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We arrived in Kuala Lumpur at kind of a bad time: it was Hari Raya, the end of Ramadan and a major public holiday in Malaysia. Muslims from KL typically visit their families in the north at this time, and because the holiday fell on a Thursday-Friday, everyone basically had a four-day weekend. The city was eerily empty in some places, jam-packed and business-as-usual in others. This probably contributed to our slightly off-kilter experience, but I think regardless of holidays, KL is not a city you fall for at first sight. Much of the centre is clearly not designed for pedestrians, and we found ourselves walking awkwardly along the edge of highways and under bridges. The public transit system looks great on paper, but all of the lines are owned by different companies and they barely intersect. Making a journey that includes a change of line most often includes leaving the station, walking a few blocks up alleys and across construction sites, then entering a new station and paying for another ticket. Luxury hotels and malls are being thrown up everywhere you look, but nothing fits together logically. It’s the very model of unchecked development. What to do to get our bearings in a strange Asian city? Obviously – morning markets!

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In my last post I mentioned Eating Asia's Robyn Eckhardt. We were lucky enough to take her walking and eating tour of Georgetown, and she passed on a slew of tips for places to eat on our own time. Our plan for the late afternoon was to potter around town and then try some Penang laksa. Robyn dismissed most of the supposedly “best” laksas in town and gave us directions to a far superior but unheralded hawker. This place doesn't open till the mid-afternoon, though, so we had time for some proper touristing first. And yes, we totally planned our day around the time the laksa stall opened.
As we wandered the historic centre, though, we began to notice something. Cats. Cats painted on walls. As a huge fan of the late Chris Marker, cats on walls are of particular interest to me. I knew that Georgetown had a bunch of street art but the cats were an extremely pleasing surprise. Suddenly, they were appearing everywhere, in small scale and writ large. Read the rest of this entry »
 
Georgetown is full of gorgeous old shophouse architecture – the kind of buildings that have been torn down in many other places and replaced with truly ugly modern high rises. Penang's shophouses aren't only valuable for their aesthetic merits, though, as they still support some of the cultures that are nourished by these types of space. A perfect example is Toon Leong coffee shop, which we discovered on the recommendation of Robyn from Eating Asia.* Here, the purpose of the deep interior space with pillars but no walls becomes perfectly clear: it is almost magically cool inside, despite a day in the high 90s and nothing but a couple of lazy ceiling fans. Humidity be damned, it is comfortable here. In the late morning, the cafe is dotted with old Chinese guys and a growing number of local workers coming in for lunch. You can take a lunch break here but it would also be so very easy to while away several hours. Kopi tiam, or coffee house culture here is alive and well, thanks to these kinds of spaces.
 
 
We've been in Malaysia for a few days now, but we're still reeling from the amazing food onslaught that was Penang. We arrived in the mid afternoon, when Georgetown is hot and sleepy. I was eager to get out and eat, but not unreasonably, a lot of the street food focuses on actual mealtimes, rather than being ready to feed foreigners at random moments of the day. So, we pootled around looking at the city's truly gorgeous shophouse architecture until Mr Lemur called time on our mad dogs and Englishmen perambulations and we went back to our hotel for a siesta. (Our hotel, by the way, was the fantastic Campbell House, about which more later. Seriously, if you go to Georgetown, you should really stay there.) Anyway, we didn't quite have our bearings yet in terms of navigating the city, so we didn't want to stray far for dinner. I had a long list of food ideas, but the only one very close to our hotel was the wonderfully named Sky Emperor Chicken Feet Kway Teow Soup on Lebuh Kimberley. Come on, how could you not want to eat at something called Sky Emperor Chicken Feet?
 
I already wrote about the putu piring, but there was so much more going on at the Geylang Serai pasar malam. Blocks and blocks of tents were set up for a giant market that runs through Ramadan, adjacent to the hawker food centre where we ate. Outside, the streets are decorated with lights and in lots of places, decorative ketupat holders. Inside you can buy most anything, but if you are in the market for some spiffy new headscarves, then you have really come to the right place. We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around the stalls.
 
While in Singapore, we stayed in Chinatown, one of the few city neighbourhoods to retain many older buildings. Even here, you are surrounded by hulks of sci-fi style high rises. Some of the shophouses of Chinatown are run down but, this being Singapore, many have been renovated and now house chic bars and restaurants. Most are very nicely done, but there is a bit of a Disneyfied atmosphere in the more touristy sections. Still, what's fascinating about the city is the rubbing up together of the gentrified night clubs and the old men shooting the breeze outside the temple. Maxwell Road hawker centre is perhaps the best example of this promiscuity: on the one hand, it is definitely a tourist destination, with quite a few Europeans wandering around; on the other, it is a locus of genuinely excellent food, with long queues of locals patiently forming at the best stalls.
 
 
While in Singapore, we stayed in Chinatown, one of the few city neighbourhoods to retain many older buildings. Even here, you are surrounded by hulks of sci-fi style high rises. Some of the shophouses of Chinatown are run down but, this being Singapore, many have been renovated and now house chic bars and restaurants. Most are very nicely done, but there is a bit of a Disneyfied atmosphere in the more touristy sections. Still, what's fascinating about the city is the rubbing up together of the gentrified night clubs and the old men shooting the breeze outside the temple. Maxwell Road hawker centre is perhaps the best example of this promiscuity: on the one hand, it is definitely a tourist destination, with quite a few Europeans wandering around; on the other, it is a locus of genuinely excellent food, with long queues of locals patiently forming at the best stalls.
 
Singapore is famous for its hawker food centres: since the government cleared hawkers from plying their trade on the street, they have been moved to what are essentially food courts. However, they're not food courts in the way you might imagine them if what you are used to is European or North American mall food courts. These hawker centres are mostly open air, with a covering roof but no walls, doors or, crucially, air conditioning. The stalls have access to plumbing and there are hygiene certificates prominently displayed (this is Singapore, after all), but they are still decently grimy, hot and chaotic. Kenny and Alan ramped things up by taking us to Chomp Chomp, a hawker centre that's a bit further out and less touristed than the Chinatown ones. The neighbourhood is tony, with gentrified wine bars and posh bakeries nearby, but Chomp Chomp remains unabashedly traditional, and packs in crowds of mostly (but by no means all) young people. Read the rest of this entry »
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