There’s more to Kuala Lumpur than Asia’s most picturesque skyscrapers.
My first picture of Kuala Lumpur’s iconic Petronas Towers nets a volley of questions on Facebook.
“Looks amazing! Where are you?”
“Did you go to the top?”
“Did you see Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones?” (This one sent me scrambling to IMDB. Entrapment is the movie, in case you were wondering!)
Friends who’d been to Kuala Lumpur however, had just one important question…
“What’s for lunch?”
There’s amazing food to be found all over Southeast Asia, from the fragrant curries of Thailand and Laos, to Vietnam’s delicious and healthy staple, pho. But nowhere do they meet quite like in Malaysia. Great meals seem to be found on every corner of the frenetic capital, Kuala Lumpur. Some are served fresh from a hawker’s cart, some on a street-facing patio – as you watch the bustling night markets, and some in relaxed restaurants where Kuala Lumpur’s complex mix of ethnicities comes together to reap the benefits it’s brought to the country’s kitchens. Indian, Chinese, and native Malay influences combine to create treats such as laksa, a coconut noodle soup, and nasi lemak, a coconut milk infused rice dish typically served with peanuts, curry paste, cucumber, anchovies, and a boiled egg. These two staples offer just a taste of the vast menu Malaysia has made its own. The country borrows liberally from Chinese and Indian cuisine, then adds its own unique spin that typically combines sweet, bitter, and spicy flavours.
A Retail Addiction
The local joke tells that when Malaysians aren’t eating, they’re shopping. It’s an exaggeration, but not by much! Kuala Lumpur’s retail culture impresses – from its high end boutiques, to gargantuan malls, to energetic market vendors baying for your attention (in between meals, of course!). Just as there are countless ways to eat in this city, you can shop at a pace and budget of your own choosing. Perhaps the most enjoyable way though, is with some help at your side. A local shopping guide can often steer you towards reputable vendors and even help you get bargains you won’t ever find in North America. If you’re after a more chaotic, but very authentic and enjoyable Southeast Asia experience, hit the open markets to haggle over that perfect item. If souvenirs are your goal, the historic Central Market is a safe bet, offering an array of higher quality items than those found on the street.
Icons of Malaysia
Many of Kuala Lumpur’s best attractions are found near Taman Tasik Perdana, or as is officially known now, Perdana Botanical Gardens. This stunning park is located just to the west of the city centre. Entering the park proper, you may want to spend a couple of hours meeting the colourful inhabitants of KL Bird
Park or KL Butterfly Park, but if you’re pressed for time, a stroll along the paths enjoying the Lake Gardens is just as rewarding.
The crown jewel of the precinct is the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia, a treasure trove of textiles, armour and weaponry, jewellery, costumes, calligraphy, and more, all telling the fascinating story of Islam’s spread across East Asia. Within walking distance is The National Mosque, which is worth a photo stop, particularly as it forms the spiritual heart of this amazing country.
To see these designs come alive in the present day, visit Petronas Towers, a two-pronged icon of modern Malaysia, completed in 1996. The most impressive views can perhaps be had from the ground, but the tour included with an observation deck ticket gives you an insight into the design process. You’ll learn about the ancient Islamic patterns used throughout the towers, which give them their unique shape and make the Petronas Towers not just two of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, but two of the most attractive as well.
While Islam dominates, Malaysia prides itself on diversity, and its approach to religion is no different. Kuala Lumpur’s most impressive spiritual hub can be found at Batu Caves, on the outskirts of the city. This active Hindu temple has been intriguing visitors to what’s now Kuala Lumpur for over a century. 272 steps ascend the limestone cliffs to the cave’s entrance, and don’t be surprised if playful macaques join you for part of the trek (Just watch your valuables, they aren’t timid!). The climb is rewarded with stunning views over Kuala Lumpur, and the chance to visit the temple itself. You can also take a tour of the Dark Cave, home to a range of unique underground fauna. The temple is dedicated to Lord Murugan, often called the God of the Tamils, whose 140 foot tall image dominates the base of the steps. Murugan however isn’t the only Hindu deity to be honoured at the site. Back on ground level, the Ramayana Cave houses dioramas depicting the story of Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of the god, Vishnu. Explore the walls around the cave to follow the tale, and if you still have some energy, climb the stairs to admire the unusual rock formations at the top of the cave.
I’d add many more photos to my shots of Petronas Towers after two days in Malaysia’s capital. They tell only a fraction of Malaysia’s story, one that continues through the Malacca Straits, Penang, the Cameron Highlands, and the magnificent beaches of Langkawi Island. However, for travellers wanting a Southeast Asia stopover rich with authenticity and light on tourist footprint, Kuala Lumpur makes an ideal first port of call.