Five Reasons to Avoid Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur

Do not go to Chinatown in KL. Okay, you probably will (and should) anyway, but don’t try to get anything out of it. Reasons?

1. You want to go to Chinatown for the food

This is one of the main reasons I would go to Chinatown, especially since I’m not planning loading myself down with souvenirs or copy bags, which is mostly what they had. I went there once, looking for a snack, and was only able to find a wood ear drink. The second time I went, Mike and I found a restaurant that was a step up from street food. They charged us for the moist towelettes and the saucer of peanuts they served us. The third time, we got beer at a food court. The food court had nice Chinese-Malaysian dishes, but it was 11pm, and they were already closing.

Go to Jalan Alor instead. It’s just as touristy, but has more food and more variety.

2. You want to go to Chinatown for the copy bags

Okay, so shopping for faux designer things is one of the major points of tourism (otherwise there wouldn’t be so many vendors to cater to this phenomenon). I’m not sure about the bags, but Brian found that the copy Ray Bans in Chinatown cost more than the copy Ray Bans in Berjaya Times Square, which is less crowded and air-conditioned.

Go to Berjaya Times Square instead. You don’t have to bargain (although you can still do that if you want), and are protected from the elements. Plus they have the largest gumball machine in the world, as well as a piano staircase.

3. You want to go to Chinatown for the traditional crafts.

Don’t even bother. Only copy bags there. Go to Central Market instead. Again, part of it is enclosed in a building with air conditioning. And they cater to the traditional cultural crafts.

4. You want to go for the cheap hostels.

There are a lot of hostels in Chinatown. From reviews, they seem to suffer from the noise of the night market. There are also some on the outskirts of Chinatown, such as near Pudu bus station. Plus there are a lot on Jalan Alor and Bukit Bintang and all the alleys that wind around those streets. Prices are 100 MYR up, but the quality is probably better, a well as the location.

We’re staying in a monthly rental, so are getting a different rate. I’d still recommend it for short-term though. I know 80 MYR may be a bit much for two people, but at least you get a window in your room. And substantial towels. And toilet paper. And a hot water heater.

5. You want to go to Chinatown for the cheap household items.

Like plastic dishes or cheap flip flops. Mike was able to find cheap flip flops there. But we didn’t find any plastic dishes. After breaking down and buying them from Daiso, in Bukit Bintang’s newest mall for 5 MYR (microwave safe), we found plastic dishes in the mini mart across the street from us. No, we are not in Chinatown. We live in Hang Tuah, which is equidistant from Chinatown and Bukit Bintang.

6. You want to go to Chinatown for the atmosphere.

Okay, you’ve got me there. They do have a nice, glass-covered walkway and a lot of red lanterns and umbrellas. But Central Market has the glass-covered walkway. And Jalan Alor has red lanterns. Hell, even the 6th floor of Pavilion mall has lanterns, as well as giant paper cranes.

The point is, go, but don’t expect much.

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Reading World War Z made me realize my husband is my Zombie Survival Guide

Disclaimer: I have not read the Zombie Survival Guide. Neither has Mike. He read World War Z awhile back, sparking (or renewing) a zombie obsession which means he now watches The Walking Dead. I recently read World War Z, which made me realize I totally would not survive if I didn’t stick with Mike.

I mean, I appreciated the novel’s artistry and everything. Mike was impressed with the military detail. I was impressed by the author’s knowledge of international politics. Even though the book is episodic (composed of individual interviews), I couldn’t stop reading. This novel is the reason I started staying up until 2am again. There are also flaws. Many of the characters interviewed are unapologetically villainous. I don’t see too many people being that candid about royally screwing people over to a UN investigator they just met. Also, it did tend to fall into stereotypes a bit (Spoilers! The wannabe terrorist Muslim, the blind Japanese nature-lover who becomes proficient at killing zombies, the Japanese otaku who becomes his disciple.)

The novel is less about zombies than about what happens when a zombie epidemic is unleashed upon humanity. I came away from the novel with the conviction that zombies (at least the type in the novel) are not really dangerous. People are dangerous. So if zombies ever swarmed the area I was in, this would be my plan:

Step 1: Barricade myself and my loved ones securely and shut up until the zombies and people moved on (with a lot of food and some weapons–preferably a relatively silent baseball bat, but also a gun just in case. Mike knows how to shoot guns.)

Step 2: Start a garden. After emerging into a desolate wasteland, of course, where all the food has already been looted. I think an aquaponics system would be best since it saves water and provides you with edible fish. Mike would very useful here because he took a commercial gardening class in high school and researched aquariums with his usual intensity when he actually had an aquarium. Of course, this is all assuming that we could get our hands on the equipment and Monsanto hasn’t totally destroyed all viable food-producing seeds. If not, Mike’s skills makes us great candidates for citizens in a post-Apocalyptic government that’s focused things such as food distribution and sanitation.

Step 3: Learn a skill. Because I didn’t go to medical school, I don’t really have any “hard skills” (Damn! Should have listened to my parents!) I guess therapists would also be in demand, but I don’t have any actual training in that. I would seriously be useless in a zombie apocalypse with my lack of gun-shooting and food producing skills. Also, I’m not that good at cleaning (again, that’s Mike’s specialty). I guess I could cook. I also have some skills at gauging distances for close-range attacks due to karate, so I might be pretty good at hitting zombies in the head with something heavy. But that would still take some training.

The novel does show that it’s a matter of luck more than anything, though the above plan would increase our odds. Well, at least there’s no zombie apocalypse yet. I can continue living my privileged, first-world life.

A Short Guide to Future Posts, or What Have We Been Doing for the Past Two Months?

I wrote before that we’re just living in KL, but it’s an unrealistic lifestyle even by expat standards. We don’t have jobs, for one things. We’re also on a backpacker budget, which means we go to a restaurant and try to spend under 100 MYR, and when we see the credit card charge in USD, it’s about $20. I would say we’ve really been on vacation. Mike would disagree and say that life has been very stressful for him, but that’s just the way he is. Actually, we’ve been procrastinating, but procrastinating by reading and watching a lot of movies and not writing for public consumption. Next thing we know, we only have a couple of weeks left before our Malaysian visa expires. What have we done besides that? I will attempt to actually finish the following posts over the next 10 days or so. Things we’ve done (in no particular order):

1. Attempted to take advantage of our apartment’s exercise facilities

2. Experienced a triplicate of health problems and experienced Malaysian health care (for foreigners)

3. Ventured into Pudu Wet Market

4. Eaten at highly regarded Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Lebanese restaurants

5. Eaten at Koptiams and mamak cafes

6. Eaten at Japanese and Mexican restaurants

7. Explored Plaza Low Yatt and Plaza Imbi for electronics and electronic repair stores

8. Explored Sungei Wang for watch repair stores

9. Taken pictures of kolams set out for Deepavali

10. Discovered that Jalan Alor is better than Jalan Petaling

Why “Negotiating” for Tourists = Getting Ripped Off

Taxi drivers in Malaysia are dishonest, if not in all individual cases, then as a group. To make matters worse, and I’m generalizing from my own experiences, the taxi drivers seem to be determined to rip off tourists. There. I said it. It felt good.

Every taxi ride I’ve taken in Malaysia I have felt ripped off to some degree, and in a couple of cases it was so blatant as to be outright insulting to my intelligence. Some examples: drivers who attempted to charge more than the posted amount for a given destination, even though the amount was on a price schedule poster right where we got picked up; being charged  for a five minute ride what it would cost to go all the way across town; being purposely taken to the wrong place, and then in order to be taken to the correct place having to pay extra. Finally, when it got to the point of being ridiculous  and a driver tried to charge us about ten times what we knew to be a fair price, we just walked away. He then shouted another price that was only about seven times what it should have been. We walked about a block and caught another taxi that charged us a third what the first guy asked, and even that was three times more than it should have been. Now we just don’t take taxis.

taxi haggling sign

Most taxis in Malaysia have signs both inside and outside of the car that say, “This is metered taxi. Haggling is prohibited. Request for your receipt.” Poor grammar aside, there is another problem with this: it is a bald-faced lie. In all the taxi rides I’ve take in the couple of months I’ve been here, only once did the taxi have a working meter, or, I should say, did the driver use the meter. A couple of times I even asked the driver about it point blank, and the answer has always been evasive, something mumbled about how it is broken. I asked about the meter once when a small group of us were trying to get the driver to agree on a price. “You know,” I said, “if you used the meter we wouldn’t have to even talk about this.” The driver, acting as if he was responding to what I said, went off on some totally irrelevant tangent. I didn’t want to make scene, so I dropped it, but the point is that the drivers purposely don’t use the meters because they know they can get more out of their fares if they don’t. If they were charging a fair amount, then they would use the meter. The meter is never going to prove that they are not charging enough; its only purpose it to show if they are charging too much.

This problem obviously became serious enough at some point where meters became required and cabs were required to have the no haggling signs on them. Unfortunately, it apparently wasn’t serious enough for there to be any enforcement of the regulation. The meters are there, but turned off, and the signs are there, but they are ignored. So for some bureaucrat the problem is solved, but for tourists who take cabs nothing has changed.

The guide books recommend getting  a set price before you get in the cab, but this can be tricky if you are not sure how far you are going, or if you simply don’t know how much to expect to pay, or even what the money is worth relative to your home currency. So the negotiation between driver and rider is a pretty one-sided affair. In fact, it can’t be properly called a negotiation at all.

Haggling over prices for a lot of Western tourists is surprising and uncomfortable in the first place. For people from developed countries that do most of their transactions in formal systems (like supermarkets and department stores) rather than informal ones (like street markets), the idea that prices are not fixed can be daunting. We’re used to thinking of prices as fixed and being based to some extent on the costs to the seller of production and distribution with, of course, a mark-up that gives and incentive for the seller to be in business in the first place. Anyone who has studied marketing, economics, or managerial accounting understands that pricing is an important part of business strategy, and it can be a very complex process to arrive at a price that covers costs and maximizes profits. Further, the price also has to be acceptable to the buyer or none of the rest matters. In places like the U.S., consumers tend to think that the marked price on a product must be fair and reasonable, so they pay it without questioning it. Or they think it is too high, and they pass the product by.

There may be some negative consequences of this “set price” system. For example, when consumers blindly accept the marked price without question, they may not be practicing a high level of critical thinking about how they are spending their money. Maybe it is also eroding our social connectedness in that buyers don’t spend much time talking to vendors. It is fairly passive.

On the other hand, there is a certain fairness to the whole thing. Everyone pays the same price for the same product or service. More aggressive or savvy buyers can’t badger sellers into giving them lower prices, and more aggressive or savvy sellers can’t extract higher prices from weak-willed buyers. The benefits to keeping accurate accounting records (and therefore accurate tax reporting, among other things) are obvious, and transaction costs are kept low, especially in terms of time and aggravation, particularly for the meek, who may eventually inherit the earth, but in the meantime usually do poorly when it comes to haggling.

From a purely economic standpoint the argument could be made that haggling represents the perfectly competitive market forces that bring supply and demand into balance. Theoretically that is true. Sellers ask the most they think they can get, and buyers offer the least they think they can pay. Negotiations start there and end when both sides are satisfied that they got the best deal they could. The problem with haggling for tourists (and, it could be argued, for haggling in general) is that there is an asymmetry of information. Specifically, the seller knows more than the buyer.

One of the requirements for a perfectly competitive market is that all parties have complete information. Obviously this is not the case in the market for taxi rides. Even in a person’s own city he might not know the exact distance to his destination, or how much the ride is per mile even if he did. He might not know the way there. In a new city in a foreign country add in factors like the different currency, total unfamiliarity with the surroundings, and lack of knowledge of what a typical cab ride should cost. In this case, true negotiation is not possible. Hence, metered taxis, and in the absence of meters, cab drivers systematically ripping off tourists.

There are a lot of idle police here in Malaysia. Every few blocks a group of cops sits around an umbrella-shaded table doing nothing. The taxi issue would be simple to remedy. All it would take would be for those idle cops to walk down the street and check each cab for a working meter. No meter, instant fine. Several infractions, no more hack license. To take it a step further, police could check with passengers getting out of taxis. If they don’t have a receipt, the driver could be cited. In addition to protecting tourists, the fines could be a source of income for the city. Getting drivers to have all their fares on the books would increase tax revenue as well. Clearly there is no political will to do anything about it–tourists don’t vote, except with their feet, and in the greater scheme of things the risk of getting overcharged for a cab ride probably isn’t going to be enough to get many people to change their travel plans.

Since I’ve been in Malaysia I’ve had a pretty good experience, but my encounters with dishonest cab drivers have colored my view of the place. It isn’t just the drivers (I am tempted to say that they are just trying to earn a living the best way they know how, but that is a slippery slope, as well as an argument used by criminals to rationalize their victimization of others). It is also that there is clearly a level of official corruption that allows this to happen.

Maybe I’m cheap, maybe I’m paranoid, but knowing for certain that there is an entire industry that actively seeks to take advantage of my relative lack of information makes me feel like a victim. Now every time I go to a shop or restaurant where there’s no menu, or prices are not posted–and there are many–I get suspicious.  Why did one guy at the mini mart charge me ten ringits for something, and the next day a different guy charged me nine for the same thing? Are there one set of prices for locals and another for tourists? Probably. Do they just make up prices off the tops of their heads? I wouldn’t be surprised. Am I actually being ripped off? Maybe and maybe not. Either way knowing for certain that I’ve been ripped off by cabbies makes me feel like a target, and that’s not a nice way to feel. If I was offered a decent job here would it stop me from taking it? No, but it would keep me out of taxis and away from places without set prices.

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If you are interested in the information asymmetry concept, you might want to read “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism,” by George A. Akerlof (he won a nobel prize in economics for it) http://www.iei.liu.se/nek/730g83/artiklar/1.328833/AkerlofMarketforLemons.pdf

Living in Kuala Lumpur

When Mike and I were on the bus coming into Kuala Lumpur, we passed the Islamic museum and all it’s signage. Mike looked at me and said, “I know what you’re thinking. Do you know what I’m thinking?”

“You’re thinking, ‘Lucy’s going to make me go to that thing.'”

“Yup!”

But I haven’t. Not yet.

Instead, after hosting some visitors, we hunkered down in out apartment, completed or IB training, and . . . lived. We weren’t tourists anymore. We ate out a lot (almost a necessity, considering the limitations of our kitchenette), but besides that, most of the time we didn’t leave the apartment except for grocery shopping. So basically, we only left for food.

It’s been a month, but it’s difficult to climb out of that hibernation. We like it inside, where there’s AC and Internet. Mike reads his Kindle and Facebook. I play games on my iPad. Sometimes we would watch a movie. We also had conversations about life, and Mike listened to my rant about how the color indigo does not belong in the rainbow (Isaac Asimov also thinks so).

Well today, we went to a wet market (Mike was very unhappy) and yet another mall (to look for a new backpack for me). I’ll save those for another post.