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Small samplings from the Malay melting pot
Kuala Lumpur is a typical 21st-century Southeast Asian city: there are as many shopping malls and Wi-Fi cappuccino stops as there are ancient mosques and temples. What you’ll eat in a tranquil high-end eatery may cost you more, but the dishes won’t necessarily taste any better than what street hawkers have been serving up for generations. KL, as most people call it, is a success story of skyscrapers and designer green spaces that’s not forgotten its past.
What first strikes most visitors is the country’s diversity. Malays make up the majority, but Chinese and Indians, who’ve been here since KL was first carved out of the jungle, have left a strong imprint on the culture. You can see this mix in the country’s architecture, clothing, festivals, religious practices and, best of all for conference-goers, the food. There isn’t one type of Malaysian food: it’s all a combo of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Baba Nyonya (the fusion of Chinese and Malay). What’s more, food really brings people together here; Malays, who are predominantly Islamic, don't eat pork, many Indians refuse beef and some Chinese are strict vegetarians, yet somehow everyone adapts and makes it work. In fact, Malaysians will tell you their country introduced fusion cuisine to the world.
Obviously you’ll do well in the City Centre’s restaurants around the conference, but don’t forget an evening visit to Chinatown and Little India, and be sure to try the food at the street stalls: pulled tea (teh tarik) is a must as is at least one satay and a curried treat on a coconut leaf from a Mamak stall, which sells Indian-Muslim fare.
Some Malaysians never adapted to the industrial way of three square meals a day, instead they graze all day, eating as many as five small ones daily. If you want to get the most of your KL stay, then embrace the Malaysian way. You’ll taste more.
Cruising City Centre
Book a room at the Traders Hotel (Kuala Lumpur City Centre; shangri-la.com/kualalumpur/traders), it’s next to the Convention Centre and offers picture-perfect views of the Petronas Twin Towers from its Park View rooms (worth the money) as well as its Sky Bar and Pool. The Sky Bar is where you’ll want to be on your first night: reserve one of the sunken couches for a front-row seat facing the two scalloped, glass-and-steel buildings — designed to resemble motifs found in Islamic art — lit up at night. Bring your camera.
This is the City Centre, or KLCC, where everything is connected and revolves around these famous towers. If you run in the morning, the sprawling KLCC Park has a 1.3-kilometre-long, rubber-covered track. But whatever working out you do outdoors, plan it early: KL is hot and smoggy. Otherwise, the hotel has excellent facilities.
For a relaxing break, go to the nearby KL Bird Park (920 Jalan Cenderawasih; klbirdpark.com), where you can stroll past posturing peacocks and scarlet ibises. The 8.5-hectare aviary is home to more than 3000 birds representing 200 species, some of which, like the snappy cassowary and loquacious, you can hand feed.
From there, feed yourself some famous Malaysian grilled fish at the popular Ikan Bakar Asli Pak Din (Stall No. 5 in the Tanglin Food Court, Jalan Cenderasari), behind the national mosque and a 10-minute walk from the park. The stall opens at 10am and closes when it runs out of fish. Expect a lineup.
If you can spare an entire afternoon off, visit the limestone Batu Caves (tourism.gov.my, search Batu Caves) in the Gombak district in Selangor, 13 kilometres north of KL. (The hotel can arrange a taxi). The caves are one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India and well worth the visit. It’ll be busy, but exciting, on November 13, when Hindus celebrate Deepavali, the first day of their New Year. Also called the Festival of Lights, it’s celebrated with prayers, family gatherings and lots of eating, of course.
Walk like a Malaysian
If you’re serious about understanding the Malaysian ways of life, consider a Ministry of Tourism-endorsed homestay (go2homestay.com) in a village anywhere in the country. Throughout Malaysia, locals have opened their homes to foreigners so they can basically live with that family and share their food and daily practices. Stay in Kampung Patau-Patau 2, one of the last remaining water villages in the country, or get up in the middle of the night to witness giant turtles come ashore to lay eggs in Terengganu. The homestay programme is an affordable and simple way to preplan your post-conference stay in Malaysia.
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