Kuala Lumpur: Taking a break from our break

After a month of hardcore travel in Nepal, it was time for a break. Our loose travel plan had us going to Thailand next to soak up the sun in a beachside hut, and swim in crystal blue waters. But all flights out of Kathmandu routed through somewhere else…India or Kuala Lumpur. Mark had worked on a project last year in KL, and we came within an inch of moving there, and I thought it was time to go see the place I had agreed to move to sight unseen.  So we detoured to KL, which set us on a course for island hopping through Malaysia and Southern Thailand.  

But first, we needed a break from our break, and city life in Kuala Lumpur first the bill.

We rented a flat on AirBnB in the Burkit Ceylon district. Requirements: kitchen, washing machine, two bedrooms and a pool. Added bonus if we don’t have to drive anywhere in the notorious KL traffic. We found exactly what we were looking for, and we made ramen noodles in our little kitchen when we arrived at 1 am. I hadn’t realised just how much I had missed feeding my family.  It was glorious.

So glorious in fact that none of us wanted to leave our little flat! We had good wifi and air conditioning, not to mention fantastic beds, a hot shower and a view. We had originally booked for three nights, thinking we’d move on up the coast and beach hop after that. But we were clearly in need of a first world break, and so we extended our stay for the week.

Mark caught up with old friends from University, and former colleagues. I saw a chinese doctor for my chest cold that had started in the cold nights in the mountains, and turned painfully asthmatic in the dusty streets of Kathmandu. Austin caught up on his Minecraft, school work and swimming.

For my cough, I was set on finding a Chinese doctor — western medicine had failed me thus far and I needed to try something different.  The combination of Mucinex, Zyrtec, Benadryl and Albuterol inhaler I had been pouring into my body for the last two weeks hadn’t done much to help, and I couldn’t imagine pouring yet another set of pills into my body.

We found the Chinese doctor where else but in Chinatown, in a pharmacy on a side street in the market. The pharmacy was split in two – down one side, modern pharmacists with boxes and boxes of modern medicines stacked in glass cases up to the ceiling. Down the other side was the chinese medicine side with strange herbs in glass jars stacked on shelves, high up to the ceiling. There were things like sliced deer antler, fermented chicken stomachs, and pearl lustre powders.  

The doctor was a sweet little old man in a clinic at the back of the pharmacy. He checked my pulse all the while asking me normal enough questions – how long had I been coughing, did I have phlegm, etc. He then prescribed the following: No Chicken or Eggs for three days. He must have told me no chicken at least 7 times, so I asked why. He said he thinks I have an allergy to the dust, so no chicken for three days. Makes total sense.

Then he got out his little prescription pad and started writing – in Chinese characters. He paused for a minute and then tore off the page and started writing on another one. He said “I give you in powder form — easier to drink”. I was to drink this concoction twice per day with warm water for four days — one day longer than no chicken — and then I would be cured. He also reassured me that this drink was not too bitter — “quite nice actually”. I started imagining all sorts of lovely fruit and herbal flavours, maybe a little peppermint. Mmmm…just what my painfully tight chest needed.

I walked the prescription to the Chinese pharmacist, and he started pulling out jars of powders – at least 15 of them, and started weighing out the contents into a big pile on the scale. This was then divided into 8 equal parts and put into little sachets, which were then put in to a bag and handed over to me. The entire process cost us 75 Malaysian Ringgits, equivalent to about £12 or $15 USD.

First of all, not eating chicken in Kuala Lumpur is no easy feat. I ordered Tom Yum Soup for lunch, thinking it would be seafood based, but it wasn’t, and I picked out the chicken bits and gave them to Mark.  Dinner was much easier, and I feasted on barbecued seafood in the Jalan Alor food market, and didn’t miss the chicken at all.

That night, we met up with Steve, one of Mark’s friends from university who lives with his family in KL. He showed us the best place to get the best dishes in the vibrant street market and we had a grand time eating barbecued chicken fish off the bone, the best chili squid I’ve ever eaten, and wonderful grilled prawns, morning glory greens, and Tiger beer. Lots and lots of Tiger beer.

On the way back to our hotel, we walked down Bukit Bintang, a single street with a serious concentration of bars on either side, competing for space with foot massage outlets. It reminded me a lot of 6th Street in Austin both in looks and atmosphere, but with slightly less vomit.

As we passed an Irish Pub, Steve noticed a friend of his who had lived in KL, but had since moved away. He was having a pint (or two) while his kids played on their iPads. He was our kind of parent. We all hit if off immediately, and the pints began to flow, right into the quiz night, and before I knew it, we had more beer in one sitting than I’ve had in actual years. Oops.

All of the beer helped tremendously with the pillow fight we had promised Austin when we got back to our flat, but that was the last “good” thing about the beer. The very last good.  I didn’t leave the flat the next day, and wallowed in my absolute misery of a 42 year old’s hangover.

My aching brain cells caused me to make yet another horrible error in judgment.  I took the first of my Chinese medicine on a raging hangover, and it did not taste pleasant. I couldn’t decide if it tasted like sawdust or mud, but it was not “quite nice actually,” and did not go down well. It also made me feel weirdly floaty. Or perhaps that was just another layer of the hangover. It did help with my chest, but having taken it on a day when I was in such a delicate condition put me off it, and I never finished my course of magic Chinese powders.  I did, however, abstain from chicken for a week, and strangely enough, that did seem to help.  Or maybe it was the relatively cleaner air and rest.

I wasn’t the only one learning lessons and embracing local custom in KL – but I was certainly the only one learning them the most painful way!

Our notoriously picky eater, Austin, dove right in to the outdoor food markets, despite the stench coming from the frightening looking and awful smelling durian fruit. A hideous spiky putrid greed coloured melon like fruit about the size of a small watermelon, it gives off a stench of sweet sewage that permeates the air like only a decomposing body can do. There are signs in all the hotels that no durian are allowed in the building, but that doesn’t stop them from selling them in the markets, and OMG the locals seem to be lapping them up. They say it’s a bit like blue cheese, and once you get a taste for it, you can’t stop eating it. I’ll leave that one to the imagination, thank you very much.

Once you got past the durian vendors though, the colours, the people, the fresh fish, the (wonderful) smells of Asian cooking took over and led you by the eyes, nose, ears and stomach to sit down at one of the hundreds of plastic tables lining the street, pour a cold beer and order plates to share from the lively and affable wait staff / salesmen who were skilled at both keeping their existing customers happy and convincing others to try their stall instead of the guy next door.

Austin has never, ever, ever been a good eater. I was pureeing his meals until well after the age of two, and in general, if it has more than one ingredient, he’s not touching it.

In a sea of unfamiliar food, he started simple – fried chicken wings. Something semi-familiar, but something he had never eaten before. He couldn’t believe he liked them! Then he tried “circular fries” as we had been calling the calamari at the pub for years. We explained they were, in fact, squid, and once he got over his complete disbelief that people eat squid, he announced that he wanted some with tentacles! So we got the boy some tentacles!

Amazing! Fantastic! Wow! And fun to play with too! The real triumph came when he, for the second time, ordered a chicken fish…a good sized fish with meaty white flesh, grilled on the bone, and served complete with a face, teeth and fins. You just take your chopsticks and pick off bites from the fish itself. He loved it, and was the least squeamish of all of us about eating a fish with a face.

In fact, he hoarded the fish and woulnd’t let anyone else have any. Then came the moment when I almost started crying – he told me “I’m trying out new things, mumma.” and then sat there quietly, proudly, as though he knew he was doing something mature and that would change him forever. This child has never willingly tried something new…and for him to do it voluntarily, intentionally, with a goal of doing something different…that is stretching himself into brave new territory.

I had stressed about how we were going to feed him on this trip. More accrurately, I should say I stressed about how we were going to handle the fights over mealtimes on this trip when hotdogs and ketchup weren’t available. The hard line was simply that he was going to have to eat what was available or starve, but internally I was quaking in my boots about it.

In Nepal, I let him eat eggs and french fries. Some meals he ate only plain rice. For three straight meals, he ate boiled eggs and nothing else. In Pokhara, he had pizza twice. In Kathmandu, he ate chicken burgers (no beef in a Hindu country.)

He didn’t even ask for any of those in KL. I don’t know what changed, but the adventure that started with the chicken wings, and followed the squid and the fish opened him up to trying new things. If we stop there, I’ll be a happy mom, but I have a feeling it won’t. Perhaps – maybe – he’ll soon eat something with sauce!


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  1. Annette - December 8, 2017 at 9:54 am

    Shalena you were game going to the Chinese Dr and trying the Chinese medicine. Do hope by now you are feeling much better – hopefully the relaxing in the cleaner air, and being able to enjoy swimming etc has helped get you back to 100%. Would have been great for you and Mark to meet up with people you knew, always helps when one is away for a length of time to see a familiar face also for Austin to play with some Western children.

    Love to all


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