Travel correspondent David DeVoss has been to Malaysia over 30 times and each time he is greeted by modern innovations as well as reminders of the nation’s multi-ethnic history. DeVoss looks back on his almost 40 years of traveling through the Asian peninsula and highlight some new favorites as well some old classics.
Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, boasts the fourth and fifth tallest buildings in the world. Its North-South Expressway rivals Germany’s autobahn. Yet beneath the veneer of modernity lies the land of Conrad and Maugham, a place of jungle rivers, mountain top tea plantations and vast rubber estates where slender trees cut slightly in the misty cool of morning slowly drip milky latex long into the afternoon.
The most logical place to begin an exploration of Malaysia is in Malacca, the ancient entrepôt that grew rich off the clove and nutmeg trade passing through the Malacca Straits. But most visitors start their journey in Kuala Lumpur. In contrast to Malacca, which rose to prominence in the early 15th century, Kuala Lumpur wasn’t settled until 1857 when a group of Chinese miners discovered tin at the junction where the Klang and Gombok rivers meet. Nestled in a grove of coconut palms, the Jame Mosque sits on the exact spot where tin was first discovered. Designed by a British civil servant, the mosque’s Moorish architecture sets the tone for much of Kuala Lumpur’s city center.
Kuala Lumpur may be modern, but there’s no doubt you’re in Asia. At lunch time Indian women in saris, Malays wearing graceful sarong kebayas and Chinese girls in cheongsams can be seen searching for bargains in the shopping arcades. Evenings are for eating and the best place to sample the diversity of Malaysian cooking is in the food stalls at the Chow Kit Market and along Jalan Hang Lekir. Malay satay with peanut sauce, Indian curries, chili crabs and hokkien mee are only a few of the dishes that can be ordered from passing waiters, who also bring cold Tiger beer or sugar cane juice if your curry is too spicy.
But as good as the open-air dining is, I usually spend at least one night at the Coliseum, a 90-year old hotel and restaurant on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. A lingering corner of colonialism, the bar is a bit tatty, but it still evokes an era when sun-burned planters would drive up in jeeps spattered with red clay to regale all who would listen about their latest encounter with a cobra.