From where I’m sitting, the notices are what one might expect – due dates for utilities, ripped notices about waste collection casually pinned to the wall, the sort of things typical of a waiting room in an apartment complex. I’m perched upon a plastic chair, the kind that are perpetually made with uneven legs as if on purpose while my boyfriend sweats it out a few buildings away where I left him – outside a stranger’s door with all of our bags, unaware that he is in the completely wrong building.
There’s definitely been a mix-up, and the managers are trying to decide whether we should be allowed to stay. You see, we moved out into the suburbs for a week. The deal was almost too good to be true, a well priced room with air conditioning in a gorgeous complex complete with an oasis of a pool. What we didn’t know was that the owners were illegally subletting their rooms out, and it was against all the terms of residing in the complex. In the end, we stayed. The circumstances were all a little bizarre. However, the pool was heaven and the neighbourhood was a haven of local eateries so we decided to stick around.
My brother arrived on our final full day in Kuala Lumpur to join us before beginning our whirlwind railway tour up the country, stopping first in Taiping followed by Penang. After a bit of hunting and misunderstandings around which of the many Starbucks we are to meet him in, he is with us. 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 traveler, and getting to show him around somewhere that was also a mutual love of our father made it all the more special.
Breakfast in Malaysia is an understated affair composed of 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 the unique flavour of 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 a satisfying breakfast we set off to wander the streets of the central city one last time. Admiring the ornate South Indian temples of Brickfields (KL’s Little India) to the gnarled jungle-esque trees that line some of the streets, I found it easy enough to slip once again into tourist mode and marvel at the city with a hundred different faces.
As the sky darkens into a storm we zip quickly away along the elevated monorail line destined for Setiawangsa, our suburban paradise and home for the night. A trip to Malaysia is not complete until you have gorged yourself into a stupor on nasi kandar, and that is exactly how we spent this evening. Nasi kandar originates up in Penang, an island city in Northern Malaysia where we will be heading in just a few days. It is a manner of buffet where you are handed a mountain of rice, and choose what to eat on top. The buffet trays are filled with a range of curries, dals, flavorsome veges and all manner of grilled and fried meats, fish and seafood. A buffet lover’s heaven with a distinctly Malay twist.
The following morning we are up and away – a simple breakfast is in order followed by a scenic railway journey up to Taiping, a historic Northern Malay city in the state of Perak. Having caught trains across many different countries in the world, I am nevertheless stunned at the quality of Malaysian trains. The quality of the seats and carriages rivals those in the nicest parts of Western Europe, yet the price more mirrors those of Bulgaria, or perhaps India. Malaysian railways are no new thing, in fact they’ve been around since the good ol’ days of 1885 when the very first simple line was constructed to haul tin to the Ports, beginning in the tin-rich town of Taiping – exactly where we were headed.
Train trips across the countryside are, anywhere in the world, one of my favourite means of transport. There is something innately relaxing and somewhat old-fashioned about the experience of enjoying a good book and watching the scenery morph before your eyes. Up the West coast of Peninsular Malaysia we traveled, through the state of Selangor and up into Perak passing through vast fields of palm oil plantations, wetlands of water buffalo and tiny regional villages.
It was a typically hot, yet unusually dry afternoon for Taiping, known as the wettest place in the country, and we set out on foot, heavy packs on our backs for an arduous and sweaty walk down the main road. It was a Sunday afternoon and during peak siesta hours so everywhere was closed. Eventually we came upon our accommodation – a beautifully decorated colonial building that had been turned into a guesthouse by our exceedingly friendly Australian host. We had but 24 hours to spend here, so our efforts were concentrated and we made our way directly toward the Taiping Lake Gardens, a 64 hectare landscape made up of ten scenic lakes, decorated with grasses and flowers. The large trees vibrated with the motion of restless monkeys and a large water monitor lazed on the river banks akin to a sated crocodile.
In the early evening the rains started, and in true Malay style the heavy waters were hammering down within minutes, leaving us marooned & drenched in an unfamiliar food court full of curious local onlookers. The walkways were slippery and attempting to get back without sliding over or slipping into a nearby drain was a challenge all in itself. But finally, just as I thought it could rain like this for all the night, it stopped just as suddenly as it had arrived.
Dinner was a remarkable hybrid of western, Malay and Chinese food cooked by a young Taiwanese street food vendor. He had come highly recommended by our hotel manager and his dumplings rival any that I would go on to taste in China. For just a few dollars we ate a large meal of dumplings, hot tea and pork burgers made with Chinese Bao bread buns. Finding his stall had initially proved a challenge, with our only clues being that he ran a cart in one of the many open air food courts, and that he would be a young Taiwanese guy wearing an orange t shirt. As it turns out, he picked today to expand on his wardrobe options. However, we found him eventually and took our place at one of the many plastic table sets.
Open air food courts are the most commonly found eateries in most of the country, and also some of the most rewarding. Small stands stake their place around the edges of a large room, usually with 2-3 open sides and tables spilling out onto the nearby footpath. The venue itself is responsible for providing drinks, and it is through their drink attendants that you order all beverages. Once that’s out of the way, it’s up to you to choose which street food vendors you prefer. Simply head over to the vendor of your choice, tell them what you want and where you are sitting. When your food is ready, they’ll usually bring it over and take your payment. Simple, and perfect for taste testing from a variety of different vendors too. It’s an institution in Malaysia and I prefer it immensely over being holed away in a restaurant all of the time.
It had been a long day of traveling and an early start back in Kuala Lumpur, so we all opted for long showers and an early night in bed. Tomorrow would be a new day and another train ride – this time heading up from Taiping to the historic Colonial town, tropical island and my former home base of George Town, Penang.