December 28, 2019

One Week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Last time we made an oversea flight it was on a budget airline, so the fact that United fed us so well blew my mind.

When booking our flight, we chose the gluten-free meal options. The "special" meals were served first, so even though we were sitting pretty far back in the plane, we got our dinner first. Highly recommend ordering a "special" meal (kid's/vegetarian/etc/) for that fact alone.

Our plane from L.A. departed at around 9pm, pretty late even for East Coast standards. We then had a changeover at San Fran, so we didn't get on our big leg until about midnight. Babs fell asleep as soon as we were airborne, but they were serving food, so we woke her to eat. They then handed out ice cream and sandwiches for later, then we didn't see a stewardess again for the next 8 hours (bad for thirsty people who can't sleep).

We watched a few movies, then got as much sleep as one can while squished between a spread-eagle child and a large stranger.

Upon landing in Kuala Lumpur, we took the KLIA Ekspress, with direct service to KL Sentral, the central train/bus station. I suspect we could've taken the KLIA Transit, which makes a couple stops on the way to KL Sentral, for cheaper.

Exiting the train station into a blast of tropical heat while jetlagged wasn't the most pleasant thing I've ever experienced. But I specifically booked an Airbnb for the first 4 nights at a condo a short walk from the station.

We would later come to realize KL is not friendly for walking. Everyone rides motorcycles or takes Grabs (the Uber of SEA). Every condo we stayed at in KL had security guards at the door. This was a perfectly nice place, except that the surrounding 2 blocks were filled with rotting refuse, including the occasional flattened rat.

We were in Brickfields, right next to Little India, and the meal we had on the way to our Airbnb, hot, tired and confused, was one of the best Indian meals I'd had up to that point. Spicy as hell and once we took a good look around we were sure it was going to make us sick, but we'd later come to realize this was par for the course. The open-air kitchen, lack of utensils and napkins, and the handwashing station at the back.

For the first few days, we tried to go out and explore in the mornings. Waking up at 1:30am, waiting 6 hours for a breakfast joint to open, then getting tuckered out by 2pm. Afternoon naps, even though we always desperately wanted to, were a bad idea, as Babs would sleep through dinner and the cycle would repeat. We had to force ourselves to stay awake to get our bodies on the right time zone. It took 5 days or so for Babs, a bit longer for the adults, who are early-risers anyway.

We were blessed with some cloudy days our first week, which made exploring infinitely easier. Our trek about Chinatown concluded with us choosing the very shadiest back-alley noodle cart for some egg-noodle soup, thinking egg noodles were gluten free, which they aren't. Stomachaches resulted.

Side Note: This article has great info on what is/isn't gluten free in Malaysia.

The KLCC park by the Petronas towers was lovely, especially since we were there at 7:30a.m. before it got too hot.

Cities aren't our thing. In KL, shopping malls were the main attraction. Even one of our Grab drivers said there's not much to do here but shop and eat. Malls are a good way to escape the heat and no one seems to mind mall food.

We planned a trip to the Twin Towers Medical Centre in the Petronas Towers to get a Japanese Encephalitis shot, but the doctor we spoke to said it was unnecessary unless we were planning on hanging out in rural areas where there were pig farms. (JE is transmitted by mosquitoes who have had contact with pigs I guess??)

He pushed the malaria tablets pretty hard and told us we'd have to go to a different hospital (Gleneagles) to get the child dose. We fully intended to do so, but after some more research, we simply decided to use all the preventative measures and avoid high-risk areas.

The biggest culture shock for me was going into a bathroom stall at the mall and finding a toilet sunk into the floor. I call them squatty potties, and they're very common in Asia. If there's toilet paper at all, it's usually outside the stalls and doubles as paper towel to dry your hands. The "hose" located next to the toilet is a public bidet and I have never touched one, nor will I ever. I'm sure it's as hygenic as us Europeans sitting on the same toilet seat as innumerable other humans, but I just can't. Perhaps it's only the fear of the unknown.

Our favorite thing in KL was the Maha Vihara Buddhist Temple. We walked into the office to make sure we were allowed to walk around and the monks there said, "Yes, of course. Come in, have some breakfast." Unfortunately we had just eaten (at the sketchiest restaurant I've ever been to in my life (until a little bit later)). But we spoke with the monk, Hemaloka, for almost half an hour as he showed us around the place. It was a humble temple, but getting to chat with Hema, who is from Sri Lanka, and definitely invited us to stay with him there, was beyond lovely.

He asked us to share the pictures of us together with him, and had us add him to Whatsapp on the spot. He messaged us later to thank us and to invite us back (they were having a festival the next day bu unfortunately we had travel plans).

Our second location in KL was up in Batu Caves, the neighborhood, not to be confused with the actual tourist attraction. Once safely locked in our Airbnb condo, I cried in a corner of the kitchen until Mr. Go comforted me. The area looked like a slum, the building's hallways were dark and creepy and I'd failed to realize before booking that there was no wifi.

It turned out wonderfully. Everyone we met in the apartment building was super kind, smiling and saying hello to Babs (she makes us so much more approachable). That area doesn't see many white faces and we attracted a LOT of attention, but it was all curious and friendly. We ate at a few Chinese restaurants that were close by, the waitress would try to speak English with us then go back to the open kitchen and giggle with the rest of the staff. There was a rat scurrying around under the tables and a stray cat begging food off us.

Afternoon thunderstorms are common, and we always packed our rainjackets in our backpack.

The Batu Caves was neat to visit, but packed with Chinese tourists. With all the other Buddhist and Hindu temples in Malaysia, we decided we probably could have skipped that one.

To escape the heat and to keep Babs fully entertained, we took a bus (from the Gombak station) up to the Genting Highlands. From the Premium Outlets, you take a gondola the rest of the way up to essentially Malaysian Disney World (though it's on a smaller scale).

Filled with amusement parks of various kinds, it was a full-day adventure. All-day ride wristbands were 60 ringgits, or $15 USD. We were there when it opened at 10am and left in the early afternoon when lines for rides grew to a 45-minute wait.

You can step off the Gondola at the Chin Swee Caves Temple for free. This is tricky because if you're going down, getting back on the Gondola is dependent upon someone getting out of a car, and at 4pm when everyone is trying to get home that can take a while.

The drive down the mountain in our Grab was the scariest car ride I've ever had, and the only 1-star review we've left for our dozens of Grab drivers so far.

The food in Malaysia was very good, but every dish is based around rice. Nasi lemak is a dish every restaurant has and is a fried chicken chunk with rice, hot chili sauce on the side, peanuts, half a hard boiled egg and a handful of dried, salted sardines. It's a safe choice if you don't know what anything else is, but at the end of the week all I wanted was a plate full of fresh greens.

We got ourselves (via bus and Grab) near the airport, to catch an early flight to Thailand the next day. All I will say about that is: whatever you do, avoid the Night Queen Motel. It is unfit to shower in.

More on Thailand next.