There’s nothing quite like the experience of your first morning out. Back on the road, away from home once again. On this occasion, mine was spent watching a dusky pink sunrise give a mauve glow to Kuala Lumpur through the lens of a steamy window.
The last time I passed through the Malaysian capital was almost 2 years prior and I was headed in the opposite direction, homeward bound and capping off my first 6 month exploration into the wonders of Southeast Asia. Without going into too much detail, the months leading up to this adventure were somewhat tumultuous, containing the bitterly painful and unpleasant experience of losing my father to cancer and helping my brother to pack up, sell and generally take care of his leftover belongings. So arriving into a new country felt like a fresh start in many way. Albeit an emotional, challenging one.
The familiar smell of humid air and damp, earthy palm forests greeted us as we boarded an express train into the heart of the city. Malaysia is, for many, a bit of an unknown destination and it comes as a surprise to most when I list it as one of my favourite Southeast Asian spots. It is far more familiar for those used to a Western destination than perhaps the more coveted tourist stopovers such as Thailand and Vietnam, and the country’s capital is an understated metropolis harboring a surprising number of things to do.
I have frequently come to hear those who are merely passing through, complain that KL lacks heart or a reasonable selection of things to do. This is simply untrue. Kuala Lumpur requires a little more effort than some of the more popular Asian cities, but the rewards to be had are well worth the effort. Anyhow, I digress..
We arrived into our high-rise hotel in the midst of a typical hot and humid Malaysian afternoon. After a series of trains and busses, we meandered through the hawker stalls, floated through the aroma of sweet fruits and sidestepped cat-calls of ‘masssssaassssee??’. Wedged in between the bustling Jalan Alor night market and the trendy Bukit Bintang restaurant district, perfectly positioned for an initial exploration through the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
Southeast Asia had been my father’s stomping ground, of sorts. His favourite place to get lost, experience something different and report home with incredulous tales for me and my brother. A place he so desperately wanted us to discover for ourselves one day. Throughout my last Asian journey my phone would regularly beep with new suggestions and places to visit. Before his death, this is where he was planning to return. Here, now. To take a train trip up to Bangkok.
So when he died, it made sense to come in his place. This time, my brother would be joining me for his own first-time adventure into Asia.
Before his arrival, we had a few free days which were mostly spent meandering the streets demolishing myriads of street foods. Crispy tenderloins on a bed of rice steamed in broth, freshly crushed watermelon juice and handfuls of chicken skewers, roasted over a charcoal-fired hot plate awaited us at every turn. My foodie heaven was, for the moment, right in front of me every day.
A quick scan of TripAdvisor proved handy, and set us off on foot to find the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park. It came highly recommended, yet I was as skeptical now as I am with any fauna-focused parks in Asia. Visions of starving, neglected creatures always tend to bob about in my imagination.
We passed by the glorious National Mosque and the fairytale-style central train station, passing by Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin and over the murky Klang River, complete with scavenging birds and endless swaths of drifting garbage. My suspicions were put to rest as we arrived at the spectacular bird park. As the world’s Largest Free-flight Walk-in Aviary, it featured 20.9 acres of lush jungles, clean lakes and happy birds of every kind – storks, flamingos and pelicans waded around and magnificent peacocks gorged on wedges of papaya.
It took the entire morning to explore the expanse of grounds, and each area was yet another pleasing surprise. You can now understand now, perhaps, why the educational sector of this fabulous bird park took me by such surprise. It’s as if one moment you are taking a pleasant stroll through the lands of Paradiso, suddenly to be confronted by Virgil himself. As you descend into what could be mistaken for Inferno, hoards of taxidermied creatures gaze at you from their perches. In this Dante-worthy wonderland the creatures are forever trapped in a land time forgot, as their feathers, skins and beaks fall off – piece by piece, leaving just the impoverished remains.
Otherwise, the bird park was a spectacular success.
One of the beauties of Malaysia – and in fact Asia in general – is the price of a good meal. Generally speaking, it costs more to gather the ingredients required, provided you are eating locally. I delight in this fact, and enjoy the experience of seeking out only the most local of local dishes. Naturally, many of our meals out included one of my favourite Malay dishes, the banana leaf.
Hailing from the large number of South Indians who migrated from Tamil, the Banana leaf (often called a ‘set meal’) is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of delicious Indian-Malay cuisine. One of the requirements in choosing the perfect banana leaf restaurant is the settings, it needs to be spartan. Generally a long, shared bench or a series of colourful plastic tables, bursting at the seams with locals.
Toward the back you’ll find a modest wash basin for rinsing off curry laden fingers at the end, as anyone familiar with Indian food will tell you it’s designed to be eaten with the hands. So, as one simply does while in Malaysia, I occupied much of my time with a fist full of fragrant rice and a selection of vegetable curries served up unassumingly and without fanfare, on the leaf of a shiny green Banana palm.
Another of the other popular misconceptions of Kuala Lumpur is the urban jungle myth. That much like other capital cities, it is a large chunk of concrete and relentless corporate skyscrapers. Anybody who tells you this has clearly never discovered the forest eco park in Bukit Nanas.
Not only is this expanse of lush green one of Malaysia’s oldest permanent forest reserves, but it lies quite surprisingly directly in the center of Kuala Lumpur complete with metro station right outside the entrance. One you step inside, the city hustle melts away behind you and you slide into a tranquil stretch of tropical rainforest, complete with native birds and Langur monkeys.
The hillside leads up to the base of the infamous KL tower on its peak, and features swinging canopy walking bridges, campsites and delightful picnic spots. The best hidden destination for KL locals looking to escape the inner city for an hour (or a weekend), I’ve been surprised to learn just how few people even know of this secret city rainforest.
For the first few days, Malaysia was an adventure, an exploration and a respite all at once. A reminder of how exhilarating a life spent on the road can feel, a remembrance that life is not only precious and all too short, but it is a product of how to choose to experience it. The heady vibrancy of Asia is a beautiful wake up call to travel, and in the following days my brother would be joining as we take to the tracks to explore Southeast Asia by rail.