From the blue lagoons of Borneo to the isolated islands of Langkawi, Malaysia has long been one of the world’s top honeymoon destinations – a once-in-a-lifetime location where romance cannot fail to flourish.
But there is much more sparkle to this Asian jewel than swaying palms and sunny shores. Paradise, it seems, has been unfairly pigeonholed.
In 50 short years, the country’s capital has transformed from a colonial backwater into an urban destination to rival Tokyo and Bangkok. Whisper it, but Malaysia is now as frantic as it is romantic.
The only urban hub between Thailand in the north and Singapore in the south, Kuala Lumpur (or KL in local lingo) is ideal for long-haulers looking for adventure or as a stopover alternative to Hong Kong. Its swish new airport, built for the 1998 Commonwealth Games and home to Malaysia Airlines’ five-star fleet, sets the tone
Like many Asian capitals, KL is a skyscraper city where size is everything – from super-modern steel and glass towers to vast ramshackle apartment blocks draped in satellite dishes and drying laundry.
Above all these giants looms the 450-metre Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest twin buildings since 9/11. From the 88th floor you can appreciate how KL – cut out of dense rain forest – is in every sense an urban jungle.
Despite being high-rise, the city is best viewed at ground level. In the shadow of the towers, KLCC Park is the perfect place for a serious stroll. Popular with visitors and locals alike, its 17 acres offer walking paths, children’s play areas, fountains and wading pools and lines of street traders flogging fake four-stripe Adidas trainers, Manchester United bumper stickers and Rolex watches for a pound.
You can continue haggling on Petaling Street in the heart of Chinatown. Its pre-war shops are open round the clock but the area really comes alive after dark when lanterns are lit, streets are closed to traffic and the bustling pasar malam (night market) opens for business.
Colonial influences are everywhere, most notably in Mendenka Square where the Union Jack was lowered for the last time at midnight on August 31, 1957, to mark the end of British rule. Its mock-Tudor cricket pavilion and pitch – with the batting crease still marked out – offers a poignant reminder of daily life before the British packed their bags.
Eager to establish their own national identity, Malaysians hold the world record for, er, holding the most world records.
A flick through the Malaysian Book Of Records reveals more than 400 – many prestigious but most utterly pointless. So in addition to building the world’s tallest twin skyscrapers and largest shopping mall (which contains the longest roller coaster), they have also set the bar for the world’s smallest frog, walking down steps backwards and the most pensioners to attend the circus. It’s quite a CV.
A modern and moderate Muslim state, the call to evening prayer is often drowned out by the call of the evening clubs and bars in the Golden Triangle nightlife district.
Here you’ll find the trendy Lunar Bar, on the 33rd floor of the Pan Global building, with its swimming pool and stunning city views where you can sip cocktails and watch the sun go down before heading off to nearby nightclubs Zouk, The Beach Club and achingly hip Pulse located in the Grand Millennium Hotel.
The Golden Triangle also has the city’s finest dining. Malay cuisine, a fusion of Indian and Chinese, is based around curry, which is on the menu for breakfast, elevenses, lunch, supper and late-night snack.
Satay, chunks of meat on bamboo skewers usually served with peanut sauce, is Malaysia’s signature dish. And The Rebung Restaurant serves the city’s finest. “I cook poor men’s food that rich men desire,” says the owner Ismail Ahmad, who runs sing-for-your-supper karaoke, offering crooners cheap food if they perform two songs. Most sing Lionel Ritchie’s Hello. Twice.
These karaoke performances are all utterly irony-free. In fact they are executed with Celine Dion levels of conviction. Which is hardly surprising for a country that proudly calls itself the world female karaoke champions.
And that, alongside the record for the world’s smallest frog, means Malaysia really do have something to croak about.