On Friday morning I caught the red-eye back to Chiang Mai from Kuala Lumpur (KL), returning after a week-long trip there. The trip came about because I had a series of meetings to attend for a huge project I’m currently managing. Funnily enough, this exact same client drew me to KL the very first time, back in 2004. Perhaps it shows far I’ve come in some ways; from being a ‘youth’ participant at a roundtable they hosted on population and development, to now being one of their consultants in 2011. Although I’m now a lot more wary about the world of international health, the trip was a real success and I even felt rather inspired at times. The issue of safe abortion in the Asia-Pacific region requires urgent action and I hope the work that I’ll be doing is worthwhile.
Thinking back to 2004, KL was a whole series of ‘firsts’ for me. Malaysia was actually the first Asian country I ever visited, and it was my first glimpse into the Arab world with all the Middle Eastern tourists around. It was also the first time I was overseas completely on my own for a long stretch. That sense of awe and wonder I used to associate with travel is so much more elusive now; but even so, I’m not interested in going to new places all the time. I’m pretty happy to continue returning to where I’ve been before because I like the feeling of familiarity amidst foreign-ness, and deepening my understanding of the cultures I encounter.
I didn’t write too much about our trip to Malaysia last August aside from a post about eating in Kuala Lumpur but in that post I alluded to a lot of the frustrations I felt from that trip. However, we did have a really nice time going to Malacca for the weekend, and I liked it even better the second time round. It’s still a charming place full of curiosities, and historical and colonial artefacts, but in the intervening years it seems to be even more centred on receiving local and international tourists. However, that’s a change that the whole of Malaysia seems to be undergoing. One genuine point of interest for me about Malacca is Nyonya food, particularly at Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine where the food was superb. (We had some of the same dishes as that blogger.)
Fast forward to 2011…I’m glad that I have a penchant for travelling back to the same places because 1) weather matters and this time of year is so much more pleasant there; 2) staying in a very nice hotel can make a real difference; and 3) urban renewal and gentrification are forces to be reckoned with. I discovered some great restaurants and bars this time, such as Palate Palette in Changkat and the rather chic Alexis Bistro and Wine Bar. I met lots of people on this trip through work including a new friend from Japan who is there on a short secondment. We hit the town on my last night and had the best meal on my trip: Vietnamese food at Sao Nam in Bukit Bintang. The subtle and familiar flavours were a welcome change! As much as I generally like Malaysian food, somehow it was a bit much on this trip…maybe eating so much Thai food since has made it hard for me to get as excited about food which is drowning in spice.
I didn’t have the same opportunities to engage with the city on my last trip. Less than seven months later, I felt like I peeled away different layers I didn’t even realise existed. I’m back to liking the city again and imagining a return trip in the future. It was also interesting to read some of the letters to the editor in The New Straits Times last week; one reader questioned why his son was learning Arabic at school and what use was it in Malaysia, a country of mixed heritage where other languages were of greater importance. Being from an ex-colonial outpost (i.e. Australia), I can’t help but feel so much affinity with other New World countries trying to grapple with the challenges of multiculturalism while trying to find their place in the modern world.