Although I have a 1-year visa for Thailand, I still have to “renew” it every 90 days, which is typical here for most kinds of long-term visas. To do so, I just need to cross over a border to any country outside of Thailand and cross back into Thailand. There are a number of companies here that provide “visa run” services where you ride buses or mini-vans to the Cambodian or Laos borders, you cross the border, turn around and come back in to Thailand and get a new visa stamp. It’s a bit wacky, but I guess it helps the Thai government know that you’re still in Thailand and minding the rules.
My first 90 days was up at the end of January, so rather than using one of the quick visa-run options, I decided to use this as an opportunity to see another country that I haven’t been to before. I’ve always wanted to see Kuala Lumpur, so I decided to go to Malaysia. It was just a one week trip, with a few days in Kuala Lumpur and the other few days in Georgetown on the island of Penang, but a fun trip and a nice break from Bangkok.
Kuala Lumpur (KL, as the locals refer to it) is the capital of Malaysia, and has a population of around 1.5 million people. Uncharacteristically for me, I didn’t do a whole lot of research before going there, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I got there. But that made it a fun and very interesting surprise. Case in point: I was a bit shocked that virtually everyone there speaks very good English. After 3 months in Bangkok where it’s very hit-and-miss on the English speaking, this was a welcome treat for me!
KL, and Malaysia in general, is an interesting mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay people, cultures and food. It’s a wonderful melting pot, and walking around in KL you definitely see, feel and taste all the different cultural aspects. In many ways, KL reminded me a lot of Singapore; in hindsight, that makes a lot of sense given their similar histories. But in general, KL is a very clean and very well organized city. There are probably three main things that KL is best known for: the Petronas Towers, hawker street food stalls, and shopping/markets.
One of the very popular forms of eating in KL is at hawker food stalls along the streets. In Bangkok, street food is typically cooked/sold by people with wheeled metal carts on the sidewalk/street. In KL, the street food is more permanent; that is, there are stalls along the street with permanent kitchens, and tables/chairs are set up either in the stalls or more often in the sidewalks/street at night. A given stall may house several different “restaurants”, so when you sit down you may have several different menus to choose from. I ate nearly all of my dinners and late-night snacks at the various hawker stalls around KL, and it was some of the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted. It’s definitely a mix of Indian curry and spices, Chinese noodles and vegetables, and I’m not sure what the Malays brought to the menu but it all mixed in spectacularly.
Chinatown / Night Market
I spent one evening at the Petaling Night Market, which is in the Chinatown area of KL. It’s a huge night market, with stalls spread through a large number of streets and alleys throughout Chinatown. In many ways it’s not too different from most other night markets in Asia: hundreds of vendors selling t-shirts, fake designer handbags, fake designer watches, electronics, etc., but this market had a little different feel to it. Perhaps it had to do with it being in Chinatown, so there was a bit more of a Chinese aspect to the market, or perhaps the hawker food stalls mixed in made it somewhat different. In any case, it was a fun night of roaming the streets and occasional snacking on different food.
The Golden Triangle
One area of KL is called the “Golden Triangle”. This is where many of the large modern malls are located, as well as many of the bars and nightlife. One particular street here is called Changkat Bukit Bintang, and was one of my favorite night spots. For several blocks, this small street has side-by-side bars/restaurants on both sides of the street. Each one is the size of a typical shophouse, and most have an inside air conditioned area as well as an outdoor patio area facing the street and incorporating the sidewalk. Each bar is a little different – the traditional Irish bar, some mellow jazz bars, some up-tempo dance bars, some whisky bars, some “chill” bars with couches and comfy lounge furniture, etc. It was fun to just walk down the street and drop in to various places for a drink, wander off to another place a few meters down the sidewalk and have a completely different experience. I have to say, for that many bars all together, the crowds of people were all very cool – no drunk, rowdy people that I saw – and the Malaysians working at the various bars and restaurants could not have been nicer people to talk with.
The Petronas Towers are twin skyscrapers, home to the Malaysian national oil and gas company Petronas. When completed in 1998, they were the tallest buildings in the world and held that record until 2004 when the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan took over the crown. Today they are the 7th tallest buildings in the world, although still the tallest twin towers. They’re each 88 floors, and over 450 meters tall. Architecturally, they incorporate a number of Islamic designs and influences. The footprint of them is essentially two intersected squares creating an 8-sided star, which is common in Islamic architecture, as well as each tower having 5 tiers, representing the 5 pillars of Islam, and the spires on the top of each tower are similar to the minarets on mosques.
The towers are clad in stainless steel rings around each floor. Although I’ve seen tons of pictures and documentaries on TV about the towers, seeing them lit up at night in person is something that you just have to experience because no film could possibly capture the look. Those stainless steel rings create an incredible reflection from the lights at night. My first couple of nights in KL, walking around town I could almost always see the towers in the distance, and they stood out like amazing beacons.
On my third day in KL, I finally went to see the towers up close and take a tour of them. We first went to the skybridge at the 41st floor that connects the two towers. It was a little freaky walking through the glass skybridge that high up and looking at the giant towers on either side, but it was a spectacular view and the engineering geek in me was fascinated by the construction and how they achieved a skybridge connection like that while still allowing for independent movement of the buildings, particularly during an earthquake (as with most of southeast Asia, earthquakes in Malaysia are not uncommon). Amazing!
We then went up to the 88th floor of one of the towers, which is an observation area. That’s the highest point of the towers that is occupied, and has a 360 degree view out the windows of KL and surrounding area, as well as of the adjacent tower. Needless to say, it was a pretty good view… 🙂
I had heard that one of the best places to see the towers at night was from the rooftop bar at the nearby Trader’s Hotel. So that night I went there to check it out. The rooftop bar/lounge/pool is kind of in a glassed-in dome on the top of the hotel. But as soon as you walk in, your eyes are immediately drawn to the gleaming Petronas Towers a short distance away. I snapped a few pictures from the camera on my phone, and although it’s a pretty good camera (shout-out to the Nokia 920 Windows Phone…woop woop!!), it still doesn’t do any justice to the way it actually looked in person.
Penang / Georgetown
Ideally I wanted to spend some time on some of the islands/beaches off the eastern coast of Malaysia, but this time of year is the rainy season there and a lot of places are closed. So I decided instead to spend a few days in Georgetown, on the island of Penang in the northwest corner of the country. It turned out to be an interesting place to visit.
Georgetown is a surprisingly large city, with many, many tall apartment and condo buildings. There are three unique areas of the town that I spent the most time in: the colonial district, Chinatown and Little India. Penang has the highest concentration of colonial era buildings in all of Asia, and much of it is in Georgetown. I have always loved the colonial architecture in southeast Asia, and Georgetown was no exception. It was fun to just walk around thru the streets looking at the old buildings. The colonial district, Chinatown and Little India all kind of bleed together, so walking around you find yourself turning a corner and going from a lot of traditional Chinese shops to suddenly Bollywood music playing and all kinds of shops selling saris, Indian spices and just about anything else Indian. I love those kinds of surprises when exploring a new place!
Kek Lok Si Temple
About 5 kilometers outside of Georgetown, up a winding road on the side of a hill, is the Kek Lok Si Temple complex. It’s a complex of numerous buildings, and is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. It was built relatively recently, in 1890, but has had additions throughout the years. As with many of the Buddhist temples I’ve visited throughout southeast Asia, it’s built into a hillside and you have to climb hundreds of stairs throughout the complex to see all of it. Luckily, for the highest point of the temple complex, they have a cool cable car that you can ride to get you to the top. And given how hot and humid it was the day I was there, I had no problem taking advantage of the cable car!
The day I visited was about a week before the Chinese New Year, so the temple was decked out with thousands of red and yellow paper lanterns hanging throughout the buildings and walkways. While stunning to look at in the daytime, I would have loved to see the complex lit up at night.
At the very top of the temple complex, there is a huge 36.5 meter high bronze statue of Kuan Yin, who is the goddess of mercy. The statue is surrounded by giant concrete columns with a roof over her. It’s a pretty awe-inspiring sight, just based on the scale of it if nothing else.
I spent several hours one afternoon wandering through the temples, watching the local Buddhist people there praying and giving offerings, and looking at all the architectural details of the buildings. You kind of lose yourself while you’re there, and forget that you’re really just a few minutes’ drive from a relatively large and modern city. But it was a great way to end my time in Georgetown, as well as the end to my Malaysian adventure.
I barely scratched the surface of seeing Malaysia. I still want to go back and spend time on the east-coast islands, the central jungle part of the mainland country, as well as do some trekking through Malaysian Borneo. Those will have to be another trip, but I’m looking forward to planning it soon!