As a child, I loved saying Kuala Lumpur. It seemed to roll off the tongue.
Growing up in the Lower East Side of New York City, I had visions of it as being a far away land. Like most impressions of distant places, there was always that romantic notion of it being that colonized foreign state, where English gentlemen mingled with cultures foreign to them.
History has proven that few good things come out of colonization, and like all great cities, Kuala Lumpur has gained its independence from the Brits in 1957 and has proven itself to be one of the best places to visit in Malaysia and one of the great cities in Southeast Asia.
This is the conversation I had with my daughter, Bailey at the airport in Manila as we were waiting for our flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Like me, she also has an affinity for saying the name of the city. She also likes how it visually reads on the departure board.
Getting a Cultural Education
This is one of the beauties of traveling as a family, in which every moment seems to be a lesson. Makes things quite easy and exciting for me as a homeschooling father.
For the next two and a half hours, my wife, Brenda had to endure the two of us saying, “Kuala Lumpur” over and over again.
Bailey had a CNN International twist in the way she pronounced it, something akin to Christiane Amanpour.
I thought, maybe if I do my job well, she may be the next great journalist and correspondent.
The airports in Kuala Lumpur
I should have known to expect it, but yet, always find myself being surprised. The airports in Southeast Asia are large, clean and modern.
Kuala Lumpur International Airport is no exception.
The modernity and the massiveness made me realize that this city is far from that colonial town I had envisioned it to be as a child, but a city poised to lead the future.
We needed to get to our hotel in Kuala Lumpur from the airport. Signs above head pointed to “Teksi”, which led us to a series of ticket booths.
Behind the booth I approached, was a soft faced woman wearing a Hijab, who upon my inquiry, informed me that there were two ways to get into town via taxi. One was a metered cab, the other a fixed rate.
I asked her if she preferred one over the other, and with eyes that gently looked at me and quickly away, responded, “whichever you wish”.
I went for the fixed rate (100 ringgits). As I walked away and looking back, I realized that all the booths were filled with women wearing veils. We were in a dominantly Muslim country, which was a first for us.
Moments that are most inspiring as travelers
The month preceding our trip to Kuala Lumpur, we were in Manila, where they were prematurely playing Christmas Music.
Listening to “Silver Bells” in the heat was already a foreign feeling, and arriving at Kuala Lumpur where there was no trace of the Holiday, was even more foreign.
As travelers, however, it’s these moments of being out of sorts that are most inspiring. Being strangers to customs and to the land is what feeds us.
Where to Stay in Kuala Lumpur
After about an hour, the taxi pulled up to the Dorsett Regency, which was going through a facelift.
The initial lack of ambiance in the lobby was quickly erased by the engaging staff. Brenda and Bailey were helped out of the cab and shown inside.
Making my way to the trunk, I was told not to touch a thing as it would all be handled by them.
We were greeted by all staff members with a gesture of putting the palm of their right hand over their heart, and with a slight nod, welcomed us a “good evening”. This was a very endearing custom that we quickly caught on to.
We were escorted to our room, which unlike the lobby, was newly renovated. It was modern and very comfortable, more than enough to accommodate a family of three.
We were introduced to our room by the gentleman that brought our luggage to the room, and as the curtains were drawn, there were those famous Petronas Twin Towers that we had seen in all the guide books.
It served as yet another reminder that this city is a true metropolis and a far cry from the tin mining town that it started out to be.
The Dorsett Regency is technically a 4-Star Hotel, but it’s service is no short of 5-Star and a the sensibility more like a family-run establishment.
A mixture hard to get right, but they do. The hotel is also situated at the pulse of Kuala Lumpur, near just about everything you want to see, do and eat.
Kuala Lumpur Food
Jalan Alor, Hawker Market, Kuala Lumpur
It was the middle of the evening when we arrived our first night and there was no time to settle in, we needed to get ourselves fed.
On the way out, we bumped into a gentleman in a gray suit, who happened to be one of the executives of the hotel.
He spent a few moments with us, making sure we knew where to eat our first night. He whips out a C-fold map and with a few strokes and circles, charts out the directions that would lead us to the world-renowned hawker market, Jalan Alor.
The map in hand, and reading glasses on, we swiftly walked along Jalan Bukit Bintang, the main thoroughfare. The energy on the street was infectious.
It was a good mix of lit billboards that promote luxury goods companies and a hint of seared meats wafting in the air.
This is the hybrid that is Kuala Lumpur today, we were entranced.
Dondurma (Turkish ice cream)
On one corner, there was a big crowd gathered that caught Bailey’s attention. It was a vendor that served Dondurma (Turkish ice cream).
Dondurma is a bit different from the ice cream most of us are used to having. Its texture is thick and a bit chewy, and best of all, because of the inclusion of a thickening agent called salep, it has resistance to melting. Imagine that in the heat?
In what I learned to be a requirement in serving Dondurma, a show comes along with it.
In short, the customer is teased for a few minutes before finally getting their order in hand. Due to the elasticity of the ice cream, the vendor is able to perform what can only be called acrobatic tricks with the dondurma and the cone.
The vendor spent a little extra time with Bailey, as he figured that she was a visitor to his town. It made for great street theater and lots of laughs.
Bailey considered the ice cream she had that night to be the best she’s had all journey, which is quite the statement, considering that she had her fair share.
Truth be said, I think it was the show and the attention she received from the vendor.
I learned quickly, that most things in Kuala Lumpur seemed to have been made better because of the people behind it.
Arab Street, Kuala Lumpur
Across the road was Arab Street, where large spindles of meat were the center of attraction.
Large groups of people standing in the streets eating the most delectable pita sandwiches.
Big fans of Shawarma, we made notes to return on another night. We walked a few more blocks, toward what looked like a street draped in Christmas lights, and there it was, the famous Jalan Alor.
It didn’t take long for Bailey to smell out her favorite Malaysian Dish, Chow Kway Teow. We pulled up three plastic stools and sat at a small square table.
I was dying for a Tiger Beer, but there was none to be had from this hawker as they are Halal. It was against their religion to serve me alcohol. Respectfully, I had a bottle of water and helped Bailey devour her amazing noodle dish.
It was telling, that this small event was a cultural touchstone for my daughter. She has never seen me not get a beer because of someone’s religious beliefs. She was beginning to understand more of the world.
It’s moments such as this that bring forth intellectual fecundity in a child and the reason for her mother and I dragging her around the world.
We had a few more dishes from a few more vendors that evening (all of them served beer) but none more poignant as that first dish and experience.
A Taste of the Old and the New, The Sites
The days proceeding our first night, we visited Mosques, Buddhist and Hindu Temples by day and Skyscrapers by night.
In the mornings, we ate at outdoor Mamak Stalls (Indian Muslims) and had some Roti Canai for breakfast, and in the evening, sat in air-conditioned, high-end, dim sum places found in the malls.
It is this dichotomy, this diversity that makes the town so galvanizing.
Things to do in Kuala Lumpur
You will be pleased to find there is no shortage of things to do in Kuala Lumpur.
Be sure to check out this communication tower which is located at the Bukit Nenas Kuala Lumpur Hill. Go in the evening, as the city lit up at night is beautiful to view from on top the hill.
The tower itself is wonderful to look at from below, as it is lit up in a melange of bright, happy colors.
The evening we visited, there happened to be a base jumping event. It was hours of gut-wrenching excitement, watching these courageous, crazy people hurl themselves off the top of the tower and freefalling as long as they could before deploying the parachute.
Check the calendar on-line as there are always events in or around the tower.
Masjid Jamek Mosque
Kuala Lumpur is filled with beautiful mosques, but this is the oldest, and I think most beautiful. This is also the site where Kuala Lumpur’s first settlers set foot.
From the mosque, you can also visit Jalan Petaling (Chinatown) and the Central Market. It’s here that we experienced the Kuala Lumpur of yore. It’s also here, where you can put your bargaining tools to good use if you so wish.
Sri Mahamariamman Temple
Sri Mahamariamman is the oldest Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur.
Take your shoes off, enter and experience a sacred place important to one of the largest communities in Kuala Lumpur. We went as the sun started to fade, which made for great lighting to capture the aesthetic wonder that is this temple.
Sometimes, the kid(s) need a break from all the cultural stuff. Who are we kidding, we do too. There is no better place to do this than The Pavilion.
Yes, there is shopping here, good shopping at that. But most everyone is here for the eating and people watching experience. It’s a great reprieve from the heat, and if you’re looking for Western Food, there is plenty here.
There is also a large movie complex within, if the family really feels like, as Bailey would say, “Chillin”.
The Petronas Towers
Get to the Petronas Towers early, and book your tickets for a time slot.
They only allow small groups up at one time, and there is a cap on how many they let through daily. Believe me, it’s worth the extra work.
The Petronas Towers stands as one of the tallest structures in the world (tallest until 2004, and still tallest twin towers) and provides a jaw-dropping view of Kuala Lumpur. This view is second only to architectural wonder that it is.
The inspiration for design is based on the five pillars of Islam, and though very modern, the ancient aesthetic makes it possibly the most beautiful of all the other skyscrapers.
No visit to this town is complete without a visit to this figurehead of Malaysia.
If you are like us and look to the past when traveling, there is no shortage of that in the form of food in hawker stalls, mosques, and temples.
But when you come to Kuala Lumpur, be ready for the future. More importantly, the future better be ready for it.
If seeing the world is an education, Kuala Lumpur is certainly is one of its greatest teachers. It is truly a practice in diversity and a must for every family to experience.
Plan Your Trip to Kuala Lumpur
Have you visited Kuala Lumpur with kids? What are some of your tips for things to do?