Feeling Othered in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur Regalia Serviced Apartments AirBNB

NOTE: I’ve really been slacking on the travel blogging, partially because we’ve been having so much fun, and partially because I do have a day job. Bler. Despite that, I do have a backlog of adventures to write up, so look for those in the coming week. They’re not quite in chronological order, because I figure it’s better to get content, any content, flowing again. So, without further ado:

Feeling Othered in Kuala Lumpur

Before we were feeling othered in Kuala Lumpur, we were in Ko Lanta, Thailand, sitting cross-legged in a treehouse on the beach. It was nighttime, and now and then a huge lightning storm went off in the distance, lighting up the whole Andaman sea for a moment, before it all went black again. In the foreground, a few local Thais put on a show of their own, spinning and throwing flaming balls of kerosene-soaked rags for the tourists in the chintz plastic chairs.


One of those things a picture could just never do justice. 

Polly and I sat cross-legged above the scene, in a second-storey tree house nested in the clavicle of a beach palm. A local Thai and two British schoolteachers were our company. We told the teachers of our travel plans: to Singapore, where we’d stay at the Marina Bay Sands, then on to Kuala Lumpur for a few nights, in transit to Bali.

“Two days is about right for Singapore. Like… negative one days for KL,” they said. “It’s… not a very nice place.”

This is what everyone says about KL.

I’ll be honest: we chose to visit Malaysia mostly to get another stamp in the passport. There was little interest in the culture, and we knew nothing of the sights. Plus, it was one of only two places we could get on the last bit of our ASEAN pass. So we booked tickets to KL, sight unseen.


Look, there they are! US Passport holders are entitled to visa-free entry.


When we started talking with fellow travelers, it quickly became apparent that no one has kind words for KL. Every person we spoke to warned us that KL was a dangerous, unpleasant city, and told us to be careful. Every single person WHITE person we spoke to said this.

I have two friends who have been in the past year, and both had great visits. They had nothing but enthusiastic praise for the capital of Malaysia. But one’s Hawaiian, and the other’s Indian. Both blend seamlessly into a Malaysian crowd. A 6’2 white guy and a pretty blonde woman, Polly and I did not.

Living in the Dredd Tower

While we were in Chiang Mai, we caught the movie Dredd on Thai TV a few times. (Thai TV exclusively shows weird western movies you forgot existed, probably because they’re super-cheap to license). The place we stayed in Kuala Lumpur reminded me of nothing so much as the movie Dredd. Kuala umpur, as a whole, must have inspired that movie, I think. The resemblance is uncanny.

We were in KL for three nights. We went a little upscale on our lodging, and sprang for a $43/night AirBNB (mostly because it came with free access to this skypool, which was absolutely worth the price of the stay).


This skyline was the highlight of our trip, for sure. It’s amazing in person.

This was also a good call, because even at this price point, the building we were staying in still felt more than a little seedy. Despite an impressive entryway with security and two pools, once you get inside the hallways of the Regalia, it starts to feel a little sketch. The hallways are dirty, and we rarely saw another soul walking the huge complex. Delinquency notices were posted in the elevators, a public shaming of those behind on their rents. Our AirBNB host was on the list. He owed a 10,000 ringgit ($2,500) debt. The number of the unit we were staying in was listed right next to his name.

We were totally fine during our stay, but we certainly didn’t spend any more time in the hallways than we needed to.

Snatch Thieves in Kuala Lumpur

(pardon the lack of photos here, I was scared of snatch thieves)

The big danger in KL is snatch theft. This involves a stranger grabbing your bag on the street and running away. Often thieves will grab your bag as they drive by on a motorbike, which is a more dangerous form of snatch theft, as victims can be dragged into the flow of traffic if they don’t let go of their bag.

This is an issue they warn you about all over Southeast Asia, but it’s particularly bad in KL. Nowhere else in our travels have we seen signs on the road and in the businesses: “be ware of snatch thief.” Not exactly confidence inspiring.

Most of the time we traveled without bags, and with our hands in our pockets.


Stares on the train

We were stared at constantly during our time in Malaysia. As a Westerner, I’ve been raised to believe staring is rude and threatening. I truly don’t believe it carries the same cultural stigma in Malaysia, but it’s hard to shrug off your cultural conditioning at the drop of a hat. The stares felt dangerous and othering, especially to Polly.

The adults stare like children do: without shame or embarrassment. I took to meeting their gaze, and staring back. The eye contact lasted ten, twenty seconds. Sometimes a smile would be reciprocated, sometimes not. Always the staring continued. Men and women alike.

This is what it’s like to be exotic.

A conservative culture

Malaysia is a very Muslim country. They call to prayer fives times a day, loudly. The majority of women wear niqabs, or headscarves. Plenty wear burqas. The trains have designated cars for women only. In general, it is a very foreign place for Westerners.

If you don’t like modulating your behavior to suit someone else’s morals, KL is not for you.

Malls in Kuala Lumpur


Despite the whole “Muslim majority” thing, Kuala Lumpur was absolutely decked-out for Christmas (we were there in December). My best guess? They love Christmas for the shopping.

Malls are the national sport of Kuala Lumpur, basically. They are everywhere. There are underground malls, aboveground malls, skyscraper malls, 12-storey malls… any kind of mall you could imagine. And they’re all exactly like the malls you grew up frequenting in bumfucknowhere, Indiana.

We spent a lot of time in the malls. But even here, we were followed in stores. People clutched their bags while we passed.

Kuala Lumpur is a bizarre city in which to be a white, American tourist, and we weren’t sad to see the back of it.


5 thoughts on “Feeling Othered in Kuala Lumpur

  1. I can definitely second the staring thing. As a white girl in India, I experienced the same sort of unabashed staring from adults, and even people taking pictures! Not sure if I’ll travel to KL, but it was an interesting read nonetheless!

    • The Chinese do the picture thing too!

      These are regions of the world where white travelers are still somewhat rare, I guess.

      I wonder how long it will stay that way…

  2. Also, reflecting on this some more, I feel like it’s good for someone who has always been in the majority to experience what it’s like to be on the other side.

    • I agree. Traveling in these areas has certainly made me realize the practical benefit of my white skin. KL was the one place we’ve been where the color of our skins wasn’t ONLY net benefits.

      We certainly benefitted in some ways– our AirBNB host said police wouldn’t bother us, where they would hassle someone they perceived as Vietnamese or Cambodian, for instance.

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