My favourite spots in Kuala Lumpur aka how I create culture

Kuala Lumpur is not exactly a fun city. I don’t say that because I have something against it. Not at all! I have been living here for almost 6 years so such a statement would be completely inappropriate from me. I say that simply because it’s true. Some will go as far as saying that KL is downright boring, and I would second that too. Unlike many cities in Southeast Asia, let alone capitals in Europe where history screams from almost every corner, a plethora of art galleries, museums and monuments vie for people’s attention, artists as well as buskers dominate the streets and you need to queue for the best exhibitions, KL is indeed way behind. So behind that you often wonder how such lagging can be even possible with such a huge expat community. No wonder though. I mean what can you expect from a city the cultural and tourist centre of which considers selling low quality chocolate the highlight of everything there’s to show to foreigners and locals alike. You get me here, right?

AA man smiling from ear to ear selling food in his stall by night
Optimism is essential!

But why?

There are many reasons for that but I won’t get into as deep an analysis since I might be slightly biased and I don’t want karma to pay back. I still live here and I am grateful, I really am. But you must understand that often institutionalised creed, coupled with brainwashing and wrong agendas might be the culprits. It’s a dreadful mix of factors that seem to only spread its tentacles deeper and deeper making this place fall into the darkest cultural oblivion the world has ever seen. Because let’s face it, art and culture tend to open people’s minds and hearts, and quite unsurprisingly some governments don’t necessarily see that as a good thing. And then there is also dilettantism. Like I said, a dreadful mix. But you see, this really mostly applies to KL. You venture out and all is good. Go to Sabah or Sarawak, and you will be surrounded by traditions. Or just read again my optimistic post about Penang and how lovely vibe this island has.

A yellow car and a husky looking at it
Rare sights in KL – an extravagant car and a dog. You need to look for things to create memories.

KL, unfortunately, resists culture, art and tradition very skilfully. It’s a very materialistic place and this mind-set has been only growing. So the sad verdict is that if you want some culture you need to look for it. But that’s going to be hard, and will remind a long run with hurdles. The problem is that culture the way we Westerners know it is hidden, it’s very deep under the surface and let me tell you flat open that without a skilful, like-minded local or better a whole network of them you are doomed. Finding this network is going to be equally challenging as apparently your potential mates hang out on Tinder these days. Therefore, the harsh truth is that you are left to creating the culture for yourself. Completely on your own. And with few resources available.

A yellow window wide open to a a nicely lit bar taken from the street.
Somewhere a window or two might open for you. Practise gratefulness and you will see.

First timers are fine

To be fair though, for first timers KL is spectacular. As are many other cities. It’s when the novelty and excitement fade away, when you realise that spending time and money in bars or worse countless shopping malls can’t make up for your dormant spiritual desires. Although quite frankly some things wouldn’t have happened and led to where I am if it hadn’t been for a handful of people I met at bars who introduced me to other people and you know… Life happened. Mark, if you are reading this I must say ‘thank you’ for helping me discover photography. While we’ve fallen out for obvious reasons, I’m forever grateful for our crossing paths. Without you I would be probably still wasting my potential while sipping the watered down Tiger in some of the infamous pubs.

Very old dirty car with rubbish parked in an old street with another car parked behind which is red and says 'Faith' on its roof the front
Above all, do not lose faith!

Worthwhile pastimes

And you know, once I discovered photography, blogging soon followed, one thing led to another and today I can say that I’ve plenty of new interests to keep myself busy with. And quite honestly, wandering around KL or across Malaysia, God bless this country, shooting and writing about it has definitely been one of the greatest pastimes I have found in my life. Only that when travel, even locally, is not an option, you simply need to get even more creative. And that means first and foremost being grateful for whatever you have and secondly also rediscovering places you might have taken for granted. So here you go folks – my favourite spots to hang out with myself under my own terms and at any given time.

Two monkeys sitting on a sign board eating a mango
Nature and funny scenes are at your fingertips in KL. Don’t stop looking!

Lake Gardens

This goes on top of my list because this spot easily wins over all the places I mention here. This park is a slice of natural paradise where I seek respite from the hustle and bustle and the busy mind that never seems to stop working. I’ve been coming really often as that’s the only place where I don’t feel the heaviness of the concrete jungle that KL has become. It’s a huge 227-acre green area, with each corner beautifully manicured and preserved. It’s never crowded since apparently not many locals are so fond of nature and outdoors. But even if they were, it’s so huge that you can easily find your own space. Walking here feels great any time of the day but early mornings and evenings are the best. While the park is officially open from 7am to 7pm, I love coming here shortly before 7pm and staying way past the opening hours. The main entrance remains always open so you won’t get locked in.

Red taxi on the street in the largest park
Life is good here.

Rain wins though

My top tip is though getting here during or shortly after the rain. I guarantee it’s going to make your day. The freshness, brought about by the amazing tropical rain with its mist hugging you gently, the sounds of nature and tranquility that comes afterwards, the feeling of cleanness and rejuvenation are indeed at its best during that time and trust me, I can tell as I have gotten soaked here loads of times. In fact, if my timetable allows it, I’ll often wickedly wait for the time just before a storm and head here to get trenched, and do some exercise in this unique atmosphere. While my shoes and clothes might not necessarily like this, my body and mind love me for this.

Path in the park shortly after the rain with hikers and runners
Can you smell the freshness?

And if getting drenched isn’t your thing, then just come to sit about, have a picnic, read a book, or whatever the hell makes you happy. There are other things one could do, but mentioning them now, amidst the pandemic, is irrelevant as most of them are closed. So just come to enjoy the serenity and greenery of the whole park.

Chairs in a cafe nearby a fountain at the park
Just sit and chill.

Train station and Mosque

Just as you walk outside the part using the Jalan Perdana street you will reach another cute spot that still reminds us of the old times. The architecture is pretty quaint but unfortunately it’s surrounded by highways so lingering for too long won’t be fun. By sunset though, it could be good for some photography for sure.

Towers of old train station building lit by sunset
I love this architecture, especially by sunset.

Kampung Bharu

This is my muse. I am immensely grateful that this part of the city still exists in its relatively unchanged form. And I’m also lucky to be living just next to it. Murmurs can be heard about developers itching to tear this part of the city down and build yet another set of ugly high-rise buildings instead. As if the already construction-ridden city needed more of that. Truth be told, if they do take this part of town down, KL is done for. For sure and for good.

Family chilling in front of a traditional house in a traditional village
This is Kampung Bahru!

Traditional old houses

Built in the 1980s by the British, Kampung Bharu is unique because it’s the only place in the city centre where you can still find traditional colonial stilt houses, the ones that you normally see when you travel to kampung (village) outside KL. Some of the houses have been around for more than 100 years and the area is mainly inhabited by Malay community.

Baskets and other stuff laid before a shop in a village lit by sunset
You can’t see this anywhere else in KL.

Food hub

It’s also supposed to be the go-to spot for food. I’ve only tried that once and it was slightly confusing as back then I had no knowledge of the local language and it took a hell of a time to order. Luckily a friendly local helped me but honestly, I can’t tell much about the quality of food. There are some really traditional nasi lemak spots that I know locals flock to, but I’m definitely into different tastes so you won’t find me eating here. Look out for my favourite foodie tips in my next post.

Coconut seller with a friend giving me thumbs up
But I will always drink a coconut here! A bit of bahasa Malaysia and you make friends easily.

Bangsar

This is considered to be the trendy part of the city. I’d even go as far as labelling it the hub for the posh ones. Of course there are plenty of other way posher places, it’s just that for to me unknown reasons they don’t get the rep of being posh, perhaps because such places are scattered throughout the city, while in Bangsar there’s a handful of them concentrated in one area. Of course there are plenty of low-key eateries too and if you don’t want to spend a fortune on food and drinks, it’s definitely possible. The good thing about Bangsar is simply the variety concentrated in one easily walkable area. You have it all here – all kinds of restaurants, cafes and bars, shopping, banking, hair dressers and whatever you need to seize the day. Personally though, I like this area because I have a weakness for a roof top bar here. Can you make a guess?

Black and white photo of a cityskape from a roof top bar
This view never disappoints.

Masid Jamek

I still remember vividly the moment when I first set my foot in this area. It was in 2015 and I came here to open my bank account. While banking services in this country are nothing to be bragged about, I definitely remember thinking ‘Oh, so that’s the real buzz of KL. That’s Malaysia’. Since before this, I had only seen the Twin Towers, logically my impressions of KL were very different.

Flag of Malaysia hanging down from a building at night with cars on the street
Merdeka Square is just around the corner.

Junction and Mosque

It’s a public transport junction and home to one of the most beautiful mosques in the country. During the day, it’s full to bursting, swarms of people, cars and motorbikes whizzing by, stall sellers shouting in an attempt to attract you to buy their produce. Doors of restaurants, shops and nearby cafes are in constant motion. Add to it Indian music blasting from all corners of Little India street, competing with each other’s volume and you have a case for a serious sensory overload. Again, the pandemic has changed this drastically but it still doesn’t change the fact that this part of the city has its unmatched vibe. What’s more, by night this spot transforms into a magical, fairy tale like setting. After the sunset blue steam is released all along the river making you feel as if you are in a scene from Jack the Ripper or perhaps something more romantic such as Avatar. I’ve got to cut some slack to whoever came up with this concept as it’s truly some of the most unique ideas I’ve come across in Asia.

A man is emerging from blue steam released by the river of life in KL by night.
Which scene does this remind you?

Meeting Andrew Pok

To balance the fact that I have mostly complained in the first part of this article, I must proudly say that a couple days back I struck some luck as karma took me to Andrew Pok, a local artist whose creations are popular not only in Malaysia but also in neighbouring countries such as Singapore or Thailand. And how did we meet? Well the other day when I got an itch for a late night walk I spotted a huge banner promoting his installation. Sorry, what? Exhibition in KL? ‘Am I dreaming or what exactly is happening?’ I remember thinking. Luckily, it was real but since the exhibition had closed by the time I noticed it, I needed to make sure to make my way here some days later. The ‘What you are the world is‘ title was pulling hard.

Huhe banner on a wall of building advertising an exhibition of an artist
You have until 13th May, so hurry folks! Check the link above for location and other info.

And it was well worth it! Not only was I lucky enough to be the only visitor at that point, but Andrew and I struck up a great conversation, exchanged contacts and most importantly took photos inside his futuristic and sad reality reminding maze. It took me time to understand the point of his installation, and if Andrew wasn’t so cool so start talking to me, I might have left without really getting it. Here’s to going deeper and trying to understand the background of things before you make a judgement. I’m so coming back. And you should make your way here too, my dear friends. After all, it’s possibly the only art installation in KL you’ll see in years. Pun totally intended. Check my Instagram and Facebook for more information.

Artist Andrew Pok posing in this maze installation
Hi Andrew! Unique installation indeed!

Jalan Alor

I kinda like and don’t like this place at the same time. But I always keep coming. You can find an amazing variety of restaurants although I have been strangely loyal to just one of them. Prices are more than reasonable and I am fond of the fact that it’s open air so this makes it an enjoyable experience rain or shine. Dining out often comes with a twist of culture as buskers try to impress you with their take on temporary music so it’s definitely worth it. I remember that at the beginning of my stay in KL I used to spend here all my days off and often come also after work. Today my visits are rather sporadic, but I am still faithful and this means it’s worth your attention too. If you are brave enough to meet me in person, hit me up through Instagram, Facebook or comments and we could have dinner here. What do you say?

Busker tuning his guitar in a street by night
A busker tuning his guitar in Jalan Alor.

Pudu

Definitely not a place you would normally look for during a short visit. But to me that place has its undeniable and unquestionable charm. This lies in a complete rejection of modernity. Forget sparkling, shiny shopping windows, luxury goods and fancy looking people. This is the complete opposite! My favourite KL reality check.

Shop taken from the street with a sign 'No entrance'
I was actually invited inside of the many shops, so don’t let the signs deter you.

The area is full of old-school shops such as printers and all kinds of smiths. Hawkers and eateries dot the rather dark and gloomy streets, and amazingly unique locals roam the area in a fashion that is rarely seen anywhere else. My camera and I had a blast last time we went. I also struck up a conversation with a couple individuals who on the one hand were genuinely curious about my motives for visiting, and on the other puzzled by my not so Pudu-like appearance. Give it a try if you want to see some run down houses and interesting people. After that you can try some of the hawkers.

Man standing by an old printer, printing stuff in Chinese
Where else to see this?

China Town

You can’t afford not to like this one. The centre, Petaling Street, with its surrounding smaller and cute lanes, creates an interesting combo of local culture. China Town is great not only for photography but also for cafe and bar hopping. You’ll find plenty of original kopitiams – places where you can get traditional local breakfast – hawkers, cheap Michelin restaurants, speakeasy bars, modern cafes and whatnot. Simply, this area is packed with spots that can satisfy almost anyone from a foodie, drinker, photographer or architecture enthusiast. What is more, it’s probably the only area of town where the aftermath of the pandemic hasn’t been felt at all. Quite the opposite. Cafes and cute little restaurants have been popping up as if trying to defy the fact that an unparalleled storm has just paralysed not only the whole country, but the whole world.

Chinese lanterns hanging above a shop with a Chinese name by night
Do I need to say something?

The most popular spot is Kwai Chai Hong, and rightfully so. Beautiful murals make this an open-air exhibition which is even more romantic by night when all the Chinese lanterns give the place it’s aura of historical Shanghai. Not that I’ve ever been to Shanghai but that’s how I feel when there by night. Therefore, if you are looking for inspiration, just hit this area and enjoy mindless strolling through the busy streets. I’d strongly recommend not coming here on weekends or public holidays though as you will be confronted with herds of selfie- and photo-hungry people will make it quite unbearable and that’s not the feel you want to get. Try a weekday for a more relaxed experience.

Statue of woman inside a building with leaves as a foreground and iron bars, street in the background
Quiet dedication pays off.

Bukit Bintang

I like this one because it’s close to my house. Well in fact most of the above places are. But Bukit Bintang is the real city buzz. Let’s call it BBB – Bukit Bintang Buzz. In English I’d translate it as Star Hill. So that’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it. You won’t probably run into any stars here. In fact, I don’t even know where local stars hang out. But you’ll definitely run into lots of other things. You can eat, shop and drink to oblivion here and come across some really cutely bizarre stuff.

Silly blue mascot inviting people to a restaurant
Not exactly my preferred style but it can be fun.

And that’s it folks. There are plenty of other places I like but I it listed those where you can get to see me often. And also, they are the ones that keep me sane during this bloody pandemic. If you think there’s a place I might like, feel free to let me know via social media or comments. And thanks for reading. See you around. Till then ciao amici!

 

14 thoughts on “My favourite spots in Kuala Lumpur aka how I create culture

  1. You’re a great insider to guide me visiting KL. The photos were beautiful. And there will be a long time to get back to normal for traveling.

  2. When I finally make it to KL it will be my first time – so seems I’m in for a great adventure. Thank you for all the detail you included in your article. Much appreciated

  3. The beauty of your word is..You made me feel, my country is so beautiful. Pictures look like infused with soul. Thanks Sonia!

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