Malaysia: Truly Asia, Bukit Bintang

When I last left off, Farrell and I had just thoroughly enjoyed our first meal in Malaysia and were finally ready to explore the area around our hotel, settled on Jalan Bukit Bintang.

Of course, monsoon season starts in November, and it was raining. Lucky for us, there were three luggage shops in a row that all sold umbrellas, located right across the street from our hotel. A couple of 8 ringgit (~$2.50) umbrellas, fashionably chosen in pink and blue, and we were off. So what did we find?

…A lot of malls, actually. Malls are the perfect place to hide away during the many short (but intense) rain storms we encountered, or the usual unbearable midday heat. The one we decided to stop in was four floors of nothing but technology stores. I spent some time shopping around for a camera bag that doesn’t look like a lunchbox or a mountain climbing gear, though I wasn’t very successful.

Malaysia fun fact: Unlike Thailand, Malaysia’s prices for various gadgets and tech accessories are not cheaper than the U.S. I’ve heard Singapore is cheaper too. Camera bags and Canon lenses at Malaysian shops were at least 30% above online prices. Vendors know this, so they’re quick to give you what seems like a really great discount, but do your homework before you make any big purchases.

If you are looking for a good deal for your money, head to the Restoran Nagansari Curry House. Wandering around without a map, I can’t actually provide an exact location (Lonely Planet simply says “Jalan Nagansari”), but it is close to the main stretch. By the time we escaped the malls, we were starting to get hungry again. The rain had slowed to a cooling drizzle and it seemed like a good time to get lost on some back streets. We passed several Indian food joints, but when we came upon one that had stacks of sweets in a front display (plus plenty of locals eating inside, always a good sign), I couldn’t resist!

Now, I have to admit, I didn’t really do my homework in researching Malaysian food too thoroughly, so I was a bit unprepared for ordering. I recognized things like “roti” and “naan”, so that’s what we started with. The menu was in English but had no explanation of the dishes other than their names. Roti Canai was listed first and seemed like a safe bet, with an order of cheese naan to go along with it. Both roti and naan are types of bread; roti is fried, while naan is cooked in a tandoori oven.

Both arrived steaming hot, freshly cooked with sides of colorful and aromatic sauces to dip the warm dough in. We happily tore off pieces, cautiously dunking them in each sauce, finding some mildly spiced and others fiery hot.

But…what are we supposed to eat with all of this bread?

That’s when I noticed the banana leaves, sitting so pretty on our table, pushed back with a faded bottle of chili sauce and bucket of utensils.

There were four little green pyramids stacked on every table. Surely they couldn’t be decorations, right? I took a chance and slowly unwrapped one, and let’s just say I was greatly rewarded with the present inside.

Now, one thing I quickly realized about being outside of the Embassy is that little things, like well-cooked rice, can be life-changing! Especially after being served beige pellets for so long…or, “steamed rice” as the DFAC likes to call them.

How happy I was to find a block of (fluffy, amazing) coconut rice, topped off with rich sambal, salty/crunchy anchovies for texture, capped with a hard-boiled egg, and even a soft, sweet mini onion tucked inside. Suddenly we weren’t just eating various breads and dips, it was an actual meal! And I’m sure the waiters thought we weren’t as strange at that point.

“Oh good, the tourists finally realized they’re supposed to open the banana leaves…”

And there was happiness all around.

(Malaysia fun fact: There didn’t seem to be many Americans in Malaysia, and even when we spoke with cab drivers, waiters, etc, and blessed them with what I thought was an obvious accent, they usually pegged us for Iranians first. Or at least Farrell, he was the one that kept getting hit up for zakat in the street.)

Walking a bit further, turning a few more corners, we find a cafe with an…umm…interesting name…?

Really!? Come on! Did we not just get here to get away from Baghdad?!

(To clarify, the slogan is “Befor hunger gets you”, with the “e” missing, and the mascot is a character from the Disney movie, Ratatouille.)

A man saw us staring incredulously at his cafe and came out to invite us in. Farrell asked, “Are you from Baghdad?” I assumed it was named for the novelty of it. But no, it turns out that the owner is, in fact, from Iraq!

Yeah, we really can’t fully get away, can we?

His name was Sami (his real, Iraqi name was Ahmed) and he came from Fallouja, which he was worried about telling us. He loved Saddam, like seriously, he LOVED Saddam. He’s also a pretty big fan of the current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, and for as much as he loves Saddam (which is a lot!), he also loves that al-Qaeda has become so marginalized. He doesn’t hate Americans, but he does hate George W Bush.

Oh, and he decided to come to KL to study and open a shisha bar.

Meeting us made him really homesick and nostalgic, it was sad to hear him talk about how much he loves and misses Iraq. He was studying at Mustansiriya University up until a few years ago, when the violence started getting really bad. It definitely shattered some common notions about Iraqis, and reinforces the fact that it really is impossible to make generalizations about people. Go figure!

And while we’re on the subject of “Coffee shop names you wouldn’t expect in Malaysia”…I’ll wrap up this post with an even more unexpected coffee shop…

Umm…yeah. No words for this one, really. I mean, there’s even some sort of global seal on the banner…they’re not kidding! (Ikhwan means the Muslim Brotherhood in Arabic)

So all in all, the first day of exploring in KL was pretty tame. The weirder food starts a bit later with a late-night meal of fried frog…no joke.