Pasar Malam - The Street Markets of Kuala Lumpur

Text & Photos by Farah S. Kamal

Our tourist group was looking at the city map while driving on a picturesque highway from Port Dickson to Kuala Lumpur. Our first stop was the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, a modern cosmopolitan and multicultural city. It is an amazing combination of glittering sky scrapers, colonial architecture, friendly Malay, South Indian, Thai and Chinese populations, all amidst the blessing of lush green nature. KL, as the locals call it, is popular for its high-rise malls, which to me reflect the same overrated, monotonous urban ambiance around cities in the world. I wanted to have an authentic Asian experience, especially centered around the culture of Malay street markets, cuisine and locals.

I mapped a photo walk of some famous street markets of Kuala Lumpur, while my friends explored the high-rises. Street markets around the world present an authentic, local cultural experience. Strolling around these markets, I tasted the Southeast Asian cuisine, got an insight into their lifestyle and met tourists and locals.

“We come here to enjoy and hang out every Wednesday,” said a group of students eating bowls of noodles, sitting on wooden benches at the weekly Taman Connaught Night Market. One can get a local perspective into lots of things by strolling through the two-kilometre stretch of this market. The students said it would take about four hours to reach the end of it. One surprise after another awaits the visitors along the 700 stalls, mostly run by Thai people selling every imaginable Asian cuisine and merchandise from the entire continent. The colourful dumpling stalls were just as adorable to look at as delicious to taste, and so were the vast array of fruits and drinks.

Next day, we thronged the streets of Kampung Baru as part of a free government-organised walking tour. Located in the heart of the city, it used to be an old Malay village, where the residents have preserved Malay culture. It was not crowded like other places and there were not many tourists around. Luckily, this is how I could easily photograph a lot of traditional Malay houses. By evening, the area transformed into a carnival. Food vendors had set up their carts, filling the air with aroma of delectable Asian cuisine. I started my gastronomic adventure, sampling some Malay food and even stopped to talk to and photograph Fatima, a sweet Malay housewife. She lives close by, has two kids and prepared all the food by herself at home to sell at the market and make extra money. The hawkers there spoke little or no English, but she was eager to share her story, so we found someone who could translate for us. The people in these markets and streets were extremely friendly and open to being photographed and interviewed. Completely unlike Morocco, where they ask for money even when we point our cameras at anyone accidentally. Malaysia is truly a heaven for street photographers.

One early morning, I geared to witness bursting colours at the Chow Kit market. The strong Malay and Indonesian culture here presents a pleasant environment. It is the largest “wet market” of Kuala Lumpur. The shops here sell meat, poultry, fish, lobsters and crabs. I explored the amazing produce, herbs and spices that are used in Asian cuisine. The shop keepers patiently let me go inside their stores to get perfect shots of the produce and explained the culinary use of the herbs and spices. I also met people working in a coconut shop, where they were manually pressing coconut milk and shredding its meal. I was served free, bottomless coconut water, which otherwise goes to waste. Coconut, a personal favourite, is a significant part of Southeast Asian cuisine. Nothing matches the joy of sitting on a plastic stool, slurping a lunch of piping hot laksa cooked with fresh coconut milk.

Later, my friends accompanied me to explore three interesting markets close by. One was a covered department-store-style Central Market with an amazing food court and souvenir stores. I did most of my shopping here and bought excellent Malay handicrafts and traditional clothes. Alongside the central market is a lane called Kasturi Walk, which is a flea market. However, the array of Malay, South Indian and Chinese cuisine there are a real treat. Here, I had a supper of Masala Dosa, followed by the best fried bananas I have ever had, one of my favourite Malay snacks. At a short walk from there awaited a kaleidoscope of colours and fragrances at the Petaling Street. This is the original China Town of Kuala Lumpur. I fetched a bag of roasted chestnuts and walked through this exciting strip that is known to be busy round the clock. The stalls there were full of cheap clothes, fabrics, souvenirs, watches, DVDs, CDs and more. The Chinese pharmacies particularly got my attention, selling potions, and herbs as traditional remedies of ailments. I bought a bunch of ginseng roots. The fun of cultural experience is to eat what locals do and interact with them. I left these markets satisfied with my gastronomic adventures, overwhelmed by the colours, flavours and bags full of shopping. Malaysia is truly Asia, but only if you explore it beyond the fashion brands and shiny high-rise buildings.