I have to admit, my three week plan for South East Asia had a lot of people giving me very strange looks – two weeks in Bangkok, a couple of days quasi-backpacking and then three days in Kuala Lumpur. Search Bangkok or KL and both come up with a one or two-day itinerary for gap-year-er’s or Eat-Pray-Lover-er’s unavoidable layovers. Not many blogs or TripAdvisor reviews spoke with much enthusiasm about either city but I loved both, especially Kuala Lumpur, and I’ll stand by it.
Three years ago I signed up for a program during my Bachelor’s to be a ‘mentor’ to an incoming international exchange student. Essentially this meant welcoming them to my city, and making sure the culture shock and language difficulties weren’t too much to handle. I was paired with J, a girl from Malaysia who spoke perfect English and stayed in the halls of residence with a few hundred other Kiwis. In short? I was probably redundant, but we did meet a few times during the semester and stayed in touch the lazy way – through Facebook.
J is studying in Ireland now, but I asked if she would be in KL over the summer and I was instantly invited to stay at her house. I was slightly nervous. We’d only met three times and now we would spend 72 hours together! Looking back, it seems crazy that I even worried a little bit – I knew as soon as she told me to pick up some coconut milk ice cream while I was waiting for her that we would get on as well as we had in the past.
I didn’t expect that we would get on better. During our first evening we went to a kopitiam, and had nasi lemak from a street vendor for dinner, and tried to wake up early the next morning to go to the Batu Caves. The main caves are always busy with monkeys and people, but we made the decision to visit the ‘dark cave,’ a nature reserve with absolutely no natural light and a lot of natural insects. In all honesty I was pretty reluctant to go on a guided tour, but I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. I’ve never seen someone so enthusiastic about stalagmites and ancient centipedes as our guide, and at the end of the walk we were rewarded with the sun streaming through the cave ceiling like a scene from prehistoric paradise.
Over the following days J and I visited the Petronas Towers and Chinatown, and the small pudu deer in the Botanic Gardens. We had even more in common than we did in 2014. We ate Nyonya style sweets made from rice, coconut flour and pandan and talked about studying abroad. I was jealous of her living in Ireland, but we were both growing tired of being seen as foreigners before anything else. It was as though we had met at the same time of our lives in New Zealand – both about to start what we saw as complete freedom overseas, and now we were meeting again, realising that home means more than we thought it did.
Near Chinatown we ate fried things on sticks, and matcha shaved ice with chewy sweet potato and sesame pillows. We talked about how we coped with homesickness at first, unhealthily and often alone.
In the majority Indian suburb of Brickfields we ate Banana Leaf curry with our hands, me adjusting to both a new method of eating and completely unknown flavours, both of us comparing childhoods and mocking our own teen angst.
As we sat in the mall adjacent to the train station, my bag packed and reluctantly labelled PEK for Peking we had our final desserts – a towering pancake with red bean and coffee jelly, and an acai bowl. We talked about YouTubers, how we thought the acai bowl just tasted like banana and what was the hype, and about how funny it was that we had changed in the same ways.
So, of course I am biased towards KL. I can easily see that if you’re not big on desserts or twin towers then after a day or so you’ll be ready to move on, however I would never tell anyone to skip it. Despite being so afraid about safety before I took the plane, the city felt relaxed and welcoming. Some people actually said hello to me when they walked past – in a city?! It’s hard to get a smile out of the English on a suburban street! Yes I had a friend, but I’m sure without J the city would not have been unfriendly.
Even if it’s not your priority, don’t hurry through Kuala Lumpur.