I hate that it’s taken me this long to write about one of the most incredible experiences of 2019, but here I am – late as usual. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was hazy, kind, hot, welcoming, and most of all, delicious! So hot and humid that one traveler’s hair dye ended up on her shirt after just three minutes outside. So hazy, we didn’t see the sun rise – it just appeared through the whiteness to light up our lives, but we didn’t mind because…well…everything we could see was dope and the food was waiting for us with open arms – if food had armsf. I ate my way through parts of that country and didn’t think twice about it. But my favorite part: connecting with a friend I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years.
I was 7-years-old and funny and wanted to be friends with everyone with a personality as dope as mine, and that’s when I was lucky enough to run into Nurul Norman, the new girl in Mrs. Williams’ class at Johnson Elementary school. My wild curiosity had already led me to maps of unknown places, an insane collection of literature from authors around the world, and foods no one else I knew would dare try, allowing me to unfold the planet little by little. Meeting Nurul was different and new because it was my first experience with real cultural exchange when all we were really doing was talking about how we played, laughed, danced, and ate in the places we’ve lived. Sadly, she was only there a couple of years while her father took up studies at the University. The seed was planted, and I knew one day I’d have to make the trek to Malaysia to see if it was as beautiful as Nurul said it was.
For decades, I wondered where Nurul went. Before Al Gore’s internet blew up, I had no idea how many Nurul’s there would be in the world and figured I’d get to Malaysia and ask around for her. Surely, everyone would know who I was talking about. Now, chin deep in Al Gore’s internet and Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, it’s easy to see just how silly that idea was. I was going to try it anyway. Because of my good fortune and karma, I didn’t have to make a fool of myself. Last year, I hopped on Facebook and saw I was tagged to an elementary school class photo. The kind where all the students are layered in the bleachers trying their hardest not to laugh or talk or sneeze and the teacher and teacher’s assistant stand on each sides wondering why they chose the profession. There I was, looking like I just called someone out for farting, and there was the rest of my class, all tagged. Nurul posted the photo and found us all on Facebook! How!? Wow! I immediately reached out, with decades worth of excitement, glad to be reconnected – even if it’s through an application as problematic as Facebook.
We wrote back and forth, catching up on the years, me giving the “where are they now” reports, and Nurul telling me all the good stuff like we were sitting in a bistro with cups of International Coffee talking about waiters named Jean Luc. She was back in Malaysia, doing incredible work as an educator and advocate. We both have incredible memories, so we talked about our days on the playground and in the classroom like it was just yesterday. Ah, my friend! And all this happened just in time because a few months later I told her I was coming to Kuala Lumpur with a Passport Required group of amazing adventurers and would love to connect.
Connect, we did! We squeezed 8 people into Nurul’s truck and made our way around the city and through the countryside, laughing loud, learning differences, and eating good!
Kampung Kuantan Firefly Park: In the mangroves live large colonies of fireflies, lighting up like holiday lights in the night. We took a small, guided boat down the river and watched the trees light up, reminding me of my childhood summers. This took us outside of Kuala Lumpur and we were able to check out the rural areas, stopping to eat at roadside cafes, playing in rice fields, and using every countryside backdrop for our photoshoots.
KL Forest Eco Park: My uber dropped me at the wrong entrance and I almost lost my life to a sharp-toothed monkey who dared me to enter. But since I was determined to see the suspension bridge and all the natural beauty, I made my way to the official entrance and it was beautiful! There’s far more than the bridge – everything worth seeing.
Batu Caves: The monkeys! The stairs! The golden statue of Murugan! Go, see, do. But be sure to keep an eye on your belongings , because those slick little monkeys are quick and expert level thieves. They get you with their cuteness! Don’t be fooled! Climb the stairs at your own pace, admire the beauty of the surrounding area, and the beauty of the temple.
Butterfly Park: I’ve always loved butterflies, but I never knew I needed to see a butterfly park until I arrived. These small creatures are beautiful and pretty damn amazing when you think about where they’ve come from. Play with them and if you’re daring, help them get free and fly into the real world.
Merdeka Square: Located in the heart of downtown Kuala Lumpur, you can find the world’s highest flagpole (or second highest depending on who you ask). This is the square where Malaysia declared its independence. This is the place to come to see all the places you read about in those Malaysian History books of yours. While you’re here, check out: Sultan Abdul Samad Building & the Royal Selangor Club.
Petaling Street: This is Chinatown! This is where you wanna go to get those watches, bags, clothes, and shoes that “fell off the truck.” And some of it is really amazing quality! Use your good eye!
Petronas Towers: Surely I don’t need to do much explaining here. But listen, don’t be ashamed if you need to buy one of those camera phone lenses that allow you to get all of you and all of the towers in one photo! They’re cheap and worth it.
Kampung Baru: This is where you can still find traditional houses set against the modern changes of the city and it’s quite a sight. Of course there are food vendors along the roads, so be sure to stop and try a few great things.
Melawati Hill: Oh, more monkeys! There were two groups of monkeys, most with black fur, and they were all pretty aggressive when it came to making friends. One jumped from the fence onto my shoulder when I was looking. Surely this is not for those who are afraid of wildlife leaping out of nowhere. But go! They’ve grown accustomed to being fed, and there will be a man there selling you fruit and leaves and whatever else they want. Do as you please.
Port Dickson Beach: It’s a bit of a drive from the city. I wish I could tell you how far, but I feel asleep on the way there and on the way back. But while there, we had as much fun as we possibly could on the jet skis, banana boat, floating chair, and hot sand. Nurul was able to arrange a van for us all to get there and back for a great price. I wasn’t quite sure if I should swim topless or not since there were men in the water in full business suits and all the women were covered head to toe, understandably. But I did and no one batted an eye. The men, however, did stare with longing eyes at the women in the group who came in bathing suits we’d consider “normal” in the US.
Jamek Mosque: Beautifully designed, this is one of the oldest mosques in KL. Take a stroll around the grounds and enjoy the vibe and people watching!
But listen, the number one reason I’d suggest going to Malaysia is the food! By now, you know I love food and will always find delicious fare, no matter where I am. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I had bad food. Call it luck, or call it a keen nose. Here are a few of my favorite places in the city (aside from the little stands and random markets that fed us on our walks that had no official name):
VCR: 2 Jalan Galloway, Kuala Lumpur 50150, Malaysia. The food was brunchy, the set up was cause for conversation, and the prices were right up my alley.
Jalan Alor Night Food Market: Located in the heart of Bukit Bintang. This is where you come when you are starving or when you simply can’t decide what to sink your teeth into. Everything is along this street, waiting for you. Whole frog? Yes! Satay? Absolutely! Oyster omelet? Damn right! Ice cream? Perfect ending! Go, see, eat!
Limapulo Baba Can Cook: 50 Jalan Doraisamy. We stumbled upon this place and laughed with the old man who sat in the back, smiling and checking on our happiness, then realized much later that it’s one of the greatest food spots in all of Malaysia. And it deserves to make all the lists.
Betel Leaf: Lebuh Ampang. I’m in love with anything spicy (as in “full of spice”) and this place satisfied! Greatly. The naan was incredible, and the portions were perfect to take the leftovers home to reheat. Indian, like Thai and Pastas, tastes better when recooked.
LiLi: So, sadly, we were too busy smacking that we didn’t have much time to write down the address, and it’s been crazy hard to find online, but it’s a crazy good seafood restaurant in Bukit Bintang that stole my whole heart, tongue, stomach, and intestinal tract. My god! In the back, in plain site, are the tanks of fish and sea creatures, and you pick the ones you want, and they will offer you a variety of seasonings. I think we may have even converted a vegan that night. Imagine! How I suggest you find it. Stand at the Ohana Kuala Lumpur hostel (where we stayed). Cross the street toward 711 and walk left. As the road begins to bend and incline, you will see the restaurant on your right. Look for the tanks!
Asam Pedas: Lorong Bunus 4. Food Court. This is a pay what you weigh type of place and – without a doubt – the best local food I had while in the country. It’s very unassuming because it’s part of a food court that’s above kiosks that appear to be for tourists, but trust me here…GO! The fish, the veggies, the chicken, and the cold Milo to top it all off! Perfection.
One morning, while the others went for their tattoos and massages at Berjaya Times Square, I went for a 10 mile walk, taking in as much of the city as possible. It was quite the meditation. Every few miles, I’d find a pop up food market and grab something delicious to keep me going. At no point did I fear for my safety. When I finally sat down, I was so grateful for it all.
Thank you, Kuala Lumpur for taking care of a wild group of travelers. And most of all, thank you, Nurul for introducing me to your country 30 years before I’d actually visit and showing me the beauty of it when I finally did! Reuniting and laughing with you was the best part of the trip. Then the food! Always the food!