Bring an empty stomach
Published/Last edited or updated: 5th January, 2018
The KL Food Experience we did with Urban Adventures was a pleasant surprise—an imaginative jaunt by foot and on the train through Kuala Lumpur’s Brickfields and Chinatown, rounded out by an excellent guide, Charles.
We booked the tour through Urban Adventures, but it is actually run by Food Tour Malaysia, who offer the exact same tour on their website, for the same money, so you can book either way and you’ll end up on the same trip. Once booked all we needed to do was show up at Bangsar LRT station at 11am to meet up with our guide, the very chatty Charles, and two Singaporean travellers who had also booked onto the trip, and then we were off.
Like all the food tours we did while in KL, the tour was about more than just food and while starting at Bangsar was a bit of a head scratcher for us, it made more sense when, as we walked out of Bangsar station, Charles pointed to the walled in Jalan Ang Seng Muslim cemetery and started talked about land issues. Overshadowed by the imposing edifice of the luxurious Alila Bangsar, the cemetery is enclosed by a sturdy concrete wall wrapping around its edge—to protect it from encroachment we were told. Walking around the corner, to the other side of the hotel, we saw a traditional Malay wooden house, shaded by a solitary coconut palm and a growing mango tree—the owners had refused to sell to developers, bucking a trend sweeping the city as tradition gets levelled for more glass and brass.
This theme of modernity vs tradition came into play in all of our food walks, but Charles was particularly eloquent on the issue. Not long after the traditional house we stopped at a street side cafe for some cold drinks, and relaxed as Charles talked to us about how traditional eateries (like where we were sitting) were finding themselves landless as blocks were sold to developers building fancy apartments well beyond the affordability of your average KL resident. These small, cheap restaurants were then being relocated (like it or not) into ground floor food courts in a very similar situation as with what happened in Singapore decades ago (much to the nodding agreement of the two Singaporeans on the tour).
We continued weaving our way through little trafficked roads till we reached a small temple and then a garland stuffed alley. Walking through the small alley market (the Singaporean woman scored a garland bracelet as a gift on the way through) it felt like it was a portal of sorts—we left the Malay kampung behind and were now in the heart of one of Kuala Lumpur’s Little India. Standing on the pavement of Jalan Tun Sambanthan—a major Brickfields thoroughfare, Charles pointed out the many South Asian restaurants and supermarkets, and gaily decorated archways and lamps. He went on to explain how area was “transformed” by a government project which culminated in late 2010 with the rebranding of Brickfields as “Little India” by Najib alongside Indian PM Dr Manmohan Singh—most locals though still refer to the area by its original name.
Pushing on we reached Vivekananda Ashrama another battleground between those who value history and tradition over condominiums and fancy pants towers. Built by Tamil immigrants in the early 20th century, today it primarily houses an ashram and offers Hatha Yoga classes three times a week (Mo, Tu & We 19:30–21:00). For now, the building survives.
All these gripping development battle stories make for an appetite, so we made two quick food stops after the ashram—first at a street stall doing all things fried, and then, in a marked contrast to the street side eatery we started at, Selvam’s Corner where we enjoyed a filling mixed rice plate. The food was great—just as good as what you’d eat in a traditional street side shack—you’re just in the ground floor of an apartment building instead...it’s the same right?
After doglegging it down to Jalan Thambipillay, we passed by a stretch of blind masseuse shops “men by men, women by women—very good massage here but no happy endings!” chortled Charles till we reached the Taoist Sam Kow Tong temple. The name means “Three teachings” and despite it being quite an interesting site, this is a very little visited spot. The Singaporean couple were well versed on the style of the temple and talked me through the significance of much of what was on display.
From here it was off for two more fast food hits—incredible fried bananas and then across the road, soothing and chilled cendol. A word on the bananas. The stall isn’t called “incredible bananas” and while we’ve had more than our fair share of fried bananas, it seemed fitting that the chef was wearing a Batman t-shirt as they really were fit for a superhero. Across the road, while grinding our ice the cendol vendor complained that we was needing to move location because of government pressure. “My grandfather worked this corner, my father worked this corner and I worked this corner” he exclaimed—development and the changing priorities of the city affect the lives (and livelihood) of even the smallest corner stall.
The time had come to leave Brickfields behind and we jumped on a train from KL Sentral to Pasar Seni on the edge of Chinatown. From here we wandered into Chinatown’s wet market, to a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop for a bag of iced coffee. Yet again, urban developments had had their way. Our host, had previously worked at the Lok Ann Hotel and Cafe (which was flattened in 2013 as a part of mass transit developments) and had been relocated to a quite corner of the market. His hideaway was decorated with photos of the old digs—another slice of KL’s history gone.
Stomaches creaking we moved further into the wet market to what was to be our final meal of the trip. A roast pork and char siew pork street stall, where I’d not be exaggerating to say the roast pork was some of the best pork I’ve ever had—absolute melt in the mouth. Here we slowed down, chatted more. The Singaporeans and Charles continued discussing which had the better food, Singapore or Malaysia? A topic which it seems both nationalities are capable of talking about, well, forever.
While the tour had only run for just shy of four hours, it felt like we’d been walking and eating for far longer than that—and I mean that in a good way. Charles was an excellent guide, with plenty of information and was not at all hesitant to weigh in with his own opinions on what he thought about a particular issue, be it anything from urban development or condo prices through to who has the better noodles ... Singapore or Malaysia—just don’t suggest Indonesia.
At US$59 per adult, I thought the tour was terrific value and if you’ve got a loose half day, this is an excellent way to spend it—just be sure to show up with a very empty stomach.
Coordinates (for GPS): 101º40'42.12" E, 3º7'39.39" N
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Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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