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From Kuala Lumpur

By Sahand Rabbani

from Kuala Lumpur

Dear Friends,

An uncomfortable Friday evening flight on Malaysia's own AirAsia dumped me into Kuala Lumpur a few hours before midnight. After a long journey through the terminal and a painfully slow immigration line, I was on my way to the hotel. For a late-night snack, we headed to Jalan Tun Sambanthan, a street just minutes walking from the hotel, where we found a few curry houses open late and still serving food. I had a lukewarm plate of rice and curry before heading off to sleep.

The next morning, we embarked on an extensive walking tour of the capital. Our first stop was Masjid Negara, the National Mosque. Following a barefooted exploration of its columned interior, we continued on to Merdeka Square, the closest thing KL has to a central square. The area was generally unpopulated, however, with its primary tenant a modest durian festival. A tent housed stalls and plastic tables and chairs where durian enthusiasts queued to buy, chop, and eat their fruits.

Afterward, we ducked into a mall for some relief from the heat and humidity. A series of circuitous signs eventually led us to a deserted food court. The lunch of curried beef and fish that we tried here may have been the best meal of the trip and the kopi (coffee) we drank to wash it down was delightfully dark and nutty.

After our mall respite, we crossed the Klang River into Chinatown, passing by the Masid Jamek, which was closed for renovation. We stopped again here for a snack of beef noodle soup and then walked through the tacky tourist market, which resembled one I had encountered over a year ago in Singapore's Chinatown (see "from Singapore"). From there, we found our way to the iconic Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple. The temple's prismatic gopuram that tops the entrance is grotesquely decorated with figurines of animals and gods. It reminded me of the interior of the church of Santa María Tonantzintla in Cholula, México (see "from Puebla, Chipilo, and Cholula").

Our walk continued along wide boulevards and challenging street crossings, taking us through the shopping district of Bukit Bintang. A sudden and short-lived thunderstorm sent us again into the cooling embrace of another soulless mall, where we pounded another round of kopi. Once the rain stopped, we made our way to the massive complex at Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC), home of the Petronas Twin Towers. We abandoned the disappointing bar at the Trader's Hotel to find a dinner spot in the adjoining Suria Mall. The beef rendang was excellent and the fish head curry was fine, but not up to Singapore standards.

To finish the night, we walked back to Bukit Bintang, mostly through a network of elevated footbridges, and stumbled upon the bustling street food night market on Jalan Alor. We grabbed dessert and a taxi back to the hotel.

On Sunday morning, we rode the monorail from one end nearly to the other, alighting at Chow Kit. We explored the neighborhood's famous wet market, complete with fruit vendors, fishmongers, and butchers. Cow heads and hooves lined the stalls. Piles of whole chickens, white ones and yellow ones, abounded, with their long necks and heads dangling into the aisles.

From Chow Kit, we walked along sun parched roads and up a hill to KL Tower, whose observation deck afforded us panoramic views of the city. Back in Chinatown, we enjoyed our final meal of pork sandwich and fish curry at an open-air Chinese restaurant. With a kopi to top it off, we were on our way to the airport.

In many ways, Kuala Lumpur reminds me of Singapore. Its tripartite ethnic composition of Malay, Chinese, and South Indian is redolent of its island nation neighbor to the south. On the other hand, KL is distinctly Malaysian in a way that Singapore is not. A moderate Islamic influence pervades the city both in its architecture and sporadic use of the Arabic script. I was surprised, however, not to hear public calls to prayer. While not a particularly historic city, Kuala Lumpur still offers a bit of culture and soul. It leaves me wanting to see more of Malaysia.


Copyright © 2024 Sahand Rabbani
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