Known to savvy travellers and gap yah students as just ‘KL’, Kuala Lumpur frequently appears as little more than a stopover in many travellers itineraries. Read on to find out why you might want to spent a few days here in the future!
We’ve just arrived in KL, and it’s way past midnight. A taxi has dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, we’re dripping with sweat already and I’ve just trod on an enormous locust- and then some angry dogs started chasing us. A huge rat crossing the road did little to settle our nerves, before we finally made it to the Yellow House and slept our way into sweaty jetlag oblivion. It’s fair to say that my introduction to Kuala Lumpur had a less than auspicious start, and that the city had a lot of making up to do!
The Petronas Towers
The icons of KL are the Petronas towers, great pillars of metal and glass that thrust high into the misty humidity of the city, and they are truly spectacular. There is a very expensive mall (think Western designer goods) attached to it, as well as a pretty good aquarium, though again entry is expensive. More skyscrapers are being built in the area, so I imagine that as the Malaysian economy develops in the coming years, the Petronas Towers zone will become even more impressive. The gardens around the towers are delightful, with a surprising amount of wildlife dotted around including Orioles and the huge Lyssa Zampa moth (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-27758640). If you are struggling with the humidity (as we were), the gardens feature shallow swimming pools that whilst probably designed for tourists, made a refreshing break for us all. It’s an undoubtedly pretty part of Kuala Lumpur, though the unerring levels of cleanliness and near-military attention of the groundskeepers makes it feel a little sanitised.
If you want to really explore Kuala Lumpur though, you must leave the air conditioned malls behind and head out into the wider city. My favourite part of the city is Chinatown, because it is so radically different to anywhere I’ve been before. Red lanterns and various cultural motifs somehow add decor to narrow streets lined with vendors selling everything imaginable, a lot of it definitely illegitimate. It’s a thrilling experience though, and haggling badly with seasoned Chinese hawkers to avoid the tourist tax is all part of the experience. The seedy side streets are even more exciting, but god knows what they sell down there! I vividly remember unidentifiable animals being chopped into pieces left and right, the occasional chicken wandering around, food waste pooling in the alley- but it’s all part of the experience. Whilst I had serious tunnel vision at the time, it felt like a bit of an adventure at least. The actual food in the area smells amazing, and I bet the street food is seriously, seriously good, though food hygiene might not be much of a thing. There are some beautiful Chinese temples nearby too that are well worth a visit, whilst you never know what you might find in some of the pet shops (the fact that they wouldn’t let me take photos explains a lot).
There is a lot to do in KL if you plan it well enough, with the Batu Caves not far away, various museums and the like. For me though, the real secret to Kuala Lumpur is the food. It’ll blow away any asian food you’ve had in the UK- it really is incredible. Seriously tasty (sedap!) and most definiely spicy, the cuisine is like a fusion of indian and chinese dishes, with their own distinct Malay twist on everything. It’s quite cheap coming from the West too, but so, so worth it. Satay in KL will redefine the word delicious for you, and some of the world’s best Chinese restaurants can be found in the city. Lastly, I went to a very posh restaurant in the previously mentioned KLCC Suria restaurant, and nearly spent a kidney for tiny portions with waiter service. Worth it? Absolutely not. Eat where the locals eat! The best meal I’ve ever had was in Ipoh, where a huge range of exquisite vegetarian curries were served on banana leaves, and you were of course expected to eat with your hands. It was amazing. I paid about £5 for what in the UK would have been a £40 platter. Bargain! Just try it! I recommend Nasi Goreng, whilst Beef Rendang and Nasi Lemak are also firm favourites. Drinks wise, go for a milo ice- you won’t regret it.
Kuala Lumpur is definitely more than just a stopover, but the city’s small size and good transport system (use the LRT!) means you can still tick things off pretty quickly. I think it’s fair to say that there are more exciting cities in the region, but KL has its charms. I’m not a citiy person, and KL isn’t my favourite city, but it’s still a relatively cheap city to visit, and to be honest I’d come here just to eat, as I love the food. It’s a good place to acclimtise to the South East Asian humidity too, but just remember that if you can feel air con, then you probably aren’t exploring Malaysia properly, are you?
Pods KL (http://podsbackpacker.com/)
I really like this hostel due to it’s location right next to KL Sentral. There are private rooms and shared dorms at a good price, the decor is refreshing and there is a bar to chill out at. The staff are also lovely and are more than capable of pointing you in the right direction for an adventure- or providing candles for an emergency birthday cake!
Yellow House KL (http://yellowhousekl.com/)
It’s simple, no frills accomodation at an even cheaper price, but it is also part of a much bigger project under an amazing social entrepreneur named Shyam. If anyone knows the real Kuala Lumpur, it is her, and make sure to take part in the brilliant homeless hairwashes they do to get a deeper understanding of the city. You can take part in all manner of empowering projects here- well worth a look!