Malaysia: Truly Asia

As I finally approached day 100 in Baghdad, Farrell and I started brainstorming potential vacation destinations, knowing that we wanted somewhere cheap, warm and full of amazing food. Brazil? A difficult visa process and a bit too far away. Vietnam? A less difficult visa process, but still a bit too daunting on such short notice. We decided to roll the dice with Western Malaysia, despite that most of the travel guides warned about “monsoon season”. Psh! A little rain never hurt anyone, and with temperatures in the high 30s, it sounded like a guaranteed cooling-system to me.

So off we went to Malaysia!

We arrived around 6am; it was still dark as we left the airport, but the sky brightened as we approached the city. For the first part of the ride, the highway weaves between what seemed like rainforests. It was a welcome change after several months of beige living conditions. Slowly the dense fog rose and gave way to the bustling capital city of Kuala Lumpor.

Our hotel, the Bintang Warisan, is located on Jalan Bukit Bintang. At first glance, it’s a street full of massage parlors and luggage stores, and was surprisingly busy at all hours of the day, even 8am. I have to admit though, despite all of the activity that early in the morning, it wasn’t enough to inspire me to hit the ground running. Our hotel room wasn’t even available to us for several hours…it’s as if Malaysia was sending us a sign to skip sleep and go out exploring!

And explore we did!…after a refreshing nap at a shady hotel located conveniently next to our nice one. So that was the first lesson about KL travel: cheap hotels are never hard to find, as long as you give up creature comforts such as windows, are okay with the smell (and sight) of moldy walls, and can deal with the front-desk’s paranoia that you will, in fact, try to steal something. Most also employ a gaggle of Malaysian women who aggressively advertise massages or…umm…other “services”, depending on the time of day.

Eventually we made it back to Bintang Warisan, a truly enjoyable hotel hidden beneath the hundreds of neon reflexology signs that clog most store fronts. Farrell and I kept it simple for our first Malaysian meal, having lunch at the Heritage Coffeehouse, conveniently located next to the hotel. I didn’t know it, but I chose a standard for Malaysian cuisine: Nasi Lemak.

And what a perfect introduction to Malaysian food. “Nasi” means rice; the star of this dish. A warm mound of fragrant coconut rice surrounded by all kinds of flavors and textures. A few pieces of moist chicken cooked in a tumeric-based curry sauce that had caramelized into crunchy flecks on some parts. Pickled veggies with the right amount of heat and retaining just enough raw crunch in the center. Peanuts mixed with dried anchovies for texture and saltiness. Sweet and spicy sambal, a sauce made from chilies, vinegar and onions that was scooped up perfectly with the smooth and airy chips.

On their own, each part is perfectly adequate, but you cannot achieve the full depth of the dish without mixing various elements for new combinations of flavors and textures.

Somehow, in my bleary, jet-lagged state, I was too enraptured with my dish to remember anything about Farrell’s, a fried noodle dish that he enjoyed very much. (Although, Ellie at Almost Bourdain reminds me that it’s called Char Koay Teow. Thanks Ellie!)

I washed it all down with the first of the week’s many (many!) coffees that was thick and syrupy with sweetened condensed milk. With my raging sweet tooth, it definitely staved off a need for dessert at that point…(but not for long!)

Eventually, we did move away from our immediate surroundings and nearly got lost in the process, but more on that next time.

*Malaysia post disclaimer: I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a vacation more jam-packed than this one. So, seriously, there will be a lot of posts on Malaysia.