Over the last few years, Southeast Asia has emerged as a unique travel destination for many reasons – it’s cheaper, more accessible – in terms of getting visas, for instance, promise amazing food and most importantly, unparalleled retail therapy, especially if you have small pockets and ambitious tastes.
Malaysia is one of those beautiful, tropical countries that lures millions of visitors every year with great promises of jaw dropping shopping. It has gargantuan malls, even in relatively smaller cities, brimming with diverse Malay people that the country is so proud of.
It is these massive brick-and-mortar structures that you will end up spending hours in when in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, because sadly, there’s little else to enjoy. KL doesn’t really boast of historic landscapes or hidden-in-a-corner gems – it’s truly a concrete city, with towering skyscrapers, narrow roads and a marvelously thriving mall culture.
That said, KL does have its surprises if you know where to look. One such place is Food Street, with scores of tiny eateries and restaurants serving all kinds of cuisine. It’s an almost alfresco-type area, with open air cafes that serve true-blue Malay food. There is no celebratory air about the place – KL is a very toned-down city, except in certain pockets, at certain times. It is simply an area people – locals and tourists alike – head to when they’re hungry.
I found myself in one such small place that was serving typical Malay lunch. It was run by Tamil Malay locals and the food was quite reminiscent of Indian stuff – curries, rice and vegetables (which aren’t really found on the streets in Southeast Asian countries, because they mostly eat meat) served with fresh juices. It was really high on masalas and oil, but what the hell! I wasn’t going to give it up for MacDonalds!
As cliched as it is, you cannot miss a trip up the Petronas Twin Towers. The sheer magnificence of this structure is awe-inspiring and when you’re standing in front of it, your eyes won’t even travel as far as the top. An ear-popping, speedy elevator ride will take you to the observation deck on the 86th floor, and it’s totally worth the money.
Through the looking glass, I found a sprawling KL playing peek-a-boo with clouds, lending a foggy air to the picture. I could barely see anything on the ground level, and though that mildly freaked me out, it was an enjoyable morning nonetheless.
The whole Twin Towers expedition is thoroughly organised, down to the smallest T. So you have to stay on the deck for the designated number of minutes before you’re taken down to the skybridge. This is the world’s highest skybridge, spread over two levels and detachable on either side in case of emergencies. I was instantly reminded of Don.
Speaking of which, Shah Rukh Khan is quite the celebrity in Malaysia, which is where most of Don was shot. He was accorded the honorary title of Datuk, and the Malays are crazy about him. Don’t be surprised if you run into places playing soundtracks of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in a loop.
As night fell, I decided to visit Chinatown or Jalan Petaling for some street shopping. You can binge on Charles & Keiths, Guccis, Armanis, Chanels and the lot in malls at dirt cheap prices, but nothing can beat the charm of shopping at a flea market. I wasn’t entirely right though.
Chinatown is a great place if you’re looking to sip on local beer and walk around rows and rows of stalls selling everything from souvenirs to fake branded bags and perfumes. If you’re disappointed, which is possible, you just can’t go wrong with shopping in Sungei Wang.
Sungei Wang is the mall for eccentric, but amazingly fashionable stuff. From bags, to shoes, accessories, and of course clothes, this small shopping center in bustling Bukit Bintang is a delight. This area is a huge hit with tourists because it’s dotted with pretty, colourful cafes and small stalls, and in general is THE place for everything hip and happening.
A few days later, I headed to Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. I’d decided to give the usual beach routine a miss, and head somewhere less crowded, and more vibrant in terms of cultural flavour. Bright blue skies and a sparkling river flowing through the city greeted me, and I decided I was in love immediately.
The Borneo rainforests are the mainstay of Sarawak, and Kuching is like an extended home to people of various tribes and sub tribes here. The Ibans constitute of the greater part of the population, followed by the Bidayuhs. Of all the local liquor that I tried out, I loved the rice wine the most.
I learnt that it’s pretty easy to prepare. All you have to do is brown a lot of sugar, mix it up with cooked rice and yeast and leave it to ferment for about a month. Initially, the drinking culture surprised me a little – Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country – but then I was told that while the tribes still follow their ancient rituals and customs, they’re mostly Christians by faith.
A beautiful sunset cruise down the river brought an end to an eventful day, so naturally I had high expectations from the next and last day in Kuching. I was parched for some local sightseeing, and I spent a contented time at a local Chinese temple in dazzling red and gold and in the Sarawak Museum, which records the natural history of Sarawak. It is Borneo’s oldest museum, built in 1891, and today it stands on a slight hillock in all its European grandeur.
Malaysia has its satay, but the rojak takes the cake. In Malay, rojak means mixture, and I’m specifically referring to the fruit rojak. Traditionally, there’s a lot of stuff like tofu, bean sprouts and fritters, other than fruits, that go into the mix, but it’s the dressing that makes it absolutely divine. I remember the tamarind paste, honey (sometimes), sugar, chilli and lime juice, sprucing up a fruit salad into a sweet-sour-spicy, perfectly blended mouthful. Quite like my time in Malaysia.