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72 hours in Kuala Lumpur:

We tagged along with Julie-Anne Foster and 250 friends to the Malaysian capital courtesy of AirAsia and the Malaysian Tourism Board.
By Darren Mara
Date: November 07 2012
Editor Rating:

I flew to Kuala Lumpur knowing next to nothing about the city and left three days later feeling I'd packed enough in to write a novella.

What I found upon arrival was a vibrant mishmash of relaxation and fun, with a pinch of crazy and a peppering of the unpredictable.

My first impression of the Malaysian people was a classic: fresh off the plane from Sydney, we sat chatting in our private coach from the airport in the throws of genuine excitement to be in Malaysia. Our bus was zooming away into the thick and humid night air, passing small villages and dense jungle by the highwayside. For many, it was their first trip to this country, myself included.

Emmy, our tour guide, introduced herself with a warm smile and the greeting "selamat malam” – “good evening” in Bahasa. "My name is Emmy and I am your introduction to Malaysia,” she continued as we drove towards KL, around a one-hour drive from LCCT Airport. “This is Johnnie, our second best bus driver. Our best bus driver has just died in a bus crash." Silence. Not a whisper to be heard. The busload of Australians collectively clenched their teeth. One woman even gasped. Emmy maintains her deadpan expression, before betraying a cheeky smirk at the corner of her mouth. "I joke!" she exclaims, allowing a broad, larrikin grin to cross her face. “Johnnie is a very good driver. The best.” Cue wild laughter and open the pressure release valve.

 “Welcome to Malaysia, home to a cheery people and a beautiful culture,” says Emmy. Straight away, I knew I’d be having fun in this town.

During my three days in KL, I discovered a city that offers a plethora of options for visitors of all stripes – families, couples and singles. To get started, I’d suggest a morning tour of the Batu Caves, located in Selangor around 13 kilometres from the city. They’re truly a sight to behold. The 400-million-year-old caves serve as an important Hindu shrine for thousands of worshippers and are among the holiest Hindu sites outside of India. Reverential and peaceful, the limestone cliffs above the caves are flanked by a 42-metre-high golden statue of the Hindu deity Murugan, standing sentinel over Kuala Lumpur in the distance. The main attraction at the caves is the 272-step climb through the cliffs, where friendly macaques dwell and the air sits thick with the sweet smell of incense.

Another must-see is the world-famous firefly colony – amongst the largest in the world – at Kuala Selangor. Board unmotorised tongkang boats and wade silently down the dark creek after sundown to see the glowing fireflies in and around the overhanging trees. The tiny insects, only the size of ants, glow in amazing synchrony and produce a truly unique aurora. Also to add to your list of ‘to dos’ is the national mosque, which is amongst Southeast Asia's largest. The main dome of the complex is designed in the shape of an 18-point star to represent the 13 states of Malaysia and the five central pillars of Islam. The iconic 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers are also worth checking out. Whether they're illuminated at night or sunlit by day, the towers offer an unrivalled view of KL – but I'd recommend getting there early or booking in advance to avoid lengthy queues.

Next, I'd recommend taking a stroll downtown for a cup of top-end tea at TWG on the ground floor at the majestic Pavilion shopping centre in the retail district known as Bukit Bintang. Just a word of warning though: maintain the utmost self-control and discipline when entering this zone – you may just end up blowing your per diem and finishing with more shopping bags than you can carry, such is the variety and abundance of stores and stalls. Also take a stroll through the Starhill Gallery, Fahrenheit, Suria KLCC and the Mid Valley Mega Mall, all within walking distance of one another. Feeling tired after flicking through endless clothes racks? Not to worry. Head down Jalan Bukit Bintang, the main strip through the shopping district, and grab yourself a 30-minute massage – you'll have your choice of dozens of reflexology specialists at cut-rate prices.

What’s next is perhaps what excites me the most about visiting Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia: food.

Kuala Lumpur is a truly cosmopolitan city, representative of the cultural and ethnic melting pot that is Malaysia. Ethnic Malays make up over 40 per cent of the city’s population, followed closely by Chinese (also 40 per cent) and Indians (10 per cent). Cuisine in the city, as you might expect, brings together the culinary flavours of these communities to create a wonderful array of eating options all around town. I'd recommend beginning in Little India, where you might stumble across Sri Nirwana Maju on Jalan Telawi, at which we paid a pittance for a banana-leaf banquet consisting of trademark roti chennai, lamb, chicken and beef curries and mango, orange and strawberry lassies. From colourful curries to silk fabrics, the traditional markets at Lorong Tuanku Abdul Rahman are also worth checking out.

For those more partial to East Asian digs, I’d suggest taking a walk down Jalan Petaling in Chinatown, where you'll find countless street vendors selling delights ranging from scrumptious hand-made noodles to glazed roast pork, which will set you back only around 10 ringgits (or around $3) a dish. Petaling is also lined with myriad stalls selling shoes, glasses, watches, bags, wallets and just about anything else you might want to pick up at bargain prices. Take time to check out the well-known markets at Jalan Alor, located parallel to Bukit Bintang. Although Jalan Alor is in the popular "Golden Triangle" area, it manages to pull you out of modern KL and transport you to a world of satays, grilled stingray and even crispy fried pig intestines for the more courageous.

Feel like a boogie at night time? The open-air rooftop Skybar – a sleek and modern establishment atop the Traders Hotel in downtown KL – is a great place to start. This lofty bar offers perfect views of the KL skyline, including the Petronas Towers, and is divided by a lengthy swimming pool that lies underneath the open sky (so bring your togs). After a few cocktails, hop a short taxi ride over to Changkat Bukit Bintang where you’ll find enough bars and cafes to keep you busy for countless nights out on the town. For those hankering for more of KL’s spectacular cityscape views, I'd recommend the whiskey bar, alfresco bar and champagne room at the View Rooftop Bar. Or, if it’s a wilder night out that you’re after, bars such as Establishment in Jalan Medui Bukit Bintang and Zouk in Jalan Ampang have an electric vibe and are packed with party-people who just want to dance. Both bars feature live DJs who get the crowds pumping as they play into the wee hours of the morning.

With a population of 2.5 million, Kuala Lumpur is usually pretty easy to get around. Taxis are affordable and in abundance, though traffic can get quite heavy in and around downtown, so beware. You've also got the KL Hop On/Hop Off bus service that will take you past many of the city's main attractions. The city's train network is also modern, reliable and, importantly, safe. Lying close to the equator, Malaysia is an extremely humid place – “so humid it could choke a donkey”, according to Emmy our tour guide – so dress lightly and pack an umbrella.

AirAsia X flies direct to the Malaysian capital from Perth, Melbourne, Gold Coast and Sydney. The airline's budget philosophy has revolutionised travel around Asia and has opened up cities like Kuala Lumpur to those who may only want to get away for a weekend, get there relatively quickly and not pay an arm and a leg for it – and with only three hours behind Australian eastern time, no jetlag.

After 72 hours of sightseeing, eating, shopping and partying in Kuala Lumpur, I can most certainly say this: It won’t be too long before I return.

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