Towards the end of 2013, I needed to take yet another work trip to visit a company in Singapore. Now I love Singapore, but….. I have just been there too many times! And I shook my head and thought “this time I am going somewhere I have never been before”. So I took a look at the map, let my eyes trail north of Singapore and began Malaysia dreaming. Malacca caught my gaze. I’d always wanted to see it- something about that olde world spice of the colonial age. The romance of the Malacca Straits. The Orient of yesteryear. But to get there I’d have to first fly to Kuala Lumpur- the Oriental megalopolis of today.
My taxi driver from KL airport is a small shrouded Muslim woman named Kay. She’s a chatterbox- we discuss her day, driving techniques, and my plans to somehow get to Malacca. She’s full of helpful tips and solutions. As I jump out of the cab at Le Apple hotel in Bukit Bintang, she hands me a card and tells me to call her if I need any advice during my stay. I know that if everyone is this friendly in Kuala Lumpur, I’m going to have a good time.
Bukit Bintang, which translates as “Star Hill”, is absolutely buzzing. A hive of traditional Malay food courts, traffic, lanterns and shopping malls. There’s a street food court across the road from the hotel, so I go there and try to find something to eat. I am quickly surrounded by locals and with the help of some pictures and hand waving I manage to secure a plate of delicious hot beefy something. A guy comes over with a can of drink, and sitting there in that concrete backstreet eating dinner, sweating in the hot humid night, with Malaysians around me watching a movie on an old TV, I’m filled with that old sense of triumph and excitement. I’m back in South-East Asia!
The next morning I get up early and head straight for the monorail station enroute to Batu Caves. The monorail is the way to get around central KL being one of the central arteries, and as an added bonus it’s high up, affording a really good view of the surrounding area. From KL Central the metro train then goes out to Batu Caves on the outskirts of the city. The extension of the line to the caves is new, and the trains modern, but my gosh, the train is slow. I sit watching endless fields go by at what seems like 10 kph.
But finally, I arrive at Batu Caves. Batu is an impressive cave system carved out of a monumental limestone cliff. But more than that, it’s a Hindu temple, with the main section of the caves filled with Hindu shrines and demonstrating the cultural diversity that exists in this predominately Muslim country. A colossal golden statue of the Hindu God stands before a stairway leading up to the caves, and monkeys frolic on the stairs, occasionally ambushing unsuspecting tourists (usually small females) and stealing food or anything else not held onto. The monkeys are funny and the babies super cute, but after a terrifying Dutch girl’s story of an attack in Ko Phi Phi I’m wary of getting too close.
Running the gauntlet of a bunch of monkeys on an offshoot off the staircase, I head to the dark caves. A protected eco-system, with bats, bat poo, and a bunch of species of spiders and other creepy crawlies that aren’t found anywhere else, you have to pay to get a guided tour of the dark caves. There’s no temples here, just a trip into the bowels of the earth with a knowledgeable guide, who talks about the previous use of the caves as a Chinese guano mine (in other words they dug out bat shit and used it for all sorts of things from fertilizer to explosives). And true to the name on the tin, the caves are dark. At one point we turn out our torches and it’s so dark I can’t see my hand right in front of my face. However, it’s not quite a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare- the way is paved and the really deep, tight spaces are reserved for scientists and other authorised personnel.
National Mosque (Masjid Negara)
Back at Kuala Lumpur station, I escape the train to visit the National Mosque (Masjid Negara). It’s modern but beautiful and geometric. I arrive half an hour before visiting hours for non-muslims, so I grab a delicious Arab lunch at the nearby Islamic Art Museum, grateful for the cool air-conditioning. Back at the mosque a tribe of tourists pitter-patter around in bare feet and supplied hijabs. I check out the architecture of the surrounding buildings which is also stunning, particularly the train station itself. But dark clouds look menacing and I hightail it back to the monorail.
I’m not even aboard the monorail before the sky opens up with a vengeance. Did I mention that this is the monsoon season? Thunder and lightning are followed by torrential rain, the view from the monorail almost a complete whiteout. Back at Bukit Bintang, a veritable waterfall covers end of the station and the train disappears through it. At street level, the water is 4 inches deep, but this doesn’t worry the traffic which is as thick as usual. I decide to make a run for it across the 6-lane road in the rain on the green walk signal and manage to get my shoes completely submerged doing so.
Petronas Towers and Jalan P. Ramlee
After a pit stop at the hotel to change footwear and wait for the rain to stop, I end up walking all the way from Bukit Bintang to the Petronas Towers. The Towers are impressive, but I really want to see them by dark, so I nip into the attached shopping mall and watch a choir performing Christmas carols. Darkness descends, and outside the Petronas Towers are bathed in light. There are many skyscapers vying for title of most beautiful, but only a handful really with a shot at the title, and I reckon Petronas is up there.
Following Petronas, I’m buzzing and in the mood for a beer, so I stop into one of the bars on Jalan P. Ramlee, a well known party hotspot. The atmosphere in the humid air is electric but the vibe is a bit touristy and there’s only so much chilling with a beer you can do by yourself. So I head back to Bukit Bintang and look for Jalan Alor.
Jalan Alor is not the easiest street to find (make sure you have a good map) but you’ll know it when you arrive. Lined by street food vendors and cheap eateries, crowds teem along the narrow street underneath hundreds of glowing red and orange lanterns. Groups of friends meet on plastic tables over plates of delicious street food and beer. I take my place in a happening looking array of tables and order some chicken dish so spicy that I can barely taste my pint of Tiger beer. My mouth burning but my stomach happy, I am startled by the sudden sound of many drums beaten simultaneously behind me.
Turning around, a dragon consisting of two men begins to dance in time to the drums, and next thing, the dragon jumps up onto a set of tall metal podiums high above the street level. (I had wondered what they were when I sat down to dinner.) With amazing dexterity, the dragon jumps from one precarious podium to the next, made all the more terrifying by the fact that one man is often standing on the other’s shoulders. A bizarre kind of Malay circus act is occurring right in front of me and I’ve somehow chosen the box seat. The crowds cheer and a new dragon begins a routine. It’s possibly some sort of contest. I’ve left my camera back at the hotel, and I snap some shots on my iPhone, which gets left on the roof of my car in Australia 2 weeks later, never to be seen again. The dragon contest will thus have to live on only in my mind’s eye as one of those bizarre travel occurrences that nobody but me believes really happened.
Central Market, Merdeka Square
The next day, with only hours to go before leaving with my driver (a friend of taxi-driver Kay) for Malacca, I get myself over to the Central Market. In a gritty way it’s quite pretty, with its art deco facade and proximity to the gritty concrete river bank. It’s the sort of place that shopaholics could probably spend all day in, but I head in the front door and in a surprisingly short period of time find myself out the back door wondering what all the fuss is about. I am however relieved of some Ringgits and have acquired some nice pashmina scarves and some pottery that looked interesting.
With more time to kill than expected, I head across the Klang River to Merdeka Square, which has some nice mosaics of former Malaysian Prime Ministers. From the middle of the vast lawn I take some photos of the stunning architecture of the surrounding buildings, when a crazy shirtless man begins raving toothlessly to a family playing cricket on the lawn. The family flees and the man directs his toothless raving at me instead. Deciding its a good time to get going, I walk off down the street pursued by the oddball, but when I turn around he’s been distracted by a busload of Chinese tourists which has pulled up and is raving toothlessly at them instead.
Continuing down the street, I see a couple on a motorcycle swerve towards me on the edge of the road and slow. On guard, I prepare for another confrontation and the rider yells at me from behind his helmet “Welcome to Malaysia!” Ah, that’s more like it- and it’s neither the first nor the last time I’ve heard it this trip.
Before leaving with my driver to Malacca, there is one more sight to see, and it’s yet another beautiful building, the Jamek Mosque. It’s positioned at a fork in the river and in contrast to the Central Mosque, one of the oldest in Malaysia.
It’s not long before the skies release their fury once again, and the rain beats down on the dusty streets. But by now I’m in the dry cool air of a comfortable sedan being driven through the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on my way to Malacca, and I know I’ll come back to the Malaysian capital.
Been to Kuala Lumpur? Have any other hot tips for things to see? Need any help planning your trip? Let me know in the comments!