Buddha and some durian

Yesterday while riding the LRT train, I realized a young Malaysian was speaking to me. I hadn’t really heard what he said, so I asked for a repeat. “Are you a Buddhist too?” he asked. That was totally unexpected. “Yes, but what made you ask me that?” I said. He pointed to the mala I wear on my wrist. Oh! And showed me his, on his own wrist.

We had about 10 minutes to chat before I reached my station. He has visited an uncle in the U.S. once but hasn’t lived abroad. He certainly didn’t seem any different from any other 20-something Malaysian — except that he had initiated a conversation with a foreigner. (In my experience, young people here are the opposite of outgoing around strangers.) I enjoyed his sincerity.

Chanting

I had business at the post office this morning, and then I walked to the Maha Vihara Buddhist temple, which is not far from the KL Hilton, where I’m staying now. I had never been there before. I saw lots of preparations for Wesak (the Buddha’s birthday), which will be celebrated on Monday — large paper lanterns, hundreds of small oil lamps, fresh new banners flapping in the breeze. A few monks in dark orange robes milled about.

A layperson called Mrs. Kow offered to show me around. Everyone’s been working very hard to clean and decorate for the holiday — the monks themselves are cutting the tissue paper designs for the lanterns, among other things. Wesak is not only the biggest holiday of the year but also the best opportunity for raising money to support the temple and the monks. Mrs. Kow said they’re working to create an education center to train monks from Malaysia. Most of their monks come from Sri Lanka. “Their dharma is wonderful, but they don’t speak our language,” she said. They do give dharma talks in English on Friday nights and Sunday mornings, so I suppose she meant Bahasa Malaysia, or maybe Mandarin.

Lantern

What I saw at Maha Vihara was nothing like the traditional Chinese Buddhist temples around Malaysia, where people come in and light incense (joss sticks) and then leave, and where there are rarely any monks in robes. Several times Mrs. Kow mentioned how learned their monks are (she said “our monks”). Unfortunately, the Friday dharma talk was canceled because of the holiday work. Maybe one day I’ll return here for Wesak.

For today’s obligatory food porn, I took the monorail to the Imbi stop so I could visit the big electronics shopping complex called Low Yat. I wasn’t sure I could find the place I remembered, but it turned out to be very easy, as it was right beside one of the entrances to Low Yat.

Hong Kong shrimp wonton with char siu

The first time I had this was in Hong Kong. I saw a lot of people eating exactly the same thing in a very crowded, very small restaurant there and indicated that I wanted whatever it was they were having. It’s tough to say which is better — the sweet, crispy, chewy pork; the heavenly shrimp-stuffed wontons; the rich broth; or the slurpy noodles.

Later I met up with Kiran and Milton for the last time on this trip. We went to a restaurant near Kiran’s house in Sentul called Naili’s Place, where I had black pepper beef steak and ABC, a dessert I adore made with shaved ice, syrup, assorted beans and jellies, and evaporated milk. That would have been quite enough, really, but Kiran had decided I just cannot leave Malaysia without eating some fresh durian, which just happens to be in season (although it’s still early in the season).

Durian

If you’re familiar with Andrew Zimmern’s TV show on the Travel Channel, you might remember durian as one of the few things he has spit out. Yes, this is a food that Zimmern cannot eat. I don’t mean to brag, but I can eat it. Not a lot of it, and certainly with nowhere near the gusto of a Malaysian, but it’s not bad.

We drove into Chow Kit and crawled through traffic on narrow Jalan Raja Alang until we found a stall selling the “king of fruits.” Kiran parked right there and jumped out, with Milton hot on her heels, and before I was even out of the car, they had selected their durian and the seller was hacking open the thorny rind. We sat down at a flimsy table behind his stall and he laid out paper napkins, bottled water, and the two neat halves of our durian. Within minutes my two friends had consumed almost all of it, while I daintily gnawed around the pit of my second and final piece.

More photos here.

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Wet markets and shopping malls

One of my top priorities in Asian cities is to visit a big market. A wet market is just that — wet, uneven paving treacherous with snaking rubber hoses, puddles of who-knows-what, slippery patches, animal entrails (okay, not in big pieces, but something is making it slimy), and happy cats preening themselves after a meal.

Inside Chow Kit's wet section

Chow Kit market: Veggies, fruits, meat and fish are in the “wet” part.

Inside Chow Kit Market

Chow Kit’s dry side: Hardware and sundries have their own sections under the same roof as the food items.

I feel very happy and contented walking through a market like this, watching people wash and scrub and chop and tie things into bundles. Voices cry out things like “Tiga ringgit, tiga ringgit, tiga ringgit” (three ringgit, the price of something) and “Mangga, mangga, manis, manis” (mango, mango, sweet, sweet). The smells change and the slanting sunlight shifts and there’s something new around every corner — much of it completely foreign to my culture. Live catfish flopping in a big plastic tub, for example. Dismembered chicken feet tied in a bunch. What’s more, I didn’t see any other Western person there in two whole hours.

More Chow Kit photos here and here.

I followed up with a leisurely stroll down Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, a street whose name I couldn’t even pronounce the first time I came here. Fabric shops, shops selling traditional wedding costumes, numerous motorcycle repair shops where tools and parts are strewn across the floor while men squat on their haunches to work on engines and wheels. Then a break for lunch, of course.

Nasi Kandar with Japanese Tofu

I was prepared to sit outside at a table in the rising midday heat — usually the only choice — but to my surprise, I was gestured into an air-conditioned dining room in the back, full of happy lunching Malaysians of every description. Yet another sign of progress toward developed-nation status — lunch with AC.

My good friend Kiran has been away from KL until yesterday, so today we made a plan to meet up, including Milton as well. A late afternoon trip to Silverfish books in Bangsar (I bought three books with the Silverfish imprint), some less than satisfactory mango smoothies (overpriced, and not made with fresh fruit!), and then an excursion to a new shopping mall so that Milton could check some cell phone prices. Ha, I fondled the overhyped Nokia N95 (about USD $900 here, for the 8 GB model), but it failed to impress me.

Kiran in a shopping mall

Kiran has iPhone envy — they are not sold here and reportedly cannot be made to work with local service providers (all phones here are unlocked) — unless you pay a guy to “crack” the iPhone for you. Kiran has heard there’s someone at another shopping mall who can do the deed. She asked if it’s true we can buy an iPhone in the U.S. for $399 (yes, the 8 GB). Then she claimed she’s not really interested in having one!

More photos here.

I love Kuala Lumpur

Hard to explain what I like about this place (the food, of course, but so much more than that) and why. I have missed a lot of things since leaving almost three years ago, but it’s not merely nostalgia. The feeling here in the city is very positive, optimistic. Something new seems to be in the air — I would like to think it is the rakyat, the people, coming into their own. People look good, the streets look good, there’s spiffy new signage in English and Arabic (brilliant, since they get a lot of Arab tourists in June and July), and today I saw a bunch of new magazines — locally written and produced, in English — that weren’t here three years ago.

I think there’s a changing of the guard, and it’s not the political parties so much as it’s the next generation stepping up to claim their birthright — which is a real multicultural Malaysia for all Malaysians.

Crowded train - doors closing

Today’ favorite photo: I couldn’t get on the LRT at KL Sentral because of the crowd!

Last night (Tuesday, May 13) I was treated to a delicious dinner (no photos, sorry) by Julian and Anita of Trinetizen, a local multimedia training outfit. A friend of theirs from The Star, Kamatchy Sappani, joined us too. We talked about journalists and online and training, naturally, but also about elections and racial politics and the Fulbright Scholar program (Kamatchy was a Humphrey Fellow in 1998-99) and the higher education system here in Malaysia.

We are eating cendol

Eating cendol: It was hot, and there was a truck selling icy cold, sweet, delectable cendol, and it was great.

Today I met up with Milton again, and her friend Adilah, and we tried KL’s Hop-On, Hop-Off bus (38 ringgit for me, 17 ringgit each for Malaysians). The full circuit took two hours to complete. There are 22 stops on the route, and it includes all the major hotels, making it a very convenient way to reach some of the city’s pain-in-the-neck locations such as the big telecom tower (Menara KL) and the National Museum, which is cut off from the walking world by eight-lane highways circling it. We rode the Eye on Malaysia ferris wheel and capped off the day with a visit to the Islamic Museum, where there was a special exhibition about women in Islam.

Char Kuey Teow

Lunch lah: Char kuey teow, rice noodles with prawns, chili, bean sprouts, scallions … yum!

I’m trying to remember to photograph as much food porn as I can, but as for the cendol — it doesn’t really look like much, and besides, you have to eat it fast because it’s melting fast.

Finally, went to KLCC tonight after the rush hour(s) because I didn’t think to acquire a grounded power adapter for my MacBook. Doh! Not a big problem to find it — KLCC is an absolutely gi-normous multi-level shopping mall, and I think you can find almost anything there. Went to the Kinokuniya bookstore and bought some of those shiny new Malaysian magazines. Looked at electronics prices — no bargains at all (the new iPod Nano actually costs MORE here than in the U.S.). I even felt happy to be in the shopping mall, for heaven’s sake! (I hate shopping malls!)

More photos here.

Day 4, Kuala Lumpur

Everyone wants to know if I know about Malaysia’s recent elections. Everyone’s so happy to hear that I followed them with great interest! And when we have exhausted our opinions abut the future of Malaysia and its ruling party, the next question for me is, “Are you for Hillary or Obama?” No one asks me about McCain. He is completely off the radar here.

Monday I saw lots of my old colleagues from the faculty at UiTM in Shah Alam. Today (Tuesday) I moved from Siti’s house to the KL Hilton — my favorite hotel in the world! I think I am finally over the jet lag — hoping I can sleep past 4 a.m. tonight.

Shopkeepers in Chinatown

Above: My favorite photo from today, when I went walking in Chinatown.

Siti and her family

Above: Siti and most of her family (minus one daughter and one grandmother) in their living room. These two daughters and their dad had just gotten home from work, so I caught them before they changed clothes.

Tasty breakfast - roti canai

Above: Roti canai, one of the best foods in all the world!

Milton at home

Above: Milton in front of her house. (She has a very green thumb.)

More photos here.

Already stuffed with rice (and other good food)

Arrived in Malaysia Friday night (May 9) at midnight (noon U.S. Eastern time). My friend Milton met me and ferried me away to her home. Luggage all arrived safely — so far, so good!

First thing in the morning, we went out for some nasi lemak. It’s wonderful how my Bahasa Malaysia vocabulary comes right back to me. No grammar, unfortunately, but plenty of nouns and a few useful verbs. Milton asked me if I wanted sotong — she couldn’t remember the English word (squid) in sos kacang (peanut sauce). Yummy, yes! I forgot to take a photo of my first breakfast in Malaysia — too busy eating it.

Had a lazy day hanging around with Milton, ate a lot of rambutan and mangosteen (my favorite fruit), went out for some errands and bought two music CDs (Too Phat’s Too Furious, and one by Ramli Sarip).

This morning I met another friend from UiTM, Siti, and she took me to her house, where her three grown daughters had been cooking up some fantastic chicken rice! Wow, was it good! They made both sauces and everything. Big family feast. Met Siti’s husband Syed for the first time — he travels on business all the time but is at home this weekend. Siti’s mother also lives with them, and her son Ozal has grown almost into a man since I last saw him three years ago. They have a new house with the biggest kitchen I have ever seen in this country. The four kids have been very talkative — their English is excellent. The two oldest girls have finished university and are working now.

More mangosteen and one small pisang (banana), plus a little kaya toast. Already getting fat lah.