After two weeks in Malaysia, I’m looking back at all the places I’ve visited here.
We spent the first few days in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. It reminded me of my hometown, Almaty, Kazakhstan. In both cities, all things Asian and traditional coexist with the Western influences. Both cities are full of traffic jams, unfinished construction sites, and dilapidated old buildings standing next to skyscrapers.
Ethnic Malays, Indians and Chinese all share Kuala Lumpur.
Consequently, there is a predominantly Malay neighborhood, a Little India and a Chinatown. Mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples are scattered all over the city.
Each neighborhood has its own character and is full of delightful contrasts, such as women in full Muslim dress riding scooters.
We stayed in Chinatown because of the abundance of cheap hotels and eateries.
Our hotel was on Petaling Street, a bustling street market where all of the road and most of the sidewalk is taken up by kiosks selling fake Gucci bags, clothes, food and anything else you can think of.
We ate at the food court across the street, trying to stick to the food we could identify. None of the vendors or patrons spoke English, so no one could explain the other dishes. I did try this one time, even though I didn’t know what it was. My best guess is some kind of fish.
The most widely known Kuala Lumpur landmark is the Petronas Towers, an elegant complex of twin skyscrapers that stands out in the city’s skyline.
At 1,242 feet high, the towers once held the title of the tallest buildings of the world. They were surpassed by Taipei 101 in 2004.
Petronas is the government-owned oil and gas company that controls the entire industry in Malaysia.
After Kuala Lumpur, we headed into the heart of Malaysia to the national park Taman Negara, located in one of the world’s oldest rainforests.
Getting there included a three-hour ride in a longtail boat down a mocha-colored river surrounded by jungle on both sides.
We arranged to stay at a rundown chalet in a small village across the river from the park. This being the low season, we were spared the hordes of tourists that descend on the park in summer months.
One of the park’s biggest draws is a canopy walkway, a series of walking bridges hanging 80 feet above ground and linking one giant tree to the next. The entire walkway is a quarter of a mile long (500 meters).
Walking on those bridges and getting a bird’s eye view of the jungle was a little scary but unforgettable.
The island of Penang in peninsular Malaysia boasts some of the best food in the country.
We toured the city of Georgetown to sample the traditional foods of Malaysia’s diverse cultures. Here are my top five:
1. Apom - Indian rice-flour pancakes with eggs, eaten with a curry sauce or sugar.
2. Cendol - A dessert containing shaved ice, brightly-colored rice noodles, beans and coconut milk. There are other variations, I’m sure.
3. Wan Tan Mee - Deliciously spiced Chinese rice-noodle soup with wantons and meat or tofu.
4. Yu Char Kuih - Crispy dough fritter, another Chinese specialty.
5. Putu Mayam - Steamed rice noodles served with grated coconut and palm sugar.
So, how did we come across all these fabulous dishes? I probably wouldn’t have tried them if I didn’t know what they were. A nonprofit organization called Penang Heritage Trust produces a lovely map with a self-guided walking tour of Georgetown’s culinary delights. The map includes explanations for each traditional dish and the best places to get it.
This woman, whose food stall was featured on the map, makes the best apom in town. We promised to spread the word. So, for anyone about to visit Georgetown: You’ll find her in the mornings at Lebuh Queen and Lebuh Chulia.
I may never be able to take a months-long trip again, but that doesn’t mean I won’t return to Asia. Here are five of my favorite destinations that would be great for a short trip:
Chiang Mai, Thailand: Enjoy the famous northern Thai cuisine and hospitality, visit beautiful Buddhist temples and go trekking in the lush forests.
Rajastan, India: Visit magnificent forts and palaces, stay at a Haveli (a historic mansion converted into a hotel), learn about life in the desert.
Georgetown, Pulau Penang, Malaysia: See colonial architecture, explore Strait Chinese heritage and try some of the best food in Malaysia.
Hoi An, Vietnam: Stroll through the streets lined with well-preserved colonial buildings, try the delectable Vietnamese cuisine at one of the riverside cafes and visit the ruins of an ancient Cham civilization.
Siem Riep, Cambodia: Discover Angkor Wat and other temples of the Khmer Empire, see a traditional dance performance, swap stories with fellow travelers at one of the funky bars.