One thing we really love about living in Laos is the ease of flying places. Vientiane’s modest little airport, Wattay International, currently has one domestic gate and one international gate (though this will likely change when a new addition is complete).
On a busy day like to today, we waited ten minutes in line to check in (no self or online check-in here—a real-life person takes your passports and baggage and issues you a boarding pass, leaving you the option of asking for a window or aisle seat, or an extra seat for baby if there’s one available (on Lao Airlines flights, there’s always a row available). We’re flying AirAsia this trip so seats were pre-assigned, but we ended up with a whole three seats to ourselves two flights in a row (all the way to Borneo!).
After check-in, it’s a five minute walk upstairs to immigration, where it’s another 5-10 minutes wait to be stamped out of the country. Then, it’s a quick no-wait stroll through security (shoes stay on, laptops and liquids stay in your bag). Bag goes through x-ray machine and you go through metal detector. The single, solitary gate and waiting area is about five steps from the metal detector. 25 minutes MAX for an international flight from curb to gate. Old school, and easy peasy.
We’ve got a total of six flights booked for this trip—four ~2-hour flights (Vientiane-Kuala Lumpur round trip and Kuala Lumpur-Borneo round trip) and two <1 hour internal flights on the island.
This first flight out of Vientiane was Noe’s 30th flight, but in many ways it felt like his first. Even though our last flights were fairly recent (in December/January to Luang Prabang) Noe has become exponentially aware of his surroundings since that time. He’s beginning to make connections and is freakishly observant about things. Every morning when he comes downstairs, if something is different, he’ll notice right away and get our attention. If I leave something laying around such as a sock, a tissue, or my phone, he’ll run over, pick it up, and bring it to me saying “Uh oh, daddy, uh oh.”
He sat on my lap this time for takeoff. In the past, he’s whiled away his takeoff and ascent time nursing on mommy or sucking on his wubanub (monkey pacifier thing).
But this time was different, and what happened next was totally unexpected.
We pushed away from the gate and taxied to the runway—no issues as usual. As we accelerated down the runway, however, Noe—happily sucking away on his wubanub—turned to look out the window and all of a sudden threw his coloring book and started freaking out. As the plane lifted off the ground and we ascended into the clouds he was even more terrified, screaming and jostling all over the place.
Within a minute or two he calmed and was happily playing with mommy, but it appears we’ve entered into a whole new phase of his development with the Mister. 29 flights and he couldn’t give a crap. But #30, whole other ball game.
About the time we leveled off, he was out, and remained that way for about an hour. Lately, he’s become our little narcolept on anything that moves, sways, or rattles.
All in all, it was a pleasant flight into Kuala Lumpur. AirAsia basically has it’s own airport—not terminal, but airport: KLIA2. You can see the main Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) off in the distance below. I guess the powers that be deemed it best that wealthy and business travelers not mingle with the rest of us, thus the construction of the world’s first 100% low-cost carrier airport. There isn’t even any way to transfer between the two airports short of taking an expensive 20-minute taxi via the main highway.
With that said, KLIA2 is quite nice with many amenities that most U.S. airports don’t even have: spas, kids play areas, transit hotels IN the terminal, and a full-on shopping mall.
It’s always a trip arriving in a new “world city.”
For me, there are few feelings that rival that first encounter—London, Shanghai, Istanbul, Athens, Hong Kong, Nairobi, Bangkok—in that moment, the world feels new all over again, full of endless possibilities and brand new experiences to be had. Food, music, history, people, living in their own unique and sprawling microcosm—a world unto themselves—that was previously unknown to us.
Even coming from Vientiane—the same distance away as Seattle is from Los Angeles—it feels as if we might as well be on the other side of the planet. Kuala Lumpur initially feels a bit like Bangkok, but similarities quickly fade as we begin to make our way around more of this amazing city.
For our two-night, 48-hour stopover, we’re staying at Anggun Boutique Hotel, which we would highly recommend! Lori found this place (among the two of us, she’s definitely the hotel guru/ninja with finding places).
If you’ve been reading AwayGoWe for a while, you may have noticed we have a certain je ne sais quoi that we aim for in urban accommodation. I realize that AirBNB works great for a lot of people, and we know several who swear by it. We’ve looked into AirBNB choices in nearly every major city we’ve visited over the past four years, but none of the listings have ever popped off the screen and given us that feeling. I think if we were to stay a week or two in one place, AirBNB would be a great tool for finding a suitable self-catering option at an affordable price.
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Maybe we’re becoming old fogies, maybe we’re set in our ways, but what speaks to us most in a lodging option is the intangible vibe that comes from the buzz of other like-minded guests from all over the world milling about the place. I think the biggest issue I’d have staying in an AirBNB is not having that particular dynamic.
We also like getting to know the reception staff, bartenders, and occasionally housekeepers—if even on a very fleeting, superficial level—who help round out the experience. And the really good ones are some of the best resources for things to see and do and places to eat, often with loads of interesting stories to tell, and remain an immensely intriguing cross-section of the culture they inhabit. I realize that many AirBNB’s come with a friendly host/ tour guide, much like couch surfing, and many of our friends and family insist that they get a deeper insight into a place because of it. But Lori and I also value our independence, and ability to explore freely on our own, unencumbered by someone else’s biases, suggestions, or prejudices if we choose. For decades now, this has become our M.O.—both independently, and as a traveling couple. It works for us, and we don’t see it changing any time soon. Why mess with a good thing, right?
So what are the qualities we look for in urban accommodation?
We very rarely stay at international hotel chains in major cities. In our minds they’re generally soulless, overpriced, over-sanitized, cookie-cutter creations, akin to strip malls—within their walls it’s too easy to forget you are in a foreign country. For some, I guess that’s the point, and can see how that might be attractive to business travelers. But we’re not here to close deals and jet back home. We’re here on our own steam to hopefully feel something new, experience something that we’ve never experienced before, and step out of our comfort zone a bit, and staying in international chains runs counter to those objectives.
We’re generally looking for something one-of-a-kind that can’t possibly be duplicated, that offers a sense of place. A place that says—”Hey! You’re in Kuala Lumpur!” or “Bangkok!” or “Cape Town!” In recent years we’ve gravitated towards budget to midrange boutique places that offer a touch of class and/or charm for an affordable price. There are plenty of these to be had out there, but they can take some added legwork to find. Many places we stay these days aren’t in Lonely Planet or on kayak.com.
And finally (and perhaps most importantly) it’s got to have a great location. Location, location, location. We want to step out of our guesthouse and be totally immersed—have our adoptive home for a few days be shoved down our throats like geese being fattened up for foie gras.
If you’re curious, these are some other places we’ve stayed in the past few years that meet much of our criteria in the heart of some of the world’s great destinations (…um…and Vientiane) and we would highly recommend each and every one (full disclosure, some below are affiliate links (*), so we do get a little commission if you book a stay through those—at no additional cost to you):
Anggun had a nice indoor courtyard area with chairs that was great for hanging out during Noe’s naps and early bedtimes. We’d order from the bar downstairs and they’d bring up our drinks and food.
Our room was well-appointed and spacious.
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And best of all, our guesthouse was centrally located—two blocks away from KL’s famous Jalan Alor night market and equidistant to Merdeka Square and the Petronas Towers.
Per the usual in Asia (with the obvious exception of Vientiane) it took us far longer than expected to make our way through immigration and out of the maze that is KLIA2 airport with our luggage. Then, it was another hour in a taxi before finally reaching our guesthouse. After checking in, we were all starving. Lori had a nearby place already marked on our map. Perfect.
We hightailed it there (in the midst of an afternoon deluge) only to find it was no longer functional. We retraced our steps back to a Mediterranean place we saw and grabbed a menu. Shawarmas? Perfect.
Living in Vientiane, we have a surprising level of access to foods from all over the world. But Mediterranean, sadly not so much. There’s one place in town that purports to be a Lebanese place, but the food just doesn’t taste that Lebanese. First meal in Malaysia and we’re eating shawarmas—some might call it sacrilege. But hey, we’ve got two weeks to stuff ourselves silly of laksa and satay. Right now, it’s shawarma time.
Noe’s first shawarma. Lori offered him a bite of hers and he refused to give it back. HE DEVOURED THE WHOLE THING by himself. So…I gave Lori half of mine and we ordered another, along with some Moroccan tea.
You might have also noticed from the pic above that Noe’s looking a little soppy. When some people we passed saw Noe, they said, “Oh, the poor baby! The umbrella did not cover him.” No, the umbrella totally covered him. Our little tropical falang, who’s lived in Southeast Asia since he was three months old, sweats bullets at the first whiff of heat and humidity. Totally not his fault, of course, but we are certainly made to feel like horrible parents whenever any locals see him sweat-drenched (which is much of the time out and about, even on days that just aren’t that hot). Too bad both his parents love living in the tropics and don’t have the same issue. Poor guy. Fortunately, he’s an excellent hydrator.
So, first impressions of KL—pretty amazing city.
This is definitely somewhere we could see ourselves living for a while. As of today, it’s gone straight to the top of my “Cities to Live in Asia” list. Lori’s organization doesn’t work in Malaysia (there’s no need for them—it’s a highly industrialized, pretty darn developed country), and Lori would like to stay with them for a while, so KL might have to wait.
But…what an amazing city! It’s got all the best of Bangkok without all the worst. It’s a seemingly perfect mix of old and new Southeast Asia. KL’s got beautiful glass high-rises interspersed with funky old alleyways. It’s a highly cosmopolitan and diverse city, but much more manageable than Bangkok. People seem friendly and easygoing, and the tourism industry seems to operate in the background (unlike Bangkok where it’s in your face all day and all night in the tourist quarters). You can walk the downtown core easily and traffic inside the city center doesn’t seem anywhere close to that of Bangkok. And, KL’s got a ton of green space.
In comparison to Vientiane? Ha! KL makes Vientiane look like some dusty 1970s western movie set, but with something of a surreal, psychedelic Asian twist to it. And that’s why we love Vientiane. Okay, maybe “love” is a strong word. But it’s home…for now.
Look at those roads. Look at those huge, lush, tropical shade trees! And those bike lanes. My God, the bike lines!
And the weirdest thing…not a motorbike in sight. Cars and bicycles. This can’t be Southeast Asia?
Okay, so we’ve found some motorbikes, parked nice and orderly in this motorbike parking section. These are seriously the only motorbikes we’ve seen. In a similar parking section of little ol’ Vientiane, they cram hundreds of motorbikes together, and never have enough room. In Ho Chi Minh City?…HA. Don’t even get me started.
So, while we were in KL, Lori was overcome so much by the experience of being in this beautiful predominately-Muslim country that she decided to convert!
Well, not quite. After an early dinner, we decided to take advantage of the one-hour time change (i.e. later sunset) to go explore the area around Merdeka square. The time change was a fun little experience. KL is almost exactly due south of Vientiane, yet a whole hour ahead, as is the rest of Malaysia (including Sabah in Borneo, a thousand miles to the east). Therefore sunrise and sunset were about the same on Borneo compared with Vientiane, but essentially daylight savings time for us in KL. Nonetheless, we reveled in our additional hour of evening sun in KL.
Lori had our 48 hours in Kuala Lumpur loosely planned (with a toddler it makes things a bit easier with naps, etc., to have some idea of what you want to see and do), and as always did a superb job of picking out the hotspots. Our first stop was Jamek Mosque, one of the oldest and most significant in Malaysia. We walked in and asked the caretaker if it was open to the public. He led Lori over to cover up (apparently her head scarf was not enough for my heathen wife), and we proceeded to stroll around…
…but not for long.
Not five minutes passed before we noticed an armed soldier-looking dude in full fatigues following us around…rarely a comforting sign anywhere. Finally, after tailing us for a couple of minutes he asked, “What are you looking for?” Hmm. We weren’t exactly sure how to answer this.
Peace? Muhammad? A good time?
Suddenly getting a strange feeling we were not welcome, we kindly replied that the caretaker said it was cool for us to walk the grounds. This appeared to irritate camo dude and he told us the mosque was currently closed to visitors and we needed to leave immediately…and that’s exactly what we did.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned while traveling, it’s never argue with a heavily armed individual in a place of worship.
We continued up and over a modern stone and glass bridge to Merdeka square, offering stunning sunset views of some beautiful heritage buildings set against Kuala Lumpur’s modern skyline.
Seriously, at every turn this is such a beautiful city—with none of the pomp and baggage of Western European cities. It’s hard to properly convey through words and pictures.
Now, it seems crazy that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to visit KL. But all we had ever heard from people was how amazing the shopping was (which, honestly, is the last thing Lori and I look for in a travel destination). It’s clear now that even for non-shoppers like myself, KL is a supremely agreeable place to visit.
And…nearly everyone speaks English!
This aspect of Malaysia did not exactly register with us before arriving. English? Sure, ok. People speak English in a lot of major cities these days. KL was going to be no different than visiting Bangkok in that respect, we thought. NO! People freakin’ speak English here. Like coherent, free-flowing, native English. Parts of Malaysia were colonized by the British for long periods of time, so this makes sense in that regard. But after living in Laos (where very few people speak English) it felt amazing to have casual conversations with locals without struggling to find the right words.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we expect people to be able to speak our language while visiting other countries. Quite the contrary. But for those of you who have lived long term in a place where you haven’t quite mastered the language, I’m sure you can relate to the feeling of suddenly finding yourself in a foreign land where everyday people do speak a language you are comfortable with, and with ease.
I think this has been particularly exciting and liberating for Lori. Our move to Laos is the first time she’s ever lived in a place where she can only communicate with most locals on a very fundamental level. She’s lived in Spain and Latin America, but speaks Spanish fluently. It’s incredibly frustrating for her to have to go through an interpreter or muddle her way through conversations.
In Malaysia, all that went out the window.
A perfect synergy of old and new. That’s the mosque we were kicked out of (Jamek Mosque) at the confluence of the two rivers that run through KL, against a collection of bank towers.
And there was a cool river walk, dubbed the “River of Life,” lined with plexiglass for Noe to run around on.
The moneyshot of KL—that’s Jamek Mosque and the KL sign, with the iconic Kuala Lumpur Tower shooting into the sky. And at it’s base, none other than the tip tops of the Petronas twin towers—until a few years ago, the tallest building(s) in the world.
After the river walk, Lori’s list of things to see brought us to the city’s famous central market.
Um, excuse me, but this is Saturday! Weekends are notorious in KL for families coming into the city and packing malls. Apparently the city’s central market doesn’t count, which is fine by us!
About this time, Noe really started to lose his stuff. And we couldn’t blame him. It was an hour past his normal bed time and he had had an incredibly long day for a toddler. He was in a new place and probably had no clue what was going on (despite us explaining for the week ahead of time what was going to happen—it’s hard sometimes to know what he processes and what he doesn’t, so we do it anyway).
It’s always been our policy that he gets his wubanub (that thing in his mouth) for sleepy time only (which lately has also expanded into long car rides). For this trip, however, many of our usual policies went out the window, and the wubanub came out in the central market. Hey, if it offers him a sense of home in a strange place (and gives us a few moments of peace and relaxation on vacation), it’s all good.
Off to explore KL’s renowned Chinatown—for many, the beating heart and soul of KL.
We’ve learned that traveling with a toddler is all about being flexible and not being to stuck on principles and policies. It’s also important to respect the kid’s eating and sleeping times—not out of principle or dogma, but because it pays huge dividends down the line. A well-rested and well-fed Noe, is a happy travel buddy. Beyond that, we try not to cater to his fleeting wants too much.
We don’t buy him balloons, toys, or candy (which he never asks for—pretty much fruit is all he ever wants), and we don’t go to playgrounds or play gyms on vacation. We try and make whatever we’re doing or seeing a fun adventure in itself, as child-friendly or non-child-friendly as it may seem.
Noe travels on boats and trains and planes with us, goes to museums and dance performances and explores ruins, parks, night markets, temples—you name it—with us. We also frequently take him to restaurants and bars (which is much more the norm here than in the U.S.) where he eats and drinks what we do (minus the alcohol, of course).
Along the way, he meets interesting people from all over the world and is exposed to a variety of flavors, smells, colors, music, and ways of living life.
But sometimes, it’s nice just to color alone on a bench at the end of a long day.
Kuala Lumpur: Places of interest from this post.