When I got off the sky-train at my stop in China Town in Kuala Lumpur (referred to as “KL” by most travelers), my initial impression was economic divide. I was struck by two contrasting sights: an emaciated beggar, and the view of modern glass skyscrapers behind him. These two views, opposite poles of the economic spectrum, stayed imprinted in my mind. My visit to Kuala Lumpur was the discovery of everything in between. This city shows off the finest Malaysian achievements and celebrates its recent independence from Western rule, while containing the gritty, raw nature of local city life.
Its economic power is obvious with its massive skyscrapers flashing Malaysian banking logos. Another thing is obvious too – its commitment to modern Muslim life. Banks such as Maybank and CIMB offer Islamic Banking, which is banking without interest, prohibited in Islamic law. Mosques can be found everywhere, and urban design is often an homage to Islamic art, such as the star shapes in the columns of the Petronas Towers. After chatting with locals and visitors, I learned that Kuala Lumpur is a common destination for Muslim immigrants, and I discovered that most western foreigners living in the city with whom I spoke were Muslim. Malaysia is thought of as a role model for modern Muslim countries. For this reason, Kuala Lumpur is an important city to see, experience, and learn about modern Muslim life.
Despite the Muslim culture, Hinduism is also on fine display, as well as Indian culture and cuisine. Combined with its center for international business, tourism, and its modern transportation system, Kuala Lumpur is an eclectic and exciting city with a ton to explore. It offers a variety of museums and public parks, fine dining, China Town and Little Indian, and historic sites, that will keep the traveler busy and entertained. This is one city to spend some time in.
Surprising Discoveries –
- Putting your feet up is rude! Feet and shoes in general get a lot of attention – you need to take off your shoes when entering residential domains (this is true for most Asian countries)
- Pointing with your index finger is rude. You’ll see Malaysians pointing with their thumb instead
- People eat with their hands! I observed professionals in business casual digging into hot wet curry with their hands. According to someone I met, some locals think eating with utensils that others have had in their mouth is less clean than using your own hands
- “Kuala Lumpur” means “muddy confluence”, named after the intersection of the Gombak and Klang rivers
Brief History –
Kuala Lumpur originated as a tin mining city developed by the Malay Chief Klang, Raja Abdullah bin Raja Jaafar. In 1857, he hired Chinese miners to open tin mines in the area, and in 1859, the first tin from these mines was exported. For the next thirty years, the city experienced ups-and-downs due to the fluctuating price of tin, gang wars which led to the city getting burned down in 1872, a civil war caused by a fight for tin revenues, and even a cholera outbreak.
The city was benefited when, in 1880, the British colonial administration (which ruled the Malaysian Peninsula) decided its government buildings and living quarters should be located in Kuala Lumpur. Improvements in the city were led by British Resident Frank Swettenham, who ordered the construction of inflammable brick and tile buildings, and streets be made wider to reduce fire risk. Soon a brick industry began in the city, and now the eponymous Brickfields is a small town outside of KL. Another new commodity that fueled the city’s expansion was rubber, driven by the demand for car tires. These commodity industries attracted capital, immigrants and businesses, some of which were now relocating from Singapore to KL. In 1896 the city became the capital of the newly formed Federated Malay States. The population increased from 30,000 in 1900 to 80,000 in 1920.
On January 11th, 1942, KL was captured and by the Imperialist Japanese Army. The city itself experienced little damage, but the death toll rang high – at least 5,000 Chinese were killed and thousands of Indians were sent to work on the Burma railway, where many of them died. The city was returned back to British rule when Japan surrendered in 1945.
In August of 1957, after local pleas for independence from Britain, the Federation of Malaya gained its independence from British rule. The Union Jack was lowered and the Malaysian flag was raised for the first time on the midnight of August 30th, 1957. Six years later, the city became the capital of Malaysia (although the capital later moved to Putrajaya in 1999).
In the time since independence, the city has grown and modernized, most notably with the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, built in 1996. Its business district is in the top 10 business centers in Southeast Asia. There are also ambitious development plans in the city, including a 2,238 foot tower – over 50% taller than the Petronas Towers - estimated to be complete in 2018-2019, named Warisan Merdeka, or Heritage of Independence in English.
If you are an architecture fan, you'll also love exploring KL
Sites and Experiences –
China Town –
Kuala Lumpur’s China Town earns every aspect of the reputation of China Towns. It’s a few city blocks that are pedestrian only and filled with outdoor vendors selling knock-off designer clothing and glasses, trinkets, and cheap food. China Town is also where there are a lot of hostels and home-stays. I stayed in China Town, and while it was cheap, it was smelly and dirty (pungent curry wafted through the hallways of my hostel, and rats were easy to find). This is one of the least comfortable places I stayed, but it’s a common neighborhood for travelers to stay since it is where the hostels are. I have spoken to friends who found hostels they love, which are located close to China Town too. If I go back, I’ll definitely look for options outside of China Town.
Night Market –
On weekend nights, a few main streets right by China Town turn to pedestrian-only, and a busy night market opens up. This is one of the best night markets I’ve been to in all of SE Asia! It felt local and authentic, and I loved the variety foods, such as fruit, grilled sea food and meat, and Indian desserts. Definitely check this night market out if you are in KL on the weekend.
The Petronas Towers and KLCC (KL City Center) –
The Petronas Towers are one of the most famous symbols of KL. Completed in 1996 and made famous in the 1999 movie Entrapment with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery, these are now the tallest twin towers in the world. The Petronas Towers are a superb demonstration of global cooperation: the towers were designed by an Argentine, the structural system is designed by an American Bangladeshi, the west tower was built by a Japanese consortium, and the east tower by a South Korean consortium. The design of the towers is also an example of Malaysia's celebration of Islam - cross sections of the tower are based on the Muslim symbol Rub el Hizb, which is represented as two overlapping squares.
On the bottom of the Petronas Towers is KLCC, a massive high-end mall.
Right outside the mall is KLCC Park, a small park with a pond that offers some pretty reflections and photo opps of the Petronas Towers and the skyline.
KL Tower –
This space needle is 1,381 feet tall, making it the 7th tallest freestanding structure in the world. I went to the top to check out the views. It took me more than a few minutes to get comfortable walking around the top, as the views gave me some vertigo. The tower was fun to check out and a great way to see views of the whole city and beyond. They also have a glass walkway that juts out over the ledge, where you can take pictures. I went against all my instincts and ventures out onto the glass.
Batu Caves –
These caves are just outside the city, on the last stop of the KTM Komuter line (the red line). The Batu Caves get their name from the word “batu”, which means “rock”, and contain about 20 limestone caves, believed to be formed about 400 million years ago. Around 2 kilometers of caves have been surveyed. One cave features a Thaipusam Hindu temple, which was founded in 1891. Thaipusam celebrations occur in late January or early February and often attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the caves.
In the 1940s, the concrete staircase was made, which contains 272 steps from the ground to the temple. It’s one exhausting climb. There are also tons of macaques jumping around and trying to snatch food out of tourists – a fun by slightly stressful site.
Next to the temple cave is the dark cave, which is home to rare animal and insect species. These caves are among the earliest to be studied in Southeast Asia. The British began studying them in 1896, and later in 1929, a detailed study of the caves' topography and fauna was published, which was the first attempt to describe a tropical cave.
There are about 200,000 bats that live in the cave and more than 250 species of invertebrate. There are also species that live nowhere else in the world, such as the Trapdoor Spider. I took a “hardhat” tour of the dark cave. In addition to the hardhat, we also got small flashlights. Our guide was great – he pointed out tons of interesting species. At one point, we all turned off our flashlights to experience absolute pitch black.
Next to the temple cave and dark cave, there is another cave featuring sculptures and dioramas of Hindu gods and stories.
Being an Extra in a Malaysia Movie –
There’s a film industry in Kuala Lumpur, and they often look to hostels to get non-Asian extras. On my first night in Kuala Lumpur, the guy who works at our hostel asked if I wanted to be an extra for RMN 200 (a little less than $50 USD). “Yes!” I replied! The next morning, a guy picked us up along with some other folks and took us to a little warehouse on the side of the highway. “This looks totally legit and not sketchy at all” I sarcastically said to my fellow talent in the car.
Sure enough, the warehouse was filled with sets and props. We waited nearly the whole day to do our filming and were supplied lunch, coffee and snacks. Other nationalities of the “talent” were Venezuelan, Hungarian, American, Italian, Bulgarian, Palestinian, Nigerian, and Namibian.
The movie was about a Malaysian man who left Malaysia in his 20s to travel the world. We were in a scene in which he was on a sinking ship and was the only survivor. The crew had constructed a hallway that looked like a boat hallway. The hallway was suspended by cranes above. During the scene, we needed to run through it frantically, while the crew rocked the hallway back and forth, so on the inside, it looked like water was rocking it. I couldn't ask for a better Malaysia movie debut.
The Perdana Botanical Gardens –
These gardens, situated on 226 acres of land, offer a peaceful respite to the loud and grimy hustle of the city.
Little India –
Little India, located where the brick industry once was, is a delightful street of indian shops and restaurants. I joined some folks I met from the Batu Caves and had a tasty Indian meal, complete with a mango lassi and Indian desserts.
National Museum –
This museum covers everything from anthropology to modern history with artifacts and multi-media exhibits. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning all about Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia.
Merdeka Square –
Originally a cricket green made by the British, it is in this square where, on the midnight of August 30th, 1957, the Union Jack was lowered and the Malaysian flag was raised. Hence the name Merdeka - or Independence - Square. The flag pole is massive and reaches 312 feet. Bordering the square are historic buildings such as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, which was completed in 1897 for the offices of the British Colonial Administration. It now houses the Ministry of Information, Communication, and Culture of Malaysia. Also bordering the square is the KL City Gallery and the Textile Museum.
Textiles Museum –
The only free museum in the city! At least the only free one I went to. I did a quick walk through this museum. It showcases - you guessed it - different traditional Malaysian and ethnic clothes and fabrics.
KL City Gallery –
The highlight of this gallery is the massive scaled model of Kuala Lumpur. Behind the scaled city is a projection where they show a movie about KL with a ton of interesting stats. Different parts of the city light up. I really enjoyed this 'show' - it was something different! Headquartered in the museum is a small company that manufactures KL building replicas. There's a viewing area where you can see people making them. The museum entrance costs MYR 5, but they give you a voucher for MYR 5 for the gift shop, so it's not a bad deal.
The Royal Palace –
I just saw this palace briefly from a distance. I decided to take a hop-on hop-off bus around the city, which turned out to be a great way to see a lot of the neighborhoods. This shot was from the upper deck of the bus.
What's the Damange -
Malaysia is CHEAP! It is actually the country in which I have spent the lowest amount per day. You can get a lot of food at outdoor "hawker" restaurants, where there is often a buffet. After piling on food, I was often surprised to find out the whole meal, including a drink, was less than $4 USD. Below is my cost per day in KL.