Kuala Lumpur – The Art and Soul of Malaysia

I’m sticking with my first impression that Kuala Lumpur isn’t anything too special, but a large chaotic city, with horns constantly honking, people rushing to anywhere and everywhere and buildings galore.  I did get the chance to have a few adventures when I was there though.

I had read that the Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest twin towers, only open 1300 tickets (and rumor is they sell out pretty quick) to go up in the Sky Bridge every day so I wanted to get there early to insure that I could get a ticket.  I arrived around 9:30 in KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre) and received a ticket for 12:15, so I had some time to kill in the enormous surrounding mall.  My couchsurfing host, another avid photographer, had informed me that there was a photography exhibit on the third floor.  It was the Sony World Photography Awards Global Tour and it was only in town for a month.  How lucky was I to get to see it!?  I spent a good thirty to forty minutes examining the works of art, which ranged from people to landscapes to action photography and it all was so incredibly interesting.  I love looking at other people photographs because it inspires me to go out and make my own unique shots.

The reflection of the Petronas Towers from the fountain in the park

After eating a delicious breakfast of Nasi Lemak at a restaurant in the mall, I took a stroll in the neighboring Taman Park and shot some pictures of the two towers.  The park was peaceful and had a water area where kids could play and parents could relax in the shade. Pretty soon, before I knew it, it was time for my adventure up to the Sky Bridge.

The tour began with a video about the Petronas company.  Not really the most exciting material, but they made it into 3D so I guess that makes up for it, although it wasn’t the most high quality 3D I’ve seen, Avatar was much better.  We then queued up for our 30 second ride up to the 41st floor where we would enter the Sky Bridge. 

View from the Skybridge on Floor 41 of the Petronas Towers

We were given ten minutes (which surprised me because I was told only three minutes) and set loose to roam the bridge.  The view was amazing and I had to try and not think about the fact that there was really nothing below me except a long plummet down.  I was so glad that I did the walk and I probably could have stayed up there for hours just staring at the city skyline.  I kept moving from one side of the tower to the other and back again.  I just couldn’t get enough!

Jumping on the train, I moved on to the Central Market, a place I deemed entirely too dangerous to linger because I wanted to buy everything in sight.  Indian paintings, Chinese sculptures, Thailand sarongs, Malaysian souvenirs.  You name it, this market had it.  I had to get myself out of there, and quick, because I was about to overflow my backpack with objects I know I didn’t need.  

Petaling Street, also known as Chinatown

I did a quick walk through Chinatown, it really didn’t look like anything I hadn’t seen before, and decided to embark on a quest to find the Islamic Arts Museum.  And I am so glad that I did.  After wandering around for a wall, looking like a typical tourist with my map help up high and spinning in circles, I found the museum.  Its usually 12 RM to get it, but I said I was a student (don’t judge! I’m going back to school eventually!) and I received half price.  The museum guide motioned over to a special exhibit that was only here for a couple months and when I saw what it was I knew I had come to the right place.

One of the most famous National Geographic Photos

Steve McCurry is the National Geographic photographer that took the most famous picture of the Islamic girl in a burgundy headdress with the bright green eyes.   I entered a room filled with his photography of Islamic people and from Islamic places and I was in photography heaven.  I spent at least 45 minutes in the room.  I would study one picture then move on to the next, only to return to the one before it to study it again.  It was amazing and I can’t believe that I was in KL to catch it!

The rest of the museum was great as well.  My favorite exhibit was the Qur’an and Manuscript Gallery.  I had never seen such beautifully written manuscripts.  Hours and hours had to go into each page of these holy books.  The calligraphy was unbelievable and I can’t imagine using such an ornate book as my worship guide.  I stared at each one of the books for a few minutes and just imagined someone putting all that time and effort into it.  There were also extremely small, pocket-sized versions, which had the same beauty.  I had a great time perusing the other exhibits of the museum and would definitely recommend it as a must-see spot.

The hecticness of Bukit Bintang

I checked out Bukit Bintang, apparently the backpackers spot in KL, and it was some of the best people watching I have ever had!  While I waited for another couchsurfing acquaintance for dinner, I posted up at a spot on the stairs by the Monorail station and observed the constant foot traffic.  People watching is one of my favorite things to do so I didn’t mind the wait!  We grabbed dinner at one of the hawker stalls.  I tried frog legs and stingray for the first time!  The stingray was delicious, but I’d have to say the frog was nothing to write home about. 

A view of the Petronas Towers at Night

We grabbed a drink, which is a much pricier than in Thailand, and then headed over to the Petronas Towers so I could get some night shots! 

My last stop before I boarded my plane to Singapore was the Batu Caves.  I had to take a 45-minute bus ride to get out there, which was a task in itself because I was advised in three entirely different directions by three different people on how to get to the bus.  On the way I realized that I was going to be cutting it close to catch my flight to Singapore, which gave me a small, constant anxiety.  I got there around 10:45 and gave myself about 45 minutes there (usually a visitor should take about 2 hours to explore the caves and surrounding areas), so I definitely rushed myself a bit, but I’m glad I went nonetheless.

The Steps to the Batu Caves

The caves were enormous!  I had to climb flights and flights of stairs to get up to the first cave, where there were Indian statues, with water dripping and the sounds of bats coming from above. When I got up to the last cave, I couldn’t help but straining my neck up for long periods of time because it was so beautiful!   It was quite the experience!

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First impressions: Kuala Lumpur

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur by a bus from Penang and was once again overwhelmed by a huge city. I knew what I was getting myself into, another big city like Bangkok, but I guess I just forgot about how I felt when I first landed in Asia. I was meeting up with my couchsurfing host at some train stop and I had to switch trains on the way. The train system is unlike Bangkok’s simple skytrain with only two distinct lines. KL has four different lines and they go in all different directions. A little overwhelming of course. I made it onto what I thought was the right train, the Star LRT, but came to realize it was going the wrong way!! I got off at the next stop, had to cross the street, and explain to the ticket attendent that I had boarded the wrong train!! They let me in with a smile and I was once again on my way.

My first thoughts of KL were that it just looked like any other city. High skyrises, crazy traffic, and hoards of people. Coming from the quaint little town of Penang I was a little disappointed. I had loved Penang so much and I wasn’t ready for another big city. I also instantly missed my home in Lang Suan. I’ve loved the smaller towns.  But I knew that I still wanted to explore it and see what the hype was all about!

Penang, Malaysia – A UNESCO World Heritage Site

My second day in Penang was just as wonderful and eventful as the first.  This city just feels so alive 100% of the time and people are constantly on the move.  It is full of traffic jams and crazy driving, much like in Thailand, but the narrow streets and no real sense of urgency (a sense that I have discovered is all over Thailand) give it a smaller city vibe.

The Burmese Temple Buddha

We started off with a visit to the Dharmikarama Burmese Temple.  I have yet to see a Burmese temple so this was definitely interesting to me.  The Buddhas were slightly different than the traditional Thai Buddhas that I had seen in Bangkok and Lang Suan and there was a hall with Buddha statues from all over the world.  Each country has a different way they like to place the hands (also known as a mudra) and it was interesting to see them all together in one room.   

We crossed the street over to the Thai Temple, Wat Chaiyamangkararam, home of the Sleeping Buddha.  This statue was very different from the Sleeping Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok and in no way similar to any Buddha I had seen before.  It was in color!  The lips were red and it looked to be made out of porcelain rather than a harsh bronze. 

The reclining Buddha in the Thai Temple

It looked pretty almost with its sly grin and dreamy eyes.  The Buddha was also surrounded by monk memorials with the ashes of the monks actually inside the statues.  Some of them had the pictures of the actual monks as well.  We were walking around the temple and I was asking Sin Kok what certain statues meant and what they were for and we came across a grandfatherlike clock.  I asked him what the symbolized and he looked at me and said, “Basically its for if anyone is curious about the time!”  It was a definite had to be there moment, but hilarious at the same time.  I was convinced that there was an old tradition or something having to do with a big clock, but no, instead of a clock on the wall, they chose the ornate version of our common time telling apparatus. 

We took a quick seaside drive down Gurney Drive, which is peppered with high end hotels, millionaire homes, and a large shopping mall.  It was fun to look at a more posh side of Penang although I know I would never choose to stay there when visiting.  I have loved staying in Air Hitam with Sin Kok and his father because it gives me a real sense of Penang life.  I have been learning so much about the Malay culture and because Sin Kok is Chinese, he also gives me insights into the Chinese culture as well.  He is constantly quizzing me on Malay phrases he has taught me, which I still stumble over, and he is eager to help me feel comfortable in a culture that is worlds apart from mine. 

A few of the houses at the Clan Jetties

We met up with another one of Sin Kok’s friends, Fiona, and after a delicious lunch in another hawker center (definitely my favorite place to eat, who needs restaurants when you can try a little bit of everything), we explored the Traditional Clan Jetties, where houses were built on stilts to save money on land prices and taxes (if a house was built in the water the owner was exempt from land tax).  It was like another world around there.  The community seemed extremely tight knit, probably because the houses were so close together.  It was so interesting to look between the houses and see water and fish.  What an incredible way to live!  Some of the houses were actually pretty nice, while others were a little ragged, probably ones that hadn’t been remodeled for years.  I liked the older ones better because they fit the setting perfectly.

A food stall in Little India

We then took a stroll through Little India, which is bustling with food carts, men hard at working making the flower adornments which are placed as an offering in a Hindu temple, dilapidated but extremely quaint buildings, and constant chatter and smiles.  Like the rest of Georgetown, and really the entire island of Penang, Little India had an inundating feel of pure culture and life. 

A visitor to the Kuan Yin Temple

Next to Little India was the Kuan Yin Temple, the oldest temple in Penang.  It was alive with people lighting incense and laying offerings in front of various statues.  I loved the feeling of the old temple.  The tradition seeped through its walls and I could see that it was an extremely popular place to pay respects, more so than the newer temples.  I hope future renovations (I’m assuming its on some list of eventual renovations for the UNESCO site) don’t steal this temples uniqueness or erase its history. 

A view of the Old Anglican Church

Nearby was the old Anglican Church, St. George Church.  Malaysia was colonized by the British and their influence can be seen in most of the government buildings and throughout the city of Penang.  The church was very traditional and I loved the fact that it was merely meters from a Buddhist temple around the corner, a Muslim Mosque down the street and a Hindu temple across the street.  It just adds to the extreme diversity that defines Penang. 

The front of the Jiang Teochew Ancestral Temple

Our last stop before we took a rest was the Han Jiang Teochew Ancestral Temple, the recipient of the 2006 Award of Merit Unesco Asia-Pacific for Culture Heritage Conservation.  It had finished renovations and there was an exhibit in each room showing the before and after pictures (I tended to like the before pictures, but the place was utterly beautiful).   This temple wasn’t too crowded and was very peaceful. 

The Goddess of Mercy Pavilion

To round off the night we took another excursion up to the Kek Lok Si Temple because we had not made it up to the Goddess of Mercy Pavilion yet (if you don’t drive up, you have to take a little trolley and there was a huge line, so we decided to come another night).  The pavilion was definitely the place to be.  It was absolutely beautiful and crowds of people were hoarding around the statue to pay their respects.  And this statue was huge.  Straining my neck to get a good look at it, the lights surrounding the statue gave her a very heavenly feel and I was struck with awe at the beauty of the pavilion. Once again, I was lucky to have been able to visit Kek Lok Si during Chinese New Year, although I know it is still beautiful any other time of the year.

My third day in Penang was my day of rest.  It was the last day of Chinese New Year and Sin Kok was having a potluck with all of his friends in celebration.  We went shopping in the morning and I sat and chatted with him in the kitchen while he cooked his shark fin soup.  I felt so welcomed by all of his friends and was extremely happy when a few of them took the time to sit down and talk to me (most of the time they were rattling away in Chinese, which of course is understandable, I know how I get when I’m around all my best friends).  It was so amazing to feel the community that they had and witness a huge part of their culture.  I have really learned to appreciate the Chinese culture a lot more after my stay with my new friends!

Monday was my last day in Penang and I was truly sad to leave.  I have had so much fun with Sin Kok and his friends and I have absolutely fallen in love with the island.  It was more culture on one street corner than I have in my town in Lang Suan and has provided me with one of the best learning experiences I have had in Asia so far!

We started off my last day with a trip to the transfer route in the Heritage Area , where the Muslim Indian population host the most famous place for Roti Canai in Penang.  Eaten with a tomato paste sauce, I had one cooked with egg and a plain one and it definitely earned its title.  I also had a pull tea, which was a type of milk tea, and it too was the best I had had in Penang, as well as in the rest of Southeast Asia. 

A tower at the Kapitan Keling Mosque

After stuffing our faces (I am convinced that being in Asia has made me fat, there is way too much good food and I never want to stop eating!) we headed to the Kapitan Keling Mosque.   Located on the Street of Harmony, which is named because of all the different religious entities represented on the street, the Moorish architecture of the mosque is stunning.  It is unlike any other mosque in the city and is definitely a place to explore.  I had to don a headdress and costume to go in and although I was sweating profusely it was worth it.  I had never been in a mosque before and I was truly lucky to be able to set foot in the Kapitan Keling Mosque. 

In the entrance to the Khoo Kongsi temple

After stopping to get a ban chang kaoy, a Chinese pancake, (once again, another reason why I’m no longer skinny) we explored the Tuapek Kong, also known as the Grand Uncle Temple and then moved on to the famous Khoo Kongsi temple, or Clan temple, the heritage jewel of Penang.  The afternoon sun was super harsh so it was difficult to get a good picture of the temple from the front, but take my word for it, it was gorgeous.  It is the largest clan temple in Penang and has a traditional theatre stage for events, a museum, and three beautiful rooms adorned with Khoo family relics and accolades.

Sunset over Balik Pulau

We took a quick stroll through the Protestant Cemetery, where Francis Light the establisher of the city of Penang is buried along with many of the prominent colonial Englishmen.  After a quick stop and getting scared out of my mind by Sin Kok at the Snake Temple, Sin Kok suggested that we drive up to see the sunset.  Everyone knows I never pass up a good sunset so I happily obliged.  It was a long drive, but definitely not something I would never have seen as a normal tourist.   We made it to the hilltop and looked over Balik Pulau and enjoyed the beauty while eating some Thai food (that is the restaurant at the top of the hill).  I love just sitting and enjoying nature and the beauty of a country that I have only just discovered.  Once again, its at these moments where I just can’t believe that I’m in Malaysia!  Its just so beautiful, amazing and new to me. 

Penang was wonderful.  I was extremely sad to leave but now I must move on to Kuala Lumpur!  I wish I had more time to explore Malaysia because I can see that it has so much more to offer.  Oh well, guess that gives me an excuse to come back!!

First Impressions: Penang, Malaysia

Penang. I love it. Words can’t describe how much I love it. I’m sure it partly has to do with my amazing couchsurfing host, who knows anything and everything about the city (he conveniently took a tour guide course recently!) and is just as excited to share it with me than I am to explore it, and partly to do with the fact that its just plain awesome.

The beautiful mix of Malay, Indian, and Chinese culture with a dash of British influence creates this environment where you can discover something different on every corner. Buddhist (Chinese, Burmese and even some Thai) and Hindu temples, Muslim Mosques, and even old Anglican churches illustrate this city’s religious diversity despite the national declaration of the Islam religion.

The sidewalks in Georgetown, Penang

I arrived into Georgetown (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and instantly fell in love with the quaintness. The streets had a welcoming feel to them and I already noticed and loved the diversity of the town. I was surprised and excited that the Malay language uses a Roman alphabet because that meant that I would be able to see how words were pronounced, a feat I am not able to do in Thailand.

My host, Sin Kok, met me in Georgetown and whisked me away to the New World Park for a delicious lunch at Old Town. I told him that I was willing to try anything and that I wanted to taste unique dishes. I luckily have taste buds for pretty much anything (bananas aside) and there are not many things I have tried and disliked. Penang was no exception. Everything I have been “fed” here by Sin Kok and his friend, Alvin, I have loved. From Indian roti canai (flatbread), to Chinese dimsum, to Malay Nasi Dagang, I have enjoyed it all. I would say food is definitely one of Penang Island’s highlights.

One of the paths through the Botanical Gardens

We then took a stroll through the gorgeous Botanical Gardens where we were joined by families, joggers, and mischievous monkeys. Nestled in the Penang Mountains, the Botanical Gardens is one of the places on the island with the cleanest air and thus a hotspot for athletic activity. It was incredibly peaceful and serene and I could picture myself coming here on weekends to write, work on my photography or read a book.

A view of the Kek Lok Si Temple at night

The next stop was the “must see” in Penang, the Kek Lok Si Temple, or Supreme Bliss Temple. Because it is Chinese New Year season, the temple lights up the hundreds of red and orange lanterns which were donated by locals. Upon their donation, the Chinese people wish upon the lantern for good fortune, happiness, and prosperity. I am so lucky to have been able to visit during this time. After climbing ten flights of stairs to the pagoda, we had the chance to look out over the extremely bright, colorful temple as well as the island of Penang. Enjoying the breeze at our high altitude, we soaked in the beautiful sight in front of us.

After a wonderful dinner at some Chinese hawker stalls, we called it a day. And what an amazing first day in Penang! So much more to see in this unbelievable city!!

Note:  I’ve decided I want to start a “First Impressions Series” where I post about my first day in a new city.  First impressions are the most important but they definitely do change (just like my opinion of Bangkok changed!).  This will really give you an insight into what I’m feeling when I see a foreign place for the first time! Enjoy!