To the casual traveler Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia (and KL to everyone that lives there), may not seem to have as much to offer when compared to other major cities in the region. It may not be packed with massive temples and Buddha statues like Bangkok, or flashiness of Singapore.
The iconic Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur
However, KL is a buzzing, sprawling metropolis, a miss mash of so many different cultures and a young, vibrant and VERY international population. All of these give it a great, unique edge over it’s neighbours. There is pretty much always something happening in KL, to suit everyones tastes. And with a little help you can discover these treasures for yourself.
So take this short guide as an introduction to the city and its many delights, that you won’t read in any guidebook. If you’re in Kuala Lumpur for more than a couple of days and are looking for an alternative to the major attractions then be sure to check some of these out…
1. Get a Tattoo
For many people, a great travel tattoo is the ultimate souvenir. I am very much one of those people. However, most of my tattoos come from one studio: Pink Tattoos in the Bangsar neighbourhood of KL. They’re also by far my best work.
Run by the awesome Lynda Chen, Pink Tattoos eschew the usual Asia tattoo studio aesthetic of either dark and grungy or crusty, wannabe Rasta for something much more fun. The space is a reflection of Lynda and the gangs personalities: quirky, colourful and totally obsessed with owls. This is also true of their designs, which have some fantastic colouring and incredible detailing.
Where to find it: Pink Tattoos are on Jalan Telawi, just around the corner from Bangsar Village Shopping Centre. You can get a taxi to the studio from Bangsar LRT station for Rm4 ($1.25).
2. Try Out Malaysia’s National Burger
Malaysians, as a people, are completely obsessed with food. Which is understandable when you consider the sheer range and quality on offer from all the different ethnic groups that live here. But in between all the Indian, Malay and other world cuisines there is an unsung hero of Malaysian street food: The Ramly Burger. They’re delicious, cheap and a point of national pride for many Malaysians.
Ramly Burger stands can be found across the city, but no two stands are ever the same. Where as most fast food restaurants strive for an identical product from every franchise, Ramly burgers pride themselves on each stand giving the burgers a unique twist. And so it is that many KL residents will frequent one individual stand above all others their whole lives, confident that they have found the best in the city.
Where to find it: The stands are dotted all over the city and while some move around there is a permanent one at the south end of Jalan Alor (the main food stall street for tourists) as well any of the gardens and parks in the city. Just look out for the red, yellow and green stalls.
3. Learn to Swing
There is a thriving, vibrant contemporary dance scene in KL, catering for almost any style and level of experience. Every night of the week, in bars across the city there are classes, workshops and dance socials for everything from Salsa to Hip Hop. The most fun by far is KL Swing! (http://www.klswing.com), a group dedicated to swing music, swing dancing and the Lindy hop. Swing dancing is also a relatively easy to learn dance style, the focus much more on fun and energy than technical skill.
As well as regular social events, KL Swing! also host free weekly classes, for all levels. The teachers are great fun and very patient and attentive. And the regulars love having new people to join in. So even if its your first night, and you’ve never danced before in your life, expect to be dragged out on the dance floor for a swing.
Where to find it: KL Swing! hold weekly free classes for beginners at Sid’s Pub in South Bangsar. The pub is a short walk from Universiti LRT stop, just up the hill to the right.
4. Seek Out Some Street Art
KL has a big culture of street art, which can be seen sprayed across many of the slightly ruined old buildings in Chinatown, and down most of its alleyways. The local government has also embraced, for the most part, this burgeoning art scene and the city’s many parks and gardens often host exhibitions for local artists.
Not all of the pieces are quite so welcomed by the government however. Malaysians are a very politically charged people, constantly on the receiving end of their governments corruption and inefficiency. Naturally this shines through on much of the street art in the capital. It can be great fun seeking out the angrier of these and trying to discern the political messages behind them.
Where to find it: Pretty much any of the city’s neighbourhoods except maybe Bukit Bintang. There is plenty along the banks of the Klang river and old run down buildings in Chinatown. Lake Gardens in Brickfields sometimes holds outdoor exhibitions.
5. Go for An Old School Shave
Going for a shave at a mens salon in Brickfields, KL’s Little India, is like stepping into an odd time capsule. With their mix of Hindu kitsch, worn out 80’s style posters and 60’s furniture they are a throwback to a time when the salon was a place for men to socialise as much as the local pub. Except that at the pub, you might still have some women hanging around.
Its not just the decor that is old school at these places: they still use single blade, sheer razors and shaving cream with a brush and a hot towel. It’s rare you’ll get this experience these days without paying for the ‘novelty value’. In KL it will set you back just $2.
Where to find them: Most of the barbers are dotted along Brickfields’ main streets, just look out for the red and white candy canes. There is also one in Chinatown on the corner of Jalan Hang Katsuri, opposite Central Market shopping centre.
6. Go for an Olympic Sized Swim
KL can get pretty hot and humid at times, and if it hasn’t rained in while it can be downright suffocating. So after an afternoon of sightseeing in the sweltering heat, you’re going to want to cool down. You could do like the Malaysians do and hang out at the numerous shopping malls. Or, a little more fun, head to the outdoor pool at Chin Woo Stadium.
The pool is olympic sized, sat on a hill overlooking Chinatown and a short walking distance from most of the hostels there. It also has a small cafe and plenty of space to sun bath, read a book and enjoy a quiet oasis in the middle of the busy city. The sunsets aren’t bad either.
Where to find it: Chin Woo Stadium is located on a small hill just south of Chinatown. Walk along Jalan Sultan, at the back of Petaling Street and turn the corner up the hill. The stadium is on the right.
7. Rock Climbing at Batu Caves
Batu Caves are the most sacred place in Peninsular Malaysia for the countries Hindu population. Within the caves are a number of shrines and temples, the biggest sitting atop a flight 272 steps, guarded on the outside by a massive statue of Lord Murugan, to whom the caves are dedicated. Batu Caves is also home the annual Thaipusam Festival, something that needs to be seen to be believed.
Aside from the religious sites, Batu Caves is also home to some great rock climbing. The caves are part of a massive outcrop of limestone, as high as 150m. There are over 100 routes scattered along the rocks for all levels, but most of the best are found at Damai Caves to the north east of the main shrines.
Where to find it: Batu Caves are 13km outside of Kuala Lumpur. They can be accessed by bus from Central Market in Chinatown or on the KTM train line from KL Sentral transit station. It takes 45-60 minutes. While experienced climbers might like to bring their gear and find their own routes, there are a number of adventure companies offering courses and guides in the area.
About the author: Conor Walsh is the guy behind Escaping The Mainstream, where he writes about everything from long term travel and working on the road, to his love of street food and Cambodian rock n’roll. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.