Thursday 27 July 2017

Kuala Lumpur: Asia's towering tiger

Forget Hong Kong and Bangkok. John Meagher discovers the joys of a stopover in KL

Kuala Lumpur's iconic Petronas Towers
Kuala Lumpur's iconic Petronas Towers
An outdoor mamuk restaurant on Chinatown's Petaling street
Spices and vegetables at a street market
The port city of Melaka and its imposing Christ Church is two hours from KL
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is just past midnight and the crowds are packed into the Sky Bar of the high-rise Traders Hotel. The floor-to-ceiling glass windows frame Kuala Lumpur's jagged skyline and the Petronas Towers -- briefly, in the 1990s, the world's tallest -- stand glowing against the night sky.

As the DJ plays the deafening, on-trend music and the beautiful people sip cocktails around the swimming pool, Malaysia's capital seems -- fleetingly, at least -- to be the hippest place on the planet.

Kuala Lumpur -- or KL as it's known locally -- once played second (and third) fiddle to the Southeast Asia giants of Singapore and Hong Kong. But no more.

This is a thriving and exciting, if undeniably tacky, city to appeal to a wide range of tourists, as well as a popular stop-off for travellers to Australia and New Zealand. And with many of our young emigrants heading to that part of the southern hemisphere, KL is very much on their radar.

Some of them may pitch up at Traders' bar (in the heart of KLCC -- Kuala Lumpur City Centre), where, if they ignore the incredible vista past the window panes, they might imagine themselves to be in an Ibiza hotspot. Not for the first time, I have to remind myself that I am in a predominantly Muslim country.

There's a glaring disparity between the wealthy and the poor in this city of 1.6 million people. With an unfeasibly large number of enormous shopping malls tenanted by the giants of European fashion -- Prada, Louis Vuitton, Armani -- as well as flashy supercars roaring down the busy highways, there's little doubt that some of the locals, and many of the westerners who've made this country home, are doing very well for themselves. Then there are the young Muslim women toting Chanel handbags and Hermès headscarves.

KL is a comparatively new city. It traces its origins to the 1850s, when tin prospectors established a trading post there, but its city status was only conferred as recently as 1972.

Since the 1980s -- when Malaysia experienced a tiger economy fuelled by mining and palm-oil production -- KL has grown rapidly. Its rise from provincial backwater to financial hub is evident from the new skyscrapers jostling for attention.

The Petronas Towers, opened in 1998, encapsulate the city's transformation. A resplendent structure sitting atop yet another shopping mall and in front of an impeccably manicured park, it's one of the city's top draws. But you have to get there early to earn one of 1,700 free passes distributed daily to the sky bridge, some 41 floors up.

If you're looking for a far loftier view, the KL communication tower might induce vertigo from its 420m vantage. But in the shadow of these slender towers and fanatically clean shopping meccas, there's another KL -- one the Ferraris stay well clear of. This is a run-down but exhilarating Kuala Lumpur of open sewers, street stalls and trishaws (pedal rickshaws). All human -- and animal -- life is here and you can lose yourself in the back streets as you're enticed by smell or sight or sound.

There are any number of flea markets, too, where you can pick up souvenirs, especially if you want to get your hands on the country's famous wax-printed textile, batik, which women of all ages wear.

Somehow it helps them cope with the oppressive heat of Malaysia -- it gets very hot and humid. Ilham batik is especially good for gifts, and although the sales staff can be a little robust in their enthusiasm for you to buy, there's never the sense of being hassled that I found in Turkey.

Be warned, though -- much of the 'traditional Malaysian' goods I saw were made in China, not here.

If you want to be sure that what you're buying was made in the country, it's worth shopping at one of the official, government-sanctioned Malaysia Craft Centres dotted throughout the city. You do pay far more than you would in a bazaar, but the quality is in a different league.

Malaysia's tourism strapline "Truly Asia" is especially apt in KL. It prides itself on being a melting pot of cultures and nationalities, although it's a city that doesn't lend itself to easy pigeon holing.

Perhaps its ethnic mix is best understood through its food. KL offers wonderful opportunities for the gourmet, thanks to the sheer variety available at prices suited to all pockets.

You can eat very well for a couple of euros in a rundown back alley, but if you feel like a more salubrious setting -- such as the restaurants on the top floors of all those department stores -- prepare to pay prices even steeper than you would in Dublin.

I had the best sashimi I've tasted outside Japan in Sushi Tei in the palatial Pavilion shopping mall on Jalan Bukit Bintang, but it cost more than the previous three days' meals combined.

The food captures the ethnic mix of the population. There's traditional Malay, a mix of regional Chinese and southern and northern Indian as well as Portuguese, in deference to Malaysia's colonial past. The influence of its other conquerors, Holland and Britain, is more keenly felt in architecture and finance than in cuisine.

At every turn, I notice an incredible sense of pride with which it's served (irrespective of what end of the price spectrum you're at) that makes dining in this city such an unadulterated pleasure. There's a bewildering variety of steamed fish to be savoured and vegetarians are in for a treat, too. This avowed carnivore has rarely eaten vegetables with such enthusiasm.

A UK tourist, whose table I shared at a busy mamak -- an unnamed, open-air restaurant -- captured the essence of Malaysian cuisine by likening it to the best Chinese food meeting Indian spices.

Every tourist who visits KL eventually makes it to the city's bustling Chinatown. You need to have your wits about you in these jammed warrens, but it is impossible to be bored here. Petaling Street is a shopper's paradise, with its mix of quirky stores and street stalls laden with goods of every description.

I find myself magnetically drawn here and buying bric-a-brac I hadn't known I wanted. Months later, I still haven't opened the mahjong set that looked so enticing, but the noodle bowls have proved to be far more useful.

As a lover of cities, I could have stayed in KL for weeks on end, but the humidity can be oppressive for much of the year. It's little surprise that those who visit Malaysia also head to slightly cooler climes, including the picturesque port city of Melaka just a couple of hours away by bus.

This is a city steeped in historical intrigue. There are remarkable churches -- especially the bright-red Christ Church, built in the Dutch style -- and a meandering river that lends itself to languid cruises. Look out for the enormous monitor lizards that swim in water and bask on its banks.

And then there's the part of Melaka that will be forever Iberian. The Portuguese Settlement is a must for any visitor to the city -- a pocket that has retained a venerable European flavour, from the food to the music and dancing.

Although Melaka is outwardly charming, it's clear its heritage was tampered with in the recent past. That's obvious when you consider that many of the city's attractions are merely replicas of the magnificent buildings that once stood there.

But even these have their charms, and the most spectacular is the Melaka Sultanate Palace -- a wooden museum that gives a sense of life in the area in the 15th century.

Like KL, Melaka offers boundless delights for the foodie and of the many varieties I try, it is Nyonya cuisine -- Chinese ingredients flavoured with Malay herbs and spices -- that's as flavoursome as it is memorable.

Malaysians -- whether in KL or Melaka -- can't understand why their food isn't as celebrated globally as Thai or Vietnamese. Visitors will be left scratching their heads, too.

NEED TO KNOW

GETTING THERE

I travelled to Kuala Lumpur from Dublin, via Heathrow, with Malaysia Airlines (01- 676 2131; malaysiaairlines. com). Trailfinders (01-6777 888; trailfinders.ie) has a return fare with the airline for €746 including taxes.

STAYING THERE

Double rooms in the downtown five-star Traders Hotel (shangri-la.com) cost from €125. In Melaka, the Hotel Equatorial (equatorial.com) is a comfortable base close to the main attractions, with doubles from €160.

For more tips, visit Tourism Malaysia’s website www.tourism.gov.my/

WHEN TO GO

If you’re after tropical heat and a lively atmosphere, May to September, the dry season, is the time to go. March, April, October and November are less crowded months but be prepared to risk a few showers.

DON’T MISS

Haggling for a deal under the bright lights of the city’s night markets.

Nature-spotting in Butterfly Park, home to 120 species.

Soaking up KL’s colonial past with drinks on Merdeka Square. Sampling the city’s cheap eats at a mamak. Pampering your weary legs with a foot rub.

ESSENTIALS

Malaysia is a Muslim country. Both men and women should dress appropriately by covering everything to the knees and over the shoulders.

While alcohol is widely available in Malaysia’s cities, those who venture off the beaten track may struggle to find a cold beer. If you’re thirsty, try an air kelapa (coconut water).

A 30 to 90-day visa will be given to Irish citizens on arrival.

Malaysia’s currency is the ringgit — €1 is worth about four MYR. KL is eight hours ahead of GMT.

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