Meandering Through Malaysia

Almost as soon as I started my journey from Singapore to Malaysia, I knew my two day stay in Kuala Lumpur would be full of interesting surprises and unexpected turns along the way. 

It all started when I made my way to Woodlands train station, located in northern Singapore, to board my overnight train to Kuala Lumpur. For starters, this train station could have been one of the most poorly designed and signed stations into which I have ever gone. There are several different  busses and trains that depart from Singapore for Malaysia and the busses and trains have their own immigration checkpoints and checkin procedures. If only it was labeled as such. I arrived at the station two hours before my scheduled departure to ensure everything went off without a hitch, and, boy, am I glad I did. 

I walked through a long, cold, Soviet-looking corridor through the terminal and up to a set of immigration gates. What had been a cursory process in Singapore, Thailand, and all other destinations up to this point on my trip suddenly hit a snag when the immigration officer told me that i was at the bus terminal instead of the train terminal. Other immigration officers came and escorted me into a quarantine area as they ran all my documents before personally escorting me back to the immigration check at the train station. Following a lengthy wait, I was stamped out of Singapore and awaited my entry stamps for Malaysia at jointly operated checkpoint. 

I had heard stories about folks who had gone to Israel that had faced hassles entering Malaysia and were even denied entry, so I was a bit antsy given I had been to Israel in January. Certainly the border agents would not know as I had no entry or exit stamp, but that crossed my mind. I faced a lengthy series of questions as they scrupulously flipped through my passport before stamping my passport.

I lain in my bed for the overnight train when I heard two fellows speaking English in the cots near me so I struck up conversation and who knew? They were also Americans working in Japan. We had a great chat and plan to rendezvous at some point in the future. 

Eight hours later, my train rolled into Kuala Lumpur’s Sentral Station and when I disembarked I knew I was in a completely different world. Many different sights surrounded me in the train station: women bustling in every which way wearing burkas, Muslim prayer rooms, and signs written in Malay. Given this was my first time in the Muslim world, I should have expected that, but it still took me a bit off guard. 

Following a quick coffee, I was on my way to my hostel in Central KL when I ran into something oddly familiar- a Girl’s Generation (Korean pop music group) ad in the station. 

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As someone interested in the British Empire and European influence in Asia, I was very excited to see Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur. I had heard stories from my Malaysian friends and friends who had visited that Kuala Lumpur is a bustling metropolis where dilapidated colonial-era buildings stand side-by-side with the well preserved buildings and new buildings towering over them. I was in for a treat as soon as I stepped out of the station near my hostel. In front of me were various types of colonial buildings and newer hotels/apartments, but this motorcycle stuck out to me, especially as the Petronas Towers loomed large in the background. Image

From here, I went to my hostel, checked in, charged up my camera and phone, and took a short nap on account of the fact that it was extremely difficult to sleep on that overnight train. The second day of my trip was already fully booked with a tour of the Batu Caves and some other areas in KL, so I set out on foot to explore a swath of the area near my hostel: Chinatown, Little India, Merdeka Square, etc. were all within walking distance.

First up for me was the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. As the power center of British Malay, this elaborately constructed building certainly has stood the test of time. Unlike in other colonies, the British incorporated local and Muslim architectural elements into what would be the center of their operations in Malaysia for many decades. The domes, clock tower, and facade make for an interesting appearance which both stands out and fits in with the surrounding area. One of the most interesting pieces of art nearby is the Queen Victoria fountain, brought from England in 1898 to commemorate Victoria’s rule and British influence in Malaysia. Below is a photo of both of them in Merdeka Square. 

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Aside from this building, several other interesting buildings surround the square. An Anglican Church and former private British club flank the other sides of the square, which used to be a cricket ground. Certainly a must-see place if you are in Kuala Lumpur. 

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The other element of the square which I found fascinating was the enormous flagpole. I have always been fascinated with flags, and this is certainly the largest flagpole I have ever seen in my life. Eerily similar to the United States flag (and the British East India Company flag), I took a double take when I arrived in Merdeka Square. The dominating presence of the flag speaks for itself  as a symbol of Malaysian pride. 

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From here, it was off to see some colonial architecture and visit Chinatown before a trip to the Petronas Towers in the evening. 

On my way to Chinatown, I encountered some of the dilapidated and gorgeous colonial-era buildings about which my friends told me! It was truly a sight to behold. The chipping pastel paint brushing up against street signs and traffic lights is a scene that will not leave my mind when I think of Malaysia and walking the streets of Kuala Lumpur. 

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Then I stumbled upon the Malaysian Heritage Trail and saw some more beautiful colonial-era buildings which had been converted into shops, restaurants, and other places of business. It was another beautiful scene which shows off the history and richness of Kuala Lumpur. 

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Chinatown was a whole different animal. With bustling markets and the smell of street food percolating through the air, I don’t know how anyone could not enjoy a stroll down its narrow streets. That is, of course, so long as cars were not trying to make it down the alleys as well. Image

I encountered never before seen foods and shared some delicious chicken at a street side market with a fellow traveler before eventually returning to my hostel to change and head out into the Malaysian night.

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If you ever go to this part of Kuala Lumpur, I am sure you will notice what I did at this point of my journey: the streets are higher than the sidewalks at certain points in the city! I could not figure out what was so peculiar about the streets until I tripped up the stairs when leaving a shop. Years of new pavement, sewage systems, and electrical utilities are certainly the cause of this. Here’s a look. 

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I could not wait to see the Petronas Towers in person and the two skyscrapers did not disappoint. I arrived at twilight and was fortunate enough to see the lights turn on from below. The glistening eight-sided spires connected by the skywalk was certainly a sight to behold for all. Add into the mix the luxury malls beneath both towers and I could see why people would come to these towers for a day out on the town. 

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the interesting people I met in Singapore was in Kuala Lumpur not his evening as well. My new Korean friend and I rendezvoused at the fabulous SkyBar inside Traders Hotel to have a drink and take in the breathtaking view of the Petronas Towers from 33 Floors above Kuala Lumpur. I usually am not keen on spending big bucks for a drink, but if you love cityscapes, skylines, or just breathtaking views, you MUST go to SkyBar. Add into the mix that there is a pool inside the bar and I don’t know how you cannot go. I was very happy to meet up with my friend and discuss Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and other travel destinations in such an unlikely place. 

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As the rain began to fall for the first time on my trip, we decided to head to the streets to feast on the cheap street food that is omnipresent in the city. Once we arrived at Jalan Petaling Market, we were very pleased. Delicious street food was everywhere for the taking. I enjoyed an entire deep fried frog and some other delicacies on a stick and she had various other types of local fare. The gentlemen running all of the stands were very nice and helpful when it came to suggesting what to eat. This was my first time going to a real street market in Southeast Asia outside of the tourist-ridden markets in Bangkok and I am thrilled I went.  The food was delicious and the company was nice, as well. 

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As the rain picked up and the night wore on, my friend and I split our separate ways and I took a cab back to my hostel where I thought the night was over, but not before I made some more friends on the road. 

My hostel boasted a rooftop bar so I headed up there to see if any interesting people were still awake. I met a fascinating traveler from London and we had a few drinks discussing our travels, our college experiences, and our current travels before going our separate ways. 

Early to arrive and late to bed, my first day in Malaysia was phenomenal. From the historical buildings to the Petronas Towers and the markets in between, I was thrilled to be in KL and could not wait for what the next day had to offer. It was a marathon day of meandering through Kuala Lumpur’s narrow streets.

 

 

 

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Taking in the Moment

As time comes to pass, Kobe’s Chinatown is quickly becoming one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city for several reasons. One reason, in particular, makes me keep coming back to the quaint part of town, though: liveliness. At the heart of Kobe’s Chinatown is a pagoda with some benches, a small open space, followed by more benches, and a nice fountain. Imagine this area to be surrounded with lanterns hanging above as you take in the sights, sounds, and smells of Chinatown in Japan. 

I love to people watch, so I headed down to Chinatown on Saturday for an afternoon of relaxation, language practice, and people watching. What ended up happening was very different than what I expected to encounter. 

I ran into a friend of mine in Sannomiya during the walk to Chinatown and we decided to enjoy some Cuban cigars in Chinatown as we relaxed for the afternoon. I have not had a cigar since I arrived in Japan, so this was such a great idea. Following our trip to the tobacco store, we embarked for Chinatown to do some people watching and to pass some time. Suddenly, a light rain began to fall and the mood of Chinatown changed dramatically. The edge of noise began to fall as some people left the streets while others lingered. As dusk began to settle in, Chinatown took on a different personality as it was dominated by small families bustling about, eating noodles and chatting about the weekend’s activities. For such a small part of the city, this energy should not be there, but it certainly was. Breathing in the smells of street food and watching the kids frolic about was magical for me, and I still do not know why. 

My friend and I sat back, enjoying our cigars, taking in the whole scene. I found it glorious. A passing rain shower and a random encounter with a friend really made the afternoon so much more enjoyable than I had expected just a few hours earlier. I hope this photo can do something to convey how Chinatown felt on that late afternoon. When the shower stopped, my friend and I carried on to the JR station to go to our next destination. 

However fleeting, we were able to escape from everything, even if only for a few hours, on Sunday. This is another reason why I enjoy Japan so much. Image

Getting Good and Lost

As the novice traveler that I am, the only way I really know how to explore and find out as much as I can about somewhere new is quite simple. I love to get good and lost in every new city, town, and place that I go, looking for the best photo opportunities, restaurants, and family-owned shops. This happened today in Kobe, Japan, and I finally feel like I have my bearings in my new hometown. 

Following day long meetings, a friend and I set out into Kobe; to walk through Harborland and then to find some places to do shopping to pick up some new items for our apartments. What we encountered along the way truly exemplifies the modern Japanese city: bustling city streets teeming with modern life which sit alongside (or sometimes overtop) vestiges of an older world, with family-run shops, open-air markets, and shrines and temples occupying prominent locations in older neighborhoods. 

As we returned from sightseeing from City Hall’s observation deck, one wrong turn from Flower Road led into an interesting afternoon filled with the aromas of fresh takoyaki and various Chinese foods, the sounds of a bicyclist ringing his bell, and a brief feeling that we were not inside of Japan’s sixth-largest city. Suddenly, we were in Chinatown.

As we walked through Kobe’s Chinatown, we quickly were caught up in the elegance of the small shops peddling their food to passersby with the type of charm that we have come to know and love in Japan. At the same time, some boys were ringing the bells on their bicycle as they tried to pass a large crowd. Several yards later, we encountered a small shrine with seating areas and lanterns spanning the wires overhead. For a moment, we forgot that we in Kobe and admired at the great scene in front of us on this unusually comfortable late-August day in the Japanese summer. 

As quickly as this moment was upon us, we continued on elsewhere, only to end up walking through Kobe Piazza, another marketplace where vendors line every square inch of shop space underneath the JR train tracks, only separated from one and another by a five foot wide pathway spanning the length of this plaza. As our shoulders bumped into shoppers going into the other direction and as we walked in and out of the clothing, bag, and shoe stores, we realized that we had re-emerged in a familiar location: Centergai shopping plaza.

As fleeting as this moment of peace and newness was, it was remarkable to experience a new part of the city for such a short period of time.  

My friend and I were good and lost in a familiar part of town following just one wrong turn, but now we know where we can go to escape the hustle and bustle of one of Japan’s largest cities. The quaint sound of street vendors, bicyclists, and relaxation all came alive today because we were good and lost.

Sometimes, the only way to truly learn about a new place is to get good and lost. Image