Destination: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR (KL) represents something of a kaleidoscope of Asian life. There’s a diverse array of ethnicities with people of Malay, Chinese, Indian or various Western descent. And you can buy almost anything – from the latest gadgets and designer fashion to chicken feet soup and Starbucks coffee.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Tourists walk under colorful lanterns on display at a Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur. Pic: AP.

In recent years Malaysia‘s capital has become one of those cities of the future, with flyovers, skyscrapers and condominiums dissecting the skyline. Things seem rather grandiose and modern, but on the other hand it has retained much of its character with old colonial buildings and mosques rising between modern office blocks and vibrant markets such as in China Town or Little India.

A Day in the Life
As far as this writer is concerned, if you only had a few hours in KL you would go to Chinatown. It’s a great place to see some of the city’s traditional culture, sample some tasty food and enjoy a budget priced massage. Chinatown is an incredibly vibrant area packed with vendors selling noodle soup, sweet Malay coffee, DVDs, flowers, handbags and sunglasses at almost any time of the day or night. It’s also dotted with historic shop houses and various temples.

If you still have time in the city, it’s worth checking out some of KL’s impressive building projects. The twin Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world from 1996 to 2003. They soar some 88 storeys high (452m) and it’s possible to go to observation decks about halfway up. Alternatively, head to the observation deck on top of the Menara Tower (412m) for a bird’s eye view of KL. It’s the fourth highest telecommunications tower in the world.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

A tourist takes a photo in front of Malaysia's landmark Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Pic: AP.

Best of the Rest
Temples and other religious places abound in Kuala Lumpur, and a tour of these takes you through some of the religious and cultural influences that intersect the city. There’s the beautiful Masjid Jamek and enormous Masjid Negara, the stately St Mary’s Anglican Cathedral, the Taoist Sze Yah Temple and other Chinese temples, and the Batu Hindu temple built into the mountainside about 15km north of the city.

KL boasts a large Indian community and if you’ve never had the exposure to their culture or would simply like another taste, then you must visit the district of Little India around Jalan Jasjid India. There are plenty of shops selling saris, Indian silver tableware, perfumed oils, sandalwood oil, music and Bollywood films, and of course plenty of food. The major Indian festivals are celebrated here with gusto.

Hidden Gems
For some of the quieter, greener sections of town head to places like the Lake Gardens, towards the edge of the city centre. These 92-hectare gardens feature a lake where you can rent a boat, take a stroll, jump on a shuttle bus around the gardens or even join in the t’ai chi sessions. You could combine the Lake Gardens with a visit to the impressive Islamic Arts Museum nearby. The museum features models of famous mosques, calligraphy, textiles and carpets.

Accommodation

Casabrina

Luxury mountain retreats offer a peaceful alternative to city centre accommodation. Pic: Casabrina.

There is a wide range of accommodation available in KL from dormitories to guesthouses, B&Bs and luxurious international standard hotels. Budget accommodation centers mostly around Chinatown and Little India with dorm beds starting at about US$10. These can be noisy given their street-side location and the rowdy nature of backpacker life. For a little more privacy you will need to pay about US$15 for a private room, but you’re still looking at the bottom of the market.

There are some mid-range options in these areas as well but most of the hotels of this nature are located in the Golden Triangle district and cost about US$30. Prices just keep going up from here and there are plenty of luxury hotels for business travelers in the Golden Triangle also such as the Marriott and Regent, with every elegance you can imagine. Expect to pay  around and above US$100.

Find accommodation in Kuala Lumpur to suit your budget at Agoda.com

For those who prefer to escape to the countryside after a hard day’s sightseeing and shopping in the city, there are plenty of excellent accommodation options just outside Kuala Lumpur. Some of the best of these lie just north of KL in the foothills of Pahang. Eco-resorts like Casabrina offer affordable luxury in calm jungle surroundings at a fraction of the cost of their high-end counterparts just an hour away in the city centre.

Kuala Lumpur at Night
Dining – Eating in Malaysia’s cheap multi-ethnic market places, known as hawker centers, is a real delight. Tables are grouped together in a central area with the food stalls to one side. The food in Kuala Lumpur is cheap, tasty and you don’t need to worry about hygiene. For as little as RM 8-10 (US$2.50-3.50) you can get a big plate of rice, chicken and vegetables. The hawker centers also present a fantastic sense of community, with families running an eating-house or gathering to dine together as a unit.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Hawkers prepare foods for customers at a stall at Lot 10 Hutong food court in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Pic: AP.

Nightlife – If you want nightlife of the sparkling and more robust kind head to Bangsar to some sophisticated bars and pubs. You could also check out local papers or at the Tourist Information Centre for traditional dance and music performances. Most tourists tend to hang out in the pubs and clubs around Chinatown.

Retail Therapy
When you’re talking about shopping in KL, the question really is what can’t you buy here? This is a country that boasts some of Asia’s largest shopping malls (like Sungei Wang Plaza or Lot 10) so if you like to shop you’ve come to the right place. The enormous Central Market in the Chinatown area is a great place to pick up tourist-style souvenirs with plenty of batik clothing and bags, jewelry, knick-knacks, handicraft, antiques and art. You could also wander the streets of Chinatown or Little India to pick up some movies, clothing, perfume, shoes, food or even get a massage. A number of these outlets operate along Jalan Petaling and let you sit back sipping Chinese tea while fish nibble your flaky skin (fish massage) or you enjoy a pedicure or manicure.

Transport
Getting there & away – KL  has two airports, Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) which is about 75km south of the centre by road. There’s also the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) about 60-70km or roughly one hour from the city centre. LCCT is the hub of low cost carriers like AirAsia and Tiger Airways. There are excellent transport services linking the airports and taking you into the city to KL Sentral, the main bus and train station.

Buses are the cheapest mode of getting to KL Sentral and cost roughly RM 8-9 (US$3). There’s also a high-speed express train from KL  Sentral to KLIA if you want something a little classier (RM34 or US$12). At KL Sentral you will find taxis, light rail and local buses, as well as rail and bus links to major destinations in neighboring countries.

Getting around – If you’re in the city centre, public transport on the suburban train, light rail or local bus is easy to use and convenient, although sometimes you have to walk some distance from the stop to major attractions. There are only five suburban train lines and they are all independently owned without a central ticket system.

Locals and expats have their own transport (usually with a driver) or use the network of taxis. Taxis are relatively cheap but with frustrating traffic jams, accentuated often by flooding when the two annual monsoons hit, the price can go up and your patience will be tested.

Buses are the best way for getting around Malaysia. Most depart KL from Pudu Raya station near Plaza Rakyat train station.

For more information on traveling in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia, check out the Tourism Malaysia website.