The first stop on our Asian adventure was Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. My impressions of it were a little confused because I had no basis for comparison – this is my first time in Asia. So here are some thoughts from a week in the city…
The taxi ride from the airport took us down elevated freeways and past glossy high-rises, much like Toronto. Once we entered the core of the city, though, everything changed. We were headed for a central neighbourhood called Bukit Bintang (pronounced Bookit Bintahng). It was Saturday night, and we cruised down brightly lit streets packed with people, cars, and motorbikes, strung with red Chinese lanterns. Plastic restaurant tables covered the sidewalks, with noise and bustle everywhere. For someone newly arrived after a long journey, it was both stimulating and overwhelming.
The next morning we woke up to humid heat and, outside our window, tropical bird noises. I expected to have some trouble adjusting to the climate after a Canadian winter. (We’re coping by seeking out air-conditioning on a regular basis throughout the day!) What I didn’t expect was how mind-boggling it would be to hear the birds out of some nature documentary, or see palm trees growing out of the ground. I still haven’t gotten over the trees!
We stayed at Travellers Palm Lodge (formerly Travellers Palm Homestay, if you look for it on TripAdvisor), down a little alley just off all the action, and close to the monorail. It’s a family-run B&B/hostel, with five rooms and an 8-person dorm. There’s a nice little patio to have breakfast on, a friendly and helpful proprietor, and her adorable small daughter. It’s also a little, er, rustic — the a/c is only on at night, and the shared bathrooms are accessed from a balcony…oh, and the toilet and shower occupy one small room together, which is pretty standard here. But overall we really enjoyed staying there.
More generally, Kuala Lumpur is a mix of modern and old. There are brand-spanking-new malls with all the luxury chain stores (I wrote this sitting in a coffee shop between an indoor Jaguar dealership and a Tiffany’s). The streets are congested, and there’s a distinct lack of pedestrian crossings…which means a lot of scary jaywalking. (But drivers do obey traffic signals and mostly stay in their lanes, except the motor scooters…) Sidewalks are narrow, crowded with vendors, and uneven. Wifi and cell phones are ubiquitous. There’s a modern LRT and monorail network. And so on.
KL is also a fascinating mix of cultures. Signage is mostly in Malay and English. Driving is on the left, and the electrical outlets take the same kind of plugs as in England — legacies of being a Commonwealth country. The three major cultures here are Malay, Chinese, and Indian (Tamil). People here wear everything from t-shirts and shorts (you’ll see plenty of leg, but almost no bare shoulders) to hijabs and long skirts — Islam and Hinduism are both prevalent. Chinese New Year is coming up, and all the malls are decorated for it, just like Christmas displays back home.
Cuisines from all three cultures are readily available. There are also plenty of Western restaurants (and chains), Thai, Middle Eastern, you name it. We’ve eaten:
- Malaysian-style fried rice (nasi goreng) — highly spiced, mixed with beef
- South Indian-style dosas (thin rice-flour pancakes, called tosais here) with vegetable or banana fillings
- Chinese-style spicy beef and stir-fried vegetables with rice
- Tex-Mex *ahem*
We’re gradually getting more adventurous in our eating — we started at fancy-looking Western-friendly restaurants, but later we had dinner on that outdoor restaurant strip we drove through on our arrival, and we had lots of dosas at a little outdoor Malaysian-Tamil place. So far, so good! The water here in KL is potable — we’ll have to be a lot more careful when we leave the city, and also in the other countries we’re visiting.
Next up: Taking in the sights of KL…