Meanders in a Multicultural Melting Pot

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July 27th 2019
Published: July 29th 2019
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Twin TowersTwin TowersTwin Towers

The soaring skyscrapers of Petronas Towers, seen from KLCC Park
Apart from a couple of trips to Turkey and six confusing hours in Bangkok - about which I remember very little other than getting hopelessly lost and tasting some sort of unidentifiable fruit - I'd never spent any time in Asia, much less the classic backpacker destination of Southeast Asia. But since Linda and I were in desperate need of a travel fix without wanting to spend too much money, we decided to split the difference between the two great backpacking meccas of Bali and Thailand and instead go somewhere ever-so-slightly off the beaten track: Malaysia. And since we would be flying into the country's capital city, Kuala Lumpur, and I had always wanted to see the Petronas Towers close-up since first seeing a picture of them twenty-odd years ago, it was only natural that we would choose to start our explorations there - in the booming, multicultural metropolis that has sprung up on the site of an old tin mining settlement beside the confluence of two muddy rivers (hence the name Kuala Lumpur: meaning 'muddy confluence').

Arriving at our hostel in the city centre just after reception had closed at 11pm (Monday 22nd July), we were immediately greeted by
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Auspicious location - where the Gombak and Klang rivers meet in downtown Kuala Lumpur
the smiling face of the night security guard, who kindly ushered us to our private room and then pointed us in the direction of an eatery that would still be open at that late hour, where we could finally satisfy the hunger that had been gnawing at us since about halfway through our six-hour flight from Perth. At this point I should point out that neither of us are exactly what you would call 'foodies' (ie we tend to prefer actually eating food than taking pictures of it), though I would say that Linda has great taste in food - while I always have a great appetite for it - so with that in mind we had both been eagerly anticipating the culinary treasures awaiting us in one of the world's foremost dining destinations. But perhaps we would at least have to wait until the following day to taste something truly delicious - I mean after all, how good could the food be in a place that is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?!?

Pretty damn good, I'm pleased to report! And while we did draw a few raised eyebrows from the otherwise entirely-local crowd -
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Merdeka Square - where Malaya's independence was declared in 1957
most of which were probably directed at Linda, given that blond-haired, fair-skinned girls aren't exactly falling from trees in this part of the world - we were made to feel perfectly welcome by both the Chinese waiter/cook who took our order and the wee tiny Indian man that brought us our food. Whether he was actually working there or not we couldn't be quite sure, but he brought us our food and it was delicious, so we were grateful! If first impressions were anything to go by, this holiday would turn out to be exactly the sort of feast that we had hoped for...!

Having left Australia in the middle of winter, arriving in any country situated on the equator at any time of year would require some serious acclimatization, and Malaysia proved to be no exception! With overnight minimums of around 24 degrees (at least fifteen degrees warmer than what we'd become used to) and daytime maximums of around 34 degrees - not to mention humidity hovering around the 75% mark - we were pretty much suffering as soon as we left the comfort of our air-conditioned room at the hostel. But with such a rich and diverse
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Jalan Alor eat street
cultural heritage as Malaysia's to discover, we were determined to explore as much of our surroundings as possible... and if the heat and humidity forced us to take frequent rest/snack/meal/juice breaks to rejuvenate ourselves, then so be it!

It's fair to say though that our pace on the first day was decidedly laid-back, so that by mid-afternoon we'd probably not made it more than a kilometre from our hostel... though given our awesome location, we'd still been able to visit the KL City Gallery to get an overview of the city; strolled past Merdeka (Freedom) Square, where Malaysia's independence was declared in 1957 with the lowering of the UK's union jack and the raising of what was then Malaya's own flag on one of the tallest flagpoles in the world; and followed the muddy brown Gombak River to it's confluence with the Klang River, where the Masjid Jamek (Friday Mosque) marks the point at which the first settlement - that would ultimately become Kuala Lumpur - originated only one hundred years earlier, in 1857.

By Tuesday evening however, we had sufficiently acclimatized to venture over to an area known as Bukit Bintang, which is regarded as the dining
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Petronas Towers providing the backdrop to the Lake Symphony sound & light show
and nightlife epicentre of the city. Strolling down the full length of Jalan Alor - the city's most famous hawker food street, lined for hundreds of metres on both sides by wall-to-wall dining establishments - was as eye-opening as it was mouth-watering... though the fact that a waitress managed to take our meal order without putting out her cigarette suggested that a) Malaysians are excellent multi-taskers and b) perhaps the workplace hygiene standards might be slightly different than in Australia! Nevertheless the food was good, the fried bananas for dessert and lemon-flavoured sugarcane juice to wash it all down even better, and we still had enough energy left to tackle the lengthy walk to KLCC Park at the foot of the Petronas Towers afterwards. And if the sight of these twin 450-metre-high towers (joined by a 'skybridge' halfway up) shooting skyward wasn't enough to bring a smile to our faces, then the accompanying 'Lake Symphony' sound-and-light show, centred around some impressive fountains in a lake at the base of the towers, was definitely a fitting way to end the day.

Plunging ourselves into nearby Chinatown the next day, we managed to resist the ever-persistent touts trying to sell us
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Gopuram (gateway tower) of Sri Mahamariamman Temple
everything from juice to massages to tattoos to carpets, before entering our first ever Hindu temple at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, smack bang in the centre of Chinatown. From the gopuram (entrance gateway tower) to the various shrines dotted around the exterior of the compound, the Hindu love for both animals and psychadelic colours was immediately apparent! And to top it off, while a small ceremony took place in front of the main shrine (dedicated to Mariamman, the South Indian mother goddess) a pair of musicians filled the incense-scented air with a pulsating beat, utilizing only a hand drum and some sort of wind-blown instrument (looking like some sort of oversized recorder – only with a very different sound!).

In a perfect demonstration of the religious tolerance and multiculturalism that seems to lie at the very heart of Kuala Lumpur's existence, almost directly across the street from the Hindu temple sits the Guandi Temple, dedicated to a historical Chinese general revered as the Taoist god of war, but also worshipped as the patron of righteous brotherhoods. Aside from the obvious spiritual connotations, both temples also offered a soothing respite from the noise and bustle of the surrounding city streets.
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Guandi Chinese Temple, just across the street from the Hindu Temple
If only they'd offered air-conditioning as well, we may never have left...

But inevitably our hunger grew too great to ignore, and having failed to locate a particular Nepalese restaurant that had been recommended in our guidebook, we decided to try our luck at the enticingly-named Nepal House, which resulted in us climbing a darkened stairway to emerge in a large room filled with bare tables, at the far end of which sat a couple of very surprised looking Malaysian men. Unsure whether it was in fact a restaurant or not, we asked “do you have any menus?”, to which the man who had walked over to us responded with “no”, before adding “what you want?”. When Linda asked if they made momos and was told they did, her follow-up question regarding the possibility of them making vegetarian momos was met with a rather stern “no”... and that was the end of that.

Making our way across to yet another 'Nepalese' restaurant on the opposite side of the road, we were relieved to find that the room we entered was most definitely a functioning restaurant – though in spite of this once we had placed our orders and
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Exterior of the Masjid Negara (National Mosque)
the waitress had gone back to the kitchen to relay the order to the cook, there followed a curious little conversation between the two in Malaysian that I could only imagine went something like “Do you know how to cook this meal?”... “No”... “Can you cook something that looks like it?”... “Maybe – I'll give it a go”! This was not the last time we would witness such a conversation between waiter/waitress and chef/cook, but I guess sometimes you just have to play the cards you're dealt!

Seeking a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city centre on Thursday, Linda and I headed to the former colonial playground of the Lake Gardens, beside which sits the Masjid Negara (National Mosque) with it's distinctive blue umbrella-shaped roof and capacity to house 15,000 worshippers. From there we headed to the outstanding Islamic Arts Museum, where the Architecture Gallery housed miniature replicas of around twenty of the most famous examples of Islamic architecture from around the world - most of which understandably were mosques, including the most important mosque of all at Mecca. The equally-impressive Qu'ran and Manuscripts Gallery contained numerous intricately-decorated historical copies of the Qu'ran, whose sheer aesthetic
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Hornbill perched outside the restaurant of the same name, overlooking KL Bird Park
beauty surely elevated them from mere books to works of art.

Moving on up the hill we eventually stopped for a break at the appropriately-named Hornbills restaurant overlooking the KL Bird Park, where one of the restaurant's namesakes landed on a perch only a few metres away from us - giving us a close-up look at what must be one of the most impressive birds either of us have ever seen. And all the while a gang of mischievous macaques squabbled over the scraps left behind by visitors in the car park - which was quite a thrill for Linda, who had not seen a primate of any kind (other than human) since she last went to a zoo as a little girl! No sooner had we left the restaurant to take a walk through the adjacent Orchid and Hibiscus Gardens though, than the heavens finally opened - as they had been threatening to do for the past three days, without ever unleashing more than a few lazy drops - and we were soon ducking for cover in the face of a torrential downpour... which led to the rather comical sight of Linda's running shoes foaming into a lather
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Bamboo playhouse and footbridge in the Perdana Botanical Garden
with every step she took, after she had washed them before the trip but apparently done a terrible job of rinsing them out afterwards! With Linda by now sopping wet - and me guiltily, though contentedly, holding onto her umbrella - we made our way down through the Perdana Botanical Gardens past a brilliantly-constructed bamboo playhouse to a large lake, where the tall buildings of the city towered above the surrounding forest canopy. And all too soon we were back in the thick of the 21st-century Kuala Lumpur rat race...

However the day still held one more highlight, when Linda and I met up for dinner that evening with an old travel friend of mine from Austria named Kathi and her travelling companion Sarah. Having first met Kathi whilst backpacking in Cairns back in 2007; then stayed with her and her parents in their small village in the Austrian countryside the following year; and most recently met up with her in Zwolle while she was there studying and I was cycling around the Netherlands in 2012; I had not spoken to Kathi in ages until I received a message out of the blue on our third night in KL
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Hindu shrine, Lord Murugan statue, and the steep and sweaty steps up to the Batu Caves
to say that she and her friend had just arrived in the city as well, and asking whether we would like to catch up! And so the next couple of hours flew by as we caught up on stories old and new, whilst devouring a banquet laid out on banana leaves at an Indian restaurant just around the corner from Linda's and my hostel. Good times.

For our final full day in the capital, we took a local train to the end of the line to check out the Batu Caves - where a series of elaborately-decorated Hindu temples (as if there is any other kind!) are set in and around a network of towering caves gouged from the surrounding limestone hills. Slogging and sweating our way up the brightly-painted steps - along with what seemed like the entire population of Kuala Lumpur - whilst simultaneously dodging the troupes of mischievous macaques that continually cased the crowd for any opportunity to score a free feed, we eventually reached the welcome shelter and shade of the Temple Cave, where the garishly-decorated gopuram of the main Hindu shrine reached but a fraction of the way to the cave's soaring ceiling. Passing
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Inside the enormous lower chamber of Temple Cave
from the cave's lower chamber up another set of stairs to the upper chamber, we emerged back into the sunshine underneath a naturally-occuring skylight, where the roof of the cave had fallen in to create a perfect amphitheatre, open to the sky above.

On our way back down the steps we were treated to the comical sight of a small group of macaques cooling off by splashing around in a small waterhole set into the side of the hill; and their resemblance to teenage humans was inescapable, as they took it in turns to scale a small tree overhanging the pool before letting go and plunging 'dive-bomb style into the water below! I even witnessed one particularly cheeky troublemaker swimming a lap of the pool underwater, before sneaking up on one of it's unsuspecting companions from below and then yanking on it's tail - to send the victim leaping in fright whilst emitting an ear-piercing screech!

Back at ground level we paid a visit to the nearby Ramayana Cave, where various scenes from the Hindu epic are represented in the form of clay figures... including a truly massive reclining figure that bore more than a passing resemblance to
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Linda in front of the elaborate gopuram inside Temple Cave
my Uncle Ralph! After returning to the city, Linda and I spent at least half-an-hour trying and failing to figure out how to get from the central train station to the National Museum - which we knew was only about two blocks away - before finally unravelling the maze, to be rewarded with some much-needed air conditioning. Dinner that night followed the now-familiar pattern of our waiter not quite being sure what we were trying to order, nor Linda and I being quite sure what we were going to get, only for us to end up enjoying another delicious meal packed with flavours that lingered on the tongue... along with the accompanying heat that always seemed to defy our waiters' smiling assurances that our meals would be 'only a little spicy'!

A quick trip back out to the Petronas Towers on Saturday morning, to take the guided tour up to both the 42nd floor 'skybridge' and the 86th floor observation deck - where the views were somewhat limited by what we could only assume was a combination of pollution-related smog and smoke from oil palm plantation fires - and we were ready to take our leave of the capital
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View from the top of the Petronas Towers (with the Menara KL Tower in the background)
and make our way a few hundred kilometres north to the island of Penang... though only after making a last-minute dash back to our favourite 24-hour corner restaurant, to finish our time in Kuala Lumpur the same way we had started it: with good food, smiling faces, and a persistent sweat that nothing would alleviate!

Additional photos below
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River of LifeRiver of Life
River of Life

Elevated fishpond suspended above the Sungai Gombak
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Colonial Splendour

Sultan Ahmed Samad Building, across the road from Merdeka Square
If only the river were as clear as the fishpond...If only the river were as clear as the fishpond...
If only the river were as clear as the fishpond...

View back down the Sumgai Gombak, with the Masjid Jamek (Friday Mosque) on the left
In the Land of the GiantsIn the Land of the Giants
In the Land of the Giants

Petronas Towers and friends, seen from KLCC Park
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Landscaping and Architecture at it's finest

The Petronas Towers rising above KLCC Park
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Towers and Trees

Evening view from KLCC Park
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Religous Ornamentation #1

Brilliantly-coloured sculptural mosaic inside the Sri Mahamariamman Temple

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