After a month in India, the teeming, Western-splashed metropolis of Kuala Lumpur was a shock to say the least. Hefty chrome-plated skyscrapers, industrial-sized McDonald’s, soaring shopping malls with Swarovski diamonds glittering in the floor-to-ceiling windows: these were my first glimpses of Malaysia’s capital city, just outside the door of our hostel on Bukit Bintang.
I loved it. KL has everything to satisfy a traveller’s needs – history, great food, thriving nightlife, unbeatable shopping, a buzzing cultural scene – and I was keen to pack as much into my city-break-within-a-holiday as possible.
We must begin with the food. KL (and Malaysia on the whole) is a melting pot of cultures, namely Chinese, Indian and Malay, and this is reflected in its titillatingly wide-ranging array of dishes. If you wander through a stretch of food stalls or an all-night market, you’ll see that you can eat about six different courses in one evening (and we did). Start with some chicken wings, spit-fired in front of you and bagged up with sweet chilli sauce; move on to spicy duck neck, chopped into bitesized pieces; feast on heaps of char kway teow, a classic Malaysian fried noodle and prawn dish that is tossed up in a wok seasoned with the crispy remnants of the last dozen plates of it. Then have a fluffy pork bun, pulled to tender perfection; brace yourself to try the creamy, slightly fermented and certainly stinking durian fruit, and finish it all off with cendol, a shaved ice dessert drizzled with coconut milk and palm syrup and covered in beans, sweetcorn and jelly. You’d think you wouldn’t be hungry after all that, but give it an hour and the wafts of a sizzling wok will tempt you back across the street for the next round. The restaurants and holes-in-the-wall are also brilliant. Eating the best noodles (perhaps ever), an old man barking at me in Cantonese in a packed room of locals who are shipped in and out with just enough time to shovel a few beef balls into their mouths: that is a memory I won’t forget easily.
I didn’t just eat (though that’s what I’ll be doing if I return to KL). We also went to the opening of an exhibition at ILHAM gallery, a contemporary celebration of Malaysian artists and history located in an imposing, futuristic skyscraper that has touch-sensitive elevator buttons (very exciting). We walked through KLCC Park, a sanctuary of well-manicured foliage clapped right in the middle of some rather important buildings in the style of Central Park. We went up KL Tower to see the sunset, overpriced beer in hand. We took the free walking tour of Kampung Bharu, which I would recommend over all. It’s a fairly underdeveloped neighbourhood that is still occupied almost exclusively by the Malay people, and seems out of place in the midst of the encroaching concrete jungle; indeed, our guide warned that if the aggressive development of recent times continues, the village will be lost in the next ten or twenty years. This would be a terrible shame, not only for the inhabitants of Kampung Bharu but for the slice of history it represents: it was established by the colonial British as an agricultural enclave for the ethnic Malays, was later the site of anti-colonialist protests and the early meetings of what is now Malaysia’s most prominent political party, and also played a part in the bloody clashes between the Chinese and Malays in 1969. Its resistance (so far) to KL’s quick transformation into a modern hub of the world has made it an inimitable political symbol of Malay culture.
Just as exhilarating as our visit to KL was our two-day stint in Penang, a large island a few hours north of the capital by bus. The main attraction here is Georgetown, which boasts the same wonderful cultural fusion as KL – besides the roti stalls and Hindu images that cover the streets of Little India and the clear Muslim presence, my Mandarin-speaking boyfriend was able to charm the innumerable Chinese hawkers and business owners into giving us the best produce – and price.
What’s also great about Georgetown – funky hostels, a vibrant street art scene, I could go on – is that it’s only a short moped ride from the beach, and the coastline is pretty stunning. A week in, Southeast Asia has already won my heart.
Next stop: Bali.