Kuala Lumpur is an electrifying mix of contrasts: avant-garde architecture alongside a cultural heritage, delicious ethnic street food and chic gourmet restaurants, irresistible fashion shopping, and amazingly affordable luxury hotels.
Driving in from the airport, KL, as Kuala Lumpur is commonly known, resembles a metropolis of the future, a never-ending panorama of towering steel and glass skyscrapers, elevated highways, and monorails. But change has come rapidly here since the city was founded some 160 years ago, and I am setting off on the daily Heritage Walk, organized free of charge by the Tourism Office, at the exact point that gave Kuala Lumpur its name (“muddy confluence”) where two bubbling, narrow rivers meet. The site is marked by a dramatically exotic mosque, Masjid Jamek, whose swirling Moorish minarets were actually designed a century ago by a British colonial architect. Our guide, the genial Victor, is a well-known local artist, who recounts, “Here in the historic center you still have the chance to discover the unique multicultural roots of KL; a colorful, tolerant melting pot of Malay Muslims, Chinese Buddhists, and Hindu Indians. We are passing the fairy-tale, red-and-white brick Sultan Abdul Samad Building, topped with copper onion domes, while just nearby are ancient, ornate shophouses and smoky incense-filled temples lining the narrow streets of Chinatown. And just smell the wonderful fragrances of the flower garlands sold outside the extravagant Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, decorated with hundreds of dancing statues, that has been welcoming Hindu worshippers since 1873.” We end the walk in a traditional kopitiamcafé where the owner calculates the bill on an abacus, sipping steaming teh tarik, sweet milky tea that is spectacularly “aired and cooled” by the waiter as he theatrically pours it back and forth from a great height. Victor admits that we now have to experience today’s modern KL by heading over to the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, one of the world’s tallest buildings and every KLite’s favorite rendezvous. He gives a great parting tip for getting around: download the Grab Cab app on your smartphone, the local company with their friendly drivers and unbeatable cheap rates. A car swiftly arrives to whisk me off, driven by Aishah, a demure, veiled Malay girl, who explains how she pays for university studies by Grab driving in her spare time.
If you don’t spot the iconic Twin Towers from a distance, you know you have arrived when you see coachloads of tourists jostling for the perfect selfie spot against the dramatic backdrop of the modernist masterpiece of Cesar Pelli, the recently deceased Argentine architect. While tourists head for the 41st floor glass Skybridge linking the towers, locals are busy shopping till they drop at the state-of-the-art Suria shopping mall, which boasts every global haute couture boutique imaginable, including favorite local son, renowned shoe designer, Jimmy Choo. I slip out before sunset to check out the fine dining scene in the surrounding skyscrapers: Nobu’s signature sushi and Marini’s sumptuous Italian cuisine on the 57th floor of adjoining Petronas Tower 3; Fuego’s funky South American fare in Norman Foster’s elegant Troika Building; or the fashionable Skybar atop the Trader’s Hotel for the perfect sunset in an exclusive cabana alongside the rooftop pool. For a quiet dinner though, I reserve at the latest must-be-seen-in address, Open House, whose talented chef, Houzaidi, tells me, “I have traveled all over the country to create a unique menu of Malay cuisine that no other restaurant offers; river fish cooked with potent tempoyak sauce made from the pungent durian fruit, spicy umai marinated raw prawns, smoked duck served with wild ferns, and mushrooms foraged in the jungle.” An unforgettable experience.
The next morning, I set off to explore early, when temperatures are less humid. But classic sightseeing is not what KL is all about. Two exceptions worth braving the heat for are Batu Caves and the Bird Park. A spectacular 140-foot, golden statue of Indian deity Lord Murugan stands guard outside a soaring limestone outcrop housing the 400-million-year-old Batu Cave, one of the most important Hindu shrines in Asia. An arduous trek up 272 steps leads to the holy cave, but honestly it was much more entertaining down below with priests dressed in flowing white robes and devotees with their heads newly shaved, tasting tiny portions of a dozen different vegetarian curries, ceremoniously laid out on a freshly washed banana leaf. After a refreshing jolt of icy air-conditioning, the driver drops me back into what looks like a sweltering jungle -20 acres of lush tropical vegetation right in the city center that forms the world’s largest free-flight aviary. Clambering over jungle walkways, you don’t need to be an amateur birdwatcher to be entranced by the aviary’s 3,000 exotic birds from purple-plumed peacocks to rainbow-colored parrots, flamingos, owls, and Borneo’s iconic hornbill.
The Bird Park is not the only anomaly hidden away in this modern metropolis. I can’t quite believe my eyes walking into Kampung Bahru, a traditional Malay village of ornate wooden stilt houses, encircled by high-rise development, but miraculously protected for over a century by the state. Amongst the mosques and madrasahs, I pass mango trees, scented frangipani, coconut groves, then suddenly I am outside the teeming Chow Kit covered market filled with brightly colored spices, tropical fruits, rare herbs, and wriggling fish -a must for foodies. Tempted by the delicious smells wafting out of the numerous noisy canteens, I take a seat at a communal table of Noorizan Gerak 21, where my friendly neighbor, Ismail, a banker on his lunch break, leads me to the immense buffet groaning with over 40 dishes, piling my plate high with daging sambal, a fierce curry of slow-cooked beef, anchovies and sambal; jackfruit masak lemak, a light, yellow vegetarian curry; and babat kerabu, crunchy ox tripe in a piquant coconut sauce. In another world across the other side of town, I discover that the fascinating labyrinth of streets, alleys, and courtyards of Chinatown is also undergoing its own renaissance. In Jalan Sultan, a row of shophouses has been converted into the design boutique hotel Tian Jing, while a Chinese coffee shop has been transformed into Mingle, a hipster locale serving flat white barista coffee and pineapple smoothies. Even the venerable 1940s Rex Cinema is finding a new life, reborn as a bohemian center for artisans, artists, musicians, and actors.
KLites themselves rarely do any sightseeing, preferring to channel all energy into their two favorite pastimes: shopping and eating. Singapore and Hong Kong may be more well-known as bargain shopping meccas but in reality, KL is unparalleled when it comes to quality, choice, and price. The city’s Golden Triangle for shopping is Bukit Bintang, which pits two of Asia’s biggest and most luxurious malls right opposite each other: Star Hill and Pavilion. And Bukit Bintang is also the place to plunge into KL’s unparalleled street food scene, along seething Jalan Alor, lined by over 100 food stalls tempting diners with stingray grilled in banana leaf, steamed chilly crabs, lemon chicken, fish head curry, and everywhere, the delicious smell of satay sticks slowly cooking over red-hot charcoal. Thousands of hungry foodies head here until 4:00 a.m. every night, but I escape early as I saw posters for the concert tonight of the a well-known American jazz pianist Kirk Lightsey. The venue is No Black Tie, a cool, cutting-edge jazz club that could be in New York or Tokyo. Lightsey brings the crowd to life with bebop classics and chatting afterwards, he tells me, “I just love coming here to play. KL always amazes me, from the enthusiasm of the audience to the quality of local musicians joining me on stage.” This really is a city that always manages to surprise. The Turkish Airlines will increase flights between Istanbul and Kuala Lumpur to 11 flights a week as of June 9, 2020.