Photo: A city of many faiths.


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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.

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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.

Still muddy, not so much malaria though. Photo taken in or around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Still muddy, not so much malaria though. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The city began life as a tin-mining operation, with the confluence of the Gombak and Klang rivers (Kuala Lumpur means “muddy confluence”) serving as a base for tin mining operations in nearby Ampang—a district which today is home to many foreign embassies. The miners were predominantly Chinese and over time formed themselves into gangs and the leaders of the growing Chinese community were given the title Kapitan Cina (Chinese headman)—an honorific also used in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. These leaders often gre out of the merchant trade—trading goods and supplies to the tin miners in return for the fruits of their labour—tin—and many became fabulously wealthy.

The third Kapitan Cina, Yap Ah Loy, came to power in 1868 and is seen by many as the founding father of what was to become modern day Kuala Lumpur. At the time the city was still built near entirely of wood—it was largely razed during the Selangor Civil War (1867—1874) and another massive fire in 1881 left much of the city in ashes. After this fire of 1881, the British Resident of Selangor decreed that all buildings needed to be built of brick. In response, Yap Ah Loy bought a large parcel of land to serve as a base for the suddenly needed brick industry, which become known as Brickfields. What followed was the building of a core centre of the city, characterised by the five foot ways—the covered walkways you see in shopfronts across Southeast Asia—Singapore in particular has many fine examples remaining, while in KL they’re most easily seen in the historic areas of Brickfields, Little India and Chinatown.

Few bricks left in Brickfields. Photo taken in or around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Few bricks left in Brickfields. Photo: Stuart McDonald

In 1886, a year after the death of Yap Ah Loy, a railway between Kuala Lumpur and Bukit Kuda (near Klang on the coast) commenced service, with the first train rolling in to KL with 130 passengers on September 15, 1886—the original terminal was on the site of the current day National Textile Museum. This railway line greatly increased trade and the city grew quickly from there and a decade later, in 1896, Kuala Lumpur was chosen as the capital of the new Federated Malay States. It was in the years immediately proceeding and following this that many of the striking building around Merdeka Square were built.

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. Arguably KL’s darkest time was the communal violence in May 1969, when hundreds of lives were claimed, most of them Chinese and four decades on, the riots remain a scar on the city’s psyche.

Plenty of bricks at Merdeka Square though. Photo taken in or around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Plenty of bricks at Merdeka Square though. Photo: Stuart McDonald

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.

Fast forward to today, and KL boasts both impressive modern buildings, such as the the iconic Petronas Twin Towers and KL Tower, but it also delivers on beautiful mosques like Jamek Mosque, Chinese temples such as Guan Di and the above-mentioned historic buildings around Merdeka Square. Sadly the city hasn’t done a terrific job of retaining too much of the rest of the colonial period shopfront architecture, but some fine examples remain, especially in Chinatown, Little India and Brickfields—and these remain the most interesting areas to take a walk around—our Chinatown walking tour is a good place to start.

Slow burning coils at Guan Di temple in Chinatown. Photo taken in or around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Slow burning coils at Guan Di temple in Chinatown. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Malaysia’s history is an interesting one and while the National Museum is a good place to get a one-visit-roundup of most things historical, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia is truly the city’s single “must see” point of interest—even for the most museum-adverse, a visit is close to essential. If nothing else, enjoy the air-con! Another historical attraction, far smaller in stature, but still very interesting, the Heritage Centre is well worth a look.

The tropical city harbours some natural attractions, including leafy expanses such as the 90-plus-hectare Perdana Botanical Gardens along with its bird park, the smaller KLCC, and, with a cute, kid-pleasing canopy walk, KL Forest Eco Park (previously known as Bukit Nanas), one of the oldest virgin forests in the world within a city.

The jungle in the city. Photo taken in or around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

The jungle in the city. Photo: Stuart McDonald

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. 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. Despite being a Muslim-majority country, alcohol is reasonably available in KL, and the city has a somewhat vibrant nightlife scene, much of which is centred around the flourishing Bukit Bintang which has a wealth of Western-style bars rub and fancy restaurants. Chinatown meanwhile has a slowly growing speakeasy scene which will appeal for those looking for something other than a large Tiger beer.

Stay another day
While here is a guide for those with just 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur, if you have more time to give, KL is more than worth it. Consider setting aside a morning and an afternoon to do perhaps a free guided walking tour provided by VisitKL and definitely try to do a food tour while in the city. We especially enjoyed the night cycling ride with Bike With Elena, and Urban Adventures’ KL Food Experience was also excellent.

Food touring with Bike With Elena. Photo taken in or around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Food touring with Bike With Elena. Photo: Stuart McDonald

If you’re not so food inclined, a self-directed walk through Kampung Baru is well worthwhile—it truly is the village within the city—and do take a look at Chow Kit Market while you are in the area.

Make a difference
Kuala Lumpur has seen massive growth is the number of homeless people in the city—we were staggered by just how many homeless we saw on our last visit in late 2017, especially women, sleeping rough in the city centre. We saw people, sometimes families, sleeping rough under stairwells and underpasses, but sometimes, especially in and around Bukit Bintang in the middle the pavement and in front of minimarts. There has been considerable media attention regarding the situation but authorities have sometimes handled the problem extremely poorly.

Some work required. Kampung Baru. Photo taken in or around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Some work required. Kampung Baru. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Two organisations working to alleviate those in dire need of assistance include Dapur Jalanan Kuala Lumpur and Pertiwi. Both run soup kitchens and accept both donations and volunteers. If you’re in Kuala Lumpur and want to help, we suggest you contact one of these organisations before you arrive to see how you can best make a useful contribution.

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Kuala Lumpur, or KL as it is commonly known, is a small capital city, by Asian standards, with only 1.7 million residents (as of 2016). Urban sprawl across the surrounding Klang Valley makes it increasingly difficult to tell where KL ends, and Greater KL begins. Fortunately for visitors, the majority of the best places to sleep, eat and drink, as well as most of the attractions, are found in a comparatively small area.

Meet Jamek Mosque. Photo taken in or around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Meet Jamek Mosque. Photo: Stuart McDonald

While it presents itself as little more than a glorified canal, The Klang River bisects downtown Kuala Lumpur and merges with its tributary, the Gombak River, pretty much in the centre of town, right in front of Jamek Mosque. This immediate area, around the confluence of the two rivers has been the focus of a beautification project called the River of Life project, which has paid huge dividends, and, while there is still plenty of work to be done, the signs so far are encouraging.

To the west of here sits Merdeka Square—the heart of the city’s historical quarter—which is surrounded by buildings dating back to the British/ Malayan period, showcasing some of the best remaining examples of architecture from when Malaysia (then Malaya) was a British colony. Head south from here and you’ll eventually reach KL Sentral and the Brickfields area—another of KL’s older, more historic districts.

To the east of the river lies Little India to the north and Chinatown to the south and east. Although both these areas are racially mixed, they retain the distinctive character of the ethnic communities they are named after.

Garlands upon garlands. Photo taken in or around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Garlands upon garlands. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Roughly to the east of both is Bukit Bintang, the area many visitors will spend much of their time in while in KL. What Bukit Bintang lacks in historic attractions (it is rapidly being gentrified), it makes up for in terms of accommodation, eating, entertainment and shopping opportunities.

To its north and east is KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre), the city’s modern commercial hub, set around the iconic Petronas Twin Towers. Fifteen minutes walk east of the towers is Kampung Baru, which is as low-rise, as it is Malay. Head north of KLCC and you hit Ampang Hilir, a pleasant leafy inner suburb, where most of the city’s embassies are located.

For independent travellers, particularly those on a tight budget, Bukit Bintang, Chinatown and Little India offer the widest choice of accommodation. Top end and luxury hotels are dotted around the city, with the greatest concentration in and around KLCC, but there are some solid options in the above-mentioned districts as well.

Hello glassy towers. Photo taken in or around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Hello glassy towers. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Tourism information
Tourism Malaysia does a reasonably good job of providing useful information for visitors, both in person and online. It has information centres at KLIA and KL Sentral. Some government publications are also available to download for free. Follow this link for the full choice of e-brochures.

Emergency: Medical
The good news is that the standard of medical care is generally solid in KL; and medical services are relatively cheap for foreigners compared to costs in North America or Europe. However, if you have a minor ailment, then you can keep costs down by visiting a local clinic. All doctors in central KL should speak good English, so you have no need to go to a fancy clinic. But, if you are prepared to pay a bit more, then the Twin Towers Medical Centre in Suria KLCC is excellent.

For more serious problems, KL has several excellent private hospitals. The Government ones are perfectly acceptable too, but may charge a premium for non-residents of Malaysia. Prince’s Court, Gleneagles and Pantai all have good reputations.

In an emergency, you can call 999 for an ambulance. If you have a choice, both Gleneagles and Pantai have 24-hour accident and emergency departments, as well as dedicated ambulance services.

Gleneagles Hospital 282 & 286 Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur T: (03) 4141 3000 (general)
Hospital Kuala Lumpur Jalan Pahang, Kuala Lumpur T: (03) 2615 5555
Pantai Hospital 8, Jalan Bukit Pantai, Kuala Lumpur T: (03) 2296 0888
Prince Court Medical Centre 39 Jalan Kia Peng, Kuala Lumpur T: (03) 2160 0000
Twin Towers Medical Centre Lot LC-402-404, Level 4, Suria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur T: (03) 2382 3500

Emergency: Police
As a visitor you are unlikely to encounter much police corruption. The only real exception is traffic offences, when on the spot “fines” are often demanded. How you deal with it is really up to you. Although ignorance of the law is no excuse, with minor offences a polite apology, and a promise not to be a naughty foreigner again, often works wonders. Negotiating a “fine” down can also be effective. You can of course refuse to pay the bribe. Whatever tactic you use, remain calm and polite at all times. If you start shouting and screaming, your most likely destination is a police cell. In a genuine emergency, call the police on 999.

Always pack a krama. Photo taken in or around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Always pack a krama. Photo: Stuart McDonald

But for all other situations, it’s best to deal with the Tourism Police. The officers can all speak English and have been trained to deal with the needs of visitors. A number of small blue police posts are dotted round areas popular with tourists. All in all KL is one is one of the safest cities in the world for visitors. You are extremely unlikely to be the victim of a serious offence.

Petty theft can be a problem. Its most common manifestation is women’s handbags or purses being snatched by riders on motorbikes. Even if it is rarely accompanied by violence, it can still be a frightening experience. Particularly at night, it is wise to keep yourself, as well as your bag, away from the edge of pavements, walking towards the traffic. Carry as few valuables as possible too. If you are unfortunate enough to have your bag snatched, please do not try to hold onto it, unless you want to be dragged along the road, attached to a speeding motorbike.

Another problem for female visitors is verbal abuse from young men. It is a revolting practice, but very rarely presents a physical threat. The best tactic is to remove yourself from the situation, without responding to the abuse. But if the men become physically threatening, shout for help.

Like all major cities, KL has its fair share of con artists, but scamming is far from being endemic. Credit card fraud is a big problem though, and the best advice is try not to let your card out of your sight, to help prevent cloning. Rogue taxi drivers used to be very common in KL, but it’s much less of an issue now. Avoid any cabbie that refuses to use his meter. All in all, a healthy amount of scepticism prevents most scams, with the golden rule that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Money matters
Malaysian money is denominated in ringgit, usually written as RM, but often rather confusingly referred to as “dollars”. Ringgits are divided into 100 sen. Coins come in five, 10, 20 and 50 sen pieces. The notes are one (blue), five (green), 10 (red), 20 (orange), 50 (blue) ringgit and the 100-ringgit note (purple and brown).

Banks and ATMs
Banks are generally open 09:00 to 16:00, weekdays, but branches in shopping centres open and close later. Busier branches are often open longer hours, including weekend mornings.

The vast majority of visitors will not need to step into a bank however, as ATMs that accept international withdrawals are everywhere. As long as your credit or debit card is linked to one of the main international clearing networks (Visa Plus and Cirrus-Maestro), then withdrawing cash from an ATM in KL is straightforward. All machines will either default to English or offer English as an option. No absolute local withdrawal limit exists; the amount you are allowed to withdraw is usually determined by your own bank. A number of banks will only allow foreign withdrawals if notified first. Most banks charge a nominal fee (usually one ringgit) for ATM withdrawals. But most of the charges will be imposed by your own bank, which can work out to as much as 5% of the amount taken out.

Some of the main banks in Kuala Lumpur, include:

Currency exchange
Although it is possible to change foreign currency in banks, licensed money changers are open longer hours, offer better rates and are much quicker. Almost every shopping centre has at least one licensed moneychanger, and they are common on high streets in tourist areas too. You can save a few ringgit by shopping round between moneychangers, but it’s really not worth the time or effort. Given that no commission is charged on cash transactions, and that rates are uniformly competitive, it always works out a better bet to change your money in Malaysia, rather than buying ringgit in your home country. Always count all of your money before leaving.

Post office
Pos Malaysia (Malaysian Post Office) offers a cheap and safe way to send non-valuable items. KL’s General Post Office is opposite Pasar Seni LRT station. The only real point of using the GPO, rather than a normal branch, is post restante. Letters and packages sent post restante to the GPO will be kept for two months. The service is open from 08:30-21:30, Mon-Sat (closed the first Saturday of every month). You need to bring your passport along for identification to collect any mail. An increasing number of post offices are now located in shopping centres, rather than on high streets. Particularly useful branches are located in KLCC, Sungai Wang Plaza and Berjaya Times Square.

When to go
In terms of the climate, KL is hot and humid all year round, despite a completely arbitrary division into wet season and dry season. Heavy rain showers are a regular occurrence, all year round. Most commonly they occur in the late afternoon, and are often accompanied by thunder and lightning. Most days, the temperature peaks about 33-35 degrees Celsius, although this often feels closer to 40 degrees.

The weather can get a bit sketchy. Photo taken in or around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

The weather can get a bit sketchy. Photo: Stuart McDonald

At night, temperatures very rarely drop below 23 degrees Celsius. All this means that KL is very easy to pack for. You need plenty of light, loose clothes, for when you are outside. But pullovers come in surprisingly handy too, for when you are indoors, as the standard setting for air-con in Malaysia is “brutal”. For some reason, cinemas tend to be particularly glacial. Needless to say, the contrast between steamy heat outside, and icy cold inside, can take some getting used to.

Festivals and events
As befits such an ethnically diverse city, Kuala Lumpur has a whole range of religious festivals, throughout the year, although only a few of them are of much interest to visitors. The city also has a number of annual secular events and festivals, many of them organised by Tourism Malaysia or other Government departments.

Starting the year with a real bang is Thaipusam, probably the most colourful and spectacular religious festival to be celebrated in KL. The Hindu event, which falls in January, is marked by a 15km procession from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Chinatown, to Batu Caves. Hundreds of thousands of people attend Thaipusam every year, so it is both the best and worst time to visit Batu Caves.

Next up is Lunar New Year, which is massively important to the Chinese community. Although temples are thronged at this time of year, and you see the occasional lion dance, or firework display, the focus of the celebrations is more private. For many people not born in KL, of all three main ethnic groups, Lunar New Year is the time to visit their hometown. You are strongly advised not to travel around this time.

The month-long Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, around July/August time, is marked by night street markets, which offer the best opportunity of the year to try Malay food. The end of the fast, Hari Raya, is a happy time for Malaysian Muslims, when they can eat freely again. If you are lucky enough to be invited to an “open house” party, prepare for much food.

Malaysia became independent from colonial rule on August 31 1957. To commemorate that event, open air concerts and firework displays are held every year, starting late on August 30, and running into the early hours of the anniversary itself. Two festivals associated with light, take place every autumn: the Chinese Lantern festival in September, at it’s most colourful at KL’s Central Market; and the Hindu Festival of Lights, or Deepavali, which sees the city’s many Hindu temples even more of a feast for the senses than usual. It’s fitting, given Malaysians obsession with eating, that the last major event of the year is a three month-long celebration of food.

Immigration office
Most North American, European, New Zealand and European tourists get a free three-month “social visit” visa at the border. Trying to extend this visa at the Immigration Department is technically possible, but you must have a very good reason, such as a major illness, with documentary evidence. A far easier alternative is to do a short trip to Singapore or Thailand, and get another three-month stamp in your passport for free. A minimum of 72 hours out of the country is required before re-entering Malaysia. As long as you are not breaking the terms of the social visit visa, by for example working, then this is entirely legal.

Malaysian Immigration office: Level 1-7 (Podium) Block 2G4, Precint 2, Federal Government Administration Centre, 62550, Putrajaya. Tel: (03) 8880 1000, Fax: (03) 8880 1200,


What next?

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