Sampling street food in Jalan Alor, haggling for handbags in Chinatown, soaring to the top of the Petronas Towers and negotiating your way around endless traffic and building works are all part of the mix that makes up Malaysia’s capital city Kuala Lumpur, or KL as it’s more commonly known.

Driving in from the airport the first thing that surprised me was how green it looked. Either side of the highway were forests, often filled with vast palm trees looking lush and well watered. Not that surprising once you’ve been in Kuala Lumpur for a day or two as sudden downpours are a regular feature and mostly welcome as a relief from the heat and humidity.

The second thing that became quickly apparent was that this is one of the more well off Asian countries. The standard of the highways themselves is testament to that, as are the numerous malls that make Kuala Lumpur a shopper’s paradise.

Petronas TowersFood and shopping are definitely up there with the top reasons to visit as sights are not extensive. The top attraction is undoubtedly the magnificent Petronas Towers, a sort of hybrid of New York’s fallen twin towers and Chrysler building. The visit to the Petronas is very good although if you’re travelling with others tickets are best bought there in person as online you can only get one at a time. And unless you’re up for an early start they’ll most likely be for later that day or the following one.

Slots are allocated so only a small group is up there at a time meaning plenty of space for admiring the city views and taking photos from both the sky bridge that links the two towers and from the top, 452m above ground. Before that a rather futuristic safety briefing is given via a lady on a hologram, which must be pretty advanced as even a Japanese tourist video recorded the whole thing.

At the base of the towers is the home of the philharmonic orchestra as well as Suria KLCC, a vast mall of shops on five floors. It literally has everything you could want with familiar brands and local offerings, but I found it just a bit too unnervingly similar to being in Canary Wharf or Westfield in London.

imageOther sights worth seeing include Merdeka Square, where independence from the British was declared in 1957 and is marked by an enormous flagpole. The huge square was originally home to a very English cricket pitch.

Also in the square is the colonial Sultan Abdul Samad building topped with copper plated cupolas, as well as St Mary’s cathedral which was built in 1894 and is more like a parish church. The Kuala Lumpur City Gallery has a large scale model of the city which is impressive, but it seemed the only way to see it was as part of a slightly strange multimedia show which was mostly in the dark.

A short walk from here and you’re in Chinatown where Petaling Street is home to the famous night market. Dozens of well stocked stalls feature a multitude of fake designer goods including watches, clothes and handbags. It’s worth having a root through, some of them are surprisingly good quality and price negotiation is fully expected. The Central Market is also a good place for browsing and cheap eats in the food court.

imageJust south of here check out the Old China Cafe in Jalan Balai Polis for Nonya style food in an atmospheric old guild hall filled with interesting photos and antiques. Also in Chinatown is the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Jalan Tun HS Lee. It’s the oldest Hindu shrine in Malaysia and has a wonderfully distinctive tower covered in brightly coloured statues.

As well as a large number of Chinese residents there are also many Hindu Indians in the country, but pretty much all Malays, who make up over half the population, are Muslim. Not far from Chinatown is the beautiful and serene Masjid Jamek mosque and also Masjid Negara, the less attractive but huge national mosque. Both can be visited outside of prayer time and the latter is on the edge of Lake Gardens, an oasis of greenery within the city. It’s home to the Islamic Arts Museum, a bird park, butterfly garden and the lake that it was named for.

Completely in contrast to this is Bukit Bintang, a busy area crammed with hotels, restaurants, bars and shops. We stayed there at the Anggun, a colonial style boutique hotel in Tengkat Tong Shin that was created from two old shophouses and has antique style wooden furniture and a rooftop restaurant for breakfast.

imageOne street over is Jalan Alor which from early evening is lit with Chinese lanterns and lined with stalls and restaurants selling a vast array of delicious street food. Plastic tables and chairs are the furniture of choice and beer seemed the only drinks option, but at £10 for food and drink for two at Wong Ah Wah we weren’t complaining.

At the top of Jalan Alor is Changkat Bukit Bintang, a street that is filled with bars and restaurants. It’s fun and can be a bit full on, but we found a nice upstairs terrace at Twenty One Kitchen & Bar where you can watch the scene below at a safe distance. Just around the corner in Jalan Berangan is Albion KL, an altogether very different restaurant which offers fab British food and wonderful cocktails in a stylish, contemporary setting.

Getting around Kuala Lumpur is pretty easy if you avoid being in a car or bus and stick to your feet or public transport that goes above or below ground. The monorail is very good for sightseeing and easy to use as is the Light Rail Transit (LRT) and the KTM Komuter trains. The latter is the best and cheapest way to get out the Batu Caves, a trip worth doing to see the Hindu place of worship. Check out my post about the caves here.

The biggest downside to Kuala Lumpur is the heavily congested streets with traffic that fails to flow whatever the time of the day and the large amount of construction work. Some of it is to expand the transport system so will eventually be completed, but quite a lot is buildings and from what we were told that’s an cyclical situation. Buildings go up, get neglected and come down again. Some being rebuilt now only went up in the 1980s.

That aside Kuala Lumpur is a great place to kick off a trip to Malaysia and I think there’s more than enough to keep you occupied and having fun for at least a couple of days.

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