Christmas Holiday Getaway: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
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
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.
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…