Christmas Holiday Getaway: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Taxi Cab Confessions—Bus to Malacca—A Mosque—Curry Under the Finger Nails—A Disappointing Chinatown—David Byrne—Strange Fruit—Tales From Kampung Baru Night Market: First Night— Hookah and Tim Allen—The Durian Nightcap
When making plans for Kuala Lumpur, I gave myself an extra day to venture out of the city. I knew the main focus of this trip would be KL and all its glory, but what about the rest of Peninsular Malaysia? I went through my Lonely Planet, talked with a friend who traveled in Malaysia last fall, and ultimately settled on the former colonial port town of Malacca, from which the Straights of Malacca are named.
This historical port city once served as the landing point for the Dutch and Portuguese to make their claims of parts of Malaysia for trade in the East Indies. The city, which is protected under UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, was written up as having a surprisingly European feel with all the diversity of modern day Malaysia. Situated a mere two hours south of KL by bus, it seemed like the perfect day trip and a chance to be near the coast.
I woke up twenty minutes before my alarm was set to chime due in part to an older Australian lady who checked into the mixed-dorm room at dawn and made all kind of ruckus. I would later run into said woman after showering, while I was applying my contacts at the communal sink and mirror.
“Oh my, you’re a tall boy, aren’t you?” she said padding my shoulders, mid left contact lens application.
I made casual small talk, trying to be friendly though I was not quite awake and ultimately granted her the podium. I gathered from her rambling story that she was on an extended two-four month tour of Southeast Asia, solo, and had just come down from Thailand where she told me she has many friends. The woman seemed friendly enough, albeit a bit chatty for 7:00 in the morning. I’m always impressed at the older travelers you meet in hostels, which are no longer globally type-casted as Youth Hostels. Most older wanderers either fall into the category of veteran travelers who favor lively hostel settings to lonely hotel rooms or of travel newbies who seem to be touring to fulfill the “better late than never” mentality.
As I gathered my day pack and was heading out of the dark dorm room, I passed her in the long hostel corridor heading towards our slumbering room in a long white nightgown with two shopping bags full of 7-11 goods. I pitied the sleeping souls who were about to awake to plastic bag wake-up call she was surely going to issue onto the fellow travelers.
I caught a taxi to the bus station and was pleasantly surprised to find the driver spoke perfect English and was instantly curious to talk to me. The man was from KL, originally, but had spent much of his life working on a freight-shipping vessel that took him all over the world. He instantly had an opinion of Chicago, a city he had stayed in back in the 70s after living in New York City with a brother for six months.
He told me that I would like Malacca and recommended that I take advantage of the seafood offerings. I told him that wouldn’t be a problem.
He seemed excited to talk about world travel and I got the feeling that while he was happy in KL with his family and his job (he hinted to making a decent living working as a driver and owning a shop on the side) he enjoyed the freedom of his shipping days, particularly pulling into foreign ports. It was obvious that man had a number of stories he was dying to share but sadly the cab ride only lasted ten minutes.
The bus to Malacca was uneventful, though the scenery shifted from the suburban sprawl of KL to lush rolling green hills and palm trees that seemed to go on forever in every direction. The main bus terminal for Malacca was actually outside of the town’s center, which meant I had to find a local bus to take me into the town. Here’s where the trip started to get interesting.
The local bus fare rang up to about 20 US cents and my carriage to the city looked like it had seen better days. Aboard were several Muslim women in headscarves, including one woman’s daughter who navigated her way around some melted pocket chocolate for the majority of the ride. A loud Chinese gentleman made his presence known early on and continued to chat with people around him (his is the louder voice heard in the video below).
I reached the city center and instantly realized that this was a hot spot for tourism. In the city’s main square, which is situated around the Christ Church that was built by Dutch settlers circa the mid 18th century, there were countless Chinese and Indian tourists with cameras perusing the local market and pricing the many bicycle rickshaws that run tours of the city.
The rickshaws were especially fun to watch. Most were ornately decorated with colorful flowers, umbrellas and many were outfitted with some sort of make-shift speaker system that blasted obnoxious Western and Eastern pop music, as if the drivers were competing for loudest bike. One nervous-looking older Western couple seemed unsure of their rickshaw choice as they were pedaled away to Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” blaring from the sleigh’s florally vibrant canopy.
Malacca is a charming city that does truly have a European feel to it. It’s a bit overrun by tourists but there are still untouched sections of the village that are perfect for the more ambitious walker. Malacca’s most obvious connection to Europe comes not from the Dutch and Portuguese architecture but rather from the fact that the city is built around a series of canals and river boardwalks, all of which flow into the Straights.
I checked out the usual sights–the aforementioned Christ Church, a Portuguese fort, a shipping vessel turned museum on water, and the Stadhuy town hall. The most striking sights were the two major Mosques in Malacca, the Tranquerah and Kampung Hulu Mosque, both fully active and quite beautiful.
At the Kampung Hulu Mosque I came across a Muslim man throwing buckets of water on a car parked outside the Mosque entrance. I watched for a good ten minutes from across the street as the man would casually walk out with a plastic pale full of water, throw the contents all over the car’s hood and windshield, all while mumbling something to the driver. He would then return to the Mosque’s cleansing pool to refill. I’m not sure if the car wash was out of anger for her parking choice or if he was truly cleansing the woman’s Nissan hatchback.
Inside the Mosque I did my best to keep myself out of sight, out of mind. The aforementioned water thrower was very kind and told me to meander around even before I had a chance to ask. There were men conversing on the outside porch, a woman and her kids were in a small female prayer room off to the side and one long-haired man was praying near a large drum situated above the main entrance gate.
After wandering around Malacca’s Indian neighborhood I found a small restaurant that looked promising, that is to say there were a number of people eating at long, communal tables.
The food was served on large banana leaves and not a single person was seen using a fork. Custom calls for using your right hand to scoop the food into your mouth, usually by taking clumps of rice or bread to soak up the sauces. The technique is a lot harder than it sounds as you must rely partially on gravity to help drop the food from the hand to the mouth.
I ordered banana leaf rice, which includes rice or freshly baked nan bread and FOUR different side dishes, which are spooned onto the leaf by a man carrying a giant metal tiffin set. Later another more flesh oriented waiter comes around with various meat, vegetable and fish dishes that have already been prepared and portioned out for guests. I was given a fork without even asking for one but decided to do like the locals and dove in, my left hand sitting idle to the side.
Picking up the rice proved to be harder than I had thought, especially after a waiter poured a hefty portion of steaming lentils over the then nicely clumped rice, as if to challenge my competence. The experience felt primitive in a good way.
After I gorged myself on spicy curried lamb and fresh fish, cucumber salad, lentils, and various stewed vegetables I headed back out to explore. My stomach was full, my pores were sweating turmeric and there was a good deal of curry getting cozy under the fingernails.
After seeking out Malacca’s other notable Mosque I headed towards Jonker Street, also known as Malacca’s Chinatown. The main drag was flooded with window shoppers and was clearly the one part of the city that was truly overrun by tourists.
Tacky gift shops ran most of the street. Every restaurant advertised chicken rice ball, the unofficial delicacy of Malacca’s Chinatown. One thing I’ve noticed having lived in East Asia for the past seven months is how locals here are drawn towards anything that is advertised as being a specialty. Long lines immediately constitute a place as being, “a must-visit” and hype goes a long way.
Taiwan’s many regions and cities are all famous for one or more items that one must either buy or see when visiting. If you visit say, for example, the port city of Keelung north of Taipei it is expected that you seek out the Keelung sandwich, a greasy donut like submarine roll that is slathered with mayonnaise, sprinkled with diced cucumber, green tomatoes, and given a helping serving of hard-boiled eggs and Chinese sausage. It doesn’t matter if said sight or delicacy is good or not, it’s expected that as a tourists you must make the pilgrimage to seek it out. The same applied to Jonker Street, particularly with the Chicken Rice Ball. At one particularly restaurant it looked as if an entire tour bus of Chinese tourists had been dropped off in front of the building and were waiting to taste what this place (most likely written up in a guide of some sorts) had to offer.
I wandered around for another hour or so snapping pictures and popping in various shops. There were a number of cool antique stalls selling relics of the old Malaysia, particularly cool hard currency from yesteryears. Still, all goodies were being sold for antique prices.
Eventually, I made my way back to the Christ Church where the city bus had dropped me off. At around 4PM there were already a number of travelers waiting to get back to the central bus station for a return to either KL or possibly down south to Singapore. It should be noted that the city bus ride TO Malacca’s center took roughly 20 minutes or so. The trip back to the bus station during Malacca’s “rush hour” would’ve taken up to an hour, maybe longer, according to the ticket seller and another passenger who spoke perfect English. Understandable considering Malacca’s tight European streets aren’t made for giant busses and hundreds motorbikes to share.
Knowing that I had to be back for the 5PM bus back to KL that I had already bought a ticket for, I jumped off the bus and walked to a cab stand of sorts to flag a taxi to the station.
The first driver who saw me instantly flagged me over and started his engine. He gave me a good price up front to get me to the station and assured me that I would definitely make my bus.
“No problem. We fly there. You’ll see,” he said.
The driver was friendly in a casual sort of way, jumping right into the basic precursors to small talk. I told him where I was from in the States, what I was doing in Taiwan, and why I had come to his country. While he hadn’t traveled to Chicago, the city’s reputation preceded him. He even referenced John Dillinger, which may or may not be a result of the recent Johnny Depp Dillinger film, considering the biggest gangster reference linked to Chicago is always Al Capone.
We chatted about Malacca and K.L. His name, I would learn, was Pak Frankee and besides driving the taxi (which he said was merely a part-time gig for supplementing his income) he ran boat trips over the Malacca Strait into Indonesia, ran a hostel in Malacca and also conducted jungle tours of the Cameroon Highlands in inner-Southwest Malaysia. Like the driver before him who had taken me to the bus station in KL, it was clear this man had his share of stories to share. One in particular caught my attention instantly.
“Do you know David Byrne? Musician. From America,” the driver said, as my ears perked up with intrigue.
“Well, it just so happens…” I said, carrying on about my lifelong admiration for Byrne and Talking Heads.
Turns out Pak Frankee once gave David Byrne a ride from Kuala Lumpur into the Cameroon Highlands for a jungle trek to record orangutan sounds. While he couldn’t recall the exact year he said he thought it was in the early-80s, right around the time Byrne was wrapping up Talking Heads’ masterpiece, Remain in LIght, as well as 1981s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, his “recorded-sound collaboration with Brian Eno that prominently features found sounds recorded around the world and paired with synthesizer symphonies.
Frankee told me that Byrne (who was also accompanied by his girlfriend at the time) was “down to earth,” his words, and that he was very interested in learning about Frankee’s life and the history of the region.
The story was too bizarre to be made up (and Byrne is too abstract an artist for Frankee to just make the story up, had he said say, Michael Jackson or Jon Bon Jovi, I might have called his bluff). The ride to the bus station was enjoyable and when I was let off a part of me wanted to find out more. He gave me his card and told me that if I were ever back in Malaysia that I should call him out for a tour. I will take him up on this offer should I ever return.
After a long and rainy bus ride back to KL through rush hour traffic, I met Stuart at the hostel and we set out for a late dinner at the nearby Kampung Baru night market that the proprietor of the hostel told me was a must-eat destination.
Night markets in Asia just might be the single greatest culinary offering to the world. They are bustling havens where eating is not merely a refueling for the body but rather an exploration for the taste buds. While I am spoiled here in Taiwan with the plentiful night markets at my disposal, the Kampung Baru market ended up being the highlight of my trip to Malaysia and would be the one constant throughout the rest of my time in KL.
The market, which runs the length of three fairly unassuming streets in Chow Kit is an amalgamation of different cuisines, often all sharing the same roof. A fruit and meat market lies at its entrance offering a multitude of bizarre fruit choices, including one that both Stuart and I were virgins to.
Photo c/o Stuart Wallace
The small, hard fruit called salak looks like a medium garlic clove that has been covered with reptile skin, creating something that is truly unique to Southeast Asia, possibly only in Malaysia. The taste was bitter sweet, with a hint of banana, which is why, I suppose, one online blogger referred to the fruit as “a banana wrapped in a snakeskin”. I ate what I could but was ultimately more excited about the prospects of trying a new fruit than the actual flavors the salak had to offer.
For our proper dinner we settled on the first open-air seating establishment we could find that smelled good and more importantly had people eating. Our first stop was commenced with a toast of teh tarik frothy tea and two steamy bowls of peasant soup–one with the always good base of oxtail, the other a sour seafood stew.
Moving on with bellies not quite content, we stopped at a place across the street that sold grilled whole fish of the mysterious family. Served with a bit of spicy soy on the side, the fish was fresh with a nice hint of smokiness. By this time it was about 9:45 and the places around us were packed with locals socializing and eating.
Afterwards, we moved to a larger open-air food bazaar that had a large projection screen TV playing local KL channels. It makes sense that the satay man and his makeshift habachi grill was set up at the market’s entrance, and it makes even more sense that without thinking we ordered up fifteen pieces of the mixed variety. At pocket change prices, these glorious skewered offerings were more like meat lollipops.
We ordered some regular hot tea (which we found out would be sweet nevertheless) and sat near a hookah stall in the corner while Tim Allen’s 1994 “everyday man becomes Santa Claus” family comedy, The Santa Claus was projected onto the large screen for the mostly Muslim audience to enjoy.
We shared a fruit-flavored nargila, which used a piece of fresh pineapple as the base for the tobacco and coals to burn, over conversation and the reality that yeah, we’re sitting in Kuala Lumpur, smoking, eating skewered meat and looking at the Petronas Towers lighting the distant sky to comfort us. The scene was perfect and we knew that we would return again, and as it turns out, again until we both left the city.
After a couple of hours we decided to head back, first insisting on stopping at an equally bustling stall across the way that sold freshly baked, sweet rodi bread with a standard yellow curry for dipping. On the walk home we tested our stomach’s durability one last time with a night cap of “The King of Fruits” and a staple of Malaysia: the durian.
Photo c/o The Internet
The durian is the kind of fruit that makes you wonder, “who ever thought to eat it this bizarre alien fruit?” For starters, the fruit’s spiky exterior shell places it nicely in the “treacherous-poke-your-eye-out” genus of weird Asian super fruit. The fleshy interior, which has the feel of three-day-old pudding skin, emits an odor that can be best described as ass meets rot. Still, the taste is something truly unique and dare I say, besides the mess involved with eating this fruit, it’s pretty good. I had had durian in Taiwan but Malaysia is where it reigns king and the quality and freshness was unprecedented.
Content and exuding funkiness from our pores, we returned to the hostel, checked email and eventually crashed for some much needed rest before another adventure in KL the following, Christmas Day!
To be continued…