Malaysia: A weekend in Kuala Lumpur

By Simon Usborne

Simon Usborne takes a two-day tour around Malaysia's crowded and vibrant capital.

Kuala Lumpur's Merdeka Square is dominated by the copper-dome-topped Sultan Abdul Samad Building. Photo / Thinkstock
Kuala Lumpur's Merdeka Square is dominated by the copper-dome-topped Sultan Abdul Samad Building. Photo / Thinkstock

WHY GO NOW?

'KL' is coming into its own as a stopover for travellers en route to Malaysia's tropical islands of Penang, Langkawi and Borneo.

Chinese tin miners, Indian migrants and British colonists all helped to shape this hot, noisy capital in the jungle, and each has left its mark on streets of crumbling architecture and skyscrapers, the symbols of KL's more recent oil riches. National Day (August 31) and the F1 Grand Prix (March/April) are good times to come, while a busking festival gives a more tuneful soundtrack in December.

TOUCH DOWN

Malaysia Airlines has flights between New Zealand and Kuala Lumpur. The international airport is 72 kilometres south of the centre, 30 minutes by train (RM35/NZ$13.80) to KL's Sentral Station. By road, the journey takes twice as long and costs RM75 in a taxi or RM10 by bus.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Sentral Station is the hub for the city's transit network. A futuristic monorail winds north and east towards Bukit Bintang and Bukit Nanas stations, serving KL's 'Golden Triangle' of malls, markets and famous skyscrapers, the Petronas Towers, and the KL Tower. Little India lies further north near Chow Kit station.

The red Putra line, meanwhile, connects Sentral to Merdeka Square in the old colonial quarter, as well as Chinatown, a short walk or taxi ride east of the vast Lake Gardens area.

Journeys on the transit network are easy and cost as little as RM1, making it the best way to get around the city, not least to avoid the paralysing rush-hour traffic. When things flow, short taxi rides should cost less than RM10.

CHECK IN

I stayed at the high-rise Shangri-La hotel at 11 Jalan Sultan Ismail, one of many relatively reasonable five-star international hotels in the city. Doubles start at RM1044 (NZ$412) per night including breakfast and use of the hotel's delightful pool.

Sarang Mas on Jalan Pudu is a highly rated bed and breakfast in a 1920s house in bustling Bukit Bintang. Rooms in the shared house start at RM230 for a double including breakfast.

Dorm rooms in KL can cost as little as RM12 per night. The Backpacker's Traveller Inn at 60 Jalan Sultan is well located in Chinatown.

DAY ONE

Take a view

The 452m-high twin Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world when they opened in 1998, and they still dominate. Gawp at a striking, if not altogether pretty, city from the Skybridge that links the towers, and an observation deck near the top (open 9am to 9pm, closed Mondays).

My tip: The observation deck or kitsch revolving restaurant up the KL Tower (9am to 10pm daily). Daredevils take the quick way down during an annual base-jumping festival (27-30 Sept this year).

Take a hike

You'll need patience and cold drinks to survive a walking tour of KL, where three-lane highways seem to spring from nowhere.

Keep things compact by starting at Merdeka (independence) Square, a rare patch of green that was a cricket pitch before the Brits got bowled out of Malaysia in 1957. It's dominated by the copper-dome-topped Sultan Abdul Samad Building.

Learn more about the city's past at the excellent City Gallery at the southern end of the square (free; open daily 8am to 6pm).

Then head east over the Klang River to the Art Deco facade of the covered Central Market (open daily 10am to 10pm). Batik, jade and other handicrafts compete today with tourist trinkets.

Pick up an ice-blended drink at the Iz Jeruk tropical fruit stall to sip on as you walk on to Jalan Petaling, the heart of KL's sense-assaulting Chinatown.

Lunch on the run

Pop two stops up the Putra line from Pasar Seni to Dang Wangi before the short walk to Yut Kee. The breezy, family-run cafe opened here in 1928, serving peculiar British-inspired dishes such as pork chop (served with potatoes and frozen veg). I had roti baba, a delicious pocket of bread stuffed with shredded pork, onions and Worcestershire sauce, washed down with kopi peng: the best iced coffee you'll ever drink.

Window shopping

Whether or not you want to blow your ringgits on Prada, you should take in one of KL's refrigerated malls to get a sense of a city built on global commerce. The biggest is Suria KLCC, at the base of the Petronas Towers, home to a vast food court, cinema and concert hall.

An aperitif

Take a short walk from Suria KLCC across the KL City Park to Traders Hotel and head up to the 33rd-floor SkyBar (open daily from 10am to 1am, or until 3am on Fridays and Saturdays).

I watched the sun set on the Petronas Towers beside the hotel's pool while sipping a bowcut, a gin and pomelo-based cocktail. Call ahead to book a good table (00 603 2332 9911).

Dining with the locals

Plunge back into KL at the street food stalls and cafes that line Jalan Alor in Bukit Bintang. I started at Fat Brother Satay with skewers of octopus, chicken and mushroom dipped in fearfully spicy chilli sauce. At Cu Cha, I washed down some Chinese pork belly with lin chee kang, a delicious chilled lychee drink that came with floating quail eggs. (Trust me, it's good.)

DAY TWO

Sunday morning: Go to the mosque

Malaysia is a Muslim state and KL has dozens of mosques. The largest and most peaceful is the modernist National Mosque. Between prayers, suitably dressed tourists (purple gowns are available) can explore a monument to modern Malaysia (9am-noon; 3pm-4pm; 5.30pm-6.30pm), where Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism thrive.

Out to brunch

Dash from the mosque to the outdoor Tanglin food court on Jalan Cenderasari, where cafes vie for post-prayer trade. Take what you fancy or walk out back to find a chaotic, nameless barbecue. Before I could think about ordering (by pointing) I was given a plate of delicious grilled stingray with chilli and a chilled barley drink.

A walk in the park

By now, you're already in KL's central Lake Gardens, a vast, verdant relic of British rule and a free refuge from concrete and steel. After a stroll around Perdana Lake, continue your circuit to Bird Park, billed as the "world's largest free-flight walk-in aviary", to pose with parrots and watch ostriches lay eggs (open 9am-6pm daily).

Cultural afternoon

Finish your exploration of the area in and around Lake Gardens at the under-visited Islamic Arts Centre where the architecture alone is well worth the entrance fee. Quietly built in the same year as the thrusting pseudo-minarets of the Petronas Towers, the four floors of whitewashed walls surround a glass-sided inverted dome through which light pours - perfect for perusing all the scrolls, embroidery and dazzling bejewelled swords (open 10am-6pm daily).

Icing on the cake

Get out of town on the KTM Komuter line, 11km north to Batu Caves (trains run every 30 minutes and take 30 minutes). Almost 300 steps lead to a labyrinth of limestone caverns and Hindu shrines. Watch monkeys take shortcuts up the cliffs as you climb (7am to 7pm daily; admission free).

- INDEPENDENT

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