And so after a hectic 24 hours of flying to Malaysia, late-night commuting to the hotel and a stressful morning at both the immigration office and our bank, it was time for some fun. Given Kuala Lumpur’s sweltering climate and lack of enjoyable walks, that means doing two things; eating and shopping. While Diane would be fine if she never ate Malaysian food again, I’m a huge fan of sambal chili paste (impossible to find in Thailand), laksa (even harder to find outside Malaysia and Indonesia) and beef rendang (the Southeast Asian Muslim world’s best culinary contribution). Thankfully, Diane’s memory towers over mine and she knew exactly where my favorite place to eat laksa was in the seventeen miles of mazes that make up life in downtown KL.
Regretfully, my stand became a western food place and Malaysia gets my vote for Southeast Asia’s worst version of all western food from burgers to ribs. Determined to eat laksa and nasi lemak (Malaysia’s national dish and Diane’s only choice for local food), we embarked on a quest but only had to take a few steps through Level UC of the mall named “Avenue K”. Possibly my favorite casual fast food restaurant in all of Malaysia, Ah Cheng Laksa serves one of the most flavorful and complex bowls of soup in Southeast Asia. According to their Facebook page, their origins date back over 56 years and one of the family members brought the unique family recipe to the Klang Vallery in 2004. For me, nothing beats a bowl of Asam Laksa, a sour fish and tamarind based soup. Its perfect combination of flavorful ingredients includes small mackerel of the Rastrelliger genus, and finely sliced vegetables including cucumber, onions, red chilies, pineapple, lettuce, common mint, Daun kesum (Vietnamese mint or laksa mint), and pink bunga kantan, also known as torch ginger. Normally served with thick rice noodles and topped with a thick sweet prawn shrimp paste, it’s spicy, sweet, salty and tastes like a piping hot combination of perfection.
Apparently, there are dozens of variations of Asam Laksa in Malaysia depending on what region you’re in including Penang Laksa which comes with lemongrass and galangal. Giving it the distinctive sour taste is the tamarind and the name laksa comes from Hokkien Chinese meaning “spicy sand”, which refers to the taste and texture of ground dried prawns. Unfortunately, we had no car when we lived in Penang and lived all the way out in nowhere land which made finding laksa a difficult task without multiple bus rides although one time, our neighbor drove us to the more remote backside of the island where they specialize in Penang Laksa. Not a fan of sour soups, Diane was happy that Ah Cheng Laksa also serves popular Malaysian specialties such as Curry Laksa, Nasi Lemak, Pan Mee, Kuew Tew Soup, Asam Fish and Herbal Chicken Soup.
And then there’s Curry Laksa which is something totally different. Coming in second place on my laksa list, it’s known as Curry Mee in Penang because of the yellow bee hoon noodles used and it also uses congealed pork blood, a delicacy to the Malaysian Chinese community. But we had no reason to ever return to Penang so for my second lunch the next day, I indulged in a bowl at the same place. Arriving at 11 AM, we had the place to ourselves and the soup was hotter than the previous day when we sat with the lunch hour crowds. Later that day, we stumbled onto a branch of Hokkaido Baked Cheese Tarts. Having passed it hundreds of times in Penang, I always thought the prices were ridiculous but since the bank’s ATM confiscated my Malaysian debit card, we had to use up all the Malaysian cash because it wasn’t enough to warrant a trip to a currency exchange place. Surprisingly, it was much better than I thought.
After lunch we wanted to walk off some calories but as I mentioned, Kuala Lumpur and outdoor activities don’t exactly go hand in hand. But oddly, right in the middle of the mass of skyscrapers surrounding the KL Convention Center, Petronas Towers and a handful of luxury hotels is KL Park. One of the most pleasant little urban parks we’ve seen anywhere in Asia, it’s a few acres of peaceful relaxation set among a plethora of greenery. Marked with signage displaying dozens of species of trees, plants, and shrubs, it’s got a kiddie pool for wading, a circular path for jogging and more security than you’ve ever seen in a public park. Unlike the intimidating security guards that wave you through at the airport, the park’s guards mostly hang out and talk with each other, chat on their phones and occasionally ask the Chinese tourists to stop violating one of the 17 or more rules and regulations posted all over the park.
Usually too hot and humid to enjoy, we were “blessed” by visiting during the annual Indonesian burning season that blankets Malaysia in a strong haze of polluted air every year. Making it feel cooler because drifting smoke blocks the sun, the AQI 2.5 (an index used to measure air quality) was only about 175, way above normal and considered “hazardous” to human health but after living through Penang’s environmental disaster of 2015 and then escaping this year’s record-breaking shitstorm in Chiang Mai that featured many days of the world’s most polluted air, we barely noticed it. And the air didn’t even stink from the smoke. So be sure and take a stroll if you’re anywhere near the area and bask in what little green space exists in a nation not known for its environmental record.
Determined to find a pair of cotton pants that are both comfortable and fashionable enough for our upcoming 20th anniversary trip to Italy, we set out and hit the string of malls that is Kuala Lumpur. Despite all the major North American, European and Asian chains from H&M to The Gap, Malaysian stores somehow buck the trend of carrying larger sizes to accommodate increasing obesity in developing nations whose population often spends their disposable cash on crappy western food. Still somehow filled with petite little 5 foot tall guys that wear size 28 waist pants and weigh less than 100 pounds, Malaysian stores all have three sizes for pants; Slim, Skinny and Regular. Not in my wildest dreams could I ever fit in even the largest size they carry despite the long hours we spend at the gym. Diane didn’t even bother looking even though many Malaysian women are much chubbier and broader than their male counterparts. Instead, she found a coffee shop with a Latin name (the Columbian roasted coffee wasn’t very good) and opted for a strangely flavored cupcake that did nothing for me.
Giving up any hope of finding pants that fit me after about an hour, I realized I left my reading glasses in the dressing room of a store and ran back. Being Malaysia, the guy not only immediately cleared the dressing room but safely left the glasses in a secure place because as anyone who’s not a Trump genius understands, Southeast Asian Muslims are probably the least likely people on the planet to steal, insult or otherwise cause harm to you which is why Malaysia is among the safest expat destinations a westerner can choose. Deciding to spend the afternoon soaking in the differences between a Malaysian mall and one in Chiang Mai, we found fun Malaysian English menus, T-shirts depicting their favorite colloquialism and the day’s most interesting sounding food item (We didn’t eat it).
With literally hundreds of restaurants packed into dozens of endless malls all connected by mazes of indoor pedestrian walks, we had no idea what to eat for dinner. Knowing Malaysian western food isn’t our thing and already tired of laksa, we tried to remember where we’d eaten a few years back when we first arrived in Malaysia. Recalling a back and forth walk through a long hallway accessible from the lobby of Petronas Towers, we hoped to find the mall that had literally eight floors of food and it got pricier and classier as you ascended each floor. We walked back and forth a few times and had already hit 15,000 steps and 6 miles according to our iPhone step trackers when we stumbled onto a pedway that looked familiar. Four left turns and three right ones later, we finally found Pavillion KL. Marketed as Malaysia’s haute couture shopping mecca. this gargantuan complex has 532 stores and services and 127,000 square miles of retail space.
Unclear how Malaysia supports a mall with six shopping zones and a row of street boutiques, the floors with food are always packed but just like Penang, walk on the floors with one percent stores that include Coach, Gucci, Jimmy Choo, and Tiffany’s and you can almost hear a pin drop. While higher than Thailand, the 2019 median salary in Malaysia was 7,793 Ringgit (about $22,300 USD). Generally speaking, folks earning about ten bucks an hour don’t tend to patronize high-end boutiques and jewelry stores. And unlike Thailand, where people earning much less somehow all drive new BMW’s and Mercedes or at least Hondas, KL’s streets are mostly filled with Toyotas, Mazdas, and Protons (the national automobile). Interestingly, the active passenger car population in Malaysia stood at 11 million units in 2014, with 10 passenger cars for every 27 citizens. And it shows in its never-ending standstill of bumper to bumper traffic even at 10 PM or later.
Like most developing nations, Malaysia maintains an enormously high consumer debt to GDP ratio which keeps most people in hock for life. Everyone lives on credit, things like 401k plans and retirement plans are mostly non-existent and despite a moderate drop over the last two years, here’s the real economic story as noted in this recent article from The Nikeii Asian Review
In Thailand and Malaysia, debt has ballooned due to booms in the auto and housing markets, and the growing repayment burden has dampened consumer sentiment. In China, household debt as a percentage of nominal GDP is now over 50%. Countries such as Thailand have begun curbing their consumption in response to rising debt levels.
Thailand’s household debt ratio is close to 70%. That is higher than in Japan and other advanced economies, which have ratios of about 58%, and well above that of the eurozone. The main reason is auto loans. To support the car industry, the Thai government introduced tax incentives to encourage purchases, which took off in 2012. As a result of the higher debt load, personal consumption has been sluggish and inflation has been weak.
As far as the new government in Malaysia, we initially heard great things like removing the GST that mostly lined the pockets of the now ex-prime minister who’s currently under investigation for allegedly committing the world’s largest public financial scam. Having run down the nation’s 1MDB Fund that was a wealth fund designed to give Malaysia “fully developed status” by 2020, he apparently stole over $4 billion of public money and blew out all hope of Malaysia ever resembling a G20 nation, notwithstanding the malls with 1,370.000 square feet of shopping which keeps its citizens in debt and allows wealthier western tourists to feel right at home.
But I digress. Ignoring the future problems of a nation no longer hosting us, we stumbled onto a branch of Din Tai Fung, one of the world’s most famous Michelin star Chinese restaurants. Even with fancy malls and large credit lines, Malaysia can’t charge what you’d pay for the same food at one of California’s seven locations so we indulged in a delicious meal for less than $45 USD and decided we’ll still take living in a developing nation over our homeland’s overpriced lifestyle any day.
Always trying to stay fit while away from home, we decided to hit the above-average gym at Traders Hotel but had to wait out the convention crowd fitness nuts that claim every treadmill, yoga mat and weight set for about two hours every morning. Patiently drinking Nescafe while Diane slept, I played with the phone, and finally, after 8 AM the gym began to thin out. Sadly, Thailand’s confusing on again off again metric/imperial system threw my brain off-kilter and I grabbed the weights marked “25” by habit but of course, they weighed 55 pounds each since they were denominated in kilos. And the brand new digital elliptical made me so tired I contemplated going back to sleep. But we had one last day of searching for clothes that would never fit and one last meet up with our friend and former relationship manager at the crappy Malaysian bank. Diane’s only other choice in Malaysia besides nasi lemak is Banana Leaf Rice Indian Food so we let our friend choose a place.
Mostly unseen in western Indian restaurants, banana leaf rice is a Southern Indian style of cuisine where rice is eaten instead of roti or naan. Served on a large banana leaf that acts as a plate, it’s eaten with fingers instead of cutlery. Traditionally served with papadams (spiced crackers made from black gram bean flour, rice flour, or lentil flour), sour soup called rasam and a variety of mostly pickled veggie sides, you usually then choose from a host of main dishes like that include goats’ head curry, dhal (curries) and various forms of chicken. For some reason, our friend always thinks he needs to order tamer “white person” dishes so we mostly stuck to standard Indian dishes like mutton, Rogan Josh chicken and curry sauce mackerel (for me; it’s not as fresh as Thailand and I had to eat the whole thing). And there was one strange chicken dish with a dark, molasses-like soy-based sauce that I also had to eat all of since I asked for it.
Six train stops from our hotel, Sri Nirwana Maju is a simple-looking but very reputable restaurant that wasn’t yet crowded when we arrived. Located in the Bangsar neighborhood, we’re told it’s one of the trendiest and most upscale areas of Kuala Lumpur and we did see several luxury cars including a Porsche or two that’s even too expensive for the Thai High-so crowd. Offering utensils, I’m not too sure if you’d call it “authentic” and although there’s an extensive menu, it always seems like you’re limited to the buffet-style items displayed at the back counter if you’re a foreigner. Or have white skin. Either way, the food was great and we highly recommend this place should you be in KL. After chatting for about an hour, the line stretched way outside the door by 8 PM and eventually they politely asked us to leave so others could sit.
In retrospect, it’s been great knowing and staying in touch with our friend because it seems like a shame not to make friends with the local people if you choose to be an expat in a nation that’s not your own. As an educated Malay in a culture ruled by a Malay government but financially dominated by a minority Chinese population, he gets opportunities not afforded to everyone because the banks are always looking to attract more Malay clients with money and he recently studied for and obtained a prestigious financial designation. Always asking about things I don’t really know like Jewish American perspectives on political and current events, our conversations are always interesting and we both learn things about each other’s worlds. Benefitting from face to face conversation you can’t get from social media, I’m happy to call him our friend for life. While we both didn’t want to stay in Malaysia long term, we think having an opportunity to quell all the negative stereotypes tweeted to the world by a very racist and troubled gun-happy nation supporting a moron as president is well worth your time.
On our last morning, we had some free time and decided to eat at Nando’s, a South African based casual chicken restaurant that’s in Canada but not Thailand. Tired from so much running around, I was too lazy to even take any pictures of the food but we did stop at the airport long enough to remember our two years in Malaysia and we’re thankful that we had the chance to be hosted by a peaceful, moderate Muslim nation with no fundamentalism, little crime and warm, generous (albeit slow-paced) people just in time. With the rise of right-wing populism in powerful nations, it’s likely going to make life as an overseas experimental expat more complicated in the coming years. We’re off to live in Mexico next summer which certainly has its own share of problems but at least we can fly past America and over an illegal wall built with money denied by Congress, stolen from the military and supported by millions of intolerant morons. Cheers from Northen Thailand.