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Want to know how best to feel Kuala Lumpur’s uniqueness from the entire world’s most popular cities? Try this little experiment.
Book a hotel on Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur’s prime tourist strip, a jalan (street) where the Malaysian capital has its most luxurious hotels and shopping malls. Make sure you catch the street parties or open-air concerts until very late at night. Sleep as late as you wish, all the time. But try waking up very early one morning—say, before 7 AM—leave the comforts of your hotel room, and step out to explore the streets.
When I did this, I was expecting the place to still be dozing at that hour. I was instead greeted by a stream of people that was, so far, unlike anything I have seen anywhere in my life. Bukit Bintang was already bustling with a myriad of people, but the crowd was not a dense and tense crowd. The people walked in a smooth flow, giving the air of being a happy bunch –one that I felt safe and excited to be mixed in. And beyond being an orderly crowd, this stream of people was the most diverse that I have seen–men and women, young and old, in all races–it felt as if the street were a vein where the world’s blood flowed. This must be how it feels to be in the United Nations, I thought.
So, where could such a stream of people be heading toward while in Kuala Lumpur? The following are the places where I took my part of the stream to, throughout the rest of my stay, and where I found the city’s Zen vibe constantly and amazingly present:
Shop till you drop at Bukit Bintang and KLCC
Along Bukit Bintang, and on its parallel and intersecting streets, Kuala Lumpur’s high-end shopping malls tower next to the city’s roster of world-class hotels. Guests of the Westin, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Berjaya Times, and the Grand Millennium where I was billeted, would only have to take a few steps to get to any of these malls.
For myself, I simply wanted at least one dress to remember my Kuala Lumpur trip by. The search had me first scouring through The Pavilion, right near the tip of the northeast curve of Bukit Bintang, before the street intersects with Jalan Raja Chulan. This mall carries a wide array of designer brands for female clothing–such as Forever 21, Celine, and Dorothy Perkins. Malaysian brands like Eclipse, catering to the young who look for cocktail dresses, can be found at the 4th level of the mall.
Of course I could not pick my dress yet by exploring just one mall, knowing there are others a few steps away. Fahrenheit 88, the mall which is actually right outside my hotel, features the Japanese brand Uniqlo and the Jill Sander J+ collection. Lot 10, at the corner of Bukit Bintang and Jalan Sultan Ismail, is best visited at night, when the intersection is all lit up and the monorail whizzes by past it. Tourists apparently appreciate how picturesque Lot 10 can be at night that they take pictures of themselves first outside before getting inside. This mall, one of the first to be established in the strip, houses the British store Debenhams, fashion by Malaysian designer Zang Toi, and a host of other mid-range to high-end brands. One of my other travel companions, photographer Donelon, needed tools for his cameras but was not satisfied with high-end tech fare, so we proceeded to the Low Yat Plaza Mall specializing in all kinds of tech shopping. The Low Yat Plaza is at the further southwest periphery of Jalan Bukit Bintang, about 15 minutes away from The Pavilion and Fahrenheit 88. It was a good walk that exposed us to nooks in the side streets where there are stalls selling outdoor clothing, food, and souvenirs, all organized systematically.
It was tempting to go through each of them and haggle. Given the strength of the ringgit (the Malaysian currency), which is about RM3 to the dollar, shoppers are sure to get their pocket money’s worth. But I held back and saved the excitement until we all finally visited Central Market, where the best deals are. This market started out in 1888 as a wet market for fish, meat, and vegetables, while a 1930’s refurbishment gave it its characteristic Art Deco façade. I’d say Central Market gave me my true-blue KL shopping experience. I looked into every roofed stall resembling traditional Malay houses and got my ringgit’s worth at every purchase. Some of the items I bought were mechanical pencils with wooden Malaysian dolls at the end for RM10 (about US$3.30) for every five pieces; authentic sterling silver earrings for RM15 (almost US$5); a cotton batik (traditional Malay wax print) floral bathrobe for RM55 (about US$18.20); and, yes, a traditional yellow woven Malay dress, with touches of red and orange Indian print embroidery and glitters, for only RM55 (also about US$18.20).
At Kuala Lumpur City Center‘s Suria Mall, the crowning glory of the capital’s luxury shopping, I watched other shoppers come in and out of every store, their hands full of shopping bags that bore the names of the world’s most prestigious high fashion brands: Giorgio Armani, Marc Jacobs, and Malaysia’s very own Jimmy Choo for shoes made famous by actress Sarah Jessica Parker in the television show, Sex and the City. There is Banana Republic, Gap, and Topman for casual wear. There’s Swarovski, Cartier, and Mikimoto for jewelry. And as I passed by Tiffany & Co., I just had to ask one of my companions, writer Nikka, to take a picture of me posing in front of the shop, in the spirit of the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I laughed and said, “Let me be Audrey Hepburn, at Kuala Lumpur!”
Everything goes fine with tea
Not only mornings in Kuala Lumpur left their mark on me; in fact, every hour of my stay did, especially those punctuated by meals. But let me guide you through the food part going backwards, starting with midnight snacks. And let’s have tea along with it. In Malaysia, where the locals eat at least six times a day, any time can be tea time.
Jalan Alor is the premier place to go for hawker-type street food. This jalan runs parallel with Bukit Bintang, and can be reached by a few minutes stroll from Lot 10 mall, after you take the Changkat Bukit Bintang side street turn. Stalls are open from 6 AM. to 2 AM on weekdays, and from 6 AM to 5 AM on weekends. Here, burgers can be bought for only RM2 to 5 (up to US$1.65), depending on how exotic you want yours to be, because apart from beef and chicken, they have deer and rabbit patties, too. After a quick bite of the savory egg-wrapped chicken burger, I went on to look for my real Jalan Alor mission: satay and teh tarik. Satay (barbeque) can be bought for 10 pieces at only RM6 (almost US$2). My satay set was a mix of chicken, beef, and lamb with peanut sauce. Teh tarik, for RM1 (US$0.33), is hot tea with condensed milk, vigorously poured out over and over from cup to cup, to smoothen the drink’s texture before serving. Since I had my satay to-go, I had to have my teh tarik for take-out too, and for a moment I wondered what my tea guy would do. To my amazement, there are available take-out plastic bags for teh tarik–thick opaque ones that are efficiently knotted at one end and slipped in with a hard red straw. This way I was able to conveniently hold the knot, without fear that I might spill the drink and get scalded, giddily sipping while walking.
Another restaurant at the outskirts of Bukit Bintang is Restoran Muar. This is where I had my first ever dinner in Malaysia on my first night at Kuala Lumpur, and boy did it leave an impression. My seven-course meal represented the full-gamut of Malaysian culture in Malay, Chinese, and Indian flavors. My favorites in the set were the ginger spring onion fish, steamed bean curd, and a mix of fish-squids-prawns in red spicy sauce. I did not shy away at all from the spicy stuff, neither from the dessert cups of sweet red beans with shaved ice, brown sugar, gelatin and coconut milk. And the tall glasses with black hot tea.
Food seems to be reasonably priced in most of Kuala Lumpur, even in the high-end malls. I tried out one of the typical Malaysian lunch items, Hainanese chicken rice, available almost anywhere in the city, even in a classy mall such as The Pavilion. In its food court, I had the Hainanese chicken rice set meal at a food stall called Sergeant. For RM9.80 (US$3.25), I had my chicken served with ginger and chili sauces, sweet tomato and cucumber slices, steamed greens with a glazed thick soy sauce and roasted garlic, and sticky fragrant rice.
Finally, breakfast. Although my hotel buffet breakfasts of international treats were superb, nothing can beat the breakfast I had at Pelita Nasi Kandar, one of Kuala Lumpur’s most popular restaurants. The place started out as a hit stall, but when plans were made to expand it into a restaurant, there was initial apprehension, because of the many competitor food stalls in the area. Nowadays, the place is always filled, brimming not only with locals but also tourists.
The smell of curry in the morning is simply hypnotic, mixed with turmeric and chili, then drizzled on fish, seafood, beef, and chicken, already being prepared that morning for those who want their breakfast heavy. My companions and I simply wanted it light, but hypnotic still, so we had roti canai and teh tarik. Roti Canai is a thin warm crepe eaten by tearing it to pieces and dipping it in chili-curry sauce. If there was one thing that could tempt me into settling down in Kuala Lumpur, it would be chewing on the spicy roti canai pieces and washing it down with gulps of warm teh tarik every morning.
The towers of power
Since Islam is the official religion of Malaysia (although freedom of religion is observed throughout the country), I expected Islamic architecture to dominate the Kuala Lumpur landscape. Before arriving at the capital, all I knew about Islamic architecture were mosques. Seeing Kuala Lumpur’s unique brand of modernity therefore educated me on how cosmopolitan Islamic art and buildings can be.
The Petronas Twin Towers, the world’s tallest twin towers at 451.9 meters, is Malaysia’s finest example of this. The towers, made up of stainless steel and glass, are in fact shaped the way they are because they follow the pattern of two intersecting squares, an Islamic motif. The towers are the centerpiece of the KLCC. The Suria Mall is actually laid out at the foot of the towers. The towers also house a philharmonic orchestra, making the national landmark a venue for musical shows ofevery kind, from Broadway to classical.
Petronas stands for Petroleum National, the country’s national petroleum corporation and owner of the towers. Fittingly, the iconic twin towers were raised by one of Malaysia’s most successful companies. Tower 1 is leased out to international businesses, while Tower 2 is occupied by Petronas. We rode lifts to the towers’ connecting bridge, which gave us a view of Kuala Lumpur’s entire spread. Greenery everywhere, residential areas strategically laid mostly at the outskirts of the capital, and an orderly system of streets and highways rendered Kuala Lumpur free flowing. It is a city efficiently planned, with spaces for movement and growth.
No wonder the people carry good vibes down below, I thought. Add the fact that the country is prosperous, and sought by equally prosperous world travelers–abundance sure lightens up dispositions, and the abundant attracts its own kind. And they all converge in Kuala Lumpur, a city whose heartbeat throbs in the rhythm of life’s soothing grooves.
Words of Wisdom from Mister Aslam
Truth is, my hilarious and highly articulate Kuala Lumpur guide, Mohammad Aslam, deserves a separate article written about him. But in lieu of that, let me just share some of the tips he gave during my KL stay. Aslam, a statistics graduate who found pleasure in serving his country by being a licensed tour guide, is Kuala Lumpur’s truly Asian face. Do take note, for these bits of fun tips cannot be found in just any Malaysian guide book.
• When shopping at Central Market, or in other jalans with open-air flea markets in the city, make sure you buy when you haggle.
• In Kuala Lumpur, it’s generally all right for women to shake hands with men. In the country’s other states, though, where people are more conservative, men and women seldom shake hands (this has to do with Muslim customs).
• When you leave Kuala Lumpur, try not to speak English too fast or with a twang in the provinces –the locals there are not as articulate as the ones in the capital.
• Guests at national festivals are usually enjoined to wear batik. If you are given a batik to wear, you must wear it.
• Malaysians do not serve pork in observance of Islamic law.
• Easy about eating durian (local fruit with a prickly rind and creamy pulp, known for its bad smell). Eating lots of durian heats up the body.
• Easy about eating coconut milk. Eating lots of coconut milk can make you sleepy.
• Easy about eating curry. Eating lots of curry can make some people feel intoxicated.
• Malaysians eat lots of curry and coconut milk. Aslam jokes, “That’s why we’re cool and down to earth–we’re high most of the time!”
And then I remember how he took us first to Pelita Nasi Kandar for my great curry breakfast, just before we trooped up to Petronas. No wonder I didn’t fear the heights; I was high!