48 Hours In: Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia’s vibrant city in the jungle is becoming one of Asia’s biggest crossroads thanks to the arrival of the new ‘ Superjumbo’ A380, says Simon Usborne.
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Why go now?
"KL" is coming into its own as a stopover for travellers en route to Malaysia's tropical islands of Penang, Langkawi and Borneo, or to Australasia. Malaysia Airlines has just stepped up its service from London with the arrival of new A380 "Superjumbos" as it tries to turn KL into Asia's biggest crossroad for tourists, just as the city used to draw merchants from all over the globe.
Chinese tin miners, Indian migrants and British colonists all helped to shape this hot, noisy capital in the jungle, and each has left its mark on streets of crumbling architecture and skyscrapers, the symbols of the KL's more recent oil riches. National Day (31 August) and the F1 Grand Prix (March/April) are good times to come, while a busking festival gives a more tuneful soundtrack in December.
Malaysia Airlines (0871 423 9090; malay siaairlines.com) has the only direct link between the UK and KL. Daily flights from Heathrow start at £719 return. The international airport is 45 miles south of the centre, 30 minutes by train (RM35/£7) to KL's Sentral Station (1). By road, the journey takes twice as long and costs RM75 (£15) in a taxi or RM10 (£2) by bus.
Get your bearings
Sentral Station (1) is the hub for the city's transit network. A futuristic monorail winds north and east towards Bukit Bintang (2) and Bukit Nanas (3) stations, serving KL's "Golden Triangle" of malls, markets and famous skyscrapers, the Petronas Towers (4), and the KL Tower (5). Little India lies further north near Chow Kit station (6). The red Putra line, meanwhile, connects Sentral (1) to Merdeka Square (7) in the old colonial quarter, as well as Chinatown, a short walk or taxi ride east of the vast Lake Gardens area. Journeys on the transit network are easy and cost as little as RM1 (20p), making it the best way to get around the city, not least to avoid the paralysing rush-hour traffic. When things flow, short taxi rides should cost less than RM10 (£2).
I stayed at the high-rise Shangri-La Hotel (8) at 11 Jalan Sultan Ismail (00 603 2032 2388; shangri-la.com), one of many relatively reasonable five-star international hotels in the city. Doubles start at RM1,044 (£209) per night including breakfast and use of the hotel's delightful pool.
Sarang Mas (9) on Jalan Pudu (00 601 2333 5666; sarang vacationhomes.com) is a highly rated bed and breakfast in a 1920s house in bustling Bukit Bintang. Rooms in the shared house start at RM230 (£45) for a double including breakfast.
Dorm rooms in KL can cost as little as RM12 (£3) per night. The Backpackers Traveller Inn (10) at 60 Jalan Sultan is well located in Chinatown (00 603 2078 2473; backpackerskl.com).
Take a view
The 452m-high twin Petronas Towers (4) were the tallest buildings in the world when they opened in 1998, and they still dominate. Gawp at a striking, if not altogether pretty, city from the Skybridge that links the towers, and an observation deck near the top (9am to 9pm, closed Mondays; RM80 (£16) for both. My tip: the observation deck or kitsch revolving restaurant up the KL Tower (5) (kltower.com.my; 9am to 10pm daily; RM47/£10). Daredevils take the quick way down during an annual base-jumping festival (27-30 Sept this year).
Take a hike
You'll need patience and cold drinks to survive a walking tour of KL, where three-lane highways seem to spring from nowhere. Keep things compact by starting at Merdeka (independence) Square (7), a rare patch of green that was a cricket pitch before the Brits got bowled out of Malaysia in 1957. It's dominated by the copper-dome-topped Sultan Abdul Samad Building (11). Learn more about the city's past at the excellent City Gallery (12) at the southern end of the square (klcitygallery.com; free; daily 8am to 6pm). Then head east over the Klang River to the Art Deco façade of the covered Central Market (open daily 10am to 10pm). Batik, jade and other handicrafts compete today with tourist trinkets. Pick up an ice-blended drink at the Iz Jeruk tropical fruit stall (RM3.50; 70p) to sip on as you walk on to Jalan Petaling (13), the heart of KL's sense-assaulting Chinatown.
Lunch on the run
Pop two stops up the Putra line from Pasar Seni (14) to Dang Wangi (15) before the short walk to Yut Kee (16). The breezy, family-run café opened here in 1928, serving peculiar British-inspired dishes such as pork chop (served with potatoes and frozen veg). I had roti baba (RM8; £1.60) a delicious pocket of bread stuffed with shredded pork, onions and Worcestershire sauce, washed down with kopi peng: the best iced coffee you'll ever drink.
Whether or not you want to blow your ringgits in Prada, you should take in one of KL's refrigerated malls to get a sense of a city built on global commerce. The biggest is Suria KLCC (17), at the base of the Petronas Towers (4), home to a vast food court, cinema and concert hall. Labels are cheaper than in London, but not radically so.
Take a short walk from Suria KLCC (17) across the KL City Park to Traders Hotel (18) (shangri-la.com/kuala lumpur/traders) and head up to the 33rd-floor SkyBar (daily from 10am to 1am, or to 3am on Fridays and Saturdays). I watched the sun set on the Petronas Towers beside the hotel's pool while sipping a bowcut, a gin and pomelo-based cocktail (RM32; £6.50). Call ahead to book a good table (00 603 2332 9911; www.skybar.com.my).
Dining with the locals
Plunge back into KL at the street food stalls and cafés that line Jalan Alor (19) in Bukit Bintang. I started at Fat Brother Satay with skewers of octopus, chicken and mushroom dipped in fearfully spicy chilli sauce (RM15 or £3 including a bottle of Tiger beer). At Cu Cha, I washed down some Chinese pork belly with lin chee kang, a delicious chilled lychee drink that came with floating quail eggs. (Trust me, it's good.)
Sunday morning: go to the mosque
Malaysia is a Muslim state and KL has dozens of mosques. The largest and most peaceful is the modernist National Mosque (20). Between prayers, suitably dressed tourists (purple gowns are available) can explore a monument to modern Malaysia (9am-noon; 3pm-4pm; 5.30pm-6.30pm), where Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism thrive.
Out to brunch
Dash from the mosque to the outdoor Tanglin food court (21) on Jalan Cenderasari, where cafés vie for post-prayer trade. Take what you fancy or walk out back to find a chaotic, nameless barbecue. Before I could think about ordering (by pointing) I was given a plate of delicious grilled stingray with chilli and a chilled barley drink (RM12; £2.50 for both).
A walk in the park
By now, you're already in KL's central Lake Gardens, a vast, verdant relic of British rule and a free refuge from concrete and steel. After a stroll around Perdana Lake, continue your circuit to Bird Park (22), billed as the "world's largest free-flight walk-in aviary", to pose with parrots and watch ostriches lay eggs (open 9am-6pm daily; RM48 (£10) for adults, 38 (£7.50) for children.
Finish your exploration of the area in and around Lake Gardens at the under-visited Islamic Arts Centre (23) where the architecture alone is well worth the entrance fee. Quietly built in the same year as the thrusting pseudo-minarets of the Petronas Towers, the four floors of whitewashed walls surround a glass-sided inverted dome through which light pours – perfect for perusing all the scrolls, embroidery and dazzling bejewelled swords (10am-6pm daily; admission RM12/ £2.50; iamm.org.my).
Icing on the cake
Get out of town on the KTM Komuter line, seven miles north to Batu Caves (trains run every 30 minutes and take 30 minutes; returns RM4/80p). Almost 300 steps lead to a labyrinth of limestone caverns and Hindu shrines. Watch monkeys take shortcuts up the cliffs as you climb (7am to 7pm daily; admission free).
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