On MalaysiaLast Updated: 2022-08-25
Last month our stay in Malaysia came to an end. After weeks of finalising documentation, arranging and supervising packing, end-of-lease management, and organising various temporary accommodation, it was finally the act of sending the email to the childrens' school to confirm their final day which tipped me over the edge, and I found myself in a small cafe on a KL mall rooftop fighting back some tears. You would think that there were plenty of opportunities prior to that, but this is when they came. After weeks of fussing and fretting, perhaps the temporary idleness of waiting for the 'final off' caused the emotion to come to the surface.
Our relocation to Malaysia was supposed to be a well-judged experiment in living abroad. We had no fixed contract, so the length of our stay was up to us - a perfect opportunity to see if we could build some kind of overseas life. As it turned out, regional company management decisions would ultimately determine the length of our stay. On top of this, we lived through nearly 2 years of lockdowns and movement restrictions during Covid which have affected us and the kids, as well as millions of people around the world. We certainly didn't have the strictest lock-down, but when you are in the middle of it with children trying to attend school, it certainly feels like it.
Despite these setbacks, we tried not to let it dampen our Malaysia experience, and we adapted to the environment and built on the strengths of our family and the new friendships we were making. We were of course given an amazing opportunity by being able to live and work in KL, and as an expat family you can certainly live a relaxed life. So as we have been wrapping up our little adventure I've been thinking of all the things I will miss.
The food of course has to top the list. We tried to dive headfirst into the local cuisine and after a year in KL, I often found myself starting the day with a roti telur (flatbread with egg inside), dhal and a teh tarik (strong local tea), a satisfying breakfast you can get for under $2 on nearly every other street corner. On top of that, you can find pretty much any type of cuisine that you want: dumplings, curries, 3 types of Malaysian laksa, kuey teow and rendang, tapas, shwarma, thali, sushi, burgers, pies... seek and you shall find! It is true that the Malaysians are a bunch of foodies, and that suited me just fine.
More specifically, Malaysia knows how to do two things very well - eggs and chicken. I don't think I've been anywhere which knows how to fry chicken so well. Fried chicken is almost a staple alongside some Nasi Lemak, what you could probably consider the national dish. If it's not curried then it's fried, and I think out of 20 serves of fried chicken you will only come across one which tastes average. And of course with the chinese influence there is the chicken rice - oh my goodness! So succulent, so flavourful. In short, if you love chicken come to Malaysia!
What about the eggs? In Australia I was used to 3 types of egg - fried, scrambled and poached. (Yes I suppose you can count boiled, but you didn't really get a boiled egg unless it was in an egg mayo sandwich.) And if you went to a fancy restaurant you would be sold the 63-degree egg at a premium price. Well, the 63-degree-style egg is how a lot of eggs come in Malaysia. Its not seen as fancy or expensive, its just warm, creamy and delicious. On your salad, in your ramen, on your rice or just on its own. If you are game, you can even get one a little runnier, with the white only half cooked - they are generally served ready to crack on tables in the local cafes. A typical Chinese breakfast is one of these eggs with pepper and soy sauce, with a big slice of toast for dipping. I did try this once, and while it wasn't my favourite I did get used to mixing the egg in with some Dahl for dipping my roti.
Even the fried eggs are perfect in Malaysia - always just a little crispy on the bottom (but not too much) and a nice runny yolk on top. Usually served on fried noodles or rice, there is something about Nasi Lemak with a fried egg and a bit of sambal which is very satisfying. I also love the local name for a fried egg - Telur Mata Lembu literally means "Egg cow's eye" because the yolk is big and round like a cow's eye. So don't get confused if it pops up in Google Translate! (I also love that the literal translation for "scrambled eggs" in Malay is "ruined eggs"! I guess they are purists when it comes to eggs.)
As well as food, I was slowly learning more and more of the language. Not for general conversation, but mostly to navigate around and perform basic transactions, especially with food as you can see above. I loved hearing so many languages together - English, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil... plus many others like Japanese and Korean dotted around in smaller groups. It blows my mind to this day that most of the city-dwelling populations in Malaysia speak 3 languages, being English, Malay and their own. It just makes me think that english-speaking westerners are lazy. There weren't a lot of online resources to learn Malay, and one of my tactics was to switch my GPS navigation voice to Malay, which definitely helped me but drove Meg crazy at the same time.
The thing that contributes to this mix of food and languages is of course the mix of cultures, and Malaysia is essentially a cultural explosion. The major cities are dotted with a variety of temples - Islamic mosques, Taoist temples, Buddhist temples and Hindu temples. Some of these are truly amazing like the Crystal Mosque in Terengganu, the Kek Lok Si Buddhist temple in Penang and the Hindu Temple at Batu Caves. The extra benefit is there are so many holidays in Malaysia... Obviously the Muslim ones such as Eid, but also Deepavali, Chinese New Year and Christmas. The approach of Chinese New Year and Deepavali sees a build-up of fantastic decorations and activities that can last for weeks. Having met some Indian and Chinese friends and neighbours, we were very privilidged to witness these from 'the inside'.
We went to many fantastic places - and missed out on many more because of travel restrictions. The jungle and islands of East Malaysia were amazing. Penang was also amazing, and another food paradise with so many things to try. Langkawi - well most people already know about Langkawi, but there are more islands up and down both sides of Malaysia which are all worth exploring. We also found some enjoyable city mini-breaks which allowed us to explore the city's culture and surprising back-alleys. There are so many places to discover that even without COVID we would have left with a decent to-do list of places to go.
There are of course odd and frustrating things in Malaysia - things that westerners coming from organised countries will realise they have taken for granted. Things like shops and services not always opening when they are advertised; like some government websites being only in Malay despite the mix of languages being spoken (and other government websites offering different languages); like double-parking everywhere (but I do admit to a bit of 'when in Rome' a couple of times). Then there are the weird things like the Vegemite being stored next to the tobacco behind the customer service counter, and all cinema air-conditioning being run at about 14 degrees (but on the flip-side cinemas are very cheap and some have small playgrounds in them for when the kids get bored!). It also took me a while to realise that many businesses are on the 1st or 2nd floor, not at street level. Wandering backwards and forwards past the same shop five times before realising I had to go up the stairs definitely made me look like a tourist!
But there also great things that happen. Like the facts that all the shops are open until 10pm all the time, there is always something open on the many public holidays and you can pay for parking, road tolls and petrol (and other things) all on the same top-up card (this one really is pretty good). I also noticed that many businesses are willing to do a 'little extra for a little extra' like rental cars are delivered to your door and extra side jobs from tradesmen. I once had my internet cables repaired at 6:30 in the evening for a little cash-in-hand. In Australia I would have been bounced around between service departments for 2 weeks. You can also organise pretty much anything on WhatsApp - it is almost the country's 3rd official language.
It certainly helps that many things are cheap like transport, cinema tickets and eating out. It was initially hard to understand why local families kept their children out so late, but we soon realised that the cooler nights and the availability of cheap food is a massive incentive - we once fed a party of 10 for about 40 Australian dollars, which just blew our minds. So when the locals saw the western family leaving to go home after eating at 7:30 they probably thought we were the ones who were crazy! Even some schools don't start until midday because they just expect families to be up late.
There is both order and chaos in Kuala Lumpur. There are big shopping malls, fancy hotels, great restaurants and many top branded outlets. But at ground level there are motorbikes riding on the pavement, cars running red lights, half-finished fly-overs, and strangely-planned junctions which require you to cross 4 lanes of traffic in 100 meters. I once saw a traffic policeman step onto a busy city junction which had a problem with the traffic lights (I assume - I couldn't actually see anything wrong, so perhaps he just wanted some fun). After watching for a minute I think he made things worse - once the drivers saw him waving his white gloves around I think they thought they had even more license to make up their own rules.
Driving in the city was interesting with navigating the many fly-overs. It became common for my GPS to tell me to turn left in order to turn right and vice versa, and if you took a wrong turn and ended up on a raised freeway (when your GPS thought you were underneath) then you found yourself in a type of Bermuda Triangle reserved only for seasoned Malaysian motorists. Tolls were also a source of fun - experiencing a 15-booth toll gate which then merges down into 3 lanes of traffic in 200m is not for the feint-hearted but you get used to it and I think it adds to the excitement of living in a country that is that little bit different to what you are used to.
Gradually we found that we had assimilated into a local way of life: visiting local cafes and ordering without a menu, avoiding travelling on Friday afternoons when the streets were triple-parked for Friday prayers, going shopping after dinner and saying 'cannot la' to each other. Friendships obviously make the expat experience much more fulfilling and we were lucky to make both local and expat friends. It made conversations all the more interesting being able to talk about both cultural difference and local insights. But these things must come to an end and ultimately a favourable opportunity opened up for us in Vietnam, which we agreed was the best option on the table. Hopefully the friendships we made will last across the changing years and countries, and new ones will be made.
Thank you Malaysia.