Crossing by land from southern Thailand, we spent about six weeks exploring the Malay peninsula. The places we visited included Penang, Langkawi, Ipoh, the Cameron Highlands, Melaka, Pulau Pangkor and Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, otherwise simply known as KL.
In this blog I will tell you about some of the highlights in Kuala Lumpur; see also Ollie’s post about Penang, an island all too easy to fall in love with.
Kuala Lumpur is an affluent 21st Century metropolis, remarkable for its cultural diversity. Ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indian migrants and British colonials all helped to shape the city into what it is today, a melting pot of cultural traditions and varied architecture.
Chinese temples rub shoulders with mosques, contemporary towers loom over some of Asia’s largest shopping malls and local hawkers sell delicious street food right outside cosmopolitan cafes. This is a city of contrasts, where you can eat like a king or dine on the street for pennies.
We found Kuala Lumpur a fascinating city; we loved the local markets and bazaars and the quirky charm that is to be found in the endless back-lanes of Chinatown.
It was in Little India that we feasted each evening; there was one particular local restaurant that we especially enjoyed where south Indian thali meals were served up on banana leaves. The food was authentic and the servings endless; it was as if we really were in India!
We spent a week in Kuala Lumpur; there is plenty to see and do in and around the city. The sights within the centre were walk-able from where we were staying; for those sights further afield the excellent public transport made reaching them a breeze.
I will not attempt to list every place we visited during our time in the city; that would require way too many photographs! So here, in no particular order, are those sights that I feel are really worth seeking out.
1. Menara Tower
The Menara Tower looms over Kuala Lumpur, offering probably the best birds-eye view of the city. It sits amid the leafy grounds of the Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve, which can be explored on route to the base of the tower.
The reserve is the oldest protected piece of jungle in Malaysia and hiking the short nature trails are well worth your time. The observation deck gives you a fascinating perspective of the city and allows space for reflection away from the busy streets below.
2. The Petronas Towers
These 88-storey steel clad twin towers, at nearly 452m tall, truly epitomise Kuala Lumpur; they are the headquarters of the national oil and gas company Petronas and can be seen from far and wide. If I had to name one thing that symbolises Kuala Lumpur it would be these towers; they are the image that comes to mind whenever I think of the city.
Islamic influences are evident in their design; each of the tower’s five tiers represent the five pillars of Islam. The masts that crown them also call to mind the minarets of a mosque and the star of Islam.
Ollie and I only viewed them from the outside but it is also possible to take a tour up to the 86th floor, including a 15 minute walk across the sky-bridge that connects the two towers on the 41st floor. Some of the best views of the Petronas Towers can be found from KLCC Park.
3. Chinatown and Merdeka Square
Chinatown is a colourful area that bursts with life at all times of the day and night. Jalan Petaling is the commercial heart, one of the busiest shopping parades in Kuala Lumpur. In the evening stalls cram the covered street, offering everything from fresh fruit to clothes and accessories; be prepared to bargain hard!
There are many quaint Chinese temples to be discovered within this bustling district as well as the Sri Mahariamman Temple, which would not look out of place in South India. Sri Mahariamman is the oldest Hindu shrine in Malaysia and was founded by Tamil migrant workers in 1873.
Not far from Merdeka Square, Masjid Jamek is a beautiful onion-domed mosque that starkly contrasts with nearby Chinatown. Ollie and I were shown around this peaceful place of worship, though I had to don an ankle-length purple hooded ‘dressing gown’ and Ollie what can only be described as a full length skirt, before we were allowed in. To say we looked peculiar would be an understatement!
The large open Merdeka Square was where Malaysian independence was declared in 1957; it is ringed by colonial buildings and dominated by a huge flagpole with a fluttering Malaysian flag.
It is worth spending a day simply wandering around Chinatown and its surrounding area; there are many fascinating sights to see and local markets to explore. This part of Kuala Lumpur also has some of the best hawker stalls and local restaurants. Chinatown has a fun quirky vibe and is a great example of traditional cultural Malaysia, away from the epic shopping malls, of which the city has many.
4. Masjid Negara
The National Mosque of Malaysia is the main place of worship for Kuala Lumpur’s Muslim population. This huge mosque, inspired by Mecca’s Grand Mosque, is worth a trip for its impressive size and beautiful architecture.
We did not go inside as we arrived during afternoon prayers but it was enough to see it from the outside. Its umbrella-like blue tile roof has 18 points, which symbolise the 13 states of Malaysia and the five pillars of Islam. A 74m-high minaret issues the call to prayer, which can be heard from across Chinatown.
5. Lake Titiwangsa
Lake Titiwangsa and the park that surrounds it makes for a great escape from the busy urban centre. The view of the city skyline from this green oasis is also very picturesque. There are boating facilities on offer though, for us, a leisurely afternoon strolling about the park was good enough.
6. Batu Caves
We visited the Batu Caves as a day trip from Kuala Lumpur; with the fantastic public transport in Malaysia the complex, 13km north of the city, is very accessible. The caves are dedicated to the Hindu god, Murugan, also known as Lord Subramaniam; his enormous golden statue stands at the foot of a flight of 272 steps, which lead up to the temple cave.
Beyond the main cavern, the space opens to an atrium-like cave at the rear; there are many Hindu shrines and plenty of naughty monkeys too! The Batu Caves makes for an interesting excursion from the city; they especially appealed to us for their links to India and Hinduism.
Kuala Lumpur remains one of our favourite cities in south-east Asia; it is a vibrant melting pot of cultures and cuisines that brings together some of our favourite elements from across the subcontinent. Though the majority of Malaysia is Muslim, there are also significant populations of Hindu, Buddhist and Christian peoples; everyone lives in harmony with one another and, indeed, religious clashes are extremely rare. In Kuala Lumpur mosques stand alongside Chinese Buddhist temples.
It is this cultural diversity that has made Malaysia what it is today and given it such strong ties with its Asian neighbours. We loved how Kuala Lumpur manages to maintain its traditional roots, seen in its exciting hawker food and bustling markets, yet is one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities. Kuala Lumpur boasts world-class shopping malls and healthcare and, on the other end of the scale, world-class cuisine at rock-bottom prices.
The city offers fantastic value for money; compared to other Asian giants, such as Singapore, it is possible to spend very little but get a lot. We plan to return to Malaysia in the future to travel Sabah and Sarawak; together with Kalimantan and Brunei these states make up Borneo. Malaysia offers something for everyone – beaches, jungle, mountains, cities – this tropical slice of Asia is sure to win the hearts of all those who visit.