Kuala Lumpur – Monument to Ingenuity

TV Tower, Kuala Lumpur | Photo credit: Flickr user Amber de Bruin

Kuala Lumpur – KL as it’s often referred to – is much more than just the capital city of Malaysia: it is a monument to Malaysian ingenuity and resolve. From humble beginnings as a tin-mining shanty town, KL has evolved into a modern and dynamic metropolis, dominated by the tallest skyscrapers in Southeast Asia and flush with the proceeds of international trade and commerce.

The most striking impression about Kuala Lumpur that you will immediately notice is its remarkable cultural diversity. Ethnic Malays, Chinese prospectors, Indian migrants and British colonials all helped shape the city out of the virgin jungle, and each group has left its indelible mark on the capital. Eating, shopping and nightlife are undeniable highlights of any visit to KL, but don’t restrict yourself to the city – there are numerous parks and monuments around Kuala Lumpur that make for easy and interesting.

Kuala Lumpur, literally meaning “muddy estuary” in Malay, has grown from a small sleepy Chinese tin-mining village to a bustling city of around 6.5 million in just 150 years. Increasing numbers of travellers are discovering this gem of a city, and which is the seat of the Parliament of Malaysia.

Since the 1990s, the city has played host to many international sporting, political and cultural events including the 1998 Commonwealth Games and the Formula One World Championship. In addition, Kuala Lumpur is home to the tallest twin buildings in the world, the Petronas Twin Towers, which have become an iconic symbol of Malaysia’s futuristic developments.

Kuala Lumpur is quite easy to navigate. Many of the sights and shopping areas of the city center are within walking distance of each other, although sometimes a long walk.

Taxis are plentiful in the city center and most suburban destinations. All taxis use a meter, although some might attempt to negotiate the fare for long trips or at rush hours.

Kuala Lumpur has a rapidly expanding subway system. Trains link many of the city’s transport hubs as well as some sights such as the Central Market, convention center and the Petronas Towers. The most useful system is the monorail that runs along Sultan Ismail road in the heart of the city’s hotel and shopping district, and on to the Sentral station.

There is a Hop-On Hop-Off bus service that can take you to almost all of the city’s main sights, and these are just some of the highlights in and around Kuala Lumpur that you will want to plan for …

Petronas Towers

Kuala Lumpur's iconic Petrona's Towers | Photo credit: Julius Cruickshank

The Petronas Towers, designed by Cesar Pelli and completed in 1998, was, until recently, the tallest building in the world and is the people’s pride. While you can’t go right to the top of the towers, you can buy a ticket for the observation bridge which connects the towers. Outdoors, on the grounds of what is called KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Center), are beautifully landscaped gardens complete with a children’s playground, wading pool and fountains.

National Palace

The National Palace, or Istana Negara, is the official residence of the King and Queen of Malaysia.

The Palace is located on a 27 acre site in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. It was built in 1928 as a private residence for a Chinese tin tycoon called Chan Wing who made his fortune by developing the Hong Fatt Tin Mine which is where The Mines development now stands.

During the War, the Japanese used the building as an officers’ mess. After their surrender, it was used by the British Royal Air Force for a while and then served as a temporary Palace for the Sultan of Selangor while his new Palace was being built.

The Palace was acquired by the Federal Government in 1957 and, after undergoing extensive renovations and extensions, it became the National Palace.

Parliament House

Set atop the hill in the scenic Lake Garden (Taman Tasik Perdana), Parliament House is a symbol of democracy in Malaysia. Officially opened in 1963, the complex accommodates two houses of the Malaysian Parliament, the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) and the Dewan Negara (the Senate). One of the prominent features of the 20-level tower is an open-sided terrace commanding a magnificent view of Kuala Lumpur. The public may not enter without an authorization letter. You can contact officials by mail prior to your visit.

Historical Tour

Sultan Abdul Samad building | Photo credit: Flickr user rajkumar1220

At Merdeka (Independence) Square, in the heart of old colonial Kuala Lumpur, the country’s first prime minister declared independence from Britain in 1957. Here, surrounded by elegant Moorish-inspired buildings that used to house colonial administrative offices, you can get a good feel of life under British rule. The largest, the Sultan Abdul Samad building, is now the Malaysian High Court. Across the road from the Sultan Abdul Samad Building is the Tudor-style Royal Selangor Club, which was established in the late 1800s for British civil servants..

A short walk from Merdeka Square takes you to the confluence of two rivers, where Chinese entrepreneurs first arrived to seek their fortunes in tin mining. Here stands Masjid Jamek, the oldest and most beautiful mosque in the city.

Tucked away in the heart of Chinatown is the oldest Hindu temple in the country, the Sri Mahamariaman temple. Built in 1873, it is an elaborate construction embellished with ornate sculptures of Hindu deities. A few blocks away, also nestled among old Chinese shops is the Sze-ya Taoist temple, built about 140 years ago by one of the founding fathers of Kuala Lumpur.

The architecture of Kuala Lumpur is a blend of old colonial influences, Asian traditions, Malay Islamic inspirations and modern and postmodern architecture. Being a relatively young city compared with other Southeast Asian capitals such as Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila, most of Kuala Lumpur’s colonial buildings were built toward the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Coliseum

The Coliseum is another relic of the colonial era. The hotel was built during British rule and was a (rumour has it) favourite place of writer Somerset Maugham. Not much has changed over the past 90 years, including the restaurant menu, and visitors can still tuck into steaks, chops and boiled vegetables much as they did all those years ago. It’s more of a must-feel than a must-see – every inch of the Coliseum exudes the ambiance of an era long gone.

Kuala Lumpur Bird Park

Kuala Lumpur has the largest free flight aviary in the world – an enormous site spanning 20 acres in the middle of the city. Plan to spend some time here. It takes hours to walk through. It houses an impressive collection of tropical and temperate-region birds.

Kuala Lumpur Butterfly Park

The Butterfly Park is a favorite spot for visitors and locals to bring their children. It is located near the Bird Park and is as beautifully landscaped with lush, jungle-like vegetation, fountains and fish ponds. The park also has an impressive display of forest bugs.


A trip to Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, is a must. Here, at the night market, you can hone your skills in haggling with vendors who offer everything from dodgy-looking knock-off designer watches to equally dubious herbal remedies for impotence. It’s a great place to sample local fruits and the food stalls are very popular.

Jungle walk

Kuala Lumpur may be a bustling metropolis, but you don’t have to go far to commune with nature. If you want to experience the rainforest, the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia is less than an hour’s drive away. Here, you can take numerous jungle treks of varying levels of difficulty. The highlight of a visit to FRIM is the forest canopy walk – a 20-minute walk on a sturdy rope bridge skirting the tops of the trees. It’s a steep uphill trek to get to the canopy walk but well worth it.

Batu Caves

The entrance to Batu Caves | Photo credit: Shubert Ciencia

About half an hour’s drive from KL are the Batu Caves, a magnificent grouping of several caves formed out of limestone some 400 million years ago. The caves were discovered about 100 years ago and the largest was made into a Hindu temple. This temple plays a very important role in Hindu religious ceremonies in Malaysia. It is quite a feat to climb the 272 steps to the temple cave which has a 300 foot high ceiling and is filled with religious sculptures and artefacts.

Kuala Lumpur is a hub for cultural activities and events in Malaysia. Among the centres is the National Museum which is situated along the Mahameru Highway. Its collection comprises artefacts and paintings collected throughout the country. Kuala Lumpur also has an Islamic Arts Museum which houses more than seven thousand Islamic artefacts including rare exhibits as well as a library of Islamic art books. Kuala Lumpur has a Cultural Craft Complex coupled with a museum that displays a variety of textile, ceramic, metal craft and weaved products.

The National Art Gallery of Malaysia, which is situated on a 14 acre site neighbouring the National Theater and the National Library, serves as a centre of excellence and trustee of the national art heritage.

But you want to go shopping …

Kuala Lumpur is known internationally as a notable place to shop. In recent years, mall after mall has been opened to satisfy both residents and visitors. The major shopping malls are located in the area around Jalan Bukit Bintang and Jalan Sultan Ismail. Suria KLCC, just beneath the Petronas Twin Towers, is KL’s most upmarket mall, while Berjaya Times Square wins the prize for excess, with 900 shops, food and entertainment outlets, plus one of the world’s largest indoor amusement parks. Pavilion KL on Jalan Bukit Bintang is the city’s latest luxurious mall.

Still the best place for Malaysian handicrafts, the Central Market on Jalan Benteng can keep you occupied for hours. Here you will find local artists and craftspeople selling their wares. It’s also a good place to find Malaysian handicrafts from other regions of the country.

Another popular shopping locale is Chinatown, situated along Petaling Street. Day and night, it’s a great place to wander and bargain …

Pasar malam Nnight markets) are very popular evening activities in Kuala Lumpur. Entire blocks are taken up with these brightly lit and bustling markets crammed with stalls selling almost everything you can dream of.

And after the sun sets …

Malaysia is trying to encourage greater cultural expression, and Kuala Lumpur has several good theatres and places for performances. The premier performing arts venue is the Petronas Philharmonic Hall. The resident orchestra is the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, consisting of musicians from across the world. The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in Sentul West is one of the most established centres for the performing arts, notably theatre, music, and film screening.

The entertainment hub of Kuala Lumpur is centred in the Golden Triangle area encompassing Jalan P. Ramlee, Jalan Sultan Ismail and Ampang Road. Trendy nightclubs, bars and lounges are located here.

It is easy to get around Kuala Lumpur, which has a large network of buses, light-rail commuter trains and an abundance of taxis.

Depending on your age, physical fitness and urban inclination (or not), Kuala Lumpur is a fine city for walking and has clear, well-placed signage. Street signs are jumbo sized, blue with white lettering at eye level. Main arteries are boulevard broad and tree-lined.

Kuala Lumpur can be very hot and humid. To be comfortable, avoid walking between 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM, when the sun is at its hottest. Wear comfortable clothing and carry water with you.

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