A week and a half ago Jay and I returned from travels in Malaysia. We sought an adventure to celebrate our upcoming 45th wedding anniversary plus inspiration for glass work, and we got both.
On February 26 we arrived in Kuala Lumpur and were welcomed to the lovely Anguun Boutique Hotel by friendly staff who gave us cool, wet cloths and chilled lemon-ginger tea. After changing from our cold climate clothes to something suitable for 91 degrees F and high humidity, we ventured out into the heat. Our hotel was near Jalan Alor, a street lined with restaurants and food stalls. For our first meal in Malaysia we tried nasi campur (“mixed rice”) after watching how it is done. A man handed each of us an orange melamine plate with a large mound of rice, to which we ladled our picks from about three dozen stir fries and other savories set out in metal trays. His wife calculated how much each plate was worth, writing the number on a small gray card that we took with us. Our two full plates cost a total of about $5.
In the evening we walked to China Town to explore highly decorated temples, more food stalls, and the old wet market now crowded with vendors hawking knock-off merchandise. Dinner was traditional Chinese chicken-and-rice hot pot, cooked over charcoal and served by the stall proprietor, eaten while we watched crowds of locals and visitors enjoying the end of the day. Malaysians typically eat after 7 pm.
On our second day in KL we explored as much as we dared in the heat: the old market square, the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers where the city was founded and location of Masjid Jamek (the city’s oldest mosque), Merdeka Square (where British colonial rule ceremoniously ended in 1957), and Little India. We ate roti (flaky Indian bread) and nasi goreng with chicken (Indian version of fried rice) in a mamah mamek while chatting with a young Indian Muslim couple. In the evening, back on Jalan Alor, we decided on a satay stall, selecting skewers of lamb, jellyfish, frilled mushrooms, and bok choy to be cooked for us.
Having been part of the British empire, Malaysians drive on the left side of the road. Although we didn’t drive in the country, we still found traffic disorienting. We had to remember from which direction traffic was likely to hit us as we crossed a street and we had to adjust to traffic that seemed aggressive compared to U.S. rules of the road. We began traveling highways with a driver on our third morning in the country, climbing up into the Cameron Highlands. We traveled the four-lane North-South Highway and secondary two-lane highways in addition to busy city streets. I had to stop watching the road lest I gasp every time a speeding car passed us and barely made it back into the left lane without hitting an oncoming vehicle. Motorbikes are ubiquitous and ignore lanes altogether, even in the city, weaving in and around other vehicles at high rates of speed. But why keep an eye on traffic when the scenery was so beautiful?
For two days we traveled up the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Tea plantations in the highlands truly looked like a thick green carpet, laid wall-to-wall over the steep mountain slopes and into their folds. Also in the highlands, where the temperature is moderate and steady, gardens producing vegetables and fruits for the cities covered terraces and appeared to require extremely sure-footed farmers to tend and harvest them. North of the highlands, plantings gave way to rainforest where Orang Asli (“original people” or indigenous people) still live. We began seeing wild orchids and long-tailed macaques. In some areas rainforest was cleared for palm plantations to produce oil, the primary Malaysian export product. There are also remnants of old rubber plantations and, close to the coast, mangrove forests.
Nine of the Malaysian states are ruled by hereditary sultanates. We visited Kuala Kangsar, royal city for the state of Perak, to see the magnificent mosque and huge palace. Not only the gorgeous domes but also the name of the Ubudiah Mosque inspired me, for it means “I surrender to the Almighty.” That day our guide explained much about Malaysian government and Muslim practices, as well as Malaysian agriculture.
At the end of our second day on the road we crossed a long bridge to the island of Penang and entered George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage City. In the evening we went to Mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption, built in 1857 for a parish established in the 1700s. That evening we tried local favorites for dinner, including rojak, a tropical fruit salad liberally doused with brown coconut sugar syrup, sesame seed, and chopped peanuts.
On Sunday we walked around George Town in the heat, and the sights were worth it. Shopkeepers in Little India splashed yellow paint outside their doorsteps for good fortune. Bright paintings towered over us at the entrance to the Sri Mariamman Temple, and other temples fascinated us with their ornateness. Life bustled on the Chew Jetty but was quiet on the Lee Jetty, two of seven piers where Chinese clans live in low houses built out over the Strait of Malacca. After retreating into the cool hotel for ice water and a rest, we set off again in late afternoon. We walked to the north shore, past Fort Cornwallis and the Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, until it was time to look for supper.
To our delight we found a small night market, that Malaysian Chinese wonder combination of open air food court and home cooking. We fell in love that night with char kuay teow and were dazzled by the cook’s lightening speed as he stirred his wok over a charcoal fire. We also had to try prawn mee soup and, in lieu of dessert, a “four-fruit soup” (ginko, lotus seed, longan, and red beans) served with ice.
Thus ended our fifth day in Malaysia. And this must end my first installment telling about our adventure.