Lacy: In our typical style, we purchased our flights to Malaysia a couple days prior to leaving Nepal. We need to be in Pangkor, a tiny island on the west coast, to set sail to Indonesia on the 10th. We didn’t do much research on our next destination or even book a flight for the night we arrived before boarding our 5 hour, 80% empty flight from Kathmandu. It felt like a private plane there were so few passengers. We have traveled through Kuala Lumpur (KL) airport for long layovers twice this summer, but never left the airport so imagine our excitement when we grabbed a taxi and realized that KL is a rather large and modern city! Highways that are paved and don’t have potholes! Speed limits?! High rises and skyscrapers, no cow shit on the street to avoid while walking, real laundromats! We are officially NOT in a third world country anymore after five months of traveling through Indonesia, Cambodia and Nepal. Admittedly, we both experienced a bit of culture shock for the first 24 hours. Rob will tell you that I am drawn to the lack of polish and rawness that are inherent in the other countries we have visited, but it’s still nice to experience what Malaysia has to offer us!
At the last minute, (meaning in the airport before getting into a cab) we booked 3 nights in the Bukit Bintang district of KL near the night market area. This was intentional since we didn’t check in until midnight and having not eaten a real meal since breakfast in Nepal, we were starving! Throwing our backpacks down in our teensy tiny room we set out to explore what late night delicacies Malaysia could serve up for us. The best bites, by far, were the spicy chicken wings. So good, in fact, we had them again the next evening. Overall, we found the night market to be disappointing with bland food and massages being hawked as you walk down the street until the wee hours of the morning. All we wanted was some good spicy authentic Malaysian grub. We went to sleep near 3am which we later realized set the tone for our first week in this country. Late nights! We are no longer rising and setting with the sun as on the Annapurna Circuit. An entirely different scene emerges in the city as the sun sets. Tables and chairs are set up on the street as food stalls open, doors along the sidewalk that your didn’t even realize were closed before now reveal either a speakeasy or local bar. Sure, there has been a very prevalent street food scene at night throughout the countries we have traveled, but in Malaysia it seems to be working on a higher level here. The food here has many similarities to Indonesia – rice, sambal, chicken, fried noodles. We can lean on some of our comfort foods and explore new ones. It’s easy to read the local signs because Malaysian and Indonesian are very very similar languages. We have that prior knowledge of the language working to our advantage, but almost everyone speaks English so you don’t even need to speak the local language. Honestly, that’s a bit of a bummer for me because the new languages are one of the things I enjoy most when traveling. You can feel the lingering British colonial influence here from the prevalence of English spoken, the architecture and existence of traditional high tea throughout the country.
We enjoyed walking many many miles the next 2 days throughout the city exploring the various parts from Little India to Chinatown and viewing the Petronas towers. It’s very hot in KL right now and I wished I had brought my bathing suit in my bag when we stopped for a drink at The W pool overlooking the Petronas towers. Management was very kind to help us celebrate our 3 year wedding anniversary that day with free chili and kefir leaf infused tequila shots. Yum!
KL, and Malaysia in general, may be a good soft transition from traveling in poorer countries to heading back home after sailing. While it is a big modern island it still has a lot of decent inexpensive options for food and accommodation that you wouldn’t find back home. There, you can hardly get a campsite for less than $20/night much less a hotel room. Granted, $20 doesn’t go near as far as it did in Indonesia, which still remains my favorite country this summer. I haven’t been the biggest fan of traveling to larger cities on this 5 month adventure, but I quite like what Malaysia has to offer. It offers a lot of diversity for food, is clean, easy to get around and the people have been kind.
The third largest city in Malaysia is Ipoh and where we spent the following 4 nights. After an easy 2 1/2 hour train ride we checked into a really cute hotel in Old Town Ipoh, The Happy 8. The town is split between “old and “new” by the river. It’s also very hot in Ipoh, but we were excited to have our white coffee where it originated so we took a short hot walk to a local coffee shop right away. White coffee are beans that have been ground with palm butter and palm sugar giving it a nutty taste. This began due to the lesser quality beans that the locals were using and they masked the strong flavor by adding condensed milk – hence, the “white”. Now, however, when you order a white coffee here it means you get a black coffee mixed with the condensed milk and sugar. Personally, it’s too heavy and sweet for me this way, but Rob loves it. This is not a surprise since he eats cake for breakfast. Ipoh is known to have a great food scene. Locals travel here just to eat. Our first meal was so good and set the tone for a few days filled with good eating. My veg curry was layered with flavor and spice and probably the best I have ever had. Walking off our heavy bellies, we checked out Ipoh’s many murals and famous Concubine Lane.
This area is known for Buddhist cave temples that were discovered in the last 100 years. Having visited so many temples this summer and enjoying seeing the differences between various parts of Buddhism and countries, we visited a few more. It was a hot day, but we continued on to what we thought was a local village. When we arrived we realized that we were at a village replica! It is set around a tiny body of water and looks like a movie set. Most likely, you would take your kids to a place like this to show them what a typical Malaysian village would look like. This wasn’t at all what we had in mind, but they had 2 seater bicycles and traditional hats and we thought, what the heck?! We are here, let’s be silly! So we rode around the “village” a couple times laughing and taking photos before deciding we needed more food! We had a great meal at the local food stalls the night before and there had been a fruit and ice cream dish I hadn’t had the space in my stomach for then, but after a hot day walking around I could think of nothing better!
Rob: While in Ipoh, Lacy found a White Water Rafting outing we could do to take a break from the heat that wasn’t very far away. We could actually take a Grab (Uber here) all the way there, 40 minutes, for just 29MR (about $7). I’ve actually never been and neither had she. The water was a bit low and calm that day so we can both still say that we still haven’t been White Water Rafting, but we had a nice ride in a raft on a lazy river that had a few spots where we picked up a little speed and got a little wet. It was also up in the low mountains on a clear day, clean clear water and we were with a nice group of people. Lunch at a local Warung was also great so overall it was a very nice outing in the Malaysian countryside. The 1/2 day trip turned into a 2/3 day trip and threatened to have us miss our 3:30 Museum reservation. We caught a ride back into town from one of the guys from the Rafting place just in time. The little Museum in Ipoh told the story of how the Hakka people from China came to build and grow the town. It is a young town as far as Asia is concerned – really just a few hundred years old and only coming to worldwide prominence when Tin was discovered in large quantities right at the beginning of WWI and the need for packing and shipping canned food became a necessity. The Museum was fun and intriguing because even though it was Tin and not Gold & Asia, not the American West, the story of a mining boomtown with opium dens instead of saloons, prostitution and gambling was exactly the same. It was also housed in the same building that had been the actual Hakka Miners Club with original interior and furniture which made the stories, excellently described by our guide, come to life. A little Tin Mining Museum really is one of the “must do” things in Ipoh.