14 April 2019－Three things strike me immediately in Kuala Lumpur: size, money and food.
If you want to see Malaysia’s capital city in all its glory, keep looking upward. Just be careful or you’ll land on your face – the sidewalks are a bit uneven.
I arrived in KL, as it’s commonly called, at the beginning of July. I went to Sabah to explore the Kinabatangan River and returned to KL a couple of weeks later. In that short time, the glass was up on a skyscraper next door, and an entire shopping mall had been demolished to make way for an even larger one.
The second thing that grabbed my attention was shopping… brand names… shiny gold storefronts... I’m not quite sure what to call this: unbridled consumerism?
Everywhere I looked in KLCC – Kuala Lumpur City Center – I saw easy opportunities to be parted from my cash: an overwhelming selection of eateries (being cash-parted in this way is always a pleasure); more designer shops in a single mall than in all of Zurich or Geneva; and more malls in a single city square block than I have within a two-hour radius of my house in France.
And finally, the food. It's beyond delicious, and as diverse as you could hope for, with its Chinese, Indian and Malay heritage. But more on that shortly.
Kuala Lumpur, or KL as it's often called, is a large city so you may not be exploring every corner. The good news is that it's a safe city for female travelers, with one exception: petty theft. Don't let your belongings become a target because snatch and run is all too common.
That said, there's enough to keep you busy for days if you'd like, or just a day or two if you're simply stopping over on your way to Penang or one of the tropical islands Malaysia is so well-known for. Here are some of the most popular must-sees.
KL is proud of its size. Let’s not forget that until 2003 the Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world. They were put on the map (at least for me) by Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones’s heart-stopping skywalk aerobatics in the action movie Entrapment.
The Towers still stand impressively tall and majestic but these days they’re only the tallest twin towers in the world. Surely, though, they’re the most stunning.
If you want to head up to the observation deck and view the city from above, get yourself a skip the line ticket because the lines can be quite long.
While we’re on the topic of size, no visit to KL would be complete without swinging by the 8.2 hectare Merdeka Square and its giant flagpole. At 95m it may not be the tallest in the world (that distinction goes to Azerbaijan’s 165m Palace of Nations flagpole and a few others close behind) but it is strikingly high.
Dataran Merdeka, as the square is called, occupies a major place in Malaysia’s history: this is where the British colony of Malaya became independent in 1957 and where the Union Jack came down for the last time, to be replaced by the new country’s flag. Each year, Malaysians converge here on 31 August to celebrate the event.
Shopping lies at the heart of Kuala Lumpur - it really is hard to resist the combination of sales, variety and welcoming staff.
The most luxurious shops are to be found in Suria Shopping Mall, right next to the Petronas Towers. It is a feast for the eyes, and the air conditioning provides a welcome respite from the tropical heat.
To stay cool and still shop, follow the intriguing underground path that leads from Suria’s basement, past the KL Convention Center and the Aquarium, up the escalator, into an aerial tunnel and through to the Pavilion Mall, which has (only slightly) fewer designer goods than Suria and some great eating.
Instead of using the foot tunnel, you can walk through KLCC park to the KL Convention Centre, a really nice if sweaty 10-minute walk. You get great views of the Petronas Towers and of the attractive As Syakirin Mosque (currently being refurbished).
Don’t feel like walking from KLCC to the Pavilion? Take one of the free buses parked outside KLCC: just ask one of the valets strategically positioned at the KLCC street entrance.
Not all shopping is on this massive luxury scale, however.
Take the lovely Central Market, an interesting Art Deco building filled with small shops and souvenirs and an acceptable Thai restaurant on the top floor. After a few hours of sightseeing in the heat and humidity – KL’s temperature is hot all year-round – you’ll welcome the air conditioning. (Much of my sightseeing in KL was dictated by a mixture of cool air proximity and guilt at the energy waste of air conditioning).
The building itself is interesting and was originally built as a market in the 1880s by the then British administration. It is a protected Heritage site now, a status that has already saved it from destruction. For some reason it reminded me of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar – just a feeling because they don’t look anything alike and the bazaar is huge by comparison. But the bustle was there.
Chinatown is where you’ll head if you’re hungry – unless you dislike extraordinary Chinese food. Start on Petaling Street and search for the narrow alleys that lead off it. Here are a few Chinatown food recommendations by someone who knows. (And if you're celiac, there are plenty of gluten-free food options in Kuala Lumpur).
It’s busy and packed with tourists and locals and people who look so bewildered they might have wandered in by mistake. Once inside, though, it’s difficult to tear yourself away from this busy place.
It’s a pretty heady scene and not great if you hate crowds or are in any way squeamish.
Beware: the chicken dish you order may be grabbed live from beneath the counter and butchered right then and there for you. It’ll definitely be fresh.
If this isn't quite your scene, or you don't have enough time to wander all over town or if you'd rather have the best morsels selected for you, try this half-day walking food tour with guides who love what they do - all you have to bring is your appetite.
You can also get some serious (though questionable) shopping done in Chinatown, like one of these "absolutely authentic" $3 ICE watches.
"Little" is the key word here - adjoining Chinatown is Little India, a handkerchief-sized neighborhood in which you’ll forget you’re not in India, at least for a few minutes. You’ll find plenty of cheap goods, saris, cloth and food. Walk around and enjoy but don’t blink or you might miss it.
As is happening in Georgetown, Penang, there’s some very cool street art popping up around central KL. Once dull buildings on Jalan Tong Shin, Tengkat Tong Shin, Changkat Bukit Bintang and Jalan Alor are now painted with stunning murals depicting vibrant Malaysian jungle and wildlife scenes.
With these Kuala Lumpur attractions you will have seen the "main" sights but if you have a bit more time, here are some wonderful things to see and do.
If your time is really limited and you simply cannot organize things on your own (it happens to me often when I'm just passing through a city), consider taking a Kuala Lumpur city tour or a small private or group tour to see some of the sights.
Kuala Lumpur may be tall and just a bit bombastic but it is energetic and friendly, the food is divine and the people who live here are rightly proud of their city. There’s something human about its gigantic size, more so than Bangkok or Hong Kong in my personal opinion; perhaps it’s the distinctive neighborhoods and the diversity of the city's population.
The city stands apart from the rest of the country, vastly different from, say, Penang or Borneo or the islands. But there's no denying its modern fast pace, a true Asian city. It's not to everyone's liking, but to me it's one of the more welcoming cities in the region.
Whatever the reason, KL is a city worth visiting - at least once, if you’ve never been, and probably again simply because you'll like the city.