I used to think I didn’t like touristy places. They’re cheesy. Crowded. Overpriced.
Yet while Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown is always clogged with folks juggling camera lenses and maps to the embarrassment of their husbands (ahem) there’s a certain grittiness and unplanned chaos that draws me back again and again.
It’s advertised as a great place to bargain hunt, but it’s one of the few places I stop hunting. There’s durian available here any time of year. It’s now one of my favorite places to simply hang out, share some durian with a newbie, and watch the constant flow of humanity.
After all, a big part of being a tourist is taking the time to look around and notice people.
International Melting Pot
A visit to KL wouldn’t be complete without a hectic stroll through the crowded alleyway that makes up Jalan Petaling in Chinatown. In a city known for its ethnic diversity, this neighborhood is a multicultural pressure point where the native Chinese, Malay, Indian, Bangladeshi influences converge with the passing fads of the international community.
People from everywhere from Germany to Saudi Arabia weave through the smoke and steam of outdoor grills and mysterious cooking pots, braving the hawkers shouts for the fake Louis Vuitton purses, pirated movies, and t-shirts with the latest Youtube sensation.
There’s a babble of languages and many different versions of broken English, the lingua franca of Malaysia. Tiny girls thrust massage parlor menus under your nose. There’s exotic flowers, exotic street foods, and even more exotic fruits for whatever price the seller can get. Prices start high here, with the expectation that you will either haggle or get taken advantage of.
It’s a mish-mash of culture and smells that is sometimes bewildering, sometimes repugnant, and often beautiful.
Many people come to Chinatown in the evenings, when the crowds reach their peak under the glow of the floating lanterns. The bustling alleys are lined with snack carts selling sugar cane juice, sweetened rice wrapped in banana leaves, and Chinese steamed buns. But there are many outdoor restaurants as well specializing in Chinese cuisine, especially on Jalan Sultan.
This is where you’ll find the durian.
Where To Get Durian in KL’s Chinatown
There is one man who sells very small packs of kampung-style durians and jackfruit in the midst of the chaos on Jalan Hang Lekor near the intersection with Jalan Petaling, but the two main durian stalls are just across the street from each other on Jalan Sultan.
When you’ve had enough of the crowds and the pushy hawkers in the alley, take a break on Jalan Sultan. The street is still alive, but you can breathe here. Many people come here to eat dinner at any of the outdoor restaurants crowding the sidewalks with Chinese noodle soup or rows of items on kebab sticks that you can cook yourself.
A little further down from the restaurants, a polite distance away, are a durian truck and a durian stall.
Durian in Chinatown is mostly sold in prepackaged styrofoam trays. You’ll only find the most popular varieties, like D24, XO, and Musang King, and occasionally some kampungs, typically at higher than normal prices.
It’s really designed for people for whom durian is a curiosity, and not us hardcore fans. Emile, the young fellow manning the durian truck, was surprised we’d already tasted durian.
But for folks passing through who want to experience durian, this is perfect. And it’s an easy way to kill the craving for those of us who have needs.
Emile and his mom set up their truck and table in the late afternoon just under the Grocer’s Inn. They’ve been there each time we’ve visited Chinatown over the last three years.
We chatted while I picked out a packet. I asked him which durian he preferred, and he smiled sheepishly. While his parents love durian, he’s never learned to tolerate the smell.
“But it’s okay, if it gets too bad I just sit here with my shirt over my nose,” he explained, demonstrating and smiling shyly.
The next evening, we bought one XO durian from him. It was thick and sticky, with a caramel sweetness tinged with chocolate. It wasn’t the best durian I’ve ever had, but was satisfying and good. And for less than 20 meters from my hotel room.
In Chinatown, the extra price is for the convenience.
The Musang King in particular was going for crazy prices, as much as 30 RM ($10) for a few small pieces. I asked Emile who was buying them.
“I don’t know. Maybe some Chinese guys they really like this one,” he said, laughing. “The rich ones.”
But as long as you’re not buying the packets, the price hike isn’t extraordinary. The XO we bought cost 18 RM per kilo, while a few days later we bought Red Prawn at Chow Kit Market for 13 RM per kilo. So it’s definitely more expensive, but not lucratively so (maybe not for Musang King).
And if you want, there is cheaper fair around.
Across the street from Emile and his mom is a fruit stall that is there all day. They also have some durian, mostly D24, which they were selling for only 5 RM per packet. I bought a packet one night, and was reminded why many people don’t like durian. The durian flesh had settled into a formless, off-white mush that tasted like vinegar and sugar syrup. I ended up buying a packet from Emile as well.
Take It All In
Once you’ve got our durian selected, take a seat at any of the tables along the street. Order a coconut or another drink to wash it down with, and look around.
The lanterns will be starting to glow in a sky cut into geometric slivers by buildings. Fancy cars and beat up motorbikes will weave down the street around scruffy backpackers in dreads and clean cut Middle Eastern businessmen in fancy watches and tiny Chinese grandmas tottering down the sidewalk with their umbrellas and orthopedic shoes.
It’s like the world condensed into a tiny patch of urban chaos.
And some tasty enough durian.