Saturday, August 21, 2010

Malaysia, Abridged

A local doctor we befriended over breakfast this morning gave us some helpful insights into life in Kuala Lumpur, in between enthusiastic bites of pork dumpling. What does he do with his free time? “Go shopping!” Eating and shopping: that about summed up a lovely 24 hours in the Malaysian metropolis.

We arrived yesterday via express train just a five minute walk from our hotel, where we checked in and checked out our 30th storey view over the sprawl of KL. Back on the street, we hopped a train (true to form, the train station was also a mall) to one of the city’s many mosques, at the center of Little India. We walked through blocks of roti wallahs and vendors stringing together bright and fragrant garlands of flowers, pausing along the way for some fried fish balls on sticks and a chocolate waffle (quite a combo). Strolling through one of the city’s famed street markets, we were nearly run over by men carrying whole racks of black-market shoes and purses, and stopped long enough to try a tasty, salty Chinese chicken noodle dish at a long-running food stall. Though it had only been a couple hours, and barely a full meal, I was already losing the battle with jet lag and we had to move on – so many things to try next time! Really liked the style of the satay vendor who kept neat stacks of his various meats and sea creatures in notches along a six-foot block of ice, among others.

Anyway, as I was already nodding off whenever the opportunity presented itself, we rushed off to complete our itinerary grab a quick dinner (two, actually) at another major market – this one the night market at Jalan Alor. The NYTimes led us right, for a big plate of delicious roasted chicken wings with a sweet-and-spicy dipping sauce, and then a bit wrong, for a gooey plate of beef noodles. I can’t tell you much more about it, sadly, because I was mostly asleep (at the table, in the cab, etc.), but I know that I woke up some hours later a happier man.

With only a few hours this morning, we taxied straight away to a fantastic old-style coffee shop , where we shared a table with our doctor friend (“KL’s like New York City – all the families live out in the suburbs, like in Westchester.”) and had a range of greasy spoon delicacies, from a fried pork chop drowned in gravy, onions, peas and carrots (looked straight out of 1956, tasted heavenly) to toast with sweet coconut jam, to a very spicy fried rice (guess you don’t often get that at a greasy spoon?), all washed down with a syrupy black coffee with sweetened condensed milk, more dessert than drink. We took the subway to the Petronas Towers, which didn’t quite look like they were among the tallest buildings in the world, but were impressive nonetheless. And while it was too late to get tickets to the viewing station, it was just the right time to check out the massive luxury mall at the base (the whole thing was very Time Warner Center). Not content with a one-mall experience, we walked a few blocks (past at least five other malls) to yet another, where we managed to find a highly-recommended bakery tucked into the home furnishings section of a fancy department store. Extravagant chocolate-banana cake in hand, we hopped the monorail back through town to our hotel to begin our trek to Laos.

In our short stay in KL, were struck by the diversity of the city - a fairly even mix of the Indians, Malay, and Chinese that make up most of the city’s population, and a stark contrast to many of the other major cities we’ve seen across Asia. There were assorted temples, too, to match. We watched as workers scrubbed dirt off statues of Shiva and applied new paint to a colorful Hindu temple (part of a once-every-12-years consecration, we learned), while at another, elaborately dressed men (priests?) mixed with businessmen on the way home from work, lighting packets of sugar and loudly smashing coconuts into a big tank in offering before visiting the various deities. Meanwhile, it’s still Ramadan, and there were stands of sweets and dinner dishes awaiting the rush of Muslims breaking fast in the afternoon. The malls and restaurants offered Ramadan specials, more festive than I’d expected (Jewelry stores hawked big discounts, and Godiva was decked out a bit like Valentine’s day). Our doctor friend told us that the cities major groups had gotten along pretty well in recent decades, and that spots in the government were unofficially held for one ethnic group or another (e.g., the head of the Dept. of Medicine was always Chinese; the department of Public Works, always Indian).

Anyway, further exploration will have to wait for a future vacation – for now, off to Laos. Our trip was largely uneventful, with one exception. Apparently the main KL airport has two terminals, both part of KUL…but about as far away as JFK and LGA! Fortunately, we’d left ourselves plenty of time to make our flight, and were able to hop a cab between the two with only a little bit of panicked scrambling and still make our Air Asia flight to Laos without a hitch. And here we are! More on our time in Laos next time…

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