KL was a place on our route that, with the exception of the striking image of the Petronas Towers, we knew very little about beforehand. Delayed on the runway at Singapore for an hour, we read what Lonely Planet had to say. Huge skyscrapers, an iconic building that defines the skyline, Little India, Chinatown, crowded hawker centres and gleaming shopping malls. Hmm, so far, so Singapore.
The first thing we noticed on arrival was how many Malay words are similar to English. After clearing airport ‘sekuriti’, we had to choose between the ‘monorel’, the ‘ekspres bas’ or queuing up at the ‘teksi kaunter’ to get into the city centre and to our hotel in Bukit Bintang.
For a first introduction, KL certainly showed us it’s not a just an imitation of Singapore and has a lot of unexpected things going for it.
Our first day seemed to start uneventfully; a trip to the gigantic Times Square shopping mall opposite to buy suncream. Having navigated the six-lane highway separating it from our hotel, and found a pharmacy, we wandered around a few of the other floors. Up on the 9th floor most shops had their shutters rolled down and it was eerily empty. At the end of an unassuming corridor was something we were definitely not expecting; a theme park! We found a cavernous space, taking up many floors of the mall, packed with a rides, including a loop-the-loop rollercoaster where the track extended out over the shoppers below!
Another unexpected find were the Batu Caves. These caves sit at the end of a suburban train line from Sentral station. 272 gruelling steps up a hill, past several scampering macaques, is a staggeringly huge cave inside which sits a beautiful Hindu temple and several shrines. Built in 1890, the temple is still used for ceremonies, as well as by visiting worshippers and tourists, although the vertigo-inducing concrete steps up the side of the hill weren’t added until 1920. The temple and shrines inside the caves are guarded by a towering 43m tall statue of Lord Murugan at foot of the steps.
Taking the train back to the city centre, we got out at Kuala Lumpur station which is perfectly placed between the national mosque and Islamic Arts Museum to the west, and Chinatown to the east.
The museum is one of the best Islamic arts collections in the world and had beautiful ceramic, textile, jewellery and architecture exhibitions in a well-designed, light and airy gallery. The architecture gallery had beautiful scale models of important mosques from around the world. One of the best things on display, though, was the building itself, with intricately decorated domes in each room, beautiful tiling and a pristine white-walled courtyard garden. Just don’t turn up absolutely starving, already planning your lunch order from the Middle Eastern restaurant on a Monday. It’s closed. And no, the gift shop does not sell hummus. We checked.
According to Google Maps, most things we wanted to see in the city centre were a relatively quick walk from each other. What Google doesn’t take into account is that waiting for a gap in traffic on pretty major highways (with no crossings) tends to slow you down a bit. Whilst we were enjoying exploring different places in KL, it was beginning to feel like a bit of a chore getting between them, and the city sometimes felt quite an unfriendly place for pedestrians. The monorail is cheap and easy to use, but doesn’t go everywhere. Taxis are also cheap but hardly seem worth it for what should be short walks.
Sometimes there are covered, raised walkways extending between buildings and stations that can get you reasonably far, but we felt quite removed from the city walking around in billboard-clad tunnels.
One of these air-conditioned walkways led us (almost) all the way from Raja Chulan monorail station to the place that had been on our list from the start; the Petronas Towers. Given that they are the ‘it’ buildings of KL, we decided to skip the Sky Bridge joining the towers, because if you’re in the building, the building’s not in your photographs! Directly opposite the towers, across a manicured park complete with a lake and kids’ swimming pool, is the Traders Hotel. This, in our opinion, is the perfect way to check-off the Petronas Towers. On the 33rd floor, SkyBar gives a perfect view of the park and towers through floor-to-ceiling windows, comfy poolside cabana beds and – given the setting – cheap(ish) drinks.
As soon as we arrived in Chinatown, we were thrown straight into packed-to-bursting Petaling Street, a covered market street running through the centre. We thought we were reaching saturation point of knock-off Dr.Dre Beats headphones, Raybans and Mullberry purses in southeast Asian markets, but Petaling Street took this to an entirely new level. Even though it was over a week since Chinese New Year, the celebrations were still going strong. Processions of Chinese dragon and lion dances sporadically charged through the packed lanes, followed by deafening eruptions of firecrackers. With the limited space, they had to make room for each other, so, half-costumed “off-duty dragons” were a common sight at the sidelines waiting to perform.
Jalan Alor was another place where pedestrians grab back some power. This street food market was just behind our hotel and one of our favourite places in KL. The former red light district is now strung with red lanterns, thronging with people, and lined with hawker stalls whipping up delicious dishes from all over Asia.
It’s also an utter bargain. We had two drinks, curry mee (curry chicken laksa), tofu bakar (grilled tof pockets filled with mixed vegetables and chilli) and several rounds of dim sum all for £6.50. If Malay and Chinese don’t take your fancy, there’s Thai and Indian, satay skewer carts, coconut ice cream carts, and Wong Ah Wah; a veteran Jalan Alor stall, dishing up trays piled high with barbecued chicken wings to huge crowds.
KL had one final unexpected treat for us. We were in search of our favourite city activity, a roof top bar. Our first idea had been the revolving restaurant at the top of the Kuala Lumpur Tower (the one that looks like a disco hypodermic needle), but the cover charge and fact we’d have to have the full dinner and not just drinks put us off. Plan B was the Heli Lounge near Raja Chulan monorail stop. The eerily quiet office block and broken lifts with doors jammed open almost put us off this one too. But once we reached the 34th floor, we were very glad we stayed. They bill themselves as “KL’s best kept secret” – maybe the ‘apocalypse chic’ at ground level was all part of the plan..?). One floor above the aero-themed bar is a fully functioning heli pad!
When no landings are scheduled, a thin rope barrier is put up around the (otherwise completely un-protected) edge, and tables and chairs are set up in the centre. The slightly breezy view out over the city, the KL Tower and the Petronas Towers made for a really unique, if vertigo-inducing, cocktail setting!
Kuala Lumpur sometimes gets a bad rep in comparison to its southeast Asian mega-city neighbours. Yes, the city can feel like it was designed for cars rather than people. Would we recommend it as a holiday destination in its own right? Probably not. But if you’re travelling through with time to spare, there’s a haphazard, edgy side (that would be ironed-out in more sanitised Singapore), which means it’s easy to spend a few days in KL doing fun, cheap and unexpected things.