Asian Travel: Malaysian Malaise


My bloodshot eyeballs are as dry as sandpaper, I’ve read every magazine, safety card and sick bag within a 25-metre radius and my twisted body is moulded into the exact shape of an uncharitably narrow Airbus economy seat. I’ve lost count of how many hours it is into my three-leg flight to Malaysia and I’m seriously considering opening the emergency hatch for a little relief.

But as I prepare to throw myself at the door, the pilot’s clipped tones crackle overhead, announcing our descent into Kuala Lumpur. Triggering a scramble of activity from sleep-deprived passengers who’ve been in stasis too long – it’s like watching a cave full of uncoordinated grizzlies blundering out of hibernation – I begin to fantasize about what cool, refreshing air might feel like.

Unfortunately, the Malaysian capital doesn’t have an abundant supply. Those of us who grew up in regions where humidity is just a word in the dictionary are never prepared for the hairdryer-in-the-face experience of hot, clammy climes. But since I only have to deal with it between the high-tech terminal and the ice-cold air con of my city-bound minibus, I escape with just a temporary waterfall of sweat tumbling down my back.

It’s early evening when I reach the marble-lobbied business hotel in KL’s expat-heavy Golden Triangle area, but with my legs twitching back to life after their coiled incarceration, a stroll seems essential. Like many modern Asian cities, nighttime KL is a riot of twinkling neon. Toying with my fragile, jet-lagged brain, I become fixated on these signs, including one for Happy Feet Massage that features an enormous severed foot.

I’m personally invited into every shop I pass. But when I inadvertently (honest) stray into the area’s red-light district, the whispered invitations are less innocent. Retreating to an al fresco bar for a 50-ringgit ($15) jug of Tiger beer, I try to prop open my eyes. A booming Bon Jovi soundtrack reminds me how much I’d like to see my bed, and I’m soon weaving back toward the hotel.

The chrome-plated ridges of the Petronas Towers are glinting in the sunlight outside my window late next morning. After last night’s surreal meanderings – arriving in an unfamiliar city at night is always a recipe for the bizarre – KL now seems fresh, bright and full of promise. After a swift buffet breakfast of boiled eggs and sticky cakes, I plunge back into the heat and duck down the nearest backstreet. KL’s teeming residential areas are studded with clamorous outdoor cafés serving home-cooked fast-food, and lined with grubby concrete apartment blocks coloured with sails of fresh laundry that hang from balconies. I also pass dozens of brightly painted, flare-roofed temples and notice that the streets are full of headscarf-clad young women as well as micro-skirted teenagers: Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, but it’s a model of religious tolerance with Hindus, Buddhists and Christians living side by side.

As late afternoon approaches, and just when I’m starting to melt, I reach the city’s roiling Chinatown. Vancouver’s sedate version bears little resemblance to this crowded, cacophonous tangle of chatty hawkers, steaming food stands and wandering pirate DVD sellers peddling the latest theatre releases.

I squeeze down a street suffused with the smells of salty cooking and sample the carnivore’s equivalent of fruit leather: a chewy, paper-thin square of minced lamb that resembles a roadkill hamburger. Feeling suitably fortified, I take my time nosing around the rest of the market. As shadows lengthen and the sun slowly descends, neon signs suddenly buzz into life. Nighttime KL is about to kick off.

EssentialsWeather: Cold and comfortable, unless you step outside where average September temperatures are a steamy 30 degrees Celsius and humidity staggers around 90 per cent.

Can’t miss: Horse racingFor sheer exhilaration, it’s hard to beat a steamy afternoon with the gee-gees at KL’s Selangor Turf Club, one of Malaysia’s most modern horseracing circuits. When there are no races here, meetings from around the country are beamed in live for those who don’t want to miss the chance to lose their shirt.

Cool eats: Kapitan’s ClubThis favourite old-school restaurant, fashioned from an old Peranakan shop, specializes in regional cuisine. Its piquant Chinese curries flavoured with Malay spices are recommended, especially with a cold beer side dish. Entrees from $8.

Best bed: Hotel IstanaThis palatial business hotel in the Golden Triangle has been attracting foreigners for years with its poolside bar and views across the city’s twinkling skyline. It’s a short walk from dozens of shops and bars or, if it’s really hot, you can stay in your room and hug the air conditioner. Rooms from $150.

One thing we need: Street food. While Vancouver has generic hot dogs, KL’s sidewalks offer noodles, fish balls and ice-cold coconut milk.

One thing we don’t need: Air-conditioned transit. Screw the environment: KL monorail travellers contribute to the heat outside by luxuriating in their refrigerated seats.