Kuala Lumpur Is Having a Moment
While tourists have long thronged to neighbors like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur has exploded into being a city worth checking out.
This is the latest in our twice-monthly series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
As a native New Yorker I have a terrible habit of judging the merits of a city by its skyline. This is ludicrous, of course; many of the world’s cultural nodes never lift higher than a dozen stories above the ground. Nonetheless, sometimes my bias is validated. In the case of Kuala Lumpur I see, in real time, a correlative rise in stature and steel edifice. It’s not just the countless cranes carrying this massive urban landscape towards the heavens. It’s an energy swelling within the clubs, hotels, and speakeasies—promising to spill out onto the crowded streets.
Yes, KL (as it is colloquially known) is most certainly having a moment. But it’s not as if it happened overnight. This is the capital of Malaysia, for cripes’ sake. Two centuries ago it sprouted outward from the junction of the Gombak and Klang rivers to form a cultural crossroads. A diverse array of Asian ethnicities—primarily Chinese, Indian, Javanese—emigrated here hoping to mine fortunes in tin from the corrugated landscape. It’s been a slow build ever since.
I first arrived in 2014 in search of a more sip-able sort of treasure. A couple months prior, the city’s first cocktail lounge of repute had opened. Just 200 miles south, Singapore was accumulating most of the region’s boozy bonafides. But tales were slowly spreading of the bespoke liquid tasting menus pouring out from a nondescript parlor here known as Omakase + Appreciate. Its reputation, I found, was well-earned. And when I returned in 2017, a burgeoning scene was popping up in its wake—particularly in the Chinatown neighborhood, where dimly-lit speakeasies like PS150 and Pahit were commanding lines for entry. What I found inside was worth the wait.
Well-worn around the edges, but creative to the core—this city resonated with my native yearnings. A walk through nearby Petaling Street Market revealed an eclectic array of ingredients, raw and prepared; dense with fast-talking merchants, smiling ear-to-ear, eager to be haggled. Nothing shiny nor hermetically sealed. It was lived in. And I was in love.
When Cho Cha Foodstore swung open in the same neighborhood, it was eager to capture this vibe. The kitchen was a finely-tuned machine, an edible representation of KL’s cultural melting pot. Housemade flat noodles were soaked in ulam pesto and crushed peanuts; squid heads marinated in lychee and lemongrass. But it was all put together in a space that was unrefined, by design. A feature--not a flaw.
I had arrived just in time to witness a luxury hotel boom in KLCC (city center). A skyline once recognized exclusively for the iconic Petronas Towers was rapidly evolving to incorporate sleek and slender steel frames, carrying familiar brands such as the Four Seasons, the W, Banyan Tree, Pullman. Yet little of it was cookie cutter. Even the high end here was striving for a distinctive personality, as opposed to coagulating around some international baseline of beauty.
Almost as if to accentuate that point, a cadre of boutique alternatives soon followed, culminating in the opening of the RuMa Hotel and Residences in April 2019. An obligatory list of frills had been checked, but like the city it called home, this place was very much defining modernism on its own terms.
“If your last visit to KL was 10 years ago, you probably wouldn’t be able to recognize the city it has become today,” contends Nigel Gan, who heads communications for the Malaysian-based brand. “It isn’t just about the skyscrapers, it’s the people. As a society, we have become more creative, more original, more aware. There has been a resurgence of appreciation for provenance.”
It’s readily observable in the suites and shared spaces of RuMa, where floors are fabricated of polished Chinese clay and metallic fixtures and fittings all callback to the cultural roots of the region.
In the adjacent Chow Kit (a revitalized neighborhood known more for its gritty streetscape than its glitzy towers) an eponymous hotel is also helping spearhead a sense of local pride. Vernacular architecture in the seven story structure accentuates its past while connecting guests with its future.
Many of the locals I meet today speak of a greater sense of pride in their hometown than ever before. For good reason. There’s plenty to be proud of. But they finally sense that sentiment rippling outward, reaping waves of international interest. Of course, great grub is always a dependable way to grab headlines. And my experience at Cho Cha several years ago was hardly an outlier. It was merely my entry point into an electrified gourmet landscape.
“KL is not just about street food anymore,” Gan told me. “New creative, world class restaurants and concepts are opening up at a rapid pace and gaining global recognition, such as Nadodi, OpenHouse, Dewakan and ATAS Modern Malaysian Eatery.” As a consequence Michelin is penning articles about KL being the next gourmet destination of Asia, fueling rumors that the region might soon earn its own guide from the esteemed dining revue.
Then there’s the shopping. Just south of KLCC, Bukit Bintang is ground zero for Gucci, Prada, LV—all the usual suspects of high end couture. But now a more local sense of fashion is penetrating the scene. It’s a relatively recent movement, propelled in part by Andrew Tan, who founded Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week in 2013. “Malaysian designers are being recognized and discovered by department stores such as Robinson’s and Isetan, and International Stockists,” he tells me. “Speaking from a fashion retail point of view, KL has been hard at work transforming itself into an international hub.”
It helps that there’s more and more high-level space for in it all to fit. Again, my head tilts towards the sky. On my most recent return in late 2019 Exchange 106 had just topped out at 95 stories, permanently altering the skyline, while adding some 2.5 million square feet of top-tier retail space to the downtown corridor. And as it continues to grow vertically, the city is drawn closer horizontally by the development of mass rapid transit. A 34-stop green line began servicing passengers in 2016. By 2021 it will be joined by a yellow line with 37 stations. Together they are expected to shuttle upwards of 300,000 passengers daily throughout the greater metropolitan.
“It’s a big step in the right direction,” Gareth Lim, spokesperson for the hotel group operating both Chow Kit and its adjoining property, the more stripped down MoMo, explains. “The MRT provides much needed connectivity between greater Kuala Lumpur and the city center.” But he remains skeptical of some of the multi-billion dollar integrated developments currently underway. For good reason, as some of them have been marred by scandalous corruption.
“The success and viability of these mega-projects remain to be seen,” he tells me as we stroll past the quiet back alleys of the Chow Kit. Several chickens strut by, traversing lawns that lead up to traditional Malay stilted houses (Rumah Panggung, as they are known here). The scene wouldn’t seem strange a century ago. Yet, here we stand—almost literally—under the shadows of 1,500-ft tall towers.
In the moment, I marvel at the dichotomy that Lim and others are fighting to preserve. And ultimately he reminds me of how foolhardy my New York predilections can be. “You can't build a city without people, culture and stories; you'll just be left with soul-less concrete buildings.” Touché; I say to myself, fighting back the pangs of defensiveness. This isn’t New York. And contrary to the clickbait-ey headlines, it’s not trying to be the next Singapore, either. Now so, more than ever, it’s perfectly comfortable simply being KL.