Three things strike me immediately in Kuala Lumpur: size, money and food.
First, size. It matters.
If you want to see Malaysia’s capital city properly, keep looking upward. Just be careful or you’ll land on your face – the sidewalks are a bit uneven.
I arrived in KL, as it’s commonly called, at the beginning of July. I went away to Sabah to visit primates and wildlife along the Kinabatangan River and returned a couple of weeks later. In that short time, the glass was up on a skyscraper next door, and an entire shopping mall had been demolished to make way for an even larger one.
KL is proud of its size. Let’s not forget that until 2003 the Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world. They were put on the map (at least for me) by Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones’s heart-stopping skywalk aerobatics in the action movie Entrapment.
The Towers still stand impressively tall and majestic but these days they’re only the tallest twin towers in the world. Look at them though – surely they’re the most stunning.
While we’re on the topic of size, no visit to KL would be complete without swinging by the 8.2 hectare Merdeka Square and its giant flagpole. At 95m it may not be the tallest in the world (that distinction goes to Azerbaijan’s 165m Palace of Nations flagpole and a few others close behind) but it is strikingly high.
Dataran Merdeka, as the square is called, occupies a major place in Malaysia’s history: this is where the British colony of Malaya became independent in 1957 and where the Union Jack came down for the last time, to be replaced by the new country’s flag. Each year Malaysians converge here on 31 August to celebrate the event.
It’s all about the money
The second thing that grabbed my attention was shopping… brand names… I’m not quite sure what to call this: unbridled consumerism?
Everywhere I looked in KLCC – Kuala Lumpur City Center – I saw easy opportunities to be parted from my cash: an overwhelming selection of eateries (being cash-parted in this way is always a pleasure); more designer shops in a single mall than in all of Zurich or Geneva; and more malls in a single city square block than I have within a two-hour radius of my house in France.
The most luxurious of these is surely Suria Shopping Mall, right next to the Petronas Towers. It is a feast for the eyes, and the air conditioning provides a welcome respite from the tropical heat.
To stay cool and still shop, follow the intriguing underground path that leads from Suria’s basement, past the KL Convention Center and the Aquarium, up the escalator, into an aerial tunnel and through to the Pavilion Mall, which has (only slightly) fewer designer goods than Suria and some great eating. Highly recommended: the dumplings at the sixth-floor Din Tai Fung, which has branches all over Asia; not recommended: the Spice of India, surly young waiter included.
Don’t feel like walking from KLCC to the Pavilion? Take one of the free buses parked outside KLCC: just ask one of the valets strategically positioned at the KLCC street entrance.
Who actually buys all this stuff? Kuala Lumpur has many wealthy citizens but surely not even they can keep these shops afloat. I will guess that a good chunk of China (new money and lots of it) and Singapore (it’s right next door) comes here to shop. I have no idea why: prices are similar to those in Europe so I can only conclude it’s because of the variety and proximity and the fun of visiting KL.
Not all shopping is on this scale, however.
Take the lovely Central Market, an interesting Art Deco building filled with small shops and souvenirs and an acceptable Thai restaurant on the top floor. After a few hours of sightseeing in the heat and humidity – KL’s temperature is hot all year-round – you’ll welcome the air conditioning. (Much of my sightseeing in KL was dictated by the proximity of cooled air, by the way.)
The building itself is interesting and was originally built as a market in the 1880s by the then British administration. It is a protected Heritage site now, a status that has already saved it from destruction. For some reason it reminded me of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar – just a feeling because they don’t look anything alike and the bazaar is huge by comparison. But the bustle was there.
You can also get some serious (though questionable) shopping done in Chinatown.
Like one of these ‘absolutely authentic’ $3 ICE watches.
Yummy, yummy, yummy I got love in my…
Chinatown is also where you’ll head if you’re hungry – unless you dislike extraordinary Chinese food. Start on Petaling Street and search for the narrow alleys that lead off it. Here are a few Chinatown food recommendations by someone who knows.
It’s busy and packed with tourists and locals and people who look so bewildered they might have wandered in by mistake. Once in though, it’s difficult to tear yourself away from this busy place.
It’s a pretty heady scene and not great if you hate crowds or are in any way squeamish. Beware: the chicken dish you order may be grabbed live from beneath the counter and butchered right then and there for you. It’ll definitely be fresh.
It’s not the only place with wonderful Chinese food…
Remember that dumpling place I recommended at the Pavilion? I could do with a few of those right now.
Adjoining Chinatown is Little India, a handkerchief-sized neighborhood in which you’ll forget you’re not in India, at least for a few minutes. You’ll find plenty of cheap goods, saris, cloth and food. Walk around and enjoy but don’t blink or you might miss it.
Kuala Lumpur may be tall and just a bit bombastic but it is energetic and friendly, the food is divine and the people who live here are rightly proud of their city. There’s something human about its gigantic size, more so than Bangkok or Hong Kong for example; perhaps it’s the distinct neighborhoods or the welcoming people. Whatever the reason KL is a city worth visiting the first time because you’ve never been, and the second and third simply because you like it.
Things you should know
- KL is relatively safe as megacities go, and I felt safe walking around at night in tourist neighborhoods, even on my own. However it isn’t crime-free by any means. Pickpockets work the main shopping areas, especially around the Petronas Towers, so hang on to your stuff.
- KLCC is also reputed for grab and flee motorbike riders. I now use a Pacsafe Citysafe handbag, with a slashproof shoulder strap worn across my chest.
- I’ve just touched on Chinese food because I ate a lot of it. Of course Malaysian food is delicious and there’s such a variety I can’t even begin to describe it.
- Getting around KL on public transport is relatively straightforward, although not as easy as it could be. A bewildering array of buses, trains and monorails criss-cross one another, and changing over might require some serious walking between two nearby stops. Taxis aren’t excessively expensive – just make sure the meter works. Many of the rear seatbelts don’t work, by the way.
- Order a good street map before you go – they’re hard to find, and the ‘map lite’ provided by hotels and some shops are vague at best and utterly misleading at worst.