On a recent work trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I took a few days to play tourist. I ate and walked my way round several fun attractions, as well as being shown some local entertainments by my kind work hosts.
As always I’ll preface this by saying it’s a personal snapshot; my own thoughts, feelings and musings on my week staying in KL.
Working in Malaysia
One of the great privileges of the life I’m leading is that when I work in a new country I get to meet local people going about their daily lives. This time I was running a training course with a diverse group of people.
I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur (the eighth most visited city in the world) a few times now, but on the other occasions I flew in, worked, and flew out. This time I got to know the city a little better. My personal highlight was probably the food, as the mash of cultures means that they have some great dishes and cuisines here.
KL is a relatively young city, ‘founded’ in the 1850s by Chinese miners who opened a tin mine here (87 miners arrived and within a month all but 17 had died of malaria). The city’s early years continued to be tough, with disease, flood and fire destroying the city and its people many times over. Eventually the Brits, who’d come in and managed to wrestle power after in-fighting by Chinese gangs, decided that houses were better built of brick rather than the wooden houses that kept burning down, and in 1896 KL became the capital of what would eventually become an independent Malaysia in 1957.
I’d hesitate to call KL a melting pot, because as far as I can tell, there’s not a lot of romantic intermixing of the different cultures, but ethnically there are Indians, Chinese and Malays (I found this a bit confusing, honestly, as some of the ‘Indians’ I met were Malaysian going back three or four generations – Malays seemed to mean those with ancestors who’d been in the country before the British colonists, usually Muslim, but I could be wrong…do share your thoughts in the comments if you know!).
The fact that it’s a Muslim country means that there are also a lot of tourists and business people from Arabic countries. One thing I noticed that was quite different from Muslim countries I visit in the Middle East was that in Malaysia, the women tend to wear very brightly coloured hijabs (headscarves). In the UAE and Egypt, where I’ve worked, black tends to be the main colour – and there, men usually also wear traditional white robes (thawbs) and headdress. In Malaysia the men I saw tended to wear street clothes.
At one point on the train I found myself in a ‘ladies only’ LRT (like the subway or tube) carriage, which was a strange experience, but I felt like I was surrounded by flowers – much brighter colours than you might find in a London tube!
Accommodation: A Hotel with Warm Cookies and a Cosy City Centre Apartment
Work put me up at the very lovely Doubletree Hilton. The hotel has the slightly strange, but perfectly lovely, custom of greeting people with a warm cookie. Apparently they have a way of heating them behind the reception counter – yes, I asked.
The room was super-comfortable, and I loved the warm neutrals that my large room was decorated in, and I also liked the furniture (hooray, big armchairs!).
This time I’d gone a bit crazy and booked a cozy studio apartment in the centre of town. The highlight for me was a really lovely comfy sofa(!). The view from the large picture windows was of sunshine, skyscrapers and glittering glass, and it felt like a peaceful place despite being at the centre of the hustle and bustle of the city.
A Wonderful Walk Through KL’s Culture
The best thing I did as a tourist was go on a walking tour. This was called, rather tenuously, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’: you got to eat in three different cuisines, visit and if you liked, pray, at a Hindu and a Chinese temple – and ‘fall in love with KL’. Ahem.
There were only five of us in the group – it was a Sunday morning – and to my surprise, two of the others, both Americans, were also single business travellers, a female engineer and a male medical devices…something. Our tour guide, Sean, was unfailingly upbeat and enthusiastic about KL’s colonial architecture, much of which really is falling to pieces. There’s no such thing as listed houses here, so many of them have been left to rot, or have been knocked down for new buildings.
The tour introduced us to Teh Tarik and the thin-pancake-with-sweet-coconut-butter (that is a terrible description but it’s all I have) that’s called Roti Canai Kaya – the Canai’s important, as I found when I later tried to order it for myself. Roti means bread, so if you leave out the Canai when you order, what do you get?
We also went to a banana leaf indian cafe, where I learned to eat rice and curry with my (right) hand, which was a lot harder than it looks.
I loved the tour, and would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in food or culture and visiting Malaysia.
Modern Shopping Malls and the Science Museum
KLCC – Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre – is that name which is tagged to the area around said convention centre, where the famous ‘Petronas Towers’ are. These are the ‘twin towers’ of KL, with a viewing platform at the 80th floor, which I didn’t go to because I’m scared of heights, and actually have nightmares where I’m on the top of a very tall building without any walls between me and the outside (in the nightmare, I lie down flat like a starfish on the top of the building, and it’s all very unsettling).
I did visit the shopping centre underneath, where I mooched round the shops, had amazing noodles for a very small amount considering the upscale surroundings, went to the cinema (I saw Into the Woods, which was unsatisfying), had a haircut and went to the Petronas Science museum, which as you’d expect by a museum run by an oil company, has a lot of exhibits about oil. I did find the exhibit on the different jobs that people do on an oil platform pretty interesting (I am a work psychologist after all), but it made me think I never in a million years want to visit an oil rig.
Charmed by the Owls Whilst Offering the Ostriches Counselling at KL Bird Park
The other tourist activities I did were to go on the hop on, hop off tourist bus – which was pretty average – and spent an afternoon at KL’s Bird Park, ‘a wonder world of birds and a tropical paradise not to be missed by all’ and the ‘world’s largest free-flight walk-in aviary’.
There were plenty of peacocks, and a number of other colourful and unusual birds, though I’m not sure it quite lived up to the promises from the website. I felt sad for the birds of prey, who weren’t allowed to ‘free-fly,’ presumably because there wouldn’t be many of the other birds left if they did. My favourites were the extremely cute owls, many of which were in breeding pairs, and came with a very friendly trainer who clearly cared deeply for them. My least favourite? The emus and the ostriches, who, in their huge but well-built enclosures, I’d have to describe as angry.
Personalised Ice-Cream Creations (that taste better than they look)
A final highlight of the trip was a very kind client who not only gave me tips on where to go in the city, but also took me out for food with his team.
We went to a great Indian restaurant, where I had a ‘claypot’ style biryani, which was new to me, and very delicious, and in a less traditional but equally scrummy activity, we visited a ‘make your own Magnum’ cafe. This, I thought, was an excellent money-making wheeze on behalf of Magnum, whereby you get to choose your own vanilla or chocolate ice-cream base; three toppings (from a range that includes rose petals, gold balls, chilli flakes and sea salt); then the type of chocolate you want your Magnum coated with, and then the chocolate you want to be drizzled over the whole thing. Mine looked a bit of a mess (almonds, goji berries and oreos; vanilla ice-cream; dark chocolate coating and white chocolate drizzle), but tasted pretty good.
I really enjoyed the week in Kuala Lumpur, work and play, and found the city and people an interesting mix of cultures and backgrounds.
Oh, and did I mention the food?!
Have you been to KL? What did you think? What places did you visit or recommend? Share them in the comments – I’ll be back there soon!