If Christmas crept up on us unannounced then that was nothing compared to New Year’s Eve.
There’s a certain anxiety that precedes a new country on a long-term trip like this. It’s that nervous fluttering which accompanies most excited holiday-makers in the days before they depart: the excitement of a new destination mixed with fear of the unknown. I’ve noticed it creeping up on me every time: from Poland to Belarus to Russia to Korea to Indonesia to Singapore and now here it was again. This time it was compounded by Singapore’s silky-smooth effortlessness and the knowledge that life on the trip would never be so easy again. Malaysia was talked of in somewhat patronising terms by most Singaporeans, who praised the beauty and wildness of its landscape but seemed only too grateful to return to their country’s well-oiled machine. Malaysia began to loom in my mind as a hotbed of piratical lawlessness.
Therefore when Googlemaps’ suggested walking route to the Singapore-Malaysia bus stop followed a motorway with no pavements, it was a well-timed cock-up. Already late, as usual, we hauled our packs down a half-built road and clambered between trees whilst the sun beat down, cars shot past us by barely a whisker, and panic began to set in. By the time we boarded the bus in a pool of sweat, tears, and exhaust fumes, Singapore had lost its sheen, and not a moment too soon. Thanks, Google!
We’d paid to be taken to Johor Bahru, the Malaysian city immediately over the bridge, and found ourselves sharing with an Indonesian family who had flown over from Jakarta solely to take their daughter to Legoland, and “obviously” (this from the mother) go shopping first in Singapore. Obviously.
We went through the customs, emerged into the sunlight and waited for 20 minutes before establishing that our bus driver had done a runner and we were stuck in no-man’s-land. Hello, south-east Asia. Thankfully the Indonesian family sweet-talked their way onto a random bus and we followed them, brandishing our irrelevant tickets, bundled into the lower cabin of a two-storey bus which came complete with a grubby curtained-off bed for the driver.
In Malaysia, formalities done – in a huge room even swankier than Singapore’s – we walked for what seemed like forever down a host of endlessly signposted glass corridors to reach the train station. Everything was clean and air-conditioned and – as always happens – my nervousness immediately began to dissipate. This place was great. We were going to love Malaysia.
At least, until discovering that none of our cards worked in the station’s only ATM, our train to Kuala Lumpur was boarding in ten minutes, and we’d had nothing to eat.
With our remaining Singapore dollars changed into a handful of Malaysian ringgit, we recklessly spent them all on a packet of biscuits and headed for the train.
Once again, a late-afternoon departure meant that the views were limited (we really must start booking journeys during daylight hours). We rolled up around 11pm to a huge, empty station, and discovered with horror that it hadn’t been Johor Bahru’s ATM alone, but Malaysia in general which seemed disinterested in allowing us access to our own money.
So here we were in KL, an hour’s walk from the hotel, with no cash, no way of buying metro tickets, and the only operational taxi firm refusing to take cards.
It was Peter who had the bright idea to try the Meridien hotel over the road and ask them to book us a cab. We traipsed past the doorman who was almost successful at hiding his alarm that we may actually be staying there. Oh how we missed the eager-to-please Indonesian hotel staff who had raced to take our heavy rucksacks at even the poshest hotels, never once glancing with disdain at our walking boots or unwashed hair.
Thankfully the receptionist was able to book us a cab – and even better, my credit card did its job – and we sorrowfully left the cool, welcoming confines of the Meridien’s lobby, buoyed by the knowledge that we were heading for our pre-booked accommodation at a 5-star hotel.
Yes, a 5-star hotel.
Now it would be perfectly reasonable for you to ask “But Robyn, are you a flashpacker or have you abandoned this pretence for out-and-out cash-splashing unashamed luxury?” And I would say, fair point, but this place was £35 per night! Which remains above and beyond our intended budget but still, for a five-star hotel??! We’d be nuts not to grab this opportunity!
Of course, we’d be more nuts to believe that it wouldn’t be too good to be true.
And it was.
I mean, let’s be fair here. It wasn’t a bad hotel. It was actually a perfectly pleasant hotel. But it was a 3-star hotel at best. (I know, right? Three stars! The drama! The SHAME). It had been decorated in the 1970s, with free toiletries in sad little bottles I later saw in a hostel, a shower curtain that would have looked more at home at the Bates Motel, and the breakfast queue stretched across the lobby (and the dishes were empty when we finally got in . . . or remained full for a reason). When we queried the queues with the staff, they shrugged and said it was down to a spate of last-minute bookings (unless the bookings were made that morning in hotel rooms which had been built overnight, this is not an excuse).
Now, again, you would be forgiven for thinking “Has Robyn lost her mind? She needs to check her privilege! Has this travelling warped all sense of perspective from her tiny brain?” More good questions.
But the fact is this: if you’re only on holiday for a two-week period, in one or two hotels, chances are you’ll be so phenomenally grateful to have temporarily abandoned your workload, weather, boss, neighbours, parents, incessant building work outside your bedroom window, whatever, your frame of mind will be such that everything is idealised. You’re on holiday. Life is perfect.
Sure, you’ll throw your toys out the pram if you come across a cockroach nest in the toilet cistern, or your passport gets stolen from the nailed-down safe, or the in-house restaurant gives you food poisoning, but the small details? Happily overlooked. And the irritations? Ignored in favour of an easy life. And why shouldn’t they be? You enjoy your holiday and your cheerful mood. Don’t be cynical. Don’t be like me.
The problem is that after travelling for months, cynicism and disappointment runs rampant because we know what else is out there . . . and for half the price.
So when they fail to provide a towel-rail, that’s infuriating. How hard is have a towel rail?! Those things are cheap! And it means I don’t have to dry myself on a damp towel which has been festering away in a pile on the floor since yesterday. Same with failing to provide hand soap, hooks for coats, windows which close (or alternatively have netting to keep out the bugs), or a rubbish bin, or spare loo paper, or decent curtains, or more than one plug socket, or wifi which reaches the room. I’m not a luxury traveller. I don’t need a jacuzzi or a 30-minute massage to be happy. I just need a towel rail.
These are the stupid, first-world, unimportant, irritating little niggles one deals with when travelling every day. Let’s not forget that in return we get the tremendous benefit of someone else doing the cooking and cleaning, but if you are (as I am) the sort of person who restocks the loo paper at home when there are still three rolls to go, these things induce rage. RAGE I TELL YOU.
Anyway, there we were at the distinctly not-5-star Seri Pacific hotel (ok I’m done now) when we realised it was 4pm on New Year’s Eve and we had planned precisely nothing.
And everything in town was booked or cost silly money for a guaranteed view of the fireworks. Meanwhile the one thing we did have at our hotel was an interrupted view of the Petronas Towers, around which the festivities were due to take place. So, we thought, let’s just go out for a nice dinner. Then we can come back, and watch the fireworks in serene luxury from our bedroom window with whatever over-taxed bottle of sparkling wine we can lay our hands on.
We ended up at the Dorsett Regency, along with . . . well . . . none of KL’s elite. The chefs were fantastic and the buffet heaved with delicious dishes, but the place was half-empty, and our maitre d’ was trying his level best to raise the roof. This mostly involved (attempted) Malaysian flirting with the young ladies of the gigantic family taking up half the occupied seats, and a “guess how many sweets are in the jar?” competition, which inevitably, Peter won; his enthusiastic whoops greeted with a stony silence from all else present. (What was the prize? Why, a free buffet dinner at the Dorsett Regency! Valid from 1st January onwards).
Stomachs stuffed, we headed to the lounge to discover that the two grumpy women who’d been sitting behind us in remarkably short sequinned skirts were not, as speculated, the pay-per-hour guests of their portly male companion, but the evening’s entertainment. (Singers. They were singers). But after a bottle of wine and one too many covers of 1980s classics (can there be such a thing?), we decided we’d better head back to our hotel and get ready for the fireworks.
Of course by now it was 11:15pm and everybody had the same idea: the roads were jammed, Uber had imploded, and the hotel staff looked on helplessly as we failed to flag a taxi. Finally we accepted that our clever plan wasn’t quite so clever, and instead we asked: where can we see the fireworks from here?
The doorman pointed us vaguely towards an area called The Pavilion but since we were surrounded by expensive, high-rise hotels, we chanced our arms by venturing into each one and asking if they had a roof-top bar or restaurant and if so, could we please go there? It was only their Malaysian politeness which stopped the staff from laughing in our grubby faces, as diamond-encrusted members of the city’s upper echelons drifted past us into the Porches parked outside.
Eventually we realised we must have found the Pavilion since the roads were sealed off and completely packed with people in the jovialist of jovial moods. We squeezed through the crowds, craning our necks to try and catch a glimpse of the Petronas Towers between the gleaming shopping malls.
The crackle of premature fireworks sent a frisson through the people surrounding us but we were still pushing through, trying to see what was happening with a group just beyond. They were . . . spraying something . . . is that . . . fake snow?!
Yes, indeed: a small group of people nearby were chasing each other around with cans of the stuff. As we wandered over to observe more closely, suddenly everyone around us was clutching a can – or two, or three – and what had seemed like a few friends larking about transpired to be literally thousands of people having a gigantic snow fight – in 30°C heat, in central KL, at 11:45pm on New Year’s Eve – and we were slap-bang in the middle.
In amongst the frenzy of ducking and hiding and laughing and running, it took all of 30 seconds for the first person to surreptitiously spray us and within a couple of minutes, we were absolutely covered. The sticky white foam clung to everything before finally melting away to leave the victims wet, bedraggled, bewildered, and loving it.
We still hadn’t found a working ATM so with no cash to buy our own ammunition, we were defenceless, easy targets, sticking out like sore thumbs and leapt upon by the party-goers; their originally tentative deliberate misses quickly becoming full-on head-to-toe coverings. Peter, ever intimidating, was given a wider berth – I was only thankful that my glasses were easier to wipe clean than my eyeballs.
Perhaps this was simply the sort of celebratory act which develops in a country where alcohol is rarely served and heavily taxed when available. These kids weren’t at some nightclub getting pissed – they were having fun with friends. It was chaotic, but unlike in the UK, where aggression and loss of control inevitably follow the traditional over-indulgence in booze and other illicit substances, not remotely intimidating.
The opportunistic fake snow vendors were mostly men in Guy Fawkes masks, but we never established whether the whole foam party was a truly anarchic act or if it was an annual event, with the masks losing their symbolism en route to Malaysia.
As midnight came and went, a cheer grew from somewhere in the distance and then the whole area was clapping and whooping and even more spray was flying and for a moment it felt like we were surrounded by a proper blizzard. We could hear the fireworks but not see them, but it didn’t matter – this was the party, here was the life. Two minutes into a brand new year and the fresh experiences were already coming thick and fast.
It may have been the equivalent of Trafalgar Square, filled with tourists and teenagers, but it seemed unlikely. All I knew was that the everyone was laughing, and we all looked the same with our soggy clothes and foamy hair.
Eventually the crowd started to break up, exposing the cost of such festivities in the mountains of spent cans littering the road. Still, better than the piles of sick I’ve previously had to negotiate on the New Year journey home.
We escaped into the super-posh and very distinguished Ritz-Carlton hotel where the staff were so exquisitely polite that they allowed us to order two glasses of port with barely a glance at our dripping, dishevelled clothes.
“We were at the Pavilion!” I beamed at the waitress, “With all the fake snow!”
“Oh, yes, I know” she replied, as politely as possible, “I can – ah – smell it”
She served us our drinks and scarpered, leaving us a bowl of nuts and some more party hats.
2016 was off to a pretty good start.