I last took a family holiday in 1991. I haven’t avoided them intentionally. I’ve just been curious to see more than Bangladesh. So when Malaysia was posed to me by my sister Reba, I couldn’t resist.
I plotted one week with my family and some time for solo travel. I’ve only taken a connecting flight to Sydney through Malaysia. It’s been on the list for a while.
We landed in the evening and took a cab to our hotel which was located in the vibrant Little India of Kuala Lumpur. It felt grimy, smelt of curry and was littered with interesting characters. My nephews Zinadeen and Raúl were slightly fearful, my brother in law Faizul felt at home, Reba was horrified and I liked what I saw so far. Reba was horrified because a local wearing a lunghi (traditional sarong), fully exposed himself on the streets. No shits were given. He was airing himself out. Each pavement we came across had stools and tables laid out, smells of spices whiffed through my nostrils as people tucked into their feasts. We came across a buzzing place by Sentral station called ABC Food’s Corner, which quickly became our local. Every other member of staff was Bangladeshi, leading to the typical – “what village are you from?” question. I discovered my first cup of ‘teh tarik’ here – a local tea which is particularly frothy at the top after being poured back and forth from height.
After a long flight we retired to our rooms to plan for the days ahead. But that plan was shelved once we found out the AC didn’t work in our room and for one reason or another we ended up changing rooms on three occasions! It’s the last thing anyone wants on the first night. A small highlight though was watching Faizul argue with ‘Fifi’, an extremely camp and dramatic member of hotel staff. All of the luggage handlers and maintenance workers in the hotel were from Bangladesh. One gave us a heartbreaking account of his path to Kuala Lumpur. He paid a ‘fixer’ in Bangladesh to arrange a new life for him in Europe. He boarded a plane and was dumped at the hotel, and told that this was his new life. I wonder how many others face the same fate?
Faizul’s brother in law, J resides in KL. He owns a range of clothes showrooms and for a few days he was also going to be our local tour guide. In the morning we boarded the KL monorail as the Petronas Towers beckoned. After walking through the imperious KLCC shopping centre we looked up at the ‘twin towers’. People flock to the end of the street to get their snaps, because it’s the best spot where you can capture the full structure in one shot. There’s a few chancers flogging fish eye lenses here too. On the other side of KLCC is an impressive water fountain, with an evening show similar to Dubai.
Like most of Asia, there’s a mall for everything. Low Yat Plaza for example, is a seven-storey complex just for IT and electronics. There’s also the tourist filled Berjaya Times Square, another multi storey mall. The markets are equally impressive. The Central Market and Petaling Street market in Chinatown are filled with carbon copies of the latest in haute couture.
After a day of sweaty bartering, we took a cab to Putrajaya to see the mosque before sunset. The red stoned structure was majestic. Before we entered the mosque, Faizul and I were halted by security because we were wearing shorts. It was 32C! We were instructed to wear a lunghi over our shorts. I haven’t worn one since I was circumcised…Poignantly it had been a year since my Aunt passed away, so we did a prayer to mark this. We wondered around the grounds and took in the impressive landscape.
Raúl my eldest nephew, is a keen artist, so we headed to a gallery the next day so that he could get inspiration for his upcoming college course. After chowing down some teppanyaki for lunch (served by another Bangladeshi), we descended upon Chow Kit market after sunset. We saw an array of exotic fruits, including the much sought after and potent durian. The Malaysian durian I’ve been told is part of the elite and particularly strong. So strong, that if you consume it with alcohol, it could lead to fatal consequences. Meat and fish stalls added to the cocktail of odours. It was grimy in places, but Faizul and I loved it. My nephews weren’t too keen and were ready to heave. They were also starting to miss home comforts, so they were rewarded with a ‘cheeky Nandos’.
We decided on a spontaneous trip to Langkawi for a few days as it was only a short plane ride away. In preparation for the mini break, I headed to the barber shop for a quick trim and shave. I sat nervously in the chair and spouted some numbers to the barber, putting blind faith in him. He delivered. However, I couldn’t help but notice their skin lightening treatments on the wall and then I saw a chap to my left in the midst of the treatment. I was baffled because I thought skin lightening was more common amongst females, until now. This wasn’t the only surprise I faced during my £1.20 trim. I closed my eyes, the barber snipped away at my beard and then out of nowhere I had a hairdryer blowing in my face. He proceeded to give me an impromptu massage, bear in mind I didn’t ask for this. There was more. He picked up a machine which looked like a giant iron and drove it into my back, sending unnecessary vibrations into my back and it sounded like a lawnmower. When he eventually stopped, I gave him a stare to suggest ‘mate what are you doing’? He laughed. I felt violated and left relieved.
We took an Uber to the airport and I highly recommend you do the same in Malaysia. It works out cheaper than a local cab. We were all quite excited and looking forward to lounging on a beach for a few days. As we approached Langkawi through the mist and grey clouds, torrential rain and umbrellas greeted us on the tarmac. This wasn’t part of the script. Our first day and night were completely written off. The only highlight on the first night was stumbling across a Chinese concert across the road from our hotel. Depending on where you end up staying, you need a taxi to get about in Langkawi. Nothing is nearby.
We had a three hour window of sunshine in two days, so we raced to the beach which was a contrasting affair. Raúl absolutely loved the waves and Zinadeen on the other hand, faced his fears. So I led Zinadeen into the water slowly. At the time he didn’t appreciate it, but later in life hopefully he will. Despite the weather we were able to tick off a couple of things from the ‘things to do in Langkawi’ list. Raúl and I took the cable car up into the clouds. Visibility wasn’t the best and the infamous bridge was closed due to the bad weather.
Langkawi translates to the brown haired eagle in Malay, so it was fitting that we were able to visit the Eagle Square. We joined the scrum of tourists and selfie sticks. The point of interest was a giant eagle, surrounded by the Andaman Sea. Disappointingly these were the only highlights for Langkawi…
Back in KL, we were back in Little India. I located a local cafe to watch my beloved Reds in action – new season, new dreams. Surrounded by locals, my celebrations were met with confusion. I think they thought I was possessed. We were on a first-name basis with the Bangla boys at ABC now. As we tucked into some roti canai (fluffy flatbread similar to a paratha), there was some commotion on the pavement nearby. A man had passed out amongst his circle of friends. Equally concerned, Reba and I headed over to help. Strangely, none of the restaurant staff wanted to help. We asked for water etc. and no one wanted to know. I was shocked by their attitudes. One of the waiters actually said: “This is what the Tamils are like. They just get drunk and pass out.” This riled me and I wasn’t happy about it. I said to him it doesn’t matter where he’s from, he needs help. We’re all human right? Eventually his mates were able to find him some water and bundle him off to the hospital. I was quite angry and vowed not to return to ABC.
On a bit of a downer after the washout of Langkawi, Faizul was determined to end his holiday on a high. After much deliberation, we decided to book a 24-hour trip to Singapore, starting with a 4.30am flight to maximise our time. If you’ve read my posts in the past, you will know how much I love Singapore. I was excited to return and happy to show my favourite spots to my family.
We initially headed for some food at the Lau Pa Sat hawker centre. Singapore was very hot and hazy. The noticeable haze from Indonesia is still visible. The Gardens by the Bay was up first on our whistle-stop tour. It was here that I discovered that Reba has a phobia for heights. There was no way she was going to walk across any bridges or take any escalators up. This limited us for a brief moment. She felt more comfortable once we were inside Marina Bay Sands. Once all was calm, we headed to Sentosa Island. I knew the boys would like it here. Universal Studios, activities and beaches awaited us. Understandably it was frantically busy and there were endless queues. Notably, we learnt how to use a Segway and took a mini trip around the island. It was great fun but just didn’t last long enough. We tried to cram in as much possible at Sentosa and also managed to take a trip up the Tiger Tower.
After heading back to the hotel I got in touch with my friend Shivani, who I met up with in December on my last trip to Singapore. She agreed to meet us for dinner. In fact she picked us all up and took us to a plush Lebanese restaurant. Food that was fit for a king. She didn’t let us pay a penny. And her generosity didn’t stop there. She drove us around the city and gave us a tour of the sights that we hadn’t managed during the day. We revisited the Gardens, which is even more impressive at night. This time Reba plucked up the courage with encouragement from Shivani. The Gardens is a perfect spot to switch off and collect your thoughts at night.
We took an early morning flight back to KL. We were treated to a free lunch as a peace offering by the hotel for all of the early mishaps. It was the least they could do. After the food had digested, Faizul wanted one last crack at Petaling Street market. This guy can shop! After securing the best knock-off gear, we met J for a farewell meal. Time had flown by so quickly and it dawned upon me that the family holiday was ending within hours, and I’d be flying solo. I waved them goodbye at the crack of dawn, slightly sad but equally excited about what lied ahead.