Kuala Lumpur, the bustling metropolis of Malaysia, is a place where past and present coexist at a crossroads of many cultures.Story: Matt Lauer lands in Kuala Lumpur
Literally translated, Kuala Lumpur means “muddy estuary,” hinting at its humble beginnings as a tin-mining town in the 1850s. Today, the concrete jungle rubs shoulders with buildings from the city’s colonial past. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to begin colonizing Malaysia, followed by the Dutch and then the British, who ultimately controlled the territory.
The city’s colonial history is most prominently marked at Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square). Once a cricket pitch, it was here that the Union flag was lowered and the Malaysian flag raised for the first time on Aug. 31, 1957, to mark the country’s independence from British rule.
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Many visitors to Southeast Asia skip Kuala Lumpur, mistakenly thinking the Malaysian capital too moderate an experience and preferring instead its more cosmopolitan neighbor, Singapore, or the affordable and seemingly more illustrious Thailand. But the city manifests its truest and most vivid colors in its culturally diverse population of 1.7 million.
It is often said that Malaysia is made up of Malays, Chinese and Indians, and each group is far from homogenous. The Malays might include the Bugis from the coastal area of Sulawesi and the Acehnese from Sumatra, Indonesia; ethnic Chinese groups like the Hakka, Teochew and Hokkien; and Indians who identify as Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims.Video: A look at KL's diversity (on this page)
Inhabiting a place with such a mélange of histories, customs, traditions, religions, cuisines, arts, languages and dialects, the locals have learned how to navigate their cultural differences, and sometimes even blend them together, mixing two, sometimes three languages together in conversation.
A striking view
Outsiders most likely recognize Kuala Lumpur for the Petronas Twin Towers, which soar 1,483 feet in the air. Built in the heart of the capital on what used to be a racecourse, the towers serve as an icon of Malaysia’s modern ambitions, defining the landscape of the city in postcards, tourist T-shirts and Hollywood. (The 1999 film "Entrapment" is one of many movies that featured them.)
From 1998 until 2004, the 88-story towers were the tallest buildings in the world. Designed by the architect Cesar Pelli, who also designed London’s Canary Wharf and Manhattan’s World Financial Center, the two towers are linked on the 42nd floor by a double-decker skybridge. The bridge is held firmly in place by enormous bearings, which allow the tower to remain flexible in the face of strong winds. For $3, anyone can take a walk across the bridge, though it is closed until December 2011 as upgrades are made to the structure.
If it’s a panoramic view of the city you’re looking for, a better lookout is the Menara KL, a tower that is also home to a revolving restaurant, from which you can see views of the city 1,381 feet above ground. Skybar and Luna, swanky rooftop hotel bars, offer great alternatives, too.
Kuala Lumpur's diversity has meant that it can be a city for every kind of traveler: from the backpacker on a budget to the tourist looking for a five-star experience. A visitor can shop at colossal malls like Pavilion, Mid Valley, Starhill Gallery, or seek out independent designers in the affluent expat community of Bangsar. Go for cheap toys and trinkets at any of the ubiquitous pasar malams(night markets) or in Chinatown, which is marked by arches with green roofs at both ends of Petaling Street.
Visitors can escape the busy city at the Lake Gardens, the Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve (where the Menara KL is located) and the 50-acre park at Suria KLCC, which is at the foot of the Petronas Towers. Most famously, there is the Batu Caves, which feature a Hindu temple where many flock each year to witness the Thaipusam religious celebrations.Video: Visit the sacred Batu Caves (on this page)
Eat your way through KL
At its core, however, Kuala Lumpur is most authentically experienced through its food. You can eat a good meal and have a cool drink for as cheap as 5 ringgit (just a little more than a dollar) at a shopping stall where DVD pirates try to tempt you with the latest movie releases, or at a market stall where frogs in cages wait to be served up on a plate.
Many locals start the day by sipping white kopi, a coffeeroasted in margarine. A dollop of sweetened condensed milk gives the drink its creamy color. Nasi lemak, a fried egg paired with white rice steamed in coconut milk and wrapped in a banana leaf is a popular breakfast dish.Video: Try Malaysia’s delicious coconut sticky rice (on this page)
In the afternoon, the air grows heavy and humid. A common lunch consists of Assam laksa noodles, which are soaked in a tangy fish broth and garnished with shredded pieces of mackerel, cucumber and onions topped with a pinch of mint, making them at once sweet, sour and spicy.
In the balmy evenings the beat of the city changes as the clubs and bars of Bukit Bintang, Bangsar and Jalan P. Ramlee pulse well into the night before dwindling to a low, steady hum. This is when “KLites” gather with friends at mamak stalls peppered around the city that stay open 24/7 serving Tamil-Muslim fare. Here, partygoers wind down over a cup of teh tarik (“pulled” tea), its name derived from the process of pouring the liquid back and forth from one container to another to give it its frothy texture. Roti canai, a square, flaky bread torn and dipped in a variety of curries, makes an excellent nightcap snack.Video: Tea time! Kuala Lumpur’s tea-pouring ritual (on this page)
Thanks to its mamak shop culture, Kuala Lumpur is truly a city that never sleeps, and eating is a celebrated activity. It is not unheard of for the locals to make a day of it, drifting from one hawker or market stall to another as they gossip, talk politics, or whoop and groan at the TV screen when a soccer match plays out.
Kuala Lumpur might not be the biggest and brightest star in the region, but that's part of its charm. As the economic, social and cultural capital of Malaysia, it is definitely worth visiting.
Emily Ding is a Malaysian freelance writer based in London. See more of her work here.Story: It's a Snap!
If you go...
What to see and where to shop
Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), Jalan Raja Laut
Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur City Centre, +60-3-2051-1320
Menara KL, 2 Jalan Punchak, +60-3-2020-5444
Skybar, Hotel Traders, Jalan Pinang, +60-3-2332-9888
Pavilion KL, 168 Jalan Bukit Bintang, +60-3-2118-8833
Starhill Gallery, Starhill Gallery 181, Jalan Bukit Bintang, +60-3-2782-3855
Bangsar Shopping Centre, T117A, Bangsar Shopping Centre, +60-3-2094-7700
Chinatown, Jalan Petaling
Imbi Market, Jalan Melati
Pudd Market, Between Jalan Yew and Jalan Pudu
Where to eat
Yut Kee, 35 Jalan Dang Wangi (Popular kopitiam, especially good for coffee and roti babi)
Sek Yuen, 313 Jalan Pudu (Known for roast duck and fish head dishes)
Chef Low at Lucky Garden, 2 Lorong Ara Kiri 3, Bangsar (Dishes include sweet and sour pork and pumpkin fried with salted egg)
Carcosa Seri Negara, Taman Tasik Perdana/Lake Gardens, Persiaran Mahameri, +60-3-2295-0888 (Hotel that offers traditional Malay cuisine as well as English afternoon tea)
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