Kuala Lumpur is the modern, bustling and lush-green capital of Malaysia, a testament to the Southeast Asian nation clawing its way in recent decades out of the developing world and into the WiFi-enabled modern one.
At the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers, and lying just over 30 kilometres from the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, KL, as it is commonly known, is not as old as some other Southeast Asian capitals. But it still lays claim to some historical sites of interest, such as mosques, temples, and British colonial-era architecture.
The past and present collide here, with the city's modern architecture also a real pull. The city boasts some amazing cutting-edge buildings, such as the the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, and Menara KL, the world's fourth tallest communications tower, for starters. The city, together with the surrounding Klang valley, is the fastest growing area in Malaysia, and you'll feel the buzz — as well as the growing volume of traffic and a groaning public transport system.
As will be immediately noticeable to travellers, the city of around 1.7 million people is a fascinating and cosmopolitan mix of ethnicities, including Malay, Indian, Chinese, indigenous groups from around the country, and Westerners. As nearby Melaka many centuries ago was a major entrepot for world trade, these days it's Kuala Lumpur drawing people from around the globe.
Unsurprisingly, given the city is so multicultural, a key KL attraction is simply food. KLites love to eat, and eat constantly, meaning there's a great restaurant scene, from the cheapest street food joints and hawker stalls plating roti canai and curry sauce, through to pricier international gourmet fare.
Jalan Alor, KL's most characterful eating street, brims with dozens of Chinese restaurants and food stalls. Ever fancied frog porridge or chicken feet?
Despite being a Muslim-majority country, alcohol is widely available in KL, which has a surprisingly vibrant nightlife. The flourishing Changkat Bukit Bintang area sees stylish bars rub shoulders with pretty restaurants. Enjoy the dining and drinking scene here, or go further upmarket still and head somewhere like the Sky Bar in Traders Hotel for a pricey drink but stunning city views.
The tropical city harbours some natural attractions too, including leafy expanses such as the 90-plus-hectare Lake Gardens with its bird and botanical parks, and Bukit Nanas, one of the oldest virgin forests in the world within a city.
Dip into Malaysian culture by visiting the national museum, where history is on display, and the Islamic Arts Museum, which has more than 7,000 artefacts in its permanent collection. Or take a different slant of attack and sample the varied cultures from around the nation via shopping at Central Market.
Shopping in fact is another key drawcard for many to KL — which perhaps unexpectedly is the fifth most visited in the world — with retail therapy options ranging from colourful local markets through to glittering megamalls. Many tourists do get dismayed by the hassle of the popular Petaling Street Market; a better option is wandering round Chinatown, which retains a real sense of the city's past.
The main areas of interest to travellers are Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC), where most of the malls are, through to Chinatown, or Petaling Street, where the shopping is more open-air style and colonial-influenced architecture remains. Nearby Bukit Bintang has emerged as a great budget area to stay, as well as to eat, drink and shop in style.
Kuala Lumpur began life as a tin-mining operation. But warring rival gangs of Chinese immigrants, mostly from Fujian and Guangdong who originally settled in the area to labour in the booming mines, led to a production halt. This triggered the intervention of the Brits, who were then ruling the Federation of Malaya. They appointed a Chinese kapitan or headman to administer the settlement and by the late 19th century KL was thriving and named the state capital of Selangor.
In 1896, KL was chosen as the capital of the new Federated Malay States. During World War II, KL was captured by the Japanese in early 1942 and occupied until 1945. The Federation of Malaya gained independence from the British in 1957, and KL continued to be the capital when Malaysia was formed six years later.
KL's darkest time was the communal violence in May 1969, when hundreds of lives were claimed, most of them Chinese. Four decades on, the riots remain a scar on the city's psyche. Measures to placate Malays with positive discrimination remain in place and continue to fuel resentment among Chinese and Indians.
KL achieved city status in 1972 and was then named the first federal territory in 1974. In 2001, the administrative and judicial functions of the government were shifted to another federal territory, Putrajaya, but KL retains its legislative function. Most embassies have stayed and the city continues to be the economic centre of the country.
KL certainly has its critics and is skipped through quickly — or altogether — by many independent travellers to the region. But we suggest lingering a little, getting a feel for the food and the culture, and perhaps then you'll find the city as beguiling as its fans do.
By Stuart McDonald.