Visa rules are probably one of the biggest bugbears of expatriates. As annoying as it is to have to run around to immigration offices and visit embassies overseas, it’s also a great excuse for a city break. With easy tourist visas for most nationalities and being much cheaper than Singapore, Kuala Lumpur is a great choice for a visa run, mixed with a little break from routine.
You’ve probably passed through the city at some point before and hit up all the standard tourist spots. I’m going to assume you’ve got your shots of the rainbow stairs at Batu Caves, taken in the skyline from the Petronas Towers’ Skydeck, and took a dash of culture at the National Mosque and National Museum. If you’ve not had a chance to visit these yet, they definitely belong on an itinerary, but here we’re going to look at some of the lesser-known sights, spots, and skyline views.
I used to accuse Kuala Lumpur of having no soul when I first backpacked and transited through here a few times, back in 2011. Having lived there before decamping to Indonesia, I fell in love with the quirkiness after scratching just a little deeper under the surface.
Yes, this is a very well touristed part of town. You can still get under the skin of the area a little more with a little insider knowledge and find some little gems. The food here is fantastic; the Chinese built KL in the 1860s and have been cooking up a storm ever since.
Laksa is one of the many dishes Malaysia is famed for. Find Madras Lane, battle your way down the alleys chopping up the chicken carcass and weighing out bok choy, hang a right when you smell spices, and you’re entering a little bit of heaven. There are three laksa stalls, the one in the middle is considered the best. Take a seat down the alley and slurp up the bright brown deliciousness, served with chicken, pork, tofu, or vegetables.
Now it’s time for dessert. Stumble your way back out to the main market of Petaling Street and head to the crossroads. There’s a stall plying Tau Foo Fa, super silky tofu floating in brown or white sugar syrup. It’s something like school dinner custard, and since its tofu, I promise you that it’s healthy.
Duly sated, it’s time for some temples. Sin Sze Si Ya temple is one of the oldest in the area, thick with incense and lined with old Chinese men folding prayers and keeping diligent watch. One of the old guys might invite you to sit and learn about your Chinese horoscope, dusting off old almanacs from the creaking shelves. For good luck, you need to go crawl under the main altar before the year’s out.
Still technically Chinatown but with a much lighter feel, Pasar Seni is where to head for some retail therapy. Odds are you’ve probably been here before, but the stalls change up and there’s always something new and quirky inside or outside on Jalan Hang Kasturi. The alleys inside the market are themed with the cultures of the nation – Malay, Chinese, and Indian – watch closely and you’ll notice a change in lanterns and floor tiles.
Room for more delicious food? Grab some pulut, sticky rice steamed in bamboo, and sit down for some people watching at the food shacks outside.
If you’re staying in the area or fancy venturing this direction in the evening, there’s a speakeasy not to be missed. I can’t give too much away, but you need to contact The Deceased through their Facebook page, @thedeceasedkl, to get directions and the secret access code. The concept of the bar is to inject some fun into the horror genre, and every cocktail served from the apothecary cabinet has a cool and sometimes heart-stopping twist that will keep you moving down the menu in equal measures of fear and joy.
KLCC and Bukit Bintang
The glistening beacon of Kuala Lumpur is most definitely the Petronas Towers. They stand proudly in the heart of the commercial district, flexing their shiny steel to all comers. Stroll just a few hundred metres away and you’ll find yourself in Kampung Baru. The area is slowly shrinking due to encroaching development but there’s still plenty of character to be found.
Awaiting your discovery are the old wooden stilt houses; there’s still a small community vibe even with the symbol of Malaysian modernisation right behind them. The food here is traditional Malay fayre, too. Not too dissimilar to what you’ll find in an Indonesian warung, you’ll find curries, fried chicken, and very decent rendang as you roam the city village.
Chow Kit market is a local place where you’re not going to find elephant pants and football shirts. The main market is a standard Asian wet market, and all around are food stalls and shacks selling wonderfully vibrant snacks and vegetables. This area is a photographer’s dream and offers a real slice of city life in KL.
It seems that everyone goes to sky bars in KL, and with a gorgeous metropolis all around, its little wonder really. The original SkyBar at Traders’ Hotel has very annoyingly positioned window frames that really detract from the view of the towers. Instead, head to Vertigo at the Banyan Tree around sunset to get a wider vista over the city and the perfect selfie with the towers.
Looking for more excitement? It’s time for dinner at the Super-Boring Club. They’ve taken the Korean barbecue concept smashed together with Japanese sides along with a tapas twist. The ambience oozes coolness and has plenty of funky touches to make sure any kids you have in tow will be satisfied too.
When you need to walk off all the food you’ve consumed, make your way down to the River of Life. It’s somewhere in between Chinatown and Bukit Bintang and a relatively new addition to the city – you may have seen it getting developed on previous trips – and now it’s open in all its glory. The light shows are mesmerising and you get to take in different angles to the red-and-white colonial buildings of the area too.