Malay Peninsula 10: When Things Go Wrong

It’s popular for people on social media and blogs to focus exclusively on the best experiences (unless it’s Yelp, then complain away). Sometimes I look at other people’s travel blogs or photos and think they must have the most perfect lives. And, then I wonder if anyone thinks that about me. My life *is* fairly magical, and I think the vacation to New Zealand was supernaturally blessed, but I would hate for anyone to think that it’s all perfect. Stuff goes wrong, sometimes catastrophically, and how we deal with that will impact the days, months and years that follow.

A Good Start

In the morning, I headed out extra early to catch that next bus and managed to get a few snaps of the famous street art on my way to the ferry terminal.

Amid the ferry terminal’s endless tiny shops selling convenience food and cheap souvenirs,  my eye was drawn to one stall that had what appeared to be handmade goodies displayed on a table. The stand was run by a husband and wife team, and the husband happily talked about his wife’s cooking until I picked out three goodies to try for breakfast. One was a flavorful potato pastry with delectable spices and what could have been pieces of dried fruit. 20170123_080706One was a glutinous rice ball wrapped in a leaf and filled with some kind of sweet coconut. The golden brown goodie was the one the husband most highly recommended: a spicy coconut bun in a wheat pastry (as opposed to rice) with a coconut filling similar in texture to the rice bun, but with a spicy kick. The coconut fillings were unique to my palate. It seemed like the coconut had gone through a ricer instead of a shredder. It was similar to vermicelli but also dried enough to be chewy without being crispy. The entire experience was delightful and I wish I’d bought 3 more!

A Scorpion in my Cocoapuffs

I left myself extra time to get to the bus station. Missing the bus would have entirely spoiled my day (although now that just seems ironic). As a consequence, I had nothing to do for about 45 minutes. The bus station in Butterworth seems well organized, but I suspect it’s a cleverly crafted illusion. As the time for my bus drew closer and closer with no sign of the bus anywhere, I began to get worried. When a bus pulled into the gate that I had been told by the ticket counter was my departure point, I got excited until the driver told me it was a bus to Kuala Lumpur. Definitely not where I was trying to go. The departure time on my ticket crept up and then past. I kept trying to get anyone to help me find my bus, but no one seemed fussed and said it should show up eventually. I spotted another traveler (the skin tone and giant backpack were clues) with a ticket that looked like mine. Trying to be friendly, I asked if she was trying to get to Kuala Perlis (my destination) too.

Allow me to do an aside on the expat/backpacker community for those who have not experienced it. It’s a tribe. And like all tribes, when we see each other out in the world there is a feeling of  “ah, one of mine”. The extent to which we aid one another or spend time with one another can vary from person to person, but most of the time when I greet another traveler, the response is friendly. Maybe they need help, maybe they can give it, maybe we’re just going to play a game of Uno or chat over a beer. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve taken great joy in meeting both locals and fellow travelers. I’ve shared meals, cabs, directions, taken and given tips on what to do or how to get places, translated or been translated for, exchanged stories and when one or the other of us is ready to part, there’s no pressure, we just wish each other well because we all know that’s how it goes. So when I met a backpacker who was angry and mean it was like finding a scorpion in my cocoa-puffs. I was expecting something nice and got stung instead.

She looked at me sharply and asked in clipped tones where I was going. I replied that I was headed to Kuala Perlis, but before I could finish my sentence, she pointed back at the building and snapped, “ticket office”. Yes, I said, I already have a ticket, I just — again she cut me off with the single invective, “information” pointing once more at the main building. This was no linguistic barrier, her accent was natural and her tone and body language adequately communicated hostility. I was completely shocked and decided to stop trying and walked as far away from her as I could while still being able to see the bus stops to watch for mine.

I want to believe that something was going on with this woman that made her so grumpy, but the fact is, I approached her to share information (namely that the bus she was standing in front of was not the one listed on her ticket, and that the gate we wanted had changed, but was not announced yet) and she shut me down like…I have trouble even finding a metaphor of when it’s appropriate to treat another person like that. Everything I can think of is some kind of gtfo response to racism or misogyny. Even knowing now what I do about the trials and frustrations involved in traveling SE Asia, and having lived through my own travel induced emotional meltdown, it’s still hard for me to imagine what put her in the mindset that caused her to treat me so. Regardless of whether her mood was justified, it was demeaning and hurtful to be treated like that by another human being. It was made worse by the fact that I had no defenses up at all when it happened. It completely destroyed my emotional well being in that moment and for possibly the rest of the day.

The Transportation Worsens

The bus was nothing like the nice buses I’d taken up to this point. The seats were narrow and much less comfortable. The front of the bus was “normal” two seats on each side of the central aisle, but the back was divided into three single seats with two aisles between them so that passengers travelling alone didn’t have to rub elbows with strangers. I sat in my middle single seat and tried to bring my emotions back to center.

My destination that day was the island of Langkawi. I had decided after much reading on the internet that I was better off taking a bus to Kuala Perlis followed by the shorter (90min) boat ride from there rather than trying to take the 3hr boat from Penang. Initially, the idea of a 3 hr boat ride was appealing to me because I like the ocean and boats. But it turns out that all the boats here are kind of enlarged speed boats where passengers sit in assigned seating rather like an airplane and there is no access to the deck or other outdoor spaces. Since going out on deck is the number one thing to do if you get seasick, that didn’t sound great. Instead I think I just learned that the only comfortable way to travel north of Penang is airplane.

Bad Decision for a Good Reason

Nevertheless, when I got off the bus I met a couple more backpackers who made some headway toward restoring my faith in the tribe. They had opted for the bus/ferry route to save money. They were out for the whole summer taking a break from university and needed to stretch every cent. We got some lunch together and had some nice conversation, shared the ferry ride, and I was enjoying their company so I let them talk me into walking from the ferry port to our respective hotels in Langkawi. I have to say, I admire the packers who can walk themselves around with all the gear especially in that weather. I am not one of you. I should not have tried. It’s not that I can’t walk or carry gear even, but there is something horrible that happens to me in hot/humid weather. One day I will learn my lesson, and surely this experience was some very compelling evidence.

My feet were swelling from the weather, my clothes were drenched in sweat and I simply could not keep up the pace of my lunchtime companions. They never once complained about my slowness, but I still felt guilty. Then it started raining. You would think rain would be a relief in hot weather, but that is a lie. The rain doesn’t cool things down, it only increases the general humidity and makes you damper. Could this whole experience have been better if I had a different attitude? No doubt. It can be hard to maintain positivity in the face of certain obstacles – the angry lady in the morning had set my nerves on edge. The heat, humidity, and pain in my feet was eating away at what goodwill I had left. When the rain began and I realized that the ONLY event in Langkawi that I had planned to do would not be accessible, it pushed me straight over the edge into genuine misery and self-pity.

This Isn’t Fun Anymore

Google lied about the distance to my hotel. When my GPS indicated I had arrived, yet I could not see the hotel, it suddenly reset to a location another 15 minutes away. This was after I’d already been walking for 45, which was longer than the original Google estimate of 30. When I decided to go on foot, I figured I could just about tolerate 30 minutes of walking to the hotel in the heat. What I got was an hour in the heat and rain. When I finally arrived at the hotel, I discovered a man sleeping on the only bench in the tiny lobby, so I couldn’t even sit down while I waited for the clerk to show up and check me in. And he was snoring so loudly! It seemed to take forever to get checked in and get to my room where I promptly rid myself of my soaked clothes and basked in the air conditioning while I had a serious think about my options.

The Langkawi Taxi Lockdown

I do not like giving in to despair. I do not like nurturing negative emotions. I did not want to sit there and feel sorry for myself, damnit. I only planned to spend a half day in Langkawi in any case. The very next morning I was scheduled to take another boat out to the tiny tropical paradise island of Koh Lipe in Thailand. I had looked at how to avoid Langkawi altogether but it seemed like any way to go from Penang or even Ipoh directly to Koh Lipe would have involved a very long overland travel and another land border crossing, I thought at the time that shorter journeys would be better and that every place I was stopping at must have something interesting. However, I failed to take into account that Langkawi has the most bizarre taxi lock out in the world. There is not only no Uber or any other rideshare on the island, the taxis don’t stop on the street, or use meters, or bargain. They all have a set rate chart that tells them the fare from one place to another. And unlike Georgetown with it’s free bus and easily walkable areas of interest, Langkawi seems designed for package tours and resort dwellers. In my first plan I was going to spend 2 days in Langkawi and only overnight in Koh Lipe but research led me to a different notion and I had decided the most interesting thing to me was the cable car and skywalk, which being high in the mountains and made of metal would not be accessible or safe in a thunderstorm.

Give in to Self Care

As I lay in the hotel, resting and cooling off, I looked on the web to see if there was anything near by that seemed interesting, or anything even within a reasonable distance. I had wasted all my energy walking to the hotel when I didn’t need to and could not bring myself to be excited about any of the hiking or cycling options. I had no desire to go shopping since I’d taken care of my needs the day before. I didn’t want to visit a zoo or aquarium. In fact, nothing at all sounded fun, and while I was grumpy about the fact that I’d just “lost” a day of vacation, it struck me that the best thing I could do for myself was nothing at all.

Sometimes stuff happens to us on holiday and we just have to stop. I remember in Egypt I got horrible food poisoning that completely took me out of commission for about a day and half and left me weak for a long while even after I returned home. It’s not fun when you get sick on vacation, but it’s still important to practice self care. Sick doesn’t always look like a cold or an upset stomach, sometimes it can be an overdose of culture shock, heat edema, and physical exhaustion. So I took a shower, put on some clean clothes and walked all the way to next door to have some dinner and then spent the rest of the night reading in bed. I have only one picture from my entire time on Langkawi, and that was a food pic I took of that dinner for Instagram.


Worst Day?

I told myself that every vacation has to have a “worst day” and that I was on my way to a tiny island paradise where I would see coral reefs and swim with glowing plankton and sleep on a hut on the beach and at least two of those things turned out to be true.

When I look back on my time on the Malay Peninsula, this is not one of the stories that stands out to me. At the time, it was horrible, and potentially vacation ruining, but Daniel Khaneman talks about “the remembering self” in his research, and using memory to create happiness. I choose to memorialize this day not to focus on the suffering, but as a way of reminding myself that what seemed so horrible at the time, cannot evoke strong emotion in me even 4 months later when I review and revise the experience, yet my positive experiences still bring a smile to my face. Plus, now I know what not to do the next time I travel to Koh Lipe.

Malay Peninsula 7: Ipoh- Temple Caves

Spring marches on, and Korea is filling up with colorful lanterns to celebrate the Buddah’s birthday. While I work on assembling my lantern festival stories, what better time to take a look at the temples of Ipoh? Despite the fact that Ipoh is not a tourist hotspot, there are certainly some stunning things to see. Just remember to take plenty of water!

Ipoh Caves

The Reggae House was a typical late night backpacker’s party hostel and so everyone was still asleep when I got up in the early morning to start exploring. After figuring out the padlock and iron door trick to lock up behind me, I set off in search of breakfast to discover that Ipoh is a very sleepy town. Only a couple places were open at 9am on a Saturday and these were offering a traditional Malay dish called “mee” (which just means “noodles”).20170121_091629 I managed to order something by playing a sort of 20 questions with the waitstaff, and enjoyed my noodles and mystery meat in a not yet too hot outdoor dining area with views of the neighborhood. There were a startling number of funeral homes nearby and plenty of evidence of the British colonial architecture, although much of it was in disrepair.


Kek Lok Tong
After breakfast, I caught another Uber to the Kek Lok Tong Cave Temple. Ipoh is probably most famous for it’s caves, and there are many of them around the city, and by around I don’t mean inside, I mean in a ring out and around. Unfortunately, the public transportation in Ipoh is somewhat lacking and it would have taken over 2 hours to get to my target by bus, but less than 20 minutes by car. Online advice suggested that I should negotiate with a taxi driver for a day rate, and I’ve done this before when I wanted to travel to remote places and be assured of a ride back, but I looked at the costs other travelers were paying for half and full day taxi hires and decided that I’d take my chances with ride-sharing.


The temple is the star of Ipoh tourism and it’s not hard to see why it’s on the top of everyone’s list. Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur is a Hindu temple, but this is Buddhist. There were extra decorations in preparation for the Lunar New Year and a very short stairwell up to the main entrance. There is no admission fee for the temple. The limestone cave is open at either end, making it a lovely wind tunnel and a cool place to get away from the heat. It was still early enough in the day that I wasn’t uncomfortable yet. The wide cavern is completely day-lit, but does have a few artificial lights to show off exceptional formations. There are stairs to help access different levels, and the main areas of worship house large golden statues on plinths with the natural art of the cave as a backdrop. It was breathtaking.


The back opening leads down to a lake and garden that is nearly completely enclosed by sheer towering limestone cliffs dripping with lush greenery. Although there was a quarry in the distance, it was far enough away not to disturb the tranquility of the garden. I was surprised to see it so empty on a Saturday morning, but I have no doubt that on the weekend of the New Year it was packed to the gills. I took my time walking around the garden in the relatively cool morning air. I enjoyed the sweeping grandeur of the cliffs, the bright tropical flowers, the miniature landscape art, and even the company of a few geese. In those hours I spent between the cave and the gardens it seemed like all the dirt and grime and inconvenience of Malaysia faded away, focusing my attention on only the calm beauty around me. 20170121_111231

On my way out, I climbed up a few more staircases to get a closer look at the cave formations. Much like Batu caves, the limestone was in familiar shapes, but so much larger in scale than I was used to. I had no trouble getting another Uber to come out for me, and while I was waiting, I took a tour around a little turtle pond on one side of the parking lot. Most of the turtles were quite shy, plopping into the water to escape as soon as I got within a couple meters, but one large guy was holding his ground and I managed to get a few cute pictures.


Sam Poh Tong20170121_122213

The next cave temple I wanted to visit wasn’t very far away and turned out to actually have 3 temples all along a single short road, so while the other two weren’t on my list it seemed a waste not to at least peak at them while I was there.

20170121_122942Sam Poh Tong is also a Buddhist temple and is said to be one of the busiest and most popular in Ipoh. I could tell it was an active temple from the freshly lit incense, but little else gave evidence that it was maintained or cared for. Even so close to such a large holiday, the grounds looked unkempt and abandoned. The huge numbers of underfed and skittish stray dogs was off-putting, but they were not aggressive. The garden in the front was a small lake with tiny “islands” that became miniature mountains holding tiny temples. As I walked around one side of the temple compound, I came upon a building that seemed long empty, covered in dust and bereft of occupation, yet there was incense burning at the dusty altars, observed it seemed only by me and some monkeys on the fence nearby.

I went back to the main gate and into the cave itself. The differences were striking. Where Kek Lok Tong had been left mostly natural and had only a few additions of statues and stairs, Sam Poh Tong looked almost like a building inside the cave.

20170121_124426The walls were painted and florescent lights were on the ceiling, while piles of furniture and other stored items crowded the rooms. The floors were finished and there were windows and doors installed into the stone. It felt less like a cave and more like a basement.

O20170121_125808n the other side of the cave was a small enclosed garden. The walls of the garden were more towering limestone formations and the greenery within was Jurassic in scale and seemed to be overgrown with no concern for trimming or arranging, dead leaves carpeting the ground. There was a small turtle pond behind a fence filled with turtles of all sizes that could be fed fresh greens and veggies bought from a 20170121_125305stand inside the cave. The stand and it’s sales person were some of the only signs of tending I saw. At the back of the garden behind a locked a fence and a forest of unkempt branches was a bright red pagoda that seemed more like something in an abandoned jungle than in a living temple.


20170121_132845I crept around the cave rooms from one altar to another, plastic cups and cleaning materials lay scattered around, the tile floor was cracked and uneven. I followed a treacherous staircase up a flight, but it ended only in a tiny window and more dust. It was so easy imagine that I was exploring a temple long forgotten, and then I would find a lit candle, or a smoldering joss stick or even a lone employee selling souvenirs. Outside once more, I continued on to the cemetery. In Buddhism, cremation is the norm, so there were small buildings in another alcove that housed the remains. Despite signs requesting that no incense be burned, there were sticks shoved around all the doors and soot marks as well. The buildings were grown over with moss and leaves, the paint peeling and the ground cracking under the pressure of new roots, yet the incense showed me that human presence was recent.

20170121_133150The farthest end of the compound was an area designated for ritual burning and another weedy and overgrown garden that seemed to be turning into a dumping ground. As I made my way past more dogs and tourists, I couldn’t help wondering at how this temple had been so highly rated by so many visitors when Kek Lok Tong was so clean and well cared for. I enjoyed visiting Sam Poh Tong, but it felt like an archaeological excavation rather than a place of worship.

On my way out, an elderly gentleman on a bicycle greeted me in excellent English and as we chatted he told me that this was his regular temple. He was not looking forward to the coming new year celebrations because he said the temple would be overrun by traffic. Scalpers would charge for street parking and people would come just to show off. I was torn between hoping the extra income would help the temple recover and being bewildered as to how it could still be so shabby when expecting the year’s biggest visiting weekend in less than two weeks.

Nam Thean Tong

20170121_142613Next door is Nam Thean Tong, which turns out to be a Taoist temple. It was sparkling clean and in excellent repair if somewhat empty. The floors were also finished tile, but the rooms felt more like natural cave than basement room and the altars were small but beautiful and well cared for. In front of the main altar was a place to do a fortune telling by a traditional method that involves a cup filled with sticks. The supplicant shakes the cup in a rhythmic way until one stick comes up and out and then the meaning is interpreted. I didn’t partake myself, but I watched another do so. There were carvings and paintings on the walls and lanterns hung around for the coming celebration. Another staircase led me to a viewing platform and a small bridge where wishes were tied to the chain railings. When I came across a steep stairwell leading into darkness, I paused for a moment to consult my own oracle: Google. It transpires that the top few floors of this temple are in total darkness and are rumored to have a haunted house combination of cobwebs, unsteady floors and ghosts. Yet even the most avid ghost hunters seemed to think the climb was a little unrewarding, so I decided to save my energy.


Although the beautiful artwork and unique architecture was a treat, it’s hard not to think the best part of these cave temples were the wind tunnels created by the rock formations that allowed visitors to have a seat in a naturally cool and breezy spot, gaining some respite from the oppressive heat outside.


I was finally drawn back outdoors by hunger. The afternoon was getting on and my noodle breakfast had long since worn off. There were some little shops along the outside, mostly selling souvenirs like a local tea and charms, a few selling drinks and ice cream, and one had a handwritten sign advertising a food called “rojak”. 20170121_145104I looked it up to make sure it wasn’t something too scary, then ordered myself a bowl for lunch. Rojak just means “mixture” but fruit rojak is a common dish made of crisp (less than fully ripe and therefore slightly tart) fruits and veggies. Jicama, cucumber, mango, and apple are standard ingredients. The sauce is the magical part. The recipe gurus of the internet assure me it’s made with shrimp paste, hot chilies, sugar, soy sauce, and lime juice (with some regional variance). To me it tasted for all the world like molasses with chili, ginger and lime. I don’t know if mine was made with molasses or if that’s just what it tastes like when you mix soy sauce, shrimp paste and sugar together, but it was yummy!

The outside area was under some reconstruction, but it was a spacious courtyard with plenty of trees and benches, a giant golden statue of what was probably Lao Tsu, and a brownish pond with a moon bridge.

Ling Sen Tong


20170121_151734Just one gate over is the third and final temple on this street, Ling Sen Tong. This temple mixes Taoist and Buddhist imagery along with other folklore in a big colorful Chinese melting pot. It is an all singing all dancing color fiesta. There are beautiful facades of buildings and temples, giant statues in fresh bright colors, elaborate scenes of mythology played out, and everything was touchable/climbable so visitors were having a blast posing for photos. There was only one small, dark cave. The ceiling had turned black from years of candle and incense soot, and it was chaperoned by a figure whose offerings exclusively included alcohol (for some reason, especially Guiness…) I enjoyed exploring the many statues and hidden rooms. I even found this one guy who looks like he’s checking his phone in the bath! I’m sure there’s a better explanation for it, but along one wall was a series of statues in sunken pits that had all filled with water. I don’t know if it was meant to be a kind of wishing well or something else entirely, but this one in particular stood out to me.

Hostel Hangouts

Finally, I couldn’t take the late afternoon heat anymore and had to call a car to come and rescue me. It was my intention to have a meal and a rest in the hostel before heading out in the evening (and cooler air) to check out “old town Ipoh”. However, I ended up meeting a trio of backpackers from Europe who dealt me into their game of Uno and chatted for a few hours. Then when they went upstairs, I ended up talking to the wifely part of the duo who runs the hostel for quite a while more. She is a Japanese lady who had spent so much of her young adult years in Malaysia that it just seemed natural to her to find a husband and move there. So it was that I spent my whole evening happily in the hostel chatting with new and interesting people from around the world until I was too tired to stay awake any longer and headed up to try and sleep.

As kind and wonderful and gracious as the hosts were, the Reggae House was a little hard to sleep in. The lack of full walls meant that light and sound easily came in from the spaces around my room, and the visiting rat didn’t really set my mind at ease, but I was settling in to the “roughing it” mindset and managed to persevere.

Stay tuned for the next installment of adventures in the Malay Peninsula wherein I go hunting for Ipoh White Coffee and learn more about my favorite bean on the way. Don’t forget to check out all the photos of Kek Long Tong and the other three temples on Facebook and keep an eye out for more spring colors in Korea coming soon! Thanks for reading ❤

Malay Peninsula 6: Kuala Lumpur- Butterflies, Birds and Buddies

Even though I visited Malaysia in the depths of winter, the tropical country is always warm and the bright colors of blooming flowers, flitting butterflies and singing birds can be seen year round. How fitting that now in the springtime while the rest of the northern hemisphere comes back to life, I can finally post about some of the most beautiful colors in KL. So quick, before the next flower festival here in Busan whisks me away – more Malaysia!

Kuala Lumpur is a big city, but it’s starting to feel like every big city has the same basic blueprint:

  1. that one architectural marvel (often a skyscraper because things like the Sphinx, the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty are not clone-able)
  2. the zoo and/or aquarium
  3. the shopping district
  4. the museum(s)

A city has to work to make their version unique, and the more unique things it has, the more people are likely to visit. In the case of KL, that one building is actually two: the Petronas Towers (spoiler alert, I didn’t go). Shopping districts like Bukit Bintang draw tourists in droves, but I was backpacking so, shopping was out of the question, and the heat was giving my tummy the upsets so I couldn’t even go enjoy the famous Malay cuisine. I do love museums, however on short trips I tend to go only if the weather is horrible (like when we got rained off the beach in Jeju) or if the museum is highly unique (I am seriously planning a trip to the Ramen Museum in Yokohama). That left animal attractions, and I was in luck because KL does have some unique ways to interact with nature’s critters.

KL Butterfly Park

Who doesn’t love butterflies? I don’t have a butterfly tattoo or anything, but I do go all fairy-land wistful when I see them awkwardly flitting through the flowers, and getting to walk around a garden filled with hundreds of them flitting about is always a treat. The KL Butterfly park likes to toot its own horn and claims to be one of the (if not the) best in the world. I think that’s taking it a bit too far. I’m not even sure it’s the best in Malaysia (which seems to have a butterfly park in nearly every city). It is however worth a visit if you’re in KL and love butterflies.

Once past the ticket booth, I walked through a little air lock into an outdoor garden that was covered on all sides by a fine mesh net to keep the butterflies inside. The garden itself was packed full of plants and had a miniature stream, pond and fountain. Although the garden is not very large, there are many tiny walkways crisscrossing within, and it took me an hour to wander all the paths. Because the butterflies are so small, there is a different butterfly opportunity around every leaf and petal. It was impossible to get pictures of the hordes of butterflies in the air, but because the path is so close to the plants, there are countless opportunities to get personal for some of the best butterfly pictures that will ever grace your album. Not just butterflies, but beautiful dragonflies, crickets and caterpillars too! One thirsty flier even landed on me for a while to sip up the moisture on my skin.

There was a series of aquarium tanks along a few paths, for what I’m not entirely sure. Many were empty and others seemed to be growing fish that might go in the pond later? Once I left the garden and returned to the blissful indoor air conditioning, I got to spend some time in a little museum of sorts that displayed a few more unique Malaysian insects as well as a massive dead butterfly collection on the walls.

I took the opportunity of the little gift shop to soak up some more AC and a popsicle because however much I might enjoy being among the flutter-byes, the Malaysian heat + humidity is rough for those of us unaccustomed. When I felt sufficiently rested, I headed off to the next stop for the day.

 The Bird Park

KL has a large green space called the Lake Gardens where several parks, gardens, museums and temples reside. I thought it would be a good place to spend a half day, but I seriously underestimated the effect of the heat. I keep talking about the weather, but it’s because of how knocked down I felt after even just a little time outside. In this case, I had a brief walk over to the bird park entrance since there’s no bus service inside the large Lake Gardens that I could find, and it was too close to take a taxi.

The KL Bird Park is hailed as the “World’s Largest Free-flight Walk-in Aviary” according to their own website. It might be  totally based on landmass. That place was HUGE. The openness did allow more airflow than the butterfly park which helped, and there were plenty of shady places to sit down and rest. The whole area is enclosed in netting to keep the birds in. The website boasts a few hundred bird species, but I felt like I only saw a few dozen. There were peacocks everywhere. More peacocks than the gardens of Xanadu. Peacocks on the sidewalk, peacocks in the grass, peacocks walking, peacocks standing, peacocks sleeping, and peacocks perching in trees (in case you forgot they could fly too). Most of the birds that were free to roam were wading birds, long legged and somewhere on the spectrum between stork and seagull. I guess it’s easier to keep birds that prefer walking. The birds were also attracted to the snack areas and waited patiently for food to be dropped or abandoned despite the many feeding stations I passed along the way that were stocked with healthy options for them.

Smaller fliers were in enclosures, many were in aviaries that people couldn’t enter (so more like a zoo), but some were in spaces we could walk through. I caught a snap of pretty blue I-don’t-know-what in one such small garden, and I had a fun time in the parrot enclosure as well. I was given some seeds which attracted several bright and friendly birds over, and I got to help some kids learn how to hold the seeds and attract the birds to their hands. Shout out to Canth? and Tara for helping me learn how to handle larger birds without fear or getting my fingers bitten off.

Travel Buddies

It was while I was helping a third group of Chinese tourists pose with the parrots that I met my interesting Companion of the Day (™).  I’m usually the one that gets the “feeling” I should talk to someone, but this time it was reversed. We ended up talking in the parrot house for a while because we were headed in opposite directions, but soon decided chatting was more interesting than the bird show, so we headed back toward the main entrance and the AC of the gift shop. I am still not convinced this wasn’t some weird younger clone creature, because we had exactly the same obscure academic interests (this never happens to me) and had so much fun being big huge NERDS that we shared an Uber back to Chinatown, then got lunch, then walked around, then got coffee and before I knew it the cafe was closing down. “Did you really spend half a vacation day talking school stuff?”, I hear you cry. “Yes!”, I resound. Adventures aren’t just about the places or the things, they’re about the people, too, and people adventurers are fun.

Public Transportation: aka Buses, Trains, and Taxis OH MY!

I checked the train schedule before heading to the station and noticed that the next train was a little after 7pm. I had meant to leave KL earlier, but considered my afternoon well spent, and set off to find the intercity ticket counter (which despite being in the same train station, was nowhere near the city train counter where I’d bought my tickets to Batu). I had to ask directions several times and somehow I ended up on the platform with no ticket and had to get an employee to escort me through the gate and around the barrier to get to the ticket office! (The train station is all one big building inside, but the two ticket counters are on opposite sides of the complex and accessible from unconnected doors on totally different streets) I went to buy a ticket and was told the next available spot was at 11:30pm! Ack! This totally contradicted all the information I found online and left me in a tight spot.

picture of the station, courtesy of Wikipedia

Of course, I could have bought my ticket the day before. I should have bought my ticket the day before, but since I didn’t know what time I’d be finished in the parks, and the multiple websites and blogs seemed to think it was no big deal, I thought I could be flexible. *Sigh* So I asked about buses and got directed vaguely to some nearby office. (nearly everywhere I went in Malaysia people spoke excellent English, but for some reason, not at the KL train station. go figure.) I finally found the bus office and was told the last bus left already (again, in contradiction to all the data I found online before going). These oh-so-helpful bus websites can only be used for booking 24 hrs in advance, so were of no use to me in my moment of crisis.

I asked where these later leaving buses advertised online could possibly be found and was told I had to go all the way back to the bus terminal I’d arrived at from Singapore. Not only was that heartachingly far away, but it was also in the opposite direction from where I wanted to go. More Google-fu turned up the name of another bus station so I went back inside to ask about it and was told, “No that one doesn’t have buses to Ipoh, but I guess you could go to Hentian Duta.” Great! Thanks! I will totally refrain from asking why you couldn’t have told me that 20 minutes ago when I first asked about other buses to Ipoh. So by this time it’s major rush hour traffic and I summon an Uber that takes another 30 minutes to arrive because the Uber app’s GPS put my location on the wrong side of the street and traffic was moving about one car length every 2 minutes.

The driver was a sweet old gentleman though. He was retired and enjoyed driving to earn some spending money. He told me about his kids and some of the other travelers he’d met while driving. We commiserated about traffic and chatted about urban development in different countries. It was a pleasant drive. I hopped out at the bus station just in time to be greeted by some frantic ticket sellers who asked where I was going then rushed me around to buy another non-specific ticket-like piece of paper and shuffle me onto a bus that was leaving in only a few moments. In addition to making me nervous because the ticket I was handed was not accurate, the bus I got on was not labeled, and the people who’d “helped” me had the frantic and rushing air of con-artists, I also didn’t get a chance to use the restroom or get any food (the noodles at lunch were the last thing I’d eaten and it was 7:30  already).

photo courtesy of KL airport website

Thankfully, it all worked out. I was on the right bus, and  my ticket (however strangely written) was acceptable. I hadn’t yet gotten used to the way Malaysia does buses, and the dudes who sold me the ticket weren’t on the make, they were just in a rush to fill as many seats as possible before the bus took off. This doesn’t make me less inclined to triple check everything when I buy a ticket to somewhere, but it does make me feel better about Malaysia to know that it’s not teeming with grifters taking advantage of lost tourists (yet).


My paranoia about getting the right tickets stems from a trip to China in 2012. I was with two friends who had no experience in the Chinese culture or language, so I was 100% responsible for getting us around. While we were in Zhengzhou with plans to visit the Shaolin Temple, we decided to buy our tickets to Beijing the night before. Unfortunately, the Zhengzhou train station and bus station are quite near each other and not clearly labeled. I do know the words in Chinese for both bus and train, so this was not a simple linguistic error. The signs were just not clear, saying things like “station” and “tickets” without any addendum as to what kind. While I was trying to figure out the right place to go, one of my companions was growing impatient, leading to a rushed decision. I went to a ticket office and asked for overnight (sleeper car) tickets to Beijing and was sold 3 tickets.

It wasn’t until the next morning when we were boarding our bus to Shaolin that I realized we’d bought overnight bus tickets. These weren’t cheap either. Unlike a Malaysian bus ticket where I could have swallowed the 7-8$ if the barkers had been scamming me, the tickets across China were closer to 60-70$. I was frantically using my dictionary to try to find the Chinese word for “refund” when an astonishingly helpful high school student appeared and asked us in impeccable English if we needed help. Jesse (her English name) had been told by her teachers to always look for tourists in trouble as a great way to practice her English. Lucky us! In the end, Jesse managed to negotiate a refund for us, saving the day, but it left me with a solid lesson to always double check the tickets before you buy!

Getting There Is Half the Battle

Thus it was with much relief and not a little hunger that I settled into my seat on the bus to Ipoh. A lot of people I met, when informed of my travel plans, asked me why I wanted to go to Ipoh, exuding the confident belief that there was nothing there worth seeing. This sentiment came more often from Malaysians than from foreigners, and I get the impression it’s a little like asking a visitor to the US, why do you want to go to Kentucky? As visitors we have the benefit of not knowing the local assumptions. As a person who likes a little adventure, I was interested in getting off the beaten backpacker track. I recently read an article about how well trodden the backpacker trail is in SE Asia, and how easily we can find ourselves treading the same trail from one backpacker hostel to the next creating a little micro-climate of expat comfort. Since I don’t live in the US anymore, I may value my expat comfort zones a little more, but I also want to step off the track and see what else is there. I usually consider it an important part of any adventure to go to a place where I won’t see any other people like me.

With this in mind, Ipoh isn’t really that far off the track. And, mostly for economy, I did stay in a backpacker’s hostel (it was 4$ a night). I had another grand adventure with Uber at the Ipoh bus station. After watching the driver’s little car icon wander around the wrong part of the bus station for around 15 minutes, he had the audacity to claim that he picked me up! I had no way to find him or contact him because Uber still insists on linking all communications to your home country cell number (not great for tourist sims), so I cancelled and took a taxi. I probably paid 2x as much as I should have, but I was just too tired and hungry to care.

I got to the hostel close to 11pm and was greeted by the amazing friendly staff there who hooked me up with my room key and showed me around. Even though the chef was gone, I was able to get a bowl of something native that I was told translates to “hot and sour”. It was a kind of stew, that was indeed both tart and spicy. And I got a bucket of fresh mango juice. Fresh juice in SE Asia means that they took some fruit and squeezed it when you ordered. It’s magical. The accommodations were reflective of the price point, and while laying on the worrisomely unstable bed, I spotted a rat running around the top of the walls, but the people were truly warm and welcoming, so it’s mostly a good memory. I’m not sure what it says about my life that I ended up sleeping in the “Matahari” suite.

That’s all for KL. Stay tuned for the next installment in which I explore the small, neglected town of Ipoh and it’s strange plethora of temple caves. Drop me a line and let me know how this new photo montage video thing is working out. Should I keep it up or just stick to FB albums? Speaking of FB albums, don’t forget to check out the rest of the photos over there. As always, thanks for reading! 🙂

A Weekend in Riyadh: Overview

Over Halloween weekend I flew down to Riyadh to attend an amazing event: an all girl gamer convention! #GCON2014. Sadly, events being Saudi in nature meant that my plans went all awry and I had to invent some other adventure instead (or maybe in addition, since I did get to see a couple hours of the Con).

I’ve been trying to write about it all week since I got back, but it has just been crazy here. Everyone got sick, including me. We had a teacher out for surgery, myself sick for several days and missing work for one day, another teacher out for a day, the admin assistant and a bunch of the students… not to mention for the first three days of the week all the students were fasting for Muslim New Year. Not a good week for all of us at Tabuk University.

So, I’ve got one and a half blog posts written out of 4 (5 counting this one), and one photo album up on the facebook page. I was trying to get them all written and post in chronological order of my weekend, but I’ve given up on this dream in favor of simply getting something out there for you all to read.

Impressions of Riyadh:

img_0546It’s really hot there. Really hot. The city reminded me a lot of Beijing. There were many strangely shaped tall buildings under construction. I even saw one that reminded me of the EMP in Seattle, which may be the strangest building I’ve seen. This picture is the Kingdom Tower, which I still think looks like Barad-Dur.

It was pretty clean in the parts that I saw driving around. And the taxis were actually much much better than in Jeddah. I ended up having a better and less expensive experience with the taxis than either Uber or Careem, but the need for a smart phone with gps and Google Maps is still very much present, since none of the drivers know how to get anywhere.

It’s a very strange blend of conservative Saudi culture and ultra modern big city luxury. The women are dressed all in black and mostly veiled, unlike Jeddah with its colorful abayas and women showing faces and even hair! But there are taxis for women to take alone, and many places that allow women to enter and dine alone not in a separate section (not something I can do readily here in Tabuk). I admit, I didn’t get to see much in only one day, but much like Jeddah, nice place to visit, kinda glad I don’t live there.

It’s continuously amazing to me how little the Westerners who live in these cities think there is for them to do other than go to shopping malls. So far I’ve managed to avoid the malls in both Jeddah and Riyadh and still found plenty to do. The National Museum park and compound alone could keep me busy for several weekends exploring everything there. I guess it’s different if you live there a long time, but I’d think they could still remember that newcomers will find these things interesting when asked for ideas. *Shrug, oh well.


The convention was scheduled for Wed-Fri (remember weekends are Fri-Sat here). I couldn’t get any days off work because one teacher was already out (surgery), so I packed my bags Wednesday night and brought them to school with me so I could go straight to the airport after school. Upon arrival I battled the evil taxi army to get to my hotel and check in, then summoned an Uber to take me to the convention.

You can read all the details of the convention in another post, but for now, just know what I saw of it was pretty awesome, and the third day (Friday) was cancelled, so I only got about 2 hours on Thursday night.

I wasn’t flying back until Saturday, so I had to find something to do Friday. I ended up going to see the National Museum, getting a first class spa treatment, and a gourmet meal atop the famous Al Faisaliah Tower.  So it was still a pretty amazing weekend, despite my plans being totally derailed.

I’m working on a post for each of the adventures, but I am not going to be able to publish them in chronological order. I do hope you’re able to enjoy them vicariously nonetheless.


Links to the other posts:


King Abdulaziz Historical Center

Al Faisaliah Spa

The Globe Restaurant

The Taxis: A Week in Jeddah

Taxis. Taxis are a government monitored car service that can get non driving folks from one place to another. They operate differently in every country, and most cities on earth. There’s a huge controversy in many countries as “private” services like Lyft and Uber edge in on the taxi market, and while the argument is supposed to be about how expensive it is to maintain ‘high’ standards of safety and insurance for the taxi companies, the fact is, I don’t know anyone who takes Uber because its cheaper. They prefer these private car services because they are faster, cleaner and more pleasant experiences. So if the taxis wanna get back in the market, they need to stop being dirty, late, scamming skeezers and start providing a service people want to pay for. OMG market competition.

So far in life, my favorite place to take a taxi is Beijing. This might be changing, because the last time I was there it was much harder to flag down a taxi without a phone app. But the reasons I liked them: the meter was very clearly visible and used for all short in city trips; it was common to sit in the front seat with the driver so you could see where you were going clearly; the drivers were consistently friendly, curious people who never made me feel uncomfortable or in danger; if you ever wanted to negotiate for a longer drip or a driver to wait for you, you could go off meter and negotiate.

I don’t like taxis in the US for the most part. Outside of New York and DC, you pretty much have to call one and wait around for it to show up, so I don’t use them much.

There are no taxis in Tabuk to speak of. I’m told there might be some at the airport, and the internet says there are taxi companies here, but I never see them on the road. If I want to go anywhere here, I rely on the school driver or I walk to the mall two blocks away.

I thought it would be refreshing to have access to taxi transportation in Jeddah, that it would make it easier for me to play tourist and see all the fun things. To that extent, I’m sure it is true. If I’d had to find a private driver for the week it would have complicated things. My schedule would have had to have been more rigid, and I might have ended up missing out on things or sitting around waiting a lot. So, in this respect, access to taxis in a country where I’m not allowed to drive because of my ovaries is pretty neat.

But holy howling monkies, Batman! They are complete jerks!

Understand that Saudis don’t drive their own taxis, so every one of these men is a foreigner who came to this country because he can make more money than at home. They don’t much like the Saudis and all of them are looking for a way up the next rung on the ladder. In addition, for reasons I’m still not clear on, the taxis in Jeddah have no meters. Supposedly, last fall there was supposed to be mandated meter legislation, but I guess it didn’t happen. This means that you have to negotiate a price for your trip with the driver.


On to the stories.

The Marriage Proposal

I got picked up from the airport by someone else from our company that I had met a couple weeks earlier, so my first taxi experience was actually on my second day in Jeddah when I wanted to go to the beach. Several issues here, not the least of which was that I didn’t really know where this beach resort was. I told the driver I wanted to go to La Plage, and he said ok, so I got in. He started driving and called a friend of his who spoke English, however, as it turns out, neither of them had heard of the place. So we went back to the hotel so I could try to find it online with the wifi.

I found a place called La Fontaine La Plage, and thought that was it, so we set out again. I thought the drive was going ok, but when we finally got there, it was the wrong place. I called my buddy who lived in Jeddah and had given me the tickets to the beach and we spent the next 15 minutes or so trying to track where I was by landmark to where we needed to be. The beach, being a private resort, had no name sign or address. I thought the driver was being very helpful and patient, driving up and down the road, stopping occasionally to ask other folks for directions.

We finally got there, and he asked what time he should come back to pick me up. So far, I’d been pleased with the ride. He seemed nice, was helpful in getting me to a hard to find place, and I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get a driver to come all the way back out to the beach, so we agreed on 7pm (also known in Saudi time as ‘after Maghrib’) and exchanged numbers in case I needed to change plans.

He called me at about quarter to 7 to say he was there, and we headed back into town. On the trip back he was much chattier. Despite the fact that he did not speak much English. He started talking about America and how great it was and something about a visa. Then came the akward part.

This is like a 50 minute drive, by the way, so I’m stuck in the car with this guy. He says some combination of English and Arabic that I’m reasonably sure means he’s asking me to marry him, but I decide to not understand. The one and only time in my life I have ever been upset about the existence of Google happens here, because on its own, the conversation might have just stopped there. However, he whips out his smart phone and opens Google Translate to try again.

This time I cannot pretend not to understand, so I laugh because my only other option is to get angry miles from another taxi. I say no, and pull out my own Google Translate to make that clear. The next 20 minutes or so is a really good example of why Google Translate won’t replace human translators. First because a lot of people aren’t actually literate in Arabic even when they speak it with native proficiency so Google doesn’t recognize the words, and second because there are just too many nuances to adequately translate all but the simplest phrases from non-related language groups.

So he tries to hit on me some more, I don’t know how you change a girl’s mind about marriage in a taxi ride, but he tried. Most of the Google translate stuff game up as complete garbldy gook in Roman letters, not even English words, just a mess, so I was at least able to go back to not understanding. I’d stare at the phone and say, “no English”.

Finally we got back to my hotel, and he tried to vastly over-charge me for the ride. I thought it was pretty darn foolish of him, after all, he’d already done the driving and hadn’t gotten me to agree on a price. Moreover, he’d been very socially inappropriate which could have gotten him in big trouble if I’d reported him. Lucky for him, I guess, I wasn’t jaded enough to be so mean yet. So I paid him less than he wanted, but more than he deserved and got out.

The touchy-feeley guy

Another night, coming back to the hotel, I got an even more outrageously skeezy guy. I had at this point decided to make sure I got the fare agreed on in advance, but I’ve only been in Saudi a month, and I’m still not in the habbit of refusing handshakes. I’m working on it, but its a lifetime reflex that I have to overcome here. Plus, in Beijing, I really enjoyed chatting with the taxi drivers, so the social reprogramming needed to cope with Saudi taxis was simply not in place.

It was a very short trip and he tried to as for way too much money, we haggled for a bit then came to 13. I know Arabic speakers have trouble with 13 and 30 from teaching them, so I checked, I repeated it, 13 and said one-three. He said ok, I got in.

The guy went through a similar chat about America, are you married, you’re so pretty, etc. At some point he either realized he made a number mistake or just changed his mind and said the fare was 30, three-zero, to which I said no. No changing the fare once I’m in the cab.

Once we reached the hotel, I gave him 20 SAR, because I didn’t have change and didn’t feel like arguing. He took the opportunity of reaching back for the money to brush my leg, and I did get upset at that point, pushing his hand away and raising my voice. He tried to ask for more money again and I refused, holding out the 20 which was still more than the 13 we’d agreed on. Then he puckered up his lips and leaned more into the back seat, trying to get a kiss. Fortunately he didn’t do anything as stupid as try to touch me again, but it made me feel absolutely gross. I pushed the money at him and got out with what I am sure was the purest look of disgust I’ve ever had on my face, then went to my room and spent like an hour talking to friends in the US to calm down before walking out to diner.

The Lazy Liar

Much shorter story, but as I began learning more about negotiating fares and how to act (or not act) in a taxi, my behavior started to change accordingly. I wanted to go to Al Balad souq for the evening and talked a taxi into a 15 SAR fare. In the most passive aggressive way possible, he took me to the very edge of what could be considered Al Balad and claimed he couldn’t get in because the roads were blocked. While the road he stopped at was indeed blocked, there were plenty of cars driving in and out of Balad, so this was a clear lie and a way for him to get more fare for less driving. Not a happy camper, me.

The Wandering Driver

So, at this point I’ve gotten to know the neighborhood and nearest landmarks to my hotel, so I can say them to the drivers. I also can pull up Google maps and show them where I want to go, because the map works pretty well even without any wifi, you just can’t get a route or directions, but you can still see the map. So I tell the driver, show the driver and negotiate a price, then get in the taxi.

After a while, I can see he’s going the wrong way, so I tell him so and show him again on the map. He starts arguing with me (I can’t understand most of the words, but the tone is pretty clear) along the lines of what the hell. I point again to the map, but I’m pretty angry by now and am only yelling in English like a dumb American that this is what I showed him before, and if he didn’t know where it was, why the hell did he tell me to get in the taxi?

When he looks more closely at the map, he then demands more money than we agreed on, which I also refuse, since I’d showed him the map before we agreed on a price and its not my fault if he didn’t understand it or try to ask any questions.

The yelling goes on for a while before he finally tells me in broken English to change taxis. Fine, I say, and open the door. He tried to get me to pay him for the ride so far, and you know, on my first day in Jeddah I might have given him something, believing it was an honest mistake or trying to be nice, but after several days of jerk drivers I’ve completely had it. On top of which, we aren’t even near any place where I’ll be able to catch another taxi at this point, so I refuse to give him any money, pointing at my map again, and get out.

I walked for several blocks of dark empty city before coming to a little strip mall area where I could catch another taxi back to my hotel. Not fun.

The Nice Guy

Lest you think every single taxi driver in Jeddah is a scamming, skeezy douchbag, there were a couple neutral rides and there was one nice guy.

I’d decided after the above experiences that I needed to wear my Hijab when taking a taxi to avoid the impression of being ‘loose’, and to lie about the fact that that I’m not married (which I hate and may talk more about another time). This did get me a couple of less unpleasant taxi rides which do not bear remarking on in any detail except that one of them commented on my hijab saying that too many American women showed their hair and he was pleased to see me covering.

I don’t know if the nice guy was responding to my behavior or if he was just nice, but it was a short ride, and I’d given in at 30 SAR even though I knew it was too much because I was tired and hot. He talked to me, but respectfully, and when we arrived at my hotel and I handed him the 30, he gave me 10 back, saying it was too much and wishing me a good evening with a pleasant smile which I was happy to return.

The Lost on a Straight Road Guy

Finally, on my last day in Jeddah, I wanted to go back to La Plage. Now I knew where it was, could point to it on a map and had a basic understanding of how much it should cost to get there. So armed, I donned my hijab, pulled up my map and flagged a taxi.

I showed him the map, pointing to an empty stretch of coastline where the private beach lay. He questioned me about its name, and I told him, knowing it would do no good, then pointed to the spot on the map again. He took some time to look at the map. Its a straight shot up a single road. The road changes names a few times, from Al Andalus to King Abdul Aziz to Prince Abdullah Al Fiasal, but its really one big highway that follows the coast around a little inlet and into Obhur. No weird turns, no complicated switchbacks. I think I could have followed it without GPS and I get lost in the city I’ve lived in 10 years.

We agree on 70 SAR which is kinda pricey, but not bad for white-person rates. He argues for higher saying that its over 40km, but we settle in the end. This is important later, that he knows its about 40 km away. Don’t forget.

He chats me up, I’m very distant without being directly rude. Talk about my “husband” repeatedly. He tells me he’s Egyptian, and women in his country don’t have to wear abaya and hijab. He asks if we can be friends, and by now I know that’s a bad sign so I politely say  no, we cannot be friends because men and women in Saudi can’t be friends. He tells me its no problem because he is not Saudi he is Egyptian. I tell him no a few more times before the message really sticks. Remember this is a long drive.

Partway there, on the long stretch of highway where there are no turn offs at all, he pulls off on the side of the road, acting like he’s lost. I show him the map again, indicating the little blue dot that is us, and the stretch of beach I want to go to that is further on the road we are on. He continues to act confused. Which is the lamest act I’ve seen in a while. Eventually a cop pulls up beside us. So he explains that he’s got this American in the car who doesn’t speak Arabic and he’s trying to figure out where I want to go.

Seriously, are maps that hard to read? Is this some magical skill my father passed on to me on our family summer road trips? Its not even a paper map, there’s this blue dot that represents where we are! He takes my tablet over to the cop car to show him the map and they talk for a while but I can’t hear them.

Finally he comes back and heads out again. He indicates that I should tell him to stop when we get there, as though that were not my plan already.

When we finally arrive, he doesn’t even pull around to get me to the gate, and he tries to demand more money, acting like he had to drive so much farther than we’d originally agreed on. The fact that our little blue dot is exactly where I pointed to before I got in the taxi, and that his original argument for a higher fare included the distance he now tried to claim ignorance of made the attempt astonishingly pathetic.

There is of course no way I’m asking him to come back to pick me up in the evening. Which leads me to…


I don’t know what my resistance to using Uber was. I think they were along the lines of I don’t have a smart phone or bank account in Saudi yet. The lack of smart phone makes using the Uber app a little harder because I would be limited to being able to use it only where there was wi-fi which is unreliable in Saudi. The lack of a Saudi bank account means that I have to give Uber my US credit card, which I don’t like because its a pain to get my Saudi salary to my US bank account until I get the bank account here set up. Not impossible, just a pain. I really wanted to use my Saudi salary to take this vacation, and I think I got a little irrationally attached to the idea.

If it hadn’t been a mere three weeks since my arrival in Saudi, these obstacles would not have existed, and I might have been spared all these fantastic taxi experiences. As it was, I finally gave up on my last day and signed up for Uber from the restaurant at La Plage because I really couldn’t handle one more crappy taxi ride.

Once I was all done enjoying my day, I logged into the app and ordered my Uber car. I got a text immediately saying my driver had been dispatched and giving me an ETA. The app itself also showed me a picture of my driver, his name and they type of car he would be driving.

Only complaint was that the Uber estimation of the driver’s eta was off by quite a bit, it took almost 20 minutes longer than expected, but I was kind of way off the beaten track, so I was surprised at the original eta anyway, and I was in a resort while waiting, so not a hardship.

I got another text when the driver was a couple minutes away so I began to wrap up in my abaya and hijab and collect my things. The driver called and I told him to look for the green door and that I would be right out.

The gate guard also wouldn’t leave me until he saw that I had a car, which was nice since its a pretty empty stretch of road.

The car was cleaner and newer than the taxis. The driver had provided cold bottled water in the back seat for his passengers, and he didn’t try to talk to me at all. Its a little sad, because I like meeting people and exchanging ideas, but the reality is, this simply isn’t possible between men and women outside very structured work or school environments in Saudi. So in this case it was a relief to be able to relax on the drive and not have to worry about where the conversation was going or what consequences I would have to deal with for rebuffing advances.

He pulled right up to the door of my hotel, and we never once had to talk about price or exchange money since Uber simply calculates the rate based on GPS, charges my card and emails me a receipt. I actually tipped this driver because I was so relieved by the entire experience.

The Uber charge was 110 SAR. I’d paid 150 SAR for the same ride on my first day, and 70SAR for the ride to the beach that morning, so while its possible I could have saved a few dollars haggling with a taxi, I feel that the security and comfort of the ride, the courtesy of the driver and the simple fact that I didn’t have to argue or haggle or anything was definitely worth a little extra cash.

I took Uber to the airport the next morning as well, and had an equally pleasant ride, similarly paying only slightly more than most people said was normal for an airport taxi.

Live and learn.

What I Learned

Women travelling alone are more vulnerable in Saudi, even in places where its not completely abnormal. I found that when I was in public spaces like the Corniche or a restaurant that I could doff my hijab with no trouble and no change in the way people around me acted toward me. However, when I was in a taxi, wearing the hijab seemed to make a measurable difference in the amount of harassment I received, even if it did not eliminate it altogether.

If you must take a taxi, make sure they really know where they are going and agree on a price before you get in the car. The drivers would say ok and gesture me to get in even when they had no idea where we were going, and then start driving and try to change prices while we were on the road. Any wiggle room that they have to say they didn’t know what you meant will be exploited, so make sure that you’re as clear as possible before you get in.

If you have a smart phone/wi fi use Uber or another car service with set fares and more accountability. Since the drivers are assigned and recorded electronically, its much easier to lodge complaints if they are problematic, so they have more reason to offer good professional service. It might cost a little more, but its worth it, and you’ll never be ripped off, since again, the route is recorded and if they try to drive in circles to get you someplace, you can show the discrepancy in the route they took and the optimum route on the map.

Never let adversity stop you from having an awesome adventure. Live life for the great stories you’ll tell later on. Don’t stay angry, but don’t let being kind make you a doormat. Be excellent to each other and party on.   🙂