Petronas Towers

Last year, citing the city’s diverse ethnicity, rich culinary heritage, friendly locals, and unique architecture, fellow Perceptive Travel blogger Sheila Scarborough returned home wondering why there wasn’t more travel buzz about Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur. It’s a fair question, particularly since Malaysia is a fulcrum of Southeast Asia tourism as one of the world’s ten most-visited countries, and KL is its most populous city with over 1.6 million residents. You can easily get a hotel in Kuala Lumpur for a reasonable price.

Is it because a bulk of KL’s visitors, including the less than 240,000 Americans who’ve visited Malaysia in each of the past few years, are just passing through on their way to the country’s alluring islands, beaches, and national parks, and don’t take the time to explore much of the city beyond those 1,483-foot tall, vaguely art deco-style Petronas Towers? Or that in actuality over half of Malaysia’s annual tourism comes from neighboring Singaporeans, a generally reserved bunch that struggles to generate much word-of-mouth buzz about anything? (Easy… I’m half kidding, guys.)

Or is it just that Kuala Lumpur is the ugly spotted toad of Southeast Asia’s major metropolises? The big city that leaves a small, forgettable impression?

I wasn’t sure because, hell, though I’ve traveled a great deal around the region over the past six years I admit that I hadn’t stepped foot in KL, and that even now, living in Singapore, I still wasn’t planning to go out of my way to see it even though it’s less than an hour flight away. Nothing personal, of course, KL. I can’t think of any big reason why you remained so low on my Southeast Asia travel totem pole, but, well, you were. That changed, however, after my recent Chinese visa debacle left me scrambling for cheap, last-minute holiday getaway ideas.

Hello, Kuala Lumpur. Pleasure to meet you.

Locals in KL

Sheila was right when she said the locals were friendly, but she left out what I think is a fascinating detail about their unique local dress. About how some paint their faces pink or purple, how others carry plastic swords, wear horns and grapes, dress and act like cats or, um, whatever that puffy wizard thing in the blue is. (I love anime conventions in Southeast Asia.)

Wong Ah Wah KL

She was right about the food, too. The food scene in Kuala Lumpur is impressive, even to someone coming from Singapore, a 239-square mile island stuffed with some 34,000 licensed restaurants. One of my favorite meals was at Wong Ah Wah, one of the most-respected outdoor restaurants on busy Jalon Alor food street. The Singapore-style black pepper crab, pictured above before it was cracked into a hundred pieces and every shred of its succulent meat sucked dry, is fantastic, and the ambience, with its glaring flourescent lighting, corrugated metal roof, colored plastic chairs, and ceiling-mounted television broadcasting Malaysian soaps, is classic Southeast Asia. It’s located towards the end of the street — look for the fully and legally licensed Mickey Mouse logo.

Old China Cafe KL

While the seafood and chicken wings at Wong Ah Wah draw crowds of locals and tourists alike, gorgeous Old China Cafe enjoys similarly enduring popularity thanks to its delicious Peranakan cuisine and gorgeous setting. Discreetly located in an old shophouse on an otherwise nondescript stretch of Jalan Balai Polis, just down the street from the (crappy) pedestrian street market of Chinatown, Old China Cafe was packed throughout the long, lazy Sunday brunch my wife and I enjoyed of pie tee (crunchy “top hats” with fresh veggies), stuffed tofu, sambal prawns, beef rendang and pot of rich, buttery Melaka blend coffee.

Everything is vintage here, from the rustic wooden chairs and tables to the portraits and paintings that plaster the dining room walls. The private tea shop upstairs is a marvel–so much so that photography is strictly forbidden. The price is right, too, with appetizers and mains ranging from R9 – 40 and most under R20. Highly recommended.

Peter Hoe Beyond KL

Afterwards skip the crappy Chinatown pedestrian market, as well as the nearby, not-totally-objectionable-but-still-sterile-and-bland-and-touristy Central Market, in favor of Peter Hoe Evolution,¬† a massive boutique home furnishings and decor shop on the second floor of the Lee Rubber Building at 145 Jalan Tun H.S. Lee. Make sure you jot that address down, though, because there’s no street signage and the ground-floor entrance couldn’t be more¬†inconspicuous.

Maybe Mr. Hoe wanted to keep it on the down low as a nod to the space’s previous tenants — the Japanese secret police in World War II — or maybe it’s because word of mouth (and press) alone is enough to keep business deservedly brisk. There are some great finds here at reasonable prices, as well as a cute little cafe; my wife and I wandered through for an hour. The Gravy Train has more on the man and his shop.

Wall Street KL

Boozing is somewhat of an expensive hobby in Singapore, and only slightly less so in Kuala Lumpur, unless of course you’re going the passable-but-boring Tiger beer route. When it’s time for a tipple I suggest hopping in a cab and heading out into the suburbs to Publika, a trendy lifestyle complex — okay, fine, a trendy mall — with art galleries, restaurants, bars, performance spaces, and an excellent supermarket, Ben’s Independent Grocer, that reminded me a lot of my favorite Whole Foods back in New York, on Houston Street.

I’ll definitely be revisiting Publika on return trips to KL. We didn’t get a chance to see much of the art or squeeze into any of the busy restaurants, but did suck down frosty mugs of Guinness and Kilkenny to the tune of Michael’s “Billie Jean” at unassumingly ’80s The Wall Street Bar, above, and snacked on French fries with blue-cheese dip at an outdoor table at hip The Bee, which regularly hosts an impressive lineup of local and international bands and is that still-rare Southeast Asian bar with craft beers on the menu. Bottles of Brew Dog (UK) and Kooinda (Australia) are available, but you’ll pay for the extravagance: R27 for a 12-ounce bottle, which is a bit rich for me.

Taps Beer Bar KL

While I’m generally loathe to splurge on craft-beer bottles, I’ll gladly pay a little extra for tall glasses of craft beer on draft. The lone spot to get the latter in KL is Taps Beer Bar, which is a short walk from the city’s commercial heart of Bukit Bintang in the One Residency building at 1 Jalan Nagasari. The chalkboard menu and well-curated draft selection that included Brewdog Hardcore IPA, Mikkeller Texas Ranger, and Nogne-O Der Kollaborator took me back to my old neighborhood craft-beer haunts in Brooklyn like Beer Street and Brouwerij Lane, and the bottle menu was tempting too — you won’t find many (any?) bars in Southeast Asia with, say, Mikkeller Dim Sum, available. (That beer, by the way, was brewed with lemongrass and coriander, and was made to celebrate the opening of Copenhagen’s Kiin Kiin, one of two Thai restaurants with a Michelin star; I’ll try it next time.)

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I only spent three days and two nights in KL, not enough time to make any sweeping generalizations about the city, good or bad, or to confidently answer Sheila’s question about its lack of buzz. I will say that two- or three-day doses of Kuala Lumpur are probably sufficient, which I wouldn’t say about many of the region’s other major cities, but I do agree with her: The locals are friendly, the food is excellent, the culture diverse, and the mix of architectural styles interesting — plus craft beers and puffy blue wizard things.

 

All photos copyright Brian Spencer and cannot be used without permission

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.