Kuala Lumpur is, above all, a city of contrasts.
The capital of Malaysia is an interesting mix of the historic, traditional Asia and the modern, hip Asia. Its ethnically diverse population of Malays, Chinese and Indians has produced a cultural and aesthetic richness – and the resultant architecture, art, food and other influences will enchant the visitor.
Kuala Lumpur is known throughout the world for its iconic twin buildings, the Petronas Towers. At 1,453 feet, they were, from 1996 to 2003, the tallest buildings in the world. Arrive early and pick up free tickets to visit the skybridge.
The nearby Menara KL, the second-tallest freestanding building in the world, is said to offer a better view than the Petronas Towers. Its tiles, floral patterns and colorful decorations represent the country’s Islamic heritage.
There are many other futuristic, architecturally cutting-edge buildings throughout the city, but Kuala Lumpur has not discarded its past in its quest to modernize. Historic Moorish and Moghul buildings are dotted throughout the metropolis, and ancient mosques and temples abound. The British colonial buildings of Dataran Merdeka hearken back to a different era. A huge cricket field adjoins the Victorian-era square.
Enjoy a memorable sight emblematic of Kuala Lumpur by standing opposite the Jamek Mosque at night and taking in the Petronas Towers, all lit up and soaring toward the sky like twin beams of light. The mosque is particularly impressive at night and presents a striking view from the adjacent elevated monorail stop.
The tension between the contemporary and the traditional reveals itself in a variety of forms. Many women in KL have their faces shrouded in burkas, but others are donned in modern, colorful fashions. Within a block of my hotel, Starbucks offered free WiFi next to streetside stalls and eateries serving traditional local fare. People here eat with their bare hands (right hand only, please) and fingers.
Kuala Lumpur has a multitude of interesting sections and enclaves worth exploring. The commercial center is a cosmopolitan, contemporary district with enough shopping options to satisfy the most ardent shopaholics. You can easily navigate the large shopping district designed for pedestrians, Bukit Bintang.
There are also plenty of parks and green spaces to allow urban dwellers and travelers an opportunity to relax. Complete with a bird park, deer park, butterfly park and orchid garden, the Lake Gardens is a pleasant spot to encounter a selection of Malaysian plants and animals. Nearby Bukit Nanas features an urban tropical jungle. This green belt lowers the city temperature during the hot summer months.
The Central Market, National Museum and a bustling Chinatown present opportunities to experience Malaysia’s culture and history. The Islamic Arts Museum has one of the best art collections in Asia. It is also generally much less crowded than other world-class museums such as the Louvre or Prado.
A hop-on hop-off bus tour with narration in English can orient you to the different sections of the city. In the latter parts of the day, however, this tour can slow to a crawl. KL traffic is not quite up to Bangkok standards, but it’s close at rush hour. Find out in advance how to get to the hop-on hop-off bus nearest your hotel and schedule accordingly.
KL has a modern elevated monorail similar to Bangkok’s. As with Bangkok, I would recommend booking your hotel near the monorail or trains (known locally as the LRT). These are the quickest, cheapest and most efficient ways of getting around the city. Find out beforehand how to get where you’re going – not everyone you approach for directions will know English. Advanced preparation can save you time and headaches.
Kuala Lumpur is a stopping-off point for the rest of Malaysia, a country of diverse natural beauty. I didn’t have time to see much of Malaysia outside of KL, but I met several travelers from Australia and the U.K. who offered strong recommendations for exploring the country further. It’s a country off the beaten tourist track and is replete with beautiful scenery, friendly people and inviting beaches.