HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Into the Future in KL

Selamat Datang! After a visa-related nightmare that left me locked in an expensive hotel near Saigon's airport for a night I am finally back home in District 3 - tired, unshaven, and with a horribly distended stomach. My trip was great, immigration issues aside - Kuala Lumpur is a fascinating melting pot, while Singapore is the definition of sleek modernity. I ate some of the best food of my life on this trip, and a lot of it too. (My stomach and I aren't really on speaking terms right now.) Anyway, I saw and did a lot, so I'm just going to break things up into a more or less day-by-day travelogue.

The trip began with an early-morning taxi ride out to Saigon's unexpectedly clean, modern, and efficient Tan Son Nhat airport. To a history buff that is yet another place in Vietnam that brings up reminders of America's past in the country: during the war it was one of the busiest airports in the world, and it was the sight of the last major battle before the North won. In fact, there are still bunkers and aircraft parking shelters on the now-unused areas of tarmac.

I arrived in KL around 2pm, and I quickly became acquainted with Malaysia's vaunted diversity - in the line at passport control there were people of every skin tone imaginable. I heard many languages I've never heard before. Women were dressed in everything from bright, floral sarongs and saris to the jet-black burqas and chadors of orthodox Muslims. (A note on terminology - burqas and chadors cover a woman's entire body, sometimes including everything but the eyes. Hijabs, which every female staff member at the airport wore, are just wrapped around the woman's head and neck, leaving her entire face and everything else exposed.) Of course, the men weren't dressed quite as interestingly as the women - the almost universal male dress code seems to be jeans and some sort of shirt. Anyway, I was quickly disabused of the notion that women covered head-to-toe in burqas have no material desires when I noticed that the two women next to me in line were clutching Prada and Coach purses. This ended up being the first of many paradoxes I noticed in KL.

After clearing customs I boarded the KLIA Ekspres, the fast train that covers the 75km between the airport and the city in about 25 minutes. (This was also the first time I noticed that many words in Malay are simply English words with different letters; for example bus is "bas" and taxi is "teksi".) The Ekspres pulled smoothly into KL Sentral, the city's main train station, and I became flustered almost immediately. Big train stations are really the only travel-related buildings that I struggle with. Prague and Berlin's completely threw me for a loop earlier this year, and KL's was no exception. I knew that I needed to find the monorail line, but all I saw signs for were the numerous other railways that run through the city. Finally, I spotted one lonely monorail sign that pointed towards the exit, so I followed it and found nothing. I asked a staff member where to go and he simply said "Oh, just go downstairs and cross the street." Well, that sounds simple. What you really have to do is go downstairs, walk around a massive construction zone, wondering the whole time if you're going the right way because there aren't any signs, before finally spotting the station, which you have to cross a busy 4-lane road to get to.

As the monorail soared smoothly over the busy streets, I realized just how modern KL really is. I knew the city was going to be developed, but I was still amazed by what I saw: dozens of skyscrapers are littered across the skyline, 8-lane freeways carve through the urban canyons between buildings, and gigantic shopping malls loom everywhere. I've mentioned before how Saigon makes Phnom Penh look like a sleepy town. Well, KL makes you realize just how dysfunctional and insane Saigon is. The difference was even more noticeable when I got back down to street level - honking is rare, everyone obeys the traffic laws, and there are far more cars than motorbikes. It honestly felt like I was in the West.
A typical street in KL - that's the monorail line above it
I checked in at my guesthouse and headed for Kuala Lumpur City Centre, which is almost a city-within-a-city, home to condo towers, restaurants, nightclubs, and business high-rises, although it's not actually the geographical center of the city. KLCC is anchored by the Petronas Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world and an icon of Malaysia. I had gotten my first glimpse of them on the way in from the airport, and I couldn't wait to see them up close. First, I needed some food.

I came upon a big, fancy mall and decided to see if it had a food court. Now, before you yell at me for eating at a food court, let me explain: food courts here are not the dining graveyards of the U.S., full of over-processed fried food, Sbarro, Long John Silver's, and morbidly obese teenagers. They are affordable, very popular, and the food is actually made fresh, right in front of your eyes.
I wandered around the sprawling court, sizing up my options, before settling on Penang Kuey Teow. I was expecting to eat well on this trip, and the first meal didn't disappoint - the dish was perfectly spiced and delicious. I followed it up with a refreshing sugar cane juice and continued on my way to the towers.
Noodles, am amazing sauce, shrimp, and various other delicious ingredients.
Fifteen minutes later I was at the base of the towers, having passed several future skyscrapers in various stages on construction. (Why can't the U.S. build things at the rate and scale of practically every city in Asia anymore?) Before I talk about the towers, I should mention the Suria KLCC, an incredibly high-end mall nestled between and beneath Petronas. This mall housed basically every luxury brand I've heard of - Armani, Gucci, Hermes, Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, etc., and many I hadn't. KL's paradoxes were once again on display here as teenagers in short skirts and tight shirts rubbed shoulders with women in billowing burqas. I also ate another meal at Suria's food court, this time a dish called Nasi Lemak Otak-Otak. It was delicious. Feeling very full I went back outside to finally start taking pictures of the Towers.
This place is simultaneously a shopper's worst nightmare and best friend.
Rice, half a hard-boiled egg, veggies, peanuts, a sauce, tofu, and what look like wantons.
The Petronas Towers, at 1,483 feet tall, are certainly immense. Their architectural design, which takes cues from the Islamic architecture visible throughout the city, is impressive. However, their gun-metal gray exterior left me feeling cold. Perhaps the fact that it was cloudy made it so - the towers are supposed to reflect sunlight, but there wasn't much of that.

At night, however, they came to life, thanks to a brilliant light display. Once it got completely dark the towers transformed into soaring beacons of bright light. They were truly stunning, especially in pictures taken with a long shutter exposure. One can't help but be impressed by Malaysia when standing, slack-jawed, in front of the lighted towers.
15-second shutter exposure. Beautiful.
After taking way too many pictures I headed back to the guesthouse to rest for a bit. My batteries recharged, I asked the receptionist how to get to Jalan Alor (Jalan means street), a street which, according to Lonely Planet, transforms every night into a block-long outdoor food court. I was delighted to find out that it was two blocks away, and I immediately headed over to eat more food.

When I arrived, I realized that deciding what to order would be difficult. Row after row of open-front restaurants were serving all kinds of delicious options - satays, Chinese rice dishes, Chinese noodle dishes, Thai seafood, fresh fruit, grilled birds. I finally settled on sauteed baby spinach, rice, and half of a grilled stingray, accompanied by a big Carlsberg. (When in Malaysia, drink as the...Danes drink?) The spinach was fantastic and the stingray, especially when dipped in the provided sauce, was incredible. All of that cost well under $15.
So many options...

I think these are pigeons

After finishing my third full meal in under 5 hours, I ended up waddling home like a penguin and collapsing into bed, fully satisfied after my first half-day in Kuala Lumpur.

Oh and I have one more thing to share: a video I took near the mosque on the grounds near the Petronas Towers during the call to prayer. I thought hearing this beautiful, ancient call within view of the Towers, a shining example of a country storming into the future, provided yet another amazing juxtaposition.
I'll have more on my trip shortly.

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