Matt Bellotti describes the shared experiences that unite residents in the steamy Malaysian capital
By government decree, every guide to the country must at least once use the phrase ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’, and its capital – Kuala Lumpur – certainly showcases the best and worst of the region with honour. The city is as noisy, physical, oppressive, raw, polluted and inexpensive as Bangkok, Jakarta, Singapore, Manila and their like, in spite of being much smaller. It isn’t size, however, that makes KL more accessible than the behemoths over the Causeway, the Malacca Straits or the Thai border. The reason people feel at home in Kuala Lumpur – on the face of it, a pretty uninspiring concrete skyscrapered jungle painted a drab grey by the hot, damp tropics – is the eccentric yet welcoming folk who live therein.
That, and the price of a hot meal at a hawker stall. The proliferation of street-side diners and the fact that everyone, absolutely everyone, eats at them, says as much about Malaysia’s love of food as its passion for gossip and the great outdoors (at least by comparison to the air-con obsessed Singaporeans). KL-ites are never backward about coming forward; they think nothing of making a comment to even the briefest acquaintance if they notice they’ve put on weight – but it is aways done with disarming innocence. Kuala Lumpur fancies itself as a ‘melting pot’ despite the recent (just prior to and since the 2008 General Election) tensions emanating from the aggrieved Indian community and supporters of controversial opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. For a proud Muslim city with huge Chinese, Indian and expatriate contingents, as well as a pro-Bumiputra (Malay) bent, there is next to no serious trouble in KL.
In fact, Malaysia is one of the most tolerant Muslim countries in the world. Though the religion is always evident, it never seems divisive or intrusive. KL is not to everyone’s taste, of course. After all, no one wants to be told they have a fat backside. Thanks to a dire public transport system and clogged roads, travelling in KL in the rain or during rush hour is hugely frustrating. Yet even in the midst of a storm there are heart-warming moments to be shared, such as waiting for the rains to abate from the shelter of a semi-covered stall, cupping a mug of kopi ais (iced coffee). As lightning strikes the tin roof and thunder bounces off the buildings either side of you, look around. Dozens of people are stuck, just like you, grinning with friends and sharing their own kopi ais or teh tarik (pulled tea), complaining about work, the weather, the government, reality TV and everything else that other nations tend to moan about behind closed doors. Getting there Emirates fly to Kuala Lumpur daily, from Dhs2,225 return including taxes.
Where is it? On the west side of the central Peninsular Malaysia, at the confluence of the Gombak and the Klang rivers in the heart of the Klang Valley
Climate Equatorial. Hot and sunny with regular monsoon storms. Haze caused by forest fires from Sumatra can cause visibility and health problems
Ethnic mix Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, indigenous Kadazan and Iban, as well as an estimated 100,000 legal and illegal expatriates from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Thailand
Major sights Petronas Twin Towers, Menara KL (KL Tower), Masjid Negara, Tugu Negara, Petaling Street (Chinatown), Batu Caves, Lake Gardens, Sepang International Motor Racing Circuit, Petrosains, Aquaria KLCC
Insiders’ tips Eat at the busiest hawker stall; always carry an umbrella; don’t wear shoes you are attached to; when haggling in Chinatown, expect to pay 30-50 per cent of the price originally quoted (if you begin to negotiate you are expected to buy the item)
Where’s the buzz? Bukit Bintang, Changkat Bukit Bintang, Asian Heritage Row, Desa Seri Hartamas, Jalan Telawi, Bangsar, Mutiara Damansara, Jalan Alor (for 24/7 hawker cuisine), the area around The Beach Club
Languages spoken Bahasa Malaysia, English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tamil
Length of the KL Monorail 8.6km. It opened in 2003
Height of the flagpole at Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) 95m – the tallest free-standing flagpole in the world
Oldest virgin city forest Bukit Nanas jungle reserve. It dates back millions of years
Twinned with Casablanca, Osaka, Ankara, Delhi
Number of Malaysians who will be offered a youth contract with Chelsea Football Club following a reality television show based in KL 2
International home of halal food Global Halal Food Forum is held in Kuala Lumpur every year