We touched down in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia on the 28th of June. It’s always exciting arriving a new country, but it can also be a little daunting. Everything we’d learnt and become familiar with in Cambodia (how to say thank you, the currency, the local food we enjoyed and so on) all goes out the window and you’re starting from scratch again. By the time we touched down on Malaysian soil the sun had set, we were hungry for dinner, clueless as to where our hotel was or how we would get there from the airport. The first step is always buying a SIM card for one of our phones, which makes everything so much easier to figure out. With Google at our fingertips we headed into the city centre via bus. It’s difficult to gauge what a city is like when you arrive at night, as the atmosphere is so different. There either aren’t many people walking the streets or bustling crowds, the buildings are swallowed up into the night sky and you can’t really get a proper feel of a place until the following morning.
Our hotel was located in China Town, near Petaling Street, home to famous street food stalls and bargain souvenir shopping, including many a knock off Nike t-shirts, Louis Vuitton handbags and Calvin Klein boxers. Despite the hustle and bustle right on our doorstep, Rainforest Hotel China Town was actually a very mellow and peaceful place to be staying. A lot of the food stalls were closing up by the time we’d checked in but we had just enough local currency on us to buy a £1 chicken and rice meal to see us through until the following morning.
Malaysia is one hour ahead of Cambodia so we had a leisurely lie in, knowing we had plenty of time to explore Kuala Lumpur over three days. We began the day with some egg tarts, said to be some of the best in Malaysia. We aren’t experts but they were delicious and hot out of the oven. On our way to an ATM we couldn’t help but pop our heads into a local thrift shop on Petaling Street where we purchased 4 shirts between us for under a tenner.
We’ve been so surprised at how cheap everything is in Malaysia. We allocated quite a large budget for our two weeks here but it was quickly becoming apparent that we wouldn’t be spending a fraction of it. We expected Kuala Lumpur at least to be on the pricey side as images of glitzy air-conditioned malls, steel-clad skyscrapers and sleek expat inhabited tower blocks were in the forefront of our visions of what KL would be like. While this may be true of the CBD, Kuala Lumpur had so much more to offer as we explored its colourful network of neighbourhoods.
As we meandered the streets we observed shiny skyscrapers, hectic traffic and mega malls, but all deeply entwined with a rich culture, religion and heritage. Residents of Kuala Lumpur retain a profound sense of identity amid this modern city they’re living in. One of the most essential parts of the vibrant mix of cultures are the mosques and temples, fundamental to the complex patchwork of Malay, Chinese and Indian communities inhabiting KL.
Our first stop was Masjid Negari, the National Mosque of Malaysia, just a short walk from where we were staying. This iconic building was built in 1965 and is deemed to be an important symbol of the Islamic country of Malaysia. We couldn’t miss the building as we approached its 16-pointed star concrete roof jutting above the surrounding green foliage. The roof design is allegedly inspired by the idea of an open umbrella while the 73 meter high minarets resemble folded umbrellas. This bold, modern design has capacity for 15,000 people and was a huge symbol of the newly independent Malaysia at the time of its construction.
We thought we were appropriately dressed for the free tour the mosque offers, dressed in long, loose trousers and with our shoulders covered. This dress was deemed appropriate for Lawrence, being a superior man and all, however Naomi was requested to wear a headscarf and hijab. Naomi had no choice but to wear the religious dress (it was SO hot) but equally enjoyed sporting the admittedly funky outfit, which framed her moon face into a perfect circle.
We were given a crash course in Islam by a friendly elderly woman volunteering as a tour guide, with brilliant English and knack for explaining the religion she was clearly so passionate about and devoted to in a way that was easy to comprehend.
We happened to arrive in Malaysia a couple of days after Eid al-Fitr, an important religious holiday marking the end of Ramadan. In Malaysia the celebrations are extended for up to a month. Our lovely tour guide explained that Kuala Lumpur is quieter during this time as people leave the city to spend time with their families. However Kuala Lumpur still felt pretty hectic to us as we dodged the speeding cars.
When the heat of her headscarf became unbearable, Naomi signaled that it was time to make tracks. The Islamic Arts Museum was another top attraction on our list and it was conveniently located round the corner from the National Mosque of Malaysia. This outstanding museum is home to one of the best collections of Islamic decorative arts in the world. The exhibits include textiles, jewelry, calligraphy and architecture. The building itself is a reason to visit with beautifully decorated domes and tile work within a light and airy space that feels modern yet loyal to the Islamic theme. One of our favourite exhibits was the Islamic Architecture Gallery, exhibiting various miniature-sized mosque from around the world. Another highlight was the collection of hand written Qur’ans dated from as early as the 10th century.
Islam is the dominant religion here, practiced primarily by Malay people and Indian Muslim communities, but Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism and Christianity are also prevalent religion within the city. While Bahasa Malay is the principle language in Kuala Lumpur, residents are generally literate in English, and a range of Indian languages as well as Cantonese and Mandarin can also be heard walking the streets. Everyone in Kuala Lumpur has great English, which made it so easy to get around, order food and ask for help.
We popped to a vegetarian restaurant for some lunch before continuing on foot to Dataran Merdeka Square. This beautiful area of the city displays some of the best colonial architecture in KL. The square is situated in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad building, which originally housed the offices of the British colonial administration. Translated as ‘Independence Square’, this area demonstrates the blend of Asian and Islamic traditions with colonial architecture, prominent in the mock-Tudor buildings lining the cricket grounds. A 95-meter flag-pole (one of the tallest in the world) is located at the southern end of the square, proudly flying the Malaysian flag.
Just across the road was the beautiful National Textile Museum with a free exhibition showcasing the process and technology of textiles and houses traditional apparel, accessories and textiles in Malaysia. The building is more impressive on the outside than inside, but the displays are very informative if you’re interested in textiles; we were just happy for some air conditioning.
We continued our mammoth walking tour towards the Central Market, founded in 1888 and originally used as a wet market. The art deco style building is now a landmark for Malaysian culture and heritage, and is arranged in a stall concept selling a range of souvenirs including artwork, jewelry, handicrafts and traditional food. We’ve been to many markets in South East Asia, lots indicated as a ‘must do’, but we often come away feeling disappointed at the tacky, predictable gifts, bolshie sellers pulling your arm in all directions and the fear of pick pocketers in the back of your mind. But the Central Market in Kuala Lumpur had an entirely different vibe. It felt more like a shopping centre; organised and clean. It admittedly didn’t have as much character of some of the other energetic markets we’ve experienced, but it was refreshing to slowly wander around the stalls without being harassed. Located alongside the main building is the pedestrianised covered walkway called Kasturi Walk. This walkway houses al fresco food stalls, local snacks and souvenirs, very close to Petaling Street where we headed back to afterwards to put our weary feet up before dinner.
It had been a long day but we were pleased with how much we’d seen and the ground we’d covered on day one. Kuala Lumpur didn’t feel as overwhelming as we’d feared and we were enjoying being able to explore by foot, albeit a small pocket of the huge city!
We witnessed just how big Kuala Lumpur is when we ventured for cocktails at the Heli Lounge Bar in central KL. We had to take a very tedious taxi ride into the centre during rush hour (the public transport system has a lot to answer for) but made it in time for sunset. The helicopter pad turned nightclub was a pretty cool experience. There are no walls or boundaries to stop you from going over the edge of this wide-open space except a flimsy fabric belt barrier. From up here we could watch the sun setting behind Kuala Lumpur’s skyline, a fusion of modern vs. traditional, punctured with minarets, domes and skyscrapers alike. We decided not to drink alcohol in Malaysia due to massively inflated prices (and awful beer selection) over here, and it’s only two weeks of abstinence after a month of cheap beer in Cambodia. But on the Helipad we enjoyed a mojito and pretended we were part of the super-elite crowd of people we were surrounded by.
We walked to TG’s Nasi Kandar for dinner where we had lamb and chicken curry with rotis, which were delicious. We’ve fallen in love with the rich Indian spices in the curries here, that only set you back a couple of quid per head. They’re a totally different breed of curry to those we had in Myanmar and Cambodia. Malaysian food is heavily influenced by Indian, Thai, Chinese and Indonesian cuisines, to name a few, reflecting the multiethnic make up of its population. You can find anything from satay, to dim sum to seafood-fried noodles. Discovering new foods in the places we visit is something we’re very passionate about and pretty good at! It’s one of the highlights of exploring a new place and we never hold back when it comes to trying as much as we can fit in our stomachs.
On our second day in KL we walked to Perdana Botanical Gardens, the oldest and most popular park located just on the edge of the city. The landscaped hills and trails provided a nice escape from the congested city centre. The main attraction was the lake, surrounded by lush greenery, but we also explored the Orchid Garden and Hibiscus Garden, spotting a monitor lizard as we walked. We took a little nap in the bamboo playground to escape the heat, before deciding to retreat to our hotel for the remainder of the afternoon.
We spent the late afternoon in the KLCC Park to enjoy a good vantage point of the infamous Petronas Twin Towers as the sun went down. The KLCC Park is a little pocket of calm and greenery amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, integrating nature with the modern city. Lake Symphony, a man-made lake is situated in the middle of the park directly in front of a main shopping centre and the Petronas Towers. An elevated bridge that cuts across the lake provided a good vantage point to take in the twin towers. The Petronas Towers are said to be the tallest twin towers in the world, providing a distinctive 21st century icon for Kuala Lumpur. The towers feature a double decker sky bridge that connects them together. Whilst tourists can ascend the towers, we were happy with a ground level view of the impressive building. Lake Symphony features an array of water fountains that shoot water up to a height of 82 meters and runs a daily fountain show with lights and music. We watched about 45 minutes of the display before our rumbling tummies drew us back to our favourite eatery; TG’s Nasi Kandar.
On our final full day in Kuala Lumpur we caught the commuter train to Batu Caves, a limestone hill featuring a series of caves and cave temples. The cave is the most popular Hindu shrine outside of India, attracting thousands of worshippers and tourists. It is said to be around 400 million years old but only became famous after the limestone hills were recorded by colonial authorities in 1878. We endured a 272-step climb up to the mouth of the caves where we were met with a slightly underwhelming sight. The caves were no doubt impressively large comprising of a very high vaulted ceiling with monkeys frolicking on the rock face. However local sellers had been allowed to build and inhabit eye sore gift shops adorned with tacky shrines, which took away from the ambience and undermined the significance of the stunning natural environment.
On our way back down we took a detour to Ramayana Cave, which we paid a small fee to enter. We felt it was actually more interesting than the main attraction of Batu Caves, housing some trippy statues that made us laugh. The caves are spectacularly embellished with psychedelic dioramas of the Indian epic Ramayana. A giant statue of Kumbhakarna in a deep sleep with his gigantic nipples on display was a particular highlight/source of confusion.
We caught the train back to KL Sentral around lunchtime and strolled around Brickfields, commonly known as Little India due to the high number of Indian residents and businesses in the area.
We stayed local in the evening and walked to Petaling Street for dinner as we hadn’t taken advantage of the array of local street feasts sitting on our doorstep as of yet (we were too busy scoffing Malay-Indian curries). Two large Chinese arches welcome visitors into the hubbub of Chinatown’s food market and the cuisine feels automatically more Chinese-Malay than Indian. The whole street is pedestrianized so we browsed around before settling on a Portuguese grill stall. They were BBQ-ing various fish and their tables were already filling up so we quickly requested two stingray fish with rice. It made a nice change from the buttery curries we’d been devouring and felt a lot healthier. The fish was very spicy but tender and flaky. One our way home Porridge couldn’t resist one of the hawkers deals and purchased a Malaysian football shirt. He’s building quite a collection of SE Asian t-shirts.
We ended up doing a lot of walking while we were in Kuala Lumpur, in spite of the sheer size of the city. Surprisingly, anywhere we wanted to go was relatively easy to reach on foot other than the Petronas Tower area. We expected the city to be better connected as we learnt they had an LRT (light metro), monorail, commuter rail and bus services. Despite their efforts to promote public transport usage, it seems KL hasn’t quite found the right balance. The likes of Taiwan and Singapore’s public transport are so easy to use and there’s never a metro stop more than a ten-minute walk away from where you want to be. But in KL only 16% of the population actually use public transport and we dabbled with the LRT twice during our stay but didn’t dare tackle the unreliable bus services. In this sense, Kuala Lumpur didn’t seem as modern and slick as we’d expected, but rather a tad outdated in comparison to the other modern Asian cities we’ve visited. The upside is that exploring a city on foot does give you a better understanding of the place and we ended up seeing a lot more as a result.
Luckily the long distance bus services are pretty straightforward and cheap to use. On our final and fourth day, we made our way to the station to catch a 5-hour bus to the Cameron Highlands.