Of all the cities in the world that have a Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur is probably the one where it’s unmissable. That probably has a lot to do with the fact that Kuala Lumpur is more of a glitzy shopping destination than a cultural one with lots of sights and attractions. We were just aching to do something beyond strolling through malls. Charles grumbled that his new smart watch probably thought he’s this ultrafit active kind of person who walked 7 kms on an average each day. Again, Kuala Lumpur was a bit of a whirlwind trip for us and we didn’t really get to research or plan much. So with a quick morning reading of some articles online, we set out to find Petaling street, some quiet Chinese temples and an authentic Nyonya lunch.
Getting to Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur
Since we were staying at the Mandarin Oriental in the very heart of KLCC, the KL Sentral LRT stop was just a couple of minutes’ walk away. From there we took the LRT a couple of stops East to Pasar Seni. Seeing a train packed to the edges with people could get daunting for some, but after traversing the Paris, Barcelona and Bangkok metros with ease (as well as having occasionally used Mumbai’s infamous locals) we were up to the challenge. Alighting at Pasar Seni, we saw the Masjid Jamek across the tracks, and got a sense of culture and history in the same gush of fresh air.
Walk is possibly the oddest word for this stretch of trinket shops under a covered area outside the Central Market. We passed under a gigantic pewter butterfly (Pewter, thanks to the Royal Selangor company, is a pretty big deal in Kuala Lumpur). A couple of sleepy vendors swatted flies off their collection of exotic fruits while displays of batik clothes and woven bracelets sat unattended. Charles pointed out a magnet kiosk selling magnets with Denmark, ILoveNY and every destination apart from KL branded across it. We shuffled on quickly, and entered the Central Market through the first door we found.
We’d been warned, but we ventured in anyway. So it probably serves us right for getting bored out of our minds at Central Market. An air conditioned market with lanes for different Asian countries – Little India, Little-China, Malay street and more stocked a whole bunch of handicrafts and souvenirs. Which is great if you’re not from Asia and all of it is exotic to you. We walked past stores selling toys, key chains, wooden masks, soaps, tiny models of the Petronas Towers and other knick knacks, pausing only to click pictures and check out a couple of antique stores.
Sri Mahamariamman Temple
Walking on, we passed another point on the map that we weren’t incredibly interested in. The Sri Mahamariamman Temple seemed far too similar to the zillions of temples we have back in India. That said, I must admit we did stop and stare in awe at the massive five tiered- Gopuram with its over 200 deities carved out in intricate detail.
Kuan Ki Chinese Temple
Just as we were wondering if we’d be able to find any of the Chinese temples, we saw a flash of red that caught our attention. Sitting inconspicuously by the side of the road, was a beautiful cherry red Chinese temple. From where we stood outside, we could look through, past the stone guards flanking the entrance, into a smoke filled courtyard. The stone guards are Chinese lions, the male with a ball in his mouth, and the female with a baby serving to ward off negativity. Past columns with snake/dragon like creatures wrapped around them, we saw the colourful men shen (the door Gods) Walking in, we paused as our eyes began to water fiercely. An entire curtain made of incense coils were burning over the entryway, sending a sweet smell and a thick haze of smoke all around. Light streamed in from above, catching the lazy spirals of smoke as they wafted towards the heavens. This was the strangest of all temple experiences we’ve ever had. No, there was no hush of silence that spoke of God’s presence. There were no chants or devotees sending themselves into a trance. Everything was very matter of fact. Yes worshippers were maintaining a respectful decibel level, but there was no hush of reverence. They walked about in their shorts and jeans, lighting incense sticks and flags, bowing their heads to the Taoist God of war and going about their day. Just seeing this temple alone, made our otherwise “meh” day worth it.
Once again, a massively hyped up “Must See” attraction in Kuala Lumpur that definitely did not live up to the expectations. A walking street, lined with old crumbly buildings, shops selling tee shirts and fake branded bags spilling out on the street. Street food vendors and cold drinks in hand carts. Looking back, it was just like Khao San road in Bangkok (minus the bars and semi-naked backpackers dancing on table tops). I don’t know if the difference in our experience was alcohol or the fact that backpacker streets just don’t appeal to us anymore. It made me wonder for a while, if being a frequent traveller tends to de-sensitize you towards new experiences that are somewhat similar? Would this have been exciting for us a couple of years ago? We pondered this, keeping our heads up, looking at the beautiful old pre-war buildings and rows of Chinese lanterns looming above us as we manoeuvred an obstacle course of tourists and touts.
Sin Sze Si Ya Temple
Finally glad to have escaped the rather claustrophobic Petaling Street, we saw a little sign on the road that I almost missed. Charles took my hand and led me into what seemed to be the parking lot of a building. I looked at him quizzically, wondering what he was up to. Great call on that tiny yellow sign by Charles, because he had led us into another Chinese temple. Hidden away from the street, the Sin Sze Si Ya temple is a shrine to two illustrious personalities of Chinese history. Rumoured to be the oldest Taoist temple in Kuala Lumpur, there’s a strange ritual practised here. There I was standing entranced, staring at all the idols on the altar, as Charles walked around trying to take a few pictures without disturbing any of the worshippers. When suddenly, a girl crawled out from under the altar beside me. I read later on, that crawling under the altar 3 times is said to bring good luck. I also read about the caretaker who is one of the few who can decipher chim (fortune sticks) today. Wish I’d known this while still in KL.
Old China Cafe
We looked at the watch, realising it was well past lunchtime. This was where I jumped into navigator mode, leading Charles down a deserted ghost town kind of street, in the pursuit of a very special cafe. The highlight of our trip to Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur. The Old China Cafe is less restaurant, more institution. Dating back to the mid 1800s when Chinese settlers mined for tin in the area, it used to serve as a guild hall. One of the last remnants of this area’s rich history, we were thrilled to find out a lot of the original construction had been maintained. Two large mirrors on opposite walls lit up the otherwise dingy room beautifully. But they weren’t only aesthetic. They’re Feng Shui mirrors, believed to reflect good luck. We took our time, taking in the artwork, old photographs, calligraphy and other adornments on these old walls, the latches on the wooden doors, all of it really giving us a sense of this old place. We even overheard a writer interviewing the grandson of one of the old inhabitants at the next table. Eavesdropping on his tale only heightened our sense of curiosity of what life would have been like in the area back then.
We then focused our curiosity on the Nyonya cuisine, ordering so many dishes, that our server shot us a really strange look. Here’s what we ate:
- Fried Spring Rolls (Stuffed with pork) – Quite avoidable, tasteless
- Ikan Bilis (Dried Anchovy) – Absolutely delicious, but dried fish is an acquired taste
- Nasi Lemak – Charles polished off the entire plate!
- Siu Yook Devil Curry (Sweet and Spicy Pork curry) – I struggled through this, because the curry was like a flat sweet n sour sauce from a bottle
- Cincalok Omlette – Definitely delicious. Described as an omlette that tastes like cheese, it lived up to our expectations.
- Coconut Rice (stained by the blue pea flower) – Absolutely divine. A definite must try.
- Fresh Lemongrass drink – A bit too strong and bitter for my liking. Even after adding an entire jug of sugar syrup.
I’m still not sure about how we managed to walk back to the Pasar Seni LRT stop after all that food, but we were definitely on some sort of high, quite thrilled to have gotten a day’s break from malls and city sights. If you’re in KL for more than a day, Chinatown is definitely where you should head! Have you been to Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur or anywhere else in the world? How does it compare?