24 Hours in Kuala Lumpur

(Kaleidoscope, inflight mag of LOT airlines, Oct 2008)

One foot in the door of modernity and another firmly wedged in the past, and factored in the blessing of multiculturalism where Malays, Chinese, Indians and a new wave of regional immigrants living shoulder to shoulder, KL (as the locals call it) is a heady, sensory blast of truly Asia.

9:00 Rise and shine to the kopitiam (coffee shop) ritual. Give espresso a break; instead sip a cloyingly sweet and strong cup of local kopi (coffee) or cham (‘mix’ in Chinese), a blend of kopi and Ceylon tea. The third-generation run Yut Kee Restaurant on 35 Dang Wangi Street is one of the city’s few surviving old style kopitiam. The pre-War coffee house has the quintessential marble-top tables, mosaic floor and traditional green floral motif cups. Regulars lap up curry noodles, Hainanese chicken chop and roti babi (pork sandwich). But if you can’t deal with heavyweights at this hour, then have the classic roti bakar kaya, rectangular strips of toasted bread slathered with butter and house-made coconut jam.

10:00 Rise above the city at KL Tower (Menara KL), the fourth tallest telecommunications tower in the world. To reach the tower’s base, hail a taxi or pant up a steep road lush with tropical flora. Then an ear-popping lift ride beams you up another 276m to the Observation Deck for a spectacular 3600 panoramic view of the city and surrounding hills. You don’t need binoculars to spot the Petronas Twin Towers, but do get a close up of the Malaysian Houses of Parliament (to the west).

11:00 The streets get livelier later in the day. For now, head to Batu Caves, a famed Hindu shrine sheltered within limestone caves in the northern fringe of the city. Power walk up the flight of 272 steps to peruse the jagged stalactites and stalagmites and the vibrant, multi-limbed deities. Mind the resident monkeys; they love handouts of peanuts and bananas, though docile, they not always are. At the foot of the caves, recharge with roti canai (a type of fluffy flatbread) and teh tarik (frothy tea).

13:00 Located in a 1930’s mansion, the Top Hat Restaurant on 7 Kia Peng Street scores top marks for Nyonya or Peranakan (a blend of Malay and Chinese) cuisine. Get the friendly staff to explain how laksa nyonya differs from Penang laksa. Top off your meal with sago gula Melaka.

14:00 As the mercury rises, seek air-conditioned shelter in Suria KLCC, at the feet of the Twin Towers. Heavyweights like Tiffany, Armani, Chanel, et al. are housed in this retail Mecca. The local design heavyweight is shoemaker Jimmy Choo, whose sexy heels were worn by Princess Diana. The Sky Bridge, a walkway linking the Twins, is open to those who managed to snatch tickets at 8AM.

16:00 You must sample KL’s un-airconditioned life by thronging with the residents living out their days on the streets. At Masjid India Street, the spine of Little India, Indian jewelery and fragrant jasmine flower garlands mingle with Malay songkok (headwear), figure-hugging kebaya (a traditional dress) and batik cloths. On Melayu Street, pit your sweet tooth against the insanely dulcet Indian desserts at Jai Hind restaurant. Trailing south, you reach Masjid Jamek, a century old mosque, gloriously crowned with onions domes and minarets. More Moorish influences left by British architects can be sighted in the High Court and Sultan Abdul Samad Buildings. Pause at the Merdeka Square, the spot where the nation’s independence was declared in 1957.

18:00 Hop across the Klang River to the Central Market (AKA Pasar Seni), a store crammed with must-buy holiday memories. It’s touristy but you’ll be wanting to lug home many of the souvenirs. At L. Tham Trading, a personalized Chinese seal is ready to impress in 45 minutes. The silver-hued tea caddy, beer mugs and teapots of Royal Selangor Pewter are instantly recognizable truly Malaysian crafts.

19:00 The decibels rev up a few thousand notches in Chinatown. Pit your haggling skills (and smiles) against the traders of dodgy watches and “genuine fakes” on Petaling Street. This enclave is also a foodie magnet; scents of roast duck, loong yuk (barbeque pork slices) and a giddy assortment of temptations fill the air. At the junction of Petaling and Hang Lekir Streets, air mata kuching (a fruit drink) is great for hydration. Sense the mood change at Sri Mahamariamman Temple on HS Lee Street. Kick off your shoes and join Hindu devotees in receiving blessings from the priests. If you’re lucky, you might chance upon a wedding.

20:00 In Chinatown, the beautifully manicured milieu of Old China Café on 11 Balai Polis Street is great for nyonya nosh. Alternatively, make your way to Bukit Bintang (Star Hill), a mega malls and restaurants saturated zone. Instead of the glossy joints on Bukit Bintang Street, choose Alor Street for a truly Malaysian alfresco dining. Formerly a notorious lane, Alor Street is packed end to end with another kind of hookers – mouthwatering hawker food, from grilled chili stingray, blanched kankung (green veggie) and cuttlefish to char koay teow (fried noodles). A breath away is Changkat Bukit Bintang, where the row of upmarket international restaurants hooks the dressy set to chow the hours away on stylish patios.

22:00 Can’t peel yourself away from the city’s buzz? Then check into the centrally positioned Mandarin Oriental. Listed on Condé Nast Traveller 2007 Gold List, the “city view” rooms command a stunning vista of the sparkly Twin Towers. Some suites have baths with generous windows so that you never have to peel your eyes off the Twins as you freshen up. For serenity amid tropical shrubs, ferns and palm trees, slumber in Carcosa Seri Negara where butlers attend to your every whim. This hilltop boutique hotel by the Lake Gardens is housed in two colonial villas built in 1904 as the home of the first Resident General of the Federated Malay States. QE II stayed here in 1989. Lazing on the cushioned rattan chairs on the wide veranda with ceiling fans twirling overhead while uniformed staff ferry you cocktails is a taste of the nation’s colonial years.

24:00 Eyes wide open? Find fellow insomniacs on the club-pub terrains of Bangsar, P.Ramlee Street and the Heritage Row on Doraisamy Street. At the Traders Hotel’s rooftop Sky Bar, you bask in the glitters of the Twin Towers.

9.00 Fung Wong, a Chinese pastry shop on Hang Lekir Street (Chinatown), bakes all its goodies daily on premises. It has the best ever tan tart (egg tart), kaya kok (pastry with coconut jam) and char siew sou (savory meat pastry) that will have you scheming to return.

Info Box

Time: GMT+8

Language: Almost everyone speaks English and the lingua franca of smiles.

Currency: Malaysian Ringgit (MYR). Money changers are found in most shopping malls.

Getting around: The Light Rail Transit (LRT), monorail and KTM Kommuter get you within walking distance to the major attractions. Taxis are fairly inexpensive.

e-resources

travel.toursim.gov.my

www.timeoutkl.com

www.carcosa.com.my

www.oldchina.com.my

www.royalselangor.com

More than 24 Hours?

  • Go jungle tracking. To the north of the city is the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia (www.frim.gov.my), offering short routes and easy access to secondary forests. The Canopy Walk (advanced booking required) that perches 30m above ground is the perfect platform for introductory jungle immersions.
  • Get a Bufori (www.bufori.com), a bespoke car handcrafted in KL. This head-turning connoisseur-item marries the 1930s vintage appeal with state-of-the-art technology and creature comforts. Prior appointment is required for a tour of the showroom and production facility.

(Kaleidoscope, inflight mag of LOT airlines, Oct 2008)