Like a local: Kuala Lumpur

Life moves to a thrilling beat in the Malaysian capital. Discover the irresistible charms of this Asian metropolis, from hipster bars to sharp suit shopping

By Lee Cobaj
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:03 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 11:44 BST

Poor little Kuala Lumpur. For quite some time it seems to have been regarded as the ugly duckling of Asian cities, overlooked by international travellers who tend to schedule their stopovers in Singapore, Hong Kong or, if they're feeling adventurous, Bangkok. But KL — as it's known to its friends — has come a long way. Rising (quite literally), in a little over 150 years, from a humble backwater hacked out of the jungle by Chinese tin prospectors to an oil-rich sky-piercing 21st-century metropolis, with all the mod-cons that implies.

Visitors to the city are greeted by the rat-tat-tat-tat of at least three different languages: Malay, Cantonese and English mostly, with a smattering of Mandarin, Hindi and Tamil on the side. It's a result of Kuala Lumpur's cosmopolitan past, which saw the original inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula melded together with British colonisers and indefatigable immigrant workers from China and India.

And it's not just languages that rub up against each other: Taoist Temples back onto art deco edifices; Hindu gods tower over raging expressways; crumbly old cafes sit in the shadow of gleaming towers; monorails scoot past market stalls; and calls to prayer echo across mega-malls and jungle parklands.

It's a city crying out for exploration with every twist and turn revealing unexpected pleasures — don't be afraid to throw away the map and just stroll. Circle around Merdeka Square, where the first British settlers built cricket pitches, mock-Tudor mansions and quite mad-looking Moorish and Moghul-inspired architecture. Get lost in the lanes behind Chinatown and see open-air barber shops with pearl-handled razors flashing above antique chairs, and dead-eyed half-pigs strung up in grotty butcher shops. Pootle around the Publika Mall and you'll find girls in lacey floral dresses and guys in sharp suits smoking shisha and eating kimchi. Or get your style groove on in the boutiques and coffee shops of Bangsar, the city's most fashionable suburb.

Food, glorious food

It's said when the residents of Kuala Lumpur eat breakfast, they're thinking about what to have for lunch. But as this city revels in world-class cuisine, it's no wonder. Start with the food carts on the corner of Jalan Sultan and Chinatown, where you'll find one of the city's best-loved dishes, bak kuh teh , a double-boiled herbal broth laced with ginseng and pork ribs that tastes like strength in a bowl. Pull up a plastic stool among the locals and team with some chicken rice, char sui (barbecued pork) and Peking duck from the stall next door.

For more street-side dining, head next to lantern-lit Jalan Alor, where unmissable munchies include grilled chicken wings from Wong Ah Wah and beef ball noodles from the Ngau Kee stall, around the corner on Tengkat Tong Shin road.

A blast of air-con never goes amiss in this city, though, so for some cool, hawker-style fare, visit Lot 10 Hutong food court. Vendors are picked from the streets of KL, Penang and Malacca state; you'll find all the favourites — fried oysters, roasted pork, hokkien mee (egg noodles stir-fried with egg, prawns, pork and veg), Hainanese chicken rice — for just a few ringgit more than on the street.

Peranakan cuisine is one of Malaysia's oldest foodie fusions; blending ingredients from the Strait of Malacca with the cooking techniques of the first, 15th-century, Chinese immigrants. Stop by Precious Old China for classics like turnip, egg and chili 'top hats', nasi lemak (coconut rice), and beef rendang (cooked in coconut milk). If you're feeling adventurous, go for ayam buah keluak (spicy chicken cooked with keluak jungle nuts).

And, of course, there's the Indian contingent; Brickfields (KL's Little India) brims with cracking curry houses. A standout is Annalakshmi, a veggie restaurant staffed by volunteers, with all profits donated to a local temple.

Food picks

Wong Ah Wah: 1 Jalan Alor. T: 00 603 2144 2463.
Lot 10 Hutong: Lower ground floor, Lot 10, Jalan Sultan Ismail.
Precious Old China: Central Market, Lot 2, Mezzanine Floor, Jalan Hang Kasturi.
Annalakshmi: 114-116 Jalan Berhala, Brickfields. T: 00 603 2272 3799.

Piles of style

It's the country that gave us Jimmy Choo, one of the biggest names in fashion, so it shouldn't really come as a surprise that KL is home to some of the most fashionable footwear in the world — and you won't have to pay Paris catwalk prices either. Shoe fetishists flock to Sungei Wang Plaza, a boxy mall where every other store sells high-quality heels, wedges, flatforms, platforms, pumps, sling-backs and sandals at stupidly low prices — you'll rarely pay more than 50 ringgits (£9.25) a pair. Vincci, which always has its finger firmly on the fashion pulse, is a Malaysian favourite and it's not unusual to see Hong Kongers, Aussies and expats making off with a dozen or so pairs at a time.

Another fabulous local brand is Shoes, Shoes, Shoes, a hip treasure trove of hot high-end heels, edgy evening bags and eclectic accessories. It's more upmarket than Sungei Wang but at around £50 for a pair of Milan-quality beauties the shoes are still a steal. For sporty types, there's Sole What, specialising in limited-edition trainers (Vans, Onitsuka Tiger and Adidas, as well as highly prized, reissued, 1990s Nike designs). The teeny-tiny Rhino Art and Design in Central Market, meanwhile, sells traditional, brightly-coloured, hand-painted clogs.

For local designs that reach above the ankle, visit the suburb of Bangsar and its hip boutiques like Dude & the Duchess. If the tailoring here was any sharper you'd cut yourself. Shirts, for men and women, are a speciality but you'll also find snazzy bow ties and fine-fitting waistcoats too. At Thirty-Four, max out your overdraft on personalised leatherware and handbags.

Shop picks

Sungei Wang: Jalan Bukit Bintang.
Vinnci: Sungei Wang Plaza, LG015, Lower Ground Floor, Jalan Sultan Ismail.
Shoes, Shoes, Shoes: 31a, Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru.
Sole What: S229A, 2nd Floor, The Gardens. T: 00 60 32287 5811.
Rhino Art and Design: Central Market, Jalan Hang Kasturi.
Dude and & the Duchess: Bangsar Village 2, UGF-19, Upper Ground Floor, Bangsar Baru.

Party people

Hip has hit KL and that fact is never more apparent than after dark. As a Muslim-majority country, cafes are as much a part of the scene as bars, with boutique-filled Bangsar at its epicentre. Favourite spots for a java jolt include Antipodean, a trendy Australian import where flavoured syrups are banned and an espresso comes in a dozen different guises, and the refreshingly unpretentious Coffea Coffee, which stocks beans from farms as far afield as Guatemala, Costa Rica and Kenya.

Back in town, and straddling both the alcohol and the teetotal camp, is Barlai. Tucked away in a converted turn-of-the-century brownstone, it has white-washed interiors and exposed brick walls, a cute courtyard and a secret bean bag-filled room, plus French coffee, fabulous piña coladas, and live music and open mic nights most evenings. All very cool and laid-back.

But that's not to say KL can't do high-brow. It can. I mean, what could be swisher than drinking on a helipad? The Helipad Lounge Bar juts out of the 34th floor of the Menara KH building and is fully operational — actual helicopters land here by day, but come sundown, those 360-degree views are all yours, and boy are they head-spinning. Visit on a Thursday night and ladies get free appletinis from 9pm to midnight.

Other top spots include the rooftop of Rootz nightclub, which has a rooftop lawn and super city views; Marini's on 57, a glass cube a stone's throw from Petronas Towers; and the decadent Sultan Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental, Kuala Lumpur, where Formula 1 drivers, movie stars, models and millionaires like to party. People-watching aside, it also serves the best cosmos in town — which are free and unlimited for women on a Thursday evening.

Nightlife picks

Antipodean: 20, Jalan Telawi 2, Bangsar.
Coffea Coffee: 8 Jalan Telawi 2, Bangsar Baru.
Barlai: 3, Jalan Sin Chew Kee, off Jalan Pudu.
Heli Lounge Bar: Bukit Bintang 34th Floor, Menara KH, Jalan Sultan Ismail. T: 00 603 2110 5034.
Rootz: Rooftop, Lot 10 Shopping Centre, 50 Jalan Sultan Ismail. T: 00 603 2782 3557.
Marini's on 57: Level 57, Menara 3 Petronas.
Sultan Lounge: Mandarin Oriental, Kuala Lumpur.

Top 10 local tips

01 The Sunway Lagoon is a bonkers Egyptian-themed shopping centre/theme park with an ice rink, man-made surf beach and volcano, about 45 minutes from the city.

02 The high-speed airport train takes just 32 minutes to reach the city centre and comes with free wi-fi.

03 Rise and shine for a tea and an egg tart breakfast at Bunn Choon, Imbi Market.

04 Take the Monorail to Lake Titiwangsa for epic views of the KL cityscape.

05 Go for a foot massage at KL Valley. It's a 'no pain, no gain' kind of place so don't expect oil and candles. T: 00 60 32144 0228.

06 Dine on on dim sum, served by trolley-wielding waitresses at Marco Polo Restaurant, in the Wisma Lim Foo Yong building. T: 00 60 32141 2233.

07 Take a trip on a traditional wooden perahu boat on the huge man-made waterways of Putrajaya.

08 The Malaysian Nature Society runs tours of Batu Caves — home to giant Hindu icons and temples, caverns and whirlpools.

09 Temperatures range from 21-33C and the average humidity is a crushing 82%. Although there's rain all year, March-April and September-November are the wettest months.

10 Catch a Bollywood movie at the Coliseum Theatre, one of KL's oldest cinemas, dating back to the 1920s. Then nip downstairs to the bar for a Tiger beer.

More info

The War of the Running Dogs by Noel Barber. RRP: £8.99. (Cassell Military)
The Long Day Wanes by Anthony Burgess. RRP: £6.96. (Penguin Books Ltd)
The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw (winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2005). RRP: £8.99. (Harper Perennial)
Five Bells by Gail Jones. RRP: £12.20. (Vintage)
Seven Poor Men of Sydney by Christina Stead. RRP: £21. (Peter Davies)

On screen
The Letter, a 1940 noir classic based on the play of the same name by Somerset Maugham, and starring Bette Davis. And, more recently, action-flick Entrapment (1999), starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery.

Local blogs
Food blogger Masak Masak:

Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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