Kuala Lumpur (affectionately dubbed ‘KL’by travellers and residents) is the Southern heart of South East Asia. There are direct routes that run from there to just about everywhere, and because it is the home of Air Asia, “the world’s best low cost carrier,” flying anywhere from there is about half the price. As a result, it is a hub for travellers-in-transit and it seems that the most many people see of KL is either the airport or one of its numerous (and confusing) inter-city bus stations. It was the logical first step for our explorations of Malaysia, but we didn’t just want to pass through, so after arriving on a characteristically humid, stormy evening, we checked into Tropical Guesthouse with high hopes of doing some Bangkok-style, high intensity sightseeing. But the truth is, there’s not all that much to see in KL, unless you’re really into glitzy shopping malls (one is ten storeys high and has an in-house theme park with a roller-coaster) and full days of maxing out the credit card. That said, it definitely has its charms and we ended up spending five nights, even though one could really do everything we did in about three days (with some advanced planning).
On our first breakfast run in the city, we were introduced to some really delicious South Indian options which involved rice rotis and some mystery dipping sauces (the ever-present, soupy Dhal being the only recognisable one). This was accompanied by what has become a staple with all our meals in Malaysia so far: deliciously refreshing iced Milo. For the price of RM 2.50 (roughly R7) we were totally full off a local meal for probably the first time since arriving in South East Asia. Scrumptious as it it is, Thai food just didn’t seem to fill us, though it is very likely that the portioning and meat/starch content of South African diets is to blame, rather than the Thai food itself.
Anyhow, bellies full, we moved on to the Museum Negara (National Museum) to get a good idea of Malaysian history and tradition, which is really a good idea if you want to understand the cultural melting pot that is Malaysia. It actually reads similarly to South African history. A strategically placed coastal area on a busy trade route, already inhabited by developed and intricately nuanced local communities, is repeatedly colonised by successive European powers (Portuguese, Dutch, British). But, in addition, there is an influx of traders from the Middle East, merchants from India and China, and partial Japanese occupation during the Second World War. As a result of all this, the Malay people are an incredibly diverse populace (once again, like South Africa), but from our limited experience so far, they are totally accepting of one another’s religious, cultural and ancestral differences and the country seems to celebrate this rich diversity with unparalleled vigour. Granted, we are here during their independence month, so national pride is reaching a fever pitch, but it is still really very refreshing for a couple of South Africans.
One of the best things about Kuala Lumpur is that it is a very walk-able city, as most of the interesting things to see and do are located centrally in either the Chinatown area, or the Golden Triangle. So after just a few detours we found our way to the beautiful botanical gardens, and on the other side of that, the historical Central Market. Once a thriving gambling house, it is now basically a glorified flea-market, but there are some interesting things to browse and the building is worth seeing. The uber-colonial administrative center of Merdeka Square is just a short walk down the road, and in addition to the architecture, you can also see the highest flagpole in the world flying an enormous Malaysian flag right over the city’s old cricket pitch, which is quite a nice juxtaposition.
Chinatown’s bustling Petaling Street is also a hive of activity, and runs through some historically significant areas, so it warranted a stroll, but again, it is mainly a proliferation of hawker stalls selling cheap-ish knock-offs and various kinds of satay. We enjoyed the atmosphere more than the sightseeing and the shopping.
Our hostel was situated near Bukit Bintang, a major shopping hub near the KL business district, where the Petronas Towers dominate the skyline. This meant that wherever we couldn’t walk, we could just catch the very affordable and efficient monorail. The Petronas Towers were a marvel to look at but the queues to get up to the skybridge were ridiculous so we just contented ourselves with oggling it from ground level. Being near Bukit Bintang also meant heavenly food options including the most enticing doughnut and sweet shops we have ever laid eyes on. One shop specialised in muffin-tops – and no, we’re not talking about too-tight pants that make your love handles flow over the waistline like a cascading flesh-waterfall – we’re talking about only the most delicious, crispy, top half of the muffin; the part that you always regret eating first when you’re left with a rather boring, stodgy ‘muffin bottom’ in a soggy paper wrapper. But at a premium 5 Ringgit per ‘top,’ we could only admire the genius from the other side of the counter. Testing all the different doughnuts, on the other hand, (cream cheese and oreo, pistachio and white chocolate, etc.) became something that worked itself into our daily budgets and after all the walking it was almost an entirely guilt-free indulgence.
Perhaps the highlight of our Kuala Lumpur experience was FRIM (Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia). Located abot 16km uoutside of the city, they have successfully regenerated hundreds of hectares of Kuala Lumpur’s erstwhile tropical forest for conservation and research purposes. Most travellers go there for the Canopy Walkway – a series of rope bridges and wooden platforms suspended 30meters above the ground, in line with the treetops. Despite being quite petrifying initially, the bridges are actually very sturdy so once you get used to the bouncing and swaying, it is an exhilarating trek over pristine forest, with some truly amazing views. The hike through the forest to the canopy platform and back could be an attraction in itself as we saw some breathtaking plant and animal life on our way. It is a wonderful (literal) breathe of fresh air after a couple of days in the city.
Hot, sweaty and pretty knackered, we decided to forge on and make a day of it, heading straight to Batu Caves, also on the city limits. The largest of the three caves houses a Hindu Temple, which draws over a million pilgrims each year, most notably during the festival of Thaipusam, when the seriously devout pierce themselves and carry large wooden canopies up the 272 steps to worship. Besides the caves and the view, there is also a very mischievous troop of monkeys who saunter up and down the stairs, niftily relieving unsuspecting visitors of their burdensome snacks and drinks as they make the trek. We found them endlessly entertaining, but their antics sent many a visitor screaming in either direction, minus a few possessions. We knew it was time to move on from the spectacle when they caused a truly hysterical Chinese boy to crap his pants on about the 70th stair.
All in all, we know we’ll be back in Kuala Lumpur before long, spending longer than we meant to, and enjoying the sound of thermal thunderstorms in the evening, while we sip our iced milo and discuss the day’s explorations over a plate of whatever abundantly cheap, delicious food we happen to find.