Kuala Lumpur (or KL, as it's known to locals) is the center and symbol of Malaysia and its rapid rise as an economic powerhouse. The rocketlike Petronas Twin Towers soar above a city built to impress, from the modern buildings of the Golden Triangle to massive shopping malls to driverless trains that glide across the bustling city.
Yet nestled amid the high-rises, you'll find remnants of the city's past: enchanting temples and mosques, small whitewashed colonial churches and British Tudor-style clubhouses. At night, markets and lantern-lit streets ring with the sound of Malay, Chinese and Indian hawkers selling tantalizing dishes. Though it's running hard toward the future, KL still offers a glimpse of its colorful heritage and a taste of traditional, exotic Asia.
With such diversity in the population, communication could prove problematic. However, many people, especially in Kuala Lumpur, speak English fluently. Although the national language of Malaysia—Bahasa—is commonly spoken among Malaysians, the government has encouraged English as the language of business, and it continues to thrive.
Kuala Lumpur lies within the Klang Valley on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. To the east is the Titiwangsa mountain range. Two rivers (the Gombak and the Klang) run through the city.
The city's historical heart centers on Merdeka Square, near which you'll find such notable landmarks as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Masjid Jamek (the city's oldest mosque) and the Central Market. From there, Chinatown lies to the south. To the west is the residential suburb of Bangsar, a favorite entertainment and dining district. East of the city center (but within a 20-minute walk) you will find the shopping district of Bintang Walk on Jalan Bukit Bintang. Farther east is the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (commonly referred to as KLCC) with the famous Petronas Twin Towers, and the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, also confusingly referred to by some as KLCC. Near the Twin Towers is the area known as The Golden Triangle, the central commercial district of the city and home to most of its world-class hotels, soaring office towers and gigantic shopping complexes.
Founded by Chinese tin miners who set up camp at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers in the 1850s, Kuala Lumpur literally means "muddy estuary." It remained a turbulent mining camp until Yap Ah Loy, a philanthropist and leader of the Chinese community, assumed leadership of the town. By the 1880s, the city's image and economy had improved to a point that the British moved their official base to Kuala Lumpur from Port Klang.
After the turn of the 20th century, plantations of rubber trees brought in both money and workers from India. During World War II, the Japanese occupation of what was then Malaya abruptly ended Britain's control over the region. Following the war, the Malays demanded independence from Britain and received it in 1957. Kuala Lumpur is now considered a Federal Territory, ceded from the state of Selangor in 1974. In 2001, Malaysia's federal government moved its administrative center to Putrajaya, a new city 25 mi/40 km outside of Kuala Lumpur. However, KL is still recognized as Malaysia's capital, as well as its largest city and the center of commerce.
The sights no one can miss—unless clouds get in the way—are the Petronas Twin Towers, among the tallest buildings in the world, and the Menara Kuala Lumpur communications tower, which is nearly as tall as the twins. Malaysians see these pinnacles of modern construction as symbols of Asia's dynamism and growth. They dwarf in size, but not in importance, the other things to see in Kuala Lumpur. Chief among them are the Masjid Jamek (Jamek mosque), the Kuala Lumpur Craft Complex, the Islamic Arts Museum and the National Museum, which hosts Malay cultural displays.
Other places in town worth visiting include the Perdana Botanical Gardens, KL Bird Park, National Zoo and Aquarium, Merdeka Square and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building—an impressive Moorish structure that's one of the city's most photographed buildings. Also highly recommended is Rumah Penghulu, which offers a glimpse of traditional Malay home life.
Kuala Lumpur has a vibrant nightlife scene, with discos, clubs and live music to appeal to most tastes. A number of popular bars are located in the suburban neighborhoods of Bangsar and Desa Sri Hartamas. The heart of the club scene is downtown, where some of the largest and most popular clubs are clustered around the intersection of Jalan Sultan Ismail and Jalan P. Ramlee (between Bukit Bintang and Kuala Lumpur City Centre). Asian Heritage Row is a short stretch near the Sheraton Imperial Hotel that has many small bars and dance clubs. Another hot spot, Changkat Bukit Bintang, behind Jalan Bukit Bintang, packs a number of bars and restaurants in a charming back road off the beaten path.
Clubs open at 9 pm and officially close at 2 am, although they often stay open later. Try not to arrive before 11 pm unless you want to appear to be the hopeless tourist.
Malaysia's cultural mix and its proximity to other Southeast Asian countries produces a rich variety of tantalizing cuisines. You'll find Chinese, Indian and Malay food sold from stalls right on the street. Street food is considered safe in KL, partly because vendors prepare food fresh each day, but we recommend that you avoid any places that appear unclean.
Not-to-be-missed local specialties include Indian breads, steaming bowls of fragrant noodles, Chinese-style seafood, locally famed Nyonya (a fusion of Chinese and Malay) cuisine and such Malay favorites as nasi lemak, a dish of coconut rice served with peanuts, anchovies, fiery chili sauce and a choice of chili prawns, coconut beef or chicken curry. It's traditionally eaten for breakfast, but if that's more than you can handle first thing in the morning, try it for lunch.
In KL, the most authentic local food is in the neighborhoods. Go to Chinatown or Jalan Alor for Chinese street food (chicken and duck rice, wonton pork noodles and mixed rice buffets are particular local favorites).
All the top hotels serve local as well as Western fare. Dishes such as mee goreng (Malay-style fried noodles), nasi goreng (Malay-style fried rice) and nasi lemak are good bets in hotel restaurants because the potent mix of chili and spices is usually reduced to a level that is more palatable to foreign visitors. Vegetarians will find an assortment of meatless dishes available at most restaurants.
In many of the simpler Malay-style restaurants, you select what you want from the buffet, take a seat and a server will come, check your plate before you begin eating and issue a check. Also, many of the smaller, streetside restaurants serve a buffet at lunch and place the food on a large, freshly washed banana leaf instead of a plate. Look around for such a place; there are hundreds. The experience is something to write home about.
Eating out in KL is possible all day, but most Malaysians eat breakfast early (many rise at dawn to pray), eat lunch noon-2 pm and have dinner 7-11 pm. In most cases, reservations aren't necessary. You may have to wait a bit, but most Malaysians don't linger when they've finished their meal.
Purchase a copy of Malaysia's Best Restaurants, published annually by Tatler Malaysia magazine and available at major book stores to help in deciding where to eat in the city and major destinations throughout Malaysia.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 50 RM; $$ = 50 RM-75 RM; $$$ = 76 RM-100 RM; and $$$$ = more than 100 RM.
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