With the establishment of Kuala Lumpur (KL to the locals) as the regional centre for budget air travel, the Malaysian capital is well on its way to becoming one of the most important hubs and entry points for visitors to South-east Asia. Air Asia is the biggest player, flying to 18 countries and 57 cities from KL's purpose-built LCCT (low-cost carrier terminal).
These routes include major cities such as Bangkok, Perth, Jakarta, Singapore and Hong Kong, but also Phuket, Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat), Bali and Ho Chi Minh City. As for KL itself, over the past few years it has undergone a massive transformation. A huge Manhattan-style mega-city of skyscrapers and futuristic shopping centres has grown up around the stunning Petronas Towers and the KL City Centre (KLCC).
Meanwhile, the city’s diverse ethnic blend is now, quite rightly, being openly celebrated on the streets of Little India and Chinatown. Throw into the mix a stable of world-class hotels – with rooms available at some very low prices – and a couple of days in KL, while en-route elsewhere, makes perfect sense.
*The truly breathtaking steel-clad 452m (1,483ft) Petronas Towers.
*The giant National Mosque, spiritual centre of this muslim nation.
*The excellent Islamic Arts Museum, with its superb collection of everything, from illuminated copies of the Koran through to Damascus steel daggers.
*The British-built railway station and offices, a unique mish-mash of onion domes, minarets and Victorian-era gothic splendour.
*Merdaka or Independence Square for further examples of British rule in the shape of the various colonial-era edifices.
*The soothing Lakeside Gardens.
*High tea at the Carcosa Seri Negara hotel, the former residence of the British High Commissioner.
*The Brickfields area, Chinatown and Little India, to experience the best of KL’s ethnic melange.
*The new administrative capital of Putrajaya, 25 miles away (public transport connects to here). Take in its giant boulevards and handsome contemporary buildings.
Changkat Bukit Bitang
KL’s most happening street is a short blast of lively eateries, bars and clubs. It attracts a mix of youthful expatriots and more liberal locals and is a great spot to meet, chat and eat. Explore a little further into the surrounding backstreets
and you’ll find more hidden nightspots, including the excellent and unpretentious jazz bar No Black Tie (noblacktie.com.my). There are also numerous tiny boutique guesthouses around here, while the shopping area of Jalan Bukit Bintang is just next door.
Contemporary Thai and Burmese food is served up in one of KL’s newest restaurants. Set in rustic-themed huts and amid lotus-adorned ponds, the vibe here couldn’t be more relaxed, though the jury is still out on whether dishes such as Thai Braised Lamb Shank with Green-Curry Reduction hit the mark. It still makes a fabulous spot
for an intimate date and, after dinner, you can try the attached futuristic Neo bar which is run by the same management.
With a new open-plan roof and recent refurb, Traders hotel’s very own Sky Bar is still upping the ante for the best bar location in KL. It is sited on the 33rd floor and allows you to sit in comfy, softly furnished, sunken booths, or gather around the bar to sup great cocktails, listen to funky tunes or take in the incredible views of the nearby Petronas Towers. This is one of KL’s most sought after watering holes – luckily they do table bookings should you want to guarantee capturing that picture-perfect night-time view.
Keep both adults and kids busy for an afternoon at KL’s impressive Aquaria. Recently expanded to include a giant 2.5 million-litre tank, complete with a 90m-long walk-through tunnel which is filled with tiger sharks, turtles and tropical fish. The Aquaria also houses tarantulas and piranhas. Feeding time for both is particularly popular. For a more bizarre experience, try the attached Aquazone therapy centre where Gurra Rafa fish from Turkey nibble away all the dead skin from your feet.
One of KL’s newest shopping centres, set on Julan Pinang road, Pavilion is a multi-level homage to conspicuous consumption. Start at the lower levels in the Gourmet Emporium food court and then work your way up through the endless parade of designer outlets, cinemas and various other bistros, until you reach the Seventh Heaven spa and salon on the top floor. If that’s not enough shopping, you can also try the streets around Bangsar.
Andrew Spooner is the author of Footprint Books’ Southeast Asia Handbook 2nd edition, out in October, price £16.99 (footprintbooks.com).
Insider’s secret: Caroline Filtzinger-Win Lwin, hotel manager
“At night, Jalan Alor street, just off Changkat Butik Bintang, offers the best spread of street food in Kuala Lumpur. The diversity of Chinese, Indian and Malay tastes is just amazing, the atmosphere is lively and friendly – many of the stalls stay open until 2 or 3am.”
How to get there
Andrew Spooner flew to South-east Asia with Etihad (0800 731 9384; etihad airways.com), which offers return fares from London Heathrow and Manchester to Kuala Lumpur from £494. Tropical Locations (0845 277 3310; tropical-locations.com) offers three nights in Kuala Lumpur from £798 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights with Etihad via Abu Dhabi, private transfers, B&B at Traders, and a complimentary drink at the Sky Bar. Upgrade to the colonial-era Carcosa Seri Negara hotel for an extra £269 per person.
Tourism Malaysia (tourismmalaysia.gov.my)