Tuesday, Jun. 08, 2010


By design or lack of populace, Kuala Lumpur is Asia's green capital, where monkeys scamper close to skyscrapers and the occasional boa constrictor slithers across six-lane traffic. Centered around a colonial inheritance of ordered landscaping and dominated by palm-lined freeways, K.L. offers room to breathe and to contemplate the meeting of cultures. And meet they do, with Malays, Chinese and Tamils augmented by an annual Arabian and Iranian invasion drawn by shopping and the Islam-lite atmosphere. The automotive merry-go-round can feel too suburban and downtown can seem sterile, but turn a corner and streets burst into exoticism and a riot of night markets. A restive art scene, driven by Malaysians' ongoing quest for shared identity, gives K.L. further heft.

1. Bukit Bintang

Wild, weird, crass, yet a creative crossroads, Bukit Bintang ("Star Hill" just doesn't sound as good) is K.L.'s civic strolling grounds, vast foot-reflexology parlor, Champs-Elysées and Times Square combined. This is where Lebanese kebab touts compete with discreet pimps, and venues for people-watching run the gamut from the cut-rate Sungei Wang Plaza to the upscale marble halls, trendy bars and lapping fountains of the Pavilion, K.L.'s latest temple of consumerism.

2. Central Market

Revamped and revived as a huge gifts emporium, the Art Deco wet market, centralmarket.com.my, nonetheless provides a focal point for piecing together K.L.'s past, taking in its current artsy-craftsy pulse and exploring nearby Chinatown. Better still is the Annexe, an alternative free space for the arts, hidden on the top of the market's small auxiliary building. On the ground floor, portraitists and street artists can be found — giving a dose of old-time character along the long-obscured riverfront.

3. Banana-Leaf Dining

No quotidian rite in K.L. is as instantly satisfying on so many levels — social, culinary, tactile — as digging with one's hands into all-you-can-slurp heapings of rice, dal and curried whatever, offered at the many Tamil establishments trademarked by using fans of banana leaf in place of plates. Most tasty and typical is Raju's Restaurant, tel: (60-3) 7956 1361, in the satellite town of Petaling Jaya, where the flakiest roti canai flatbreads are eagerly gobbled in a tree-shaded outdoor lot mornings and lunch.

4. The Bird Park

Amid the many family-oriented attractions set within the vast British legacy of Lake Gardens, none compare in hands-on fun to what's billed as the "world's largest free-flight walk-in aviary," KL Bird Park. Translation: chase peacocks and hornbills, pose with owls and parrots on one's shoulder, feed parakeets, watch ostriches lay eggs and be awed by soaring storks and flamingos in surroundings that hardly feel caged-in or too commercial.

5. Batu Caves

One of Malaysia's most distinctive geographical features is the labyrinth of spooky caves found within the country's limestone abutments. And you don't even have to be a full-fledged bat to appreciate them, especially when some are found on the edge of the city. K.L.'s biggest blasts of nature are the Batu Caves, whose awe-inspiring natural caverns are reachable by a cardiac stress test of 272 steps.

6. Islamic Arts Museum

Situated in airy white splendor just up the hill from the Modernist National Mosque, visitors might think this place an obligatory nod to the country's dominant faith, funded out of guilt as much as piety. If so, they would be wrong. Thankfully off the beaten path of most tour groups, the museum is a tremendous resource center for Islamic studies and a beautiful showpiece for the best impulses and artisanship that have unified (rather than divided) the Muslim cosmos. The permanent collection, traveling exhibitions and gift shop are all top-flight.

7. MAP

When enlightened developers decided to creatively jazz up the Solaris Dutamas housing complex, the result was an instant arts district. Still very much a work in progress, it's made up of a public piazza surrounded by several immense exhibition venues, rows of arty shops and MAP — an arts organization that runs a gallery and auditorium hosting K.L.'s ever irreverent theater, comedy and modern-dance regulars. Even the restrooms are being turned into conceptual works.

8. No Black Tie

The expat nightlife strip of Bukit Ceylon features an ever changing selection of venues offering everything from English ale to Cuban mojitos. The scene is small enough that you can table-hop until dawn, but the only place that delivers consistently is No Black Tie, the city's singular spot for jazz, Brazilian funk, poetry and the occasional dose of Chopin. It's all presented in wood-paneled sophistication by owner, hostess and pianist Evelyn Hii, K.L.'s leading cultural maven.

9. Little India

This tiny enclave offers enough of an injection of local color to last for a 100-mile radius. Grotty steam-table joints alternate with groceries peddling papaya-tomato soap, while spices waft along with tabla rhythms and the range of stacked embroidered textiles outdoes any tropical sunset. It's a cozy, safe enclave too: Madras without the madness.

10. Petronas Twin Towers

What would a trip to Malaysia's capital be without gawking at its 88-story Twin Towers, designed to mirror the country's high-tech ambitions and fuse stainless steel with hints of the Moorish? But if the hazy views from the midlevel Skybridge aren't so thrilling, and the amazingly varied food courts in the Suria KLCC Mall get too packed, there's still a much neglected park all around (with merry-go-round and mosque, jogging trails and more). Best of all, and perhaps least appreciated, is the acoustically sound Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, home to the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. Compact in its splendor and tucked away in the Towers' bowels, it's a symbol of the hidden cultural riches of K.L., whether Tchaikovsky seems appropriate or not.