There’s nothing quite like the experience of your first morning out. Back on the road, away from home once again. On this occasion, mine was spent watching a dusky pink sunrise give a mauve glow to Kuala Lumpur through the lens of a steamy window.
The last time I passed through the Malaysian capital was almost 2 years prior. I was headed in the opposite direction, homeward bound and capping off my first 6-month exploration into the wonders of Southeast Asia.
But this time, well, this time was quite a different beast. The months leading up to this adventure were tumultuous, with the bitterly painful experience of losing my father to cancer. Arriving in a new country felt like a fresh start in many ways. Albeit an emotional and challenging one.
Arrival into Kuala Lumpur
The familiar smell of the humid air and damp, earthy palm forests greeted us as we boarded an express train into the heart of the city. Malaysia is, for many, an unknown destination infrequently chosen for holiday adventures.
I have come to hear those who are passing through complain that KL lacks heart or a reasonable selection of ways to pass the time. Kuala Lumpur requires a little more effort than some of the more popular Asian cities, but the rewards to be had are well worth the effort.
We arrived at our high-rise hotel in the midst of a typical hot and humid Malaysian afternoon. We made our way through the hawker stalls, through the sweet aroma of fruits and sidestepped cat-calls of ‘masssssaassssee??’. Wedged between the bustling Jalan Alor night market and the trendy Bukit Bintang restaurant district, we were well positioned in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
In Memory of my Father
Southeast Asia had been my father’s stomping ground. His favourite place to get lost, experience something different and report home with incredulous tales for me and my brother. A place he so desperately wanted us to discover for ourselves one day. Throughout my last Asian journey, my phone would beep with new suggestions and places to visit. Before his death, this is where he was planning to return. Here, now. To take a train trip up to Bangkok.
So when he died, it made sense to come in his place. This time, my brother would be joining me for his own first-time adventure into Asia.
Before his arrival, we had a few free days which we spent meandering the streets demolishing myriads of street foods. Crispy tenderloins on a bed of rice steamed in broth, crushed watermelon juice and handfuls of chicken skewers, roasted over a charcoal-fired hot plate awaited us at every turn. My foodie heaven was, for the moment, right in front of me every day.
An early start, visits to the bird park
We awoke early, thanks to the help of a time zone shift, and for our first morning adventure we set off on foot to find the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park. It came recommended, yet I was as sceptical now as I am with any fauna-focused parks in Asia. Visions of starving, neglected creatures always tend to bob about in my imagination.
We passed by the glorious National Mosque and the fairytale central train station, passing by Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin. Walking over the murky Klang River, complete with scavenging birds and endless swaths of drifting garbage.
My suspicions laid to rest as we arrived at the spectacular bird park. As the world’s Largest Free-flight Walk-in Aviary, it featured 20.9 acres of lush jungles, clean lakes and happy birds of every kind. Storks, flamingos and pelicans waded around and magnificent peacocks gorged on wedges of papaya. It took the entire morning to explore the expanse of grounds, and each area was yet another pleasing surprise.
A morning of taxidermy & surprises
You can now understand now, perhaps, why the educational sector of this fabulous bird park took me by such surprise. It’s as if one moment you are taking a pleasant stroll through the lands of Paradiso, suddenly to be confronted by Virgil himself. As you descend into what could be mistaken for Inferno, hoards of taxidermied creatures gaze at you from their perches. In this Dante-worthy wonderland, the creatures are forever trapped in a land time forgot. Their feathers, skins and beaks fall off – piece by piece, leaving just the impoverished remains.
Otherwise, the bird park was a spectacular success.
Banana Leaf and other Tamil delights
One of the beauties of Malaysia – and in fact Asia in general – is the price of a good meal. Generally speaking, it costs more to gather the ingredients required, provided you are eating locally. I delight in this fact and enjoy the experience of seeking out only the most local of local dishes. Many of our meals out included one of my favourite Malay dishes, the banana leaf.
Hailing from the South Indian migrants from Tamil, the Banana leaf is the pinnacle of delicious Indian-Malay cuisine.
One of the requirements for choosing the perfect banana leaf restaurant is the settings, it needs to be spartan. Generally a long, shared bench or a series of colourful plastic tables, bursting at the seams with locals.
Toward the back, you’ll find a modest wash basin for rinsing off curry laden fingers at the end. As anyone familiar with Indian food will tell you, it’s designed to be eaten with the hands. I occupied much of my time with a fist full of fragrant rice and a selection of vegetable curries served on the leaf of a shiny green Banana palm.
Escaping the concrete, bound for Bukit Nanas Eco Park
Another of the other popular misconceptions of Kuala Lumpur is the urban jungle myth. That much like other capital cities, it is a large chunk of concrete and relentless corporate skyscrapers. Anybody who tells you this has never discovered the forest eco-park in Bukit Nanas.
Not only is this expanse of lush green one of Malaysia’s oldest permanent forest reserves, but it lies in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. Once you step inside, the city hustle melts away behind you as you slide into a tranquil stretch of tropical rainforest, complete with native birdsong and Langur monkeys.
The hillside leads up to the base of the infamous KL tower on its peak and features swinging canopy walking bridges, campsites and delightful picnic spots. The best hidden destination for KL locals looking to escape the inner city for an hour, or a weekend. I’ve been surprised to learn how few people even know of this secret city rainforest.
A family reunion
For the first few days, Malaysia was an adventure, an exploration and a respite all at once. A reminder of how exhilarating a life spent on the road can feel. A remembrance that life is not only precious and all too short, but it is a product of how to choose to experience it. The heady vibrancy of Asia is a beautiful wake-up call to travel. In the following days, my brother would be joining as we take to the tracks to explore Southeast Asia by rail.
He finally arrived on our final full day in Kuala Lumpur to join us before beginning our whirlwind railway tour up the country. A visitor finding himself for the first time in a new land – the best kind. Introducing the people you love, to the places you love, is one of my greatest pleasures as a traveller. Getting to show him around somewhere that was also a mutual love of our father made it all the more special.
Breakfast – A very Malaysian indulgence
Breakfast in Malaysia, crispy-yet-fluffy, buttery roti bread served with a spicy dal for dipping and teh tarik. Considered the country’s national drink and translating to ‘pulled tea’, teh tarik is, for me at least, one of the wonders of Malaysia. Made up of an enticing blend of condensed milk and distinctive Malay black tea, the concoction is heated over a flame and pulled between two jugs until it creates a fluffy, frothy, foam of deliciousness.
After breakfast, we set off to wander the streets of the central city one last time. Admiring the ornate South Indian temples of Brickfields, and the gnarled jungle trees that line the streets, It was easy to slip back into tourist mode, and marvel at the city with a hundred different faces.
As the sky darkened into a storm we zipped away along the monorail line destined for the suburb of Setiawangsa. Dinner was Nasi Kandar, a typical Malay food that originates up in Penang. It is a buffet where you start with a mountain of rice and choose what to eat on top. The buffet trays are filled with a range of curries, dals, flavoursome veges and all manner of grilled and fried meats, fish and seafood. A buffet lover’s heaven with a distinctly Malay twist.