Going With the Flow: One Crazy Bus Ride in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Here we are, sweltering in the harsh mid-day sun and standing on the side of a busy road in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia…staring at our broken down bus.  Where we are exactly, who knows; somewhere between downtown and Batu Caves, the famous Hindu site just outside the city.

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Getting ready to hike up the stairs to explore Batu Caves

On the Side of the Road in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

“Huh, I’m thinking the train would have actually been faster” I joke to Josh.  He shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head.  We had originally planned our journey from the center of Kuala Lumpur to Batu Caves via the train.  It appeared to be a fairly quick and easy journey.  However, at the last minute we decided to be spontaneous and take the bus, at the recommendation of a local; a decision that we were now second guessing.

Getting on the bus was a journey in itself.  There aren’t many official bus stops, so we were instructed to simply look for our bus number making its way through traffic and wave our arms like hailing a cab.  The bus slowed down and the door opened; notice I said slow down and not stop…because it didn’t stop!  To make it even more interesting, the bus was in the middle of an unidentifiable number of traffic lanes.  So when the bus slowed down we literally ran through the street, dodging traffic, to jump on this moving bus.  Gotta love Asia!

Just Roll With It – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Having no idea how the bus system worked, we looked toward the driver for a cue as to where to pay, but he shut the door and took off again.  Since he didn’t make a fuss and we didn’t see any kind of box, we quickly took a seat and waited to see if anyone else said anything.  As with many things in Asia, we figured that we would just go with the flow, and eventually we would figure out how it all worked.  Once settled in my seat, I looked around and realized that this bus was a total piece of crap!  “Pssst Josh,” I lean over to whisper, “this bus is a real fine piece of machinery,” I snickered “it looks like it barely runs!”  He laughed and shook his head in agreement.

Crowded bus in Kuala Lumpur
Crowded bus in Kuala Lumpur

This rickety old bus bounced us around in our seats while it weaved in and out of traffic, sounding the horn constantly and alternating between slamming on the brakes and flooring the gas pedal.  What a ride!  Finally, we noticed an ordinary-looking man board the bus with a black bag.  Immediately all the passengers start fiddling with money, and we quickly figure out that this must be the guy to pay.  When it’s our turn, he mumbled something in a language that we didn’t understand, but we handed him some money confidently.  He accepted it and gives us a ticket.  “Well, I guess that’s how it works” Josh says with a smirk on his face.

At this point, we look around the bus and realize that it is packed to the max!  There are no seats available, and people are standing wherever they can…practically on top of one another.  We were lucky to have gotten a seat, although in the back of my mind I started to wonder how I would escape in case of an emergency.  But when traveling in Asia, westernized safety concerns are things that you quickly learn to ignore; that kind of thinking doesn’t apply here!  This is also the moment that we realized we were the ONLY Westerners on the bus, which isn’t a bad thing; in fact, Josh and I enjoy having more authentic experiences when we travel.

Then it happened.  The driver begins having a hard time shifting and the gears start grinding something terrible!  He tries over and over to get it into gear, but ultimately we slowly roll up along the sidewalk and stop.  He begins talking quite loudly and rapidly to the passengers near him at the front of the bus.  The passengers wave to the rest of us on the bus and people start moving toward the exit.  When we get up to the exit, the driver tells us something in broken English that sounded like “get on the next bus.”

It’s here, as we stand on the side of the road in the heat and humidity that I realize we haven’t got a clue where we actually are!  Being spontaneous seemed like a good idea, but we never even bothered to grab a bus map!  Usually I’m well prepared for local transportation and have studied the routes, but not in this case.  All we know is that our destination, Batu Caves, was at the very end of that bus route, a bus that is now broken in the street.

Our broken bus in Kuala Lumpur
Our broken bus in Kuala Lumpur

When the next bus pulls over for us, we notice that it is not the same bus number.  All the other passengers are boarding, but we are unsure where this bus is going!  Knowing that most of the other passengers don’t speak much English, we simply ask, “Batu Caves” and point to the new bus.  They nod their heads yes, and it seems like they understand.  So we go ahead and jump on the new bus anyway.  “Just go with the flow and we’ll see where we end up,” Josh laughs!

Helpful Locals in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

After the new bus is on it’s way down the road, an old woman sitting next to me taps me on the shoulder.  “Batu Caves?” she asks in a heavy accent.  “Yes,” I reply.  Then she nods her head and simply gestures toward the front of the bus, her way of silently telling me that we were indeed going in the right direction.  It’s amazing how much you can communicate without words.

This old woman was apparently quite taken with me.  She begins laughing and chatting with me, grabbing my hand and wrapping her arm around my shoulder. I just laugh along, shaking my head and making similar gestures to hers, even though I have no clue what she is saying or why she is so excited.  At one point the woman gets the attention of other ladies sitting across from us, “Batu Caves” she says and points toward Josh and I.  Then they all gesture to road ahead, and we again feel comforted that we must be heading in the right direction.

Made it to Batu Caves!
Made it to Batu Caves!

After a quite some time, the women tap me deliberately and say “Batu Caves,” they point up ahead and then gesture toward our belongings.  We surmise that they are telling us the stop is coming soon and to get ourselves ready.  Then finally the bus slows and they all start shouting “Batu Caves, Batu Caves!” and the old woman starts literally shooing us off the bus; so we quickly stand and exit.

Once the bus is gone Josh and I look at each other, and at our quiet surroundings.  “Um…so where are the caves?” Josh asks?  We look around and realize that we are in some kind of residential neighborhood.  Then it dawns on us that since we were on a different bus number, we must have been dropped off in a place other than the main entrance.  Luckily, we noticed mountains to the west of us, so we figured we should start walking that way.  Sure enough, after a couple minutes of walking we see the entrance to the caves beyond a few busy streets.

Made it to the top of all those stairs! Batu Caves
Made it to the top of all those stairs! Batu Caves

“Well, that was a bus ride we are sure to remember” I tell Josh as we make our way toward the cave entrance.  In the end, it turned out to be one of the funniest memories from our visit to Kuala Lumpur.  Over the years we have found that often the best experiences happen when you are spontaneous and just go with the flow, attempting to get around alongside the locals.   We later discovered that the train we originally intended to take pulled up right next to the cave entrance.  While a much easier option, we’re sure that the train just wouldn’t have been quite as fun.  For more about the kindness and wonderful experience that we had at the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, check out our post: “Beyond the Postcard:  Simple Kindness in Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur Malaysia!”

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