Kuala Lumpur, known colloquially as KL to most locals who speak English, is like a jigsaw: different pieces stuck together in a sprawling mismatched state which somehow comes together to form a culturally diverse metropolitan area and regional economic hub.
The federal capital of Malaysia since 1896, KL will give first-time visitors an impression of eclectic grandeur amidst the heat, stickiness, and grime. The juxtaposition between dazzling modern high-rises and all the standard characteristics of a developing Southeast Asian country can be staggering. As you wander around to work off your jet lag, don’t be surprised to see rickshaws weaving between BMW cars, and buses with holes in the floor and no doors swerving past the pavement as crowds of pedestrians indifferently bustle along. Rain pours just as suddenly as the sun emerges to shine, and the humidity coats everything in a glistening haze, so that the metropolis known as the “Garden City of Lights” looks like a city of diamonds.
History & Culture
Located in the Klang Valley, present-day Kuala Lumpur’s origins date to the 1850s, when a local Malay chief brought in migrant Chinese labor to develop the area’s tin mining. Gradually the frontier town grew through trade and fell under British colonial rule as part of the Federated Malay States. The British appointed a Chinese “Kapitan” or leader to govern Kuala Lumpur, and the third such administrator, a talented man named Yah Ap Loy, laid the civic foundations of what was now an expanding urban community, with roads, railways, schools and courts of law, industry and commerce.
As with many other Southeast Asian nations, Malaysia would fall into Japanese hands during WWII and then gain its independence from the returning Europeans. In a peaceful transition, the Federation of Malaya would be established in 1957, later to become part of Malaysia with the addition of North Borneo, Singapore, and Sarawak in 1963. Though Singapore would be expelled from the Federation two years later, both countries remained within the British Commonwealth. Discriminatory policies by the Malay majority against Chinese and Indians would become an unfortunate legacy of the new state. But despite racial strife, Malaysia experienced a period of prolonged rapid economic growth and development from 1981 to 2003 under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with the notable exception of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.
Economics & Politics
Malaysia is a democratic constitutional monarchy, with an elected monarch as head of state and a prime minister leading the government. It is a federated system with thirteen state governments and an independent judiciary branch. The country’s politics have been relatively stable by regional standards, but contain many unresolved tensions. Minority groups still lack complete equality, even though they comprise the majority in a number of white-collar professions, while on the other hand a sizeable portion of Muslim Malays believe that the country should become an Islamic state. While Malay is the official language, as a legacy of British colonialism, English is widely spoken and often serves as the means of communication between minority groups as well as with outsiders.
In recent decades, Malaysia’s economy has gone from being predominately agricultural to depending more on manufacturing and the service sector. While tin, palm oil, and rubber have long been primary exports, the government has pushed to expand into other areas. Tourism has become a major industry though pollution and deforestation are causing a negative impact. In recent years KL has also sought to establish itself as a global hub of Islamic finance, and is home to the Islamic Financial Services Board, as well as the largest number of sharia-compliant assets outside of the Middle East. Ever focused on prestige, KL has become host to a growing number of international sporting events, including the Formula One races.
Places to Visit & Cuisine
After sampling a tasty magenta-colored dragonfruit from a market stall, the casual visitor may enjoy an eventful day of sightseeing. It goes without saying that one must visit the Petronas Twin Towers, until very recently the tallest building in the world, which provide an incredible view for miles over the expansive skyline. The shops range from corrugated iron side-street shacks selling second hand shoes to boutiques selling designer handbags for millions of ringgit. The best place for recreational shopping and cheap food is Chinatown. Visitors will lose themselves in the rows of bizarre stalls and restaurants, and it is the perfect place to buy souvenirs and gifts before relaxing with an ice-cold Tiger beer. Keep in mind that generally tourists should watch out for pickpockets in crowded areas.
For the best view of the Petronas Twin Towers at night, visit Skybar—though it should be noted that the tower lights turn off at midnight so visitors should plan on arriving early. The central business district known as Golden Triangle is a must visit, containing many of the city’s malls. The Batu Caves in the northern suburbs are a significant natural wonder as well as an Indian cultural site. As far as nightlife and dining go, there are a plenitude of options. For those with adventurous stomachs who want real local taste, visit Jalan Alor behind Bukit Bintang. It gets a bit rowdy at night and visitors should watch their wallets. Otherwise, for a more hygienic experience, visit the ground floor food court at Lot 10 (also called "10th Hutong" in Chinese). For clubbing, Zouk KL is a must go, in addition to Rootz, which is above Lot 10. A hip new spot is Butterfactory, located behind Pavilion.
Malaysian cuisine is varied, exotic, and mouthwatering. Delicacies to try include the traditional Malay rice dish of nasi lemak, which features a spicy sauce over chicken, shrimp, or other proteins alongside fried anchovies, peanuts, and fragrant coconut rice. For those without dietary restrictions, consider sampling “Bah Kut Teh,” literally “meat bone tea,” which is pork that has been boiled for over six hours in a special herbal broth. Then, of course, there are the many delicious satay to devour: marinated skewers of lamb, chicken, or beef.