20 September 2019

Two Days in KL: Things To Do, Places To Eat and Drink

If you're looking for my KL speciality coffee guide, you can find it here.

When researching potential places to visit for my main holiday this year, I initially ruled out Malaysia on account of it being the rainy season there during September, which, for various reasons, was the best month for me to go. I soon realised first that the country has several more regional rainy seasons and in any case, rainy sometimes just means one relatively brief but very heavy downpour per day, if that.

And so I found myself landing in Kuala Lumpur early on Saturday evening — the start of my two-week trip to Malaysia and of two days and three nights in KL itself. The weather was mostly very hot and humid, with a lot of haze, although the one downpour during my stay, on Monday afternoon, did clear the air a little. Here’s what I got up to (NB, at the time of my visit £1 is worth roughly 5 Malaysian ringgits (RM)).

Malaysia's food was one of the biggest attractions for me, and I was determined to try as many of the country’s diverse dishes and cuisines as possible. An efficient to achieve this was to visit several food markets and hawker centres. Most of the meals I ate at these establishments cost no more than 12 RM (about £2.50).

On my first night, after checking in to my hotel in Bukit Bintang, I walked a few blocks down to Jalan Alor, a busy, bustling street, filled with food stalls and open-air restaurants. Many of the hosts tried to tempt me in, but partly because the name was familiar, and partly because I had to work really hard to get the attention of the busy, nonchalant serving staff in order to get a seat, I ate at Wong Ah Wah. The hokkien mee noodles with chicken were delicious, though sharing multiple dishes with others would have been more fun.

The Imbi Market, now moved indoors to ICC Pudu, was also a great experience. I went for a late breakfast and initially wandered past the many vendors, unsure where to start. I spotted the crispy, fried treat known as a gold cake, though, and remembered reading about it. The price list offered single and triple — I didn’t know what this meant (I guessed fried) but went for the latter. The outside was indeed crispy but the filling — a caramel-like pudding — was smooth and very sweet. I then met a lovely Malaysian family, who helped me choose a few more dishes (including poached chicken with rice balls), and shared some of their own food and some more KL tips.

If you’re in Bukit Bintang and want a cheap, simple and delicious meal, head to the Hutong food court in the basement of the Lot 10 shopping centre. Dozens of the city's best and longest established eateries have stalls here, and most places have English menus (and pictures). I had some really tasty BBQ pork wanton noodles, with dumplings, a filling and very cheap meal. I also stopped by the Japanese department store Isetan’s basement food hall to pick up some cheap but very good sushi one day.

The Brickfields area near KL Sentral station is known as Little India, and I wanted to have at least one meal there. In the end, I went to Lawanya Food Corner, where there are just a handful of tables under cover next to the road. There were no menus but I was handed a plate of rice and encouraged to choose my own mains from the huge selection of meat and veggie options. Cooked in claypots, these were really tasty, especially the veggie one I tried, although they were also super-spicy. It was already 34C outside so it took quite a lot of cold Sprite to cool me down again.

I also visited a few east-meets-west cafes and eateries, including Merchant’s Lane, a popular weekend brunch spot (you may have to wait in line) with Instagrammable décor and tasty food (I had coconut pancakes with chicken rendang, peanuts and a fried egg), and Lim Kee Cafe, where I had roti pahwin, essentially toast with jam and butter. You can get speciality coffee at both of these spots, but if you’re a coffee hound like me, I’d suggest trying VCR, Feeka Coffee Roasters or Bean Brothers (my KL speciality coffee guide is here.

Finally, when it hit cocktail o’clock, I hit PS150, a secret speakeasy hidden behind a toy shop on Petaling Street in Chinatown. I had two cocktails, both of which were creative and impeccably mixed, and the décor and ambiance are spot on. If the view is more important than the cocktail itself try Heli or, like I did, Marini’s on 57, which is right next to the famous Petronas Twin Towers, offering great views of the towers and skyline; drinks are only 33 RM at happy hour too, or about a third of the price of going up the towers themselves.

Regular readers will know that my preferred way of exploring a new city is on foot. KL isn’t very well suited to this practice on account of the traffic, the pollution, the lack of crossings and the intermittent pavements. Stubbornly, I persisted on my first day, wandering over to Pudu for the Imbi Market, and then up to KL Forest Eco Park, where I walked the various verdant trails, avoiding the smog and keeping an eye out for monkeys. I decided not to go up the KL Tower as it was so hazy, I didn't think the views would be that great.

I then cut back down to Chinatown via Merdeka Square, where there was a big music festival taking place, making it hard to get a good look at the clock tower and national mosque. After a few eats and a bit of browsing in the Central Market (it has air con!), I walked back to Bukit Bintang to do some (mostly window) shopping in one of the malls.

After a swim in my hotel’s rooftop pool and a shower, I went back out for the aforementioned drink at Marini’s where I watched dusk descend over the KL Tower — the haze meant that the sunset itself was unimpressive. At ground level, the fountains in front of the Petronas Towers were in full son et lumière mode, and there was a nice ambiance. It was Malaysia Day, but these festivities happen most days, I heard.

On my second day, I took the train to Batu Caves, a 30-minute (and 2.60 RM) ride from KL Sentral. At Batu, there are several huge Hindu temples located inside the caves that have formed within the limestone cliffs. It's a steep climb up the 300-odd steps to the main cave, past the huge golden statue of Lord Muruga, although there are good views from the top. Unfortunately, some people were behaving badly with the resident monkeys, giving them food and flowers and, worse, chewing gum. The monkeys are quite sneaky so do keep your belongings under wraps while you climb the steps.

When I got back to KL, I went to Brickfields and then took the metro to Chinatown for some more nibbles, and then another metro ride to a coffee shop in Ampang Park, before returning to my hotel. The heavens had opened by then and it was slightly cooler so I took the opportunity to use my hotel’s rooftop gym, watching the rain pour down.


Accommodation. I stayed at the KL Journal Hotel (not just because I work in scholarly publishing!), which is three or four minutes walk from Bukit Bintang MRT station. My room was comfy and well appointed with a free (soft) mini bar, a mural inspired by local street scenes and a great view of the city (haze permitting). The rooftop pool was a real draw too. Bukit Bintang has a lot of shopping and eating options, and the transport links make it a good KL base.

Arriving. After several years of using the Three mobile phone network, I’ve been able to use my data allowance for free in every country I’ve visited. Not so in Malaysia, sadly, so buying a SIM card was task number one after I’d checked in to my hotel. I paid about £8 for 16Gb of data, but you can get this cheaper by getting a tourist SIM at the airport.

The lack of connectivity also meant I didn’t have enough time to work out the best way to get into the city, and ended up getting the KL Travel Pass — return journeys on the KL Ekspres (express train, which takes 30 minutes to get into KL Sentral), along with two calendar days of unlimited city centre travel (not including Batu Caves). This was 120 RM, and because I walked so much on my first day, I’m not sure I got my full value, although not having to buy single tickets each time from machines that only accept 5 RM notes was at least convenient. On my return to KL airport, I realised that I couldn’t use the MRT as I was travelling too early and so had to get a Grab (an Uber-like transportation app) to the station. With hindsight, I’d have just got the KL Ekspres one way, and then taken a Grab back to the airport (it’s slightly more expensive but also slightly quicker when you have to get from Bukit Bintang to KL Sentral early in the morning).

Getting around. Parts of the city feel well connected, but the shape of the greater KL rail transport network can mean a lot of retracing of one’s steps, hence me walking a lot on my first day. By day two, however, I was happy to jump on the air-conditioned metro one stop if it saved me a mile-long walk along a busy road.

Money. Although cash is still king, I was able to pay by debit card in more place than I expected — mostly speciality coffee shops, brunch cafes, cocktail bars and bigger shops, of course. I took some ringgits (RM) out in London to guarantee I could get some small notes — there’s nothing worse than a cash-centric destination whose ATMs spit out the equivalent of £20 or even £50 bank notes, which are frowned upon almost as much as credit cards at cash-only spots. Street food and public transport are both very cheap — I rarely paid more than £2 for street food main courses, and most single journeys on the MRT are under £1.

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