Kuala Lumpur took a few visits to win me over. For years, it was simply a transit hub to other destinations. Now, I think it’s one of the most fun, charming cities in South East Asia. There are many neighbouring cities which are arguably more attractive to visit – Ho Chi Minh City’s motorbike traffic is a wondrous cacophony of chaos, Bangkok’s famous for food and nightlife, Ubud is laid back and relaxed, and Singapore is more chic and modern. KL is more of an acquired taste. A fusion of cultures and some amazing food come meet in a concrete jungle of pollution and noise, and of course, there’s the heat and humity of an equatorial country.
KL is a full-on sensory assault. One minute you smell well-marinated chicken billowing smoke and spitting on the barbeque, fragrant curries and roti coming from the mamaks, then you’ll walk through a cloying, nose-wrinkling cloud of durian, a hint of incense, washes of icy fresh air conditioning, exhaust fumes and piles of garbage, and the inevitable big city smog.
There’s a sense of movement and hurry, despite the jarring traffic jams, when you notice the black-and-white checkered gutter blocks, so reminiscent of the nearby Formula 1 track, and a smooth-as-silk monorail slices overhead to take pole position over the motorists. The monorail and LRT are well-maintained and well air conditioned, and a pleasure to ride. I still love the old-fashioned blue plastic token in lieu of a real train ticket. The urban decay is everywhere, with sidewalks cracked to reveal portals to the sewers below, and rusted steel mesh grids sprouting from concrete walls.
There are places where the natural world is rebelling, where lifting pavements are warped by a mighty, twisted tree bursting out from the concrete. The shopping mega-mall paradises offer a stark juxtaposition between rich and poor, as suddenly tiny food carts are gone and all you see are Starbucks and art galleries. The entrance to a slick shopping centre is like a gateway between worlds, as the dirty outside world seems almost forgotten as the monstrous air conditioning units send a wave of goosebumps down your back.
Once you’ve climbed up to the impressive Batu Caves and photographed the Petronas twin towers glimmering in the sun, one might argue that Kuala Lumpur is nothing more than just high-rises. Although KL is typically not a city full of activities, it is a city for exploration and there is absolutely more to be found, if you take the time. Hipster cafes, manicured gardens and street markets are all there to discover if you get to know the neighbourhoods. However, you’ll never run out of great things to eat – a rich and saucy char kway teow whipped together on a roadside food cart, freshly chopped pineapple sprinkled with salt and chilli, a hot cup of pulled teh tarik, or my personal favourite, the rice and chicken of a nasi lemak (with the added crunch of peanuts and those crispy little fish!). This time, we tried something new with our Malaysian friends – locally famous Nirvana restaurant, where a big pile of rice and various curries were served to us on a banana leaf. At meal’s end, we folded the leaf towards us – a sign that the meal was a good one. #malaysianfood