Rather than a discernible city centre, Kuala Lumpur has several hubs of activity. Close to the rivers’ original “muddy confluence”, the former colonial district and its distinctive architecture surrounds Merdeka Square – don’t miss the informative new Textile Museum here – with the busy tourist hub of Chinatown just southeast. In between the two lie the city’s attractive old Jamek Mosque and the craft cornucopia that is Central Market. Worthwhile forays can be made north to Little India’s more locals-oriented shops and altogether grittier Chow Kit Market.
Some 2km east, the Golden Triangle presents the city’s modern face, lively Bukit Bintang packed with upmarket hotels, restaurants and designer shopping malls. Overlooking it to the north is the tall, strikingly modernist Petronas Towers; visitors flock to the skybridge here, though in fact the westerly Menara KL Tower, poking out of wooded Bukit Nanas, has better views.
Southwest of the centre – and tricky to reach across one of KL’s many pedestrian-unfriendly traffic flows – a clutch of worthwhile sights surround the green and airy Lake Gardens, notably Masjid Negara, one of the country’s largest mosques, and excellent Islamic Arts Museum. Below here, the National Museum is not as good as it could be, while Brickfields is another strongly Indian district, worth a peek for its day-to-day residential streetlife.Read More
- The colonial district
Spreading out southeast from Central Market, Chinatown was KL’s original commercial kernel, dating from the arrival of the first traders in the 1860s. Bordered by Jalan Sultan to the east, Jalan Tun Perak to the north and Jalan Maharajalela to the south, the area had reached its current extent by the late nineteenth century, with southern Chinese shophouses, coffee shops and temples springing up along narrow streets such as Jalan Tun H.S. Lee and Jalan Petaling. Though the shophouses today are fairly workaday, it is encouraging that many period buildings are being refurbished despite recurrent threats of redevelopment; in 2011, public outcry saved a row of old shophouses on Jalan Sultan from demolition during construction of the ongoing Klang Valley railway.
Although Chinatown scores more on atmosphere than essential sights, it’s a hub for budget accommodation, and holds a wealth of inexpensive places to shop and eat, so you’ll probably spend some time here.
East off the lower end of Jalan TAR, Little India is a commercial centre for KL’s Indian community, though these days it is being eclipsed by Brickfields. Only a few steps north from the Masjid Jamek LRT station, Jalan Melayu holds Indian stores, some selling excellent burfi and other sweet confections; its name derives from the former Malay community here. Approaching Jalan Masjid India, you encounter a popular covered market, smaller but otherwise similar to Chinatown’s Jalan Petaling. Further up is Masjid India itself, an Indian-influenced affair dating from the 1960s and tiled in cream and brown.
A few minutes further along the street, you come to a little square, to the right (east) of which you’ll find plenty of kedai kopis and, come evening, street vendors selling food; turn off to the left to reach Lorong Tuanku Abdul Rahman, whose northern end is dominated by a night market, busiest at weekends. Mainly Malay-run, the stalls sell both food and eclectic bits and pieces, from T-shirts to trinkets. Just past here, Madras and Semua are two huge haberdasheries, packed to their roofs with Indian textiles.
The Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle
The heart of modern KL, the Golden Triangle is a sprawling area bounded to its north by Jalan Ampang, and to the west by Chinatown and Sungai Klang. Many visitors make a beeline for KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre; wklcc.com.my), a group of huge developments surrounding the bland KLCC Park, on a site once home to the Selangor Turf Club. The chief attractions here are the Petronas Towers, soaring above one of KL’s best malls, Suria KLCC, and the city’s glossy aquarium.
Further south, the Golden Triangle’s other magnet is Bukit Bintang (“Star Hill”), home to upmarket and workaday malls, many of KL’s best hotels and restaurants, and some engaging street life. East, Kompleks Budaya Kraf is the city’s largest handicrafts gallery, while northwest lies Bukit Nanas, a forested hill where the Menara KL communications tower affords great views of the city.
The Petronas Towers
Very much the symbol of modern Malaysia, the twin columns of the Petronas Towers rise 451.9m above KL’s downtown, completely dwarfing the enormous Suria KLCC Mall at their base. When they were completed in 1998, as the headquarters of the state-owned oil company Petronas, many questioned whether the US$1.6 billion price tag was an unwarranted drain on the Malaysian economy, but the tapering steel-clad structures (designed by the Argentinean architect Cesar Pelli) are a stunning piece of architecture. Despite a definite Art Deco feel, the unusual eight-pointed cross-sectional profile obviously draws on Islamic art, while the profusion of squares and circles on the interior walls symbolize harmony and strength. The project is also permeated by Chinese numerology in that the towers have 88 floors and the postcode 59088 – eight being a very auspicious number for the Chinese.
One tower was built by a Japanese team, the other by rivals from Korea; while the Japanese topped out first, the Koreans had the honour of engineering the skybridge, which joins the towers at both the forty-first and forty-second floors. The views from the skybridge of KL’s sprawl are pretty spectacular, thanks not least to the blue, glassy towers soaring either side of you – though not as good as from the Observation Deck on Level 86.
At 421m, the Menara KL tower offers vistas east across the Petronas Towers to the blue peaks of the Titiwangsa range that marks the start of the Peninsula’s interior, and west along the unmitigated urban sprawl of the Klang Valley. Dusk is an especially worthwhile time to come, as the city lights up, as does the tower itself on special occasions – green for Muslim festivals, purple for Deepavali and red for the Chinese New Year. Though free audio guides describe what can be seen in each direction, it’s probably best to hold off visiting until you know KL well enough to be familiar with its general layout.
The observation deck sits inside in the bulbous portion of the tower, which was designed in the shape of a gasing, the Malay spinning top. Fixed binoculars (free) allow you to espy city life in minute detail, even picking out pedestrians narrowly avoiding being run over as they scurry across the streets of Chinatown. You can also combine a visit with tea or a meal at the revolving Seri Angkasa restaurant one floor higher.
The Lake Gardens and around
The Lake Gardens and aroundWest of the colonial quarter, the Lake Gardens offer a pleasant escape from KL’s more frenetic streets amid a humid, hilly spread of green. Behind the sizeable modern Masjid Negara, which fronts the area on Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, a cool white building contains the superb Islamic Arts Museum. Uphill lie the gardens themselves, complete with close-cropped lawns, water and a host of children-friendly attractions – including a Butterfly Park, a Bird Park and the National Planetarium – while Malaysia’s National Museum is just south. Although you could easily spend half a day strolling around, focus on the two museums if you’re pushed for time.
The easiest access on foot is via Kuala Lumpur train station and the underpass to the KTM building, from where you can edge around to the mosque – otherwise you have to risk crossing the usual furious traffic flows. As smaller roads run through the gardens, however, it’s perhaps easiest to get here by taxi.
Islamic Arts Museum
The ultramodern Islamic Arts Museum is housed in an elegant open-plan building with gleaming marble floors. This well-documented collection is a real standout; allow around ninety minutes to do it justice, and bear in mind that there’s an excellent on-site Middle Eastern restaurant (open during museum hours, daily except Mon). If you’re arriving by taxi, you may find that the driver will know only the museum’s Malay name, Muzium Kesenian Islam – if that doesn’t work, just ask for the Masjid Negara.
Level 1 begins with a rather bland collection of dioramas of Muslim holy places, though that of the Great Mosque of Xi’an in central China draws attention to the neglected subject of Islam in the Far East, a theme continued elsewhere on this level. In the India gallery, devoted to the Moghuls, look for an intricately carved wooden locking mechanism, designed to cloister the harem away from the rest of the world, while the China gallery features porcelain and scroll paintings bearing Arabic calligraphy. Best of all is an impressive 3m-high archway in the Malay gallery, once part of a house belonging to an Indonesian notable, with black, red and gold lacquering and a trelliswork of leaves as its main motif. An equally fine trunk below it was used as a travelling box by Terengganu royalty. Built of the much-prized cengal hardwood, it’s decorated in red and gold and bears the names of Islam’s revered first four caliphs.
On level 2, richly embroidered textiles and marquetry back up unusual examples of Western European ceramic crockery, influenced by the Islamic world in their design – and sometimes produced for that market. Most interesting here is the terrace containing the museum’s main dome, a blue-and-white affair with floral ornamentation. Built by Iranian craftsmen, it’s the only one of several similar examples in the building that’s intended to illustrate the exterior of a grand mosque. Finally, look out for the bizarre reversed dome ceiling, bulging downwards from above – it’s the last thing you see as you make your way back to the foyer from the area containing the excellent gift shop.
Brickfields and KL Sentral
Brickfields and KL Sentral
The laidback residential neighbourhood of Brickfields, 2km south of the city centre near KL Sentral station, was first settled by Tamils employed to build the railways, and named after the brickworks that lined the rail tracks. Even today, the area retains a strong South Indian presence along Jalan Tun Sambanthan – the main thoroughfare – especially the western stretch beyond the huge pink fountain marking the intersection with Jalan Travers; the road has flowers painted on it, buildings are pastel-hued, and Indian pop tunes blare out of sari shops and grocers. This is another corner of town to visit for local ambience rather than monumental sights, though it does hold some good places to eat (see Brickfields).
KL’s gay community is fairly discreet, though the smart cafés of fashionable Bintang Walk – the stretch of Jalan Bukit Bintang just east of Jalan Sultan Ismail – attract a noticeably gay clientele at weekends. Friday is gay night at Frangipani, Nuovo hosts a GLBT night the last Sunday of the month, and if you see other clubs advertising “boys’ nights”, you’ll know you can head there too. There’s also Blue Boy. For more on gay venues and social events in the city, try wutopia-asia.com or wgaygetter.com.
While Chinatown has traditionally been the favourite location for budget travellers, with its surfeit of inexpensive places to sleep, eat, drink and shop, it faces growing competition from Bukit Bintang, a 15min walk east. Here, close to the abundant fancy hotels and malls, not to mention the celebrated Chinese food stalls of Jalan Alor, you’ll find plenty of excellent guesthouses on and around Tengkat Tong Shin. Even though they’re more expensive than Chinatown, these are often better value – less cramped and noisy, with slicker facilities and self-service breakfasts included in the rate. Slightly further afield, more upscale hotels can be found along Jalan Sultan Ismail and Jalan Ampang, which, together with Bukit Bintang, form part of KL’s Golden Triangle. All other parts of KL pale as regards accommodation, though Little India and nearby Chow Kit, linked by the fiendishly busy Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, feature several mid-range options.
Food is without doubt a highlight of any visit to KL. There are simply more opportunities to enjoy high-calibre cooking here, in assorted local and international styles, than anywhere else in the country, and whether you dine in a chic bistro-style restaurant or at a humble roadside stall, prices are almost always very reasonable. Despite plenty of scope for cosmopolitan, upmarket dining, eating for many locals is still fundamentally about Malay, Chinese and Indian street food. Stalls, whether on the street or collected into food courts (found in or close to major office blocks and shopping malls), are your best bets for inexpensive, satisfying meals, as are kedai kopis, though these are a little scarce in the Golden Triangle. The best-known food stalls are held in the same kind of reverence as a top-flight restaurant might be in a Western city, and people will travel across KL just to seek out a stall whose take on a particular dish is said to be better than anyone else’s; if you find customers lining up to partake of some stall’s spring rolls or laksa, it’s a sure-fire indicator of quality. Ranging from small affairs in beautifully refurbished shophouses to banqueting halls in five-star hotels, KL’s restaurants are an equally vital part of the food experience. Be aware, however, that price and decor are not a watertight indicator of consistency or quality, and that service can be hesitant even in big hotels.
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
KL’s most fashionable bars and clubs are concentrated in the Golden Triangle, while Bangsar also plays host to a few slick bars. If the drinking scene seems to tick over healthily enough, KL’s clubbing scene appears surprisingly buoyant for its size. Only during Ramadan are both the bars and clubs distinctly quiet. The modest local performing arts scene is split between KL and its satellite town Petaling Jaya, which, with its complex system of numbered roads that even residents don’t understand, is best accessed by taxi. Theatre is probably the strongest suit, with concerts, musicals and so forth throughout the year, by local as well as international performers and troupes. There’s also a dedicated community of people working in the visual arts.
There’s no city in Malaysia where consumerism is as widespread and in-your-face as KL. The malls of the Golden Triangle are big haunts for youths and yuppies alike, while street markets remain a draw for everyone, offering a gregarious atmosphere and goods of all sorts. Jalan Petaling in Chinatown is where to find fake watches and leather goods; some of these have started to creep into the covered market on Jalan Masjid India and the nearby Lorong Tuanku Abdul Rahman pasar malam, but their mainstays remain clothes and fabrics, plus a few eccentricities such as herbal tonics and various charms alleged to improve male vigour. Chow Kit Market has some clothing bargains but little else of interest. A great just-out-of-town market for knick-knacks and general bric-a-brac happens every weekend inside the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya, close to Taman Jaya station on the LRT. If no specific business hours are given in the shop listings that follow, then the establishment keeps the usual Malaysian shopping hours, opening by mid-morning and shutting at 8pm (an hour or two later in the case of outlets within malls), six or seven days a week.