Malaysia: Days 4 & 5

Christmas Holiday Getaway: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Days 4 & 5

Patriotic Frisbee–Robed Tourists Swarm the Mosque–Lamb–Butterflies–Orchids–Saturday in Little India–The Fifth Largest Building in the World–The Red Light District of Berjaya Times Square–A Massage–Don’t Put that in Your Ear–A Final Hookah–Roti Baba–Farewell Curry

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.

Photo c/o The Internet

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.

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Day 2

Christmas Holiday Getaway: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Day 2

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…


Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Day 1

Christmas Holiday Getaway: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Day 1

A Melting Pot—The Uzbek Connection—Little India—Curry to Evade Torrential Rain—Tea that Foams—A Survey of Chinatown—Satay and the Art of Grilled Skewered Meat—Burmese Shoe Salesman Tells His Tale—The Twin Towers—Photo-Op With Malay-Chinese Family

December 23, 2009 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia–

I sit in bulkhead aisle seat of EVA Airlines flight 227 trying desperately to look over my neighbor’s window at the lush green that has just come into view. It’s Malaysia. A Taiwanese flight attendant sitting in the temporary fold-down seat in front of my ridiculously long legs seems to be staring at me with interest. My fervent anticipation is understood to those around me.

“What brings you to Kuala Lumpur?” the Malay gentleman sitting in the window seat asks me.

My decision to holiday in Kuala Lumpur over Christmas ultimately came down to the epiphany of, well, why the hell not!

My friend Stuart of Hong Kong, by way of Texas, sent me an email back in November about a trip to Malaysia’s intriguing capital. Ticket fares seemed high late in the game and it was going to be a bit of a challenge convincing my boss to grant me three of my contractual vacation days (the Taiwanese work ethic is daunting at times). There were a couple days of hesitation before I realized that there’s absolutely nothing holding me back from what will undoubtedly be a memorable Christmas in an exotic destination. After all, “when in Asia.”

In terms of Southeast Asian travel, K.L. was the last place I figured I would end up first. My ever-growing list of future passport stamps include at the forefront: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. Still, the allure of Malaysia, a place I knew little about, was too much to turn down.

I first became privy to Malaysia when I first arrived in Taiwan back in May. My modus operandi for my move to the far East was with Air Malaysia, a surprisingly comfortable experience that gave me my first glimpse into the notion that Malaysia had a lot to offer. Being in a predominately Muslim countries like Turkey and Bosnia was an incredible experience and the idea of standing in the midst of Mosque and hearing the minaret’s sound their daily prayers, was reason enough to check out what Malaysia had to offer.

In Taipei there are many Malaysian tourism advertisements on TV, particular the local Travel Channel that my housemates and I used to enjoy before our free cable was remedied. “Malaysia, Truly Asia” is the slogan and after traveling to this country, I understand why.

Malaysia is a melting pot of the Asian continent, not merely the Southeast region where it resides. The Chinese have been on the peninsula for hundreds of years, as have the Indians, Pakistani, Thai, Indonesians, Nepalese, Vietnamese, Burmese, Filipinos, to name a few of its closer neighbors. The Dutch, Portuguese and British colonialists each had stakes in the region at one time in history. In recent years there has been an influx of people from the Middle East–signs of influences from United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Iran, Oman, and Saudi Arabia were everywhere–and on two separate occasions I noticed advertisements for Central Asia’s Uzbekistan Airways, which as you can see from the route map, has more reach than I would’ve guessed.

The country of Malaysia itself is young, gaining its independence in the 1950s and only recently finding its way to the world stage through its oil reserves and Kuala Lumpur’s rapid growth.

The Petronas Towers (more on these marvels later) were for a while the world’s tallest buildings until Taipei’s Taipei 101 overtook this bragging right (Dubai’s Burj Khalifa recently grabbed this title away from the Taiwanese and I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before China gets on the bandwagon and decides to join in the fun). From photos I had seen, the two towers were just begging to be visited.

So after about two days of questioning and hesitation (I am horrible about booking tickets, often waiting for days in the hope of finding cheaper fares until I ultimately cave and pay more than I had originally projected) I booked the flight, found a hostel and waited till I was set to sail.

I arrived in KL at around two in the afternoon on a Wednesday after a four and half hour flight that included a read through of the New York Times Global Edition (formerly the great International Herald Tribune), a scan through my Lonely Planet Southeast Asia guide, a decent breakfast, and an episode of House M.D. which features the smartass helping a shut-in heal some wounds. The Malay gentleman who sat next to me was extremely friendly and welcoming, telling me instantly that, “while this is will be your first trip to my country, this will not be your last.”

Kuala Lumpur is a sprawling metropolis that is still rooted in tradition and has not yet reached the status of say its sister city to the south, Singapore, or say the heights of Tokyo and Hong Kong. It is said to be the cheapest place on the planet to stay at five-star hotels and eat at Michelin-rated restaurants.

It’s a city currently in a state of limbo between its aspirations to be a thriving international commerce hub and its traditional market-based customs. It is diverse beyond belief in the many languages spoken, religions practiced and with its food. And oh, what a city it is to eat your way around. It was the perfect introduction to Southeast Asia and easily one of the greatest cities I’ve ever visited.

It took roughly 45 minutes to go through customs at Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport, which was a buzz kill, as I was increasingly anxious to get into the city and start my first day, lay-of-the-land wandering. I chatted for a while with a tall, well-put together woman in front of me who I noticed instantly from my flight as the one who was accompanying a group of Malaysian teenage athletes dressed in matching club sweat suits. Said team was actually a local gymnastics ensemble returning from an Olympic training competition in Japan. I guessed the woman (the team’s coach) to be from Eastern Europe, perhaps Russia, and was pleasantly surprised when she told me she came from Uzbekistan.

“I’m from a country in Central Asia, Uzbekistan, you probably haven’t heard of it,” she said, challenging my geographical prowess.

I got a smile out of her when I then told her of my fascination with the ancient city of Samarqand, an intriguing UNESCO World Heritage Sight that was a major stop on the Silk Road. When I asked here if she was from Bukhara or Tashkent, she was also pleasantly surprised. God I love when my random knowledge of geography, the result of hours of time spent staring at GoogleEarth and the CIA World Factbook, can be put to use.

She told me she had lived in Kuala Lumpur for the past seven years and that, while she thought it was an amazing city to visit, it didn’t offer much for a foreigner looking for work. Looking back on the my time in K.L. it’s evident to me that unless one holds a job through an international company posted in the capital, the job market for ex-pats, particularly in regards to English teaching, is pretty weak.

From the airport, which actually lies an hour outside of the KL proper, I caught the express train to Central Station, transferred to the KL Monorail (enter obligatory Simpsons’ reference: “a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail!”) which took me to the Chow Kit district in Northern KL where the Hostel Cosmopolitan sat waiting for me.


I stood in the cramped rail car, sandwiched between Indians, Chinese, local Malays, I would gather at least one Indonesian in the fold, and a handful of foreigners alike. There were people dressed in Muslim burqas and other customary headscarves. The monorail itself is one of five modes of transport in the city and seems to be the dilapidated line of mass transit system. Rather than speeding around the city like the Taipei MRT, it runs at a slow pace, stopping almost every minute at stops that can be walked between in a matter of ten minutes or so.

Chow Kit is located away from the chaotic city center and seems to be a much more local-friendly neighborhood, with a large Indian and Indonesian population as I would later learn from the hostel proprietor. The Hostel Cosmopolitan was located at the mouth of a vast, partially enclosed wet market that offered up an expansive array of exotic fruit, spices and prepared treats, from fried delicacies, steamy curry dishes, and plenty of freshly baked bread. I checked into the room, changed out of my Taipei-winter-friendly clothes and made my way out to explore.

I like nothing more than to explore a city on foot, especially on the first day. Nothing pleases me more than to find a route on the map and just walk until I’m lost. It opens up areas that one can often easily miss speeding around on mass transportation, and allows me to truly soak in everything around me. Judging from my map, I knew K.L. was the perfect walking city for my tall-ass to navigate around.

I snaked through the Chow Kit Market, which is famous enough to warrant its own Wikipedia entry, grabbing a wax apple along the way. This delectable fruit has become a passion back in Taipei, a year-round fruit that was completely foreign to me before coming to Asia.



Chow Kit Market PHOTOS: Warner Sills

My first stop was K.L’s famed “Little India,” a neighborhood south of Chow Kit that is one of the major tourist draws in the city. I can’t begin to tell you how much I miss truly great Indian food, among other “ethnic cuisines” that I can’t find in Taipei. Taiwan has an amazing local food scene, one that I am still exploring on a daily basis, however, the city fails to deliver when it comes to certain major world cuisines, such as Indian, Mediterranean and towering above the rest, Mexican. Even now, as I’m writing this in a nice local coffee shop in my neighborhood, the thought of three greasy al pastor tacos from Arturo’s on Western and Armitage back home is giving my tummy rumbling melancholy. This said, it was safe to say that Little India was high on my list of places to see in K.L.

I navigated around the area for about 45 minutes hoping that the dark clouds and sporadic flurries of drizzle were temporary setbacks. Colorful sari shops aligned most streets offering fabrics ranging from expensive silk to cheaply factory-dyed synthetics. A number of storefronts were blaring Hindi dance music from large sidewalk amplifiers. One shop was offering a “back to school sale,” which made me instantly feel like I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, but also served as one of those miniscule, shared cultural similarities that I love discovering when I visit foreign places. While back to school meant a trip to Old Navy and maybe a new Trapper Keeper binder, a new sari might be enough to make a local Malay-Indian child excited to start school again.

PHOTO: Warner Sills

When the tease of rain to come morphed into an onslaught of torrential tropical rain, I sought refuge in an enclosed food stall market that was calling my name with its steamy trays of colorful Indian fare. I found a vendor that looked promising, ordered a steaming plate of chicken curry and a ration of freshly baked thin roti bread. K.L. is a largely Muslim city which means alcohol is hard to find on a regular basis. Instead, tea reigns supreme. Malaysian Teh Tarik, or pulled frothy tea, is a staple in this region and is yet another incarnation of the overtly sweet tea and coffee that is found in Southeast Asia, often mixed with sweetened condensed milk.

Teh Tarik differs with its natural airy froth that comes from a series of high pours. I would drink the tea every day during my stay in Malaysian, sometimes two or three times a day. Once you’re in the Malaysia, any notion of healthy eating goes right out the door when your eyes behold what the city has to offer.

VIDEO: Warner Sills

Chicken curry, roti bread, and pulled tea PHOTO: Warner Sills

Markets like the one I ate in our common in the city and are akin to the some of the night markets here in Taipei, with the exception of a focus on Malay and Indian cuisine. The seating was unassuming, mainly bench like tables, each adorned with a tissue dispenser and plastic teakettle for cleansing the hands. Malaysian’s Indian and Southeast Asia roots mean that most food is eaten using the right hand, with forks making you look weak and inept to cultural challenges.

PHOTO: Warner Sills

Curries range from spicy, gut churning red lamb curries called rendang to South Indian curried vegetable dishes. It was nice being back in lentil territory, where legume offerings like Dhal Makhani are taken seriously.

After the rain calmed I ventured out again and made my way through a night market selling copy-watches, knock-off shoes, clothing articles and pretty much most other types of market crap you can find in this part of the world. The differences here were in the stall vendors who seemed to come from all over. North Africans, Indians, Cantonese, Malay, Indonesians, etc all had a stake in the cutthroat industry of replicas and pirated goods.

Eventually I found my way further south in the city to K.L’s Chinatown. Coming from Taiwan it’s now hard to be impressed by foreign city Chinatowns, especially since Taipei’s night market scene is unlike anything I’ve encountered. Still, I felt obligated to explore what K.L.’s largely Cantonese Chinatown had to offer.

As far as food goes this district offered staple Cantonese fair, with a focus on dim sum skewer snacks. I did, however, make it a point to eat from as many satay stands that my stomach could muster. Satay, which is basically just skewered assorted meat served with sweet peanut sauce, is to Malaysia what stinky tofu is to Taiwan, a staple snack treat that is portable and fast and readily available wherever you find yourself. The mutton versions tended to be too tough, while the chicken and beef were fresh and perfectly satisfying when paired with a serving of diced, partially pickled cucumbers. The stands were everywhere and it didn’t take long before I was full.

I stopped in a couple of pirated DVD shops after countless hecklers approached me offering copies of films theater favorites like “2012,” “Avatar” and “Twilight: New Moon.” When I finally caved to one persistent gentleman who had a tattoo of his own name on his arm, a detail I would later discover served as a permanent business card of sorts. I had a list of obscure titles for him to check, including the latest Coen Brothers film, “A Serious Man,” the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” “Wild Things” was the only familiar title on the list and he instantly jumped to a pile of a hundred or so titles, knowing exactly wear to pull the disc out. At eight Malaysian ringgits (about $2) I couldn’t say no. What was striking is that while I was scoping out this film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s endearing children’s book, the young, ambitious vendor kept on offering me porn.

“You like porn, I got good movies. Blu-Ray, too. Good price. Very hot. Very sexy. Japanese girls. You like, I give you good deal. 4 get 1 free,” he said.

My response: “Do you by any chance have “The Fantastic Mr. Fox?”

This inquiry completely went in one ear and out the other since the man basically repeated the same pitch five minutes later as I was getting ready to pay. Perhaps he simply couldn’t fathom why someone would prefer talking foxes and badgers to hi-definition sexapades.

I found out the man was from Bangladesh originally, had lived in K.L. for three years, spoke perfect English, Cantonese, and local Malay and was working on his Mandarin, which seems to be less common in Malaysia. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how adept vendors like this man are to picking up languages when they are forced to learn it for their trade. Back in Hong Kong at the Chungking Mansions I was equally impressed by a food stand vendor’s mastery of six languages, all for the sake of competing with those around him.

Moments later as I scoped out a copy-designer shoe stall, I struck up a conversation with a young Burmese man about my age who had been in Malaysia coming on two years now. I told him of my interest in traveling in Burma (also known as Myanmar) and he shared his opinions of the corruption with the government, but also about how beautiful the country is. He too spoke a handful of languages comfortably and was working in K.L. to save up money to return to his home and girlfriend. I ended up buying a pair of mock Diesel sneakers when I found out they actually had my size! To humor myself, I asked if the shoes were in fact real and he replied that yes, in fact they were the real deal.

“They come from Korea factory. Best quality. Here look!” he said as he took fire to the shoe’s sole and fabric outer shell. Not sure how showing a shoes resilience to a Bic ligher proves its authenticity but it is comforting to know that if I am ever confronted with a fire storm or a freak encounter with magma, my Diesels will hold tough.

After I had had enough of the endless barrage of vendors offering their goods, I left Chinatown and headed further south towards the towering Petronas Towers, which I had been working my way towards all day, saving the towering beauties for night when the spotlights would make them glow.

These beacons in the sky are a spectacle to the eyes. Forget the ridiculous “biggest dick” global competition for tallest skyscraper, and focus on the beauty of these architectural wonders. At night the twin towers are magical. They at times bring to mind the minarets that are littered around Kuala Lumpur’s many mosques. There’s a bit of Angkor Wat thrown into the fold, and the Antoni Gaudí enthusiast in me can’t help but see similarities to La Sagrada Familia. They’re simply breathtaking.

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Spain PHOTO: Internet stock

Petronas’ sexy curves PHOTO: Warner Sills


Petronas Towers at night PHOTO: Warner Sills

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Photos by yours truly coming soon, hopefully…

I spent a good hour photographing the towers’ nooks and crannies up close, later finding a cozy stone pillar near a fountain park to sit for a while, staring up in complete awe. At one point a Malay family from Penang approached me wanting me to pose for a photo with their teenage daughter. In a city as diverse as K.L. this request was a little puzzling, but I agreed nonetheless.

I was downright bewildered when the one photo with the nervous 15 year turned into a series of shots with each child, followed by a group shot with the whole family at their request. I tried to speak to them in Mandarin, detecting some similarities in the Malay they were speaking but they preferred to use their broken English. I was happy when I told them I was from Chicago and instead of the usual, “oh, Al Capone” or “oh yeah, Michael Jordan” name checking, they spoke of Obama.

The girl sulking on the right did not participate in the photo shoot with the tall foreigner. PHOTO: Warner Sills

After my neck started to strain from looking up at the towers I started to make the long trek back to the hostel. It being only 10 I decided to walk the distance back, taking a different route.

Chow Kit at night is definitely a lot sketchier than during the day, but I never felt unsafe. I tucked in at my ten-bed mixed dorm room and chatted with two Polish girls I had met earlier when I had checked in. The two had come from London where they work and told me that it was cheaper to fly to Malaysia for Christmas than to fly to Warsaw! I shared some stories about my short stint in Poland and we talked about Żubrówka Bison Grass vodka.

After my long first day it didn’t take long to fall asleep and I surprisingly slept comfortably through the night, despite the usual coming and goings of people entering a hostel dorm room. For the next day, my plan was to wake up early, head to the bus terminal and catch a ride to the port city of Malacca for a quick day trip, cramming as much as I could in before meeting up with Stuart later in the evening.

To be continued…

Kuala Lumpur & Malacca, Peninsular Malaysia

Malaysia Trip, Christmas 2009


Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur


Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur


Chow Kit Wet Market, Kuala Lumpur

Chow Kit Wet Market, Kuala Lumpur


National Mosque, Kuala Lumpur


Nap Time, Malacca


Sky Bar, Kuala Lumpur


Little India Saturday Market, Kuala Lumpur

Little India Saturday Market, Kuala Lumpur

Satay Snack, Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur

Reflection Study, Kuala Lumpur


Orchid Bazaar, Kuala Lumpur


Orchid Bazaar, Kuala Lumpur


Chinese Tourists, National Mosque, Kuala Lumpur


National Mosque, Kuala Lumpur


Malacca Mosque


Malacca


Bus, Malacca


Little India Saturday Market, Kuala Lumpur


Little India Saturday Market, Kuala Lumpur


Little India Saturday Market, Kuala Lumpur


Little India Saturday Market, Kuala Lumpur


Little India Saturday Market, Kuala Lumpur


Little India Saturday Market, Kuala Lumpur


Little India Saturday Market, Kuala Lumpur


Little India, Malacca


Little India Saturday Market, Kuala Lumpur


Vintage Truck, Malacca


Chinese Tea House, Malacca


Child Labor, Malacca


Butterfly Park, Kuala Lumpur


Butterfly Park, Kuala Lumpur


Butterfly Park, Kuala Lumpur


Butterfly Park, Kuala Lumpur


Christmas Day Breakfast, Kuala Lumpur