Kuala Lumpur: Off the Backpacker RouteAnne Merritt
I went to Malaysia very much on a whim; AirAsia had one of their coveted seat sales and time was permissive. However, I didn’t know what to expect; if the customs of a predominantly Muslim country would accomodate the the anything-goes backpacker mentality of Thailand. What I discovered was one of the most energetic and diverse cities in Southeast Asia. From architecture and culture to shopping and food; Kuala Lumpur (or “KL” to people in the know) serves up eclectic mixes of each. Dense markets and spicy street food in the Indian district, women in full burkas flaunting Fendi bags and Dior sunglasses, and the nicest skyline this side of Manhattan. From my homebase in the heart of the Golden Triangle (KL’s bustling downtown), I spent a few busy days in the middle of it all.
While traveling Malaysia might not be as cheap as, say, rural Vietnam, budget-conscious travellers won’t be shortchanged. In Kuala Lumpur, backpackers flock to the neon lights of Chinatown (Jalan Petaling) for cheap beds, cheap streetvendor wares, and cheap beer on outdoor patios. With all the trappings of a Sino-Malaysian Khaosan Road (minus the Jack Johnson, 24/7), this is the place to meet fellow backpackers. Seeking a bit of tourist anonymity? Jalan Bukit Bintang in the Golden Triange has reasonable accomodation in the heart of the city, a few blocks from trendy shops and chic nightclubs. The funky Number Eight Guesthouse (No 8-10, Jalan Tengkat Tung Shin) may be one of the best (and cleanest) guesthouses in Southeast Asia. KL’s famous East-meets-Middle-East-meets-West population is the stuff of true urban multiculturalism, and this is reflected in its buildings. The Petronas Twin Towers (scaled famously by Connery and Zeta-Jones in Entrapment), one fo the tallest structures in the world and Malaysia’s most iconic, sits at the northern edge of the Golden Triangle. It’s base operates as a very chic, very Western shopping mall. Admission to the Skybridge is free, but involves long line-ups for very limited tickets. Those seeking a view of the city should hit the observation deck of KL tower (on Jalan Punchak) for less crowds and a striking view of the twin towers themselves.
From a bird’s eye view, you’ll also spot the 40-metre clocktower of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin). This courthouse was the original headquarters of the Colonial Secretariat, and the Islamic-inspired, British-designed building is one of KL’s most stunning landmarks. Also notable on the skyline are the three domes of the Jamel Mosque, modeled after India’s Mogul, and the blue umbrella-shaped roof of the National Mosque, whose Malay-Islamic design breaks the usual Arabic-Islamic architectural mould. Each of these buildings are open to the public and stunning from the inside.
If you want to take in some culture, KL’s Islamic Arts museum (on Jalah Lembah Perdana) displays ethnic artifacts, costumes, textiles and art, along with models of the world’s most famous mosques. The ornate turquoise dome on the roof is the perfect spot for some fresh air and photos.
Those looking for daytrips into the Malaysian countryside have many destinations (and tour companies) to choose from. The famous Batu caves, used as temples by Hindu priests, are full of beautiful statues and the odd monkey. Romantics and entymologists shouldn’t miss a nighttime river tour in nearby Kuala Selangor, where guests board rowboats to see the fireflies that populate the dense mangroves.
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.