Kuala Lumpur is an interesting city. I can't quite put my finger on what it is. I guess the word that comes to mind most quickly is “MIX.” It's a mix of so many things: cultures, architectural styles, modes of transportation, languages, people, foods… And my whole time in the city, I only came across white tourists a handful of times. The rest of the time, I was surrounded by different kinds of Asians– South Asians, east Asians, Malays, mixes of ethnicities. And I couldn't tell who was a tourist and who was a local.
I was in KL a total of about five days, and there's so much that I saw, so here is a random assortment of highlights:
- The markets were definitely my favorite part. I saw six in all:
- Chinatown at Petaling Street— I wrote about this in my first blog post about KL. I went back to Chinatown as almost a homebase, mainly to eat! On my last day, I went back for some asam laksa and tofu fa. I was looking for this guy who was making a sweet treat (a cookie wrap with sugar and peanuts inside), but I think he only comes out at night. Bummer. The best part about this market for me was the food. Otherwise, it's just lots of vendors selling bags, gadgets, and typical Chinatown-wares. Not my interest.
- Central Market and Kasturi Street— this is more of a tourist market, I think. It's right across the street from Chinatown. There are tons of vendors selling Malaysian and Chinese trinkets, souvenirs, batiks, keychains, clothing, etc. And there's a food court of more “upscale” food– not that it's expensive, but it's more expensive than the hawker stalls in Chinatown for sure! It's a fun place to walk around and buy souvenirs for people back home, which I did on my last day.
- Pudu wet market— this was the first “wet” market I went to in KL. It's called wet because they sell fish and meats and to keep the meats fresh and cool, they use ice and water which means the pathways are often wet. There were so many colors– the fruits and vegetables, the plastic bags used for customers, the meats, the makeshift signs and tables and umbrellas covering the stalls. And so many sounds– people yelling their prices and their products, butchers chopping their meats on wooden chopping blocks… I loved it! I really wished I had access to a kitchen so I could have bought some stuff to go home and make. I had some congee at one of the hawker stalls. Most markets have areas where they sell prepared food; it's just a matter of finding that section!
- Imbi market (also called Pasar Baru Bukit Bintang)– another wet market with the same kinds of things as at Pudu. This place had a better set of food vendors, and I tried a few different things. Pohpiah, milk tea, and the wantan mee. I also bought some kuih because they were just so darn pretty.
- Kampung Baru night market— I read up on this and this night market supposedly opens up around 6pm on Saturday night and goes until the next morning, the wee hours. I didn't want to be out walking around so late, so I went around 7pm, and I must say I didn't get the best vibe. I saw a few rats as I was walking toward the market area (my first rats that I've seen in all my travels these past three months! I was surprised I hadn't seen more, actually). And the market just wasn't as interesting. I think I was probably too early for the full night market feel. Also, I just didn't feel so safe there. So I came, saw, and left.
- Chow Kit wet market— this was another great market. It felt bigger than Imbi and Pudu… but with these markets, it's hard to get your bearings. I just walked down paths, meandered to the right and to the left, ended up somewhere new… I could have done this for quite awhile in any of the markets to really map out my path, but I didn't take the time. There were lots of fresh produce at this market. This market also has more of an Indian/ Malay feel than the other markets I'd seen. So I had a noodle soup at a hawker stall– the vendor called it soto ayam– a curry soup with chicken, I think. It was good.
I loved walking around these markets, mingling best I could with the locals. I rarely saw any other tourists. I'm sure I stuck out, though, with my backpack and iPhone taking photos. But it was great fun to just walk around and use all my five senses to just soak in the environment.
I usually went in the early morning (since I was waking up anytime between 5am and 7am everyday), which is the best time to go to be part of the crowds of people who are buying what they need. Markets just aren't the same when there's no one around. I loved the hustle and bustle of the shoppers and the vendors.
- Air conditioning. So it's not so eco-friendly of me to think this, but in this tropical climate, I was so appreciative of the blasts of a-c that were ever present in shops, stores, public transportation, my hotel. I'm just not meant for tropical weather, I think. I really felt like I was melting. I don't think the actual temperature was higher than the low 90s, but the high humidity, burning sun, and heat-absorbing asphalt all combined to make it feel like it was in the 100s. I was dripping sweat the minute I stepped out the door. I needed a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off my face and neck every few minutes. Not fun. So a-c was a welcome treat. I even went into malls (which I usually can't stand) to get some a-c relief.
- Craft Cultural Complex (aka Kompleks Budaya Kraf). This was a nice surprise. I ended up spending a few hours there. It's a combination museum, artist colony, exhibition area, and store. It showcases traditional Malaysian arts– batik, songkat, woodcarving, silver and other metalwork, painting, and other fabric arts. The artist colony consists of little huts all over the campus that are artists' workshops. They do their thing in these huts and people can walk around, talk with them, and admire their work. What I really enjoyed, in addition to seeing the artists' huts, was doing my own batik piece for just 15 MYR ($5). I got to pick out an already prepped design, and then I got some paints and I went to work. Very cool and so worth it. Batik is basically creating designs with wax and then using paint and water in those wax-outlines. I bought some souvenirs, too.
- Batu Caves Hindu Shrine. This was a last minute sightseeting decision. I hadn't even really known about this place until Sunday, my last day in the city before my evening flight, when I was trying to see if there was anywhere of interest that I had not yet visited. I did a bit of research and read about Batu Caves. It sounded interesting as a landmark plus it was a train ride away which would use up some of the ample time I felt I wanted to use up. So I paid one MYR to take a 30 minute train ride out of the city to this really impressive and jaw-dropping natural PLUS man made wonder. Batu Caves itself naturally formed– caves with really cool craggy stalactites from above. Really tall, too. The shrine part was built by people and includes some small Hindu temples scattered around the site as well as two really really tall Hindu gods– Hanuman and Murugan. Really really tall. These photos don't do their height justice. But alongside the caves, it's really quite cool. I'm glad I went. The site also includes a 272 step hike up to the cave entrance, and then you walk around inside. Totally worth the trip. And it was free except for the 3 MYR or so that I spent on public transportation there.
I'd say in all, I enjoyed my stay in KL. I'm not a big city person, though, so I could only take so much at a time. I splurged my second time around and stayed at a nicer hotel– the Sky Express Hotel, right near Bukit Bintang which is the hip, happening shopping district (still, only $60/ night!!), so I did some sightseeing in the morning and early afternoon, came back and rested for a few hours, and then went to get some dinner. It was nice to have a spacious and clean air conditioned room to come back to for a few hours.
Now ready to go back to some non-city living. Back to the U.S.!