Kuala Lumpur doesn’t get a lot of positive press. Not quite as glitzy or vibrant as say Singapore or Bangkok, it’s like the rather plain sister who gets passed over at the prom. However the city does have several interesting and off the beaten path sights and attractions, plus a few more notable ones, and with all of its modern conveniences and excellent transportation system, is actually a very enjoyable spot to pass a weekend.
Most visitors start off their journey to KL with a trip to Merdeka Square, the site of Malaysia’s celebration of independence in 1957, where one of the world’s largest flagpoles marks the spot of freedom from British rule. This area is full of historical buildings and time period architecture, such as the Mogul style Sultan Abdul Samad Building, now home to the Ministry of Arts and Culture and one of KL’s major landmarks. There is also the Tudor style Royal Selangor Club, and the old Railway Heritage Building that is now the National Textile Museum. All of these sights, along with the stylish Masjid Jamek, lie at the confluence of the Klang and Gambok rivers, an extremely picturesque spot with large trees and green space along the river banks fronting majestic colonial homes and buildings considered to be the true heart of the city.
To take a break from the heat of the day in this neighborhood, and perhaps experience a bit of Kuala Lumpur from its past, wander into Sing Seng Nam, a traditional coffee house from the early 1900’s, where British businessmen and lawyers convened amongst the marble table tops and wood shuttered windows to discuss ongoing business. These days, Malay lawyers from the nearby courts continue the tradition, sipping the restaurant’s strong and sweet kopi peng (iced coffee) while digging in to some of the best Hainanese chicken rice that is served in town. Lunch hour sees Sing Seng Nam at its most vibrant, and most of its food is gone by 2pm.
If you are still feeling hungry, head downtown to the KL Pavillion in Bukit Bintang, a giant retail mall filled with shopping opportunities and one vast floor dedicated to every gourmet food possibility on the planet. Over 70 restaurants and stalls offer everything from organic fruit smoothies to Thai, sushi, Vietnamese, Korean, Western, Lebanese, and yes, even Malaysian cuisine.
For something completely unique and for a memorable activity you cannot experience anywhere else in the world, get off the tourist trail and pay a visit to the headquarters of Malaysia Airlines, where you can have the experience of a lifetime. At MH’s pilot training academy, members of the public can now be participants in the company’s Flight Simulator Experience, something that until recently was only reserved for pilots in training. Now visitors can go into one of the eight aircraft simulators owned by Malaysia Airlines, including Boeing 747’s and an Airbus 380, all of which have full motion and visual systems and can create a level of realism as close to the actual art of flying as possible.
The inside of the simulators are identical to a cockpit, with all of the appropriate buttons, levers, and display units, and a series of computer commands allows one to take off or land in any kind of weather conditions at any commercial airport in the world. During my simulated run, I chose to take off from London Heathrow in a snowstorm, and shortly after the click of a button, I found myself immersed in a world of white, trying to navigate through the correct airport beacons. The simulators can create turbulence, engine failure, and even almost approximate crash conditions in order to better train aspiring pilots to be prepared for the real thing.
While the cost of a simulator experience isn’t cheap, compared to what the fancy machines themselves go for (upwards of ten million dollars), it is a bargain. And if the simulated experience of takeoff and landing proves that inspiring, one can sign up for the actual intensive pilots’ training, which provides a lot more stringent cockpit time.
Getting back to the tourist trail, of course no visit to Kuala Lumpur is complete without a sojourn to the Petronas Towers. The famed 88 story dual towers, one of the world’s tallest structures, rise 452 meters above the ground, are connected by a Skybridge on the 41st floor, and are KL’s most recognized landmark, visible from anywhere in the city and its surroundings.
Designed by the architect Caesar Pelli, the towers are based on simple Islamic geometric forms and are supposed to reflect the Islamic principles of unity, harmony, stability, and rationality. The towers rise above the huge Suria KLCC shopping mall complex, and a visit to the Skybridge or the 86th floor Observation Deck requires tickets, which are available on a first come first serve basis from the ticket counter in the Concourse level.
For something even more memorable and if you are in the mood for a splurge, the Malaysian Petroleum Club’s elegant ‘members only’ restaurant recently opened its doors to the public for dinner and lunch as part of a premium package ticket that includes a visit to the Observation Deck and Skybridge. The fare is Chinese or Japanese, extremely appetizing, and formal dress is required for entry.
If one thinks the only bird’s eye view of the city comes from Petronas Towers or the nearby space needle-like KL Tower, there is another off the beaten track option to consider. Well known to locals, but not on most tourists’ agendas, the aptly named Lookout Point offers some outdoor dining options with great vistas of the metropolis and surroundings.
Actually located in in Ampang city some 15 kilometers from KL, the Lookout Point sits up on top of Bukit Belacan Hill, which is 280 meters high and has some unparalleled views of the entire metropolitan skyline. Several restaurants, including Gasoline Cafe, The Haven, LOP Western Food, and Panorama offer a variety of different cuisines and al fresco settings from which to take in the magnificent vistas. Weekends get pretty crowded, and the best time to go is right after a big rain, when the prevalent haze that covers the city is washed away.
Besides gazing at the brightly lit city landmarks or wandering around the bustling Bukit Bintang club and pub area, there is a quirky alternative to KL’s standard nighttime activities. In the Shah Alam district of Selangor, you can gaze at one truly weird exhibit, thousands of colored LED lights that are scattered throughout the fake trees and sculptures that are part of this futuristic park. It may sound rather schmaltzy, but it actually looks pretty spectacular. By day, I-City, as the technology park is known, is just a bunch of office space and plans for a future super technology living-workspace in the suburbs a la Silicon Valley. Yet at night it transforms into a giant digitally lit up park, filled with young couples holding hands, families posing for photo ops, and those bright and colorful LED’s. Additionally, the park boasts a 50,000 square meter Arctic attraction called the SnoWalk, which has 100 tons of ice sculptures imported and designed from Harbin, China, plus 100 meters of real snow on the ground, another first for Malaysia.
Back downtown, if you are looking for something a little more serious and artistic to contemplate, the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia is well worth a stopover. Housed amidst the leafy Lake Gardens, the museum is Southeast Asia’s largest Islamic arts gallery, and is filled with over 7000 artifacts, including a fascinating display of colorful Korans and other Islamic books from various periods and places around the globe.
The four story museum has twelve galleries and ongoing changing exhibits. Most visitors tend to be enthralled by the model room, which features full scale model replicas of all of the major Islamic mosques and holy sites in the world, including a large model of the impressive Majid al-Haram in Mecca. At the other end of the spectrum, the jewelry hall holds some of the world’s tiniest jewel pieces, plus other rare items such as Turkmeni headdresses or gold Iranian anklets. China and India’s Islamic offerings are heavily featured, as are those of Southeast Asia. Presently, the museum is showing a comprehensive exhibition on Science and Innovation in the Islamic World.
Still feeling at a loss for things to do? Then better start planning your return trip for the Formula One Grand Prix Series, which usually occurs during the first few weeks of April each year. Needless to say, accommodations, transportation, and all else are booked out for months in advance, and you most certainly won’t have the place to yourself.