Sweet-scented incense wafts thick and heady between the temple columns, blending with the meditative chants and hypnotic notes of a sitar-led quartet. Men and women, similarly dressed in gold-embroidered silks, press together to catch a glimpse of the shrine, where a loincloth-clad devotee zealously anoints a garlanded deity: first water for purity, then turmeric for health and finally sandalwood for prosperity.
I’ve stumbled across this auspicious ceremony at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple by chance. Its five-tiered gateway, adorned with a pantheon of polychrome Hindu idols, overlooks the thronging streets of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. It’s around the corner from Sin Sze Si Ya, a 150-year-old Taoist temple, where moments earlier I’d stood under a luminous string of vermillion lanterns and consulted Kau Cim (fortune-telling sticks) as little old women folded piles of sacred scrolls beside me. As I walked between the two temples, I’d heard the evocative call to prayer from a nearby mosque.
Such is life in Kuala Lumpur, a city whose diverse mix of cultures, faiths and races are drawn together in a thrilling smorgasbord of possibility. It morphs between shimmering skyscrapers and pencil-slim minarets, gargantuan shopping malls and hidden jungle dens, so that even the shortest of walks can entirely transform your impressions. It’s this quicksilver quality that makes unwrapping the city so exciting. Come with a good map and an open mind and you’ll soon take KL to your heart.
Less than 200 years ago, KL was little more than jungle. Then Chinese prospectors arrived, generating a booming mining trade. Forests were chopped and a scruffy trading post was set up on the junction of the Klang and the Gombak Rivers that soon assumed the name Kuala Lumpur, (‘muddy confluence’). In the 19th century, this became a social confluence, as a wave of immigrants brought their own cuisines, customs and architecture to the city.
Malaysian Chinese account for roughly a quarter of the country’s population. Their presence is felt in Jalan Petaling, a hectic thoroughfare in the heart of Chinatown. In full market-mode, it resounds with the sound of hawkers, peddling eye-catching imitation watches and flashy faux designer handbags. I weave past wheel-cart ladies ladling sea coconut and ‘dragon’s eye’ longan juice to seek out lunch in the Old China Café. Housed in a two-story shophouse — the kind once common to the area — it was previously the guildhall of a laundry association.
Behind swinging, saloon-style doors, dimly lit interiors provide a glimpse of the bygone cafe culture lived by early immigrant settlers. The scuffed plaster walls groan under an array of black-and-white photos, antique pendulum clocks and two sizeable mirrors, hung in a feng shui arrangement to perpetuate good luck. Delicious fusions of Malay-Chinese fare arrive at my marble-topped table. There’s tangy kapitan curry, rich in tamarind; crispy lobak pork rolls and sago gula melaka — a local dessert made from palm sugar and coconut milk.
From there, the metro delivers me to another era at Dataran Merdeka, KL’s palm-fringed central square and the former social centre of British colonial rule. Its grassy padang was once a cricket pitch and there’s still something of a refined air, albeit tempered by circling exhaust fumes. Taking pride of place around the square’s perimeter is the distinctive black-and-white facade of the mock-Tudor Royal Selangor Club, where well-to-do Europeans once rubbed shoulders as they applauded a good innings. At the centre stands a 312ft flagpole, where, in 1957, the nation’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, hauled down the Union Jack and hoisted up the Malay Stripes of Glory in declaration of independence.
But for all its history, Kuala Lumpur hasn’t shied away from embracing the future. A super-sleek monorail winds into a burgeoning business district known simply as KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre) that’s studded with an ever-increasing number of stratospheric skyscrapers. Here, luxury hotels vie for stardom and 10-tiered malls sprawl with enough nail bars, designer stores and food courts to make you giddy. Many are thankful for the icy air-con they provide, although I much prefer the balmy greenery of the KLCC Park, where, as passing joggers sweat it out, I can dip my toes into the man-made lake and gaze up at the city’s real showstoppers; the Petronas Towers.
There’s something mesmerising about these twin structures — their perfect unity; their geometric verve; the mastery of their subtle Islamic motifs. Desperate for a closer look, at sunset I follow city slickers to Marini’s on 57 — KL’s highest rooftop bar, offering front-row views of the towers. In the lobby, the doorman graciously hands me a pair of squeaky pink pumps to trade for my scrappy sandals. Perhaps he doesn’t realise that once the elevator opens at the 57th floor, no one will be looking down at my feet.
For dinner that evening I’m at the seductive forested lair of Tamarind Springs. Its only 15 minutes’ drive from KLCC but couldn’t feel more remote. A maze of zigzagging lantern-lit pathways encroached by giant leaves and tousled vines leads to an intimate dining deck set beneath a tropical palm-thatched roof. My Indochinese feast is accompanied by chirping birds and the flutter of giant butterflies, which perch on my tablecloth and make it easy for me to forget I’m in a city at all.
From there, I head to Bangsar, a complete antidote to the flashy KLCC, and the darling of KL’s trendsetting bourgeoisie. Perched high on a hill to the south west of the centre, this once down-at-heel outskirt now thrives with new art spaces, organic coffee shops, side-street murals and hole-in-the-wall boutiques. And while it may have lost its gritty edge, tourists still remain largely absent from its leafy streets, meaning a relaxed local atmosphere endures.
I head to Raj’s Banana Leaf — a no-frills curry house where frenetic waiters present banana leaves as refillable plates and heap them with rice, spice-rich curry and countless ladles of lip-puckering pickles and bitter gourds. With our elbows touching, conversation soon flows between me and my nearest neighbours — two regulars who instruct me on hand-to-mouth etiquette. “Only eat with your right hand,” they warn. “Fold the leaf when you’re finished. Inwards means you’ve enjoyed it, outwards means you won’t come again.”
Armed with an address scrawled on a post-it note supplied by my new friends, I order an Uber and minutes later arrive at a shadowy backstreet. Down a rickety stairwell, an inconspicuous basement door is scrawled with the words ‘No Admittance’ in five languages. I take a deep breath and push it open, thinking back to those temple fortune sticks and hoping now they’ll serve me well. A dark subterranean speakeasy, decked in tufted upholstery, opens before me. “Welcome to Omakase & Appreciate,” says the waistcoated bartender from behind a liquor-stacked bar. I pull up a stool beside a gaggle of well-dressed carousers ready for a long night’s sit-in.
Once again, just when I thought I had Kuala Lumpur sussed, this kaleidoscope city shifts to reveal something unexpected. A buttoned-up Asian metropolis it most certainly is not.
Kuala Lumpur’s hitlist
The grand art deco Central Market is a thriving bazaar. After an afternoon of frantic bartering, take a breather at The Annexe Gallery.
Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia
A palatial showstopper topped with a turquoise dome, it houses over 9,000 artifacts, ranging from grand mausolea to tiny, jewelled ornaments.
Amble down the western edge of Jalan Tun Sambanthan to Brickfields for scents of jasmine and frying appam pancakes plus henna artists and bhangra music.
This neon-lit urban entertainment/food and drink hub is split into five quarters, each featuring an eclectic set of see-and-be-seen venues.
Malaysia Airlines flies to KL from Heathrow from £679 return.
Published in the Malaysia 2016 guide, distributed with the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)