We began our new life as backpackers in Kuala Lumpur at a place called Reggae Mansion. Being our first week on this journey, we wanted to ease ourselves into the transition and thought this place would be perfect as it provided a private dorm, air con, wifi and a rooftop bar playing Bob Marley 24/7. I can hear all you backpackers who have gone before us crying out “soft!” but hey, it was our first week and we were in Asia.
It seemed the grimy street we were placed on also doubled as the local bus network’s main terminal so we had to play frogger with them every time we wished to cross the road. I achieved my highest score on the Wednesday. It was interesting to learn that 68 years prior, Japanese forces were also patrolling this very street during their occupancy in WWII and I’m pretty certain a picture of the building we were in comes up on Wikipedia when you search Kuala Lumpur.
So here we were on this old street playing leapfrog with buses on our first day outside of Australia. We thought we would spend the first day or two navigating this
new city and set off to do laps around the block. With no destination in particular, we explored the area around where we were living. This area, not too far from
Chinatown and Pataling Street, seemed to be more the ghetto side of town. It often stank of cat-piss and bus pollution. The Muslim men would often leer at Elisha
because her ankles were showing like in a 1920’s porno and, at times, the whole city just felt like a bad nightclub where the ratio was way out.
Despite how uncomfortable this was, we tried to venture out as much as we could. We were interested to see where the locals did their groceries and made the 3km
journey to Chow Kit where their markets were located. The products seemed so fresh and I was really interested to find just how different the chillies were here.
They seemed to carry an abundance of flavour instead of just heat and seemed to have more crunch. I would have smuggled some of these back in my pants if I knew they wouldn’t give me chilli willy. We also observed some not so pleasant things, such as the cow’s head being cut away. The overall smell could be quite repugnant at times, especially where all the seafood was out. I’m not sure how many hours or days they had been out but the smell was intense.
After two days in Kuala Lumpur, we were still struggling a little with the culture shock, especially in a Muslim country, and were second guessing our decision to sell everything we owned to do this trip. Making it all the more difficult was the fact Muslims don’t drink so there were only 2 or 3 bars where we could escape. By day
3, however, we were familiarised a lot more with the city and thought we would get a little more adventurous in our search for eating local cuisine. I had read
somewhere that assam laksa was a must try whilst here. We found a bowl from a little store and . . . argh! There was a big piece of fish in it like the one I had
seen at the market. Despite the smell, and the flecks of old fish we could see stringing the bowl, we pushed our comfort zone and jumped in. Surprisingly, the laksa was quite rich and the chilli’s were beautiful. If it were served without the fish, I could probably have eaten that for the rest of my life.
We also read a recommendation to visit an old man’s house who had converted the front of his family home into a small open-aired restaurant (restoran) 30 years ago – Fatimah Selara Kampung. In the hope of eating some traditional home-cooked Malaysian, we had to walk about 3kms through some very alien streets where we stood out about as much as Larry Bird would have in Harlem. With a very rough guide on our phone, we located a very empty restaurant down a side street and questioned whether this was it. Sure enough, the old man peeked up from behind his cooking stove and greeted us in his Malay. We ordered a couple of curries amidst our language barriers and sat down amongst the barren tables and watched a stray cat (or perhaps his pet cat, or perhaps tomorrow night’s dinner) walk between the table legs. Elisha noticed a few bugs crawling from the hot plates as Fatimah was serving up the curry and dubiously asked if we should stay. Again, we challenged ourselves and stayed and were amazed to once again discover just how much flavour were in these dishes.
Night soon fell upon us and we realised we would have to walk back through these side streets in the dark towards our dorm. If we weren’t already a little afraid,
there was now a cacophony of Muslim worship resonating from a nearby temple. It seemed this was being broadcast via loud speakers and could be heard in all the
surrounding streets. More culture shock for us. After paying Fatimah the 20 ringgit we owed (about $6-7) we quickly made our way back and had the opportunity to
observe all the local Muslims pull up on their scooters to this temple, take off their shoes, make their way to their place in line and join in the prayer. I really
feel we got to experience the people of KL and see their way of life more than had we not walked across town to eat here.
Now finding some confidence and love for the area, we splurged on a walking food tour for the next day. We had no regret doing this as the guide, a 3rd generation
Indian living in KL, was able to walk us through many backstreets and really promote KL’s cultural diversity to us. KL is home to Malaysians, Chinese and Indians and, despite many religions existing in this city, seem to live quite amicably as neighbours. In the centre, a Chinese temple stood just a stone’s throw from a mosque for over 80 years without problem. We learnt KL is quite a young city, established in the 1880’s because of tin mining, and it partially painted a picture of a future Australia for me in that it existed with a rich multi-cultural diversity. Our day ended with much laughter in Chinatown where Charles, our guide, brought us to one of the oldest restaurants to show us a festive dish, called yeesang, the Chinese share to bring in good luck with the new year. We sat around the table with our chopsticks as this dish was brought out. Charles explained to us that we were to place our chopsticks underneath the food at the same time and, on the count of three, lift it as high as we could repeatedly in the air. A little nervous as to what this could mean for the cleaners, our group was happy to partake in this custom.
Charles counted to three and we flicked our chopsticks up, throwing food as high as we could into the air. Immediately realising the communication breakdown, Charles screamed “Stop! Stop! Don’t throw it! You just lift it as high as you can and drop it back on the plate!” But it was too late. The table was covered with syrup-drenched noodles and the 10 of us just broke into tears.
During our tour, we had encountered a Hindu who was shaving the barbs off fish hooks, the size you would use to catch snapper with. He was going to put 108 of these in his flesh as a physical sacrifice to his god, Lord Murugan, at the Batu Caves for Thaipasum. Although we were going to miss the actual festival due to flights, we decided we had to check this out. The custom is that believers would dress in a yellow gown, shave their head and carry a sacrifice of milk in a kavadi above their head as they walked bare foot up the 272 steps towards the caves where they would present their sacrifice to a shrine inside. We got to witness a lot of people making this journey despite the main event happening the next day. However, the real stuff happened on the day we flew out. People would make the grandest sacrifice they could physically by either piercing a rod through their cheeks and tongue or by dangling horizontally from fish hooks in their flesh. 1.5 million devotees were expected to make the pilgrimage.
Pictures as an example can be found with this link:
At some point during our stay, we did the tourist thing and made the trek to the Petronas Towers. However, on a recommendation from Pat & Kate, we instead went to the Trader’s Hotel for a beer on their Pool Bar level. From the couch there, we were gifted with a beautiful panorama of the twin towers where we could enjoy our Tiger beer from. A beer in and we agreed this was surely a much greater experience than paying the exuberant price to be inside the tower (where, by the way, you can’t see the towers.) But as there was no food, we soon got bored and once again headed back out to eat.
Even though KL smelt a lot like my bedroom did when I was still wetting the bed, it also provided us with some of the best foods we’ve eaten and, as we ate dried
chilli frogs to assam laksa, chicken randang to nasi kesak and dumpling soup to chapati, I think we’re pretty excited we’ve taken this leap. Our only real
disappointment in KL was that after 5 days we did not see a single Kuala Bear.
And now, you bastards are making me miss out on Saigon so I’m finishing up and heading out for another 50 cent beer.