The first week of a round-the-world trip. I knew something big and exciting lay ahead of me. I was free from work and responsibility and my savings were at their maximum. But that first week, I had a funny feeling of directionlessness. Am I spending too much? Not enough? Am I making the most of this? Am I being too lazy or cramming too much in? It all felt very much like an ordinary holiday, and the road didn’t feel like home yet. On day 2 I visited Batu Caves, about an hour by bus from Chinatown (Bus 11D, in front of the Bangkok bank). A man was seated in front of me, holding a small bag of rubbish. I noticed a cockroach rolling around in the bottom of the bag. It climbed out, but he quickly caught it again, and dropped it back into the bag. Weird.
Batu Caves is a huge natural limestone cave network, adopted by Hindu pilgrims and tourists alike. To reach it, a steep staircase in ‘Where’s Wally’ red and white stripes launched up to the mouth of the cave, populated by greedy, overfed monkeys who live comfortable lives being treated to snacks by tourists. Presiding over the ascent was a colossal golden statue of Lord Murugan, Hindu god of war and victory. The cave interior was echoing, cavernous, and humid, with high black ceilings, dripping water, and topped off with a flashy souvenir shop with spinning coloured lights. Somehow though, it wasn’t too intrusive. Beyond was a second cave chamber with a Hindu temple, which opened to the blue sky above. All in all, a nice little day trip for someone looking to escape the city for an afternoon.
In those early days, I was a solo traveller left to my own devices in Kuala Lumpur. I was mainly munching on local cuisine, getting horrendously lost amongst the highways and the humidity and the markets, and taking many, many pictures of the Petronas Towers (which I find spectacularly, astoundingly tall and stylish. They’re just awesome). Below Petronas Towers is a massive shopping mall, and, combined with the equally large Bukit Bintang Pavilion nearby, shopping was a major attraction to a lot of people in KL.
I was more interested in the sights, smells and tastes instead of the shopping. Outside the business districts of KL (where modern glassy skyscrapers crowd around the Petronas Towers like a hall of mirrors), is the hustle and bustle of a fast-paced Asian city. Things are less mad than, say, Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, but the same feeling is there. The smell of curries in the morning. The streets are in varying stages of disrepair. The heat is omnipresent, and with the humidity, every day I was rendering a T-shirt unwearably sweaty. I became obsessed with Char kway teow, a flat rice noodle dish with a thick sauce of soy, chilli, prawns, cockles and various other magical flavours all stir-fried into one. I bought it from street vendors in Chinatown for 3 Ringgit, served on a banana leaf, and followed it up with sliced mango, served with a toothpick. Then I ate another one.
Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, and the traditional headwear (Hijab) Is everywhere in evidence. As a result, many Malaysians don’t drink alcohol, and beer prices are almost as high as they are in Australia to compensate. I didn’t do a great deal of drinking either, but there are some cool bars in and around Chinatown nevertheless, including the old backpacker favourite, Reggae Bar. I liked eating Roti with curry sauce for breakfast. I liked that the taxis are called ‘teksi’ in Malay. I especially liked the LRT light rail system!
It was lunch time and I was sitting in an out-of the way food court, off Petaling Street, the major shopping and hawker street passing through Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur. All around me were small rickety metal kitchens, shielded by big colourful menus, spitting oil, sizzling with spicy flavours, and smelling of satay beefs and lemon chickens and chicken hot pot. Out of the corner of my eye, hordes of tourists squeezed through Petaling Street, eyeing fake backpacks and watches. My attention, however, was on the particular chicken hot pot in front of me, which was blowing my mind. Food…Malaysia…good. The adventure was just beginning; and I was wondering what to do next.