These week-long winter escapes were becoming established events in non-travel years. Cheap flights and the lure of tropical heat proved to be an irresistible combination, and a favourable change in Air Asia’s schedule meant that we could squeeze every minute out of this short trip…
IT WAS THE DAY AFTER my fiftieth birthday and we shot home from work at 5 o’clock like heat seeking missiles, grabbing our bags and heading to the airport for the 9:30pm flight to KL.
Luckily it wasn’t a particularly cold night and we passed a pleasant enough evening, mixing with the microcosm of other Friday night departures, from flamboyantly dressed Samoans going to Apia, to overburdened Chinese families, and orderly queues heading for Tokyo.
We both slept through the night, and so were still recognisable when we presented ourselves at the immigration counter. At 4:30am it was a speedy process and we barely broke our stride between the baggage claim and the bus ticket counter on the ground floor, where I found my Malay tongue to buy two tickets to TBS, Kuala Lumpur’s southern bus terminal.
By 5:30am we were on our way again, sorry that there hadn’t been time for any kind of breakfast, but happy to be warm and free, even if it was for just one week. The trip took forty-five minutes on highways and flyways connecting new satellite suburbs and cybertowns which flashed past us in the night. TBS loomed out of the darkness, an early morning hub of activity which efficiently provided the next of our needs – transport to Kuantan and food.
A cherub-faced boy at the ticket window smiled at the sound of my bahasa melayu, and cheerfully sold us two seats on the 8 o’clock Transnasional departure. And the Restoran Nasi Kandar upstairs issued a bare bones repast of a two ringgit nasi lemak in a brown paper triangle, and mee sarapan with our life saving cups of coffee and teh wangi ros.
THE FOUR HOUR DRIVE ACROSS the peninsula was a route that we’d never travelled. We skirted the city through Cheras and Gombak then climbed over the mountains, the metropolis soon giving way to jungle-clad hills dotted with recreation resorts and fruit farms. It was a cloudy day but we could see the Gunung Tahan range in the distance as we drove on through rubber and palm oil plantations, as beautiful as they were destructive.
At the Terminal Kuantan (not so) Sentral bus stand we found a local city bus to take us on the final leg of our journey into town. It took a bit of disoriented wandering to gain a bearing on where we were, but because of the clouds, it wasn’t too hot in the midday heat, and we eventually stumbled across the Hotel Kosma. Firdaus at the reception desk offered us an acceptable room for 60 ringgit, so we quickly checked in then hungrily set off in search of lunch…
Authentic Pahang cuisine topped our wish list, so we sought out the highly recommended Akob Patin House, a bit difficult to find hidden away in Lorong Haji Abdul Rahman. Located in a breezy corner shophouse, we found a buffet feast laid out, and while the rest of the city was quiet, almost deserted on a Saturday afternoon, this restaurant was busy with enthusiastic diners. This was really a local joint – amongst the dozens, I was the only woman not wearing a hijab, and the smell of durian was offending no-one. The star attraction at the buffet was undoubtedly the ikan patin tempoyak, deliciously fruity and aromatic, the spicy fermented sauce screamed “durian!!!” The oily river fish, patin, which was cooked in it was unbelievably succulent and tasty. From amongst the bounty of other dishes we tried the pumpkin kunyit santan with pandan leaf, bracken simmered in coconut milk, cap cai, fried okra slivers, sauteed baby eggplant, braised bittermelon, and tempe kentang kacang sambal. The service was friendly and our entire meal cost 40 ringgit, which included 30 ringgits worth of fish!
Well pleased with our opening serve we went off to find a spot to relax, and headed down past the old Chinese shophouses along Jalan Mahkota and Jalan Besar to the riverfront. A cool breeze set the comfort meter to ‘perfect’ and we laid on the lawn under the shade trees watching wooden fishing boats ply back and forth through the deep green water. It was a pity that we had to risk our well being to get there. Traffic in Kuantan, even on a Saturday afternoon, was frightful, and the road conditions were horrendously unsympathetic to pedestrians. With inadequate footpaths and no safe crossing points, it was every man for himself.
Undeterred, we went for an afternoon walk to Taman Gelora, a park on the outskirts of town shaded by casuarinas at the mouth of Sungai Kuantan. The shady park was an ulterior motive for a visit to Pak Lah’s rojak stall, set on the perimeter in a thicket of trees. This place was also busy and certainly worth the walk. We shared an ayam rojak, a delicious assortment of ingredients which worked fabulously together doused in a spicy sweet peanut sauce. Cucumber, roast chicken, boiled egg, potato, tauhu pok, and chunks of deep fried steamed sponge bread. And their coconut shake with ice cream on top was the best we’d ever had anywhere.
Heading back we started to flag – our feet were swollen and sore, and due to the time lag we were tired. Pleased with our day, but exhausted we were sleeping by 8 o’clock despite the best efforts of the traffic below on Jalan Merdeka. It continued to haunt us in the comfort of our room…
THE NOISE ACTUALLY CONTINUED ALL through the night, with plenty of scooter rev-heads out, and Dave claimed to have heard gunshots within screaming distance. I slept through, roused by the mosque at 5am, then waking at 6 o’clock to start the day.
We had intended to walk to the beach, but given the appalling pedestrian conditions, decided to take the bus instead. At the bus stand we waited as long as it would have taken to walk the seven kilometres to Teluk Cempedak, but at least we reached our destination in comfort and safety. We leapt off the Rapid Kuantan in front of a row of shopfronts where we found Restoran Hoi Yin overflowing with breakfast patrons. We joined a fellow-tourist from Johor Bahru at an outside table for delicious kari mee, yellow noodles topped with fish cake, tauhu pok, juicy poached chicken, bean curd skin and fish balls doused in coconut curry soup. As we slurped we learnt that JB was “no good”, with too many economic migrants from the east coast unable to find work across the causeway. We cooled our palates with kopi and teh peng, then went for a walk on the beach, following the boardwalk around to the next bay with the first wave on Sunday morning picnickers.
Past the food zone the beach was backed by jungle, and smooth boulders were strewn across the headland. Casuarinas and sea almonds provided shade and a cool breeze kept the temperature very nice.
Back in town we ditched from the return bus at the pasar tani, the Sunday farmers market, which was in full swing. It was the real deal, with fresh seasonal produce being sold amongst food stalls offering local snacks, condiments and refreshments.
We wandered around for a couple of hours, chatting, snack-tracking, and filling our bag with fruits. We bought longans, guavas, pineapple, mangosteens and salak still on their stalk. And we sampled lots of tasty delicacies – chilled durian crepes, piping hot akok (gooey cakes made of egg, palm sugar and coconut milk). We had fresh soy milk, sata (fish and sticky rice barbequed in palm leaf), and an icy cold mango shake. Local produce for sale included all sorts of exotica, from live ikan patin, silver catfish to fermented durian paste. It was fun engaging with the vendors and checking out the unusual vegetables, honeys, saplings, spices and herbs. In one corner of the makeshift market buffalo meat was available, freshly butchered with grisly displays of innards, skinless heads, hooves and tails. Opposite were smoking satay stalls, and further along plucked chickens had met an undignified end in long rows with their legs in the air.
Sprinkled around were artisan stalls with items like ikan kunyit, fish marinated in turmeric root, and sweet pickled fruits. The market was a purely Malay affair, there were no Tamils or Chinese, and we seemed to be the only non-Bumiputras in attendance. The clothing stalls stocked only frumpy smocks and nylon hijabs, and there was no need for signage denoting halal goods – everything was 786.
We spent a lazy afternoon on the lawn by the river, eating our fruits and catching the very pleasant breeze. Behind us on Jalan Taman we identified the old Chinese hotel, Tong Nam Ah, where we had stayed on our previous visit. It probably didn’t look any worse than it did all those years ago – but our standards had risen somewhat since then. On the opposite bank thick mangroves cloaked the shore, and sea eagles occasionally soared out from the forest – an odd juxtaposition to the city.
In the evening we threw caution to the wind and risked a walk across the bridge to Tanjung Lumpur to seek out the fish restaurants at the seafront. The walk left a lot to be desired, as did the seafront, but the fish at Ana Ikan Bakar Petai was everything that it was cracked up to be. We zoomed straight to the barbeque kitchen to select a nice grouper to be cooked in the signature bakar petai style, and a squid for sotong goreng tepung. We ordered a plate of kangkung belacan to accompany it, with the chefs grinning at our deft ordering.
The restaurant was really just a roof with fans, and we strategically positioned ourselves to devour this birthday feast. The kangkung was delicious, fried with chicken, prawns and squid in a tiram sauce with onion and chilli. The squid was crispy fried and presented with sweet chilli sauce, and the main attraction we unwrapped from its charred banana leaf to discover succulent flesh smothered in petai bean rempah. The resident cats sidled up at our table as we devoured our ikan kerapu, the spicy scraps were even worth fighting for at the vacated tables. We paid 70 ringgit for our modest selection, while at the adjoining tables the patrons were going all out with braised clams, battered crabs, and multiple fish dishes with their mandatory sotong goreng tepung.
The walk back wasn’t so bad, and in the evening light we were called to the grand Sultan Ahmad Shah mosque, pretty in pastel blues with tall fairytale minarets. When we last visited Kuantan in 1994 it was brand new, the tiles sparkled and the tips of the spires were coloured in pastel green. Over twenty years later its beauty had faded a little, but it remained a stunning centrepiece of the city. We sat beside it at a mobile stall called Kelapa Joget sipping a coconut shake as the muezzin chanted his heart out into the night sky.
WE WENT FOR A LAP around the padang at dawn the next morning, grateful at not having had to endure the horrendous formula-one traffic noise of the night before. It was a back-to-work Monday and we checked out our breakfast options as we strolled around. Just down the road from our hotel ‘Foodcourt 66’ was showing some signs of life, so we chose something light from the only food stall in operation. Wantan mee was a good start to the day with thin rice noodles, delicious pork and sesame oil wantans, and slices of red-cooked meat in a tasty broth for 5.50 ringgit. The friendly lady from the drinks stall was interested to chat with us as she delivered our teh kosong ais and kopi peng which had a nice mocca edge to it.
We went for a mooch around town as it came to life, then packed our bag for an overnight excursion into the hinterland. Back at the bus stand we had to wait until 10 o’clock for a departure to Sungai Lembing, and then did several laps of the city before finally heading off through the plantations, stopping at the odd kampung along the way.
It was after 11 o’clock when we motored into town, eyes on stalks looking for somewhere to stay. The main street was centred along a row of banyan trees with time-worn wooden shophouses facing each other on either side.. Forested hills rose behind one side, and the sandy river of Sungai Kenau flowed behind the other. The colonial tin mining town was now surviving on a flow of weekend tourists who came mostly for the famous bean curd and noodles made from mountain water. Mid-week, however, the place was all but deserted, the shops were shuttered and we struggled to find accommodation.
In one of the Chinese clan halls we found a lady who helped us search for lodging, first showing us a windowless cell in a rickety house in a back street, then coming up with a room in the guest quarters of the Kwong Siew Association clan house for an acceptable 90 ringgit.
Finding lunch was also difficult. In the selera market a few food stalls were open, including the Zi Jie Mian Dian, the Purple Sister Noodle Shop, but the menu board was only in Chinese, and Hokkien was the lingua franca, so by the time Dave got his reading skills into action we were being helped by a passer-by, who made some recommendations according to the remains on offer. After plenty of wok action we were soon presented with two plates of noodles, qie zi mian and gan rou mian. The tomato mee was exceptional – soft smokey mountain water noodles in a thick, gloopy tomato and egg gravy, garnished with chicken and roast pork, while the dry pork noodles were flavoured with dark soy. We had barely finished eating when the whole place emptied out, and after paying our 10 ringgit were waved bye-bye with a surprised smile in answer to my “xie xie“.
We sat on our upstairs verandah for a while, watching the comings and goings, then went off to explore, walking down past the padang and the old staff club house, and up to the museum, picturesquely situated in the Company manager’s residence. Bungalows of the lower ranking staffers were dotted around the valley, and we continued up river to the swing bridge, which we crossed to Kampung Kolong Pahat where the local bean curd and noodles were manufactured in small scale cottage industries. We rested in one such factory, slurping down chilled bowls of sweet and creamy shan shui doufu hua, while a couple of ladies made biscuits by hand at the adjoining table.
It was a hot afternoon and by the time we got back to the clan house we were tired and hungry. We needed sustenance and once again found mealtime to be a bit of a chore. It was very un-Malaysian to have to seek out food – it usually found us, but there was almost nothing around. The selera was closed, the street stalls were deserted and the few kedai kopi’s were serving tea to old men smoking cigarettes. In the back street we lucked upon Restoran Hoover which had opened its kitchen for a friendly group from Johor Bahru. They helped us to order Chinese-style, with chef apparently only able to communicate in Hokkien, cackling wildly at our request of bean curd with pork, and sweet potato leaves. All our meals arrived simultaneously from an extremely efficient kitchen, and it was the most deliciously authentic Chinese meal we had ever eaten outside China. The local mountain water bean curd was delectable in a dark sauce with chopped pork and sliced mushroom, and the potato greens spoke for themselves with a light seasoning of chilli and thickened stock.
Just as we finished a bus from one the river resorts pulled up and about thirty hungry punters piled into the unassuming eatery, hoovering up edible oleh-oleh as they made their way in. The staff didn’t bat a eyelid at this mass inundation, seating the rabble as their bus drove off and yet another group turned up. We bade a hasty farewell to our friends at the next table, paid an absurdly cheap 17 ringgit for our meal, and beat our retreat, heading back to the clan house for an early night, wondering whether the Dutch family who had approached us in desperation earlier had found somewhere to stay.
WE WERE UP BEFORE THE muezzin the next morning, heading off in the dark to climb the hill to Bukit Panorama. Surprisingly, there was more activity at that early hour, with modest breakfast preparations underway in the selera.
It was a stiff thirty minute hike to the hilltop. We were alone up there to begin with, trying to gauge where was the best vantage point in the darkness, eventually settling ourselves as others joined us at first light. We chatted with a couple from Puchong watching dawn illuminate the panorama, folds of hills swathed in mist with the limestone outcrop of Gua Cheras in the distance. It was quiet and beautiful, with birds singing from the valleys either side of the saddle we stood on. A few more hikers turned up, including some of our friends from the Restoran Hoover, already excited about their next activity to the Air Terjun Pelangi.
At the bottom of the hill we found ‘Antony’ and the rest of their party – they had got part way up the hill before deciding that they were best suited for car-based activities…
Back at the selera we had high expectations for breakfast, given that this was where every other tourist in town had now established themselves. But we were disappointed that the weekend surfeit was in such stark contrast to a mid-week paucity. We nosed around, each of us followed by dogs who nuzzled affectionately into our legs whenever we paused in our perusal. Unimpressed, and not willing to do a chicken dance, we took the easy option at a Malay stall with nasi ayam. It was pretty ordinary and we knocked it down with iced tea and coffee, spontaneously deciding at 7:58am that if we were quick we could catch the 8 o’clock bus – providing it left five minutes late.
We screamed back to the clan hall, threw our belongings into our bag, flew down the stairs, and raced to the neighbouring hall to find somebody to pay for our room. We just had time to offer our thanks to the auntie who had helped us the day before as the bus motored towards us – five minutes late!
GOING BACK THROUGH THE SAWIT plantations we broke our journey at Kampung Panching, getting down at the junction to Gua Cheras. We had this great idea to stow our bag at the police post, and the departing officer who stopped to chat with us in the driveway agreed that was a smart plan, but straight-laced Wan at the station desk wouldn’t have a bar of it, and so we had to hike with our bags to the limestone outcrop four kilometres away. Luckily we were only carrying seven and a half kilos of luggage.
We found shortcuts through the palm oil plantations, and the shady walk was actually the best part of our detour to the cave temple, even with the odd barbed wire fence to negotiate.
The karst monolith looked very impressive from a distance and as we approached it, but after leaving our bag with Mariaman, the chowkidar, and climbing the metal stairs up to the cavern we were pretty underwhelmed. A team of workmen were half-heartedly beautifying the temple and had created such a mess that it was impossible to overlook the destruction. We ventured several hundred metres inside to the sleeping Buddha which was illuminated by a shaft of light at precisely 11 o’clock each day. There were lingams and images of various deities of no artistic or aesthetic value, multilingual graffiti, and the eyesore of the work site with half-constructed and abandoned concrete pathways and an elaborate pulley system uglifying the chambers further.
An entrance way to another cave higher up was also accessible, but what would have been a spectacular view from the natural window was obscured by foliage. There were only a couple of other visitors there, one leaving as we arrived and one arriving as we left, so there was no chance to hitch a lift. But, as noted, the walk was pleasant even with our bags, and we were back at the junction in time for the 11 o’clock bus to Kuantan.
THIS TIME WE WERE GRATEFUL for the grand circuit of town the bus made, which meant that we could alight conveniently near Jalan Gambut Dua. We tried a different hotel this time, finding Hotel Orchid more to our liking. For 55 ringgit we got a very large room on the third floor in a quiet street. It caught a breeze and the huge bathroom even had a bak mandi for a good splash. Selih, the room girl who was from Kupang, had a beautiful smile and made us feel most welcome.
It was after noon by the time we got settled, and heading out for lunch we were dazzled by the choices. We opted for daun pisang and when we stepped into Alif’s Curry House we were suddenly in Tamil Nadu as a waiter slapped down a couple of banana leaves in front of us, and another scooped mounds of poriyals and kootus onto them. We were loaded up with rice which was doused with two different sambars and garnished with lime pickle, pappadams and crispy fried curd chillies. A silver cup of rasam was provided to cleanse our palates, and as we tucked in the empty restaurant filled to capacity with hungry Chettis. Unusually it was a Muslim establishment, and ladies in purdah gave me the thumbs up as they made their way out past our table. The food was great, only 7 ringgit each, and we could still smell it on our fingers for the rest of the day.
We spent the afternoon at the beach, taking the painfully slow bus back to Teluk Cempedak where we found a quiet spot on the sand down past the defunct Hyatt Hotel where we could relax. Dave went for a swim and engaged with the local nut job, Isha, who was delightful in his naivety.
In the evening we went for a stroll along the river, where we were surprised to watch a recreational fisherman land a two kilogram ikan senangin, then stopped for satay ayam and air cincao (iced black grass jelly water) at Satay Zul, just around the corner from home. Our timing and location were good – the call of a common koel accompanied our meal rather than the call to evening prayer.
NOT WANTING TO TAKE ANY chances after the previous days disappointment, we had two breakfasts lined up for the next morning. We made an early start for the two kilometre trek out towards Taman Gelora to an eatery we’d spotted a few days earlier. Eda Yasin’s was popular from an early hour, and when we arrived just after 7 o’clock it was already getting busy. There were only three items on the menu and an assortment of side dishes to go with them – Dave opted for the signature nasi minyak with pickled salad and kari ayam, while I went for the nasi kerabu. The blue rice, coloured and flavoured with butterfly pea flowers, came with a herbaceous ulam salad, salted egg, serundeng (coconut and fish floss sambal) and meat curry gravy. By the time we’d finished licking our fingers the place was packed, with vehicles causing a traffic jam in front of the rudimentary shack.
We went for coffee afterwards in a classic kopitiam on Jalan Haji Abdul Aziz. The kopi peng was sweet and thick, almost viscous, and ascended the throne of best brew of the trip. We continued our stroll down to the padang to while away the remainder of the morning. We sat under the trees watching the day to day activity and indulged in a foot massage, which I quite enjoyed and Dave found torturous. The masseuses were all blind or vision impaired and did a good trade at 15 ringgit for thirty minutes, with a constant flow of customers. Reflexology massage is not particularly relaxing, but very therapeutic, especially after our big day of exercise the day before. Feathery upward strokes built into hard manipulation, digging into pressure points and scouring shins with knuckles. The lady sitting next to me shrieked through her niqab at one stage “saakiiiit!!” sending all into peals of laughter. With a finale of pummelling and bone crunching I walked away energised, my circulation stimulated; Dave was still limping hours later, traumatised by the experience.
We did some shopping and browsing along the main drag of Jalan Mahkota, then made a return visit to the Akob Patin House for lunch. As well as the unsurpassable ikan patin tempoyak we filled our plates with a whole different array of vegetable dishes from the buffet. Steamed chilli leaves, gulai nangka, pineapple curry, pumpkin simmered with its own leaves, tendrils and stalks, and numerous unidentified dishes of roots and foliage – again all for 40 ringgit.
We mooched around in the cool of the East Coast Mall for most of the afternoon. Dave bought some business shirts and we stocked up our pantry with tea dust and Cameronian leaves. In the evening we stuck our noses into the tried and proven ‘Foodcourt 66’ for an evening snack which turned into a meal. At the ‘Delicious Taste Outlet’ Dave went straight for the nasi itik, while at the other end of the selera I decided that the bak kut teh looked worth a try – both dishes were outrageously good. The duck rice, at 6 ringgit, was mouthwatering with tender slices of meat and a savoury sauce. For 14 ringgit, the bak kut teh was fragrantly spiced with chunks of pork meat, ribs, enoki mushrooms and a lid of fried tofu skin, served in a scorching hot clay pot. Iced barley water and teh peng cooled us back down again, and Cantonese pop tunes provided mood music from the CD stall in the corner.
THERE WAS A HUGE STORM THROUGH the night. We were woken by thunder and lightening at 2am as torrential rain hammered on the roof.
In the morning the thunder was still rolling impressively in rumbles which lasted fifteen seconds, but at least the rain had eased when we headed off for KL. We finally met the auntie who owned the hotel on our way out – she managed to somehow maintain a reasonably intelligible conversation through a foaming mouthful of toothpaste.
At the local bus stand we found an excellent breakfast of telur seperah masak, half-cooked kampung eggs with magnificent yolks, a dash of soy and a sprinkle of white pepper. They came with roti bakar from the symbiotically located next stall, little white buns lightly toasted and piping hot, smeared with kaya and inserted with a slab of melting butter. The two elderly Chinese gents purveying this perfect culinary marriage were precision experts, with the teh peng arriving at our table minutes before timers began tinging to herald the readiness of our toast and eggs.
By 7am we were on a city bus to the terminal after our final conversation with the chief coordinator at the bus stand which we had patronised almost every day. “Tiga-kosong-tiga”…”pukul berapa?”…”mmm…sebelum jam tujuh”…”pintu delapan atau sembilan”…”jumpa lagi!”. And by 8 o’clock we were comfortably reclined on an Etika Delta coach heading back across the peninsula to the capital.
We were fifty kilometres into the journey when an alarming hissing sound brought us to a standstill. Whatever it was (thankfully not the brakes) was irreparable, so our resourceful driver flagged down the next passing Transnasional and we were all piled onto that, glad that the rain had stopped and we were on our way again.
WE HAD REACHED KUALA LUMPUR by 11:30am, and after a quick train ride to Masjid Jami, we were efficiently checked into our favourite hotel on Jalan Sultan in time for lunch. We sat with one of our co-passengers from the broken down bus on the way into town, a chatty old man who shared with me some shots of what he’d eaten in Terangganu the previous evening. At our stalwart lodging we got a top-notch room for the standard price of 80 ringgit, with a big bathroom and full length balcony.
We didn’t have to go far to find lunch. A stall in the nameless alleyway opposite, manned by an enthusiastic Chinese lady, attracted us with trays of yong doufu lined up for dispatch. We made our selections of beancurd, eggplant, bittergourd, okra, tofu skin and red chillies, all stuffed with fish paste and served colourfully in a steaming broth with rice noodles. It cost 17 ringgit for our pricelessly atmospheric meal.
A couple of streets across on Jalan Tun HS Lee we went to the Happy Meal pastry shop for a treat. “Yi ge dan ta, yi ge ye zi ta”. I’d been craving one of these little coconut tarts, and it was fun to make my transaction in Chinese. “San quai liu … xie xie”.
It was good to be amidst the throng of the big city, and no visit would be complete without a mooch in Bukit Bintang, so we jumped on the purple GOKL bus for a spot of shopping. We came back with a few odds and ends – some frumpy shirts for the upcoming trip we planned, and groceries hard to find at home – green tea chocolate, nangka jam, and local coffee. The return bus was so crowded that blood was shed in the crush – my blood. In the argy bargy of a bus stop reshuffle my arm was ripped open by an aggressive shove from an alighting passenger. Apologies were sincere, but the damage was dripping all over the floor of the bus in her wake, and I went down at the sight of it. People were very kind, providing band-aids, tissues, a seat, and even an offer to dress the wound at somebody’s nearby hotel. I must have been looking pretty pasty, and our stop couldn’t come fast enough for some fresh air. We went home for some assessment and repair work, then, like Monty Python’s black knight, went back out, soldiering on for some low-key snack-tracking in Chinatown. A bowl of douhua with palm sugar syrup, a kaya pau, and a segment of fresh durian made it feel a bit better.
OUT ON THE STREET AT dawn the next morning the city was already overheated and busy. We walked up through Little India ad towards Chow Kit, ducking down a back street to find a local institution, Restoran Kin Kin. This small establishment was a production house for the single dish on the menu – chilli pan mee. After a warm greeting the only question from the old lauban was how many did we want, and soon we were spooning delicious dried chilli sambal into our bowls of fresh mee kuning. The yellow noodles were topped with savoury pork mince, crispy fried ikan bilis and a poached egg. On the side was a bowl of broth filled with daun manis. The noodles were hand made in a booth at the front of the shop, and a forest of sayur manis branches were being methodically stripped of their leaves at another table. Signs on the walls warned against even thinking about asking to buy a jar of the chilli sambal. Surprisingly there were few other patrons given the deliciousness of the dish, but it was a bit pricey at 8 ringgit a bowl, and lauban was comically short-tempered.
We continued on our way to Chow Kit with a ramble through Kampung Bahru, the village of wooden houses overshadowed by high-rising Kuala Lumpur. At the market we checked out the in-season produce and bought mangosteens and jackfruit, lamenting that this wasn’t our regular weekly market place. Ambling back along Jalan TAR I bought a pair of jeans for 5 ringgit, and a scarf in a cavernous shop which sold only scarves. We wandered on past the grand colonial buildings at Merdeka Square and on to the Botanical Gardens. There, just off Jalan Cenderawasi in a carpark we found Restoran Rebung, the creative culinary showpiece of celebrity Chef Ismail. We took part in the buffet lunch, an amazing spread of Malay cuisine exquisitely prepared and beautifully presented. There were a huge range of herb salads, sambals and curries as well as hot desserts, kuih, an array of sweet pancakes and even a do-it-yourself ABC station. The fish head curry with tomato and okra was delectable, and I chose so many different spiced sambals and fragrant salads to go with it that my taste buds were overwhelmed. We sampled most of the sweets – little bowls of sweet bean bubur flavoured with durian, pulut hitam, sago with coconut sauce and bubur cha cha. We followed that with tiny squares of sweet taro cake and mango custard with slices on honey dew and watermelon, and a fresh durian dodol with sticky rice. The dozens of other diners didn’t hold back either, all well-healed Malays, many wearing traditional dress, hungrily loading their plates then perusing for seconds and thirds. Their enjoyment contributed further to ours.
By the time we’d finished the afternoon was witheringly hot, so we made our way down to the Tasik Perdana to find a shady spot in the Lake Gardens. The orchid house was nice but very steamy, so we settled ourselves on a bale by the lake with our exotic fruits, entertained at first by a team of cable-pullers with questionable safety standards, then later by the exercise enthusiasts doing laps of the lake.
We retired early that night, going home to lick our wounds. Mine looked worse than I had remembered – it was still bleeding and we quickly re-dressed it out of sight. We then performed some bathroom surgery on Dave’s heel blister – twenty kilometres of city walking sometimes takes its toll…
OUR NEXT MORNING, THE LAST of our short trip, was more relaxed. A leisurely breakfast with the weekend kopitiam set at Yut Kee was a good start, sitting at a marble table out the front, sprinkling Lee and Perrins on our roti babi and chicken chop. The kopi peng was so strong that I was buzzing after a few sips and the kaya roll did little to absorb its dark roasted potency.
We mooched around Chinatown until we got hungry again, then devoured a couple of bowls of laksa in the Madras Lane wet market. All the dead chickens and glistening meat offal that we had to walk past to reach the food hawkers stalls didn’t detract from our early lunch. Dave’s kari laksa had yellow noodles and rice vermicelli, tofu, cockles and fried eggplant in the coconut curry gravy. My asam laksa with fat rice noodles was thick and dark, but fragrant with mint and chunks of sardine. Next to where we sat skilled hands were stuffing vegetables with fish paste for the neighbouring yong tauhu stall, the queue for which ran out of the dark alleyway outside into the carpark.
The afternoon passed by in a blur. I had gone off bus travel, so we took the train to Brickfields for some shopping and people-watching, then back to Bukit Bintang for some last minute purchases.
We finished the day with more snack-tracking in our home neighbourhood – some wonderfully flakey roti canai with dal at Vinnay Jeyaa in Jalan Hang Kasturi, then doufu hua in Jalan Petaling, and rojak buah at old Sam’s cart across the road from our hotel. Without contriving anything it struck me that in a single day we had eaten Chinese/British colonial cuisine for breakfast, Nyonya for lunch, then Indian, Chinese and Malay to round out the day – the best of everything Malaysia had on offer.
Back at home in the bathroom the bus injury was looking pretty bad. The gauged out flesh was raw and still bleeding, showing no signs of improvement. Dave made a mercy dash to the pharmacy for more bandages, then we packed for another early start…
AT 5 O’CLOCK THE NEXT morning the activity out on the street was a mix of Saturday nights stragglers and Sunday morning early risers. It was good to know for future reference that a bowl of pork johk could be had at such an early hour should the need arise. But unfortunately we didn’t have time – we purposefully set off along Jalan Tun Sambanthan having decided that a walk to KL Sentral would be an ergonomic way to provide some exercise ahead of a long sedentary day. The semblance of a footpath petered out a few times so it was lucky that there was almost no traffic and we were at the train station after thirty minutes, finding our way in and reaching the KLIA express platform just as a train pulled in – perfect timing.
Travelling non-stop at 140 kilometres per hour, we were at the airport in no time. Even before we arrived, the whole KLIA2 experience was far superior to any Kingsford-Smith one. We found a rudimentary breakfast, were quickly and efficiently checked in, bought some fresh snacks for the journey, and even did some bargain shopping at H&M to spend the last of our ringgits. Then it was all over, back into the teleporter with not all that much to look forward to at the other end – back to work within twelve hours of arriving Home, still a two month sentence of winter to serve, and the horror of the arm wound still to deal with … the fun was great while it lasted …