Travel Stories

Kuala Lumpur and beyond

         Malaysia seemed quite complex to me and there are obviously many many things about it I don’t get. Add to which I was traveling there with Munyra, a thirty one year old Malaysian Muslim woman I’d met at a yoga ashram in India two years earlier (who I also didn’t “get”), and that I don’t have experience backpacking in Asia with another person - except for that one trip four years ago that I shared a few weeks with Joy in Myanmar, a few weeks in Thailand and Laos with my son Sam, and a few weeks in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar with Joy’s son Loren - and maybe my confusion adds up.  Plus Malaysia is far and away the absolutely hottest, muggiest place I have ever traveled … and there is something about the equatorial heat that requires an adjustment.  So here then are just some random impressions.
         It’s a jungle out there, my friends - a green, verdant, florid, blooming jungle!  Trees love it.  It’s hot.  It’s wet.  When it rains you’ve never seen the skies open up like this.  The soil is good.  Ferns larger than the Empire State Building compete with one another for sunlight … and all seem to be winning.  There are coconut and palm oil plantations larger than Manhattan.  There is a diversity of people and ethnicities here I’m not used to seeing anywhere other than New York City and London, but no one group appears to predominate.  There are seemingly equally large numbers of Chinese, Malays, and Indians.  The lingua franca is English.  I saw no cows, horses, oxen, pigs, or even dogs (I think they eat them).  Monkeys share their homeland reluctantly … and their aggression is notable.  (I saw one macaque grab a baby’s plastic milk bottle from a woman, retreat to a safe location, rip off the nipple, drink and dribble down its chin a solid six ounces of milk, and when finished literally throw the empty plastic bottle back at the woman, who’d dared to be yelling and pointing at the monkey.)  There are super highways, toll roads, resorts, skyscrapers, subways, luxury buses, a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur that is larger and more upscale than any I have ever seen, a mall - I don’t exaggerate - with over a two dozen fine coffee shops, over one hundred restaurants, an art gallery, and 100% occupancy.
         I spent two days and three nights on the island of Penang, which is a treasure, in the old city of Georgetown a UNESCO world heritage site, its streets teeming with people and food stands everywhere - Indian food, Chinese food, southeast Asian food.  Good food. Inexpensive food.  People were friendly. Public transportation was good.  The streets were clean.  Some of the women were stunning to look at.  And although all of Malaysia that I’ve seen is quite “modern,” it doesn’t seem or feel “western” at all.  So I liked it, although it didn't excite me.
         And Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital, is no slouch of a city.  You can absolutely feel the wealth here, the dozens of skyscrapers emblazoned with the names of international banks, the hoards of tourists, the malls sparking and thriving.  I’d bet on this place as long as oil is king.  Plus I had my favorite street vendor food experience of all time at the Fat Brothers stand in KL, where skewers of fresh bok choy, Chinese broccoli, okra, veggie balls, fish balls, and shoo mai rested on display on ice! and at the very center of each outdoor table was a propane fueled vat of boiling water that customers dropped their food into and cooked themselves.  We’re talking sterile, folks.  And with a tray of a half dozen tangy sauces to choose from – all for less than a dollar a skewer – well it’s where I ate every chance I could, complemented by my favorite fresh roti stand just down the street, hot rotis off the grill for a dime each.   
         Not to mention the amazing Batu caves at the end of the KL train line - 270 steps up, 270 steps down - a world famous Hindu pilgrimage site, and deservedly so.  See below.
         Or the 10 inch wide single file canopy walk through the tree tops in the Malaysia National Park in Penang that was spectacular.
         Or riding across the gorgeous13.5 kilometer long bridge connecting Penang to Butterworth on the mainland.
         Or the brilliant free art installation where a renowned German photographer put his photographs of fifty Nobel Prize winners in medicine and science on display, each person standing with a simple line drawing the photographer asked them to provide to describe their discoveries … and brief taped conversation excerpts … and charming commentary.
         And Melaka, where I also went … it too a UNESCO designated city with acres and acres of food stands, and tourists from Japan and China, and more great art.
         But in the end, as amazing as Malaysia was, as well developed as its infrastructure is, as dependable its planes and trains and buses, there was something about it that just didn’t grab or compel me as a travel experience.  But all that changed - dramatically and quickly - in Sumatra.