When my friend Nina and I were in high school we’d go to this park across from her house. We’d also typically bring along a little baggie of weed, because high school. We’d take a few puffs and sit around like morons making up nonsensical, bizarre phrases, like “The Purple Frog screamed, ‘Good Day!’” And “Uncle Christopher, where are your eyebrow reflectors?” And my personal favorite, “Malaysia has many.”
Malaysia has many. Many people? Many cities? Many cars? We weren’t sure, but it made us laugh for reasons no one will ever understand, myself included.
Weirdly enough, our stoned little minds were on to something. Because Malaysia really does have many. Many religions, many customs, many cuisines, and many cultures. Many places in the world are described as melting pots and those places have nothing on Malaysia. On a single block, it wasn’t unusual to see a Muslim mosque, an Indian restaurant, a Thai massage studio, a 7-11, and a barber shop owned by a Chinese family.
All of this sounds really cool in theory. And, in actuality, it is really cool. But when I first arrived in Kuala Lumpur, “cool” wasn’t exactly the word that came to mind.
Imagine you’re at a circus. But instead of each act entering the ring separately—first the trapeze, then the tight rope, followed by the bearded lady, etc., etc.—all the acts perform at the same time. The clowns are acro dancing above the ventriloquists who are lion taming, all while the elephants juggle the fire breathing unicyclers. Individually, these are all impressive, entertaining skills. But when they happen in unison, it’s an overwhelming mad house. You want to experience everything, but your brain can’t focus on anything. You can’t look away, but you don’t have a clue what’s going on.
This is Malaysia. And this is where my love story begins.
ROCKY START | KUALA LUMPUR
This romance doesn’t start like most. Instead of butterflies and love at first sight, it was more like torrential downpour and “what the hell is that smell?”
Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia’s capital—a monstrous city with gravity-defying high-rises, luxury cars, and business casual workwear. My first meal was at Central Market’s pinkish-hued food court with no natural light. I don’t know what this dish is called and frankly I’m still not exactly sure what was lurking beneath that inky black sauce. Definitely noodles. Definitely chicken. Possibly mushrooms. Despite its emo appearance it was actually quite good—salty and satisfying—especially washed down with the Malay-obsessed, Milo ice.
The only other notable KL food experience was the Alor Street Food Night Market: 8 or 10 blocks of restaurants, food carts, mobile bands, and aggressive masseuses. I went a couple different nights and tried Char Kuey Teow (a staple noodle dish with prawns and cockles), juicy mango with chili, and a rainbow of dim sum dumplings, each one packed with a different soft, salty filling.
I spent most of my time in KL walking around the concrete jungle, gawking at the insane mega malls, meeting a series of strange individuals, and going to an overpriced (but kinda cool!) bird park.
At this point, if I saw Malaysia on Tinder, I likely would have swiped left. Luckily, the food was alluring enough to keep me interested, so I swiped right and headed to Georgetown.
LET’S BE FRIENDS | PENANG
Georgetown is on Penang island and is best known for its colonial history, street art, and vibrant cuisine. A total contrast to the highbrow capital.
I had high expectations. Maybe too high. The first couple of days in Georgetown were fine; not terrible, but not particularly fun or interesting. The street art was cool, the street food was good. Maybe it was my mood, home sickness, or fatigue. But for whatever reason, I was having a hard time getting into a groove.
Then I tried laksa. Tasting laksa for the first time made me realize that although Malaysia may not have swept me off my feet initially, there were certainly some layers waiting to be discovered.
Penang laksa is rusty brown with soft, thick noodles. It’s also fishy—like really fishy—a bit spicy, and amazingly sour. At most shops they tend to top the bowls off with something fresh, like chopped lettuce or herbs. Or thin slices of pineapple, adding a sweet little surprise. They did this at Penang Road Famous Laksa, my first laksa encounter.
The really interesting thing about laksa is that it’s a little mysterious. Each bowl came with a huge variation in ingredients and flavor profile. Each establishment (if you can call a fold up table on the side of the road established?) had their own tried and true recipe. All different, all delicious.
I also enjoyed a couple other Penang staples, including Nasi Kandar (steamed rice with a variety of Indian-influenced meats and curries) and Nasi Lemak (coconut rice with spicy sambal, fried anchovies, peanuts, cucumber, and egg).
Malaysia was slowly, but surely, growing on me.
A FLING | LANGKAWI
When you travel to a place where beer is cheaper than water, I think you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a good time. Welcome to Langkawi, a duty-free island bordering Thailand, complete with white sand beaches, lush jungle, and killer sunsets.
Whereas Penang helped me see Malaysia’s, ahem, inner beauty, Langkawi introduced me to the country’s physical allure.
I spent about 90% of my time at the beach, much of that bellied up at Ah Chong Beach Bar. I’m half proud / half embarrassed to admit they named a cocktail after me, the Spicy Molly. It resembled a margarita, with blue curacao and chili.
The meals I had on Langkawi weren’t particularly inspired, but everything was satisfying: some tasty fried noodles, lace pancakes called Roti Jala with curry, and really, really good hummus from an Indian restaurant (who’d a thunk?).
Maybe it was the beer goggles, but Langkawi seemed to transform my fling with Malaysia into something a bit more serious.
LET’S GO STEADY | KOTA BARU
After Langkawi, a detox was in order. I headed to Kota Baru, an old city with a 93% Muslim population and virtually no tourists. The city has a ban on alcohol sales with only three establishments allowed to serve drinks (they had permits before the ban was put into place). There’s a beautiful beach just east of the city center. I was shocked by the desolation. There were a few restaurants along the shore with zero customers. I walked along the beach for 45 minutes and saw one other person; a local, fishing. It seemed a little sad. But simultaneously refreshing.
What the city lacked in nightlife it made up for in culinary delights. I spent three days in Kota Baru, mostly eating, as there was nothing much else to do.
Peter, a local I met at Golden City (one of the three restaurants that serves beer), invited me to dinner to try Nasi Kerabu. A simple dish with blue-colored rice (cooked with flower petals), fried chicken or fish, egg, and a fresh little herb salad. This particular restaurant also included an entire bulb of pickled garlic. After trying it I immediately made a note in my phone: Attempt to pickle garlic.
Peter also introduced me to the breakfast spot, Kedai Kopi Din Tokyo, a KB institution. This was one of those meals I’ll remember for a long time. Like tasting a bit of the past. The shop is setup like a bar, with long wooden benches surrounding the center, where all the magic happens. The magician was a cheerful old man who appeared to be doing 30 things at once with incredible ease.
We ordered their staple dish: expertly soft-boiled eggs with pillow-y white bread that is toasted over coals and slathered with kaya, a sweet, custardy coconut egg jam.
There were plenty of food courts throughout the city serving a variety of rice and noodle dishes. In the early hours of the day, many of them had buffets set up; long tables covered with 20-30 metals trays of chicken, fish, curries, starches, spiced vegetables, and unidentifiable sauces. I popped in on my last day and loaded up. The fuchsia-hued food against this minty green plate made me smile. My love for Malaysia was starting to solidify.
IT’S LOVE | KOTA KINABALU, BORNEO
Borneo is equivalent to the New Year’s Eve party, when Harry tells Sally he loves her. When things start to solidify. This huge, lush island reconciled my love for this uniquely crazy country. It’s turquoise waters, wild jungles, and simple, distinctive dishes totally won my heart over.
The Malaysian half of Borneo is made up of Sabah and Sarawak. I started in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, best known for its tropical islands and namesake mountain.
The first thing I ate was a big bowl of laksa. But get this, it was completely different than the laksa I had in Penang. Not just a variation on the rusty brown bowls I had a week before, but an entirely different dish. Sabah laksa is less of a fish stew and more like a coconut-based noodle soup. It’s orange and oily, topped with spongey tofu or chicken and fresh prawns.
Choosing between Penang laksa and Borneo laksa is like choosing a favorite child. They each have so much to offer, so many unique qualities. Penang laksa is loud and proud, while Borneo laksa is more calm and approachable. I’ll take a bowl of both.
Kota Kinabalu has a great waterfront with loads of bars, markets, and food courts. Navigating the bustling, tiny aisles of one of the markets I came across an unassuming food stand with a steaming vat of liquid. I ordered by pointing to a picture that looked appetizing. They quickly brought me a bowl of thin rice noodles in a clear broth topped with chicken (I was lucky enough to get the foot 😳) and mystery meatballs.
On each table sat a tray of bottles and jars filled with colorful sauces. One of my favorite aspects of Asian cuisine has been the customization. Serve a simple dish and allow each person to tailor it to their liking; a spoonful of chili paste, a dash of vinegar, a sprinkle of soy. It’s both fun and functional.
I went back to this stand a few times, and by the last day they had my “regular” on the table before I even ordered. Talk about feeling welcome.
HAPPILY EVERY AFTER | KUCHING, BORNEO
My last Malaysian destination was the city of Kuching in Sarawak. Kuching, more than any other place I’ve been so far, felt extremely livable. Non-touristy, the perfect size, surrounded by outdoor adventures, and great restaurants. Friendly doesn’t even begin to describe the locals’ demeanor. Plus, it’s an Anthony Bourdain-approved city, which doesn’t hurt.
My first meal in the city was at The Junk, a modern, Western-Malay fusion restaurant. I ordered a softshell crab salad and a glass of tuak, local rice wine. It was awesome. Hot, freshly fried crab, crunchy iceberg, marinated toms, tossed in an oregano-based vinaigrette. An incredibly satisfying salad. And a much needed break from rice or noodles.
Speaking of satisfying, check out this fried chicken from local restaurant, Rumah Hijau. This is the traditional breakfast dish, Nasi Lemak, that I first encountered in Penang, but elevated. The chicken was bursting with fragrant fennel seeds and the sardine were still sizzling. Served with a cup of hot, thick coffee, it’s the perfect way to start a day.
Knowing I’d soon be leaving Malaysia, I also ate all the laksa I could get my hands on. I had a bowl at Choon Hui. Anthony B. said it best with a simple, “Yessssssss.”
I had another, final bowl at Chong Choon Cafe. By far the spiciest variation that made me cough and smile simultaneously.
To end on something sweet, we’ll head over to Hava Café—a no-frills restaurant across from my Airbnb. One day I stopped in for a cup of coffee, was distracted by the rainbow cakes in the freezer, mentioned to the cashier how pretty they were, and she emerged 20 seconds later with platefuls of bite-sized morsels for me to sample. There were probably eight or nine different flavors, including a mint/chocolate combo, my kryptonite. I had no choice but to buy a loaf.
Not to be dramatic, but this Kek Lapis (layer cake) was the best cake, and maybe even the best dessert, I’ve had in my life. So incredibly dense and moist, indulgent and fresh, best served chilled. Look up ‘irresistible’ in the dictionary, and you’ll see this photo.
Although my relationship with Malaysia started a bit rocky, I couldn’t be more grateful for the time I spent here. The best love stories aren’t butterflies and rainbows. They’re challenging, complex, and taxing. And they typically spit you out as a stronger, more resilient human. This country has taught me lessons I’ll take with me, not only on this adventure, but throughout my life, when I’m back in the ‘real world.’
Malaysia emphasized the importance of patience; that uncomfortable situations are nearly always worth tolerating and can lead to unexpected surprises. The best things come with a little struggle.
This country also reminded me that a sense of humor is absolutely crucial. If you can’t laugh at yourself and your retrospectively silly decisions, good luck. Waiting 45 minutes for a bus that no longer runs? Comical. Getting caught in a monsoon with all your luggage? Ridiculous! Accidental ordering crunchy, hairy pig ear for lunch? WTF?!
Most importantly, Malaysia taught me that a bowl full of spicy noodles is sometimes all you need to turn a frown upside down.