Despite its gorgeous jungle setting, great food and warm people, Kuala Lumpur won’t win many destination awards for tourists.
That is because Malaysia’s capital is a business town that rarely accommodates holidaymakers for longer than a couple of days. After arriving, vacationers usually head straight off to the sun-kissed beaches of Langkawi Island to the north, or to the neighbouring metropolis of Singapore.
Even its Chinatown is a bit hit and miss for most, but there is life in KL — you just need to know where to find it.
Three miles west of downtown lies Bangsar, KL’s well-heeled suburban daytime and nightlife hub.
Like many of KL’s suburbs, Bangsar was the site of a rubber plantation just a generation ago and has transformed into a wealthy and cosmopolitan centre for shopping (Bangsar Shopping Centre on Jalan Maarof), fine dining (Mercat on Jalan Telawi 3 is particularly good) and discovering some heartbreakingly stylish speakeasies (try Coley on Jalan Kemuja).
Don’t be put off by the exterior mildew on the shapeless concrete of the local buildings: this is the place to watch KL society and to enjoy the best the city has to offer.
Not far from Bangsar, in a more hilly and residential setting, Bukit Damansara is a world away from the traffic and bustle of much of KL.
The lungs of the city, Bukit Damansara offers a mix of mansions, embassies, atmospheric terraced roads, and tasty food and drink joints. It is most alive at 5pm, when the bars broadcast the call to happy hour (at places like Sticky Wicket and Mr Tush at Plaza Damansara) and the area fills with local and foreign characters.
A pleasant 20-minute walk away are Tiki Taka, a Barcelona tapas joint, and expat favourite El Sids, which both benefit from sublime mountainside settings.
PJ, as it’s known universally, is a parallel city surrounding the west side of KL with no gap between the two.
This area is to KL what parts of Brooklyn are to New York or Camden Town is to London: it provides a lively snapshot into real life in Malaysia’s capital, and the food there is to die for.
It’s worth taking an Uber out to PJ if you’re looking for something to do after sunset, to discover a mess of wet markets and kopitiams (local-style and Chinese eateries) in areas rarely visited by foreigners.
Fatty Crab, a no-frills wobbly-table-and-plastic-chair sort of place, is famous across Malaysia for its two styles of crab (steamed or in a curry sauce) and worth the trip alone.
The Great Beer Bar in the Uptown section of PJ, meanwhile, is a rarity, with a large selection of craft beers.
Pretty much wherever you go in KL’s twin city you will get given a warm welcome and great food.
Soon to open Subang Jaya occupies one of the last stations on KL’s brand-new LRT rail system, about 15 miles west of Downtown, and is the city’s premier hipster hangout.
Colourful and bustling, and with a bit of an edge, Subang could be Asia’s Bushwick, with its café-cum-barber’s-shops, vinyl music stores (especially for Asian tastes) and designer dive bars.
Shopping of the boutique variety is all nearby, while the area has made a name for itself for racy fusion restaurants that blend every Asian taste you can imagine.
A word of warning as you contemplate venturing out of downtown: because KL doesn’t have much in the way of tourist attractions, locals will suggest you go to Batu Caves, a Hindu site with lots of stone stairs, papier mâché effigies, scavenging monkeys and seething humidity.
Though the area is rather pretty, it is neither historic nor an attraction. Unless your visit coincides with the Tamil Thaipusam festival (in January or February, depending on the Tamil calendar), which is quite a sight, the caves don’t merit all the effort of venturing to some distant outskirts of town—especially when KL’s wonderful and dramatic suburbs are there for the taking.