With a sociocultural milieu that is as diverse as it gets, Kuala Lumpur is an eclectic fusion hub of ethnicities, languages and religions, where different and divergent traditions are celebrated with equal zest and intensity.
The Malay peninsula runs north-south at the southernmost tip of the Asian continental mainland. This is where, through the trials and tribulations of history, multi-ethnic groups of Indian and Chinese people arrived and thrived with Malay residents and indigenous inhabitants. Over the years, the ethnic convergence evolved to form a wonderfully pluralistic society built around Kuala Lumpur, the city that has embraced its multicultural population, integrating the diverse customs, languages and religious beliefs into its layered folds.
Founded in 1857 at the confluence of two rivers, Kuala Lumpur (which literally means ‘muddy confluence’ in Malay language) is a study in contrasts. Ritzy malls, futuristic lounge bars, towering skyscrapers and a pulsating nightlife synchronise effortlessly with old-fashioned neighbourhoods, colonial-era buildings and leafy parks to ooze a cosmopolitan flair that is unique in its nuances and textures.
The silver, scalloped, sky-scratching towers of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers glow golden in late afternoon setting sunlight. This is the best time to catch the magic light on this famed architecture from the green KLCC Park adjacent to it or from the splashy Sky Bar tucked on Level 33 of the swanky Traders Hotel, perfectly positioned across Petronas Towers. Lean back on the velvety violet couches with a craft cocktail to marvel at the light-and-symphony show that illuminates the buildings every night with a magical aura dabbled in colourful lights and music.
Just 10 minutes away stands Menara KL, one of the tallest freestanding structures in the world. Originally constructed as a communications infrastructure atop the Bukit Nanas (Pineapple Hill), the imposing architectural design uses ‘Muqarnas’, an archetypal form of ornamented vaulting in traditional Islamic architecture. The exquisite glass-clad domes and the globular pinnacle, inspired by a Malaysian spinning top, are the other remarkable design elements of Menara KL, which is also the fifth tallest telecommunications tower in the world.
For a completely different taste of architectural style, head over to the late 19th-century Sultan Abdul Samad Building located on the tree-lined Jalon Raja. A majestic synthesis of Moorish and Mughal architecture, the sprawling two-storied building operated as the seat of power during the British colonial rule, and the expansive, leafy plaza that houses it has been fittingly renamed as Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square).
Jalan Alor is the ultimate culinary destination of Malaysia with street hawker stalls flanking both sides of the street. The atmosphere is chaotic and cheerful with raucous seafood sellers shouting their windpipes off to promote their fare, a never-ending file of crowds thronging the streets filled with vibrant wall art where flavours burst from every corner. Dubbed as one of the busiest food streets on the planet, this 500-metre stretch is quite unmissable if you want to sample a slice of the rich culinary heritage of KL.
One of Malaysia’s premier tourist attractions, Batu Caves is a complex of limestone grottoes. A pilgrimage for the Tamil Hindu community, the site attracts thousands of devotees especially during the annual Thaipusam festival held at the end of January. The 400-million year old limestone formations cocoon numerous shrines and statues of deities beneath the 100-metre high arched ceilings.
Home to over 5000 freshwater and marine creatures that includes tiger sharks, deadliest sea snakes, menacing piranhas, electric eels and scary-looking deep sea mammals, Aquaria KLCC is the ultimate destination to experience mystic waterscapes from across the world: from the peninsular waters of Malaysia to the Amazon basin. Explore the weird and uncanny world spaced across two giant-sized floors, and the highlight can be a close encounter with a tiger shark or a sting ray, if you partake in the aquarium’s Diving with Sharks program.
Spread across a whopping, fun-filled 88 acres, Sunway Lagoon provides an enthralling themepark experience. Built 150 feet below ground level on a tin mining wasteland, this funtainment destination features six parks designed to amuse, scare, educate and excite (not necessarily in that order) the child in you, your biological age notwithstanding. Exhilaration guaranteed!
And for a crash course in KL’s cultural conflation, head over to Brickfields, the oldest Indian settlement, better known as Little India. The stretch from Jalan Travers to Jalan Tun Sambathan pulsates with Bollywood tunes, the white street lamps and creamy-yellow arches with purple embellishments seamlessly blend with the purple buildings along the street, and the characteristically colourful stores sell traditional Indian goods and delicious South Indian food.
Another great place to embark on a culinary journey is Chinatown – the sprightly neighbourhood on Petaling Street brims with a zesty food and fashion scene. It is primarily known for speakeasies, authentic Chinese seafood and the covered street market offering mostly Chinese merchandise at bargain prices, but do explore Kwai Chai Hong - a beautifully restored backlane with rows of heritage buildings. Local artists have added an arty flair to this atmospheric stretch with stunning street art depicting life in Chinatown in the 1960s.
Kuala Lumpur can be downright intoxicating if you are a shopaholic, and high-end shopping destinations jostle for recognition in the glitzy mallscape here. The 1.37 million-square foot white marble megacomplex of Pavilion KL that looks like a Grecian temple with uniquely-carved pillars stands out in the hipster Bukit Bintang district. With its extravagant combination of indoor and outdoor shopping venues that includes iconic international labels and homegrown specialty signature brands, this is an immensely popular hangout zone for KL-ites. This upmarket shopping destination features the beautiful Pavilion Crystal Fountain at the main entrance. When you are there, do not forget to toss a coin in the fountain to make a wish, à la Rome’s Trevi fountain.
Just next door, the retail paradise of Starhill Gallery awaits the refined traveller with its classy touches – mood music, ambient lighting and carpeted interiors set the tone for an unmatched haute couture shopping experience in the elite luxury haven that houses more than 100 renowned luxury timepiece and jewellery brands and exclusive fine dining venues, besides showcasing the best fashion boutiques and ultraluxe brands.
A sophisticated milieu of couture, culture and entertainment that includes an orchestral concert hall and the Petronis Art Gallery, Suria KLCC is nestled inside the first six floors of the Petronas Twin Towers. Over 300 top-of-the-line designers and labels are based out of this upmarket retail centre that is hemmed with hotels, a scenic park and dancing fountains in the heart of the Malaysian capital.
Think the sophistication of French cuisine with the elegance of Japanese fare, and the answer is Cilantro – the award-winning fine dining venue that has been delighting discerning diners, including celebrities and royalty since it reopened in 2009. 3-course and 4-course menus are curated and crafted with seasonal produce and freshest of ingredients, and the chic and contemporary décor matches the delectable culinary experience here. The signature specialities include gastronomic creations like Braised Unagi with Foie Gras and Miyazaki Ichibo Steak with Condiments.
Helmed by Modesto Marini, and perched on the 57th floor of Petronas Tower 3, Marini’s on 57 commands exhilarating 360 degree vista of the KL skyline. A multi-award winning establishment, Marini’s never fails to impress its patrons with sumptuous Italian food created with oodles of flavours and zesty textures, and always immaculately paired with a classy selection of wines, champagne and cocktails.
For a completely new sensory experience, head over to Dining in the Dark. Located in the heart of Bukit Bintang, this classy outpost offers an unusual gastronomic adventure: discover your food in absolute darkness! Since your optics are temporarily suspended in the pitch dark, the other sensory organs are accentuated. Experience the smell, taste and feel of your food in a unique way, with sharper olfactory, palatal and tactile senses.
Delicious and unmistakably Malay cuisine defines Bijan Bar and Restaurant, tucked in a leafy neighbourhood of Bukit Bintang district. Set amid lush green tropical vegetation, this restaurant with a warm and homey viberustles up authentic, rustic Malay recipes that have been passed down the generations and serves them with true Malaysian hospitality. Chef Zulkifli learnt his culinary art from his grandmother and has been fine tuning and experimenting with the techniques ever since.
Thrill and exclusivity are the buzzwords when it comes to nightlife; KL-ites take it seriously. You will find some of Asia’s best bars here in Kuala Lumpur. Coley, resplendent in a black-and-gold and woody interiorscape, stands out as a creative cocktail bar in the bustling Bangsar district. Quirky, playful mixes are the signatures of owner and bartender CK Kho who finds inspiration in local flavours and infuse them with gin and vermouth to whip up refreshingly innovative cocktails.
Dazzling sky-high views highlight the experience in Blue, perched on the 51st floor of iconic luxury Hotel EQ at Jalan Sultan Ismail. The sparkling ceiling lights splayed across flanking mirrors blend with the shimmering city skyline and create a surreal effect, heightened by couple of rounds of Blue’s signature Blue Moon cocktail – an exotic concoction of gin, lavender bitters, hibiscus purée, elderflower liqueur and egg white.
Museums & the Arts
Located on Jalan Damansara, the National Museum delves deep into the colourful Malay history spanned across four halls - the Prehistoric Gallery, the Malay Kingdoms, the Colonial era and Malaysia Today – each a repository of Malaysia’s cultural and historical heritage through the ages. Inspired by Malay royal palaces and vernacular Malay architecture, the sprawling three-storied museum houses a diverse range of informational exhibits starting with the Stone Age through the colonial period, and right up to the modern age. Do not miss the original-size old Terengganu timber palace known as Istana Satu.
The ornate, turquoise-colored tiled domes of Islamic Arts Museum have established this space as an iconic structure in Malaysia. As the name suggests, the white interiors of this two-storied building that has twelve gallery spaces are solely dedicated to Islamic arts showcasing an astounding collection of ancient calligraphic scrolls, historic manuscripts, jewel-studded arms of the medieval ages, Islamic glassware, and exquisite handcrafts of wood, metal and ceramic.
The museum also boasts of educational, research, and extensive conservation facilities. Housed in a beautiful Mughal-style heritage building on Merdeka Square, the National Textile Museum traces the origins from pre-historic times, development through trade, and also the tools, materials and techniques of textile-making practiced over the centuries. Elaborate displays of indigenous motifs and textile prints from the different ethnic groups of Malaysia, traditional apparel and accessories and heritage costumes – the four galleries superbly underscore the role textile has played out in shaping the rich and diverse cultural heritage of Malaysia.
Enjoy bird’s eye views of Kuala Lumpur with a helicopter ride. The private charter service features a curated joyride from 6 to 45 minutes in a 4-seater or 5-seater chopper. Soak in breathtaking aerial views of the city’s sky-scratching towers, the quaint, traditional towns that surround the city and the gently undulating emerald countryside. Have your camera ready to splash your social media handles with jaw-dropping images.
Just 45 minutes away from Kuala Lumpur, nestled within a 100-million year old rainforest, lies Genting Highlands – Malaysia’s lofty paradise at an altitude of 5700 feet. Cool mountain breeze and majestic vistas work in connivance with indoor and outdoor theme parks, a casino and a pristine 18-hole golf course to make Genting a gorgeous destination. For those seeking a bit of adventure, there are options aplenty – from the scenic skyway cable car ride to the hair-raising haunted adventure tour and indoor rock climbing. Satiate the adrenaline junkie in you!
Head over to Petaling Jaya if you feel a little drained with the mainstream bustle, and indulge yourself with full-on Balinese vibes at Khareyana Spa – a leafy, tropical sanctuary imbued with all-natural philosophy. With a serene water garden, cobbled pathways and wooden furnishings, it’s the perfect place to relax and rejuvenate, and have your muscle knots smoothed out by topnotch spa therapists with impeccable expertise in Balinese spa treatments.
A robustly developed infrastructure that includes state-of-the-art stadiums, swimming centres, equestrian parks and go-kart centres has helped KL to host several international sporting events including the Commonwealth Games, the SEA Games and the football World Club qualifiers.
A multi-purpose stadium that is used mostly for football matches, the Kuala Lumpur Football Stadium holds 18,000 spectators and boasts of FIFA-standard facilities. Catch a game while you are there to feel the pulse of the most popular sport in Malaysia, played since the late 1800s.
Golf in Malaysia bears a rich colonial legacy with the first club opened in 1883. Royal Selangor Golf Club still operates as the green lung of the city, resplendent in emerald splendour, and welcomes those in quest of a tee-off amid its idyllic setting.
The 28,000 square-meter National Aquatic Centre not only meets the exacting standards and regulations of the International Swimming Federation to regularly host international swimming events, but its aesthetic architecture draped in light blue has made this centre a prestigious venue for organising mini concerts and fashion shows.
Must Buy Souvenir
Threads of silk and gold are interwoven to craft Songket, the traditional Malaysian handwoven fabric. The extravagantly luxuriant pieces exude exoticism with immaculate geometric designs and motifs and can be a perfect partywear. You can also spruce up your home décor with a vibrantly-coloured Songket wall hanging, or artisanal tableware crafted from this supreme quality material. Beware of counterfeit products, though. It is best to get it from branded shops and from the reputed shopping malls.
Top-of-the-line hotels in KL hold their candles vis-à-vis the best in the world with sterling, personalised services, fully-equipped amenities and lavish, ultraluxe suites that cater to the aesthetics of connoisseurs of finest things in life. Most of the upscale establishments are conveniently located within easy walking distance of the city’s prime attractions.
The most efficient way to reach the city centre from the KL airport is to take a Kuala Lumpur airport taxi with a set fare and a travelling time of about 50 minutes. Transportation around the city is relatively hassle-free with fully air-conditioned buses and an extensive rail network of Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), Light Rail Transit (LRT), monorail and KTM Komuter.
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