Kuala Lumpur — Singapore’s gritty, grimy cousin

After several weeks of cold salt water showers in Indonesia we were VERY excited to be coming to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was expecting KL to be a lot like Singapore except messier, dirtier and generally more “Southeast Asian.” For the most part I was right. And I loved it. We were there for three days and then went to Melaka for a 4 days (another post on this to come later). We soon realized that we should probably just stay put for a while after that. It was the holiday season and finding guesthouse reservations and bus tickets was getting more and more difficult. We decided to go back to KL for about a week and just camp out until after the new year. And why not? The food is tasty and the internet is fast. So we had a good amount of time in the city but I feel like we didn’t even scratch the surface.

A lot of people dislike KL. They say it’s a soulless city with horrible traffic, terrible sidewalks, and little of note to see other than shopping malls. That’s all kind of true, but still there’s some magic to this place. It’s extremely multicultural with Indians, Chinese and Malays all living not exactly together but at least next to each other in relative harmony. The city is barely more than 150 years old, which for Asia makes it barely a zygote. “Kuala Lumpur” is Malaysian for “muddy confluence,” given that name by the tin miners who hacked the area out of the jungle where two small rivers merge.


One half of the muddy confluence

One half of the muddy confluence


The food is fantastic and while there aren’t giant hawker centers like in Singapore it’s still incredibly easy to find delicious food for not a lot of money. We did splurge (and by ‘splurge’ I mean, spent more than $12 total on a meal) by going to Din Tai Fung Dim Sum (in a posh mall, naturally). That meal was so amazing that we’re going to dedicate a separate blog post to it. It will live on in our memories forever.

Jalan Alor, KL's "Eat Street." Dozens of restaurants that all bleed into one another with outdoor seating. Fantastically fun.

Jalan Alor, KL’s “Eat Street.” Dozens of restaurants that all bleed into one another with outdoor seating. Fantastically fun.

Malaysia is a Muslim country and you definitely notice that as most, if not almost all, Malay women wear headscarves, but aside from that (and alcohol being RIDICULOUSLY expensive) you don’t really notice it. I was expecting the call to prayer to be loud and omnipresent in KL, but we really only heard it a few times. I was disappointed to learn that Israeli passport holders are not permitted entry into Malaysia without special permission. I have an Israeli stamp in my passport but was still greeted with a warm smile and a “Welcome to Malaysia!” by the immigration officer at the airport.

We decided to visit the National Mosque, which is one of the largest mosques in SE Asia. It was not what we were expecting. We thought it would be old and historic looking, but instead we came upon a huge open, airy and very modern structure. I always love visiting mosques. They’re always so breezy and cool (plus I love taking my shoes off in big cities!) The National Mosque in KL was no exception.

They asked Kat "Are you Muslim?!" when she produced her own headscarf. Of COURSE she had her own scarf -- KAT OBEYS THE RULES.

They asked Kat “Are you Muslim?!” when she produced her own headscarf. Of COURSE she had her own scarf — KAT OBEYS THE RULES.

While we were there, a young Malay woman can running up to Kat with her camera in her hand. Kat went to take the camera from her, thinking she wanted us to take a photo of her. She pulled her hand back and motioned for us to stand next to her elderly parents. She shoved us all together and took a photo of us with her parents in the mosque. I’d heard of this sort of thing happening to westerners in India, but I was caught off guard by it in KL, a city with no shortage of white folks around. Whatever, we were happy to do it. We felt like Malaysian celebrities for a few minutes.

I was dressed inappropriately (wearing shorts). For penance, they made me wear this ridiculous and UNBELIEVABLY HOT robe. Whatever. I'm a rebel.

I was dressed inappropriately (wearing shorts). For penance, they made me wear this ridiculous and UNBELIEVABLY HOT robe. Whatever. I’m a rebel.

We spent New Year’s Eve downtown. We found a bar with a decent happy hour (Two for one pints for 2 hours! Cheapest pint — $11) then had dinner on Jalan Alor. We walked around Bukit Bingtang, one of the most popular areas in town. It was mobbed with people (even more than usual) with everyone blowing horns and spraying each other with shaving cream. It was tremendous fun but we wanted to beat the rush home, so we got on the monorail at 11 pm to get to our mall before midnight.

Oh, did I not mention that we were staying INSIDE OF A MALL?  We waited a bit too long to book accommodations for KL so we ended up staying at a  new hotel a bit outside the city, inside of a home goods mall. When I say new, I mean that they really hadn’t finished constructing it yet. It was a lovely 4 star hotel — but one wall in our room wasn’t painted yet. There was a mark on the wall for where the toilet paper holder will one day go. There were paint tarps and tools on the balcony. It was still quite nice though and we got a bargain price on it (Four star hotel for under $50? I’ll take it). Living inside a mall is, in an ironic way, a quintessential KL experience.

There was an overpass over a 10 lane highway leading into the mall where we and a bunch of locals from the public housing towers (I’m really not selling this place well, am I?) watched the fireworks. It was pretty cool as we had a view of the whole city, including the iconic Petronas Towers, and could see several different fireworks displays.  A low key but unforgettable New Year’s. After midnight, some people in one of the apartment blocks began throwing M-80’s onto the highway below. And THAT right there, is why KL and Singapore are very, very different places.

One thing I really don’t like about KL is just how damn difficult it is to get anywhere. The traffic is unbelievable (in Malaysia, having a car is a symbol of success, so there are surprisingly few people that drive motorbikes, unlike other southeast Asian cities) so we didn’t even bother with buses or cabs. The city has several different mass transit systems: a light rail (with two lines, built by separate companies, so they don’t really play nice with each other) a monorail, a commuter rail and a high speed airport train.

KL's mass transit -- complete with passive aggressive signage

KL’s mass transit — only kind of getting you where you want to go and being a passive aggressive jerk to boot



You can buy a smartcard to tap in and out of some systems, but they don’t work on every line. Sidewalks are broken, full of holes and often non-existent. Trying to walk anywhere is never easy as you will always be blocked by a highway, a rail line or a river which has only a few points where pedestrians can cross. We never knew how long it would take to get anywhere. 1 mile of walking on the map could easily turn into 90 minutes as we had to figure out ways around multiple obstacles. Despite all the traffic, I get why all the locals want cars.

Of course, besides malls, eating and a brief break for mosque-ing, we did do SOME touristy stuff. We went to the Petronas Towers, the tallest buildings in the world about 15 years ago but since eclipsed by others. We went to the base of the towers (you’ll never guess what’s inside! A MALL!). Going up to the top is preposterously expensive and they also make it a pain to get the tickets. I have a strict travel policy of never paying money to go to the top of a tall thing, so we just looked at the towers from the ground and said “Yeah, that’s pretty tall, I guess” and moved on.

It's OK...but it's no Burj Khalifa

It’s OK…but it’s no Burj Khalifa

One tourist thing we did that actually turned out to be even cooler than advertised was going to the Batu Caves. This Hindu holy site is a series of caves in the side of a mountain that is reached by climbing nearly 300 steps. It’s easily accessible being only a 30 minute ride north of the city on the commuter rail. We went on New Year’s Eve day, which I think was great because it was relatively calm. On holy days and weekends, the site is supposedly mobbed with tourists.

Ohey. I'm a Hindu god. How's it going? Oh, also, you gotta climb these steps. Have fun with that, idiots.

Ohey. I’m a Hindu god. How’s it going? Oh, you wanna see the cool cave stuff? You gotta climb these steps right here. Have fun with that, idiots.

The climb was totally worth it though. First, it was hilarious to watch the Singaporean tourists in their high heels and short skirts try to climb the steps without falling and/or flashing everyone behind them. But also because the caves themselves were pretty damn cool.

Petronias Towers, marvel of modern architecture, ain't got NOTHIN on a mountain with a big ass hole in it.

Petronas Towers, marvel of modern architecture, ain’t got NOTHIN on a mountain with a big ass hole in it.

The one downside of the caves: Monkeys. They look cute, but these little bastards carry diseases, steal stuff right our of people’s hands and will bite you if you feed them (and then take the food you were offering anyway). If I can leave you with one piece of advice: STAY AWAY FROM MONKEYS.

You give me a cookie, I give you rabies. Fair trade.

You give me a cookie, I give you rabies. Fair trade.

Climbing all those steps was taxing and we needed a snack. Honestly, we don’t really need an excuse. We would’ve had a snack whether we’d climbed the damn steps or not. We rewarded ourselves by having one of Kat’s favorite Indian treats. Imagine funnel cake dipped into frighteningly sweet floral-tasting syrup. We’ve had it several times already. It’s my jam.

One of these days we should probably learn what this little bundle of awesomeness is called.

One of these days we should probably learn what this little bundle of awesomeness is called.

If you’ve read this far and are still hungry for more, click here to see more of our photos from KL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/banhmiandyou/sets/72157632403167818/


3 responses to “Kuala Lumpur — Singapore’s gritty, grimy cousin

  1. Good sir, you can get one of those florally delicious pastries on Brick Lane! They’re sorta Indian! I had one at an Indian wedding! MORE REASONS FOR YOU TO COME TO LONDON.

  2. But is it really four-star if it doesn’t have a toilet paper holder?

    Those sweets are called jelabi.

  3. You can get those sweets in Little India too! New York is calling you. 🙂

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