Two weeks after my first trip to Malaysia, I typed notes on my phone. I mentioned “the egg-yolk sunrise peeking through KL’s skyscrapers” and “the odd feeling of seeing street signs that have Tagalog-sounding words on them.” Now when I think of that whirlwind trip to Kuala Lumpur, what I remember most is the hostel where I stayed.
When I told my mother that I booked a hostel at a foreign city, I expected her to go ballistic. After all, she had seen the B-rated gorefest called “Hostel” on a pirated DVD. But when I told her about me and my sisters’ hostel experience, she was only amused. My mother had stayed overnight at a backpacker’s hostel before. She went to sleep early on her dorm room bunk, and woke up to find a gaggle of European backpackers sprawled on the surrounding beds. One woman slept with a hand inside her underwear.
Weeks before our trip, I searched TripAdvisor for good places to stay in. I read user review after user review of budget hotels. The reviews ranged from delighted (“They have clean showers and a well-functioning bidet”), disgusted (“The pillows have questionable stains on them”), offended (“The staff is downright rude and there is an unflushed condom in the toilet”) to disaffected (“Good for sleeping and nothing more.”) Overwhelmed with choices and conflicting blurbs on the internet, I picked a hostel that was cheap, conveniently located, and, according to the majority of its reviewers, quite safe.
We got lost on the way to the hostel. The directions said it was located near a 7-Eleven, and that it was easy to find if you were coming from the bus stop. But my entire family, I suspect, are bad at directions: My parents argue about which turns to take at the Friendship Route in our city, despite having driven through those streets for years. I consult Google Maps even if the place I’m going to is only 10 minutes away from my office building. My sister got lost on the way home from a school event in Makati, prompting my father to send her a barrage of “san kna??” texts.
After a sweaty hour of slogging through the streets of KL, we finally reached our hostel. Sure enough, it was accessible through a small, uphill road in front of a 7-Eleven. On the way to the hostel, we passed a construction site and a Hindu temple. Wedding guests loitered outside, wearing colorful outfits and flowers around their necks. The women had enviable silky hair.
We kept walking until we saw the bright blue door that was mentioned in the email I got from the hostel management. The place had an Indian-sounding name and a European-looking owner. Blue-eyed, blonde-haired, and gap-toothed Ernest welcomed us with a wide smile. (Later, I told my sisters that Ernest looks like a male Madonna.) I told him my name so that he could check us in. We watched him browse through his computer.
“How come you don’t look Australian?” he asked, genuinely confused.
“Because we’re not?” I said tentatively, stupidly. “We’re Filipino.”
It turned out that there had been a mistake with our rooms. An employee tagged me as an Australian national who, according to Ernest’s records, would be staying at the hostel’s only suite. They must have taken the name of my street–which nearly sounds like “Australia”–for my country of origin.
To make amends, Ernest offered us the suite for the same price of the twin room I originally booked: two single beds and a shared bathroom.
I was elated. The mistake was the equivalent of booking an economy seat and getting upgraded to business class. We waited for Ernest to make changes in his computer. While doing that, he shouted at his assistant to watch the chicken he left on the stove, instead of watching football on TV.
When everything was done, we followed Ernest to our suite. We passed a lounge and a tiny kitchen/dining area where, Ernest said, we could help ourselves to free breakfasts of sliced bread and instant coffee. We were also allowed to cook our own meals. A woman was soaking vegetables in a deep pot next to Ernest’s chicken casserole.
The hostel hallway had the austere aura of a Manila boarding house with fire code violations. Ernest opened the door, revealing our room for two nights. He smiled, handed me the keys and some threadbare bath towels, and then he promptly left us standing by the threshold.
The hostel’s “suite” is a square room snugly occupied by a double bed, a desk and a chair, and a private bathroom that was two-thirds the size of my closet at home. It was lit by an overhead light bulb and a no-nonsense wall sconce. A vertical mirror was mounted on the wall near the bathroom. Another wall had double windows, covered by thick curtains that I was afraid to open.
It was our home away from home.
Springs poked our backs when we lied on the bed. The pillows looked sad, flat and hard like biscuits left on a plate. Taking showers transformed us into contortionists, eager to get clean but wary of our shins touching the toilet seat. The door tended to stick to its frame, making it hard to lock whenever we went out for the day. On our first morning in KL, while futilely trying to lock the door, Ernest’s co-owner Marvin passed by our room. With a surly look on his face, he stomped to the dining area clutching a loaf of bread and a mug. I asked my sister to ask Marvin for help, because he might be in a bad mood and because he was cute. He quietly showed us how to lock the door before returning to his breakfast.
TripAdvisor was right about our hostel’s convenient location. “Most of the must-see places are walkable from here,” Ernest assured us as he looked over a city map.
We walked to Chinatown, where we had our first, overpriced meal of rice and kebabs. We walked to Jalan Alor, trailing behind two Filipino ladyboys carrying shopping bags filled with booze. We walked to the square near the National Mosque, where a homeless guy left his briefs on the pavement to dry. We walked to Brickfields and Central Market, passing men who casually catcalled and checked us out. We walked to museums and galleries and train stations, and impossibly, to the Petronas Towers that loomed over Kuala Lumpur like two mighty gods.
At night, we went back to our suite, exhausted and glad. We had a place to sleep in after a long day of aimless exploration. The room had decent AC, a relief from the blistering heat of KL. We had the suite, goddammit. The other guests stayed at dorm-type rooms and shared a common bathroom down the hall. And most important of all, we weren’t filmed by cuckoos who severed our body parts with carpentry tools. Note: That is the plot of “Hostel.”
For all its faults, we did not whine about our crappy suite. Even when the toilet gurgled its contents at a painfully slow pace (sorry for that imagery), we found the whole experience hilarious.
When I booked that hostel, I striked off two items on my travel bucket list: Stay in a gritty hostel and surive? Check! Sleep in a quote-unquote suite? Check! Do those two things at the same time? Check!
So lovely reader, go out there and book a crappy hostel. It’s definitely an adventure of its own.
PS: Hostels have a dodgy reputation but there are plenty of nice ones out there. The one I booked in Bangkok had comfy beds, clean showers, key cards, and free cornflakes.