Some people like to spend their holidays in big cities full of skyscrapers, taxis, fancy restaurants, and effervescent nightlife. They go to London, Shanghai, Dubai and on top of their list is usually New York. Personally, I am more of a nature holiday person. I like to go camping and adore sporty activities in beautiful landscapes. Cities always seem far too noisy and busy to me and make me feel just a tiny individual on our massive earth. But just this month someone made me change my mind: my beautiful new friend Kuala Lumpur.
Kuala Lumpur, or KL as everybody calls it here, is one of the most wonderful cities I have ever been to. Yes it is noisy, and yes it is busy. But that exactly is the best part of it. Since the very first moment that I arrived in KL I am feeling loaded with energy and everything and everyone around me here helps me to keep that feeling. KL is very much alive, with nice things to do for everybody. Here are three reasons why Malaysia’s sparkling centre made me change my mind about cities:
KL is contemporary
Many of us still see KL as the little brother of Singapore with, let’s say, lower buildings and older cars. I disagree. KL has beautiful architecture and enormous hotels. You can go shopping in more than 28 shopping malls. And even if you are not a shopaholic it is absolutely worth it to take a look at the Pavilion, Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC), Berjaya Times Square or one of the 25 other shopping Walhalla’s. Many of them are very clean, cool, massive, and classy.
You will find various food corners with food and drinks from all over Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. And restaurants too: If you want to go for a really fancy dinner you should definitely visit Marini’s on 57 in KLCC. It is KL’s best Italian restaurant with a beautiful view over the city from the 57th floor. Their service is magnificent and the windows reach from the floor to the ceiling. Their separate bar is worth visiting as well for a fine drink and a good picture of the Petronas towers by night. You can order most exclusive cocktails in town but a simple coke will do as well if you just want to watch the hundreds of black butterflies fluttering around the lightened buildings. For budget reasons I would suggest you to continue your night at Changkat Bukit Bintang, one of the city’s most famous streets for some serious nightlife. You will find all types of people there, from local families to expats, and from backpackers to highly respected businessmen.
Businessmen are everywhere in KL. No surprise if you take into account the uncountable number of skyscraper offices in town. In the city centre it is easy to find at least three big banks per street and undoubtedly many companies are competing amongst each other to build most stylish and high-tech working places for their personnel. Same counts for living space here. It is relatively cheap to rent an apartment and big chance that you will have to take a lift to at least the 40th floor to reach your home.
KL is authentic
But KL has much more to offer than just that. While most buildings are higher than the city’s many palm trees and younger than my little niece, authentic atmosphere is still very tangible. KL was established as a small British settlement in a muddy jungle area. Ever since it has experienced various foreign influences. The indigenous people from Southeast Asia, the Bumiputras, form the main part of KL’s population. But many Chinese and Indians have lived here for a very long time, along with various other ethnicities.
The mix of cultures, religions, and ethnicities is key for KL’s ambiance. There are plenty of restaurants that offer the most delicious dishes from all parts of Asia. KL has a China town and an India town but it is not difficult to find different types of restaurants placed next to each other in all parts of the city. The best way to taste the various cuisines is to go to one of the many (night) markets where you can buy roti’s, spring rolls, coco milk, the ais (a.k.a. Malaysia’s ice tea) and many other delicious snacks and drinks.
I recommend you to visit Kampung Baru, a Malay enclave in the middle of the city. This territory carries a lot of KL’s history. Nowadays, it is mainly known for its beautiful traditional houses and at night people gather together for dinner and shopping.
Another interesting place to visit is the National Mosque of Malaysia. The majority of the people in KL, and Malaysia in general, are Muslim. Their main Mosque stands in the very centre of KL. It has beautiful gardens and capacity for over 15.000 people. If you are not interested in religious buildings but you still want to see some of KL’s oldest constructions it is definitely worth visiting KL’s railway station and the Central Market.
KL is magical
Contemporary and authentic KL is not as separated as you may think. Much of KL’s newer architecture integrates traditional segments, such as the huge Tabung Haji building or KL’s first skyscraper, the Dayabumi building. And after all my weeks here I still get lost very often because most roads are very narrow and winding, while enclosed by big flats. There is no option to watch the city from a higher point because KL is relatively flat. The only way to get a full perspective of KL is from one of the skyscrapers’ top floors. For tourists the best two options are either the Petronas towers or the 421 meter high Kuala Lumpur tower. Make sure that you go in the morning or early afternoon when the sky is still clear because 9 out of 10 days it starts thundering here at 4pm exactly. Late at night is also worth a visit if you want to enjoy the city’s twinkling lights in the dark.
KL developed without much urban planning, which still makes it an adventure to find out where you are exactly. Fortunately, KL has an incredible metro network which connects all parts of town, albeit with the occasional detour. Metros come and go every 5 minutes and even the numbers of seconds upon arrival are mentioned on the digital screens at the platforms. One of the longest metro lines, and a real vein for the city, is the red KTM Port Klang line. If you have some spare time and if you (unlikely) want to escape the city for a while, you should definitely hop on this train to let it take you to one of its two final destinations.
If you decide to take it up North it will bring you to one of KL’s most famous attractions, the incredible Batu Caves. This place is well known for its religious Thaipusam festival that attracts over 800,000 visitors, believers and tourists per year, and is both loved and feared mainly because of its self-punishment elements. Next year the festival will take place on the 3rd of February, but the caves are also open on all other days of the year. The Batu Caves are not just caves but cave temples and were built as a Hindu shrine. They are ugly and beautiful at the same time. And while they are quite wet and smelly inside, it is definitely worthwhile to visit them. You have to climb 272 colorful steps to enter the main entrance. And I hope you like kitsch, because this is a paradise of fake gold and pastel tints. The yellow and red stairs are the perfect hangout for ever-hungry monkeys. With years of experience they know exactly where you hold your snacks and will definitely try to get a piece of it so be warned!
When you decide to take the other side of the metro line as your final station, you will end up in Port Klang. Make sure you reserve some time for this trip because it will take you around 1 and a half hour to get here from KL Sentral. From the Port you can take a return ferry (14 ringgits) to Pulau Ketam a.k.a Crab Island. This little fisherman’s place is built on stilts because it is below sea level. Although the place is very small and has not many activities other than crab restaurants, it is definitely worth an afternoon visit. The little island houses are very colorful and time seems to stand still here. It is a fun place for a summer promenade or a bike rental while fantasizing with friends whether or not you would be someone who could live here. And the pungent odor of crab is unlikely to miss.