A Weekend Getaway in Kuala Lumpur
With Malay, Chinese, Tamil and a host of other nationalities, Kuala Lumpur is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Asia. Year-round tropical climate, superb architecture and great food make it the perfect weekend escape, especially from chilly Tokyo winters. So, how can you make the most of a weekend in Malaysia’s capital city?
Head to Batu Caves
Because of its sizable Tamil population, you will find several Hindu temples in and around Kuala Lumpur. Located in the outskirts of the city, Batu Caves is one of Malaysia’s most popular attractions. One of its highlights is a giant golden statue of the Hindu deity Murugan, which guards the entrance of Cathedral Cave. This monument is the largest of its kind outside of the Indian subcontinent. Batu Caves is also the main site of a festival called Thaipusam. Every January, Hindu worshippers offer gifts to Murugan on structures called kavadis and pierce many parts of their bodies to show their devotion.
To avoid any embarrassment at this sacred site, you should wear clothing that covers your legs. Otherwise, you’ll have to rent a sarong before you’re allowed to climb the 272 steep stairs that lead to the entrance of Cathedral Cave. Stop on the way up to enjoy views of the city below. Also, while climbing the stairs, watch out for macaque monkeys who may try to steal food from your backpack or your bare hands. Several shrines are built in Cathedral Cave’s natural crevices. Beautiful rock formations hang from the 100-meter-high ceiling and jut out of the limestone floor. Murugan’s main temple stands on an elevated, natural platform, often bathed in sunlight that filters in through a large opening in the ceiling.
The Batu Caves complex also hosts an interesting art exhibition. Inside Cave Villa, there are brightly colored paintings depicting South Indian proverbs as well as sculptures of deities portraying various scenes from Hindu mythology. Deeper within Cave Villa you will also find a reptile gallery teeming with several species of snakes, fish and turtles. The lighting here is uncanny, making the location seem almost supernatural. Close to Cave Villa there is also a stage area where visitors can watch short cultural performances. Several peacocks roam freely here.
If you get hungry, there are a few restaurants in the area. Many serve Jain food, which mainly consists of subtly spiced vegetarian meals including South Indian thalis (small servings of curried vegetables served with rice) and dosas (thin pancakes filled with curried vegetables). Stalls selling colorful Indian sweets also line the street that runs parallel to the cave complex.
See Some World-Class Architecture
If you’re ever in Kuala Lumpur, the Petronas Twin Towers must not be missed. Although only opened in 1999, the architectural masterpiece has become iconic of Malaysia’s modernity. At night, the 88-story, 452-meter-high structures light up like futuristic spires, with bats circling up their steep sides. Designed by Cesar Pelli, the twin towers also represent a modern kind of diplomacy, as one of the towers was constructed by a Japanese firm while the other was built by a Korean firm. Even if you don’t take the touristic sky bridge, the views of the twin towers from ground level are still dizzyingly superb.
A Foodie’s Paradise
With such astounding ethnic diversity, it’s no surprise that Malaysia is a foodie’s paradise. Nasi lamak, Malaysia’s most popular national dish, can be found anywhere in and around Kuala Lumpur. The dish includes coconut milk-infused rice with fried peanuts, a boiled egg, anchovies and a spicy sauce. If you’d like to try it, a budget-friendly option that is also popular with the locals is Village Park Restaurant.
Although Malaysia is an Islamic country, there are a few restaurants that cater to pork lovers. In Changkat Bukit Bintang, a favorite nightspot with the local expat crowd, you will find El Cerdo. The cochinillo al estilo segoviano, or roasted suckling pig, is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. Don’t be surprised if one of the staff members asks you to chop the pig into three pieces with the edge of a ceramic plate and then to make a wish before dropping the plate into a wooden bucket!
Petaling Street, once home to a tapioca flour mill, is also a great place to try budget-friendly food like steamed buns, assam laksa (spicy noodle soup) and hokien mee (stir-fried noodles in soy sauce). Also head to Jalan Alor for cheap but tasty Asian-inspired street food such as satay, roasted barbecue pork and fried oyster egg.
A Mecca for Shopping
For those who love a good bargain, Petaling Street hosts a lively night market. Also, very close to Petaling Street is Central Market, the best place to buy authentic souvenirs. Here, you can get Malaysian batik pareos, Indian saris, local handicrafts, Chinese cheongsams, Malaysian ceremonial masks, and jewelry.
For a more upscale shopping experience, many locals go to The Pavilion in Jalan Bukit Bintang. Kuala Lumpur’s most luxurious mall hosts both local and international brands under one roof, and if you get hungry there are many restaurants to choose from, particularly Michelin-starred Taiwanese restaurant, Din Tai Fung.
Visit Malaysia’s Largest Mosque
The Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Masjid, more colloquially known as the Blue Mosque, is Malaysia’s largest and the second largest mosque in Southeast Asia. It’s a fine combination of Islamic and Malay architectural styles. Although the mosque isn’t in Kuala Lumpur, it’s in Shah Alam, within driving distance from the city. Although free to visit, you should dress appropriately before going. In particular, men and women should cover their legs. Even if you show up in shorts or otherwise inappropriate clothing, the mosque offers robes and headscarves to help you cover up. The guides are well trained, very friendly and eager to teach visitors about the mosque’s origins and the fundamental concepts of Islam.
Getting there: Many airlines fly from Narita to Kuala Lumpur. Once you get there, take the high speed train to downtown’s Sentral station. From there, you can get a prepaid taxi to your hotel.
Getting around: The easiest way to get around the city is by prepaid taxi or train. To get to Blue Mosque in Selangor, take a train to Shah Alam station and then take a taxi to the mosque.
When to visit: You can visit Kuala Lumpur anytime, but sunny days with blue skies are more common from May to July.
More info: To learn more about sightseeing in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia, see the country’s official tourist website.
Photos by Jesse Ramnanansingh.