A bathroom has made my week.
This was not, however, any old SE Asian bathroom. Oh no: This was the Petronas Towers’ shopping mall deluxe bathroom, with such deluxe pleasures as toilet paper, toilet seats, and hand soap. For 2 Malaysian ringgitt (about $.60), travelers can take a break from the typical squat pit potties and hose-cum-TP of Kuala Lumpur’s other toilets and instead pamper themselves with Shisheido cucumber waters, Chanel perfumes, and Johnson & Johnson baby lotion. All this while rubbing shoulders with the burqa-ed and chador-ed elite of the Islamic diaspora.
There was a time not so long ago when I would have scoffed at such luxuries, along with the travelers who succumbed to their lure. (After all, at Let’s Go, we ranked ourselves and our writers on a ‘hard core’ index. Any traveler who couldn’t endure—nay, look forward to—a night spent eating ants, peeing in a bottle, and sleeping on the cement in a rainstorm while fending off gypsy burglars and tourist touts didn’t deserve the honor of being a backpacking guru guide.) Alas, that was a decade ago—a lifetime ago—and I’m realizing on this Southeast Asian honeymoon that perhaps my tastes and my travels are maturing. Whereas in that past travel life, I would scrimp every penny just to see how cheaply and for how long I could travel (and spend what I saved on clothes!), I now will willingly pay a few extra ringgitt for AC, a clean shower, and toilet paper. Have I sold out? Am I missing the point of traveling outside of the Western world? Horror: Have I turned into a luxury traveler?!
Ross and I confronted these existential, identity-shaking questions a few days ago while sipping beers at a traveler’s café in Malaca, Malaysia. We arrived in this crumbling colonial port after a week in Hong Kong and Singapore, the wealthy and international mega-cities of the South China Sea. Hong Kong and Singapore were exciting, full of busy Chinese markets, decadent street food, and beautifully dressed Asian punksters and fashionistas. While we were certainly in a new world—we couldn’t read the signs and didn’t quite know what meat made its way into our meals—it was still familiar: the foods of Chinatown and Little India at home, the clean and efficient subways, the endless shopping malls and fast food joints. We were in Asia, but it was an Asia that had long ago mastered the consumerist and hedonistic splendor of globalized capitalism.
Stepping off the bus in Malaca, then, was a bit of a shock. Noisier, hotter, more chaotic, more aromatic, Malaysia instantly announced its developing world status. Certainly, it has much in common with where we’d already been. Most notably, infinite shopping and infinitely friendly locals. And Malaca specifically and Malaysia in general are by no means difficult places to be. (As Tony, our guest house host, explained to us, Malaysia is a stable and content country. A large and healthy middle class; a respectful, multicultural coexistence; and a vibrant democracy ensure this.) That said, there are noticeable differences that get exhausting after awhile. Whether it’s dodging the rushing waters of open sewers or fending off the persistent trishaw drivers, a few hours in Malaca had me pooped. All I wanted was a clean shower, an air-conditioned resting place, and a menu that I could read. Which is how we wound up in an anglophone traveler’s café, sipping buckets of beer, and chatting with Aussie and British travelers. And therein began the existential travel crisis: What was wrong with me that I could be in the beautiful, diverse, and friendly country of Malaysia and want something else, something that felt like home?
After four buckets of beer and a bit of Chinese-inspired Elton John karaoke, I think I found an answer. There was, in fact, nothing wrong; I have simply grown up. Traveling, even in the developing world, is no longer about racking up ‘I almost died when…’ stories and seeing just how far you can push yourself to your limits. And just because I am willing to succumb to a few creature comforts does not make me an obnoxiously American, party-route backpacker. Rather, admitting the things I physically need—a delicious meal, a break from the heat, a bathroom with toilet paper—frees me to enjoy more my time in a place. If I’m physically comfortable, I’m mentally comfortable. And that, above all else, makes traveling enjoyable.
So I accept that every now and then I need to drop a few ringgitt or dong for a Western bathroom. And I accept that I’d rather stay at an English-speaking guesthouse for families and adults than a dingy hostel. And admitting that has opened up whole new worlds.
Thanks to our hours spent at the traveler’s café, we met the English-speaking proprietor who introduced us to the delicate flavors of the rambutan fruit. Thanks to the backpacker haven of Tony’s Guest House, we got a lesson in Malaysian diversity, politics, and social security. Thanks to our weariness with battling our way from airports to hotels on our own, we shelled out for an airport pick-up in Hanoi and got to actually enjoy and take in the 40km drive through rice paddies and traffic-signal-free intersections. Thanks to our willingness to prioritize good food (and our willingness to pay for a taxi to get there), we have delighted in the tastes of SE Asia, from cook-it-yourself satay to the Portuguese-Malay seafood feast we ate while overlooking the Straights of Malaka. And thanks to our need for AC and a break from the chaos of Malaysian Chinatowns, we sought out the Petronas Towers, where we observed firsthand the explosion of Kuala Lumpur’s economy, dove head-first into the fashions and pleasures of the Middle Eastern middle class, and found that luxurious, wonderful, toilet-papered bathroom.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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