A few years ago, my best friend and I travelled to Malaysia for the trip of a lifetime. We were roommates in college and developed a lifelong friendship taking history and geography classes together. Throughout our time in college, we planned to one day make our way to southeast Asia, regardless of the difficulties.
After months of planning, we committed to seeing Malaysia, even though our bank accounts were still representative of a college lifestyle. Traveling on a shoestring budget of only a few hundred dollars for our 8 day trip was going to be a challenge, but with hostels booked and a backup plan of sleeping in the train station if something went wrong, we felt ready for our trip if only because of our naivety prevented us from seeing the scope of the trip we’d taken on.
Our journey began with a late-night flight out of San Francisco to Sydney. The near 14 hour flight was immediately followed by a night spent in the airport because our next flight was delayed. We held on tightly to our travel backpacks and each other and flew out the following morning to Hong Kong, where we would leave on a third and final flight to Kuala Lumpur. In hindsight, better trip planning would have probably helped us avoid three separate flights to get to our destination, but we were trying to save as much money as possible, regardless of how long it took us to get there.
Arriving in Kuala Lumpur is like arriving in a new world. The comfort of our flight was soon forgotten as we stepped out into the international airport in Kuala Lumpur to add new meaning to the phrase, ‘culture shock.’ Less than half an hour after arriving in Malaysia, we hopped into a taxi to bring us into the city. Although we were exhausted, our trip of a lifetime wasn’t going to be slowed down by jet lag. We asked the taxi driver to take us to the famed Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world and world’s tallest buildings until 2004. Their enormity towers over all of Kuala Lumpur, as they’re visible from just about anywhere in the city.
Inside, the towers are magnificent displays of human achievement, with modern escalators spanning multiple stories. It was nearly impossible to take a picture of the height of the towers because they always seem to just escape the length of the viewfinder of our cameras. From what I remember, we asked a local businessman to help us take a picture pointed up at the towers from the ground to send to our parents as our first postcard home.
Following our trip to the towers and a night of much-needed sleep, we ventured out into Kuala Lumpur’s famed market district. The aptly named “Central Market” is over 100 years old and is located in the heart of the city. With close to a thousand street vendors packed into the market, every type of jewelry, clothing, and food is available for purchase and enjoyment. Needless to say, my best friend and I indulged in everything we could find.
As we stepped off of the metro train into the station below the market, the sounds and smells from above wafted into the train station. Ascending the stairs to the street market is like venturing into a foreign world, as you start to hear the sounds of haggling and pedestrians shouting across the streets to each other about the newest bargains they’ve found. The sounds echo through the train station like a warning call to both entice and deter the faint of heart.
Artisans of every variety pack the stalls from dawn ’til dusk to share their creations with tourists and locals alike. First time tourists can get overwhelmed by the variety of art and culture in the market. Stalls with everything form knockoff perfume and handbags to homemade baked goods can be had within arms length.
By lunch-time, our backpacks were stuffed with souvenirs and clothing items that we just couldn’t pass up. The long-standing tradition of haggling may be foreign to westerners visiting Kuala Lumpur, but in order to get the best deals in markets, haggling is a must. Shop keepers are well aware that haggling isn’t commonplace elsewhere in the world and will try to price their items accordingly to trick tourists into paying more than they should. Any well-written guide book will warn you of these predatory practices before you arrive.
Our whirlwind week-long adventure in Malaysia was completed with a trip to the Batu caves, a cave system located just outside of the city center. The Batu Caves are a natural cave formation that formed in the limestone commonly found in southeastern Asian countries. The limestone has withered away from water damage and erosion.
After spending much of our time on our feet walking through Malaysia, my friend and I struggled to climb the nearly 300 steps to the bottom of the cave floor. Once we reached the bottom, the man at the ticket counter gave us a quick history lesson, telling us that the caves, in addition to being a tourist attraction, also serve as a Hindu temple, the largest outside of India. Making our way into the cave, it was obvious that traveling Indians took their pilgrimage to the cave seriously, as Hindu statues and offerings could be found scattered throughout the shrine.
Words cannot describe how beautiful and wonderful Malaysia is. Although it has accelerated into the 21st century, traditions like dining on banana leaves and taking in the mist and cool breeze of the open ocean are still popular among locals. Haggling and bartering happen every day in Malaysian street markets and there’s no sign of big-box retailers replacing the age-old practices of trading found on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. While being able to use Skype to keep in touch with our family while we were away was nice, the best parts of the day were spent exploring the disconnected world that is central Kuala Lumpur.
About the author
Natalya Pobedova is a travelling nomad and backpacker from beautiful Brno Czech Republic. She is 27 and makes a living as a freelance web developer to support her traveling needs. She also runs a travel website for backpackers as a hobby www.travelsiders.com. She dreams to fly to Brazil and speaks Portuguese fluently. She visited 14 countries already and most of them are in Asia and Europe.