Still recovering from the Christmas feast the day before, we skipped breakfast, grabbing only a quick froth tea before heading back towards the Islamic Art Museum to visit the Kuala Lumpur National Mosque. Christmas day we were denied access to the mosque on account of it being closed for prayer at the time, so we decided to remedy the setback.
On the way we stopped at Merdeka square, Kuala Lumpur’s very own independence memorial and the original site of the first Malaysian flag raising in 1957. After a quick survey of the park and the building surrounding it, we decided it best to pay our respects to the country’s independence with frisbee.
We reached the National Mosque, a fairly modernized looking edifice that is KL’s largest, and slowly walked around the building’s exterior and interior. Being a holy place, Mosques expect a certain attire from visitors wanting to enter. The usual tourist garb of shorts and sleeveless tee-shirts doesn’t fly, especially for female guests. Therefore the National Mosque requires all visitors with excessive exposed skin to dress in what could easily pass as a purple Jedi nightgown or Jeremy Irons’ brightly colored gynecological scrubs from David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers–all references to the loose-fitting purple robes seemed feasible at the time.
We lingered for a bit watching various Chinese tourists pose for photos with “real-life praying Muslims” but eventually headed out to check out Taman Rama-rama (which sounds like a children’s song) AKA the KL butterfly park.
The butterfly sanctuary was a lot more interesting that it sounds. The outdoor, netted sanctuary houses roughly 6,000 butterflies, with over 120 species present. Butterflies are easily taken for granted, but they truly are beautiful–each with its own color scheme and no two butterflies the same.
The Perdana Lake Gardens is a truly remarkable part of Kuala Lumpur, an otherwise major chaotic city. The gardens seem to represent the natural, more serene side of Malaysia and give residents a much needed break from city life. Walking around the butterfly park, and later the orchid and hibiscus garden, was a wonderful transition from the hustle and bustle of the city center.
After the butterfly park we made are way back to the Islamic Art Museum for lunch at the much-applauded museum cafe, which we had heard served up some incredible Mediterranean/Middle Eastern cuisine. The cafe overlooks an outdoor courtyard that features one of the museum’s aforementioned five domes. The spread was indeed a treat: roast lamb, grilled eggplant, spicy barley soup, fresh roti bread, a lump-tuna salad that instantly brought to mind Iberia (taste bud déja vu perhaps), fresh tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and salt, and an impressive olive, hummus, and baba ghannoug bar to start things off.
Among other world cuisines, Taipei is lacking solid Mediterranean food. There’s a halfway decent chain of falafel joints around the city but unfortunately years of wolfing down sandwiches at Chicago’s Pita Inn and Sultan’s Market have made me a bit of a connoisseur of the chickpea and its brethren and Taipei’s Sababa just reminds me of what I’m missing at home. It was therefore a treat to have some truly decent food at the cafe.
After getting our fill at the cafe (gluttony seems to be an underlying theme of travel in Malaysia) we walked towards the park’s orchid and hibiscus garden, an impromptu decision but one that was worth it.
I don’t pretend to know anything about flowers. During my childhood my mother was always an avid weekend gardener, I’ve visited the Chicago Botanical Gardens a number of times, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Charlie Kaufman film “adaptation” of Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, Adaptation, which philosophizes about the beauty and mystery of orchids. Still I wouldn’t consider myself the type who normally seeks out gardens while traveling.
Like the butterfly park before, the Taman Orkid was another beautiful departure from busy KL central. The garden boasts addressing over 3,000 global species of orchids, 800 of which come directly from Malaysia. The garden is broken up into a series of small walking gardens and one orchid bazaar.
The variety of colors and shapes found makes it easy to understand why there are orchid festivals and fanatics to attend such galas. An orange sherbet flower in particular caught my eye.
Along the way I spotted a foreigner reading on a bench under a canopy of hanging flowers, in an area void of the sounds of tourists or garden hands at work. Whether she was a fellow traveler enjoying the park or an expat living in KL was irrelevant. It seemed like a blissful moment. I remember thinking, “yeah, this is pretty nice.”
After wandering around for a while we decided to catch a taxi back to Little India to check out the Saturday street market. This would be my second of three trips to Little India but was without a doubt the most memorable.
The Saturday market spans the length of a major street bisecting the district. From the narrow row of stalls vendors hawk clothes, textiles, discounted copy-products and a colorful and delectable array of snacks. Samosas and deep-fried snacks of the fritter genus, fish balls wrapped in banana leaves and grilled, the smell of curry wafting in the air, spicy tandoori style chicken, candied fruit and jellies, dates, tea and then some, and even some out of place Chinese fare to stir things up.
We were still recovering from the lamb and humus feast at lunch but couldn’t resist taunting our stomachs, yet again. We walked around before dodging an afternoon rain shower at Little India’s Capital Coffee shop, a supposed landmark establishment. With its old electric ceiling fans, tile floors, and large diner style wall menu, the place felt more like what I imagine of French colonial Vietnamese cafes look like.
We drank more froth tea, possibly the tenth cup of the trip, but who’s counting. The place served staples like coffee and tea but also had a sweaty, seasoned grill man stationed at a hibachi on the sidewalk dishing out satay. A table of four Malay woman next to us must have ordered at least 50 of these yummy meatsicles.
At around five we caught a train to Bitang Street, a flashy upscale district in KL near Petronas towers that houses most of KL’s nightlife. We spotted a large red Borders Books neon sing outside the entrance of large building called Berjaya Times Square and decided to kill some time in the bookstore. The allure of checking out some English language magazines was reason enough to get out off the steamy streets.
A recent Wikipedia search confirmed my suspicions that this was no ordinary shopping center but rather an obnoxious mega mall. With 7.5 million square feet of built up floor area, Berjaya Times Square is the fifth largest building in the world (measured by floor area), according to Wikipedia. That this same ranking states Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 is the largest makes that obscenely excessive oasis in the desert all the more ridiculous.
The Borders it turns out is also the company’s largest franchise store in the world, though it seemed like just another mega bookstore to me.
In terms of grandiosity I suppose you could say that Berjaya Times Square is impressive. The shear size of the building coupled with the 1000+ different retail stores housed under its roof is overwhelming but also yet another sign of what Kuala Lumpur dreams of becoming: a major Asian metropolis on par with its neighbor to the south, Singapore, along with the usual East Asian suspects–Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai.
Berjaya boasts having an indoor theme park, the largest in Asia, which features, among other attractions, a large candy-colored roller coaster. To exemplify just how big this mall is, I had no idea this place even had a theme park until I later researched the building for this entry.
After skimming through Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” end of the year issue and debating whether or not to stock up on some hard to find books, we decided to meander around the mall a bit longer, soaking up its opulence.
Malls throughout America are known for housing some strange stores. It’s safe to say the larger the mall, the weirder the array of shopping possibilities. It’s not uncommon to find an entire store devoted to Christmas ornaments or Yankee Candles, or a snack stand that takes something as straightforward as “the pretzel” and ups the stakes by adding maple syrup, frosting and/or pepperoni. This shopping center seemed like more of the same only with the number of random, brand-free stores outnumbering the familiar. For every Nike or Calvin Klein store there were ten oddly-named fronts selling knock-off clothing and accessories under a fancier roof. It’s as if they took the street market goods and pitted them against big names like Polo and Dockers.
Places with names like Magma, Tough, French Kiss, Fellini’s Boutique, Old Scull Clothing, Slipper World, Vamp, Private Shop International (underwear), and the trio of boutiques Rum, Romp and Rock and Roll, were filled with loud teenagers, and the flashy attire that they pined for. The place was what I expected Minnesota’s Mall of America must be like, only with a more global clientele in lieu of overweight Midwesterners.
Still had I known that I would have found a store in which customers pay money to dangle their feet into a pool filled with ravenous fish, I might not have been so quick to write this shopping center off as, “just another mall.”
We stumbled upon the fish spa massage parlor tucked away in what looked to be the shopping center’s very own red light district. This wing of the mall housed a number of kinky Japanese clothing stores with names like S & M Dream Shop and a tiny, neon-lit sex shop that had customers spilling out of its entrance. It could be that edible underwear are in season. The massage parlor was one of two in the area and had an unassuming sign out front offering up foot massages (which are big in KL), full-body rub-downs, and something called ear candling. It was the large fish tank with its padded bench island in its center that managed to catch our attention.
It took me a bit longer to fully comprehend what the hell was going on. Stuart, having lived in East Asia coming on almost four years now, instantly knew what the tank was for and without much discussion coaxed me into booking a 20 minute session.
I wouldn’t uncover the details surrounding Garra Rufa, or Doctor Fish as they’re more commonly referred to as, till an Internet search long after the trip. Like the medicinal use of leaches, Doctor Fish have long been called upon for the revitalization of weathered-skin. The ancient act of “fish nibble feet” spa treatment has roots in China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East where the fish originate. This particular species of fish have a taste for human flesh and have been used for years as an effective way to remove dead skin from bathers at spas. At the time I was only focussed on the reality facing me: I was about to pay the proprietor (who I was convinced was taking the piss out of us– “come on man, this tank is just for decoration. You don’t actually expect me to go through with this” I thought.) to feed his fish with the flesh from my rank, well-travelled trotters.
While a place of this nature was just screaming, “anything goes,” I was surprised to find that the proper etiquette before the feeding frenzy is to cleanse the feet with a hose in a back room. Had I previously waltzed around barefoot in cyanide I might have understood this precaution, but I found it hard to believe that these fish had standards.
Following the instructions, I rinsed my long, bony feet, rolled up my pants to the knees, took a seat on the island and dangled my toes over the water, taunting the little buggers, and procrastinating the eventual plunge.
The tank was divided into two sections. The front section looked out to the mall’s corridors, granting strolling shoppers the chance to watch the spectacle of a couple of clueless foreigners wriggle and squawk as fish chew their feet. Its tank featured fish of the minnow variety–small and plenty of them. These younger, more ambitious fish clearly had stronger appetites and were handy for getting into the hard to reach spots like the web of skin between toes. The back tank had bigger fish, which I gathered served no other purpose other than to make me squirm like a child getting a splinter removed.
I started with the little buggers. They wasted no time in surveying the terrain of my size 13 feet jumping right in, their little mouths picking away at every corner. The scary part of the initial ride was how quickly the feeling went from just plain weird to surprisingly comfortable.
After feeding the kids for about five minutes, I moved over to the papas next door, unsure of how their bites would compare. While slower with their eating habits, and hardly as efficient as their brood, the sensation that the bigger fish issue out was enough to completely irk me out.
With their teeth clearly more developed, their mouths bigger, these diligent monsters went right for the heel and were more adventurous with their trip up leg hair alley.
After about ten minutes I was ready to stop but when the woman massaging a man’s big toe in the massage stall closest to the pool asked me why I had removed my feet so soon, I realized that throwing in the towel early would be weirder in the eyes of the locals than continuing the squirming and hissing.
When the proprietor’s timer went off my feet flew out of the water, my toes pruned, cherry-colored and a hell of a lot smoother than before.
When later asked about the meal the wee diners wrote the meal up as “adventurous,” complimenting the notes of foot funk and calling the amuse bouche of hiker’s blister on left Achilles’ tendon, as “a pleasant surprise.” Second seating enjoyed the big toe knuckle hair and were floored by the lower shin region’s smorgasbord of pre-softened skin and sock lint.
After drying off and putting our shoes back on we were set to leave but were drawn in, yet again, after reading a sign offering a discounted ear candling.
Ear candling, aka ear coning, aka, sticking a friggin’ lit candle up your ear canal, is supposedly a therapeutic method of cleansing the ear of toxins, such as wax, dirt and sinister ear goblins. Unlike the fish spa treatment’s instant tickling results, the jury is still out on whether or not this “alternative medicinal” procedure works or if it is simply another new-age body cleansing scam. After the feet-feeding-frenzy–having just done that–my immediate response to the, “ear candling? Come on!” proposition was, “eh, what the hell.”
Ear candling is quite simple really. The patient, or should I say sucker, lies on his/her side while a perfect stranger who may or may not be licensed but does in fact own some fish, sticks a conical paper candle of sorts deep into the ear canal and then lights it up like a cigarillo. As the candle slowly burns its way down, the sensation is that of, well, something long burning its way closer to the eardrum.
After about fifteen minutes the rolled earwax blunt is removed and the remnants–charred pieces of ash and wax, which may or may not come from the ear–are shown to the customer as proof of what just went down.
According to a Montreal Gazette article entitled, Don’t put a candle in your ear and save $25, “as of 2008, there are at least two cases in which people have set their houses on fire while ear candling, one of which resulted in death.” It’s in the humble opinion of this author that records like the aforementioned article should be burned so as not to give future generations the ability to say, “you’re kidding me, right?”
Coupled with the fish spa, the experience cost about US$20.
After realizing how long we had just spent in the shopping center we made our way out and checked out some more of the surrounding area before heading back to our nightly hookah spot at the Kampung Baru Night Market.
Over another fruit-themed water pipe, I ordered a couple satays and some fresh squeezed orange juice, while we chatted with the hookah stand’s owner. He talked about the Kampung Baru market being a popular hangout for young people and of how down-to-earth Malaysians are. I couldn’t agree more with him.
The next day was my last day in KL. We grabbed a coffee and a small bite to eat at a cafe outside of Little India that was written up in the New York Times as serving up a sinfully delicious treat called roti baba. This “light” breakfast monstrosity is essentially a greasy, fried dough pocket stuffed with greasy pork and grilled onions. The Malaysian calzone is then doused with Worcestershire sauce. Damn.
Afterwards we made our way into Little India so I could pick up some goodies at the local grocery store, mainly candy and treats for my students and co-workers, not to mention some Tongkat Ali ginseng coffee, another supposed Malaysian specialty. Before heading back to grab my bags we had one last feast at a hole-in-the-wall South Indian cafe, which I feared would rid my pores with pungent curry before boarding a plane but ultimately seemed like a sacrifice I was willing to make. The things we do for food.
The flight back to Taipei was relaxing with lots of fond memories of this amazing place to keep my mind occupied. Back home I immediately uploaded some photos and replayed the trip.
Malaysia gave me a taste of more travels to come in Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur is a lively metropolis, and his home to people from all over the planet. Its diversity and peacefulness in spite of this varied make-up was refreshing and kind of eye-opening. While I might not have gotten the true Malaysian experience (the peninsula’s interior might be a separate trip down the line), I was definitely treated to a truly global experience.