I didn’t know much about Kuala Lumpur, or Malaysia, before I got here. I knew about the Petronas Towers. And also, my friend Rachel lived here for a while, so she’s told me a bit about it. But otherwise, I arrived totally blind.
But I think that’s often the best way to arrive, with no expectations.
First Day in Kuala Lumpur: The Inside of a Speakeasy
After an 8 hour flight from Doha, I arrived and went pretty much went straight to my bedroom to take a nap.
(Yes, thanks to a family friend, Brendon, I did actually have my own room. So great).
Right after that, we went to a mall where there was a still unknown genre of music event going on (we thought it was jazz, but what we heard definitely wasn’t jazz). There was a special on gin and tonics. They weren’t strong at all, but as a lightweight, I wasn’t complaining.
Most of the early evening involved eating Singapore noodles while trying to make conversation with new people over the sound of the “jazz”, which was mildly frustrating, but also really fun. Especially thanks to the vape, which I had seriously underestimated.
From there, after at least three gin and tonics, it was onto Suzie Wong, a speakeasy style club/bar that I’d never experienced before. There were lots of cocktails (that weren’t strong either, but expensive) and lots of live dances in between a club playlist that was mostly good (but would play some serious clangers every now and again).
(“Let’s get loud” just isn’t fun to listen to anymore. Not that it ever was.)
It was a very good first night. It felt like the perfect introduction to the city. The celebratory atmosphere of bottles of Dom Perignon being sent to tables around us with sparklers definitely helped create an enjoyable atmosphere too.
While walking out, there was also a takeaway noodle cart, which made everything even better. And to wrap it all up, there was also a walk along a quiet downtown street lined with big trees wrapped in lights.
The Best Thing About Kuala Lumpur: The Trees
It’s something I didn’t expect, but I should have known that a city in this kind of climate would be super green.
If Pretoria is a city in the bush, Kuala Lumpur is a city in the jungle. Of course, most of the original jungle has been decimated for urban development, but just the fact that there are massive trees all over the city shows that at least in some places, people have built around the trees.
And even besides the trees, there are plants. The kinds of plants I’ve only seen in pots back home grow here in the soil, in abundance. In the pool area of Brendon’s apartment complex, there is a whole corner dedicated to fiddle-leaf figs. This is a pretty big deal for me (and some other plant-fiends in my family).
I’ve heard that so much of Malaysia’s jungles have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, which isn’t ideal, but just judging from my previous experiences of very concrete cities like New York (which I didn’t really like), I think Kuala Lumpur is doing something right.
Another Thing About Kuala Lumpur: It’s Reasonably Affordable
I mean, when it comes to everything besides booze. Alcohol isn’t cheap (which was very clear from the texts that came through from my bank after my night out at Suzie Wong). But other than that, I found things to be relatively affordable (given that I’m also travelling on the Rand).
Grab, the ride-hailing app they use here and in other parts of SE Asia is a lot cheaper than Uber back home. A full plate of food from an average restaurant can cost you about R30. And it’s filling.
The price differential might not officially be that big, but the fact that I don’t feel like things are that expensive here is good enough for me (and something new after recently travelling in Europe and Canada).
The Other Best Thing About Kuala Lumpur: The Food
One thing that was made very clear by several people as soon as I arrived was that there are three distinct races in Malaysia: Malay Malay, Chinese Malay and Indian Malay.
I definitely want to learn more about how this cultural mix came about, but for now, the most obvious result is a variety of different cuisines, and it’s amazing.
When I first started writing this, I hadn’t got around to trying any Indian Malay food (yet), but I had tried some chao kuey teow (fried rice noodles and prawns) at a mall in downtown KL, jajangmeon Korean noodles and nasi lemak from Nu/Q Sentral, and a Japanese barbecue close to where I was staying.
All the fried food is definitely not the healthiest of choices, but I decided that it was more important to just try everything, at least once, and focus more on getting the pronunciation of the Chinese food names right. Well, try to anyway.
Getting Around Kuala Lumpur: Interesting
Apart from the bizarre experience of riding in a very overpriced “pet taxi” to take Brendon’s rescue dogs to the vet for their vaccinations last Monday, getting around Kuala Lumpur is also pretty easy- but only if you use Grab or are comfortable riding around on a scooter.
A scooter can get you through even the most heinous of traffic jams, but it does require a lot of dexterity, manoeuvrability and being able to adequately judge which holes in the tarmac are going to cause you to flip over onto your face. And that’s when you’re actually driving it.
As someone who hasn’t driven their own scooter, yet, I had to focus on a totally different kind of skill: remaining calm on the backseat while driving on the highway, where there is only a small range of moving required to go from “scared but exhilarated with wind and car pollution blowing into my face” to “falling into asphalt at speed”.
It was liberating to move through traffic though, even if I spent a lot of time pulling in my knees to avoid all the wing mirrors, and really just focusing on taking really long, deep breaths.