KL has branded itself as ‘A City of Contrasts & Diversity’ Our first impressions were not good:37 degrees Celsius, 94% humidity, a strong smell of exhaust fumes even in the taxi heading into the city and traffic jams everywhere. However, once we had found our hotel, showered, changed, and then ventured out, we loved what KL had to offer.
We went in April and spent 4 hectic days based in the city centre. We did not have time to explore further afield which we would have done with a longer stay.
Magnificent 7 // KL, Malaysia
1. Climb the 272 coloured steps into the Batu caves
2. Get up close and personal at KL’s Bird Park
3. Take in the view from the Petronas Twin Towers
4. Explore the Islamic Arts Museum
5. Hunt for bargains at Petaling Street Market
6. Visit the City Gallery in Merdeka Square
7. Reflect at the National Monument
Getting there –
We flew from Hong Kong to KL, a flight time of 4 hours. The flight from KL to Gatwick was around 13 and a half hours plus a four hour stop in the middle of the night in Dubai. Gruelling.
Where we stayed –
We stayed at the Shangri-La hotel. Good brand with excellent service. We had a Horizon Club room and it was worth the extra money. Afternoon tea 3-5pm, followed by snacks and cocktails 5-7pm. We managed to get back most days for the latter and they were well attended.
To eat and drink –
KL is well known for its street foods, particularly nasi lemak (spicy coconut rice) which is considered the national dish of Malaysia and teh Tarik (hot milky tea). The most famous area for street foods is Jalan Alor which has stalls (and lots of tourists) on both sides of the road pretty much all day and night. There are also food trucks parked up on many streets. On our visits to the Petronas Towers we saw vans at the side of the road with long queues at lunchtimes.
As with all major cities, finding foods you like is not a problem.
To note –
- There is a city Hop on, hop off bus. Before you hop on, read Tripadvisor. We also met someone at the bird park who had been on it the day before, so here is our second-hand view. Owing to the traffic, it takes around 4 hours to complete a circuit (there are two different ones). That is without getting off the bus. No thanks, not in the pollution, heat and the humidity.
- Getting around KL is pretty straight forward. We walked a fair bit and took taxis. We even hired a taxi for the best part of a day to take us to some out of the way destinations. Most taxi drivers speak English, but if you are in a taxi all day, then it is important to find someone who can answer questions only locals can answer.
- There are massive above-ground walkways that enable you to navigate the city centre, cross over highways etc. These are well signposted and a great way to avoid the pollution.
- You will get hassled all the time with restaurant staff trying to shepherd you into their restaurants. It gets tiresome after a time, but it must work as so many restaurants employ people to stand in the way on pavements advertising their menus.
- As mentioned previously it can be very humid. Be prepared for the conditions.
- When getting a taxi you may be required to pay a small surcharge before you get into the taxi. This happened to us at the Bird Park.
Below are the top seven things we saw in KL. There were lots of other places we would have liked to have visited, however time was against us. Hopefully this list gives a flavour of some of the things that can be sampled in KL.
1. Climb the 272 coloured steps into the Batu Caves
Situated in limestone hills to the north of KL, these caves are very popular. There is a massive golden statue of Lord Muruga that dominates the entrance to the caves and there is a 100-year-old Hindu temple as well as idols, shrines and statues inside the main cave. It is colourful; very muggy in the caves and there are a lot of very intelligent monkeys who are adept at stealing food and water bottles from unsuspecting visitors. We entered the Hindu temple at the base of the stairs and the interior is breathtaking. It is all free to enter and is simply a must-do when in KL.
2. Get up close and personal at KL’s Bird Park.
You would think this was something that was OK to do if it could fit around other things. Well, it was fabulous! It is the world’s largest walk-in, free-flight aviary. It was, in our opinion, one of the best things to do in KL. There are lots of options to spend money in the Park, however wait until you get to the parrot enclosure. For 2 ringgits (circa 40p) you can get a tub of milk/nectar and the birds will happily perch on your arm and drink, leading to great photo opportunities. What we liked was the space (around 20 acres) in which the birds were able to fly around. Only the birds of prey and ostriches we felt needed more room.
The KL Bird Park is situated in the scenic and extensive KL Lake Gardens where there is also a number of excellent activities including KL’s Butterfly Park, Perdana Botanical Garden, an Orchid Garden, gentle walks and various Museums. You can easily spend a day exploring the Lake Gardens. If you are getting tired, look out for the electric buggies driving around that will take you to any destination in the park for a modest price.
3. Take in the view from the Petronas Twin Towers.
These are currently KL’s main iconic buildings and must be the most photographed buildings in the capital given how many tourists are there every night and the number of men that are also there selling wide-angled lenses to fit over an iPhone lens. We took a pre-booked tour. Cannot say it was worth the money, but this is one of the things KL is known for. It is a well-organised tour where you are taken up in groups wearing colour-coded passes. First stop is the lower adjoining bridge. The second stop is the 86th floor for further photo opportunities. There are also a few fixed binoculars to get a close-up view of the city sights. You will be delighted to know that there will be a photo souvenir of your visit to be viewed in the gift shop. Not our thing. Overall an OK tour.
What is great is the free display of ‘dancing’ fountains held at 8pm and 9 pm at the back of the Suria shopping centre next to the towers (go through from the small fountains at the front of the towers, into the shopping centre and then through the back of the shopping centre in the direction of the KLCC park). It lasts about 15 minutes, has some awful Titanic music, but was pleasant to watch if this is your thing (not mine, but my wife loved it).
4. Explore the Islamic Arts Museum.
This is a fascinating museum. I particularly liked the Architecture Gallery showing models of important Islamic buildings such as the Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, various mosques, the Taj Mahal etc. There are galleries for the Malay World, China and India as well as a separate gallery for manuscripts showing versions of the Qur’an. Other galleries include jewellery, ceramics, weapons etc. An interesting collection of Islamic arts from around the world.
5. Hunt for bargains at Petaling Street Market.
This is in Chinatown and is my type of thing. Yes, it is it full of knockoff goods, and no, we should not encourage this blatant ripping off of brands and designs that companies have spent decades building. But it is there and if you cannot afford the real thing, then I guess in a small way you are helping to advertise the product by wearing the brand in question. A spurious argument I know, but it’s the best I have!
Rule number 1 is haggle. You are doing everyone else a dis-service if you pay what they ask. A rule of thumb is to offer slightly less than half their first price and do not split the difference. If they ask 200 and you counter with 90, they will come down to 175, go up to 92, try and pay a maximum of half of what they originally quote. Locals will pay significantly less than this. Rule number 2. Be prepared to walk away. There will be another stall just along the way with similar goods. This market is colourful and a great way to spend a late afternoon or evening.
6. Visit the City Gallery in Merdeka (Independence) Square.
Best described as a curate’s egg. Firstly, a number of guidebooks say that a walking tour starts there at 9 am on Monday, Wednesday and Saturdays. We turned up, as did a few other tourists, to be told that the walking tours stopped in 2018. Lonely Planet’s guide needs an update! The Gallery itself has some wonderful historical information, however its main exhibit, a sound and light show over a scale model of the city, was awful. Very poor graphics, no link to the sights being described and moved from page to page on a PowerPoint presentation before anyone could read all the information on the page. The gallery is probably worth an hour of your time before exploring the buildings on Merdeka Square.
7. Reflect at the National Monument.
This historical sculpture is dedicated to the people who laid down their lives in the fight for Malaya’s independence. It is a bit out of the way and it was a good 30 minutes, and not very scenic, walk from Merdeka Square. In hindsight we should have taken a taxi. The monument is surrounded by a beautiful garden with fountains and pavilions and the area has a cool and peaceful vibe. It is also one of the tallest freestanding bronze statues in Asia. The ASEAN Sculpture Garden is next to the National Monument where there are a variety of public art installations from artists in the ASEAN region.
I have included this somewhat self-indulgently. My parents were married in KL and were part of the British forces during the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s. What happened in the jungle wars in the 1950s is better explained by others, however this monument is a tribute to the people who fought and paid the ultimate sacrifice. It was an emotional visit for me.
- We went to KL after a business trip to Hong Kong. As HK was our primary focus we did not research KL as well as we should have beforehand. But we still managed to see a fair bit.
- The weather is changeable. It can rain hard for short bursts and the sun is just as hot in KL as it is on a Caribbean island.
- Do not rely on cars to stop at pedestrian crossings. They won’t.
- Traffic lights can take an age to change. Be careful when jaywalking as scooters and motorbikes have their own special rules of the road known only to themselves.
- Cars will do U-turns at traffic lights. Not the same as in Europe so be aware as it is likely to happen as you are crossing the road.
Fun fact: Malaysia is the only country in the world to have a rotational monarchy where nine ethnic Malay state rulers take turns to be the country’s king for five-year terms.