Malaysia's urban legend

By Mike Yardley


Steamy, dynamic, multicultural Kuala Lumpur is luring an ever-increasing number of Kiwi visitors, whether it be for a Europe-bound layover or a bite-sized city break ahead of an exotic Asian adventure.

From the wispy smoke of joss-sticks in Buddhist temples, to the sizzling satay at kerbside food stalls, KL serves up a sensory feast. Slightly more orderly than Bangkok and nearly as neat as Singapore, the lush, leafy Malaysian capital boasts some head-turning architecture. The star attraction is the dizzying stainless-steel masterpiece, the Petronas Towers.

Rising to a height of 415m, the 88-storey twin towers remain some of the world's tallest buildings. Their detail-rich exterior is based on an eight-sided star that echoes Arabesque patterns. Islamic influences are also conspicuous, with the towers' five tiers representing the five pillars of Islam, crowned by masts imitating minarets.

To see Petronas at its shimmering best, catch it at sunrise or sunset from the ground-level sanctuary of KL's city centre park. Spend a stolen hour in this serene spot, which comes complete with fountains, technicoloured tropical flora and a lavish adventure playground.

Another essential experience is to head up Menara Tower, which, despite being eclipsed by Petronas, still offers the city's highest cinematic skyline view. As much as the cityscape resembles a sheet of steel stalagmites, traditional Malay and British colonial architecture speckles the streets. The Brits opted for Moorish/Mogul-inspired design in many local buildings, best exemplified by Merdeka Square, home to the likes of the Royal Selangor Club and the Sultan Abdul Samal Building, with its striking copper-plated cupolas.

Another crowd favourite is the National Palace, guarded by soldiers in fine silk attire. If you've cash to burn on designer labels, head to Starhill, home to every top-end fashion brand.

In the spirit of KL's melting-pot roots, the bustling districts of Little India and Chinatown are shopper and foodie magnets. Petaling St is a 24-hour retail haven, with traders hawking all manner of bargain-priced goods - and genuine fakes. The elaborately decorated temples and shrines will give you a gilt-edged cultural fill, too.

Set aside some time for Central Market, billed as "Malaysia Under One Roof". Originally built in 1888 as a wet market, the cavernous building has been refurbished, with a themed-street layout and shops modelled on traditional Malay houses. The market features folk dancing, a huge variety of local culinary delights and dozens of souvenir and craft stalls. Stop by Art Lane, where you can admire batik painters and other local artisans practising their crafts.

When I mentioned to a colleague that I was tripping to Kuala Lumpur, she implored me to stay at her favourite Asian hotel, the Mandarin Oriental. I can now see why she was so effusive. Steeped in Asian tradition, this premium property sits comfortably at the centre of the action. Seamlessly blending the traditional with contemporary comforts, the hotel lays on elegance in spades. A cheerful ambience permeates the hotel and its hospitality is sparkling. Request a city view room for a panoramic vista across the city centre and the Petronas Towers, which are right next door.

Guest rooms feature luxurious furnishings, Nyonya gold-leaf screens, plush beds (complete with pillow menus) and all the high-tech toys imaginable. The hotel also boasts seven restaurants and bars, headlined by the award-winning Lai Po Heen, a Chinese manor-style restaurant. But my pick of the bunch is the playful Mosaic cafe, which serves a wide variety of local and international dishes from live cooking stations. I could have grazed all day.

If you're in need some "me time", The Spa takes pampering to new heights. But the hotel's signature asset is the pool deck, set amid a tropical garden. It's the perfect place to chill with a cocktail at sundown after taking a dip in the free-form pool that seems to float above KL's photogenic skyline. www.mandarinoriental.com/kualalumpur/

Top tips

Award-winning low-cost carrier Air Asia connects Kiwis to Kuala Lumpur, with direct flights out of Christchurch from just $274 one way (taxes inclusive). To bag a bargain fare and for  more information, go to www.airasia.com

Distil all of  Kuala Lumpur's essential sights by jumping  aboard the KL Hop-on Hop-off City Tour - a great-value, high-frequency service with on-board commentary. Pre-book online at www.myhoponhopoff.com

- THE AUCKLANDER

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