Kuala Lumpur (KL) has come a long way since its early days as an old mining town. It has become vibrant and lively with its sprawling network of roads and illuminating skyline which bear all the hallmarks of a city that beautifully exploded in development much sooner than expected.
An honest local will tell you it is a bit of a wild adventure to navigate around the place sometimes. Walking is a weirdly democratised game, a natural consequence of ignored pedestrian crossings, rare pedestrian overpasses and irregular traffic lights. It is a sport everyone plays, where excelling is necessary to survive some of the madcap drivers on the road.
The only thing everyone recognises from Malaysia. The world’s tallest at the time of construction, today it has settled for being the tallest twin towers in the world. Image taken from: http://bit.ly/1ulRagF
These are the idiosyncrasies we have a fond love-and-hate for. Bus rides are intensely a local experience and the light rail system is pleasantly chuggy and gets you from A to B – avoiding the rush hour (rule of thumb: everything’s better outside of rush hour). The cabbies circle you like vultures, then fleece you on the fare – but haggle yourself a good price, sit in and get a colourful first-hand lecture on Malaysian politics and society.
In fact there is nothing about this city you won’t enjoy more with an honest local to point the way for you. The city’s pleasures are not its tourist attractions – although there are plenty to enjoy in some of those too – but its hidden gems, like Easter eggs. And as with Easter eggs, having someone in the know will help you find them.
In some respects KL is really several smaller towns or districts in one, each with its own distinct personality. We have the trendy, up-and-coming Bangsar, the supposed heart of local activism and site of many newer malls. There is Brickfields, home to the ever-popular banana leaf-variety of restaurants in Malaysia and the city’s de facto Little India. Koreans have a little corner of their own over at Ampang, a somewhat suburban escape from the city centre; Chinatown hunters should head over to Petaling Street. Closer to the centre, Old Town is always worth a nice stroll for its retro throwbacks. Nearby, the Golden Triangle area is a haven of shopping malls and posh hotels; overlooking the city are the Petronas Twin Towers – the city’s most selfie-mandatory building and a nod to beautiful modern Islamic architecture
Malaysia is more of a feast for the tongue. Give the fancy, tourist trap-restaurants a skip and pick any nondescript shop at random – odds are you’ll get something pretty tasty, for pretty cheap. The traditionalists say that the plainer the shop, the better the food. Such are the benefits of the countries inherently rich cuisine that you don’t have to get it perfect to get it great.
However, if it’s the very best food you want, grab a friend. A definitive list of the best eats in the city remains elusive, although with a great hand at Googling and a few been-around buddies you might cobble together something that comes close – for a while. Shops close or move, new joints try their luck in the field and sooner or later you have the pleasure of wandering round again to pick your favourites.
At its heart, the city is at that beautiful point between growing up and growing old. Old mainstays – the generation-old family-run hawker stalls, the noisy multilingual markets, the forest reserves – hold strong at their corners. Meanwhile, new seeds begin to dot the centre: the Instagram-worthy hipster cafes, the enterprising fusion cuisine-eateries and the innovative bungalow-based shops.
Best of all, the night owls who fancy a midnight dine-n-drink need not resort to bars. Plenty of establishments stay open late – chief amongst them the mamak stall, Malaysia’s best never-exported cultural institution run by the Indian Muslims of the country. Think pubs with better lighting, sometimes later hours, no alcohol and way more food – all for a steal. It’s for post-work sundowners and early-morning football matches; for late evening shisha sessions and midnight munchies; for a quick chill away from the always-wet, always-summer climates of the region.
It is quite possibly the closest we have to a microcosm of the city. And KL, from its packed centre to its suburban and semi-rural fringes, is the closest we have to a microcosm of the country.