In 2015 I travelled to New Zealand and Indonesia, an incredible trip which led to the start of this blog. To cut the 24-hour flight to Auckland in half we decided to take 48 hours off in the city where we had to transfer, Kuala Lumpur. As it turned out, 48 hours were enough, Southeast Asian cities being what they are – noisy, busy and rather smelly – but Kuala Lumpur was well worth a visit nonetheless, presenting a unique mixture of different religions, architecture styles and cuisines.
I had been to Bangkok and Phnom Penh before and considered myself wise on the subject of travelling in Asia. The moment we stepped out of the monorail that took us from the airport into the city centre, everything seemed familiar. The smell of Asia entered my nostrils: a combination of moist air, tropical flowers, spicy food, stagnant rainwater, exhaust gases and rubbish. After dropping off our stuff at the hotel we went out for something to eat. I encouraged my friend to try the food they sold on the side of the street, tiny sweet potato balls, before we headed into town. We wanted to visit the Eco Forest Park near the immensely high KL Tower, but it looked closed or in any case dodgy, with signs warning us that the park would not be held responsible for deadly insect bites. With its forest of skyscrapers KL has created its own tourist attractions, because to go up on the KL Tower was very expensive. We decided to pass on the view and were threatened by a territorial macaque on our way down the hill.
We sat down for dinner at a restaurant with plastic table covers and a buffet with mostly unidentifiable piles of meat. I decided on the beef rendang – you can’t really go wrong with that – and was not disappointed, though the spices took some getting used to. For dessert we were offered teh tarik, very sweet milky tea. We asked the waiter what tarik meant and he made a motion as if he were pulling two things apart. ‘Pulled’ tea? we wondered. Here Google comes to my rescue: teh tarik is made using a ‘long pour’, which I assume enhances the flavour.
I fell in love with this far-too-sweet beverage and had it as many times as I could before we left. On our subsequent travels in Indonesia we rarely encountered it, though we often indulged our sweet tooth with es teh – regular tea poured over ice cubes and served with three packets of sugar – and es jeruk, tooth-achingly sweet orange lemonade.
After our meal we set out to visit the famous Patronas towers, which had been an unmissable beacon so far and now, as night fell, were brightly lit up. We walked along streets with open shop fronts where crowds of men sat around drinking, smoking or watching small television screens, and past night markets where women were doing some late-night shopping. If you want to imagine what it was like on this particular night in KL, just put on this song and imagine it blaring from televisions and speakers everywhere – it was stuck in our heads for weeks!
The closer we got to the towers, the higher and more business-like the surrounding architecture became. We were entering the heart of the city, walking past government buildings surrounded by guards and decorative gardens with plants garishly lit up in neon colours. We could have gone up into the towers and stood on the bridge that connects them for an exorbitant price, but we entertained ourselves instead by observing the crowds that gathered at the foot of the towers. Everybody was taking selfies, having their picture taken with the towers in the background, or just staring up at them in awe.
The next day I woke up with a cold – a result from the constant switching between humid air and our air-conditioned room. We set out to see some sights and started at a nearby Chinese temple, where we were immediately invited to sit down and have a breakfast of fried noodles. We sat on rickety plastic chairs, the smells of fried food and incense mingling as we attempted to master our chopsticks and listened to old Chinese ladies gossiping (I presume) and tried to answer a Buddhist monk’s questions – not single? Not married? Does not compute!
Nearby was a beautiful mosque we had spotted from the monorail earlier, and we set out on foot trying to find it – which turned out to be harder than we thought. Having found it at last, we put on the head coverings and robes they offered us and had a look inside. When they asked us if we were Christians we said yes, having been told that is the smart thing to do to avoid confusion about atheism, which Europeans so proudly advertise but isn’t very big in Asia, where most people subscribe to one of the Big Four (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam or Christianity). Afterwards we visited the beautiful Islamic Art Museum, which was full of models of the world’s most beautiful mosques, ancient and lavishly decorated Qu’rans, ‘prayer shirts’ (paper shirts with prayers printed on them in Arabic, to be worn under battledress), calligraphy and decorative weapons. Everything was just gorgeous – including the building itself. Afterwards, we visited the old city centre, including the market hall. Malaysia used to be a British colony and Kuala Lumpur boasts a beautiful colonial district full of old but dilapidated buildings. It led us straight into Chinatown, where we had some fresh coconuts while walking from one street stall to the next.
We completed our Big Four-tour by stopping at the Sri Maha Mariamman temple, the oldest Hindu temple in the city. Here we simply entered the temple and sat on the floor to observe the comings and goings of Hindus as they genuflected before the colourful deities (murti), applied sandalwood paste to their faces, burnt incense or just shot the breeze with each other, laughing and joking. I think watching the way the local population does its daily worship is one of the most fascinating and beautiful activities you can do during a city trip. It was such a beautiful and welcoming place.
The next day, our last, we decided to escape the city and visit the nearby Batu caves just north of the city. After a short train ride the towering buildings had given way to limestone hills. Upon stepping out of the train, the first thing we saw were the massive golden feet of a statue of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, welcoming all pilgrims to one of the largest Hindu shrines outside of India. To reach the main cave, we had to climb lots of steep steps, an undertaking in itself that was made even more lively by the many macaques lounging on the railings. I saw one of them jump onto an unsuspecting woman and snatch away her water bottle. Remembering stories about rabid monkeys and how we had decided not to take the (very expensive) rabies shot before we left, we stuck to walking in the middle. At the top of the stairs we were welcomed by several souvenir stalls selling incense sticks, portraits of Hindu gods and lots of golden and glittering bits of jewellery and other accessories. The light that filtered into the cave from above picked out colourful shrines, statues and wall paintings of deities in the gloom.
After our visit to the caves we went on to the airport, where we enjoyed one last plate of rendang and glass of teh tarik, hoping to flush the exhaust gases from our lungs with the fresh mountain air of New Zealand.