We leave Ipoh bright and early, headed to Kuala Lumpur today. I'm a bit excited. So far, nothing in Malaysia has sparked any childhood memories, but I'm sure seeing my old hometown again will re-kindle a few of them.
Leaving the limestone Karst formations of Ipoh and heading south
The western coast of Malaysia is fairly flat. The main north-south highway provides a rapid corridor for travel up and down Malaysia. However, it's been so long since we've ridden any interesting roads (since Northern Thailand, I think), so we duck into the Banjaran Titiwangsa (Titiwangsa Mountains), which is the central ridge of mountains making up the back bone of the country.
Stepping off the highway, we take a twisty road as it climbs up into the mountains
We quickly shed the warm Ipoh morning. It's replaced by chilly mountain air as the road twists and climbs higher and higher. We're heading towards a hill station called Cameron Highlands. It's very popular with the locals because the colder climate provides a respite to the unrelenting heat of the lowlands. My parents said that due to the clear-cutting performed by farmers in the area, the climate in Cameron Highlands has steadily grown warmer over the last few decades.
At 8AM in the morning, the temperatures up here in the mountains feel like it's 15C. Even though we're having a blast leaning the Hondas into the curves of the empty roads, our ventilated motorcycle gear is flowing a lot of cold air. We're freezing! It's been months since we've felt like this! I don't complain too much. Only when we stop for gas and bask in the sunlight, do we warm up slightly. Cameron Highlands may not be as cold as it once was, but it's better than the >35C in the lowlands!
Ugh. Crowds and cars.
The summit of the Highlands are up around 5000 feet above sea level and are dominated by hotels and roadside stalls selling teas and strawberries grown up here in the hills. Cameron Highlands is very crowded and we fight through the weekend traffic as locals from Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh all come up here to get away from the heat.
Taking a break to view the beautiful fields of tea plantations
Pretty, but the deforestation of the Highlands is blamed for the rapid warming of the region
It would have been nice to stay a day or two up at Cameron Highlands, but we're on a schedule to meet the rest of my family in KL. I was talking to my cousin the other day arranging plans for a family get-together. I told her a date I thought we would arrive and she replied, "You should probably try to make it on a weekend, you know... when people aren't working..."
OMG I felt like such a douche: "Everyone drop what you're doing, we're coming into town!" :(
The way back down
The road south from Cameron Highlands is not as wide as from Ipoh, the surface is not as maintained, but we still manage to find a few spots to enjoy pristine tarmac and the views and the turns don't disappoint.
Back to the hot and humid climate of the lowlands. We grab some lunch at the food stalls in the gas stations
To celebrate our trip to Cameron Highlands we eat some Beef Rendang. Mmmm... spicy meat dish
I think I'm getting the hang of Malaysian cuisine. Forget the fancy sit-down restaurants, the real food is found in stalls and hawker centres.
We dive into Kuala Lumpur's heavy rush hour traffic and try to find our hotel. So glad we have tiny dirtbikes, they filter and cut through traffic like a hot knife through beef rendang - which is not that fast but still satisfying. Neda is dying in the equatorial heat. She is not doing well at all. She's fighting chronic crabbiness and I have to remind her constantly to eat because she can't feel herself getting hungry. Not good for someone who suffers from low blood sugar and the resulting hanger-management issues.
We finally pull into our hotel that we're staying at for the next few days. It's not a fancy place, but it's cheap and I'm reminded how much more expensive Malaysia is compared to Thailand. Neda immediately flees into the sanctuary of the air-conditioned lobby while I lock up the bikes. I feel bad for her, I know the heat is really affecting her enjoyment of traveling through South-East Asia.
My cousins, Choong San standing behind me, and Tanya sitting beside me with their respective spouses
The next day, we ride to a nice Chinese restaurant to meet up with my very large family. My grandfather has eight kids, who gave him seventeen grand kids - my cousins. Most of them still live in Malaysia and I had a great time catching up with the ones that could make it to the luncheon. I've been waiting for something that would remind me of my childhood. I haven't found anything in the buildings and places we've visited, but staring into the faces of people that I haven't seen for over 35 years -- that sparked all the old memories for me. I remember them so well!
Most of us were very young when I left. My eldest cousin was barely 15. It's quite trippy seeing the faint echo of the children that we once were, reflected now in the much older versions of ourselves. Despite all the embarrassing stories they told about me to Neda, it was a great family re-union. :)
To celebrate a great family get-together, we go out later that night to scarf down some roti
Malaysian roti is thinner, lighter and fluffier than the Indian roti. It's a popular breakfast meal and is served in the mornings with a fried egg rolled up inside, but it can be had anytime of day. You just choose whatever sauces to dip with the roti. Of course, we always wash every meal down with the liquid sugar they call teh tarik (pulled tea). Our hotel is right across the street from a huge hawker centre, which is convenient but dangerous to my arteries and waistline.
After dinner, we ride into the heart of downtown Kuala Lumpur
The traffic is not bad after everyone's gone home from work, and the temperatures are way more bearable after the sun sets. Both Neda and I have a much better time riding around at this time of the night. The downtown core is very modern, boasting skyscrapers and huge shopping malls with colourful lights strung up everywhere to give a good impression to the tourists.
We're here mainly to visit the Petronas Towers. At 452m high, it was once the tallest building in the world when it was built in 1998, but is now "only" the tallest building in SE Asia after losing that title in 2004. Obviously, this building wasn't here when I left so I've never seen it before. No memories to be found here.
Very cool looking at night!
To celebrate seeing the tallest building in South-East Asia, we go out in search of some famous Malaysian Char Kway Teow
The Internet said this is the best place in KL for Char Kway Teow. Hawker centre, of course!
Char Kway Teow is a dish made of flat rice noodles with eggs, shrimp, chicken and bean sprouts. Char Kway Teow is stir-fried in pork fat. Char Kway Teow is my favorite dish. Those last two facts might not be entirely unrelated...
By far, the most popular tourist attraction in Kuala Lumpur is the Batu Caves
It's only about 15 kms away from where we're staying, so we hop on the bikes and head out there after the morning rush hour has subsided. The Batu Caves are the site of a Hindu temple built inside a limestone cavern, similar to the Taoist temple that my uncle took us to in Ipoh the other day. The only difference is that these are several times larger and grander.
Instead of Buddhas and Lao Tzu, Ganesh is presiding over this Hindu temple
Besides the Chinese, Indians make up the second-largest ethnic population representing about a 10th of the population of Malaysia.
During the long climb to get into the temple, several monkeys charge the tourists an admission fee consisting of bananas.
"Have you paid your admission fee yet? Not to me, you haven't. Give it up now!"
As part of the admission fee you get to take a selfie with the guards
Another guard on the lookout for more admission fees
"Here you go, may I enter the temple now?" "Yes yes, move along."
The inside of the cave is huge!
I think this was one of the Hindu priests in the temple
Shenanigans inside Batu Cave
Lighting the votive candles in the temple
To celebrate our visit to the Batu Caves, we go off in search of the best satay in Kuala Lumpur
Satay is marinated skewers of meat grilled and served with peanut sauce
I discovered what makes this place the best in KL - they hide pieces of marinated pork fat in the skewers that when grilled become crispy, juicy bites of pure flavour. Gaaaaah, so good....! The sauce they provide on the side is made from ground roasted peanuts mixed with spices and it can make or break the meal. Weak or watery peanut sauce = bad satay experience.
Satay is also my most favorite dish in Malaysia. I can have more than one, right? (I am saying this a lot in Kuala Lumpur)