“The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” Gilbert J Chesterton
Arriving in Kuala Lumpur mid December, I sat by the pool with a cold cocktail and my friend Lucy, who had flown in from Thailand to meet me.
Our shared love of travel and sarcasm got us through what turned out to be a rather dull few days.
Prior to the trip we’d asked friends for recommendations, but the only suggestion was a shopping mall, which was rather telling.
I chose a visit to the Batu Caves, dinner in the Jalan Alor street food market and a trip up the Petronas Towers.
Jalan Alor Street Food Markets
As big fans of authentic cuisine, we took a 10 minute stroll down alleyways with run down buildings to the street food market which stretches across several streets, all busy with locals and tourists, restaurants, food carts and the ubiquitous tourist tat, the atmosphere was buzzing.
Cuisines from the Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cultures predominant in the city were all represented. Local delights sadly included manta and stingray, and durian fruit which smells so vile it’s banned on public transport. However, ethics and taste allowing, menu options were plentiful.
We settled on a busy street restaurant with a huge display of fresh food and an open kitchen. However the food took 45 minutes to arrive, by which time Lucy was hangry, it was mediocre and cost £9 for a main (probably tourist prices). Disappointing.
Our hotel was in the Bukit Bintang district with plenty of bars, restaurants and shops which we ventured out to one rainy day. English and Irish bars are everywhere, as are middle aged western men cackling about how badly they’ve treated local women. We had bad bangers and mash while Ed Sheeran played on a loop.
The caves and Hindu temples are set within a limestone hill, with the Sungai Batu (Stone River) – from which they get their name – cascading down the 272 steps that lead to the top. The site is marked by an impressive 140 foot high gold statue of Murugan, a Hindu deity.
Very photo worthy, but to appreciate the significance of it I would have liked to see the Hindu temple inside. Unfortunately the tour I had joined only gave us an hour there which wasn’t long enough to see the temples and caves that were the focus of the tour.
I made the climb to the top, no mean feat for someone slightly out of shape, and had a quick look before starting my descent. Monkeys perched on the handrail alongside the steps ready to steal food from unguarded visitors, so by the time I got to the bottom I was covered in monkey poo.
Naturally I had run out of emergency wet wipes and there are no public rest rooms. The rest of the tour wasted two hours visiting the Royal Selangar pewter factory (very fancy, but not that interesting) and a batik factory (beautiful clothes at more than western prices). I’d have preferred longer at the caves.
Meanwhile, Lucy had visited the recommended shopping mall and found it be, well, disappointing.
Kuala Lumpur is probably best known for the towers. We were corralled into the ‘blue’ group to get to the top, with our mood rapidly descending to grey as we ascended. The skybridge half way up looks impressive from the outside but had a view very similar to our hotel room. We had to stay 20 minutes there, a bit bored.
The top of the towers are 1483 feet high, with a view for miles. When we got there we realised the only thing really worth seeing in the city IS the towers, and when you’re in them you can’t see them. Instead we looked down on building sites, graveyards and ugly buildings.
The tour guide referred to the towers as the “twin towers”, which made me wince. I asked if it might be better to use a different name but got a blank stare.
On the way down we had to stop for 20 minutes at a gift shop, much like the one on the ground floor. By now we both had faces like slapped arses – we’d been in Kuala Lumpur for 2 days, spent one of them pissed and still had too much time.
At the base of the towers, aside from the heinously expensive shopping mall, there are bars and restaurants overlooking gorgeous gardens and water fountains. Here we enjoyed a cold glass of wine with views of the gardens on one side and a spectacular view of the towers on the other. The restaurants are expensive, but cheaper than a trip up the towers, and this is the real place to enjoy them.
Still determined to find the great street food Kuala Lumpur is famous for, we ventured to Tg’s Nasi Kandar, a little side street cafe which served delicious food for £3 a plate, just what we were looking for! Unfortunately, within an hour Lucy’s food made a quick rear exit. She’s a trouper though, so she recovered enough for a cocktail at our lovely hotel bar. I quote her “shits aside, this was a good evening”.
Having wanted to see Kuala Lumpur for years I’m glad I’ve been, but relieved it was on the way to somewhere else. My next trip to Malaysia will be to the outlying islands which look stunning and remain on my ‘to do’ list.