This past weekend, from Friday morning to Tuesday evening, I traveled to Malaysia in attempt to experience…well, to experience something. In truth, I was not really sure what to expect. I booked the plane tickets to Kuala Lumpur less than 24 hours before departure and did not have anything remotely close to an itinerary until about 1am the morning of. I did not have a credit card or a funcional ATM card, and instead very carefully stashed wads of cash throughout my belongings. I very nearly didn’t even go to Malaysia, contemplating the draws of Taipei or Seoul instead. Finally, I was alone. What I’m trying to say is that the trip was just a smidgen spur of the moment, a little risky, and contained a spontaneity that always translates to chaos. With travel, things never go as planned.
Note: This is a long journalistic piece. For thoughts on Malaysia as a country and a culture, see the upcoming piece entitled ” Thoughts - When traveling alone, the thinking never stops.”
The basic itinerary of the trip was as follows: Walk, wait, see, eat, walk, walk, wait.
On Friday afternoon I arrive in Kuala Lumpur in the late afternoon, take a few trains somewhere, and navigate to the surprisingly pleasant BackHome hostel. Almost immediately after arrival, I leave to conquer the city on foot. I eat at a relatively pricey vegetarian Indian restaurant recommended by the host then walk to Menara, otherwise known as KL Tower. It is essentially the Malaysian version of Seattle’s Space Needle, and my twenty minute nighttime stay at the top before closing was not quite worth the 40 Ringgit. No matter, I then walk to the nightlife district, which is overshadowed by one of the most impressive buildings in the entire world: the Petronas Towers.
This brings me to Saturday morning. The plan is to wake up early, rush to the Petronas Towers, and get a ticket to the “Skybridge.” The ticket desk opens at 8:30am, and I have been warned to arrive early, at or before 8:00, to avoid disappointment. I wake up at 7:15, rush to the Petronas Towers, and upon arrival find a chaotic mass of people in a longer-than-Disneyland line. “Alright,” I said “Just going to have to wait this one out.” I have no idea that I will be miserably standing in line for the next two and a half hours, with nothing to do, as the bustling and unseen Kuala Lumpur awaits outside. I finally obtain a ticket at 11:45, and am whisked up 41 floors to the Skybridge. Here I experience fifteen short but sweet minutes of viewing. I have one day to see KL, and I spend two and a half hours waiting for a FIFTEEN minute session! Not cool, but what can I do? Accept it.
After this frustrating extravaganza I take the train back two stops to the Masjid Jamek Station, home base. From here I embark on a ridiculous walking tour of the city. I say ridiculous because to walk the distance and time that I did, by myself, in the hot and humid Malaysian air, is under no circumstances how the “standard” tourist would see the city. I see Masjid Jamek, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Dataran Merdeka (the national square where Malaysia gained its independence from Great Britain), the Dayabumi Complex, the National Mosque, the Islamic Arts Museum, the Old KL Railway Station, the Central Market, and finally Petaling Street Chinatown.
At that point, my famished body directs me to a food stall for a classic buffet style Malaysian meal, featuring authentic satay, nasi lemak, and whole grilled fish. Food is renowned and important here, and the most basic yet delicious and representative food comes from the streets.
The next task is to solve the mystery that is the KL bus system. Unmarked, slow, sporadic, and inefficient. When I finally find the correct bus stop, I wait for 45 minutes for the bus to arrive. The journey to Batu Caves takes more than twice as long as it would have taken me on a bicycle. Also, I nearly miss the stop, because it is completely unmarked and if I had not said anything the bus would have continued on without my knowledge. This is all quickly forgotten at the sight of the 141 foot tall Lord Murugan statue, boldly standing to the right of 272 steep steps that lead to a gigantic limestone cave which houses an important Hindu temple. It is like a scene from Lord of the Rings. I’m telling you, for a second I was Frodo climbing the steps of Mordor.
Thanks to none other than the extremely ineffecient bus system, I emerge from the depths of the cave just in time to see this:
That was the thing about this trip. No matter how much everything seemed to go wrong, no matter how many mistakes were made and how much time was wasted, no matter how much my plans really should have utterly collapsed, it ended up working out quite well. Honestly, its beyond me how it even happened.
From Batu, I take a train (wait a second, I didn’t have to take a bus?) back into the city to Bangsar, a district known for good restaurants and bars. Of course, the Bangsar Station is in the middle of nowhere, about a 15 minute walk from the actual district, which I am forced to find on foot. At this point, my leg and feet muscles are absolutely disgusted with the torturous day I have demanded of them. Once in the hotspot of Bangsar, I go directly to the most crowded restaurant in the district, Sri Nirvana Maju, a “banana leaf” Indian establishment. This is a meal to remember. The food is not only delicious, but completely unique and novel to me, as is the entire experience. I eat off of a banana leaf, directing the food from the fingers of my right hang into my mouth, just as the seasoned local Indians do. I order Kopi, not knowing that it is a coffee drink produced from beans that have been digested and excreted by the Civet, a cat-like jungle mammal. Who would of thought I would have randomly chosen the most bizarre drink on the menu? The entire meal costs $4 USD.
In the morning, I wake up early and take a train to the private bus station. Here I purchase a ticket for a 5 hour bus ride to Penang, an island on the northwestern coast of Malaysia, for 35 Ringgit. At this price, it costs less than the 25 minute rides from the airport. In Peru, they have a similar inexpensive luxury private bus system, which leads me to question why the United States is still using Greyhound when third world countries have such amazing private busing.
I arrive in Georgetown, on Pilau Penang in late afternoon, then resourcefully find my way to the Red Inn guesthouse. I quickly settle in, then its go go go once again. I explore the city on foot, although its less chaotic and smaller than KL, making it easier. I see the famous old architecture of Georgetown, which is scattered absolutely everywhere. I wander through Little India, full of Indians celebrating Deepavali and shopping the street markets. Most striking is the immense amount of religious buildings in every corner of the city: old churches, intricate mosques, Hindu temples with distinctive towering goparums, colorful, incense-filled Chinese temples, and large Buddhist worship complexes. There is no prevalent religion here; all religions are prevalent.
On Monday, I take on the rest of Penang. I walk to a few more nearby sites, including the blue mansion of Cheong Fatt Tze, and then deal with the bus system again. I am dropped off at a Buddhist temple which is different from the famous one which I wish to visit. I still walk through, and then find my way by foot to Wat Chayamangkalaram, which features a huge reclining Buddha, among other things. Directly across from this is Dhammikarama Burmese Temple, another extensive and incredible complex.
I find a street food center nearby, and try char koay teow, simply one of the best noodle dishes I have ever had. I also have some famous Penang White Coffee served ingeniously in a plastic bag. From here, its another long bus ride to Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest of them all here in Penang. The intricacy, the colors, the spiritual vibe, and the impressive pagoda all lead to a sense of true amazement. Also, it should be noted that the single most prevalent symbol in this temple is the swastika. After all, it has been a sacred Eastern religious symbol for thousands of years.
After a bowl of pungent laksa, herby seafood soup not made for the faint of heart, I take the longest bus ride yet, to the northwestern corner of the island. I hike through the jungle in Penang National Park as long as light and body let me, sweating to the point of complete saturation.
After a long hike, there is nothing like a clan of monkeys to put things in perspective. This one has a young one as cargo.
After a meal of nasi kandar, I crawl back to the guesthouse. I wake up at 6am, take a bus back to KL, and then fly back to Hong Kong. What a crazy, amazing trip. Let’s do it again sometime Malaysia.