Day 10,674 1/2: Feeling quite smug with ourselves at figuring out transportation to the Batu Caves and back, Mr. M & I exited the central Kuala Lumpur train station to transfer to our next rail stop… and ran smack into a massive crowd of confused-looking people. The station, which just so happens to be adjacent to Federal Hill, was packed.
Hmm. Rush hour, perhaps? We wound our way through the confused throngs (who, contrary to my rush hour theory, didn’t seem to be headed anywhere) towards our transfer to the local rail service, which would hopefully take us back to our hotel. Instead, we found that all entrances to the local rail were inexplicably closed. A crowd had gathered behind the steel gate blocking entrance, and everyone seemed equally baffled by the closure.
Welll…. we were already in the city… we just needed to re-evaluate our options to get back to the hotel. Mr. M consulted our map and realized that with just a bit of walking, we could take the city monorail back to our neighborhood.
Apparently, half the crowd in the station realized this as well because as soon as we exited the station, Mr. M & I were pushed and shuffled along outside down a narrow back alley. It felt like getting caught up in an unexpectedly strong current. I grabbed at Mr. M’s arm to keep from being swept away and suddenly realized that my eyes were burning.
“What IS that?!” Mr. M had to yell because there was so much commotion and so many people, most of whom now had shirts, scarves, anything up over their faces, trying to run and pushing us along in the process. It felt like my throat was burning when I’d inhale, and my eyes were watering so much I couldn’t see where I was going. I squeezed my fistful of Mr. M’s shirt tight and was necessarily pushing people back to avoid getting trampled. (By the way, thank you cardio kickboxing… I knew that elbow block would come in handy one day.) It was absolute chaos, and we had no clue what was going on.
The acrid smell of tear gas dissipated as we were shoved out of the alley. I tried to stop for a few gulps of clean air, but Mr. M pulled me, running, in the direction of the monorail. Tear gas brings a certain urgency to any situation. We found the monorail entrance and were immediately met with a chain-link fence. The monorail was closed.
Forget public transport; whatever was going down, it seemed best to get out of the area as soon as possible. Seemingly miraculously, we saw a taxi parked at the curb right outside, and Mr. M ran over to snag it. The driver laughed and told us he wasn’t going anywhere- that no one was going anywhere because some sort of political rally had closed down many of the city’s major streets. All transportation in central Kuala Lumpur would be at a standstill for hours.
Okay, stay calm… there was no reason we couldn’t walk the 4km back to the hotel, right? 4km isn’t far at all, but (1) we were a little afraid of running into more tear gas, (2) the streets were filling up with more and more stranded people by the second, and (3) not all of Kuala Lumpur is pedestrian-friendly. Many of KL’s side streets don’t have sidewalks, so you risk getting hit by… exuberant, shall we say… motor scooters and taxi drivers that use the shoulder as another lane. Nevertheless, attempting to walk seemed worth it just to escape the melee.
We turned the corner to start the long walk home when we heard chanting and yelling. I felt Mr. M yank at my arm and looked up to see marching men and women completely filling the street with huge groups of armed police on either side. They were headed right toward us.
In the crush of people now swarming the street, we couldn’t turn around or move forward without getting caught in the demonstration and were forced back into the tear gas. People with briefcases, luggage, small children in tow were running in every direction. I pulled my scarf over my mouth, and with eyes burning, Mr. M dragged me back into the train station, which was now wall-to-wall packed with people trying to get off the streets.
As we stepped over people camped out on the floor, we realized there was a fancy-schmancy Le Meridien hotel located just on the other side of the train station. There’s something about familiarity in the face of chaos that’s unbelievably appealing. When in doubt, fancy hotels will help, right? Right?
The street between the station and the Meridien was packed with people, although a whole bunch of police (with some sort of handgun drawn… point taken, my good sirs) and security guards had maintained a wide periphery around the hotel, presumably to keep the huge crowd from storming inside.
In certain situations, whether getting through a crowd of macaque monkeys or past armed guards, it pays to look confident and just keep walking- so we did. We pushed past people, walked straight up to the guards and tried to look annoyed through our fear, like we were impatient westerners trying to get back to our hotel, and one of the security guards broke rank, smiled at us, and ran to open the door! We didn’t see anyone else make it across the barrier. For once, it paid off looking like an obnoxious tourist.
The hotel lounge had several other nervous-looking groups ordering drinks in an attempt to wait out the craziness. For two hours, we kept ordering food & drink so they wouldn’t kick us out, as it was clear they only wanted guests of the hotel inside.
From the lobby area we weren’t able to see what was going on outside. Six sodas, two sandwiches, an ice cream sundae, and a pretty hefty bar tab later, we decided to take a chance and leave the security of the hotel.
Amazingly, it was like nothing had even happened. Cars were driving in the streets. The train station was clear, as commuters crisscrossed from rail line to rail line. The train back to our neighborhood wasn’t even crowded. It felt like we’d imagined everything… like some episode of The Twilight Zone.
But when we went out for a walk around our neighborhood that evening, everything was shut down, and convoys of armed guards were driving the streets and camped out on the sidewalks. I’m generally not a particularly nervous traveler, but I did find it a little unsettling to have to step over one guard’s semi-automatic on our way back.
Government censorship of the news in some areas of Southeast Asia meant we never saw footage of the demonstration on the news or heard of anything more than a vaguely defined ‘political rally’ until returning home. Back in the U.S., the protest made headlines… we had a few worried family members back home who’d heard of an uprising in KL and knew we were somewhere nearby.
It was only when we got home that we learned what we got caught up in was a pro-democracy rally initiated in the hopes of electoral reform under Prime Minister Razak. (Not to get political on you, but recounting this experience made me grateful. Even if you’re not excited about either U.S. presidential candidate this November, it’s a really good time to remember how lucky we are to get the opportunity to vote. Last time I checked I didn’t need to face tear gas and water cannons to fight for free and fair elections.)
Here’s the MSNBC article about the protest on the day we were there; apparently there were over 1600 arrests, lots of tear gas fired, and water cannon trucks deployed by the Malaysian armed forces.
This particular day in Kuala Lumpur that began within the harmonious Batu caves and ended in a cloud of tear gas was an exercise in extremes.
A microcosm of life, shrink-wrapped up into a single day.
Peace, tranquility, chaos, fear… I love life when the pendulum swings wide.
Details of the Day:
Safety: With a little knowledge about the country, we could’ve avoided much of this (although then where would I get my travel stories!). Political rallies in Malaysia are generally well-organized, but they can get a little rough around the edges. Our hotel had slipped a small notice under our door that a rally would be taking place in central KL and that it would be “inconvenient” to tourist in this area. The notice was so minimized that we honestly didn’t even think about it… especially coming from the U.S., where NYC’s Occupy Wall Street became more tourist attraction than anything else. The protests in KL were downplayed to such an extent, in fact, that it took us awhile to realize that what we’d happened into was the ‘small rally’! Although it may seem alarmist, you’re probably best heeding all notices, even if they seem non-descript.