In a rare moment, I'm going to to write about both cities I visited in Malaysia. The main reason for this is that I didn't make it to Malacca (Portuguese settlement!) due to these hour plus long bus ticket lines on the weekend.....there were automatic machines to the left. There were some brilliant virtues of not having a phone and dealing with a different struggle. As such, Penang didn't stand out enough to be remarkable on it's own, while Kuala Lumpur was arguably so similar to LA that I felt adding Penang is what would make this post more authentic.
Malaysia is a considerable melting pot with a variety strong and not so strong aspects to it. There are several ethnic groups and religions all converging in the region Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. While the country is predominantly Muslim, yes there are East Asian devout Muslims here, it has worked hard to bring about acceptance. From a tumultuous background, all of these religions and ethnic enclaves (Indian, Arab, Chinese and Malay) found a way to get along. As such, you have a modern melting pot that the US strives for.
KL is a modern marvel where highlights are around Little India, Chinatown, the Petronas Towers, Mosques, and a variety of political buildings. It's similar to Singapore in its hip style. However, there are plenty of places to get a nice plate of cheap street food. At the same time, you could roll around the Bukit Bintang for a variety of massages....still wasn't having it. The cars are cheaper than motorocycles and the big malls encourage the Malay people to shop. The Batu Caves were also interesting, but staying next to them in my airbnb was so far out it was an hour (random times on the Kommuter train) from the main city. Which did make getting to some things take a level of planning like I did when I stayed about an hour and a half out from Tokyo.
Penang's major draw was its huge Doi Sep Temple that was impressive, it's charming little hostel (minus the only weird bunk mate I had the entire time), tiny Confucian temples, mosques and churches, and its Western influences. The British took a number on Malaysia and in Penang it shows. While the highlight here was having a cold one with a Slav and a Malay who discussed America's downfall, Penang is fairly quirky, but not the hugest draw to leave KL.
In terms of food, Malaysia is wonderful, but do not that almost none of their food is original. Most of their dishes are offshoots from Indian, Chinese and Indonesian cuisine. Still, Nasi lemak (rice dish with a little bit everything) is solid and so is grilled stingray. Sago pearl pudding and roti channa are abundant as well. Drink wise, they have starfruit juice and Tuak (palm wine...which is delicious and I had some in Indonesia). However, I did go to another great cooking (#4) class in Malaysia where I learned about fermented coconut tuak, sago pearls, how to flip roti - so hard, cooking sambol (spicy Indoensian dish) and more. Our chefs where a world famous roti spinner, a kind Muslim lady and a expat Malay who was half British. I had discussions about patriotism with the expat lady as she was encouraging loving the US even though it was difficult. It was here where the decision to come back eventually was solidified. Mind you by the time I hit Vietnam I didn't want to come back ever. It was a catalyst moment. I also had a great food tour where I had to eat Malay cuisine with my hands - I want to do this again badly it is a lot of fun and quite logical too. Meanwhile, in Penang the food was a whole bunch of hawker stalls (In Singapore and Malaysia they're in specific areas rather than randomly on the street) and a bunch of hipster food places.
Overall, was a pretty good time and fascinating to see Muslim culture n a more Eastern setting. However, KL (Kuala Lumpur) was similar to LA (Los Angeles) and perhaps that's why the country didn't fully sink in. Not as bewildering as Kampuchea, but nowhere near as evocative as Laos. Still, it is a world city and the Malay are fascinating along with their romanticized language that is similar to Bahasu Indonesian (Bahasu Malayu is similar).