By Jana Thevar
It’s always interesting to hear what foreigners think of Malaysia. Every time I travel and people ask me where I’m from and I say it, I get all kinds of reactions. Good ones, so far.
“Oh my God, Malaysia?!”
“You’re soooooo lucky.”
The last statement was said to me by an European girl I was having tea with in Madurai.
“Why am I lucky?” I asked.
Her eyes widened. “The SUN!” she exclaimed. “All that sunshine. You get so much SUN! The beach.” She sighed prettily and let herself melt away onto the table in an exaggerated expression of pleasure.
I laughed. Cute girl. She was right, of course. But if only she knew how Malaysians reacted to the sun. How we’re tired of getting too much of it, how we’re constantly running away from it. How people here carried umbrellas and wore long driving gloves to avoid getting tanned. How obsessed we are with air-conditioning.
As much as I love being everywhere else, I really love Malaysia. Tropical vegetation, blue seas, blue skies. Multiracial, multicultural, both rural and urban in almost equal measure. Like any other country we have our ups and downs (including some of the most corrupt politicians in the world), but I’d rather focus on the good stuff.
As with every major city in the world, there’s always a recommended bunch of typical touristy stuff to do. Kuala Lumpur (KL) is no exception, as a Google search will show you.
If you really must look at two colossal steel-and-concrete towers that supposedly represent this city, by all means go ahead. However, I think KL has so much more to offer.
While the towers are shiny and pretty and everything, I’m of the opinion that the lifeblood of Kuala Lumpur lies in the whole vibe, the collective energy that powers this city. The heart and soul of KL lies in the diversity of its people, food, street life, traffic jams, art and culture.
Having lived all 35 years of my life in this city and Singapore next door, here’s my recommended list of things to experience in Kuala Lumpur. Would you like to live the life of a KLite, do the things we do, at least for a while? Then read on.
But first, a little introduction to the local lingo.
***Special Note on Language: Sentences with the Lah Suffix.***
Most KLites speak English, at levels varying from basic to excellent. While many of us locals speak the language really well, we have a unique way of conversing among ourselves, irrespective of race and ethnic background, a phenomenon known to some as ‘Manglish’.
What’s that? Well, somewhat broken English, peppered with words from various languages and dialects spoken locally including Malay, Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin, Tamil, Punjabi and more. For example, macha (Tamil: brother-in-law), jom (Malay street slang: let’s go), tapau (Hokkien: take-away food). Whenever Malaysians get into this mode and start talking like this in a group, we’d understand each other perfectly. Observing foreigners, meanwhile, are generally baffled.
Brian here says some interesting things about Malaysian culture, and a bit about the language.
To talk like us, add lah to the end of random sentences in conversations with Malaysians. A good way to start trying this out is when you’re ordering food at Malaysian restaurants. You’ll probably use it wrong, but hey, who cares. You’ll surprise the locals, have a good laugh with them and make some great friends – guaranteed.
Here are some recommended ways to use lah accurately:
- This is my first time visiting Malaysia lah.
- Can lah / Cannot lah. (When asked if something can or cannot be added to your food, ie pork).
- It’s so hot lah.
- I want to buy a drink lah.
- Can you lower the price? Too expensive lah.
- Can I have this in blue? I don’t like red color lah.
- This food is cold lah. Can you reheat it please?
- This tea is too hot lah. Can you tarik it for me? (Manglish Bonus Point: two street slang words in one go)
So try it. Use the lah. Use it everywhere. Have fun with it, because this doesn’t work outside Malaysia. Where else can you mess up English like this and get away with it?
Now for the list of stuff to try.
10 Ways to Experience Kuala Lumpur Like a Local
#1 – Taste Signature Malaysian Dishes in KL
Oh the food. KL is a terrible place to be on a diet. If you’re visiting for the first time, don’t even try.
Trying to describe Malaysian food in one blog post is like trying to describe that Avatar planet in one sentence. We have such an incredible variety of grub here that no amount of writing is ever going to do justice to our endless array of gastronomic delights. For the sake of readers however, I will simplify the must-try list of KL-Malaysian foods per below.
Roti canai and teh tarik combo. This is a common Malaysian staple of Indian-Muslim origin. Roti canai is a type of flat bread that is made by spinning the dough in the air until it stretches out. Teh tarik is milk tea that gets its name from being ‘pulled’ – poured in a long stretch from one container to another, until it develops a surface foam. If you’re at the right places, you’ll get to view the impressive theatrics of the undeniably-skilled people making these dishes.
Not a very clear video and probably not Malaysian, but this is a demo of how extreme teh tarik skills can get.
A very KL thing to do is visit a mamak (generally means Indian Muslim) restaurant or street stall, order these, then sit around chatting for hours with friends. You can do this any time of the day and almost anywhere in the city. By the way, the term ‘mamak‘ has also come to mean almost any food place that stays open late, or simply the act of hanging out at these places.
Banana leaf rice. A South Indian style of eating that’s popular in KL. It’s basically rice, curries, vegetables and your choice of Indian meat dishes served on a fresh banana leaf. I’ve done a series of restaurant reviews for KL and Klang Valley for my ‘Banana Leaf Mythbusters’ series: Devi’s Corner, Ganapathi Mess, Nirwana Maju and Moorthy’s Mathai.
The ‘proper’ way is to eat with your fingers, but you can use cutlery and nobody will care. We KLites are a laid-back bunch. So laid back we’re late all the time for everything.
Nasi lemak. Traditional Malay dish, popular for breakfast. Consists of coconut milk rice, anchovies, a chilli paste, fried peanuts, cucumber and an egg. You can buy it almost anywhere here and it’s often dirt cheap.
Pan mee. Noodle-based dish of Hakka origin. The star of this dish is the chilli powder-paste. Go easy on the heat if it’s your first time.
Nasi kandar. Rice that can be combined with various curries, meats and vegetables. Ask for a mix of all available curries to eat it like we do.
Nasi goreng. Fried rice, comes in many variations from Chinese to Kampung (village) style. (Malay: goreng = fried)
Noodles. Laksa, mee kolok, tomyam, curry mee, mee goreng mamak, Maggi goreng, fried koay teow. (Note: mamak = Indian Muslim; this term may also be used to refer to hawker and street food in general).
Chinese street and hawker food. Chinese food here is phenomenally delicious. Also, unlike most street fare in Southeast Asia, Chinese food is usually well-tolerated by even the most sensitive of stomachs. The reason for this is Chinese food in KL is always prepared on the spot with fresh ingredients and served piping hot (killing most bacteria like e-coli).
Durian anything. Despite the high entertainment factor, I don’t recommend durian to foreigners anymore as they just can’t handle it. If you’d like to try one for the sake of experience, then you have an endless variety, from the fresh fruit itself to flavored desserts and ice cream.
#2 – Take a Walk Through Masjid India, Brickfields or Jalan Tengku Kelana
These are the ‘Little India’ parts of KL. You can walk around, window shop and simply browse without buying anything and nobody will mind in the least. The shopkeepers are usually more than willing to show you around.
These are great places to buy lungis, kurtas, bangles, bindis, spices, statues and other cool ethnic stuff without being ripped off like in other tourist traps. So walk into some clothing stores and let them tie a saree on you – they’ll do it with a smile. Or, have an Indian tailor sew you some ‘instant’ Bollywood-style stuff on the spot (they charge extra if you want it soon, but it’s totally worth it for a custom-made outfit).
After you’re done for the day, you can finish off with some delicious Indian food at one of the numerous restaurants in any one of those areas.
#3 – Check out the Bukit Bintang Area
This is the more glitzy part of town and it doesn’t sleep. Bukit Bintang (Literal translation: Star Hill) includes Changkat Bukit Bintang (nightlife and clubs), Bintang Walk (shopping malls, street stalls, buskers), Starhill Gallery (upscale mall), Lot 10 (mall) and more of that kind of thing. There’s a whole lot to do here, so take a stroll and look around. Lots of Arabic culture here too, so you can try the food or indulge in some shisha.
The Sahara Tent is my shopping pit stop, where I refuel on Arabian mint tea and to-die-for baklava.
If you decide to hit the clubs, the great news is that you can always find a place to eat after you’re done, even if that means 4am. This is thanks to the concept of 24-hour mamak restaurants and stalls in KL. So if you need an ice-lime drink and a hot meal to sober up, you’ll always have some place to go in KL.
#4 – Visit Places of Worship
I think it’s always nice to follow a local friend to visit their place of worship, regardless how you feel about religion and higher powers. In my experience, most Malaysians will gladly take you with them for prayers, provided you have an open mind.
The main religion in Malaysia is Islam, followed by Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. So there’s a whole bunch of pretty temples and mosques around, such as the National Mosque, Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple, Batu Caves Hindu Temple. My favorite is the red Putra Mosque, picturesque on a lake in Putrajaya. Do note that if you’d like to visit places of worship, you’re required to dress modestly (for mosques, you’d be required to cover your body, full arms and legs, plus hair and neck for women).
Most churches in Malaysia are unfortunately square and boring on the outside, as I’ve heard it’s got something to do with regulations about the architecture for Christian buildings. This is a real shame, but then again there’s always Europe for those gorgeous Gothic and Baroque cathedrals.
#5 – See the Whole City by Train (LRT)
In Kuala Lumpur, almost every major tourist attraction is accessible by trains. It’s such a cheap and convenient way to see the city. There’s the LRT and Monorail (these go high above the ground, so you get a good view of the sights and can decide to get off at stops if you see a place that catches your fancy) and KTM train (ground level).
Consider buying an LRT token for a long random journey across KL city – it’s kind of like a tour bus, but you get to people-watch as well since regular Malaysians use these trains for their daily commutes.
KL Sentral is the main station where all the trains meet, so that’s a good place to start when planning your journey. Carry an umbrella (or use a cap / hat) and water with you if you ever plan to walk for long distances in KL. So yes, travel like we do.
#6 – Immerse Yourself in the KL Art Scene: Visit Balai Seni Visual Negara (National Visual Arts Gallery) or Support Indie Music at Merdekarya
This place is worth your time if you’re a lover of visual art, and would like a taste of what Malaysian artists have to offer. Balai Seni Visual Negara houses some truly fantastic pieces from local talents, many of whom are not internationally known.
The building itself is spacious, well-maintained and beautifully minimalist in terms of design. The best part is that this place is almost always empty – for some peculiar reason, Malaysians don’t seem to value visual art all that much.
If art galleries are not your thing, head over to Merdekarya for some indie music. Fantastic place with a very down-to-earth vibe, it’s well-known in local art circles. Remember to bring enough to tip the musicians.
#7 – KL Bird Park
A pleasant free-flight aviary with plenty of free-ranging, friendly birds. The whole area is canopied with netting that keeps it cool in the day. KL Bird Park is good for adults and kids alike. Great for practicing your photography as the birds come up close.
#8 – Muzium Negara (National Muzium)
Some people think muziums are lame, but hey, they’re good places to be if you like history. Muzium Negara is quite nicely done, and if you feel like a leisurely stroll down Malaya Memory Lane for the cost of practically nothing, go here. Dioramas, artifacts, stories about the Colonial Era and the Sultanate…you may just end up enjoying yourself. After all, how often do you get to selfie with a bunch of ancient Malay dudes?
#9 – Hang Out at Malls
Surprised that I’m recommending something as dumb as malls? Hear me out.
Malls here are huge, common, easily accessible by public transportation and a pleasant way to cool off after the unbearable midday heat. Also, great for shopping as there’s always some kind of sale going on. In addition, consider catching a movie at GSC, MBO or TGV, as most major malls have a cinema.
And you know what? Malls are a very KL thing. We do this a lot.
#10 – Hiking
The best part about KL is that you don’t need to drive out that far from the city for a good hike. There are trails and spots varying from easy to challenging, depending on what you need. Check out FRIM (Forest Research Institute Malaysia – easy), Bukit Broga (moderate), all Bukit Tabur treks (can be challenging), Bukit Gasing Forest Reserve (easy to moderate) and more.
- As a tropical city, KL can get very hot. Protect your skin, head and stay hydrated. Avoid the midday heat.
- Most places accept credit cards, but KL is not completely cashless. Do carry hard cash with you.
- Taxis can be expensive. Ubers are more cost-effective here.
- Busses are not very reliable, but if you have time to kill or a friend to go with you, that’s fine. Trains are the best and cheapest way to get around as traffic can be terrible in KL.
- KL is a modern city and accepting of most foreign cultures. However, it’s wise to be sensitive to Islamic customs if you’re going to a place frequented by many Muslims, such as a mosque. In such cases, dress modestly and don’t carry / consume with food with pork or alcohol in it to avoid offending anyone.
- KL is not vegan-friendly. Regular restaurants don’t really understand the term. Most Indian shops will understand what ‘vegetarian’ means and won’t add egg to your food, but may add dairy products. If you’re vegan, do specify that you don’t want egg, milk, yoghurt, meat, fish or seafood added to your food (if you’re particular).