We keep seeing doppelgangers of people we know. Kevin Wallace, I spotted you in the East Perth bus station, buying a coffee. Vern Archer Jr., you were seen – twice – on the streets of Melbourne. (Triplets I guess. Separated at birth.) Luke Nason may be interested to know that we saw his wife window-shopping in a Singapore mall.

***

Tired of Tiger Beer ($4 for 633 mL), we headed for the Singapore train station. Per the advice of Bernard, our travel agent, as well as various friends, our plan was to hop a train through Malaysia to Bangkok.

The trip would take about four days including an overnight stay in Kuala Lumpur. Neither of us had ever traveled extensively by train, though I once rode Amtrak from Laramie to Detroit, back when you could still do that (1995 or ‘96 I think).

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Singapore Railway Station, early morning

Singapore’s train station is one of those Art Deco monuments with a high arched ceiling and peeling yellow walls, decorated by colorful murals in tall alcoves that stare across an echoing space … Or so I recall. In the space sit a couple rows of faded plastic seats, red and blue and green, filled here and there with bored waiting women and children, students, off duty janitors and the occasional Caucasian tourist. Josh Yeagley’s twin wandered through at one point, apparently on an urgent errand.

We read, and did crosswords, and that was productive compared to most of the waiting passengers. A somber group at that hour, near dawn. The thousand-mile stare of the reluctant traveler.

The train was late. We gathered up some last memories of Singapore: The smell of noodles from the food stalls along the back wall filling the station; steamed rice, and eggs, and meat; a low murmur of tired voices: everyone is bleary at that hour. Forty-two across: four-letter word for “Poker-pot stake.” Hmm. The grey light creeping through the high frosted windows.

A few small birds flitting around the fluorescent lights. The weary but grateful queue.

After the perfunctory rigamarole of Customs we rode for an hour to the Malaysian border and did the whole thing again. Nobody searches our bags anywhere so we think maybe absolute innocence has a smell to it, an aura. But nobody else gets searched either and somebody must be smuggling bull sperm or heroin on this train. Odds are, that is.

No doppelgangers to pin these suspicions on. Moot point. Six hours of rattling and bumping merrily along and we pulled into Kuala Lumpur to the sight of the famous Petronas Twin Towers, Pride of Malaysia, which we eventually just missed visiting.

Owned by an oil company, they say. Insert dry witticism, and/or pointed commentary, here. We had limited time so instead we walked around Little China and spent an afternoon at the Islamic Arts Museum, maybe the best museum we’ve seen on the trip … but I think we always say that. While there we walked past a carbon copy of Dustin Bleizeffer. (And German, too.)

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Outside the Masjid Negara, the national mosque

Sitting around the star-shaped fountain near the national mosque were a couple Julie Wolks.

We stayed at the Heritage Station Hotel, a formidable structure built in 1897 and resembling inside, I couldn’t help thinking, Rick’s Place in Casablanca. Sturdy darkwood square tables, paneled floors, Arabesque carpets, dark corners and small unnoticed doors. Niches and alcoves – mystery, intrigue. We holed up in one of the cavernous terraced rooms with windows covered by a fretwork of jali – a lacy screen portal – and filled with dark wooden furniture, a desk, two chairs, a low table. The elevator is pre-Otis: sliding door and all.

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One view of the Heritage

Ceiling fans and an Arabic curvature to the woodwork. Iron finials clutching dusty chandeliers. The kind of place you’d stay in in 1920, and the walls would have gleamed.

But you wouldn’t have had the free wireless access in the bar downstairs. Progress.

Getting around Kuala Lumpur gave us our first experience with insane cab drivers. By now we’re used to it but that first guy in KL was masterfully psychotic. Sixteen years as a cabbie in that town and he can almost get his car to fly. I remember gasping in horror as we turned into oncoming traffic to avoid gridlock, and I recall Lisa failing to stifle a dismayed shriek as we scattered a sidewalk in the same attempt – but the rest is a blur. Somehow we escaped unscathed. I was so impressed I forgot the rule about not tipping and gave the guy a handful of ringgit in admiration.

Lisa meanwhile promised never to criticize my driving again.

KL has a skyline we’ll never forget, with the late day sun turning the domes – the chattri – and their slender columns a bright orange, and at night floodlights reflecting off the spires and minarets, a pale blue, the color of the moon.

The town has a feel like no other we’ve visited before or since. The arcades and bazaars buzzing with trade and talk late into the night. The architecture, amounting to a trove of invaluable public art: calligraphy, interlacing scripts, mosaics, geometric patterns, floral motifs, bas-relief, courtyard pools and fountains: and in the middle of it all downtown, lined around the central market square, the Kenny Rogers Roasters, Starbucks, KFC and McDonalds. Sag-shouldered backpackers lining up for a Prosperity Meal.

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Little China market, KL

Porticoes, pavilions, balustrades, gilded alcoves. Hawkers offering tailored clothes for low, low prices. Motorcycles on the sidewalk, nearly killing us, and each other.

The megaphone voice of Islamic prayer. An arrow on our hotel room ceiling pointing out the window: westward, and a little north: Kiblat: Mecca.