Kuala Lumpur, or ‘KL’ as locals like to call it, is similar to any city in the east: it’s hungry for development. Within the past few years, the Malaysian capital has seen new luxury high-rise apartment blocks (including one designed by Norman Foster and another with a pool in every unit) jostling for space around the Petronas Twin Towers. New shopping centres are springing up, while existing malls have expanded.
But all this new build doesn’t detract from what the city does best – round-the-clock eating. Every KL-ite has favourite eateries, which they’ll defend fiercely; for most, hawker food beats restaurant fare every time.
In fact, lots of people have favourite street-food stops they visit at different times of the day. Perhaps the most interesting development for KL is seeing its citizens becoming more vocal about social and political issues. While freedom of expression in Malaysia is not without its limits, artists and journalists have been brazen about portraying pressing issues through their work; these include government spending, racial and religious tensions and a debate about caning as corporal punishment. Reflecting this, KL’s art scene is a fascinating snapshot of the socio-political crossroads at which the city finds itself.
First stop, head to Central Market, also known as Pasar Seni, and grab a free copy of the ARCH Earth Guide (www.earthguide.com.my), a comprehensive map of the city’s historic buildings. It also recommends several self-guided walking tours that you can try. The area surrounding Pasar Seni is the old part of KL and can be chaotic, but is the best place to witness the city’s burgeoning graffiti scene: many street artists have taken the liberty (to the dismay of the authorities) of spray-painting the walls with their art, sometimes with social and political messages.
The Petronas Twin Towers – the tallest twin buildings in the world – are stunning, especially if seen from a poolside lounger at SkyBar (www.skybar.com.my), precariously perched on the thirty-third floor rooftop of the adjacent Traders Hotel Kuala Lumpur.
Shopping and style
Shopping malls in KL are best treated as a cool respite from the heat outside. For great buys, make a trip to the inner-city suburb of Bangsar (15 minutes away on the city train). What was once a clubbing district has been overtaken by independent boutiques. Fashion items are mostly sourced from Bangkok, Taiwan and Korea, and range from kitschy to high street, but with patience you might find what you’re after at a fraction of the mall prices.
For jewellery and accessories, head to Ola (Bangsar Village II, 03 2287 2502). Gallo by Thian (Bangsar Shopping Centre, Jalan Maarof, www.gallobythian.com) is ideal for intricate, locally designed dresses, while Silverfish (58-1 Jalan Telawi, www.silverfishbooks.com) is a great destination for local literature. Try Shoes, Shoes, Shoes (31A, Jalan Telawi 3, www.shoesshoesshoes.com.my) for, er, shoes.
Just around the corner from the bar strip of Changkat Bukit Bintang in the city centre, The Curiousity Shop (11 Jalan Berangan, 03 2142 6660) is a delight. It’s basically a junk shop, but with prettier lighting, and is the kind of place that fills you with hope that you’ll find something really cool and unusual. Chances are, you will – vintage furniture, old lamps, old adverts, quirky chandeliers, ancient typewriters and lots more.
Restaurants and bars
Tourists tend to gravitate towards Jalan Alor for hawker food, but save yourself from bland wanton mee (egg noodles with soup dumpling) and zhu yoke fun (pork noodles) and head to the Hutong food court at
Lot 10 shopping mall instead. Trust us, this is no ordinary food court; most of the hawker stalls here are among KL’s most revered (some of them have lasted for three generations) and they’ve either relocated to this air-conditioned basement or set up a new outlet here.
Another local institution is Yut Kee (35 Jalan Dang Wangi, 03 2298 8108), one of the last traditional coffee shops in the city centre, where toast is made on a charcoal fire. At the other end of the price point, Frangipani (25 Changkat Bukit Bintang; www.frangipani.com.my) is arguably the most innovative French restaurant in town. They have a knack of combining classic French cooking with local flavours, the best example being their pan-seared foie gras with apple rendang (a Malay-style dry curry) served as a strudel. On Fridays, the bar upstairs hosts one of the city’s liveliest, most outrageous club nights.
Art and music
Annexe Gallery (Central Market Annexe, Jalan Hang Kasturi, www.annexegallery.com) is the city’s most daring and outspoken institution for arts and culture. It has supported many a grassroots artist and hosted alternative festivals, controversial exhibitions and critically acclaimed performances.
For something more lighthearted, Time Out Comedy Thursday happens every first Thursday of the month at Velvet Underground (Zouk, 113 Jalan Ampang, www.zoukclub.com.my). It’s the only regular stand-up comedy night in town, and features aspiring local talent.
For live music, No Black Tie (17 Jalan Mesui, off Jalan Nagasari, www.noblacktie.com.my) is KL’s enduring music venue. Its small, intimate space is similar to underground jazz clubs of yore, and has the city’s best acoustics for live performance. Most local musicians aspire to play here, and many have.
Just a short walk away, The Actors Studio (www.theactorsstudio.com.my), on the rooftop of Lot 10 Shopping Centre, is where you go to catch stage shows. This informal space tends to put on smaller and more experimental productions, while its larger sibling, KLPac (Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, Sentul Park, off Jalan Ipoh, www.klpac.org), with its manicured park and lake, lends itself to bigger productions.
Need to know
Emirates Airlines flies from Doha to KL via Dubai, with prices from QR2,930 return.
Where to stay
Reggae Guest House 2
Right in the middle of China Town, this friendly, clean and airy guesthouse is a pleasant stay. Expect a party while you’re here – it sits next door to the legendary Reggae Bar nightspot. There’s also a swimming pool, restaurant and free wi-fi. Dhs44 per bunk or Dhs58 per double room.
If you’re looking to do things in style, check out this luxe venue with a view of the Petronas Towers. It has nine restaurants and bars and a fantastic spa where you can relax after a busy day of sightseeing. Deluxe rooms from Dhs660 a night.
What to do
Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary
Nature lovers should try this elephant sanctuary. Only a short drive from KL, it’s ideal for a day trip, and is home to elephants that have been saved from areas of the jungle destroyed by developers. www.myelephants.org
Outdoorsy types should ask for Faisal, an expert wakeboard instructor who has an awesome track record for getting beginners up on the water. He’ll even teach you how to wakesurf behind the boat on a continuous wave without holding on to a cable.
History and culture
• In the 1850s, Chinese people were brought to Kuala Lumpur, at the time just a humble shanty town, and were paid to develop the area.
• Later the British invaded and developed the city further, building a railway line from KL to Klang. Southern Indians moved to the area during this time.
• The British gave up KL during the second world war and the Japanese invaded, killing many residents.
• The British momentarily returned after the war, and Malaysia finally gained its independence in 1957.
• Now Kuala Lumpur is a culturally diverse city where mosques and temples nestle alongside skyscrapers, shopping malls and hawker stalls.