Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
I couldn’t believe when the plane wheels touched down that Shannon was going to be here any moment!! I hadn’t seen her for almost a year, so she planned a ten day vacation from work to fly out here to join me for a bit of backpacking in Malaysia. I was so excited to see her and so proud to have a brave sister that was jazzed about travel too!
I connected to the wifi as soon as I could and messaged with her, relieved she landed safely. However, we discovered that we were actually at two different terminals. Luckily, customs was a breeze and the train to her terminal was easy as could be. The train even had wifi the whole time! I found a Dunkin’ Donuts (why is this even here??!) and waited for her to walk out the gate. I spotted her and gave a giant hug and started catching up right away as we got snacks and SIM cards and cash.
Our Airbnb was an hour away in the old town of KL, and was a massive high rise apartment complex with an infinity pool, sauna, fitness center and the most incredible view of the city skyline. We were on the 38th floor, so our view was particularly stellar–all for $15 per person per night.
Exploring the City
Our exploration in Kuala Lumpur began as soon as we went out to find some food for breakfast. We stumbled upon a cafeteria for blue collar workers with stalls offering plates of noodles, rice, meats, and a rainbow of colored pastries. I went with the colorful choices, without knowing what was inside, with a green disk, a purple ball, a yellow cube, blue grains, and an egg so I’d have one recognizable item. It was delicious! I found out most of them were made from coconut sugar and gelatinous rice, so I basically ate the Malaysian equivalent of donuts.
With sugar coursing through our veins, we walked onwards to KLCC, or city center. This is where the Petronas Towers emanate from, reaching 1,482 feet in the sky and once the world’s tallest buildings. The oil money behemoths still have a claim to fame at the world’s tallest twin-towers. The luxury shopping mall inside was a bit fancy for our taste, so we headed to the Eco Park to walk among the treetops on a wooden canopy bridge. The brief moments in the shade were a welcome respite from the relentless heat.
Next, we took a Grab (Uber) to Independence, or Merdeka Square to see the blend of architecture in this one spot, including the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the Theater building, and the Royal Selangor Club. Our friend told us that this was the spot that independence from Britain was declared in 1957, and continues to be a central area for political gatherings.
From here, we walked along the Central Market in Chinatown for some wonton soup and fish foot spa (it is the most bizarre, ticklish feeling). Next, we headed to the Thean Hou Temple. This is the most ornately decorated temple I’ve ever seen with paper lanterns hanging from ostentatiously curved rooftops, adorned with hand carved dragons painted in every color imaginable. It’s stunning!
Some people came here to light incense and offer prayers to the gods. We were much more content playing with the fortune telling machine in the grand hall. By this point, we were exhausted from the heat and headed back to the apartment for a luxurious swim in the infinity pool. Once refreshed, we ventured out to Bintang Bukit for dinner at Lot Ten Food Court and drinks along the crowded Jalan Alor.
Batu Caves, Hot Springs, and Waterfalls
After having such a delicious sugary breakfast at the cafe yesterday, we decided to take a chance and point to more colorful pastries and treats. It was just as good as before, and gave me the energy I needed to walk up the 272 steps to the mouth of Batu Cave. We even carried up bricks and buckets of sand as requested by the organization to help rebuild parts of the cave temple (and help tone our arms 😉 ). I’m going to let Wikipedia explain the caves a bit:
“Batu Caves is a limestone hill that has a series of caves and cave temples. The cave is one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India, and is dedicated to Lord Murugan. It is the focal point of Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Malaysia.”
As magical as the high stone ceilings and bell-ringing ceremonies were, the number of monkeys and pigeons trying to get your attention took away from the experience a bit. At first the monkeys were absolutely adorable with mothers feeding wide eyed babies. However, they’ve been so used to humans feeding them sugary drinks and snacks that they’ve become a bit too comfortable with begging from you. We rewarded ourselves for the steep climb with chilled fresh coconuts and headed off to Selayang Hot Springs.
I had no idea what to expect when we arrived, but the word hot spring conjures up images of spas, resorts, or pebble-lined mountain streams. What we encountered was a handful of half naked, middle aged, Chinese men dunking themselves in scalding cement pools. We wandered awkwardly around the pools until Byron decided to embrace the culture full-on and dipped his entire body painfully into the water–earning the respect of the Chinese men.
Now blessed with the holy waters, we headed to Kanching Waterfall for some more stair climbing, monkeys, and swimming. At the bottom of the hike, I caught a whiff of green apple. I laughed out loud when I saw two men perched on rocks, puffing from great big hookahs. I instantly made a mental note to bring along my hookah to my next hike.
That night, we met up at Helipad with our friend Calvin, who had stayed with us back in Connecticut during a school program he was in. We hadn’t seen him in years, so it was great to catch up while the sun set from behind the city skyline. He did an excellent job playing tour guide and took us to the perfect selfie spot of the Petronas Towers, a delicious Indian Muslim restaurant, and gave us a thorough history of Malaysia.
This country has been developing rapidly over the past fifty years due to the discovery of oil, and geographic location. Not only is it extremely well developed, but there is such a harmonious mixing between the Indian, Chinese, and Malay populations that inhabit the country.
Our night ended perfectly with the water show near Independence Square –lights glittering from the KL Tower and Indian music blaring dramatically over the river.
Train to Ipoh
Early the next morning, we took a really comfortable train a few hours north to a town called Ipoh. I’m talking nicer than Amtrak, which admittedly isn’t that hard to do. This was the hottest day yet, which kept us melting while attempting to see some local sights. We called it a day after walking through a cave temple, a mirror temple, and a temple with a long staircase to nowhere. Once again, our $12pp Airbnb had a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and a luxurious infinity pool.
Our night was low key with some street food during sunset and market wandering and trying weird desserts to Malaysian soap operas on TV.
Our time in Ipoh was short as we were off again, now to Penang via bus and ferry. This cute little island is home to Georgetown, which is very popular among backpackers. Just within this village, there’s a plethora of world-renowned street art, gourmet food, historical buildings and forts, and wooden jettys where generations of Chinese settlers live. We tried to take it all in with our short amount of time by eating dragon beard candy, nasi kandar at the famous Line Clear restaurant, night market goodies, and hookah and drinks on Love Lane.
Our time in Penang short but sweet (literally), since Shan and I were headed off to Singapore early the next morning! I do want to say that backpacking in Malaysia really opened my eyes to how underrated this destination is. Not only is the English superb, but it’s cheap, clean, and well connected by public transportation. I would absolutely recommend backpacking in Malaysia for anyone in Southeast Asia!