Entering the port of Port Kelang for the city of Kuala Lumpur officially marked the end of our 10-day cruise around the Malaysian Peninsula. Our last day was originally supposed to be a sea day but again, because of the unforeseen lightning strike, the captain had chosen to stop at this port on the last day instead.
Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, had a lot to offer. And so, as usual, we signed up for a “Best of City” tour, which would take us on all the highlights of the city so as to try to squeeze as much as we could into the few hours we had in the city. I remember feeling that everything was insanely rushed that whole day – we’d get on the bus, drive to a stop, wander around for twenty or thirty minutes to grab some pictures, and then get back on the bus, barely registering what we had seen. “I need to see as much as I can” has always been the whisper that I’ve heard every time we’re in a city for such a short period of time (so basically, all the ports of call on a cruise). Little did I know that I’d be back in the city three weeks later to celebrate Chinese New Year with a ton of new exchange friends, seeing all brand new things. So this blog post will highlight what I did with my family while we were there at the start of January, and will also highlight all the amazing things I saw with friends in the two days that we were there.
On that day in early January, our tour guide first led us to the “big stops”: the National Museum and the National Monument. Both were seen in a hurry in my opinion and under the beating Malaysian sun, even five minutes spent outside in the heat often became unbearable. So while it was so interesting to see the things we were seeing, the walking and the standing in the heat would often make us sluggish (I’d come to feel this feeling so, so many more times throughout the period of my exchange)
The National Monument did look beautiful in the light of the sun. Something that really piqued my interest was how the tour guide pointed out the Malaysian soldiers looked Caucasian and had very Caucasian-looking features. The reason for this was that the sculpture who had carved them had also designed other American monuments and so when designing this piece, he followed the same structure. This, I believe, was coupled with the fact that he had never seen a Malay person before.
We walked around the Merdeka Square (Independence Square) for a bit and got a glimpse of the blue roof of the National Mosque from afar before heading to the Kuala Lumpur Tower.
It was only when we got there did I find out that we’d be eating lunch at the top of the tower in the revolving restaurant. That was definitely the highlight of our tour that day – we got a bird’s eye view of Kuala Lumpur (each and every angle as the restaurant spun around) while getting to feast on some local delicacies. While cruise ships do have a “free” flow of great food, I find that I still miss certain types of food especially after eating similar things for consecutive days. We tried local cakes, local fruits, and local meals, all paired with the best possible view in the city.
The Kuala Lumpur looked like a smaller imitation of the CN Tower in Toronto, a landmark that has become so dear to my heart as it is probably the best landmark of home. Even being up in the restaurant made me a little nostalgic, as I thought about the revolving restaurant at the top of the CN Tower. Same concept, yet on a different side of the world. The KL Tower stands at a height of 421 metres, which makes it the 7th tallest freestanding tower in the world. In comparison, the CN tower is about 553 metres tall.
Right before we headed back to the cruise ship, we got a glimpse of the Petronas Twin Towers from afar (not just through a window from the Kuala Lumpur Tower). The bus stopped for us by the side of a road as we all filed out to snap a few photos before heading back to the port. Again, in the moment, I had regretted not being able to get closer up to the tower. But three weeks later, when I’d come back to the city, I’d get that chance. It’s funny the way the world works – I didn’t think I’d end up coming back to Kuala Lumpur and yet, because of a multitude of factors and reasons, I was able to.
Now, flash forward three weeks and it’s the season of the Lunar New Year. NUS didn’t give us our Student Visas until the weekend before the Lunar New Year so, very few of us were thinking about travel for Chinese New Year early in advance. Coming into our exchange, my friends and I from Queen’s were advised by those in upper years to avoid booking trips in advance. The main reason is that you might learn about places you want to travel to once the semester starts and you also might meet friends on exchange that you want to travel with. Spontaneity, with a bit of well-intentioned planning mixed in, is the key. So, we booked this trip to Kuala Lumpur on a whim, getting together a big group of 25 or 30 people to go. We had been looking at a multitude of other destinations for the special weekend in Asia but in the end, we chose to settle on KL because all flight tickets for that weekend were three to four times their regular price and at least, you could take a five-hour bus to KL.
We would be spending two days in Kuala Lumpur and on the third day, taking a bus to Malacca to spend the day in that city, which was also a UNESCO World Heritage city. I was excited, to say the least, mostly because I had never spent Chinese New Year outside of Canada before. This also marked the first official trip I’d be doing as part of exchange and so, it unofficially set the tone for the rest of exchange travel.
Day 1: National Mosque, Thean Hou Temple (Day & Night), Merdeka Square, and Petaling Street
We took a bus to Kuala Lumpur that left Singapore at around 7 pm and was supposed to get us to KL at around 12 am (the journey, they say, is normally four to five hours). However, because it was Chinese New Year weekend, the roads were packed and there was traffic. The five-hour journey ended up taking more than eight hours and got us to the downtown core of the city at around 3:30 in the morning. As soon as we got to our Airbnb, which was decently close to the Kuala Lumpur Tower, we headed to bed.
After a few hours of sleep, we chose to get our first day in the city started. We first headed to Thean Hou Temple, which is a Buddhist temple located just outside the main area where all the other tourist attractions are. I hadn’t even heard about this temple the last time I was here and so, I was so stunned by its beauty. There were rows and rows of red lanterns hung from one end of the temple to the other. There must have been hundreds and hundreds of them, maybe even a thousand or two. They swayed in the wind gently and their bright red colour was such a good pairing with the red of the temple building. What made it even better was that we had arrived at the temple around noon and so, the sun cast shadows of each lantern right underneath it, creating the same effect, but with black shadows, on the ground. Red lanterns in the sky, their shadows right below. Twice the number of lanterns, you could say.
We took a Grab from the temple back to Merdeka Square, the same square I had been in just three weeks before. I was the same person, in the same place, yet with completely different people and so, everything was completely different. Just like last time, we walked around for a bit and went to check out the exterior of some of the different mosques that bordered the square, admiring their architecture and their grandiosity.
Seeing that we were in the square already, we decided to also actually go into the National Mosque, which was closing soon. Last time, I had only seen it from a distance, getting a look at its renowned blue diamond rooftop. This time, I’d get to be underneath the rooftop.
To get into the mosque, you couldn’t just cover your shoulders and knees like you can with most mosques; you had to borrow a full cloak to wear. It was a purple “cloak” that covered your arms and legs and even had a hood of some sort that you had to wear in order to go in. Once we were inside, although already covered in a layer of sweat from the heat and the lack of breathability in this new clothing, I was blown away by how serene the inside was. In a lot of my more recent memories of mosques, they were also so crowded with tourists and also was coincidentally close to prayer time. And so, there was always a bustle of activity in the mosques, often getting to be overwhelming, But this one was the opposite: it was spotless and it was quiet. It made me slow down a bit. We already walked around for a bit and ended up finding a tour guide to talk to for a bit, who gave us some more information about the Islam religion and some of the main prayer customs for Muslims.
Our last stop of the day before the night was Petaling Street, which was a famous outdoor market known for selling “genuine fake” goods. We walked up and down, seeing a mix of fake Louis Vuitton bags, Ray-bans, and knock-off Nike and Adidas shoes. What was also nice was that there were a lot of food stalls along the street so we got to snack along the way.
At night, on the eve of Lunar New Year, we chose to go back to Thean Hou Temple. We heard that all the lanterns at night would be lit up and they would also have some Chinese New Year celebrations. As soon as we got there, I was even more blown away by the temple at night than I was earlier that day. It felt like a scene straight out of a Rapunzel-like story. All the lanterns above us were a bright red, lit by the light inside each lantern. The scene against the black backdrop of the night sky will forever be etched into my memory.
This trip, because it took place during Chinese New Year, was special. Growing up, I remember the CNY traditions my family and I would do together. We’d get dressed up in the silk outfits and go over to friends’ houses to have dinner together. Sometimes, that was the only time each year we’d see certain people. We were never big on celebrating, but there was always something. It was always acknowledged and although my parents celebrated it more than me (I remember them watching the Lunar New Year specials in Beijing on TV each year for hours at home), it was something that I always held close to my heart. After going off to university, I was never home for Chinese New Year and so, it was something that was celebrated less, often only being barely acknowledged the day of. A text to my parents to wish them a happy Chinese New Year. No more, no less. So, to be in a city that celebrated it was exciting. It made me feel closer to my roots. I felt at home, in a city that was so different from Toronto and in a life that felt so different from my life back home. We didn’t end up getting to see the CNY celebrations that night (turns out, they were starting right at 12 am to commemorate the actual day of CNY), but just to be in the presence of that energy in the temple was enough for me.
Day 2: Batu Caves, Jalan Alor Food Street, Petronas Towers
Our second day would be our trek to the Batu Caves to climb the stairs up to the top and into the caves. The Batu Caves is something that I’ve wanted to visit since I first found out that I’d be going to Asia for exchange and so, I was so excited that I’d finally be going, especially considering we had missed it last time we were in Kuala Lumpur as part of the cruise.
The Batu Caves were not far from our Airbnb at all (only about a 15 to 20-minute drive), and the walk up the stairs was supposedly not too bad either. We chose to go early because we wanted to avoid the big crowds and we also did not want to be climbing the steep stairs underneath the afternoon sun.
The Batu Caves experience is another highlight of the trip. It’s a limestone hill that has a series of caves and cave temples. However, its most notable part is a giant golden statue of Lord Murugan marking the entrance to the steps to the top. While climbing the stairs to the top, I saw a lot of Hindus carrying their offerings on the top of their hand, precariously balancing it as they put one foot in front of the other to ascend to the cave. I learned that those offerings were for the Gods and they’d give it up at the top. I even saw some doing the climb on their hands and knees, as that was another popular thing to do. Something that touched my heart was seeing an elderly woman do the climb on her hands and knees, with her family members around her giving her words of verbal encouragement and cheering her on.
Coming down, we also paid a visit to the temple that lay at the foot of the stairs. Inside, there were statues of different Hindu gods and each of these deities had their own “station” or “booth” inside the temple. I watched as Hindus came up with their offerings and prayed to the god that they chose to pray to. It was all very emotional and despite not being part of the Hindu religion, I was so amazed by everything and felt the strange urge to cry because of how sobering it was to see everything first-hand. While I don’t think I’ll ever take up Buddhism or Islam in the future, the reason I’m so fascinated by everything is that I’m constantly amazed by the power of religion and how it has the power to transform, to unite, and to change. I see it a lot in these two religions and I love being an in-person witness to the magic of each religion.
After that (and after a longer break at our Airbnb), we headed to Jalan Alor Food Street for dinner. Essentially, it’s a giant outdoor food market, with small stands lining both sides of the road and larger restaurants just behind the small stands. For dinner, we got some Thai Food and afterward, tried snacks here and there from the different stands. Coconut ice cream, fresh fruit juice, fried durian… the list was endless. It’s in moments like these (which are pretty often) that I am very grateful that I came to Asia for exchange. Everything (especially the food) is dirt cheap and when you take the currency exchange difference into account, it works out even better.
At night, we wandered to the bottom of the Petronas Towers, where there was a light show. While the light show was disappointing, to say the least (nothing compared to any of those in Singapore), I finally got my wish to be at the bottom of the towers, looking up at the tower.
Day 3: Malacca (Jonker Street, Trishaw Ride, Jonker Walk)
On the morning of our third day, we caught a bus to the city of Malacca. It was only two to three hours away from Kuala Lumpur, heading in the direction of Singapore. And the best part? The bus ticket only cost us 12 MRR, which is equivalent to about $3. The day we had in the city was perhaps the most relaxed day of our entire trip. Once getting there and throwing our stuff inside our Airbnb, we wandered to Jonker Street, a historic street, for some lunch. We tried the Chicken Rice Balls, which were a local delicacy. Afterward, for a quick hour of sightseeing, we got into the trishaws, which is something you have to do if you ever find yourself in Malacca. You sit in the back of a cart, while the driver takes you around on his bike. What makes them so funny is that they’re decorated WAY over the top. They each have a theme – Hello Kitty, My Little Pony, superheroes, and more. Ours was a “Baby Shark” themed cart. For an hour, you get taken on a path and they’ll stop every so often to let you off and see some sites. If you’ve got a good driver, they’ll even let you stay at each place for 15-20 minutes, as they wait by the side. This is more than enough time to get down, snap some photos, wander around, and climb back into your cart. It’s a quick and easy way to get the most out of your limited time there and the price (which I think translated to about $10) was worth the experience.
Finally, to cap off our weekend, we headed to Jonker Walk at night for dinner. It was a HUGE street food market, even bigger than the one that we were at earlier that day. All the shops essentially close down to allow the night market to take over and the street is crowded with locals, tourists, shop vendors, and more. You’ll find good, cheap food here and it’s such a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture and in a busier area.
Kuala Lumpur was the perfect way to kick off exchange, and the people that we were with made everything just that much better.