It turns out he visits it quite a bit, and to my surprise, Geoff, the owner of the pub, tweeted me back inviting me for a visit. It was a bit out of the way, but with a few decent Premier League matches on that night, I decided I’d spend Boxing Day evening there. The best thing was, on the menu were pigs in blankets- a whole plate of them- and having gone this Christmas without them, it was a great dish to eat whilst watching Manchester United go on yet another goal rampage against Wigan.
I got talking to Frank, one of the owners and managers of the pub, who told me about some of the potential problems facing Malaysia – its such a multi-ethnic country, but the government’s ‘One Malaysia’ campaign is apparently dividing some sections of the community. We got talking about football, work back home, travels, and eventually about how I was getting back to Thailand. I’ve now worked out that Singapore has much cheaper flights back than Kuala Lumpur, and Frank told me it was remarkably easy to get there from KL. Infact, the buses that run between the two cities are almost like business class cabins on flights. Frank gave me a tip on the best company to use and I used the pub’s wifi to book a seat.
It rounded off a great relaxing day which helped my recovery. I’d had a wander to the KL Tower and admired the view from the top, including a look down onto the hostel where I was staying. It gave a great panorama of the city, but having been up a few tall buildings in the last few months, it was noticably closer to the ground for the price! I could still see people on the ground – a far cry from the dizzying heights of the Financial tower in Shanghai a few weeks back.I did my usual trick of going up to the top half an hour before sunset, making sure i’d get to see the city from the sky at night and during the daylight. Two birds, one stone and all that!
I’d also taken in the other sights around the city, including the many mosques and temples, interspersed with so many colonial style buildings. Its a real mix of cultures, and of the old and new. It makes for a fascinating walk.
Kuala Lumpur is a very compact city, its possible to walk from one side of the city centre to the other in about an hour if you keep the pace up. It was on one of these walks I ventured into a huge shopping centre (there’s quite a few in KL!) mainly for a blast of cold air conditioning and to get me out of the sticky tropical heat. That’s when I came across a great indoor rollercoaster, complete with loops and steep drops. I’d have been tempted to go in, but looking at the queue it was mainly kids with parents. I gave it a miss!
Kuala Lumpur was a great place to spend a few days, but admittedly I’d been there quite a bit longer than intended. I’ll never forget my nights looking up at the glittering Petronas Towers, nor will I forget eating a turkey Christmas dinner in the heat on the rooftop bar with a fellow fish from Grimsby.
I spent my last evening with the girls from Canada, wandering around Chinatown and Petaling Street, dodging people trying to sell us anything from dodgy watches to dodgy designer bags, and from dodgy Tiffany jewellery to dodgy Chelsea tops. It puts the frequent ‘fake goods’ crackdowns back home into perspective, but its good fun looking at just how bad some of the copies are. One thing that wasn’t dodgy was the excellent Chinese meal we had on the street, complete with a bucket of beer. It was a nice way to part ways, as the girls head up to the beaches of Langkawi and I head south to Singapore.
It was on a last minute trip to a 7-Eleven that I discovered perhaps the strangest name for a soft drink I’ve ever come across. I can imagine the marketing team coming up with the name, agreeing it was the right name for the brand, perhaps celebrating with a glass of the illuminous green fizzy drink itself. Its just a shame that they’ll never be able to market it in the West should it become the next Coca Cola.
Can you imagine the tv ads? ‘Tired and thirsty? Time to….’