Occasionally plans are made, wheels are set in motion and plane tickets are purchased that later make you stop and wonder ‘what the hell were we thinking?’. Granted, this doesn’t happen very often, but we’ve certainly come to realize the tendency to overestimate our travel stamina is very real.
A few weeks of bouncing through English speaking countries, complete with all of the accoutrements of life back home, left us feeling refreshed and a bit overly confident. India was our next big destination and everything we’d heard made it sound like New Delhi would stand as a significant contrast to the winding mountain roads of New Zealand and the laid-back vibe of Australia.
Maybe it was the cheap New Zealand wine or the fresh mountain air but somewhere along the side of the road in Queenstown we figured that the best plan of attack for India was to arrive on the heels of a twelve hour layover in Malaysia and a redeye flight. These plans must have been forgotten shortly after they were made because Shelby seemed just as surprised as I was when we pulled up the itinerary on our second to last day in Melbourne
Me: ‘Oh shit, did you remember that we’ve got a redeye flight and a 12 hour layover in Kuala Lumpur?’
I suppose ‘buy the ticket, take the ride’ holds true regardless of whether or not you remember buying the ticket.
Overnight flights always sound great in theory. The rationalization usually goes something like this: “It’s the cheapest flight and we’ll save money on a nights accommodations. On top of that, we’ll sleep the entire flight and wake up ready to go. We’re brilliant!”
And like most plans that sound great in theory, reality has a peculiar habit of getting in the way: “Wow! Look at all of these onboard movies! Free booze?! Don’t mind if I do – I’ll have seven please. Hmm, I should really get some sleep instead of watching a third movie.” Finally, follow seven glasses of cheap red wine with an acrobatic effort that would make a professional contortionist take notice in an attempt to find the minimum level of sleep inducing comfort.
Reality’s grasp was as tight as ever on this flight. Throw in a mild bout of Burger King induced food poisoning for Shelby and we stumbled in the Kuala Lumpur airport looking like we might have arrived on camelback.
Fortunately for us, the war against fatigue and stomach pain in Malaysia is best waged with a healthy dose of Nasi Lamak and Roti. Served up at street stalls along the outskirts of the highly developed metropolis people typically associate with Kuala Lumpur, these local dishes are a sure fire way to jump start the body. And, in a testament to how far we’ve come as travelers, two cups of absurdly bitter Malaysian coffee was all it took to get us out of the airport terminal and onto the express train to Kuala Lumpur’s street food mecca of Kampung Baru.
Kampung Baru is a hold out neighborhood – a reminant of the past that’s turned a cold shoulder on the land hungry developers eager to sell studio apartments by the dozen. The people of this small enclave seem to have fought hard to retain their culture against the backdrop of ‘modern progress’ and if a vibrant street food scene is any indication then they’re fighting a winning battle.
A four minute walk from the Kampung Baru KLI station and we found ourselves chasing down the smell of sizzling meat and simmering curries. First on our menu for the day was Nasi Lamak. Nasi, as we first discovered in Indonesia, roughly translates to mixed rice. With Nasi Lamak the rice is cooked in coconut milk and served on a banana leaf with a variety of toppings that you choose by pointing to various heaps of meat and pots of boiling stews. For our personalized rendition of the dish we choose a mixture of chicken rendang, dried anchovies, and sambal topped with a few slices of fresh tomato and cucumber. Smiles were beginning to break through the fatigue.
Next up on the breakfast menu was Roti Canai which is a flat bread, cooked on the spot and mixed with a variety fresh veggies or meat. This dish also comes with a side of traditional curries for dipping. We choose two Roti Canai’s – one with onion and cheese and another with peppers, onions and egg. A strong start considering it was only 9:00 AM.
We spent the better part of the next hour wandering through the surrounding tents and street stalls, sampling small bites and taking in the sites and smells of a street that still clings to Malaysian village life of the early 1900’s.
A short one stop metro ride is all it takes to find yourself in a downtown that feels as though it should be much further removed from the tranquil, tree lined streets of Kampung Baru. Now filled with suit donning businessmen (and ladies), Kuala Lumpur’s main streets have been transformed over the last 150 years from small village to modern, bustling city. Our second stop for the day was one of the cities most defining features – the Petronas Towers.
The Petronas Towers were completed in 1996 and, for a short period of time, stood as the two tallest buildings in the world. At this point in our travels we’d laid eyes on two of the former tallest buildings in the world (Shanghai Tower and Taipei 101) so it seemed fitting that we cross another one of these superstructures off the list. Unfortunately, like most of these impressive buildings, the cost of an elevator ride to the top is the equivalent of two nice meals, so we decided that a tour of the lobby would have to suffice.
While impressive from the outside, the lobby of the Petronas Towers proved to be somewhat of a disappointment and we were quickly on our way toward Merdeka Square and Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown.
The buildings of Merdeka Square were originally constructed in the 1880’s by the British and were used as government offices during their occupation. In 1957, when Malaysia declared independence from the British, the square saw the Malaysian flag hoisted for the first time. At the square we read a bit about the history of Malaysian independence, I took a few quick photos of the surrounding skyline and Shelby did an on camera interview for a few Malaysian college kids before we retreated to the shaded city streets leading to Chinatown.
Malaysian cuisine seems to barrow heavily from both the Indian and Chinese influences. We’d experienced some of the Indian influence for breakfast so our goal in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown was to seek out a few dishes rumored to be modern Malay classics with strong Chinese roots.
A few Malaysian food blogs pointed us toward Kim Lian Kee as the spot for two of these dishes – Claypot Loh Shu Fun and Hokkien Mee. Kim Lian Kee is perched on the second floor of an old building above a sea of fake Rolex and Gucci handbag vendors . The restaurant itself and the cast of characters in the dinning room seemed to resonate with a unique mix of grunge and age that led us to believe we’d just found a hidden gem. Unfortunately, killer ambiance doesn’t always translate to stellar food.
Malaysian Black Hokkien Mee is a noodle dish with thick long noodles and seafood in a dark gelatinous sauce. Claypot Loh Shu Fun is served in a similar sauce but with shorter rolled noodles known as rat tail noodles and a raw egg cracked on top. On the surface, both of these dishes look like you’re in for a kick to the face of flavor – an umami explosion. But, to our surprise, these two dishes were surprisingly bland. A healthy dose of soy sauce and Chinese hot sauces came to the rescue and added a bit of depth the mostly flavorless dish. You win some, you lose some.
With a belly full of rat tail noodles, we weaved our way back through the crowded Chinatown streets toward the metro station. Kuala Lumpur’s metro system is surprisingly effiecient and we were only one long express stop away from the airport. We were a long way out from the days finish line – another flight stood between us and the chaotic streets of New Dehli – but as we watched the city’s skyline disappear in the distance, I couldn’t help but think we’d made the right call in stopping in Kuala Lumpur.
The city of Kuala Lumpur is alive with character. We found a unique mix of culture, both new and old, a healthy dose of great food and some very friendly people. All of this and we barely scratched the surface during our twelve hour stop in Malaysia.