Do you know how long it takes to form a first impression about a person? 100 milliseconds. In contrast, it takes about 350 milliseconds to blink your eyes. So, as travelers, quite literally within the blink of an eye, we determine the fate of a city or a country three times over.
I like to think that traveling has taught me to approach every new destination with an open heart and an open mind. It’s a rollercoaster out here, and the truth is that no amount of reading and planning will ever truly prepare you for your own subjective response to the places you visit. We try to keep our expectations in check and not let our hopes for what a place will be blind us to what it actually is.
But the truth is, we all know that the impressions we form as soon as we walk through the doors of the airport or hop off a long-distance bus will generally set the tone for things to come. We all say that we’ll wait until we have all the facts and have collected all of the experiences we can before we deliver judgment on a city or a country but, deep down, we don’t. Hell, sometimes we’ve made up our minds before the plane’s wheels have bumped against the tarmac and we’re taxiing to the terminal. Other times it all comes down to whether you were swarmed by touts and got fleeced on your way into the city, or whether you were greeted with a smile at immigration and the weather is nice when you set out to explore. And other times still, we fall in love (or the complete opposite) with a place for reasons far more nebulous and tricky to pin down. What I do know, is that when we have made up our minds about a place, whether it’s good or bad, we tend to cling to those initial judgments, stubborn and unyielding, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
With so many places to see in the world and both time and money limited, it’s hard to justify returning to a place you didn’t much care for the first time around; for most travelers, if they sour on a destination early on, it’s unlikely they’ll ever go back. But every so often life throws a curve ball and we get the chance to do things over and give a place a second shot, only for us to find that a place that didn’t capture our hearts at first sight may improve on follow-up.
Our relationship with Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, is a perfect example of this. The first time we visited Kuala Lumpur, it was just for a quick three days before flying off to Borneo. We arrived excited and enthusiastic, and left anything but. I wouldn’t go so far to say we hated the city, but we certainly didn’t like it very much.
Maybe it was because our hotel had been located somewhere that looked perfect on paper, but proved somewhat inconvenient in reality, far enough from anything we might want to see (not that we really had any idea of what we wanted to see) that getting to places was a bit of a hassle. Certainly the fact that we had foolishly booked a fan room on our first evening in a room without windows that was akin to being roasted alive in a slow cooker didn’t help, and wandering the equally blazing streets didn’t make things any better. The city was so big, so sprawling, so dusty, so noisy, so jarring, we just couldn’t get a handle on it and constantly felt underwhelmed, cranky and off-kilter. We like being in big cities, but we also like being able to explore on foot; in Kuala Lumpur we were constantly feeling like we were risking life & limb every time we walked anywhere, so relentless was the traffic and the fact that motorcycles thought absolutely nothing about jumping the curb and barreling down the sidewalks. Despite months in Asia and having traveled in China and the Philippines, I still assume that capital cities are going to be gleaming and grand, but Kuala Lumpur, every inch of it seemingly in a contradictory state of decay and new construction, felt tatty and a little bit bleak.
Based on our first date with Kuala Lumpur, I certainly wasn’t in any rush to go back for a second, but we had already purchased our return tickets from Borneo and had little choice in the matter. We didn’t see much during our first visit, and I hoped that perhaps with a little more preparation on our parts, we could make our second visit a little more pleasant. And if not, with no flight tickets to pin us down, we could always leave.
So, it was really a delightful surprise to find that, upon returning from the wilds of Borneo, I actually quite liked the city. I can’t exactly say why that is—certainly the city hadn’t changed in the three weeks we had been gone, and I don’t really think we had either—but, this time, things just clicked. I’ve noticed that one side-effect of constantly pulling up stakes and being on the move, is that it takes very little for new destinations to feel like home. Conventional wisdom tells us that familiarity breeds contempt; experimentally speaking, that claim seems dubious at best, and out here in the world I’ve also found the opposite to be true. When everything is unfamiliar and foreign and it’s so easy to feel off balance, even returning to a place you only know in the vaguest and most superficial of ways can be such a comfort. Feeling like you actually know where you are in a city, recognizing landmarks and being able to anticipate what comes around the next corner, it can make your fondness for a place soar.
Maybe, too, having already experienced Kuala Lumpur, our expectations were more in line with reality than the fanciful fiction promoted by guidebooks. Staying a block away from the Central Market this time, an easy walk to Chinatown and a myriad attractions, we found ourselves settling into the rhythm of the city, this time finding pleasure in our desultory walks around town. Second glances seemed to bestow me with x-ray vision, as I pierced through the grit and grime and saw the charm lurking just beneath the surface as we walked. Whereas before I had felt the city was an assault on my senses, overloading and overwhelming me, this time I felt I could home in on the good things: the astounding architecture (about which, more in a later post)—an intoxicating blend of stately Colonial and ornate Islamic buildings, the abundant food choices (all delicious), and the bubbling character of the city that comes on strong but is benign and actually kind of endearing. When the streets became too much, we took refuge in beautiful museums, tranquil mosques, and fragrant markets swathed in color. Previously, we had approached Kuala Lumpur like a fist ready to attack, clenched and apprehensive; this time, we relaxed and let the city splay before us, unguarded and at ease. We spent five days days exploring, and I felt grateful every day we hadn’t ruled it out entirely after our first visit.
Perhaps Kuala Lumpur is like a good wine that needs time to breathe before consumed, its astringent notes mellowing and softening, slowly becoming palatable. We’ve visited Kuala Lumpur three times since arriving in Asia (as the Air Asia hub, it is the epicenter of cheap flights), and every time, we like the city a little bit more, uncovering new pockets to explore and finding contentment in returning to old haunts, comforting touchstones to ground us in a bustling city that seems to be constantly mutating into something new.
We’ve all heard the bromide about it being a woman’s prerogative to change her mind; I’d go one step further and say this should be the traveler’s prerogative as well. After all, first impressions are all well and good, but it’s those final ones that we take with us when we depart that really matter.
Tell us: Have you ever visited Kuala Lumpur? If so, what did you think? If not, have you ever visited a place that you initially didn’t care for but came to appreciate?