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Kuala Lumpur: Bold and Beautiful?

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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.

Skyscrapers in central Kuala Lumpur

KLCC area of Kuala Lumpur – skyscraper central with the Petronas Towers on the left

Skyscrapers at sunset in Kuala Lumpur

Skyscrapers skyscrapers everywhere

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.

Petronas Twin Towers

I’m clearly fascinated by these towers: left, a closer look; center, their reflection in a nearby building; right, nighttime concert at Simfoni Lake just behind the towers

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.

Flagpole on Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur

At 95m the flagpole on Merdeka Square stands tall – I’m at least 100m away from it here

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.

Outdoor view of Suria KLCC shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur

For designer shops and luxury this mall is it

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.

Inside of luxurious Suria KLCC mall in Kuala Lumpur

Suria KLCC, an inside look

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.

Sale in KL shopping mall

No effort is spared to try to part you from your cash

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.)

KL Central Market

Human-sized shopping mall: Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market

Kuala Lumpur Central Market

Central Market is KL’s best venue for souvenirs – far better than the Kraf Kompleks designed for tourists

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.

Fake ICE watches for sale in KL Chinatown

Careful – customs agents are trained to tell the difference

Fake bags in KL Chinatown

Gucci, Dior, Burberry, Fendi, Vuitton… all real, n’est ce pas?

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.

Busy food stall in KL Chinatown

A well-orchestrated dance to prepare food at this Chinatown stall

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.

Chickens for sale at KL Chinatown

Chickens are butchered as needed and served up fresh in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown

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.

Chinese dumplings

Those famous dumplings from Din Tai Fung…

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.

Little India area of Kuala Lumpur

Colorful buildings stand in the shadow of skyscrapers in Little India

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.
Old Kuala Lumpur train station

Don’t be fooled, it’s not all brand new; some lovely old buildings remain, like KL’s old train station

All photos in this article by Anne Sterck.

21 Comments

  1. Freya on August 7, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    I have never been to Kuala Lumpur but somehow I never thought it would look like this. Great post & information, I love the hustle and bustle atmosphere in China Town and the food is delicious.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 7, 2013 at 11:26 pm

      Like many other cities in Southeast Asia Kuala Lumpur is larger than life. It’s strange because the same countries that boast these cities often have laid back, quiet cultures filled with contemplation and meditation… It’s definitely a city worth visiting next time you are in the region!

  2. Jennifer on August 7, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    It looks and sounds like you quite enjoyed KL. in that case, I think you’d like Dubai quite a lot. I haven’t been to KL, but your descriptions and photos remind me of Dubai very much. And I can see how you were enthralled with the Twin Towers – we were too with the Burj.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 8, 2013 at 7:08 am

      I must admit I hadn’t really thought of Dubai as a destination – it’s more a place I change flights but it keeps coming up as a suggestion so I’d better take a second look. I don’t like heights so I think I might become a specialist at taking photos of huge buildings from the bottom up – I could do that with the Burj too!

  3. Emma @ GottaKeepMovin on August 14, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    Awesome photos and so much great info! KL is a place I’ve dreamed about ever since I started traveling, I’m so keen to get there! I really like the look of the Central Market you posted here, and of course the food. I think my stomach is what leads me to travel most of the time… Thanks for sharing!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 14, 2013 at 6:52 pm

      Thanks Emma and believe me, you won’t be disappointed by the food. Chinese, of course, but I haven’t even started on Malay food and that is superb!

  4. Andrea on August 17, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Great photos – never been to KL but I’m intrigued…

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 17, 2013 at 3:34 pm

      Next time you’re in Asia… Of all the Southeast Asian megacities I find it among the most manageable – bit but not massive like Hong Kong or Shanghai or Bangkok… physically it’s large but the center is relatively compact so you can easily get a feel for it in just a few days.

  5. jennifer on August 20, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Little India looks so cute! Also that train station is absolutely stunning. I’ve never seen pictures of it before.

    I am planning a trip to Asia in May. It is hard because I want to see every inch of it and I only have a month. But Kuala Lumpur is in my top ten.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 20, 2013 at 6:17 pm

      Little India IS cute – but emphasis is on the ‘little’ because it’s really tiny, a few blocks only. The old train station is being renovated so I’m not certain what shape it’ll be in by the time you get there – I saw it on the hop-on hop-off bus, because it’s not near the center of town.

      I know what you mean about wanting to see every bit of a place. I felt that way about Malaysia but in the end I was there for three weeks and spent half my time in KL and the other half in Sabah. I didn’t travel around as I’d planned, and that gave me the opportunity to dig deeper into both places. A month though… I hope you narrow down your choices – it’s hard!

      The parts of Malaysia I saw were also quite woman-friendly, which made it easy to travel. I realize there are more traditional regions (I’ll have to go back!) but as far as KL is concerned it’s a great city for a woman visitor.

      • jennifer on August 20, 2013 at 8:17 pm

        I may end up putting country names in a hat and picking that way! It is so hard to choose when you want to see everything. But right now, KL is coming up in the top three cheapest airfare options. That is always a huge plus.

        • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 21, 2013 at 7:34 am

          What’s on your list? Maybe I can help…

          • jennifer on August 21, 2013 at 3:02 pm

            That’s the problem, I want to go to EVERY country in South East Asia! So far I have carved Myanmar in stone. There is no way I am not going there. I also have to go to Macau because I am a Las Vegas addict and must see it. So it makes it a bit easier to just follow the line and go across. But Kuala Lumpur is south and I want to go there toooooooooo.



          • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 21, 2013 at 3:16 pm

            LOL – I see your problem. I don’t know Macau but Myanmar is a MUST – especially since it’s changing by the day. I’ve been several times, but back before the tourist boom, when I was a journalist and had to ‘hide’ that fact by posing as an English teacher. I hear it’s already becoming unrecognizable so hurry! As for KL, it’s a great city but what makes it particularly attractive from my point of view is 1) size and 2) diversity. I like the mixture of cultures and the fact that the center is compact enough to cover in a very few days. Myanmar on the other hand would require two weeks to begin to see… If you stick to those three you’ll be absolutely fine timewise – you might even be able to fit in another Malaysian destination…



          • jennifer on August 21, 2013 at 4:24 pm

            I wish I had gotten to see Myanmar before. I cannot wait to see it now.



  6. Stefania on August 22, 2013 at 1:06 am

    Malls and malls again? Kuala Lumpur doesn’t seem to be the kind of city I would enjoy but one never knows!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 22, 2013 at 6:48 am

      It definitely has a big-city modern-glitzy shopping-spending feel to it and you’re right, it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But although there seems to be a mall on every corner, you can stay well away from those and spend time in Chinatown and Little India and never see a mall at all!

  7. Isabel on September 4, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    I’m guessing that the upscale malls also cater to the Middle Eastern tourists who come here in droves during their crazy hot summers. Bukit Bintang is packed with eating places catering to them!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on September 4, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      Absolutely – but also huge numbers of Chinese and other Asians. KL seems to have become very much a major regional hub, hugely cosmopolitan.

  8. Tara Molloy on July 1, 2017 at 11:14 am

    Hi Leyla, great post! Awesome pictures!

    So did you have any chickens butchered in front of you?

    • leylaadmin on September 2, 2017 at 7:32 pm

      I didn’t…

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