Kuala Lumpur is one of those cities where you will see scyscrapers looming above and beyond all the historical buildings. If you enjoy the contrast between tradition and modernity, you’re going to love this city. Every district has its distinct flavour: the surroundings of Merdeka Square are filled with the magnificent, colonial- time oriental- style edifices, China Town has some old temples and merchant houses, while Kampong Bahru represents the traditional Malay architecture. Among the major attractions are Batu Caves located on the outskirst of KL. Those colourful Tamil- style Hindu temples and gigantic statues set among the large, natural caves are quite an original attraction, if somewhat tacky.
Colonial District/China Town
The Klang river divides the former colonial administrative centre (with the Merdeka Square at its core) and the Chinatown – the old merchant district. The most convenient train stations for China Town and Merdeka Square are: Pasar Seni or Masjid Jamek station(LRT), Kuala Lumpur station(KTM Komuter) or Maharajalela station(Monorail)’. Walking through both areas shouldn’t take you more than half a day.
Shopping and eating in China Town
There isn’t an awful lot to see in China Town. Here and there you can come across a few rows of older houses. The 19th century Tamil Hindu Sri Mahamariamman temple squeezed in between of high rise buildings would certainly draw your attention. On the other side of the street stands 120 years old Guan Di Temple. A couple more Chinese pagodas are scattered across the district. Apart from that, the main attractions are the markets.
The early 20th- century building of the Central Market (Pasar Seni) is now full of overpriced souvenirs from various parts of the country. A shopping passage called Malaysia Heritage Walk or Kasturi Walk standing right next to the Central Market specialises in overpriced snacks and souvenirs.
The bustling Petalling Street is full of fake brand stalls, Chinese snack stalls and restaurants. The street remains equally vibrant by day and by night. All in all, China Town would be probably most appreciated by the shopping aficcionados and foodies.
Fairy-tale like, moorish style Jamek Mosque from the early 20th century is located right at the confunece of Klang and Gombak rivers. It’s closed to tourists during the prayers hours so I haven’t got a chance to enter but it’s fairly visible from the Masjit Jamek station and from the banks of the river.
Just beyond the river spreads the Merdeka Square – the grassy area where the Malaysian independence was proclaimed. The attention is immediately drawn to the tallest flagpole in the world (95m). The mock-Tudor buildings of Royal Selangor Club at the far side of the lawn look very much out of place.
Some of the most glorious British buildings in neo-Moorish/ neo-Mughal style are located nearby. Sultan Abdul Samad building – 19th century grand edifice looking to me like a cross-over of Big Ben with a Mughal palace and a mosque -stands right opposite to the Selangor Club. It used to house the offices of the British colonial administration. The red and white striped National Textile Museum in the corner of the square is also worth a look. A tiny bit up north you can find one of the oldest Anglican churches in Malaysia, St. Mary’s cathedral. It’s a shame the skyline behind all those buildings is filled with high-rise buildings, though.
Islamic Arts Museum and around
The Islamic Arts Museum is just 15 minutes walk away from the Merdeka Square, unfortunately along a very busy road. Rather than walking, it’s better to take a free red GO KL bus from Merdeka Sq (or from KL Sentral) and get off at Masjit Negara.
The museum usually features on the list of must-sees in KL but I wasn’t overly impressed. The emphasis was on the artifacts, organised according to the regions of the Muslim world. Many objects were really pretty but sadly, the exhibitions weren’t interactive and didn’t offer much in terms of narrative or explanation. I enjoyed comparing models of mosques from all over the world, highlighting the great diversity of architectural styles.
Just next to the Islamic Art Museum stands modern, very angular, origami-like National Mosque. Once you’re in the area, don’t miss another grand colonial building- the old Kuala Lumpur railway station.
Perdana Botanical Gardens/ Lake Gardens
If you still have some time to spare or need a break from sightseeing, Perdana Botanical Gardens is located very near the Islamic Arts Museum. It proved surprisingly tricky to find the entrance (when walking from the Islamic Arts Museum) and the way around the gardens themselves.
The easiest way to access the park is from the National Museum of Malaysia. The free red line GO KL bus from Merdeka Square (or KL Sentral) would take you right there. It’s a 30 minutes walk along a busy road from the Central Market.
Even though the park is really huge, I was put off by the amount of asphalt and concrete. I imagined it would be much greener and wilder than it turned out to be.
Reserve at least half a day for a trip to Batu Caves– natural limestone caves just outside KL peppered with 19th and 20th century South Indian shrines.
How to get to Batu Caves?
To get to Batu Caves cheaply, head for KL Sentral station. From there, take the KL Komuter Train to Batu Caves. The return tickets costs just 4 RM. It’s going to take time, though. The whole route takes 40 minutes and the trains run only once in 30 min so it’s certainly worth to check the timings beforehand (here).
What is there to see?
The Batu Caves turned out to be mildly interesting but very photogenic. I paid a small fee to enter the Ramayana cave, filled with plastic colourful figurines depicting the scenes from the famous epic. The cave itself was actually quite large but devoid of natural formation apart from a ‘natural Siva lingam’ or, in other words, a stalagmite.
I moved further on, passing by a couple colourful, typically Tamil hinduistic temples. The highlight was an enormous golden statue of Siva and just next to it, a huge brighly coloured staircase leading to the main cave. The stairs were teeeming with cheeky macaques which were fed by the devotees.
At the top of the staircase, there was a huge, very tall cave housing another super colourful temple and beyond it there was one more fleet of stairs leading to yet another temple.
There was one ticketed (and quite pricey) cave just next to the main cave, showcasting cave fauna but I skipped it, not expecting to see much animals other than spiders there.
Kampong Bahru and Chow Kit Market
My Couchsurfing host Zar gave me a wonderful idea to see Kampong Bahru – a traditional Malay neighbourhood with old wooden houses surrounded by the skyscrapers. It’s actually the oldest residential area in KL (founded in 1899). As Zar explained, this area was always Malay and was reserved by law to Malays- no developers were allowed. Kampong Bahru is one of the places where you can taste authentic Malay food, particularly on Jalan Raja Muda Musa road.
The easiest access to the district is from the Kampung Bahru station on Kelana Jaya Line of Rapid KL network, just a few stops from KL Sentral or Pasar Seni.
Once I arrived there, I met with my friend who confirmed the food in the area was delicious. I actually had Zar’s packed lunch with me and since there wasn’t any green or public area around to have a lunch, I sat on a bench right in front of the shops and restaurants and started eating. Soon, a guy from a workshop nearby came to share some banana fritters with us.
I roamed around the area which was looking rather poor in comparison with other parts of the city. The contrast between famous Petronas Towers and the wooden bungalows made for interesting photo opportunities.
From there we walked towards the large and non-touristic Chow Kit market where we had some more fritters and desserts, inluding cendol (iced coconut milk dessert). The nearest station to the market is Medan Tuanku (Monorail).
Golden Triangle, encompassing twin Petronas Towers and Bukit Bintang district, is one of the most visited areas of the city. Since we still had time but nowhere else to go, me and my friend decided to see Bukit Bintang street, the shopping and entertainment heart of the city (Buking Bintang Monorail and MRT stations).
I wandered through the street with huge LCD screens, passing by McDonalds, Starbucks, Sports Direct and other familiar places. I stopped to listen for a while to the street artists but quickly grew tired of that place.
Skipping the pricey attractions
I had no problem in letting go of another KL’s ‘must see’: the viewing observation deck at the Petronas Tower or at the KL Tower (which supposedly has more extensive views). Not just because the entrance to either is really expensive (80RM for Petronas Tower and 105RM for KL Tower). I simply prefer views at compact historical centres than at huge modern cities.
I wasn’t keen on any other of expensive tourist attractions, most of which involved animals in captivity such as Sunway Lagoon Theme Park, Aquaria KLCC, Bird Park, Butterfly Park, Orchid Garden and the National Zoo.
How to get to Kuala Lumpur?
Kuala Lumpur is one of the main hubs in South East Asia. Due to large volume of reasonably priced intercontinental flights, it is a good starting point for the journey within the region.
There are 2 terminals at KL airport: KLIA and KLIA2, the second one of which serves mostly the budget airlines such as Air Asia. They are located next to each other and there is a free shuttle bus between the two.
You can get to KL by bus from Singapore (6h) and Hat Yai in Thailand (7h). The journey from Singapore would be much cheaper if you travel to Johor Bahru- the nearest city on the Malaysian side- and then take a Malaysian bus from there to KL.
KL has 3 bus terminals, the most important one being Terminal Bersepadu Selatan (TBS, Southern Integrated Terminal). Some of the destinations are: Johor Bahru (for Singapore- 5h), Melacca (2h), Ipoh (2-3h), Tanah Rata for Cameron Highlands (3.5h), Penang (5-6h), Kota Bahru (7h).
KL Sentral is the main railway station in KL. The trains to nearby Ipoh stop also at the Old KL Railway station.
The only direct trains to KL are from the stations on the main, west coast line such as Ipoh (2.5h) and Penang (4-5h) as well as Hat Yai in Thailand (7.5h).
Getting from east coast would require travelling south to Gemas and then travelling 2.5h from there to KL. Also travel from Singapore would require 2 interchanges (Johor Bahru and Gemas) therefore it’s not recommended.
Prices [in Malaysian Ringgit as of Sept 2018]
45 bus to Singapore
40 4G SIM card and top up for 2 weeks
27 a night in a dorm in a cheapest hostel
15 TouchnGo travel card
12 bus fare from the airport to KL Sentral (paid on the bus)
12 entrance to the Islamic Arts Museum
10 bus from KL to Melacca
7.30 bus from KL to Kuala Selangor
5 entrance to one of the caves at Batu Caves
5 cheapest full meal at a buffet style eatery
4.5 a fresh coconut
3 1kg of plum-like fruit on the market
2-2.5 roti and dal at a cheap Indian eatery
2-3 a few stops on the rapid transit network
1 sweet from a street stall
0.2 1l of water from water purifying machine