festival of lights: kuala lumpur travel blog
Fun fact: In Malay, there's not really a word for "hello"; you say "good [insert time of day here]" instead. So salamat malam (good night) to my Singapore friends and salamat pagi (good morning) to everyone back home.
I found out our office had a day off for Diwali (or "Deepavali," depending on where you are), the Hindu festival of lights. Singapore actually has the longest working hours in the world, and very few vacation days, so I was eager to take advantage of the holiday and impulsively booked a weekend trip to Kuala Lumpur (or "KL"), the capital of Malaysia.
Travel around Southeast Asia is notoriously inexpensive, and my flight from Singapore + a hostel for three nights only cost around $150. And I was especially excited for Diwali. One of my most memorable trips was Thailand in 2011 when they were celebrating the New Year. The New Year's celebrations travel in Thailand, so we actually witnessed two or three in different cities while we were there. The purification ritual involves a lot of water fights and smearing clay on your face. And not water fights like running around with squirt guns. I mean straight-up using hoses and Super Soakers and driving with oil drums full of water with ten kids in the back. Our second day in Thailand was spent standing in the street in front of a mini-mart with Thai kids that didn't speak any English, soaking wet and tossing buckets of water on passing cars, people, and motorcyclists. It was complete chaos. And so much fun. So I was looking forward to experiencing another festival in another country.
After work, I hop on a flight to KL (#casual). I feel strange only carrying a backpack and a small bag. I think I carried more when I'd go home from Santa Barbara to San Diego for the weekend, but here I am in another country, with everything for the next four days tucked under my arm. It's a short flight, less than an hour, and I arrive at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 9 pm.
And wow, even the airport here is an experience. Especially coming from Singapore, where everything runs like clockwork, efficient and orderly. As soon as I step off the plane, I am shoved into a tightly-packed Aerotrain that takes me to the exit gate. I haven't been in this close proximity to other people since China, and I can feel the Bambi expression very plainly on my face. But weirdly, after the chaos subsides, the airport is pretty empty. Way emptier than I've seen any airport, especially considering it's only 9:30 at night. I'm nervous at finding a local SIM card (MK instructed me to find a 7-11 as soon as I could to purchase one), but luckily I see a bunch of telecom kiosks all in a row, right before I reach Immigration. The employees all call out to me, like hawkers: "SIM card, miss?" And, thoroughly overwhelmed, I choose the cheapest plan possible from the first kiosk I see. The employee takes my phone, snaps a SIM card into place, pushes a few buttons, and I am on my way.
The next step is to buy a taxi (or "teksi") coupon from a booth near the exit, something that was highly advised by the forums and travel websites. Malaysian taxis are known to be some of the worst in the world. MK's family is from Malaysia, and even she told me not to trust them. Some of them will take you a longer way for more money, and some will refuse to turn on the meter at all, so you have no idea how much you're incurring. I buy a coupon, and the guy leads me outside to a taxi waiting on the street.
"First time?" the driver asks me as soon as I step inside. It occurs to me that I have no idea who these people are, that all of this could be illegitimate and I could easily be murdered at any minute, just because I wouldn't know the difference. But I try not to think about that.
Luckily, this taxi is spacious, impeccably clean, and lemon-scented. I hand him the taxi coupon, and we go.
Like the airport, the roads outside of the KL airport are empty. Unlike New York, where there are always taxis rushing around at every hour of the night, there's a lot of empty space here; the roads are wide and populated by only a handful of cars and taxis. Either most people aren't out this late, or I really am in the middle of nowhere. After driving for a while, from what I can see in the dark, it's most likely the latter. There's not much around. All I see is the road, illuminated by some billboards ever hundred feet or so. I could be in any country right now. Until I see a billboard that says "I LOVE ALLAH" in bright yellow letters.
When I'm just outside the city, I can see the famous Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest twin skyscrapers in the world, winking in the distance. And I see the KL tower, which looks a lot like the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. The taxi driver tells me there's a restaurant at the very top, where you can try the national dishes, nasi lemak and aksam laksa: a rice dish and coconut curry, respectively. The buildings here actually look a lot like those in Singapore, clean and uniform; the only difference is that here there are fewer of them.
I'm staying in Bukit Bintang, an area in the heart of KL, in a place called Serenity Hostels. The taxi driver has never even heard of it. I finally find it, sandwiched between a bar and a hookah lounge.
It's nice. Small and very bare-bones, but the owner is nice, and there's wifi, clean towels and blankets, and breakfast in the morning, so for $10/night, it's practically a palace. I'm in a six-bed room by myself, which is a little disappointing because I feel like hostels are a good place to meet other travelers, but I also feel better about leaving my stuff in my room unattended.
Because I was spoiled by the suites in FT, I realize I haven't showered in the same place as so many strangers since sixth grade camp. Unlike sixth grade camp, there are always a couple of guys smoking in the stairwells outside the shower. Being a lowkey indoors person and highkey germaphobe, this is probably the closest I'll ever come to roughing it, short of straight-up camping.
I get in around 11 pm, but the street I'm staying on, Changkat Bukit Bintang, is pretty much the most happening place ever. It's just one street full of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, karaoke lounges, and, oddly, massage parlors and spas.
The bar scene is in full swing when I arrive, and Daniel's parents specifically warned me not to walk around at night alone but...sometimes you've just got to do things. It's a pretty touristy area (AKA lots of white people) so I feel okay, and I take in the street, armed with my camera and a false sense of competence.
Of course, the locals pick up on the fact that I am indeed a tourist in the first two seconds of me stepping out of the hostel. It reminds me of Hong Kong; there are people outside every place trying to entice me to come in and eat or drink or smoke. I have never been offered so many free drinks in my life just for being a girl, or refused so many invitations to dinner at 11:30 pm on a Thursday night. I am already 98% sure the massage parlors are not exactly massage parlors, a certainty that only increases when I realize that unlike the bars and restaurants, their promoters are all attractive girls. And instead of approaching me, they merely look bored or disappointed when I walk past.
And then I come across my absolute favorite thing: a night market!
I have a passion for night markets, because they're always so interesting. They always reflect the local flavor of the country, but because I've been to so many of them, even the strangest things feel a bit familiar to me. It reminds me of the ones in China, because of the numerous foods on sticks (called "satay" here) and Thailand, because they sell fresh fruits and rolled ice cream.
I stop by a fruit stand and buy six mangosteens, which I've decided are one of my favorite fruits. The fruit seller is so friendly and helps me pick out the best ones. From what little I've seen of Malaysia, I already love it here. It's honestly so cool.
It feels a little bit like Hong Kong and Thailand, a mix of city and third-world country. Or maybe I'm just searching for comparisons, for familiarity. After all, we know no other way to relate to the world than in comparison to what is familiar to us. But teksis and airport aside, Malaysia is less foreign than I expected. And realizations like this are the reason I travel. Tired, satisfied, and six mangosteens richer, I fall asleep to the pounding bass of the clubs beneath me...
...but it doesn't last long because five guys from the Philippines come in at 4:30 am and turn all of the lights on. Very tired at this point but also very wary because sharing a room with five guys is sketch by any standards. But the owner comes in and promises to move me the next night because there's a space in the girls' room opening up. So I go back to sleep.
I wake up at 9:30. Not exactly early, but earlier than I'd like to be up when I don't have work. Plus traveling is exhausting and the arrival of the guys didn't help. They tell me they're in town for some kind of motorcycle race. They flew five hours (@Keika) just to watch a motorcycle race in another country. I get ready and walk out in search of breakfast, but Changkat Bukit Bintang is dead quiet.
The bar owners and shopkeepers are receiving shipments, cleaning, but otherwise there's no one out. I stop by the only thing open, a 7-11 (which I actually really enjoy in foreign countries)(and in IV, who am I kidding; I've purchased way too many bags of Flaming Hot Funyuns at 1 am), and grab a quick breakfast.
Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, not to mention it's a religious holiday, so I brought pretty modest clothes. And wow was that a mistake, because even in late October it's hot and humid as hell. I explore for about two blocks before realizing that a) the weather is unbearable, and b) everything in a five-block radius is a bar or restaurant and is currently closed at 11 am.
POSSIBLE's CTO, Malcolm, the guy who told me to travel more, warned me about Malaysia. "Be careful," he told me. "KL is not like Singapore. Don't be frustrated when things don't run exactly how they should." By that he meant public transportation. While the MRT is on time more often than not, apparently the trains and buses here kind of show up whenever they feel like it. So I do the millennial thing and take an Uber. Ubers are ridiculously cheap here; it's great. I've never really used Uber before, but unlike Singapore Malaysia is not very walkable, so Uber is über-convenient (ha).You can get anywhere for around $4 USD, even if it's 25 minutes away. I regret taking the taxi from the airport now.
The first thing on my list is the Batu Caves, a series of temples actually built inside these massive limestone caves, which are over 400 million years old.
I go to one of the temples at the base of the cave first. I remove my shoes and climb up the stairs. There are a bunch of people there, all dressed in saris and gold jewelry, and I realize I've accidentally stumbled into a Hindu wedding.
But they're surprisingly chill. Unlike your typical American wedding, this one is a public affair. They do a quick photoshoot, and then walk around the temple performing a bunch of marriage rituals, and their relatives and a couple of tourists stand around them and take pictures.
Think of the actual wedding ceremony as if it were a romantic story, where the bride and the groom come to the Mandap, separately, as if unknown to each other. Then they fall in love and ask the parents' permission to get married. We explain them what the Hindu marriage means and they accept the obligations that go with it. During the various rituals, the couple commits to remain faithful to each other and repeat the pledge in front of the Fire God, the Agni and all the witnesses. Then, they walk seven steps together committing to seven marriage vows to each other, about their future life together. We all bless them and wish them a very happy life and they leave the Mandap as a newly married couple!
One of the men offers me something sweet, some yellow dessert made of sugar, and points me to a large Indian buffet, apparently open to everyone, even strangers, which is incredibly generous. I'm not that hungry and I feel a little bit intimidated, so I politely decline (regretting that a lot now...turning down free Indian food, what was I thinking?), but take lots of pictures of the temple and the newlyweds. The bride is so beautiful; in all of her regalia and makeup and jewelry and henna, she could be straight out of a magazine.
Next, I go up to the actual caves. There's a massive gold Buddha at the entrance. This, plus the steep flight of 282 steps upward, is giving me serious Hong Kong vibes.
"Does this count as Spartan training" I text my team once I'm at the top, only half-joking.
"Not unless you go up and down 20x"
"Not unless you also do burpees"
"Not unless you run fast enough," come the replies.
Well, it was worth a shot.
Technology is so rad. I definitely have my qualms about it, but the fact that I can Uber to some of the oldest caves in Malaysia and then Snapchat the whole experience is truly amazing.
The caves are incredible. It's exactly as advertised, but it's still completely breathtaking. Huge, cavernous reserves of naturally-worn limestone, with a temple tucked away inside. I stand at the yawning mouth of the cave for a bit and take it all in. I feel so tiny. I feel a drop of water on my shoulder, and look up. It's the same water that's helped form these caves over time, which is pretty unreal, if you think about it. There are also monkeys running around everywhere, which fascinates the tourists (including me) almost as much as the caves themselves.
At the highest point, you can stand in the shadow of a tiny temple and look up to see the sunlight streaming through an opening to the sky. It's covered in vines and moss, but it bears resemblance to the oculus in St. Peter's Basilica. I miss Rome. I haven't been back to Europe since 2007, I think, so that's the next destination on my list.
Like in all of the temples here, you remove your shoes and then you're allowed to walk around. There are a row of oil lamps sitting on the outer rail of the temple's structure, burning for what I assume are Diwali celebrations, and an elephant statue in the middle of the room right before the altar. People go up to the pujari (the temple priest), who says a short prayer and wafts candle smoke over them and paints their faces with ash and oil.
It's raining when I head down, so I take shelter at a café and order teh and roti, which Christine keeps telling me I need to try. As it turns out, roti is my new favorite thing. I like it better than naan. It's hot, stretchy, chewy, and delicious. I could eat a pound of it.
I also buy a couple of cord bracelets from one of the shops there. It is only after that I remember you're expected to haggle, which makes me highly uncomfortable and also I am terrible at. Immediately I feel a bit stupid. Oh well.
Next is the National Mosque, which is a short Uber ride from the caves. It's stunningly beautiful, and very modern-looking, all blue-tiled with white geometric lattice windows.
Its shape is a tribute to the five pillars of Islam. I dress in robes and a hijab as per the custom, and walk around the beautiful white halls, with stone floors and lattice windows. It's so pretty.
The prayer hall is large and lavish, but tourists aren't permitted inside, so instead I stand in the doorway and observe people praying.
Afterward, I go to the Central Market nearby, which is a hotspot for tourists.
There's a little outdoor flea market, called Katsuri Walk, where they sell a lot of local snacks and souvenirs (you can find "I ♥ KL" merchandise literally everywhere), and then an indoor portion, that has everything from fish spas and fortune tellers to batik sellers and artisan confectioneries.
I can see how tourists could spend hours in here, but I'm not too interested in shopping, so I take an Uber to Chinatown to see the Sri Mahamariamman temple, the oldest Hindu temple in KL.
I feel like Chinatown is relatively similar in every country. In New York, in San Francisco, in Seattle, in Singapore, and now here. There's always something very foreign but also very familiar about it whenever I go. It always has that same loud and bustling atmosphere, with red lanterns hanging overhead, plenty of fake luxury goods and souvenirs, the occasional Chinese pharmacy, and people selling noodles and sweets and shouting in Mandarin.
The Sri Mahamariamman temple proves difficult to find, but I finally see it, a tall cluster of tiny, colorful figurines rising above the rest of the buildings. The five-tiered, 75-foot-high Raja Gopuram gateway is typical of South Indian temples: ornate, dramatic, and decorated with depictions of Hindu gods. I Snapchat my friend Preeti a picture of the entrance. "Whoa," I caption it. "LOL, yeah," she responds, "We have like 100 gods in Hindu mythology."
It looks a lot like the Sri Mariamman temple, which you may remember from part I of my Singapore blog series. Like Chinatown, a lot of temples start to look the same in their respective countries, but unlike Chinatown, I am never tired of them.
I give my shoes to a coat-check service at the entrance. The entrance reminds me of the Forbidden City: two heavy wooden doors that open into a large courtyard. In the center are the actual alters, but the courtyard is linked with smaller places of tribute as well (I am completely out of my depth in these descriptions). People light oil lamps, bow to the pujaris, and place flower wreaths on some of the statues. There's a serene stillness in the air; tension so delicate I feel like I have to wander around carefully, reverentially, for fear of being disrespectful.
The last stop on my Quintessential Tourist Itinerary is the famous Petronas Twin Towers. The 88-story twin skyscrapers are the tallest in the world, and are a 21st-century landmark icon of KL. Like the National Mosque, their design is modeled after Islamic art. And they're the most extraordinary sight at night when they're illuminated and you're looking up at them from the ground.
They're surrounded by KLCC Park, a huge expanse of greenery with water fountains. There's a light show every night, and hundreds of people gather on the paths and on the steps to watch it. It's like something straight out of Disneyland.
I finally arrive back at the hostel and meet my new flatmates: Leah from Canada, Rianne from the Philippines, and Miyuko and Naomi from Japan. They've all been living together for a while, but they invite me to drink with them and I accept. We first go back to the night market. I insist on trying the nasi lemak, which turns out to be just coconut rice wrapped in a pandan leaf, and pair it with barbecued lamb.
It's delicious but also spicy...the more I eat it, the spicier it gets. I am not equipped for this, so we get Thai rolled ice cream afterward to cool our palates. You see a lot of this at the night markets there. They pour a creamy liquid onto a freezing metal plate, and scrape it off into rolls that they neatly arrange in a little bowl and cover with toppings. It's becoming popular in the States, too (I even mentioned it in my very first Minute Thoughts last summer).
We buy beer from a local liquor store on the way home. Leah insists that I try this 16% beer, but warns that it's "very intense." It is, and it's disgusting. It doesn't even taste like beer. I have to chase it with ginger ale to even make it remotely palatable. We drink on the roof for a bit and watch fireworks for Diwali.
I assume we're just casually drinking, but apparently we are pregaming. At midnight, we hit the bars, which are already packed. As usual, everyone is hawking free drinks, so we decide to choose a club based on the music. We settle on one called Public House, which is playing Shakira and the Pussycat Dolls (#tbt to middle school) and promises us free-flow vodka limes. It's pretty dead, which is why they're offering free drinks on a Friday, but the five of us manage to get all of the girls in the bar on the dance floor.
Dancing to Flo Rida in the middle of a club in Malaysia with people who don't even speak the same language as I do is something to remember. And it's a lot of fun. I haven't gone out in ages, but this kind of makes me miss going downtown on Thursdays to Wildcat.
It's Diwali today!
It's a lazy Saturday morning. We all wake up tired as hell from last night, and decide to get lunch because we're starving. It's pouring by the time I'm ready, but Leah and I head out in search of food anyway.
We are thoroughly soaked and running through the street, so we settle on a place near the hostel that sells shawarma and kabobs.
After we finish eating, we go to a nearby spa, where I get a fish pedicure and she gets a massage. The fish spa tickles like crazy; it feels like hundreds of tiny little scratches all over my feet. But definitely worth the $7 or so. It's still raining, hard, so the owners are kind enough to let us stay in the spa for a couple bit and use their wifi.
Afterward, we head back to the hostel for a short nap. Which turns out to be three hours. Oops.
We take an Uber to Little India, to see if anything's happening for Diwali. As it turns out, there isn't too much going on, as most of the Diwali celebrations are during the day, but there are plenty of people selling food, jewelry, flowers, and fireworks in the street. Everything is all lit up, as if for Christmas. The streets are awash in light, color, and smoke.
We eat dinner at this colorful little local Indian buffet, and I introduce Leah to prata. We eat quickly, and then walk around and explore for a bit after.
We aren't quite sure where to go, so we just follow the fireworks. There are people setting them off everywhere. They're so close to them it makes me nervous; some guys sit next to fully lit ones, completely unruffled. Some guys are literally passed out on the side of the road, drunk from celebrating Diwali, with their friends setting off firecrackers all around them.
We hear more crackling farther away, and run through the streets, looking for the source of the fireworks, and find some people in a tunnel lighting sparklers and Roman candles.
From Vulcan Post:
Light is an important element for the celebration and it is also to rejoice over the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness.
This explains all of the fireworks, the Christmas lights everywhere, and the oil lamps at the temple. Most New Years' celebrations involve some kind of purification ritual (like the water fights in Thailand), and apparently on the morning of Diwali, people clean their homes and bathe in oil.
We barhop for a bit back on Changkat Bukit Bintang, but I'm inexplicably still tired so I turn in early.
I wake up, and walk around the neighborhood a bit. Malaysia is still a developing country, and like all developing (and some third-world) countries, there's a stark contrast between the wealthy areas and the poor areas. Changkat Bukit Bintang is nice enough to appeal to tourists, and there's a PARKROYAL hotel right down the street, but in the back alleys, the buildings are dirty and a bit run-down with the trademark of low-income housing, laundry hung out to dry on balconies.
I venture out to the more central part of KL on my own for a light breakfast, in search of the famous Old Town White Coffee coffeeshop, which is supposedly just a short walk from the hostel. But of course, an hour and a half later, KL is proving exactly how unwalkable it is, not to mention that I am terrible with directions and Google Maps is literally the worst. Somehow I end up at the Pavilion, a fancy mall that's supposedly the crown luxury shopping jewel of KL, and order an iced coffee and some chicken curry at the Old Town White Coffee coffeeshop there.
The weekend is coming to a close, so I check out of the hostel and hop into an Uber to the airport. And just like that, I'm back in Singapore, and the trip is over just as quickly as it began. Admittedly, it wasn't nearly as fun as celebrating the new year in Thailand, but I'm glad I got to go to Malaysia for the first time, and see an authentic celebration of Diwali. I'd love to come back and see more parts of Malaysia, possibly Penang. Maybe next time I'll go to India and see Diwali in person there! I have so many more places to go. This is just the beginning.
Catch me in my next trip by subscribing below, and as always, thanks for reading :).