It’s been 18 years since I was last in Kuala Lumpur, and on my first night, fresh off an Air Asia flight from Sydney, I go straight to Jalan Alor in search of authentic Malaysian street food.
I’m visiting in the midst of the MH370 crisis, and the missing plane is weighing on the mind of Malaysians, with local television channels showing a permanent acknowledgment emblazoned across its programming.
“Pray for MH370”, it reads.
However, if the cacophonous Jalan Alor is anything to go then Kuala Lumpur, the plane’s departure city, is trying to move on.
Ironically, I’ve come here rather than Bangkok because of mounting street protests against an unpopular government in the Thai capital. Now the Malaysian government is facing its own backlash for its handling of the crisis.
This is a multicultural Asian crossroads very much on the move
Jalan Alor is, I soon find out, a concoction for tourists, who make up 98% of those dining and swilling beer here. My laksa and glutinous noodle dish are poor and while it is fun sitting outside in the steamy hubbub of central KL, this will end up being my visit’s least genuine experience.
It leaves me wondering how to get to grips with this sprawling city, where landmarks like the twinkling 452-metre Petronas towers rise from the rubble of construction sites and, any time between 4-7.30p, streets are gridlocked with traffic.
Still, I’m in Kuala Lumpur at an exciting time, with the Formula One circus in town for the Malaysian Grand Prix, and, while celebrations have been toned down, there’s still a buzz around the city.
I first notice this at the new “Gentlemen’s Club” at the Majestic Hotel, KL’s most Raffles-like colonial heritage property, where I am staying. Cool and quiet on my first night, at lunchtime the day of the Grand Prix qualifying it is contrastingly full of moneyed European blokes drinking exotic beer cocktails containing large measures of gin and whisky and playing billiards. I half expect to see Lewis Hamilton popping in for a close shave at the traditional Truefitt & Hill barber shop downstairs.
But if Hamilton or our own rookie driver Daniel Ricciardo were to sway from pre-race preparation then they would more likely turn up at Marinis on 57, KL’s most sophisticated rooftop bar and restaurant.
It’s at Marinis that night that, through a cloud of vodka cocktails and a dizzying soundtrack played by visiting DJ’s Danny Rampling and his wife, I begin to see Kuala Lumpur clearly. Literally, as the skyline and particularly the silvery confection of the Petronas Towers, seems so close that it leans into Marinis, and, all around me is a startling mix of the city’s ethnicities grooving to one of the world’s great DJs of the nineties and noughties. It’s an upmarket crowd of the city’s beautiful people but the ease with which they schmooze plants the notion of KL as an Asian crossroads in my mind.
The following night, after watching a thrilling Grand Prix won by Lewis Hamilton, that idea is crystallised at an open-air post-race concert. Presided over by international DJing phenomenon Calvin Harris, this is the most joyous gig I’ve ever attended.
Why? Because, as far as I can see, thousands of people are dancing un-self-consciously and largely chemically unenhanced, in family groups and gaggles of assorted ethnicities, including Muslim women in headscarves and “party responsibly” T-shirts and from right across the age range, from 10 to at least 75-years-old.
All around me is a startling mix of the city’s ethnicities
There’s none of that cringe-making self-important cool found at similar gigs in Melbourne or London. It’s an uplifting picture of harmony in an Asian city that connects ethnicities in a way that Istanbul straddles continents and Western and Eastern sensibilities.
At the end of my trip I also finally find the authentic Malaysian food I’ve been craving on an “Off the Eaten Track” tour. Led by a young Tamil guide and dropping into a food court catering to local workers, a pop-up night market and a bustling Chinese dining hall, it delivers an array of memorable dishes from traditional Malay Nasi Lemak, rice served in a banana leaf with spicy sambal sauce, to Kong Foo Chow, delicious egg noodles with deep fried pork.
The tour, and my time in Kuala Lumpur, ends at an Indian restaurant in the central Semarak district where tables-full of locals are devouring roti, untroubled by the surrounding debris of the uncompleted building.
Like much of KL, the restaurant is still under construction. But it is another indication, along with the flood of new hotels (including the first, seven-star Harrods property) opening in coming years, that this is a multicultural Asian crossroads very much on the move.
Air Asia flies twice daily to Kuala Lumpur from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth and several times weekly from Adelaide and the Gold Coast.
“Off the Eaten Track” tours costs 160 Ringet ($53).