West 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.