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Kuala Lumpur is often over-looked in favour of a stopover in a more high profile Asian metropolis such as Hong Kong, Singapore or Bangkok. But the Malaysian capital is a city on the up, packed with fascinating art and architecture, top shopping - and some of the best street food in Asia.
From the airport the air-conditioned, wi-fi-enabled KLIA Ekspres Train whisks you to the city centre for you to check in to your hotel. If you're not too jetlagged you can try the sensational street-food scene straightaway.
Strung with red lanterns, pedestrian-ised Jalan Alor is noisy and tremendous fun. Start with sweet-spicy, perfectly charred chicken wings from Wong Ah Wah, then work your way down the street, finishing with a red-hot bowl of curry mee at Alor Corner Curry Noodle, on the corner with Changkat Bukit Bintang. Every dish is incredibly cheap.
Next morning fuel up with a back-straightening cup of Malaysian kopi (coffee) and kaya (thickly sliced toast smeared with butter and coconut jam) from a stall at Imbi Market. Download taxi app Grab – Southeast Asia's answer to Uber – and book a cab to the Batu Caves, an incense-cloaked Hindu temple complex on the outskirts of town (free). You'll see its 140ft gold statue of Murugan, Hindu god of war, long before you arrive at the limestone caves, which house murals, shrines and families of macaques. Don't get too close – they'll steal your phone/food/anything shiny.
Authentic Indian cuisine
Indians are the third-largest ethnic group in Malaysia, behind Malays and Chinese, and while you'll find reasonably good Indian restaurants outside Batu, there are more authentic foodie offerings in Brickfields – KL's Little India. So cab back over to canteen-like Vishal Food & Catering, at 22, Jalan Scott, which serves southern Indian cuisine on banana leaves, and order chicken biryani or mutton varuval. Leave room for extra poppadoms.
Escape the afternoon heat at the air-conditioned Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. It's set on a hillside and its numerous rooms are treasure troves, filled with 1,000-year-old gold-inscribed Korans, rare compendiums of astronomy and astrology, Mogul daggers with jade hilts, and enough diamonds, rubies and sapphires to sink a pirate ship.
Imagine a cuisine that combines piquant Indonesian flavours with Chinese cooking techniques; that would be Peranakan, gastronomic legacy of Chinese migrants who settled in Java and on the Malay peninsula. Precious Old China, in Central Market, serves some of the best and is one of the town's most charming spots – full of crystal chandeliers, carved rosewood furniture and antiques.
Standout dishes include flaky pastry 'top hats' filled with prawns and shredded vegetables, 'devil curry'chicken and sago gula melaka – palm sugar tapioca.
Ten minutes away is Omakase + Appreciate, the first Malaysian entry to make it onto Asia's 50 Best Bars list, and the size of a shoebox. Order a rum, pineapple, orange and coconut cream Painkiller.
Varied cultural history
Next day explore some more - have a city overview from the 12-metre by 15-metre scale model at the City Gallery, snap a selfie in front of the I Love KL sign, then check out Merdeka Square, the old Royal Selangor cricket ground, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, with its magical-looking Mogul turrets and domes; and gothic St Mary's Cathedral.
Malaysia's national dish is nasi lemak, coconut milk rice served with sambal, salad, peanuts and egg. You'll find fragrant plates of it for sale on every corner, or try the hipster version – nasi lemak pancakes – at Merchant's Lane, on a fern-filled terrace in the heart of Chinatown.
The neighbourhood is one of the oldest in the city, with garish Taoist temples, colonial-era architecture and souvenir stalls touting faux-silk pyjamas.
Nearby Central Market is the place for smart handicrafts such as batik cushion covers and beaded slippers.
You can't leave KL without visiting 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers - beat the queues by buying a ticket online and sunset's the best time to go.
Take a walk through KLCC Park (take a photo of the towers framed between palm trees) for an aperitif in the SkyBar at Traders Hotel. Happy hour here runs from 5pm to 9pm.
For dinner, move onwards and upwards to the 57th floor of Petronas Tower 3 and Marini's on 57, a low-lit Italian restaurant. Book a table by the window.
Where to stay? The whitewashed Hotel Majestic has a calm atmosphere, with a delightful afternoon tea – white jackets, curry puffs and mango jam – an orchid conservatory and a Charles Rennie Mackintosh-inspired spa.
First published in the Sunday Times - June 2019
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