Our daughter, the Little One (or LO), just turned five. And, since she and I have our birthdays just a couple of days apart, it was a combined celebration—in Malaysia. This annual birthday trip, we’ve discovered, is a good way to mark the occasion: not only do we have fun on our birthdays, it also means we get to make good use of the winter vacation.
Last year, we’d visited Singapore, and when I posted about that trip, blog reader and friend Abhik Majumdar (himself a parent to an LO) suggested we give Malaysia a try—lots to do for a little kid, and far cheaper than Singapore. My husband and I gave it some thought. Back in 2003, we’d visited Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and had liked both places immensely. And what with the Botanical Gardens, the Butterfly Park, the Zoo and the Aquaria, we figured Kuala Lumpur would appeal to the LO.
So we went to Kuala Lumpur (the LO was thoroughly amused that a city should be named after a fluffy Australian animal, but we disillusioned her about that soon).
For once, instead of booking a hotel room, we booked a service apartment at Capri by Fraser, which is a hotel that also has service apartments. The neat thing here was that we paid less, yet we had all the benefits of a hotel—and all the space of a little apartment, with kitchen/dining room, bedroom, bath, etc. The only problem was that the toilet cubicle, shower cubicle, and bathroom sink and counter were all separate from each other—and neither of the cubicles had any space to hang clothing or towels or anything. If one wanted to bathe, one would be obliged to come out, all in the nude, to grab a towel, wipe down, and dress. Okay if you’re alone or perhaps just with a spouse or partner. But throw an inquisitive child into the mix—a child who cannot sit still on the bed, even when explicitly told to do so—and you may find yourself in very embarrassing situations.
That did get sorted out, with the help of some detachable hooks provided by Housekeeping, and we settled in. The LO, within about five minutes of arriving in the coffee shop, Caprilicious, for breakfast, had made friends with most of the staff around. So much so that she was more keen on chatting with them than eating. And the breakfast buffet here is worth eating!—besides the more usual things like cereals, fruit, and eggs, there were delicious local goodies like roti canai and rendang, congee and bao…
… And, what became a favourite of my husband and me, coconut jam. Smeared on plain toast, this was fabulous with coffee.
Talking of food, one of the biggest plus points of Capri by Fraser is its proximity to some good restaurants. Right next door is the Nexus Convention Centre, and it has loads of restaurants of all types. We ended up eating most meals here, trying out one eatery after another.
But, naturally, we also had lots of sightseeing to do. The day we arrived, after a night-long flight in which I got no sleep (thanks to a screaming baby in front, a chatty couple beside me, and a loudly snoring man across the aisle), we had a nap before venturing out, in the late afternoon, to see two sights, both places we thought we’d be able to see quickly before sunset.
The first was the Thean Hou temple, a Buddhist temple. This is fairly new—it was built in the late 1980s—but there’s a quirky and colourful vibe to it that I found charming. The building itself is beautiful, all curving eaves with dragons and phoenixes…
… And, because the Chinese New Year was only about three weeks away (or is this the usual decoration here?) there were hundreds of red paper lanterns strung up all across.
What the LO found most fascinating was the sculpted menagerie of animals from the Chinese zodiac. Life-size monkeys, a dog, a horse, a larger-than-life rat, ox: they were all there in a pretty garden, each with a little plaque alongside explaining the characteristics of the animal.
There was an intricately decorated idol in the main prayer hall, and on the far side, a grotto approached through a moon door (the LO refused to believe that was called a moon door for its shape; this shape, she said, was a tree, so it should be called a tree door).
After this, we went to the National Mosque, the Masjid Negara, a large and modern building, its minaret looking vaguely Venetian to me. The main prayer hall, which is all glittery and ornate in its decoration, is off-limits for non-Muslims, but right outside it are all sorts of resources, ranging from humans to leaflets that explain various aspects of Islam.
I personally didn’t much care for the National Mosque. Not from a religious point of view, I hasten to add: purely from an architectural one. Coming from a city that boasts of gorgeous medieval mosques like the Qila-e-Kuhna, the Quwwat-ul-Islam, the Jama Masjid and the Zeenat-ul-Masajid, I found this one unimpressive.
Next day, we began a round of the attractions that we’d lined up specifically keeping the LO in mind. We started with Bukit Nanas (‘Pineapple Hill’) Forest Reserve, a very interesting little patch of rainforest right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Besides the fact that Bukit Nanas has trails crisscrossing it, showcasing some impressive species of trees…
… There is a very fine canopy walk. You climb up any one of several towers scattered across the reserve, and go down the walkway that connects it to the next tower. The towers differ in height, so you can actually climb higher and higher, until you’re walking with the leaves of some of the tallest trees brushing against your shoulders.
The fern garden, orchid garden and herb garden at Bukit Nanas, all too small, too neglected and too badly labelled—were missable, but the canopy walk was a fascinating experience.
After Bukit Nanas, we went on to the KL Bird Park, home to the world’s largest walk-in free flight aviary. Besides specific cages and larger aviaries devoted to Oriental birds, bulbuls, hornbills, flightless birds, lorikeets, parrots, etc, there is also the Waterfall Aviary, where a population of endangered milky storks is the main draw.
We attended the Bird Show, which highlighted the skills of various parrots and a hornbill, and after lunch, we went down to the Flamingo Pond. The flamingos were hardly in evidence here, but all the way down to the pond, we saw peacocks on every side. They called, their cries echoing from one tree to another (and echoed, too, by a very vocal LO, who was completely enchanted). They posed prettily on branches.
One even condescended to dance for me, a sight that I am likely to remember for a long time.
The next day was more nature. We began with the Butterfly Park, a large garden that’s enclosed by mesh, and houses hundreds of butterflies and moths. Paths wind all through between dense greenery, past bushes of lantana and hibiscus (the nectar of which, we discovered, is a special favourite of many species of Lepidoptera).
The LO looked as if she’d stepped into Wonderland. Everywhere, there were butterflies: flitting about, stopping briefly for a drink at a flower—and one even deigned to sit on the LO’s father’s forearm:
… Which, naturally, made the LO eager to try and get a butterfly to sit on her. The LO’s technique was to wave her arms about at any passing butterfly, as if in invitation, which (of course) had the opposite effect.
We spent a happy half-hour or so admiring the butterflies here, then made our way out through a series of informative and interesting galleries that focused not just on butterflies, but also on other insects and similar creatures, with live specimens, preserved specimens, and plenty of fascinating trivia.
Next up was the Orchid Garden, which seemed to belie its name by looking bereft of any orchid flowers within spitting distance of the main entrance. Further uphill, though (this is on a very low hillock), there were flowers to be seen. Slipper orchids, bamboo orchids, and others. This garden, I will admit, was a bit disappointing: the flowers were too few to do the name justice.
From the Orchid Garden, a path leads to the adjacent Hibiscus Garden, which turned out to be really pretty. Besides the colours and shapes of the hibiscus species themselves, there are other flowering trees and creepers here which I loved. Masses of orange-and-yellow flowering creepers covered a walkway where the LO (by now tired) and her father sat while I went off by myself to explore a retro-looking enclosed garden, all columns and shady verandah on one side, overgrown (in a controlled way) flowering trees and shrubs in the middle. Charming—and, because very few people seem to come to the Hibiscus Garden, deserted, so I had all this beauty to myself.
Unfortunately, this lovely afternoon was to give way to a harrowing evening—because the LO developed a raging fever and had to be rushed off to the nearest doctor, who gave us a fright by diagnosing a possible onset of dengue. Paracetamol, antibiotics, an anti-inflammatory and sponging were prescribed. The LO, sitting in the doctor’s waiting room for her medicines, calmly announced that she would return the next day to have a go at the tiny play area in one corner of the room.
We didn’t need to return, though. The medicines did their work, and the LO (who remembered that she’d watched a series in which an ill character lay in bed with a ‘white rectangle’ on her forehead) had consented to allow me to put a cool towel on her forehead. She was fine, and raring to go to the zoo.
But the zoo would have meant lots of tiring walking, so we (to the LO’s annoyance: what wimpy parents!) decided we’d go to the aquarium instead. Smaller, all indoors, and much quicker.
Aquaria KLCC is located in the basement of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. It has its tanks of everything from starfish to corals to jellyfish, piranhas, arapaimas and more, but the main attraction here is a huge tank, dominated by sharks and manta rays, through the floor of which is a tunnel with clear plastic walls. You walk through, looking up and around at all the fish.
I don’t know if the LO remembered that she had been through an almost identical (but much larger and more impressive) glass tunnel in Singapore’s Aquarium too, but she loved this one. Especially when a diver, seeing himself being waved at madly by two obviously adoring fans (the LO had made friends with another little one in the tunnel) blew kisses—a stream of bubbles—at them.
Aquaria does have some interesting information on aquatic and marine life (including some frightening models of life-size shark jaws), and among them were some specimens of dead fish that had been rendered transparent and brightly dyed to enable a closer study of their anatomy and skeletal structure. So cool! (The LO, who is mad about the colour purple or anything bordering on purple, loved this particular petridish for obvious reasons).
That night, we went to Jalan Alor, where come evening, the whole place lights up and becomes the Night Market. ‘Market’ primarily in terms of food—while we did see a guy selling small trinkets and other souvenirs, every other stall here sold food of some kind. Fruit, both whole as well as neatly cut and packaged. Juice, ice cream. Satay. One man had stacks of different things, all threaded on to satay skewers and waiting to be grilled.
And there are the restaurants, no-frills places that line the road, sprawling out onto the pavement, with plastic tables and chairs under beach umbrellas. The cuisines represented are from all across South East Asia, though local Malaysian food, of course, takes centre stage. We went restaurant hopping, beginning with the best chicken wings and satay I have ever had,
Going on to oyster omelette (too funky for my liking), and ending with some fabulous ice cream. The LO insisted on two scoops of coconut ice cream in a waffle cone…
… and having taken a couple of licks from the ice cream, promptly abdicated and said all she wanted to eat was the ‘biscuit’.
The next day, our last in Kuala Lumpur, was devoted to buying stuff for people back home. Mostly tinned kaya (that luscious coconut jam), interesting freeze-dried durians and mangosteens, and some fancy floral-essence soaps. The last-named we bought at the iconic Central Market, one of Kuala Lumpur’s most popular tourist markets. This one was built in 1888 to cater to the tin-mining community (Kuala Lumpur grew from a tiny village to a bustling city thanks to the thousands of Chinese immigrants who came here to mine tin from the 1820s onward).
Revamped and redone in an art deco style in the 1930, Central Market today is one of the most pleasant covered markets I’ve been to in South East Asia: it’s very clean, air-conditioned, and if you look up to the upper storey of the shops, you’ll see some nice traditional architecture. The shops are almost completely devoted to souvenirs, selling everything from Royal Selangor pewter to soap, jewellery and bookmarks to bamboo fibre bags and clothing.
Right in the middle are some eateries, too, including Hokkaido Baked Cheese Tarts, which we couldn’t resist buying—and which all of us, including the LO (who is a notoriously poor eater), adored to bits.
After that, we had to scurry back to our hotel and take a Grab (Grab being the local equivalent of an Uber or an Ola) to the airport. While on the topic, I should explain that if you have a little kid with you and are unwilling to use KL’s public transport system, a Grab is a great idea—they’re cheaper than regular taxis, and most of the time, we got very efficient and polite Grab drivers. One lady, a novice, was the exception—very polite and friendly, but sadly a dud as a driver: she got us lost and took us on a half-hour detour. That, though, might have been because the LO, chattering incessantly in the back of the car, can be very distracting.
But. We had a fun trip. Despite getting lost, despite the LO’s brief illness, despite the heat. It was exciting and fun and beautiful. And the little cubes or bubbles of jelly in all the ice-blended fruit drinks: bliss!