Since last winter in Florida when Kuniko made a one-year-in-advance reservation for a special room in a special place, our winter travel had been determined. We knew we’d be in Kuala Lumpur during the New Year’s Eve countdown, and then we kind of built out our plan from there. We wanted to focus on eating great food, especially street food, and learn a lot more about Malaysian food culture. But ten days in Malaysia seemed like a little too long, so we looked at other destinations and wavered between Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka experienced a terror attack on Easter 2019, so for a while we switched to Myanmar, but in the end the safety situation improved enough that we felt comfortable switching back to Sri Lanka at the last minute. We focused on relaxing and eating during this trip, so sightseeing became an optional activity. That worked out for the best as the tropical weather was pretty hot unless you were in the shade.
As usual, things were pretty busy at home leading up to the trip. Shipping off Christmas packages, wrapping up work projects, attending year-end parties with friends and coworkers, and on top of that we were just worn out from the last four solid months of hard work since our last vacation. As it worked out we finished up everything and had a couple of days to spare before our flight left Japan, so we took some slow time – cleaning up the house, organizing and packing, and even met some stormtroopers at a screening of the new Star Wars movie on the morning of our flight out.
We caught an overnight flight on Air Asia X, and the timing worked out well as we just planned on sleeping the whole time anyway. The plane arrived at about 4:30 am at Kuala Lumpur International Airport Terminal 2 – a fairly new terminal built just for Air Asia. After smooth immigration and customs procedures we carted our suitcase down a floor to pick up a SIM card for my phone. Now that we’re using unlocked iPhones it was surprisingly cheap to rent a SIM card and have internet access in Kuala Lumpur. It cost only about $12 USD for 15 days of internet, so that made the rest of the trip that much easier.
From the train station we used the convenient (although slightly expensive) high speed train link to the center of town. It took about 25 minutes to KL Sentral station, and then we walked right outside to find a hotel shuttle pickup location. Apparently we had just missed our shuttlebus, so we had to wait about 20 minutes for it to arrive. The area around KL Sentral is packed with tall buildings, most of them hotels, and in the distant dark morning sky we could see several towers illuminated. Near the shuttle stop there were lots of taxi cabs and drivers, but they weren’t very aggressive with us when they learned that we were using the shuttle. We sat on a bench in the comfortably warm weather and enjoyed the calm of waiting. Down the way there were people sleeping on the sidewalk, and during the trip we saw some homeless people now and then in Kuala Lumpur – just lying on the ground to conserve energy in the hot weather of the afternoons.
When our shuttle arrived and took us the 5 minutes or so to our hotel, the Hotel Majestic, we were arriving much too early for a check-in. The staff did the paperwork for us in advance, took our suitcase, and so we decided to go out exploring in the early morning, and possibly find some breakfast.
Walking around Kuala Lumpur turned out to be more difficult than we expected. It is a big, growing city, and it has grown dependent on motor vehicles, with some diverse rail services available as well. The city was not designed for pedestrians, and even though places we wanted to visit were close by, the heavy traffic, lack of walkways and sidewalks, and the fact that cars often just ignored stop lights when the drivers felt that it was safe enough.
On the first morning we took some wrong turns in order to figure out the lay of the land, and so it was an indirect journey to get to Chinatown, where we thought we could get some breakfast. The path from our hotel to Chinatown went through a dangerous intersection with cars that hopefully stopped at red lights, over a river, through an area under construction, and then through a pedestrian walkway that had been converted into a homeless hangout. This was the quickest way to get to where we wanted to go on foot, and despite the occasional bad smell around the homeless area it was perfectly safe and easy to use, once discovered.
Chinatown was just opening up for the day, so we walked around until we found a small area where a food cart appeared to be evolving into a permanent restaurant. In the back there was a guy selling fresh fruit juices, and we had our first delicious taste of Chinese Malaysian food. We ordered most of our noodles dry, and watched the guy throwing together the meal into chipped plastic dishes that looked like they’d been in use since the 70’s. The atmosphere was a perfect start to our eating adventure.
We made our way slowly back to the hotel, starting to get a feel for the amount of caution necessary to walk around the backstreets as tourists, and keeping our eyes open to all the strange, interesting and occasionally shocking sights of a developing country. Kuala Lumpur was in an odd phase – growing fast but still full of old areas and showing some growing pains. There were many mysterious moments – one day we found an unexplained line of people waiting for something (I’d guess more than 500 people) near the bus terminal. Another day we were surprised by a solar eclipse that we weren’t aware of. The day became dark and everyone started looking up. There was a lot to wonder at during our stay in “KL”.
Walking into our hotel was a little like going back in time. The theme of the hotel was a throwback to the days of British Malaya in the 1800’s. The doormen wore pith helmets and white uniforms featuring shorts and long white socks. The bar menu featured authentic (?) historical cocktails of the era (sometimes strong, sometimes watery, but always accompanied by addictive peanuts) and there was high tea in the orchid room, a marble bar, a “secret bar”, a gentlemen’s smoking room (smoking jackets provided), and an overall sort of strange historical/previously oppressed vibe. The oddest thing was that the hotel had mostly foreigners staying, mostly British (I think) and they could be found in the smoking rooms and bars swapping stories of the old days in Eton and Cambridge.
Once you mentally wrapped your head around that, the hotel was clean, luxurious, and extremely well-staffed with polite people who did whatever they could to make you more comfortable. We returned from Chinatown with plenty of time to kill before check-in, but the staff offered us a table and served us coffee and orange juice (which I don’t think we actually had to pay for) until they opened up a room for us early. The room was spacious with a big bed and overhead frame (for the mosquito nets?) and a central bathtub in the restroom with a TV built into the wall so you could really relax during your soak. We made use of the facilities, including the large swimming pool, and it turned out to be a good place to decompress from our working life and switch into vacation mode.
So we settled into a nice routine – sleep as much as we like, eat as much as we like, then repeat. I did manage a visit to the Islamic Art Museum, near our hotel, and Kuniko and I both enjoyed visiting the National Mosque, also nearby. We took a train ride out of town (a sign prohibited eating, drinking, and mysteriously titled “indecent behavior”) to visit the Batu Caves, which was high on my list of things to do in Malaysia. The colorful Hindu shrines and steps leading up to the caves really draw the eye. There were 272 steps to the top, and Kuniko did a great job overcoming her fear of falling and making it to the top and back with me. There was a loud concert of Hindi music being played at full volume inside the huge cave, with chickens walking between water drops here and there.
During the first third of our trip we spent most of our time eating, looking for things to eat, and thinking about what to eat next. Before coming to Malaysia my only experience with Malaysian food was a dish bought at Kuala Lumpur airport years ago that contained a metal shaving – not the best of first impressions. But this time we delved deeper into the food culture, and it was diverse, very affordable and some of the best food we’ve had in Asia.
Food in Malaysia often comes from one of three backgrounds – Malay traditional, Chinese Malay and Indian Malay. We were able to get a good sampling of all three, but there are also influences from Indonesia (satay, for example) and western and Thai as well. For the most part the Malay and Indian foods were oriented around rice or roti, and the Chinese around noodles.
We ate a lot of Chinese Malay food – beef noodles, fried duck egg with flat noodles, steamed dim sum, and plenty of vegetable stir fries. Chinatown was built on these kinds of dishes and you could spend a lot of time trying different varieties. They also used pork without any restrictions in Chinese Malay food, so that further widened the options available to us. In Bukit Bintang we ate at Dragon View restaurant – but they forgot our order because they were so busy. The food there was good but not great, the main attraction was the cold beer served on a hot day. There were lots of food options in Chinatown but sometimes they were hard to find, because in the afternoon everyone set up shops selling cheap clothes and trinkets. It takes a little courage to walk down a dark and dirty alley, but occasionally you’ll be rewarded with good food – one stall had too old men serving up food and joking with each customer. We had a bowl of braised pork and some great tofu and fish cake there. We walked down a back street and found people selling electronic parts and junk stripped from equipment and felt pretty foreign as we passed people sitting on blankets struggling to get by selling this stuff. So sometimes you had to get past the junk shops to find the food, but for the most part, Chinese Malay food was the easiest kind of food to find around Kuala Lumpur.
For Indian Malay food we went into the Little India neighborhood near KL Sentral station, and we weren’t disappointed. The vibe of the area felt just like a big city in India, with beat-heavy Indian music pumping out of shops and bright colorful fabrics on display everywhere, and big elephant fountain as a centerpiece of the neighborhood. We tried a buffet-style Indian restaurant there, serving up our own plate and selecting foods and curries. The selection was vast and nothing had names on it – you just had to take a chance. We ordered a lassi to drink, and really enjoyed the food (they even gave us a fork to eat with). The downside was when it was time to pay, and the guy asked us, “What did you eat?” Hmm – this and that, and two spoonfuls of this sauce kind of thing… He just charged us 10 ringgit (about $2) and let us go. Another great Indian place was Mansion Tea Stall – a little hole in the wall place serving great roti. We had some communication issues ordering but the roti was so good. The cook was working the roti over the stove, whirling it around his wrists to slap it against the hot steel plate, over and over, then fluffing it into a pile before chopping it up. In most of the restaurants we visited we were the only tourists, so we got a lot of attention.
For Malay traditional food we found a couple of restaurants that fit the bill. At a slightly touristy place called Old China Café we had some great beef rending and also nasi lemak complete with rice tinged blue with ground pea flowers. Our waiter joked that Tiger beer was actually “Lion”, but later we found actual Lion beer in Sri Lanka. Next door we ate at a restaurant catering to locals with menu items that sort of combined the three food cultures, and had a very unique roti jala – a kind of net looking cake that is dipped into spicy curries by hand. We also had assam laksa there, but it was a little fishier tasting than I had expected. Later during our return to Malaysia at the New Year we were able to try even more traditional Malaysian dishes.
The culinary high point was getting a ride to a night market in the south part of town to eat more street food. The market was once a week, and stretched out over two kilometers. We arrived early but it quickly got crowded and nearly out of hand. The space for walking was tight, there were no trash cans to dispose of your wrappers and cups, and the sheer volume and variety of foods was overwhelming. We tried some great foods here – dim sum (black pepper shumai was a highlight), a neon colored citrus jelly drink that was tasty and had a very natural taste despite the color, stir fried lamb chunks (still on the bone), satay sticks (mind-blowingly delicious with the peanut sauce), and a pancake wrapped up like a burrito with spicy sauce, cabbage, fried crisps and egg inside. One guy was grilling giant penis-like mushrooms, and leering at the cute girls walking by as he worked. Great food here – our only problem was that we couldn’t get rid of the paper and sticks remaining from the food, and we weren’t willing to litter. Next time we’ll bring our own plastic bag for trash. The traffic and crowds soon became too much for even the two kilometer stretch, and we managed to find a Grab (a ride hailing service) and we left. Not five minutes later a huge rainstorm let loose over the city, and I hate the think what had happened to all those people back at the open air night market.
After several days of eating, relaxing and exploring, we decided to go through with our plan to visit Sri Lanka for a few days. There was no terror attack during Christmas (the last one was on Easter so we were a little concerned), so we packed up our stuff and headed back to the airport for a three and half hour flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.