Despite being Southeast Asia’s youngest capital city, the first thing that struck me about KL was that it is a place where the past collides with present, and where nature collides with a concrete jungle.
Soaring chrome skyscrapers stand next to masterpieces of traditional Moorish architecture, and rolling green gardens lie just a few minutes’ walk from freeways packed with crawling traffic. Situated at the confluence of the Klang and Gomgak rivers, KL is home to 1.7 million people and this multi-cultural city is a true melting pot home to Malay, Indian, Chinese, Western and other indigenous communities from around the country. With only a few days to explore, I made sure to pack as much into my itinerary as humanly possible.
On my first day in the city, I was up early for a dawn dash to one of its greatest landmarks – the Petronas Towers. Standing tall at the impressive height of 452 metres, the towers were once the tallest buildings in the world. These Islamic-inspired buildings pack in a grand total of 88 storeys each, and are connected by a double decker sky bridge on the 41st and 42nd floors. Visitors in search of a great view of the city can enjoy a stroll across the sky bridge before heading right to the top of the towers. The number of tickets per day is limited, so it is best to arrive early (or even book in advance) to avoid disappointment – although perhaps arriving at 7am, like I did, was a little excessive.
If you want to feast your eyes on more spectacular views, head to Menara KL Tower, another of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. At 276 metres high, the viewing deck offers the chance to snap some sensational photographs – particularly at night when the city comes to life with lights. There’s also a revolving restaurant for those that want to feast on more than the views, but I decided that for me at least, buffets and heights don’t mix.
From the bustling market on Chinatown’s Jalan Petaling, to the sparkling malls at the foot of the Petronas Towers in KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre), this capital is one of Southeast Asia’s premier destinations for shopaholics like myself. If you want to explore high-end boutiques that include the likes of Armani, Burberry and Chanel, head to the lavish Suria KLCC. Even if you don’t have a lot of time to spare, take 30 minutes after your visit to the Petronas Towers to stroll through the interconnecting maze of air-conditioned tunnels and over-passes that connect the malls and hotels in this area.
While Suria KLCC was very impressive, I picked most of my souvenirs up from KL’s Central Market. Built in 1928, Central Market is a sprawling warren of handicraft boutiques where everything from batik prints to traditional jewellery is available to shoppers. On some evenings, it is also possible to enjoy a selection of traditional dance performances in the area outside the market.
Nature Meets Urban
Even in a lively city like KL, I always like to find somewhere quiet to indulge in a little peaceful contemplation. If you need a few hours away from the hustle and bustle, the Lake Gardens are exactly the place to go. Previously a tin mine, the park boasts 92 hectares of lush green lawns and shady paths, all spread around Tasik Perdana – Perdana Lake. This family picnic spot is also home to the Butterfly House and Bird Park, National Monument, Parliament House, Orchid Garden and even a small Deer Park.
If, like me, you don’t mind walking, take a stroll southwest from Chinatown up past Masjid Negara (the National Mosque) and head up the hill into the Lake Gardens. Make sure to take plenty of water if you do attempt this walk, it can be hot going once the heat of the day hits.
City of Cultures
After a few hours of wandering through colourful orchid gardens and past the perfectly sculpted trees of the Lake Gardens, I made my way to the next stop on my action-packed itinerary: the National Museum. Situated right on the southern edge of the Lake Gardens, the museum is the perfect place to pick up some essential info on how Malaysia became the magnificent multi-cultural melting pot it is today. With informative displays spread out over three floors, visitors can take in everything from menacing silver daggers (known as ‘kris’) to interactive historical displays and models.
Up all Night
With daylight fading fast, I decided to head over to Chinatown, which is situated right next to the Central Market, for some local flavour. Based on Petaling Street, the boundless energy of this quarter, which is rich in culture and cuisine, has helped it become one of KL’s major attractions.
At night, Petaling Street evolves into a busy night market where everything from Chinese herbs to souvenir t-shirts are on sale. This is also the place to go if you want to pick up a mouth-watering street food ‘buffet” of local specialities. Malaysians love their food and also very proud of its diversity. Indeed there was almost too much to choose from along Petaling Street, but I eventually settled on bak kut teh, or pork ribs soup and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
If you don’t fancy any of the street food in Chinatown, take a short walk (or even a monorail ride) up to Little India. In the 19th century, many Indian labourers migrated to Malaysia to work on the railways, and they brought their wonderful cuisine with them. Little India is therefore home to a wide array of restaurants where the fragrant aromas of coriander, turmeric and cumin will have you licking your lips in no time.
Some “must do’s”
If you decide to linger a little longer in Kuala Lumpur there are a number of attractions and experiences well worth adding to your “must-do” list both within the CBD and on the outskirts of this sprawling metropolis.
- If you have a few hours to spare, make time to visit KL Bird Park, the crowning jewel of the attractions of the Lake Gardens. Home to more than 200 bird species from across the world, the park is divided into several sections where different species of bird are free to soar around their respective territories.
- Located 11km north of KL, the Batu Caves are a great destination if you want to get out of the city for a few hours. This popular attraction is a limestone hill comprising a number of caves and a 100-year-old temple. Some of the limestone formations within the cave are said to date back 400 million years.
- Don’t miss out on the chance to visit Merdeka Square, KL’s answer to London’s Trafalgar Square and Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Set in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Merdeka Square is home to the tallest flagpole in the world (which stands at an impressive 95m), as well as a perfectly manicured cricket green and impressive St. Mary’s Churches, one of Malaysia’s oldest Anglican places of worship.