Gentle turbulence rocked me like a baby as I drifted in and out of sleep contemplating the culinary joy awaiting us at our destination… roti canai… char kway tiao… wantan mee… idli sambar…
Around me people appeared to sleep, propped in seats designed only with disaster survival in mind – not comfort.
The eight hour overnight flight to Kuala Lumpur was always a feat of endurance, something suffered for the reward of a winter escape…
We touched down at 3am, stalked across the length of KLIA2, went through the motions of waking up, passport control, ablutions, ATM… bus stand. By 5 o’clock we were on a bus to Pudu Sentral, 12 ringgit for the 70 kilometre ride into town.
It was still dark as we wandered into Chinatown, dithering at that early hour over whether to try a different hotel to our usual. The streets were quiet – no traffic, footpath dwellers rousing themselves, food vendors just beginning to appear. The temperature was a heavenly 26 degrees celsius.
Ultimately heading to our trusty favourite hotel on Jalan Sultan, we were not only able to check in early but were offered a discount rate of 82 ringgit inclusive of the dastardly tourist tax. We made ourselves comfortable and ventured back out once dawn had broken with the serious business of breakfast at hand.
We walked quite far, all the way to Dang Wangi, before settling on a Mamak stall called ‘Asyiq’s’ selling mee rebus. The mee rebus was pretty ordinary with its thick sweet potato gravy and spicy sotong, but Dave’s rojak mamak was good with a chunky peanut sauce smothering crispy fried dough cakes, fresh jacama, cucumber and boiled egg. We dined al fresco with an older Malay couple, the four of us entertained by the comings and goings at Yut Kee next door with its complicated parking rituals and the comic interlude of a passing crow hitting a bulls eye on one of its well-heeled patrons.
We walked on, heading further north to Chow Kit where the morning market was in full swing. We ploughed in, eyes wide with gastronomic wonder at the fresh produce laid out – exotic fruits and vegetables, freshly slaughtered meats, poultry and seafood from the tropical waters. The fresh tauhu, tempeh and condiments would have been so welcome in my kitchen that it made me want to weep. But we were very restrained, re-emerging from the wonderland with half a kilo of mangoes, and 5 ringgits worth of mangosteens – a whopping one and a half kilos!
Wandering back through Kampung Bahru, the Saturday morning diners were out in force, choking the streets in pursuit of the national pastime. We made a pit-stop at the Kedai Kopi Lai Foong for our beverages of choice, teh ais for me, creamy with evaporated milk and not-too-sweet, coffee for Dave, a dark heady brew with notes of chocolate.
We made a leisurely mooch around Chinatown, marvelling at the pleasant temperature and enjoying being marooned at the kongsi at the far end of Jalan Petaling, sitting in the wooden entrance way watching a torrential downpour cool things down even more. Hungry again, we crossed busy Jalan Maharaja Lela to the leafy sanctuary of Kampung Attap. Nestled beneath a grove of fig trees we found ‘SS spicy Foods’, otherwise known as Bawah Pokok, a breezy curry house thronging with a lunchtime crowd. Within sixty seconds we were seated with heaving plates of chicken biriyani, splashed with mutton curry gravy and garnished generously with cucumber achar. We ate with Raj, the friendly health and safety officer for the 120 storey construction suddenly looming over the neighbourhood. The curry house was an Indian establishment, and while the languages at our table were English and Tamil, there were also Chinese and Malay patrons enjoying the aromatic Saturday special.
After lunch, and a couple of flaky warm egg tarts from the Bun Choon bakery, it was still cool enough for a stroll over the hill to Tasik Perdana, our favourite spot in the city for rest and relaxation. We sat by the lake in the shade of a cabana eating our mangosteen booty, listening to the insects drone in the trees and chillax muzak from a durian party going on under the fan palms. Siva, one of the party guests, sat with us for a while, chatting away while his family feasted on durian.
We wandered home via Brickfields, tracking down a particular street vendor for some spectacularly good pisang goreng to close out the culinary day. We found him on a corner in Jalan Tun Sambanthan, an unassuming cart under an umbrella with a queue a dozen deep patiently waiting for Mr Chiam, a chubby overworked Chinese man with a towel tied around his head, frying yams, jackfruit and bananas as fast as he could, barely able to keep up to the demand. His cheerful assistant scrambled along the queue for orders and radioed for supplies from upstairs, the stocks duly appearing in a basket dangling on a string out of an apartment window. The finished product was superb – plump creamy ripe banana coated in a crispy light batter that had people waiting without protest for up to half an hour!
We took the train home, scouted out an alternative lodging for future reference, and collapsed into our room having covered almost twenty kilometres on foot according to our GPS.
Despite the noise from the 24 hour construction of the previously mentioned 120 storey tower, we slept like babes on our rock hard bed, waking up on Sydney time hours before dawn with horrendous eye-puff. Quelle horreur.
We were out on the street at 6:30 hungrily tucking into steaming bowls of johk at the locally famous Hong Kee porridge shop on Jalan Hang Lekir. Beckoned to a table by the third generation owner it was an easy decision for breakfast – Dave chose pork ball, and I had the raw fish porridge, delicately seasoned with ginger, spring onion, soy sauce and white pepper, the slivers of catfish cooking to perfection in the hot congee. Knowing that Hong Kee ONLY specialised in johk, we strolled back down the street to the Tang City medan selera for tea and coffee – the kopi ais was so exceptional that we weren’t at all bothered by the rat watching us from atop the neighbouring stall. We went home to pack.
By 7:30 we were on our way, first walking up to Plaza Rakyat station and taking the train to Bandar Tasik Selatan for the TBS, Kuala Lumpur’s main bus interchange.
Departures to Lumut were frequent and we were on board the 8:20, unprepared for a serious amount of fucking about before finally leaving the big city behind an hour later.
We travelled straight down the Lebuh Raya for a rather boring hour and a half before turning onto a more interesting by-road to Teluk Intan. The palm oil plantations were now interspersed with kampung houses, Indian temples and fruit farms with attractive roadside stalls. We followed the wide Perak River then passed through more idyllic rural landscapes to Seri Manjung and finally Lumut.
We climbed off the Transnational with the other two remaining passengers at 12:30pm, perfect timing for lunch at a well-placed Mamak restaurant right across the road. Nasi Kandar Era provided a delicious selection of dishes and we gorged ourselves on fish head curry, ayam madu, sauteed bittergourd, and sweet and sour vegetables. Our feast cost a total of 13 ringgit.
With turmeric stained lips we wandered off towards the jetty.
It was hot in the midday sun and the waterfront was shrouded in sea mist. Local tourists were buoyantly making their way from the pier, and we didn’t wait long for the next ferry departure to Pangkor.
It was a short thirty minute ride across to the island which appeared lush and hilly out of the mist. A large fishing village was strung along the narrow shore looking prosperous with a fleet of sturdy fishing boats, seafood processing warehouses, and stilt houses.
We got off at the main jetty in Pangkor town, most of the passengers had already disgorged at the first stop, so we were just part of a small trickle heading out to the waiting bongo vans. Nobody seemed to notice the one and a half metre monitor lizard grazing along the sea wall next to where the ferry landed.
The transport hub was a well-organised arrangement with a price schedule posted, so within seconds we were whisked off in a purple van, the two of us for 16 ringgit to Teluk Nipah on the other side of the island. We had no particular hotel in mind so our cheerful driver just dropped us off at the beach and pointed us down a laneway to a sting of bungalow hotels. We checked out a few before settling on a chalet at the unimaginatively named Budget Beach Resort. After the friendly manager, Su-ling negotiated the price down to an agreeable 70 ringgit with no input from ourselves, we settled into a roomy elevated wooden bungalow with cane chairs on a garden verandah.
The beach at Teluk Nipah was pretty, but overcrowded with beachside souvenir shops and food stalls catering to the rapidly departing weekend visitors. We followed Su-ling’s advice and walked a few hundred metres over the headland to Coral Bay, a quieter stretch of sand looking out to the small islets just off shore, with calm emerald waters to swim in and shady ketupang trees to laze under. As well as locals in burkinis and even burqas, there were enough exposed French tourists around for me to feel perfectly at ease in my bikini, and to make people-watching entertainment wide ranging. There were no sandflies, biting ants, sea lice or mosquitoes.
On the rocks at the far end of the beach was a small Chinese temple, and tall rainforest dipterocarps backed the bay, alive with squawking hornbills, soaring sea eagles, brahminy kites, and even a flock of hill mynas.
In the evening, back in Teluk Nipah, we took advantage of the death throes of the weekend trade, snack-tracking on rojak buah-buahan with mango, yambean and guava, and lempeng pisang, a heavy sweet banana pancake stuffed with salted coconut and barbequed in banana leaf – one and a half ringgit each, hot from the chargrill.
Meanwhile the pied hornbill swooped in from the forest, perching in the trees, on power lines, rooftops, fences, ready to take the offerings of fruit supplied by the locals. In our laneway alone we estimated about fifty birds, throwing back chunks of banana into their giant bills, squawking with pleasure. A ritual repeated every evening.
On Monday morning all was quiet in Teluk Nipah. The hornbills still chuckled in the trees, but tourists were nowhere to be seen at 7:30 when we stepped out. Just around the corner at Warung Ayam Penyet, we found a good nasi lemak with a selection of toppings – squid, chicken, liver, beef – and sat by the roadside with the sound swooshing waves across the street accompanying the hornbill chorus. It was a pity that this stall never appeared any other morning during our stay…
For a bit of exercise we walked over the southern headland to Teluk Ketupang, a modest stretch of beach with grainy sand like demerara sugar. The water was even more milky green, and from our shady spot under the pandanus at the far end of the bay we gazed across to Pulau Mentagor catching the cool sea breeze. So distracted we were, when we roused ourselves to leave we found giant monitor lizard tracks right behind us which definitely weren’t there when we laid out our sarong. I wouldn’t have needed my glasses for that lost wildlife spotting opportunity!
On the way back we stopped for lunch at a simple eatery, Kedai Makan Liasari, where the smell of frying fish caught our attention. The self-serve nasi campur was really good, and we sat by the sea eating our ikan goreng with an assortment of side dishes, pineapple sambal, chicken curry gravy, pecel, and a delicious sambal terong. Fourteen ringgit for the two of us with iced tea and a sea view.
We spent the afternoon on the beach at Coral Bay, shared a very good nasi goreng sotong in the evening at Makcik Chah, a kedai makan with a very sweet skilled chef on the beach at Teluk Nipah, and then watched the sun set as hornbills called all around us.
We were very happy with our choice of lodging, our wooden bungalow was cool and quiet, the place was fastidiously clean and well organised, and the owners and staff were friendly and helpful. On our second day they rented us a motor scooter, thirty ringgit for the day. The morning staffer, Kokila, looked doubtfully at us and Dave’s riders licence… “do you know how to ride one?”. She gave us a map marked with some points of interest and petrol stations, and warned us off from the dangerous road past Teluk Dalam in the north of the island… “many monkeys and dogs… and accidents…”. We chose from a range of unsuitable helmets – the only one to fit me secured with a flimsy plastic clip and was emblazoned with ‘Minion’ across the front. Dave’s red ‘Pokemon’ had a sticker with a warning ‘NOT FOR USE ON MOTORCYCLE’. We puttered off, Kokila looking on anxiously as we turned in the direction of Teluk Dalam.
There was very little traffic to begin with, the beautiful road in the north twisted and turned through rainforest, eventually taking us to the fishing villages on the lee of the island. Sungai Pinang Kecil was very busy with morning activity as we passed through eyeing off the potential lunch stops, just stopping for petrol before continuing on to the far south of the island. We paused briefly at the ruins of a four hundred year old Dutch fort, and a rock with VOC markings before reaching the end of the road past the floating mosque at Dekree Corner.
My research had revealed that somewhere there was a jungle path across the headland to the secluded bay of Teluk Segadas, so I asked directions at a little shop where the road ended. The lady there was so friendly and surprised at my ability to speak Malay… “Oh! Teluk Segadas… balik… tidak bisa naik motor…”, and the trailhead was so well hidden that we never would have found it on our own, so she kindly showed us the way – us following her on her scooter for half a kilometre back down the road and then into a small village where she handed us over to a nice man who pointed us in the right direction on a trail at the back of some houses… “dua puluh menit sahja…”.
It was a beautiful ten minute rainforest walk up and over the headland to arrive at paradise lost. The beach was beautiful. The tide was high so we set ourselves up on the soft white sand on the edge of the forest clearing and swam in the shade of the giant sea almond trees, the warm emerald water here swooshing with a bit more swell. At the back of the clearing was a spring fed mandi and facilities for campers, but we were blissfully alone and enjoyed the beach in solitude – the only sounds were of the waves, occasional bird call, and droning insects. We found a trail at the far end of the bay to scramble up for a bird’s eye view, and did some beach combing amongst the flotsam and jetsam.
After a couple of hours we retraced our steps, back out through the rainforest looking-glass and up the coast back to the main villages. We stopped for lunch at Restoran Nan Yang 1957 where the pork rice went down a treat, the charsiu with crunchy crackling, the rice cooked in savoury chicken broth and the chilli sauce laced with ginger. We drank iced coconut at a roadside stall, then called into the Hai Seng Fish Factory for some Pangkor souvenirs. I bought 100g of their finest grade ikan bilis (even at 80 ringgit per kilo it was a must have) and a bag of dried prawns, tiny udang geragau, seafood products so local that they were dried on site. The helpful assistant plied us with samples of jellyfish crisps and spicy dried fish snacks as we perused the odoriferous factory store.
We completed a full circuit of the island on our trusty Karisma 125, stopping again to rest on the beach at Pasir Bogak, taking in the afternoon breeze as we looked across the bay to Pangkor Laut eating a bunch of sweet longan that we’d bought at a stall along the way. We cruised back to home base at around 4 o’clock having covered almost thirty kilometres – a great day.
The food at Makcik Chah was sufficiently good that we decided to try out their noodles in the evening. Waves lapped below the restaurant, Indian masala music played for the benefit of patrons arriving at another table, and the kway tiau goreng was delicious, the slippery fat rice noodles coated with sweet soy sauce, flavoured by whole fried school prawns, bites of squid, vegetables and ginger. Dave’s mee goreng was also good, and it’s always satisfying to be able to tell chef personally that you are enjoying his food – especially when he was roused from deep sleep to cook for us…
The next morning the breakfast choices had dwindled to two, so not wanting an encore of the previous mornings substandard fare at Warung Manshor, we took the only other option back at Makcik Chah. At least we had a great beachfront table and shared the space with a kitchen-raiding hornbill for our rudimentary nasi lemak. We didn’t need much sustenance for the morning ahead anyway, we followed a jungle track which we found trailing off at the end of our laneway to end up at Coral Bay for a relaxing day on the beach watching the tide roll out, shortening the distance between us and Pulau Giam. We only broke our torpor of lazing on the sand and plopping into the water occasionally to stroll back to Teluk Nipah for lunch where choices were again limited to three venues. The mid-week lull had reached it’s zenith and we could have fired a cannon down the main street. Liasari was definitely the best meal option and our plates were piled with fish head curry, ayam madu, green beans fried with cockles and kobis goreng.
The weather had been great for the duration of our stay, but the sea mist rolled in again that afternoon and we spent the evening on our verandah catching up on odds and ends.
On Thursday morning we were on the move again with an early start to head back to KL. At 7 o’clock Joey’s husband Lun called one of the purple bongo vans to collect us at the gate and take us back to the pier in Pangkor town.
There was no suggestion of breakfast at the beach, and when we reached the pier there was only twenty minutes to spare before the next ferry departure, so we hot-footed down to the Chinese coffee shops off Jalan Besar and grabbed some nasi lemak from Chiang Sheng kopi tiam, packaged in take-away bungkus and iced tea and coffee in plastic bags ready-to-go. Hungrily we ate our bounty back at the pier. This nasi lemak was superb with a fiery gingery sambal, generous scoops of local ikan bilis, and ayam masak merah. We downed it all in two sessions, finishing our meal on board the ferry as it departed right on time at 7:45.
Inside the sealed cabin blasted icy air-conditioning and an American action film sub-titled in Malay over the pirated Korean copy. Good that it was a short trip, and we were in Lumut in time for the 9 o’clock bus to Kuala Lumpur.
The Arwana coach was making good time on the return trip until a crash on the Lebuh Raya stopped us in our tracks just twenty kilometres short of the city. Dave at least utilised the wasted time by setting up a mobile office in his Pullman recliner, whipping out his phone to sort out festering staff disputes and coordinating projects on-the-go. Two trucks had come a cropper and we waited an hour for our turn to squeeze past the carnage, meaning we didn’t reach TBS until well after 2 o’clock.
By the time we took the train into Chinatown, settled ourselves into our new discovery, and made our way to Madras Lane it was a very late lunch at 3:30pm. Big Mouth Bak Kut Teh was our hearts desire and the stall was open, even if we were their only customers at that odd hour. The flavoursome soup really hit the spot with huge chinks of tender pork, wong bok, enoki and straw mushrooms hidden beneath a raft of crispy fried tofu skin, all bubbling hot in a clay pot. Overhead fans cooled our sweat away, and it put us in a good place for the afternoon.
Next we jumped on a GOKL bus and crawled along in a jam to Bukit Bintang for some retail therapy. We spent 200 ringgit on Dave’s new summer collection, then caught the train back to Pasar Seni where we made a pitstop at Vinny Jeyaa for a scrumptious tomato uttapam before returning to the refuge of our room.
It was hot on Friday morning when we stepped out at 7 o’clock. We topped up on cash at the ATM next to Sri Mahamariamman temple where a nice dawn puja was taking place, then walked for half an hour to Pudu where the ICC market was our much anticipated breakfast venue. At 7:30 it was going off, particularly the Hainan kopi tiam at the entrance which was hosting an overheated eating frenzy. Deeper into this mother-of-all food courts was cooler, with a bit of cross breeze so the ceiling fans were able to do their work as we perused around, gob-smacked at the plethora of choices.
Quickly we claimed a table and began filling it with dishes – first to the Ah Fook Chee Chong Fun for a monster plate of goodies, vegetable stuffed with fish paste, eggplant, bittergourd, wingbeans, chilles, and plump cakes of tofu, deep-fried beancurd skin, and fat slippery rice noodles all doused in curry gravy and the signature red sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds. There was no going back. We got popiah from the Crispy Sisters, soft outside, chewing and crunchy inside; wantan mee; iced tea and coffee; and soy milk sweetened with palm sugar syrup. The racket going on around us dulled as we ate, the sounds of hundreds of other diners enjoying their breakfasts faded into the background as we devoured our morning repast.
We took a different meandering route back along Jalan Pudu, shopping for essential groceries to take Home along the way. It was alarmingly difficult to find our preferred teas and coffees, but we started gathering a modest assortment of items which we dropped off at home base before continuing on to Brickfields.
By the time we were browsing the spice shops on Jalan Tun Sambanthan Dave was panic buying anything he could get his hands on – Cap Tupai Special, Satayman, even Indian Nasaru. We took a breather for lunch at Lawanya’s Food Corner, a streetside eatery in an alleyway off Jalan Scott where a ravenous crowd had gathered. Dozens of clay pots were filled with mouth-watering home cooked curries, pootus, poriyals and dhals. Squeezing in next to a young couple from PJ we wolfed down our delicious meals oblivious to the rather unappetising setting. Nearby we drank a kelapa muda purveyed by a friendly Bangladeshi man, then stepped into the cool of Nu Sentral plaza as the afternoon heat built up.
After mooching for a couple of hours, snacking on some fresh jackfruit, we headed back to Chinatown where we finished off the day with durian ice cream, black sesame egg tarts and a coconut shake.
A cracking thunderstorm through the night cooled things down on Saturday morning, and the rain puddles had all dried up by breakfast time, so we walked to Masjid India for roti canai. The Mansion Teastall, by the river was a 24 hour institution busiest between midnight and 3am, but still doing a solid trade at 7:30 when we arrived. Dave went for the roti banjir special, two torn up roti flooded (as the name suggests) with curry gravy, sambal, and two poached eggs. I had traditional roti canai , fresh and flaky with chicken dansak, and sweet teh tarik, all prepared by a crew of jovial experts – perhaps the new morning shift…
We whiled away the morning, sat in the Padang watching the Chinese tourists at play, strolled along Jalan TAR browsing the shops, bazaars and department stores staffed by gay boys and lady boys. At lunchtime we gravitated to Madras Lane for our requisite laksa fix – curry mee for Dave, and assam laksa for me. The taste of the tangy soup and chewy rice noodles had my eyes rolling back in my head… mint leaves, slivers of pineapple, chunks of sardine… my oh my… who really cares that one has to sit in a carpark next to a drain to enjoy this heady soup? The place was crazy-busy and the service fast, friendly and efficient.
The afternoon passed by in a blur, the cool from the previous nights storm lasted all day, making for a very pleasant mooching temperature. Just before we headed for the airport we took ourselves to the Lai Foong Kedai Kopi for one last hoorah. We didn’t think we were hungry, but once a plate of succulent roasted duck dressed with a splash of taocheo was put in front of us we were suddenly ravenous, and it disappeared in a flurry of chilli ginger sauce dipping and bone spitting.
So then back home for a quick shower and a final pack before jumping on the 5:15 Star Shuttle at Pudu Sentral, our worries about being turfed off the bus unfounded, as no-one suspected us as being the source of the heavy smell of durian pervading the air-conditioned coach. Our final taste of Malaysia once we reached KLIA2…