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Capital Charm

In-Depth Explorer
Kuala Lumpur KLCC Skyline

Hidden gems that add colour and flavour to Kuala Lumpur.

Much has been written about the attractions of Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia also known as KL. Whether its colonial heritage in the shape of buildings or its cultural heritage in the form of festivities, all are fine starting points to experience the city and country.

The nuances of KL’s charm emerge with a bit of curiosity and travelling, where you’ll find hidden gems that add colour and definition to your perspective while giving more feel and flavour to your urban experience. While these may not be iconic to non-Malaysians or those not from the city or the surrounding state of Selangor, they are quintessentially KL.

Downtown Stroll

If you’re one for hipster cafes, Instagram spots and great food with a large helping of history (plus a bit of walking), Kwai Chai Hong is one that fits the bill, and is a gorgeous one, too. It is an old street in a former Chinese settler area straddled by 14 shops along the more famous Jalan Petaling - or Petaling Street - and Lorong Panggung.

Named after an old moniker that means “Little Demon Alley” or “Ghost Lane” in Cantonese, it is beautifully decorated with six murals depicting the activities of its Chinese settlers during the 1960s. One of the kopitiams from back then - Ho Kow Hainan Kopitiam - is still operating nearby. It accompanies an eclectic range of restaurants and cafes in restored colonial buildings such as Concubine KL, Asia Street Food Club and Pandan Republic.

Murals at Kwai Chai Hong
One of the murals at Kwai Chai Hong, updated with face masks to reflect the current times (L); The atmosphere at Kwai Chai Hong (R). (Photo: Kwai Chai Hong Facebook)

Kwai Chai Hong is just a 5-minute stroll from the Pasar Seni MRT Station, and 5-10 minutes away are Petaling Street and Pasar Seni, also known as Central Market - always a good spot for scoring souvenirs, including from the shops just outside the Central Market building. Visit the Art House Gallery Museum of Ethnic Arts located in Central Market’s Annexe building in the back, for ethnic art and sculptures originating not just from East and West Malaysia, but also from Myanmar, China, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. On the first floor of the Annexe is Ainna Artwork, where visitors can join a DIY Batik Workshop and learn how this beautiful Malaysian fabric art is made.

Nearby are Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock and Merchant’s Lane, two foodie gems. Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock serves delicious kopitiam favourites like Nasi Lemak Rendang, Hainanese Chicken Chop and Cham Coffee while Merchant’s Lane serves a contemporary take on classic local dishes with a range of wholesome fusion meals and delicately decorated cakes.

Ali Muthu Ah Hock and Merchant's Lane
Ali, Muthu and Ah Hock (L); Merchant's Lane (R).
Nature Walk

If you’re one for the outdoors and nature, there are wonderful hiking trails located right in the heart of the city. One of them is the KL Forest Eco Park, formerly the Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve. Gazetted in 1906, it is the oldest forest reserve in Malaysia and the only remaining tropical rainforest in the middle of the city. The Canopy Walk is a must - a wood-and-steel aerial bridge towering above the reserve to offer a unique view of the vicinity. Once done, you could also visit the neighbouring KL Tower to get a sweeping panoramic view of the capital’s skyline from its viewing deck.

Canopy Walk KL Forest Eco Park Kuala Lumpur in Bukit Nanas.
A view of canopy walk in the KL Forest Eco Park in the Kuala Lumpur city centre.

Another forest trail to check out in the city is the Tugu Negara Forest Trail, a 5km forest trail situated close to the National Monument that marks Malaya’s independence from British rule in 1957. It is ten minutes away from the more popular KL Bird Park and Lake Gardens, all great recreational walking locations. Within this vicinity is also the Islamic Arts Museum, filled with gorgeously intricate crafts from hundreds of years of Muslim history from all over the world.

If the trails above are too easy, head towards the outskirts of KL to FRIM (Forest Research Institute Malaysia) and try its famous Forest Skywalk - an 18m-high and 250m-long suspended walkway that gives you a breathtaking view. Just don’t undo all that good exercise by rewarding yourself with a food hunting session from the array of eateries around the city after that.

Tugu Negara Forest Trail and Forest Skywalk at FRIM.
Tugu Negara Forest Trail (L); Forest Skywalk at FRIM (R).
Wonderfully Hidden
Jalan Alor street food
An array of street food on Jalan Alor.

Speaking of food, if you’re looking for street food, Jalan Alor will definitely provide a vibrant and authentic South East Asian gastronomic experience. For a more upscale dining experience, but with a more local and authentic feel, head on to The Chow Kit, a newly-opened boutique hotel located in what was once a seedy part of Kuala Lumpur. You can opt to stay here in rooms with names like The Den and The Little Towkay (Boss) Suite. The Chow Kit Kitchen & Bar serves updated Malay cuisine by Chef Juwahir Mustafa, who also offers Western faves with a twist, like Tandoori fish and chips, and the Chow Kit chicken chop. You could also try ChoCha Food Store, on Petaling Street, for some modern Malaysian dishes like Cured Snapper with kedondong (June plum) and jalapeno vinaigrette; deep fried mackerel with budu (fermented anchovy sauce) mayo; and chicken rice with heirloom red rice and sweet corn. On Petaling Street is another hidden gem of a hotel, the Lantern Hotel, within which is a sanctuary of modern minimalist architecture while at night you can open your verandah windows or hang out at the hotel’s terrace and observe the hustle and bustle of the street market below.

The Lantern Hotel roof top terrace - Petaling Street.
The outdoors terrace at the Lantern Hotel, where above are rooms with verandahs that open out to views of Petaling Street. (Photo from www.lanternhotel.com)

For artistic fulfillment, Ilham Gallery - in Ilham Tower, Jalan Binjai - and Petronas Gallery, located within Suria KLCC, showcase some of this country’s best art. If you’re looking for something unique, the Zhongshan Building is a sample of future contemporary KL culture - it is home to a thriving and progressive community of artists, designers, book and music collectors, where you can catch an art exhibition or two, or shop locally-designed items from one of its boutique shops.

Kuala Lumpur is truly a wonderful melting pot of Asian influences and elements filled with gems that are not known to many. It makes KL the great South East Asian metropolis that it is, more than just the shopping hub that it can seem to be to most visitors.

Petronas Gallery and Back Room KL at Zhongshan Building.
An exhibit at Petronas Gallery (L); One of the exhibits held at Back Room KL at the Zhongshan Building Back Room Exhibit.
Getting Here

Kuala Lumpur city centre is located approximately 60 kilometres from KL International Airport (KLIA) or about a 50-minute drive. You may choose to travel by bus, taxi, airport limousine, or car rental services. For your convenience, you can also ride with KLIA Ekspres, a non-stop airport rail link that will bring you all the way to KL Sentral located in the Kuala Lumpur city centre. The entire journey from KLIA to KL Sentral (KL city) with KLIA Ekspres is only 33 minutes long!

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