Getting Lost: KL vs. Singapore vs. Jakarta

A considerably huge part of traveling is getting lost in the places you travel to – at least that’s what most people say. Now lots of people associate the words “getting lost” with some sort of exotic theme and finding some mental enlightenment and whatnot. But the kind of getting lost I’m talking about here is the literal kind, where you literally can’t figure out where you’re going and instead of getting an enlightenment, all you’re getting are frustration and tiredness.

At the end of last year, I spent several days in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Singapore and literally got really lost in both places. In the process of trying to figure out the way to where I wanted to go, getting on and off various public transport modes and consulting to various maps, I learned a lot about both countries and its people and can’t help but compare them to each other and to the situation back home in Jakarta, Indonesia. Here’s what it actually felt like to get lost in KL, Singapore, and Jakarta.

Kuala Lumpur

Arriving in KL and trying to figure out how to get to the city center from the airport wasn’t that hard since I’d looked up information about the KLIA Express before arriving there. KLIA Express is honestly the best way from the airport to the city center since it cuts travel time to only 35 minutes and the trains are incredibly comfortable. Directions were also very clear at KLIA and KLIA2 on where we can get to the trains although at RM55 for a trip to KL Sentral station, they’re a pretty expensive way to get to the city.

KLIA Express Train

Once we got to KL Sentral, however, it was much easier to get a GrabCar or a taxi to get to our hotel since we hadn’t figured out KL’s MRT or bus system yet. I actually experienced both ends of the GrabCar and taxi service spectrum in KL: some drivers went above and beyond their duties and were awesome people to talk to while others were nothing less than rude or plain clueless in what they do or both. It’s a rather expensive way to get around and unless you’re going outside the city center, I wouldn’t really recommend it.

When we got to the hotel, I spent two hours in front of the business center’s computer trying to figure out the MRT and bus system in KL and the closest stops to everything. During our three days there, we ended up doing most of our traveling on MRTs and LRTs or on foot and not getting on the bus at all, so I can’t say anything about the bus system in KL.

KL's MRT system map
KL’s MRT system map

The closest MRT station to our hotel was Masjid Jamek Station which was a transit station that’s really, really crowded. We got tickets in the form of tokens from a self-operated ticketing machine that’s clear and easy to use. I would suggest anyone traveling to KL to learn its MRT system because it’s probably the cheapest way to get around (Masjid Jamek to KLCC only costs RM1.90!) Its stations also have signs pointing out where everything is and where you need to go to get everything. The trains are also very clean and fast, although you need to watch your personal belongings.

Masjid Jamek Station

With clear instructions and directions everywhere, an awesome transport system, and a cheap SIM card to run Google Maps, it may sound unlikely you’ll get really, really lost in KL right? But hey, I managed to do just that while walking from Bukit Bintang to Alor Street – KL’s center of street food.

When I checked out Google Maps, Alor Street seemed really close to Pavilion Bukit Bintang where we would be walking to from our MRT station in KLCC. However, when I got there and exited the building, there didn’t seem to be any areas that looked like street food centers around it. I asked a local security guard who carried a huge gun on his back for directions and he kindly pointed out where to go, saying “just go straight and turn right after you see KFC”. So I did that, but when I got the junction where we could cross to go further ahead to KFC, I found the pedestrian crossing to be fenced in. It was quite dark and there were a lot of shady people around who seemed too close to my bag and my body for comfort so I decided to turn around. My dad checked out Waze and it told us to go back where we came from and go the opposite direction. So we tried that and were led to a huge intersection with dark sidewalks and speeding cars. That didn’t seem right too, so I tried asking another local who didn’t know who told us to go back to the direction of the fenced crossing.

Had we continued walking to the right, we would have made it to Alor St.

At this point I had become tired from walking from KLCC to Bukit Bintang and then around in circles for more than 1.5 hours. I finally asked a hotel’s security guard on where we could get a taxi and he walked outside to show me where it is. We got two taxis for RM6 each for them to point out that we were heading the right direction the first time and just needed to walk a bit further for the crossing and KFC. Really, had we followed through with the first walk, we would have arrived at Alor Street. I was dumbstruck in the taxi and thanked the guy for showing us where to go.

After dinner at Alor Street, we thought about how we would go back to the hotel. I was too tired to walk to an MRT station again, there were literally prostitutes haggling with their clients blatantly around me, there were a lot of guys walking too close for comfort at that area so we got taxis back to the hotel instead of MRT.

The next day, we got stranded at Sepang after spending a day there and stupidly just realizing that there are no taxis or GrabCars nearby. Fortunately, the marshals there (especially my new friend Zul) helped a lot in trying to get an Uber or taxi and we ended up with a GrabCar driver willing to take us to KLIA to catch a KLIA Express train to KL Sentral.

Considering it was my first time in KL, I didn’t get really lost there thanks to easy access to clear directions and maps everywhere in the city and a well-integrated transport system. But on the occasion that we did get lost, the locals in KL are nice enough to show us where to go clearly and even help us get transport issues sorted. The security guards, though seeming intimidating with their big guns and stony gaze, are actually super nice to lost travelers. Although I strongly recommend you have Google Maps running on your phone and try to figure the transport routes before going anywhere in KL so you won’t get to really suspicious areas, even if you do get lost, the locals there will still help you out.

Singapore

Singapore is actually the first country in Southeast Asia to have an integrated public transport system of MRTs and buses, so I had high hopes of not getting lost when I arrived there. Unlike KL, they also have a special 3-day tourist pass for all public transport modes in Singapore which costs SGD30 for unlimited usage during those three days.

Singapore Tourist Pass
Singapore Tourist Pass

Getting into town from the airport was also easy since there’s an MRT station at Changi Airport’s Terminal 3 which can be reached via monorail from Terminal 1. However, when I got to Aljunied MRT Station – the closest one to our hotel in Geylang – I was surprised to find to little information about what to do next to get to our hotel. There was a bus map that said a bus could take us to a Buddhist temple at Lor 22 where our hotel is, but there’s no instruction on which bus stop it is and what’s the bus number that could get us there. There were no security guards or officials to ask, so I walked to the bus stop and tried asking a local who gave me a cold shoulder. An old man eventually told me that from the bus stop right in front of Aljunied we could go to Geylang but had to leave before he could tell me which bus I needed to take.

My dad checked on Google Maps and the hotel seemed close, so we decided to haul our luggage and walk to Lor 22 – which was actually quite a walk. When we got to the street, we couldn’t figure out where our hotel was either so we had to ask a guy washing his car to finally get there.

With a plan to go out to Gardens by the Bay that night, I had screenshotted every possible route to get there and just had to figure out where the first bus stop was. Thankfully, our reception staff (again, another old man) was kind enough to step out in the rain and show me where to walk until he’s sure I understood. There was also a bus map to consult to at the bus stop which was something I’m incredibly grateful for. But the huge problem with Singapore’s bus is that we didn’t know which bus stop was next. There were no announcements whatsoever so we relied on this mobile app my dad got from the state which told us what’s the next bus stop by tracking our journey – but even that app misled us to stop later than we should have and thus, we walked in the rain from the F1 grandstand to Marina Bay Sands.

Singapore's Skyline from the walk to Marina Bay Sands

When we got to Marina Bay Sands, I decided to go to ArtScience Museum since it was too rainy to go to Gardens by the Bay. Directions to ArtScience Museum were really confusing so I tried asking a security guard who looked annoyed at my question and only told me to go up another level. Eventually, we gave up and headed to the MRT station to Bugis Junction, where we had dinner and eventually got a taxi back to the hotel for SGD13.

The next day, we took the bus to VivoCity to catch the SentosaExpress headed to Sentosa. The bus trip itself took us around some of Singapore’s landmarks which I’m really thankful for and we actually got off the bus too early this time which was less of a problem than missing a stop.

Fullerton Hotel from the bus

Raffles Hotel and a bit of the bus

The Padang

On my last day in Singapore, I got lost again trying to figure out how to get from VivoCity to HarbourFront and again, asked a security guard who seemed really annoyed that I had to ask him. He gave clear directions, but he just didn’t seem happy doing it. When we got to HarbourFront, again I asked a woman at a reception counter for directions – this time on where to refund my tourist pass. She told me to go to the HarbourFront MRT station like it’s the most obvious thing in the world to do without even smiling at all.

I actually got lost more in Singapore than I did in KL and each time I tried to get help from locals about it, I wasn’t met with a lot of niceness. Maybe it’s just the local culture, but Singaporeans seemed really brisk, cold, and focused on their own goals which may explain the lack of smiles and actual kindness. Their bus system was also tough to figure out because there’s less maps for buses and less information on where you are in your bus journey. It’s much harder for you if you get lost in Singapore than in KL because you won’t get that much help if you do since there’s high expectations for you to already figure out everything. So my advice for you if you’re traveling to Singapore is try not to get lost, try to have it all figured out because that’s what’s expected of you when you’re there.

Jakarta

I can’t really say much about getting lost here since Jakarta is my hometown, but on the occasions that I do get lost here, I normally refer to Google Maps or Waze and only try to get help from locals that seem trustworthy (policemen, security guards, shop owners) because trying to figure out where to go when you’re lost in Jakarta might actually get you robbed. Heck, even policemen might extort you here. However, a lot of locals here are really nice in giving directions and they may even draw you a map if you need one just to get you where you want to go.

In terms of public transport, Jakarta’s commuter line system is quite on par with Kuala Lumpur’s now and it’s not too hard to figure out as long as you know where to stop. The TransJakarta bus is also an okay way to get around. With both these public transport modes, there are maps and clear announcements of the next stop inside the train or bus. However, I wouldn’t recommend taking other buses here or getting on an angkot since too much crime happens there and the drivers tend to be reckless. Walking is also highly not recommended here since snatch thefts happen a lot to pedestrians and motorcycle riders love to claim sidewalks as their lanes. Really, pedestrians suffer a lot of abuse here so it’s not something you want to do.


So which city is a better place to get lost in?

In terms of preventing yourself from getting lost, Kuala Lumpur is a better city since information for all its public transport system are quite clearly outlined along with directions. Locals are also quite friendly and helpful when you do get lost. But Singapore is also an okay place to get lost in since most of the city/country is relatively safe – especially the city center. However, I would honestly rather not get lost anywhere and have clear, concise directions so here’s to less getting lost in the future!

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