Travel Notes: Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur

Travel Notes: Kuala Lumpur

(note: if you don’t know who I’m talking about in this post, read this one first)

China behind me, I landed in Kuala Lumpur on Friday afternoon, April 13, 2012. Fraternity brother and lifelong friend Kishore Suppiah ZK 727 picked me up from the airport in his sporty new white Kia SUV.

Tragically, starting at that very moment every time I get in the car with Kishore we stumble into the worst traffic in southeast asia. But I didn’t mind being stuck in traffic for two hours as Kishore and I had plenty to catch up on.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, let me say now that the experience having a local friend in the country you’re visiting is golden. It’s so much easier to get around, know where you’re going, order food, go to the “local spots,” and overall just easier and more enjoyable.

As mentioned previously, Kishore had me set up in Tune Hotel downtown Kuala Lumpur. We stopped in from the airport to drop some things and make a quick change before heading down to Changkat, a hip little street in the city with lots of bars and restaurants – including Healy Mac’s, where of course I would insist on visiting later.

At the tapas bar we met Firhana, who I hadn’t seen in years, which was awesome. Soon Michelle showed, and one by one our group grew to about 10 of Kishore and Michelle’s friends. Sitting around with all of Kishore’s bros – most of which had gone to high school together – was just like hangin with the bros back home.

It’s great to meet new friends traveling, but it’s a little different in a group of long-time friends. In a group of new backpacker friends, everyone is very polite, happy to defer to “the group,” and the conversations are generally similar and related to travel. Don’t get me wrong – these are awesome. But when you’re with a group of long-time friends all of those niceties have been long gone. Guys are razzing each other, bringing up old stories, little rib jabs here and there; it’s a different group setting. At any rate it felt good to be in a group of good friends and it felt like home.

It’s worth mentioning a bit about Malaysia. There are predominantly three races that make up a vast majority of the population. The Malay are the indigenous people and make up the majority, with close to 60%. Next are Chinese Malaysian, which I believe are close to 30%, and finally Indian Malaysian, which are below 10%.

Just about everyone speaks Malay and English, with many of the Indian Malaysian also speaking Temil (Kishore speaks all three).  With that said, most of Kishore’s friends also studied abroad, either in the US or the UK, so not only do they speak English, but they tend to have a very light accent, if any, and they know all the slang and common language that is so often used. Obviously this makes things much easier than, say, Japan or China, where even the best speakers often have broken English and thick accents. All that said, sitting around with Kishore’s friends, I might have been sitting with a bunch of my fraternity brothers back home. “Feels good to mingle with these laid-back country folk, don’t it Har?”

The next couple of days, Kishore and Michelle basically took me to as many places to eat as possible.

This traditional Malaysian restaurant was surrounded by paddy fields.

At Raju we ate from a banana leaf with our fingers.

We also had baku te, a traditional Chinese dish.

And about a half-dozen other little holes-in-the wall.

(see photo gallery below)

On Saturday night we attended Jen’s Underground Supper Club, which is where I met the Palencia family for the first time. What a treat! Six appetizers (because I don’t know how to spell the other word for that course), an entree, a main (I used to think those were the same thing), and dessert.

At the supper club you’re seated with other guests at your table, generally strangers, as was the case for us. We had a great time meeting and chatting with a very nice couple, and since both this husband and Kishore are Liverpool fans, no one could really scold either of them for checking the scores during the game. I started learning a great deal about the English and European football (pshh just kidding I mean soccer) leagues, which, since I can’t catch a Giants game for my life, I might as well get into the most popular sport in the world. Now I just need to pick a team. How do I pick….and do you have any suggestions? Who wants me to get on their side the most?

Jennifer, the chef, did not present herself until the meal was completed, but it was worth the wait – both in terms of the food and the company! I had a feeling before leaving that I  would have to see this family again before leaving Malaysia.

Traffic is maddening in KL.

On Monday Kishore and Michelle were back to work, so I was on my own for the morning. I got in touch with Eugene, who only lives a short distance away, so he came and picked me up. First he took me to his favorite noodle shop, which was about 100 meters from my hotel, then we rode around KL for a bit before going for a workout. We ran about 6K and swam 800 meters, which was no problem for him but right about there for me. Even though I don’t run or swim regularly it felt good to be able to keep up and at least not fall over gasping or drown.

Another interesting note: talking with Eugene, who I had previously believed to be one day my elder, is actually two years younger than me. I learned that Chinese essentially count their age differently by two years for two separate reasons; first, they start their “age” from the time in the womb. Even though it’s only nine months, they round that up to a year, so that you’re basically one when you’re born. In addition, when telling people their age, Chinese tell you how old they are going to be this year; so right now for example, me being born in December and having just turned 30 a few months ago, I would tell people that I’m 31 because I’ll be 31 next December – in other words I’m in my 31st year. Counting the time when Sheila was hauling me around, I’d actually tell people I’m 32 right now. This would have been handy when I was 19; not so much now.

Later that evening we picked up Camille and her traveling buddy from Holland. Eugene took us to another one of his favorite restaurants where we ate all kinds of crazy Chinese food. Crabs, chickens, cows, rices, noodles, and on. His friend Kong joined us as well. We spent the last couple of hours with Eugene driving us around and showing the sights of KL. The KL or “Petronas Towers,” the tallest twin towers (and former tallest buildings in the world), are lit up like Christmas trees at night. As we made our way back into the city they were absolutely gorgeous, so we pulled off to take a couple of picturess…just when all the lights promptly turned off. Awesome. So, you get to see the towers without the lights.

Photo Gallery

Nasi Lemak

Ready to Make Nasi Lemak

Having met Jennifer, Natasha and Brabon (more in passing) at the Underground Supper Club, and knowing that I was visiting KL, Natasha invited me to join the tourist cooking class that was happening on Tuesday as a part of Jen’s Homegrown Cooking Academy. Yes I would love to, no questions asked.

It’s going to be hard to do this justice, but I’ll say that this experience was one of the best I’ve had on my adventure so far. If you want to read more, check out my review on TripAdvisor, and you can see the photos below.

One thing I do want to make a few more notes on is Jen’s Homegrown Cooking Academy.

The tourist class is just a side-show. The real main even is the Apprentice Chefs. As Jen described it to us, at least from what I remember:

“No offense, but this is a Starbucks culture. The kids get everything pre-packaged and ready to go, and rarely have to work for things or prepare for themselves.”

The academy is about more than just cooking. It’s about teaching kids how to be professional, mature adults, using cooking as a venue. Their mission is “Growing Children Into Proficient Adults.”

The Academy began in June 2009 with four, five, and six-year-old kids, who are still with them today. It’s held two weekends a month for a year, and many kids stay on year after year. In fact, Jen is getting ready to take their original 2009 cohort to France for cooking lessons.

This isn’t just food; it’s culture, it’s family, it’s a way of life.

I also neglected to mention my classmate Shonali, pictured next to me above. See her captivating article on this experience in the Hindu Times: http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/metroplus/article3383899.ece

Photo Gallery

Chris and Kishore go to Penang

Kishore took a couple of days off so we could do a little road trip to Penang, about four hours’ drive, where G and Ray are living. Kishore’s mom is from Penang, so he’s gone up there regularly over the years and knows it well. There’s also a Tune Hotel there so we were dialed on the room situation.

We stayed only two nights, and this was pretty much the gist of it: lots of great local food (Penang is considered the food capital of Malaysia), some cool touristy stuff, and we got together with Ray and G a couple of times.

They have a great story; be sure to check out their blog. G had traveled quite a bit before this trip, including living in New Zealand for a year. This was Ray’s first trip. They started off their three-year adventure with six months in India. And I’m not talking big-city luxury vacation India, I’m talking rural, backwoods, burning corpses floating down the river India. That had to be a culture shock.

Best friends since elementary school, they both came to a point where they were ready to move. G had been back for a while and was ready to get out again. Working for IBM for some time, Ray discovered that corporate life was not for him. So, they decided to go big and “do Asia” in its entirety.

Going for dinner and drinks with them for two nights, we got a chance to talk a good bit and I learned a lot from them. After three years of survival mode, you are a professional. I got some great advice from them on ways to make money while traveling, which is going to be critical, and which they’ve been doing for some time. Also picked up some useful travel notes and tips.

Ray, Chris and G

As I’m just turning the corner on three months into my adventure, they are in their last month and preparing for the reentry – which is going to be no small task, and a culture shock in itself.

All in all we had a great trip up to Penang, despite the fact we tried to leave at 4:30 on Friday afternoon. Fail. Through mishaps and stop-offs (including a lively night market in Ipoh) we finally arrived back in KL after 10:00, and that was that.

PS: the food was amazing. Wish I could tell you more about it but you’ll just have to go.

Photo Gallery

Back in KL

Back in KL we had a nice little weekend.

On Saturday Kishore picked me up and we went to see the Batu Caves, a famous Hindu Temple and one of the most important outside of India.

Batu Caves Photo Gallery

Later we met up with Michelle, got some lunch and paid a visit to the local grocer.

Despite being born and raised in KL, Firhana had never been to the famous Petronas Towers. So we gave it a shot, but when arriving at 8:45 on Sunday morning there were about 450 in line before us. No haps. So we just sat and had brunch for a couple of hours which was a great time.

On Sunday night we had dinner with Kishore’s family – his mom and dad, two sisters, and his older sister’s husband. We ate at a Chinese fish restaurant, which was fabulous, and had a great time. Kishore’s family is amazing, and I’ll just say I know now where he gets it. It was great to be part of a family.

To be honest, I’ve felt a little stressed out during the past few weeks. I need a little time to catch up on things and wrap my head around what’s happening.

I need a vacation. I’m going to head to the Perhentian Islands for a few days. See you when I get back.

Photo Gallery.

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