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July 8, 2011 / thenextmeal

Country #5 – 2 Days in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

With our itinerary open after Cambodia we ran through a dozen options of how we could spend our final days abroad. Flying out of Siem Reap can be a challenge both logistically and economically, which made this decision a difficult one. Many carriers either do not fly in/out or they hold the exclusivity to the route and charge whatever they feel (EX: Bangkok Air REP->BKK is $350+ one way). In addition we didn’t want to spend most of our time traveling with lots of layovers/transfers. After much deliberation we opted for Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia – a cheap 2 hour flight thanks to Air Asia. It may have been a destination of convenience, but country #5 turned out to be one of our favorite stops and a really great way to round out the trip.

The only downside to a short trip to KL is that the airport is far from the city center. The airport might have been an hour out of downtown, but we didn’t mind a bit. The plush leather seats and blasting air conditioning in the large, modern taxi offered a nice reprieve from the 95+ humid days we had been experiencing. Cruising through palm groves and jamming to the local expat, English radio station it didn’t take long for us to realize Malaysia was a very different place than our last 4 stops. We had left Buddhism, communism, and poverty behind for Islam and wealth.

Thanks to a large abundance of natural resources, a booming oil/gas industry, and a stable democracy, Malaysia has experienced greater development and growth relative to its ASEAN neighbors. Petronas, the state owned oil company and name-sake of KL’s famous twin towers, covers close to 1/3 of all federal budget needs. Between the many skyscrapers, KL city is home to many large mosques – houses of worship to the large Muslim population. Culturally, KL is a melting pot of 4 cultures: Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Caucasian (mostly expats). This cultural pluralism makes it an ideal stop for the culinary curious. Wandering the different ethnic neighborhoods you could eat unique foods for days without repetition (and that’s exactly what we did).

In search of some lunch we boarded the highly efficient subway/monorail system (no more dodging motorbikes or hailing tuk-tuks) and headed to Chinatown. A stroll down the Petaling Street, the main drag, lead us to a spot for vegetarian noodles and fried rice. Not the best Chinese food we ever had it was nonetheless satisfying and worth the visit. Just in case we hadn’t had our fill of counterfeit goods, KL Chinatown did not disappoint. We picked up a few pairs of shades as ours tend to break, disappear, or disintegrate. That might be because they are the $5 dollar variety, but why pay more when we always seem to lose them anyway?

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Our next stop was the nearby Masjid Negara, the national mosque of Malaysia. This large, modern mosque can hold more than 15,000 people and was built as a symbol of independence from the British. Except for the main prayer hall the full grounds can be visited by tourists as long as you are wearing the flashy purple robes they give you at the entrance.

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About half way into our travels through Vietnam we both started craving Indian food. Knowing that we might end up in the heavily Indian populated KL we held out. It was definitely worth the wait. For an early dinner feast we joined the locals at Sangeetha, a vegetarian restaurant in Little India. The place was packed with people, many just popping in for a quick snack. The only white people in the place and sitting right in the middle made us stick out, but we knew we had gone to the right place. Using pictures as our guide and limited knowledge of Indian cuisine we opted for paratha w/ sides, chana masala, yellow dal, naan, mango lassi, and Indian coffee. As full as we both were we continued to stuff our faces with the most delicious Indian food we have both ever had. After some brief digestion we wondered through Little India. The streets were alive with people shopping at the night bazar that seemed to stretch for miles.

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To finish off our first night in KL we enjoyed a drink at Traders Hotel SkyBar, a rooftop bar with amazing views of the city skyline. The place reminded us of a boutique rooftop bar in NYC: pricey drinks, plush couches, and a swimming pool in the middle. It might be a bit pretentious, but it has the best views in the city of the Petronas Towers. These two symbols of the city, once the tallest buildings in the world, sparkle like diamonds once the sun sets.  After taking in the views, tired and still full from our feast we rolled ourselves home to rest and digest.

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Our second day started with a visit to Jamek Mosque, a 100 year-old Moorish style mosque. Again we were given colorful robes to wear as we walked through the grounds. Next we walked over to Merdeka Square. On this former cricket field, the independent flag of Malaysia was raised for the first time. It also has some nice shaded areas to escape the tropical heat. KL has many parks and green areas set among the many skyscrapers. For our next stop we headed to one of the largest parks, Taman Tasik Perdana (Lake Gardens). This park is home to many interesting spots including: The butterfly park, orchid garden, hibiscus garden, and the famous bird park. We opted for the free attractions: orchid garden and hibiscus garden.

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Time was precious, so after a brief rest we wasted no time heading to our next stop, Sri Mahamariamman Indian Temple. Not exactly the largest religious building we have visited, Sri Mahamariamman is the oldest Hindu temple in KL. Sadly this colorful, open-air building was our only Hindu temple of the trip, but it did round out our religious experiences. Our visits to houses of worship on this trip now included: Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism and one other Chinese religion.

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A stop to Malaysia would not be complete without a stop at a shopping mall. Shopping here, much like the rest of Asia, is a national pastime. These vast shopping centers are everywhere and cover the full gamut of the quality/price spectrum. In fact some of the fanciest restaurants in KL are in shopping malls. They are also almost always air conditioned, yet another incentive to spend some time in one. To finish up the day, we hopped in a cab and headed to Bukit Bintang, KL’s major shopping district. Asking around we found a shopping mall with a food court (in reality most of them do). These malls are no joke. Each encompasses a full city block or more, housing hundreds of shops, kiosks, and stands selling everything. After bit of wandering we finally found the food court on the roof next to the parking deck. You won’t find Panda Express, Subway, or Sbarro here, only mom and pop street food style stalls serving up mostly Indian and Chinese cuisine. Pan fried noodles for S and dumpling noodle soup for A. Afterwards we grabbed a street side seat outside and relaxed before heading back to the hotel.

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Ethnic Malays might make up a large portion of the population in KL, but there are surprisingly very few Malaysian restaurants in KL. Leaving Malaysia without eating any truly local food seemed odd. After a bit of online research we found Songket Restaurant (http://www.songketrestaurant.com/). Not knowing what to expect, or order, we stuffed ourselves on a variety of yummy dishes. We enjoyed Daging panggang (BBQ Beef), Tauhu sumbat (Stuffed tofu), Pecal (Peanut tofu salad), Sago gula Melaka (popular Malay dessert made with sago, palm sugar, and coconut milk), and Malay ice cream (cempedak and pandan).

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For our final day in KL we headed to Chow Kit Wet Market, a maze of both every kind of food and household item imaginable. Having seen many markets in our travels it was interesting to note the larger number of men selling their wares instead of women – a reminder of the heavy Islamic influence in Malaysia.  Beyond the fresh fruits, veggies, meats, and fish there are lots of interesting stands selling tonics and potions. Some examples can be seen in the pics below. What do you think Marlboro deodorant spray smells like?

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Before hopping our flight back to Bangkok we couldn’t resist stopping at a local Indian cafe around the corner from our hotel for a quick late morning snack.

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Sadly our SE Asian travels have come to an end, but stay tuned for more of our adventures (and meals of course)!

Until then…

S+A

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