Full of culture and cosmopolitan cuisine, Malaysia’s capital is an intriguing Southeast Asian city, says George Shankar
About: Growing from a small Chinese tin-mining village – enduring British rule and Japanese occupation – to become one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities in the space of 150 years, Malaysia’s capital is an eclectic mix of culture and history. In spite of past tensions, KL has embraced each successive wave of influence and today, Kuala Lumpur is the metropolitan and cultural hub of Southeast Asia, where you can explore ancient cave formations, rummage through multi-cultural street markets and climb the world’s highest twin towers in a single day.
Hotel: Nestled between the looming Petronas Towers and the serenity of City Centre Park, the Mandarin Oriental sets the standard for luxury in Kuala Lumpur. It offers luxurious suites, world-class dining and an on-site spa, all in the heart of the city’s golden triangle of shops and sights. For those seeking a budget option, the Reggae Hostel in Chinatown is about as good value as you can hope for in the capital. mandarinoriental.com/kualalumpur
Visit: Kuala Lumpur may be a sprawling metropolis, but you don’t have to travel far to get a real taste of nature. Take the KTM Komuter train from KL Sentral station for half an hour and you’ll reach the Batu Caves, a series of giant limestone caverns that have housed several Hindu shrines since the 19th century. A 140ft-high gold-painted statue of Murugan, the Hindu god of war, stands guard by the 272 steps to the main entrance. The other guardians of Batu are the more mischievous macaques that inhabit the area.
Building: At a combined height of nearly 3,000ft, the Petronas Towers are the tallest twin towers in the world. Their sleek postmodern design was intended to stand out among the varied colonial and Asian-influenced architecture and they continue to be an imposing presence on the city’s skyline after 20 years. Most package city tours will involve a trip up to the top of the towers – individual tickets cost around 40RM. For the best view of the towers themselves, try the nearby KL Tower. The revolving restaurant at the top provides spectacular 360° views of the city.
Shop: KL’s golden triangle, encompassing Kuala Lumpur City Centre and Bukit Bintang, is a Malaysian Mecca for luxury shoppers. Suria KLCC is an upscale shopping centre located below the Petronas Towers, home to everything from high-street brands to Gucci handbags and De Beers jewellery. Bukit Bintang is KL’s main shopping area, however, and its malls are so large that one of them – Berjaya Times Square – has an indoor theme park with an inverted rollercoaster inside.
Restaurant: KLCC and Bukit Bintang are the places for fine dining in KL. Reflecting its cosmopolitan history, the city offers a huge variety of cuisine. Malay mingles with Chinese, Indian informs British tastes, and subtle Japanese flavours stand out beside prime Argentinian steak. On Changkat Bukit Bintang, El Cerdo and Opium KL, both of which embrace the Malaysian temperament of fusion, are well worth a visit. Stick around after dinner on Thursdays and Saturdays to take part in Changkat’s famous pub-crawl, a great opportunity to meet locals, expats and other travellers.
Street Food: For those seeking a more ‘authentic’ (and cheaper) place to eat, head to Chinatown or Little India near KL Sentral. The various food stalls dotted throughout these districts offer the chance to try Malaysian laksa lemak (coconut and noodle curry), teochew bak kut teh (pork rib soup) or Tamil-influenced roti canai with dhal (flatbread with lentils). KL’s market district also runs between Chinatown and KL Sentral, so be sure to combine the food hunt with a search for a bargain baju kurung, the traditional Malay blouse.
Tour: KL’s central location and quality transport options mean that day tours are abundant. Within the city, the hop on/hop off bus is a cheap and easy way to visit the major attractions: KLCC, the National Palace, the National Monument and KL Bird Park – a 20-acre enclosed aviary housing over 200 bird species. Kuala Lumpur TravelTour organises private one-day tours to Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, Selayang Hot Spring and Templer’s Park waterfall from 80RM per person. kualalumpurtraveltour.com