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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Jenny Miller takes us to Malaysia’s capital, a low-key, diverse city where the food is delicious and the sights are both extensive and accessible. We’re heading to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Often overshadowed by Singapore at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula, Kuala Lumpur comes as a welcome surprise to travelers to Southeast Asia. Still, the city of 1.6 million has plenty of tourists and touristy activities, but it never feels overwhelming and it’s easy to see KL’s main attractions over the course of a few days.
Central KL is fairly condensed, making this a good walking city if you don’t mind the year-round temperature of about 90 degrees (at night it shifts to a more pleasant average in the low 70s), and if sweating isn’t for you, cabs are affordable and easy to find. This is a town of interesting districts and ethnic neighborhoods, and part of the fun of visiting is checking out these distinct quarters.
Of course, it’s hard to miss the looming Petronas Twin Towers, which anchor KL’s biggest retail district in the city center, a hub for flashy modern shopping centers housing any luxury brand you could possibly desire. You can pay $15 dollars or so to ascend the Space Needle-like KL Tower for views of the city and the twins, but a better plan is to head to Sky Bar, a chic watering hole on the 33rd floor of the nearby Traders Hotel, which offers tower views with no cover charge – just consider the pricey cocktails your cost of admission. You’ll want to wear something presentable here, and turn up early in the evening for your best shot at a table with a view.
Another activity best enjoyed at night (and which is close enough to the towers to visit on the same evening) is a jaunt to KL’s most famous eating street, Jalan Alor, in the backpacker district of Bukit Bintang. The one-block stretch develops a festive, night-market air after dark thanks to the alfresco restaurants and food stalls lining it, proffering seafood, bubble tea, and amazing, don’t-miss-it Malaysian beef jerky and candied bacon (if you sidle up to the stall selling this meat/stuff-dreams-are-made-of, the vendor will scissor you a free sample).
In contrast, KL’s Chinatown is better visited during the day. Petaling Street is the best known thoroughfare, jammed with vendors selling everything from whole cured ducks to the kind of faux-designer goods tourists are supposedly in the market for. Breeze through (maybe pick up a pair of sunglasses for under $10 – you can bargain hard here), and continue on to the lesser-trafficked streets, which are far more interesting. And don’t hesitate to venture into the bowels of the market, to the stands where locals eat cheap and delicious fare such as steaming bowls of Malaysian coconut-milk-laced laksa noodle soup, which is best enjoyed at breakfast time. If a street food stand seems bustling or has a line, it’s a good sign this is a quality place where you’re unlikely to have any repercussions from tucking into a meal. As you wander Chinatown, keep an eye out for pastel-painted colonial era “shophouses,” which reveal an older, less shiny side of KL.
Speaking of colonial buildings, there’s a fascinating cluster of one-time official buildings just next to Chinatown. The Sultan Abdul Samad Building, completed in 1897, has a clock tower that was dubbed “KL’s Big Ben.” From there you can stroll to other heritage structures including the Sessions Court, the Old Post Office, and the Royal Selangor Club, which has an almost Bavarian look.
If you’re hankering for a little nature, Lake Gardens is KL’s Central Park of sorts, featuring two man-made lakes surrounded by jogging trails. The sprawling green area was built as an urban oasis during colonial times and it houses a butterfly park, an orchid garden, and Southeast Asia’s largest bird park, among other attractions (each of which charges separate admission fees). Happily, the park is situated just next to Chinatown, an easy trot or cab ride from central parts of the city.
At lunchtime, visit Little India across Jalan Tun Perak road, where Bakti Woodlands (55 Leboh Ampang) serves South Indian-style vegetarian food so delicious you won’t even notice the absence of meat. Your best option is the Madras thali, a sampler platter that offers a small taste of all the day’s vegetables and curries, plus rice and breads; if you’re still hungry, the baguette-sized dosas are another treat here. Ampang and the streets around it feature Malaysian Indian-owned businesses and are worth a wander after lunch.
Of course, while you’re in KL, eating should always be one of the highlights – like much of Malaysia, the city has large ethnic Chinese, Indian, and Malay populations (three very food-focused cultures), which makes for a diverse, largely excellent food scene. All over town you’ll see Indian restaurants designated “mamak,” which refers to vegetarian fare made by Tamil Indian Muslims. Pop into any of these to sample roti canai (pronounced like the city of Chennai for which it’s named), a popular breakfast or snack consisting of griddled flatbread with an accompanying soupy daal – tear off pieces and dip like the locals do.
Another staple institution are the kopitiam – literally, coffee shops – cafes run by now-third-generation Chinese immigrants. The best one in town is Yut Kee, which looks like it hasn’t changed since it opened in 1928. The must-order breakfast here is strong creamy coffee roasted with butter and sugar, accompanied by toast and kaya, a typical creamy coconut spread. The restaurant is also famous for its roti babi – roasted pork encased in bread that arrives at the table with a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. It’s not unlike a Yorkshire pudding and originates in the Hainanese style of cooking adapted from when immigrants from Hainan, China, worked in the kitchens of colonial British homes.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
While it’s not the biggest airport in Southeast Asia, Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) does have airline options from the big three alliances. With Star Alliance, EVA Air flies via Taipei from Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. For Oneworld, Cathay Pacific connects through Hong Kong from Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. For SkyTeam, China Southern Airlines flies from Los Angeles via Baiyun airport in Guangzhou, China. Malaysia Airlines, the country’s national carrier, is a member of Oneworld, but currently only operates a route to Los Angeles via Narita with no non-stop flights to the US.
Happily, getting into central KL from the airport is quite easy. The fastest option is the KLIA Ekspres, a clean modern train that boasts free WiFi and leaves from the airport every 15 to 20 minutes. A ride to KL’s Sentral station costs MYR 35 ($11), and from there it’s easy to transfer to the KL Monorail.
Should you prefer a cheaper option, the Airport Coach costs MYR 18 ($6) and leaves every half hour between 5:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. for an hour-long journey between KLIA and KL Sentral, or Hertz and Avis rent cars from the airport.
Hilton Kuala Lumpur: This 503-room hotel is situated conveniently right by the Sentral Station and near the Petronas Twin Towers and the central business and shopping district. Executive rooms feature large work desks and ergonomic chairs, a flatscreen TV, marble bathroom, and all rooms offer WiFi for a fee. The property boasts no fewer than 10 restaurants and bars onsite, including authentic Japanese and modern Cantonese, plus a 24-hour cafe, and Zeta Bar, featuring nightly live music. There’s a state-of-the-art two-story gym and a holistic health spa, plus an outdoor pool with skyline views. Room rates start at MYR 560 ($176) per night in October. This is a Category 5 hotel requiring 40,000 HHonors points for an award night.
Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur: This hotel has 412 rooms, including 42 suites, plus a 24-hour gym, a spa, and four restaurants and bars on the property. It’s within walking distance of the Petronas Twin Towers, Chinatown, and many other key KL attractions. Those who opt for a Grand Club Room enjoy complimentary breakfast and evening canapes, plus WiFi (available to other guests for a fee), two free items laundered, and meeting room use. Room rates in October start at MYR ($214). This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points for a an award night.
JW Marriott Kuala Lumpur: Yet another location in the city center, this grand hotel is walking distance to the Petronas Towers, the National Museum, Chinatown and other central attractions. It has 491 rooms and 70 suites, all with complimentary WiFi, a flatscreen TV, work desk and chair, marble bathroom with a separate tub, and a coffee and tea maker. The hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Shanghai, specializes in award-winning cuisine from the Chinese city. There’s a state-of the art fitness center, including fitness classes, an outdoor pool with poolside dining, and the Starhill spa, offering everything from body wraps to paraffin hand treatments. Room rates start at 500 MYR ($157) per night in October. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 20,000 Marriott Rewards Points for an award night.
InterContinental Kuala Lumpur: This 472-room hotel is also a centrally-located KL option. It has three restaurants and two bars, including an award-winning Japanese eatery, Tatsu, a Chinese option, Tao, and an English-style pub. All contemporary guest rooms feature a large bathroom with separate shower and tub, have a daily newspaper, turndown service, work desks, and a TV and stereo. Standard WiFi service is free for all IHG Rewards Club members. Executive rooms offer an ergonomic work station and priority check-in, plus access to meeting rooms. Room rates start at 441 MYR ($153) in October. This is a Category 5 hotel requiring 30,000 IHG Rewards Club Points for an award night.
The Westin Kuala Lumpur: A great option for business travelers, this centrally-located hotel features rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows offering city views, 40-inch flatscreen TVs, WiFi for a fee, marble bathrooms, and Westin’s Heavenly Bed pillow-top mattresses. Executive-level rooms offer exclusive access to the Westin Executive Club Lounge, with complimentary buffet breakfast, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the evenings, plus use of the Business Center Meeting Room, late checkout, and complimentary pressing of three garments. There is also a a state-of-the-art gym and five on-site dining choices including Italian, Latin, and poolside options. Room rates start at MYR 520 ($164) in October. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 10,000 Starpoints for an award night.
Aloft Kuala Lumpur Sentral: Geared toward a younger, connected traveler (with colorful decor that reflects that), this central KL option has complimentary WiFi throughout the property and 482 rooms featuring charging stations for all of today’s digital devices with a connection to the 42-inch flatscreen TV. There are Bliss bath products in the rooms, a 24-hour pantry for snacks, and a bar offering live music performances and several dining options, plus a gym and splash pool. Room rates start at MYR 270 ($85) per night in October. This is a Category 1 hotel requiring 3,000 Starpoints for an award night.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Update: The offer mentioned below for the Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here.
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, and other perks.
The Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lumpur: In the heart of KL, enjoy top amenities in each of this hotel’s 365 rooms, including butler service, feather beds, marble bathrooms, and rainshowers. Rooms are equipped for business with work stations featuring convenient power outlets and WiFi for a fee, while business support services such as fax and courier are available on-site. During leisure hours, relax at the spa or state-of the art fitness center, including a lush, landscaped outdoor pool; and refuel in one of the property’s four restaurants, perhaps over dim sum at the award-winning Cantonese eatery, Li Yen. Room rates start at MYR 530 ($167) per night in October. It’s also a Ritz-Carlton Tier 1 property requiring 30,000 points for an award night.
Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur: Located in the city center, this oversize luxury hotel offers 643 rooms and 7 restaurants, including a tapas bar and a cake shop. There are ballrooms and meeting rooms plus a business center, a spa, hair salon and infinity pool. Rooms offer twice-daily housekeeping, WiFi for a fee, large work desks, and iPod docking stations. Club rooms offer free dry-cleaning and WiFi, plus access to the Mandarin Oriental Club, offering complimentary breakfast, deli lunch, and evening cocktails. Room rates start at MYR 649 ($204) per night in October.