I left Korea just as the autumn colors started to paint the treetops and have begun my long journey westward. I do not intend on updating this blog as frequently as when I was in Korea but I will do my best.
My first stop was the bustling Malaysian metropolis Kuala Lumpur. Nessled in a jungle valley, this hodgepodge of fascinating cultures has everything and more to offer. When I first arrived, the relative silence of my 6 hour flight came to an immediate halt. The first thing I noticed after walking outside the terminal is how hot Malaysia is. Its as if I stepped back in time to Korea’s monsoon season. Weather aside, the commute from the airport to KL Sentral was relatively straight forward and cheap. The 1 hour drive into the city is beautiful and at first glance, one could not imagine a city existing around such lush tropical rain forests and vivid green mountains.
The first night, I decided to take it easy and take a walk to KL’s heavenly centerpiece, the Petronas Towers. At one time the massive arabesque towers were the tallest buildings in the world and the skybridge connecting the two remains the tallest. Growing up, I always wanted to see the towers in person because of the movie “Entrapment” with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones, but nothing prepares you for the real thing.
Malaysia is 65% Muslim and the towers show the country’s pride in Arabic geometric patterns, balancing simplicity and intricacy. Surrounding the towers is a beautiful park with dozens of other skyscrapers in the distance. Standing at the base of the towers and gazing at the architectural wonders surrounding me, I thought what a nice trick Malaysia has played. You would think they were the wealthiest of countries if you never left the park. A few hundred meters outside the park area or “Golden Triangle” as it is called leaves you in the grittier, more authentic parts of KL.
Connecting the Golden Triangle to the rest of the city is something that every country should adopt – a simple over-street covered walkway that undoubtely alleviates traffic congestion caused by pedestrians and ensures that no accidents take place. The walkway stretches all the way to the area where my hostel was located, Bukit Bintang. Bukit Bintang is a popular area for backpackers and locals alike. The mixture of cheap curry houses, fun pubs, and 5 star malls pretty much defines modern Malaysia.
My first full day in KL was really special. I boarded the train to the Batu Caves and immediately became friends with a group of people my age who hailed from the four corners of the earth. There were Italians, Argentinians, Algerians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Slovenians, and Pakistanis. All of them were flown to KL to attend a youth business startup convention and I was so lucky to get to spend the day with such an interesting mix of individuals.
We arrived at the Batu Caves and were completely take aback by the beautiful karst landscape. The caves were discovered in the 1830s by a Frenchman and quickly adopted by the local Tamil population as a Hindu shrine. Huge idols guard the entrance and pilgrims come with gifts of flowers and fruits to leave at the feet of the statues. After being mesmerized by the Batu Caves, we headed to the Masjid Negara, the national mosque of Malaysia. A volunteer there gave us a wonderful explanation about the design of the mosque and answered many of our questions. The mosque has the capacity to hold 14,000 worshippers and its architecture has elements that reflect the holy trinity of Malaysian pride – religion, the state, and their environment.
Being a Muslim country comes with its advantages and disadvantages for the budget traveler. The fusion of Middle Eastern cuisine with that of Southeast Asia is a definite plus. The only real downside is the exorbitant price of alcohol. A bottle of Tiger from the nearest 7/11 will set you back at least 12 Ringgits ($4) and in a pub, its hard to find a pint for less than 20 Ringgits. Although the prices are high, the low cost of delicious high-quality food subsidizes any travelers budget. A pile of chicken lemak (sweet and spicy Malaysian curry), rice, and veggies costs a mere 6-10 Ringgits ($2-3). A bag full of fresh exotic fruits will cost you less than $1. So drink up travelers, because food is cheap!
One thing every traveler needs to do is experience the view on the top of Trader’s Hotel’s Skybar. Rated as one of the world’s best rooftop bars, this place has it all. The view of the Petronas Towers is unmatched and if you come before 7pm you can go swimming while downing some relatively decent priced cocktails. Another great establishment, De Green Ocean, is located in the back alleys of Bukit Bintang. Beer served in towers are a must for any group and the Malay band was fantastic. I had the pleasure of playing a set with them and scored our entire group of 20 free shots of tequila.
After 5 days in KL, I decided to wake up early and take the bus to Singapore. The bus ride was comfortable and took about 6 hours. I disembarked and booked a hostel in the heart of Little India, one of Singapore’s many ethnic neighborhoods. I have always heard that Singapore is spotless but I now know this is not the case. Little India was filthy yet incredibly charming. The colorful colonial style promenades that lined the streets were packed full with Tamil eateries, silk shops, and music stores. It was also the month long Hindu celebration of Deepavali and at night the streets came alive with colorful lights and impromptu performances.
I took the Singapore subway a few stops down to the Marina and was blown away by the skyline. From the durian-shaped Esplandes theaters to the futuristic Sands hotel, the bay looked like something out of Star Wars. I could have licked the ground, it was so clean. I walked around the colonial riverside and marveled at the mix of pre-WWII British architecture and towering skyscrapers.
The next day I headed to Sentosa, a small island off the coast of Singapore’s financial heart. Connected by a beautiful wooden boardwalk, the island is mainly filled with beach resorts and amusement parks. Being on a budget, I just took a stroll.
Afterwards, I headed to Chinatown to grab some food. The large Buddhist temple that houses the relics of Buddha’s teeth was empty so I decided to explore it before the rush of tourists came. When I left I saw a small sign on the wall that read “Veggie Donation Lunch Downstairs” so I thought I would check it out. There were dozens of Chinese devotees eating away; I was a sore thumb among a sea of Asians. I approached the food counter and asked a man what they had. He simply pointed at the donation box and started scooping food onto my plate. I saw the lady in front of me pay 3 Singapore Dollars ($3) so I followed her lead and did the same. I have never been more happy with a meal in my life. The explosion of authentic Chinese flavors put my senses in overload. Who said Singapore has to be expensive? Well… at least with food. Alcohol is more expensive than its northern neighbor and arguably more expensive then in the U.K. not because of religion but because of Singapore’s high “sin tax”. I decided to stay sober and opted for feasting on the endless culinary options. I ate at small Tamil restaurants often and for around $4, I got several curries, rice, roti, and naan all served on an ecofriendly banana leaf.
Next stop, Hong Kong and Macau!