I feel like Maeve O’Meara (and if you don’t know the reference, shame on you). I’ve had my Food Lover’s Guide to Malaysia, and it was delicious. A wok toss away from the so-called Golden Triangle entertainment district around KL Tower, this food market is where the locals come to eat and shop. You just follow your nose to the best makan (food).
The menu: Nasi lemak, of course, virtually the national dish and heaped on most food market tables. It’s a serve of rice and a spiced vegetable mix snack-wrapped in a pyramid of banana leaf. Delicious. Crispy curry puffs, fried, like everything else, right there on the street. So tasty; I had to go back for more. Fresh vegetable spring roll-type things, I forget their name, covered with this sweet and sticky chilli jam. So spicy, so good. As parents take the cash — and not all that much of it; you won’t find much over RM2 (about 85 cents) — the kids are tossing noodles in woks half their size. Ladles of soy and oyster go in, garlic and chilli. And nuts, mine had nuts in it. Mmm noodles … Did I mention I like satay sticks? Best not to think about how many chickens were sacrificed, how many bamboo trees were felled, to make table upon table of hundreds of juicy, marinated satay sticks. They rotate them over hot coals (one inventive cook had a grill on the back of his motorbike) and serve them in plastic bags, pouring in that famous sweet and spicy peanut sauce. Oh boy, so many tasty, tasty satays … Oh, the Malaysian version of roti, like a hot dog roll with spiced meat and vegetables and sauce in the middle. Oh man that stuff was good. And the Laksa Penang, plastic bags and bowls of fresh bean shoots and vegetables and chilli with boiling broth from enormous vats ladled in to order. The smell alone … Wash it down with vats of iced fruit punch, soy drinks, coconut milk. And the sweets! More cakes and rolls and pastries and jellies and confectionary than your average school fete.
This tiny alleyway, block after block of stalls down each side this Saturday night and every night, is a sea of people and smells. And once you’re on the wave there’s no way to get off; certainly nowhere to stop and eat. You take your bag of food, quickly lay down some cash, and keep on walking. It’s food on the run; dirt cheap and disgustingly messy and veritably delicious.
It’s a very different place to Kuala Lumpur’s most famous markets, along Petaling Street in the Chinatown district further south, established almost entirely to rip off foreign tourists. We are fresh meat. These pimps and hustlers and spruikers, exceptional salespeople all, their eyes light up as you approach. “Sir! New wallet for you, Sir? Genuine Hugo Boss!” “Bags, Sir. Bag for your lady? Louis Vuitton, Sir!” “Your shoes, boss. Need new shoes. Try these Nike shoes, boss?” Shady men with missing teeth approach, the overcoat pulled back revealing an array of “genuine” Rolex watches. Others with folders of just-released movies; “good quality, boss, no camera filmed, real movie”. (It was, indeed, the real thing — the RM10, or $4.20, copy of The Reader I bought looked great on my laptop. That “Product of Harvey Weinstein — do not copy” constantly flashes across the scene hardly intrudes on a brilliant film.) Still, he wasn’t done. “Porno movie, Sir? You want sexy movie?” There was much more out the back. There’s always more out the back. Like the “massage pallor” where for a little extra I could get a massage with “boom boo”. “Boom boom?” I ask, sweetly innocent. “Yah, boom boom with sexy lady.” Boom boom indeed.
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Today, it is 32 degrees with thunderstorms expected. Just like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. The weathermen here have the easiest job in the world. It is “32 and thunderstorms” every day; summer through spring, it doesn’t matter. It enforces a schedule on your movements, like the city moves in rhythm. You head out in the morning, braving oppressive humidity, swimming rather than walking the air is so thick, do what you need to do, before — set your clock to it — the rain and thunder come around 3-4pm. People scurry inside apartments and shopping malls; the hustle dies down, the bustle retreats slightly. Then the clouds part, the rain stops, and the city starts again. The streets are cleaner, the air is cooler, and the cycle begins again.
I’ve tried to use the pre-thunderstorm periods wisely. The day before last I walked to the KL Lake Gardens, a real oasis to the west of the city, before my Chinatown experience. Yesterday I joined a group tour to the north, stopping at the world’s largest pewter factory (the Malaysians are very proud of their pewter production, made from their economy-dependent tin stockpiles), a handmade batik factory (the painted silk cloth popular with Malay women), before arriving at the famed Batu Caves. This sacred Hindi temple, guarded by an enormous gold statue of a god, sits inside cavernous limestone caves, a steep 276-step climb up the mountain. Religious ceremony goes on as tourists trample the rocks and snap away at the painted idols. Despite its well-worn spot on the tourist map, it still feels like a special place. The caves are probably better known for the resident population of bats, who stink up the joint and christen visitors with their droppings, and the brazen, thieving little monkeys, who very much rule these parts and will stop at nothing to steal your lunch.
I’ve been to bigger cities, more globally important cities, but none that seem to move this fast. Or, in the case of traffic, not at all. It is a motor vehicle city. Its citizens demand the freedom of transport yet each night they sit in their old cars stationary, honking incessantly with nowhere to go. Scooters – and they almost outnumber cars – dive between lanes and mount already crowded and decaying footpaths to get ahead. I jumped out of the way of one, only to step on another, parked on the sidewalk, and burnt my leg on the steaming hot exhaust pipe. I have the red, blistered skin to prove it. I like to wander cities gazing at the skyscrapers and the cityscape around. Not here. You have to have your wits about you. I’m not sure what feels more dangerous – braving the footpaths or the insane taxi drivers blind to lane markings and road curbs. From the air — I conquered the 200something metres of the KL Tower for a 360-degree view — it’s clear that despite having a modern subway system and monorail line, Kuala Lumpur is stalled in traffic and choking on exhaust fumes. A problem facing many other cities, clearly …
But it’s a shame because this city has a lot to offer. Giving up on trying to navigate my way around — Jalan Raja Laut sounds too much like Jalan Tun Razak — I hopped on the hop-on, hop-off bus for a whistlestop tour of the city sights. There was the Palace of Culture and its Opera House-like design; the National Palace, home of one of many Malay monarchs (as the bus commentary put it, Malaysia will never run short of blue blood), and the very British changing of the guard; the National Monument and National Mosque (prayer was in session so I couldn’t get inside, but listening to the chanting echo out was an experience in itself), the Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, where they celebrate their sovereignty, and the beautiful colonial buildings around; and the landmark, postcard-ready Petronas Twin Towers. These are grandiose monuments to modern architecture and a modern city; all steel and glass reaching to the clouds and glinting in the sun. They were built, shamelessly, as a sign to the world that this city, and this country, had come of age. Yet in so many ways that seems premature.
This piece first appeared on Importance of Ideas.