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Kuala Lumpur Overview
Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur has experienced tremendous changes in the past quarter-century. In 1990, it was not yet an economic or technological powerhouse; the city was easy to navigate, and there weren't many high-rises. But since then, strong Asian economic development has given this 150-year-old city a new look and vibe, with tall skyscrapers, luxurious hotels and expansive shopping malls. The shopping, in particular, enjoys an advantage over that found in Kuala Lumpur's Asian counterparts like Singapore and Hong Kong because prices are phenomenal -- Kuala Lumpur is a great place to find quality at massive discounts.
A bit of the credit for the city's burgeoning reputation as an Asian destination can be given to the 1999 movie "Entrapment." The sexy thriller starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery was partly filmed at the city's 1,482-foot-high Petronas Twin Towers (which briefly, on completion in 1998, held the title of "world's tallest building"). Although the towers no longer top the list, they are still among the most recognizable skyscrapers in Asia.
KL (as it's known) emerged in the 1850's as a trading town for the tin industry, which was dominated by the Chinese; later, rubber also became an important part of the local economy. The city's exotic-sounding name is a remnant from those early days -- it actually means "muddy estuary" in Malay. In the 1870's, the British (who held interests in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore) took notice of the area's resources and appointed a "resident" administrator. A great deal of the city's fanciful colonial architecture reflects this era, exhibiting Victorian and Indian Moghul influences. Malaysian territory was occupied during World War II by the Japanese and became fully independent from the British in 1957.
The modern country of Malaysia was formed in 1963, with a federation that originally also included Singapore. The kingship rotates among sultans from each of the nine different states, changing every five years.
Malaysia is an ethnically, racially and culturally diverse nation. The majority of KL's 1.6 million inhabitants is almost equally split between Malays and Chinese, with an Indian minority (originally brought as laborers by the British) of about 10 percent. Islam is the most widely practiced religion, but Buddhism is a close second.
The area around KL gets a soggy 99 inches of rain per year, averaging 158 days with precipitation. Downpours can be torrential, even causing modern roads to flood and block traffic. The months with the lowest rainfall during cruising season are January and February. Your chances are greatest for getting drenched in October, November, December and April.
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Other Asia Cruise Ports:
Bangkok (Laem Chabang) • Beijing • Cochin • Da Nang • Hanoi • Hiroshima • Ho Chi Minh City • Hong Kong • Koh Samui • Kuala Lumpur • Langkawi • Mumbai • Nagasaki • Osaka • Penang • Saipan • Seoul (Incheon) • Shanghai • Sihanoukville • Singapore • Yangon (Rangoon)
Although English is widely spoken in Malaysia, Malay is the official language. However, several local newspapers, such as The New Straits Times, are available in English.
Some useful Malay phrases to impress the locals:
Apa khabar? ("How are you?" The traditional Malay greeting literally means "What news?")
Khabar baik, terima kasih. ("Fine, thank you.")
Terima kasih. ("Thank you.")
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency in KL is the Malaysian ringgit. For updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com . At the cruise terminal, there is an ATM outside after you exit the building; money-changers are available inside the terminal. ATM's can also be found at major establishments like shopping centers and the Central Market. There are surcharges for using ATM's. Banks are normally open from 9:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday to Friday and 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Saturdays.
Most major credit cards -- American Express, MasterCard and Visa -- are accepted, as are traveler's checks. However, you might want to curtail your use of plastic due to reports of credit card fraud.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at Port Klang (also written Kelang), which is 40 miles (40 to 90 minutes, depending on traffic) southwest of Kuala Lumpur. Port Klang is, first and foremost, a major cargo port, but it also houses a modern cruise terminal and cruise ship pier.
Most of the sightseeing tours from Port Klang head into Kuala Lumpur. If you'll be going off on your own, a taxi or car service is needed. The terminal has a taxi counter where fixed-price roundtrips into the city cam be arranged. Taxis accept U.S. dollars but not credit cards.
The port has free Wi-Fi in an upstairs lounge and very limited convenience store-style shopping facilities. However, if you're into golf, try the Port Klang Golf Resort, which is located less than a mile south from the terminal. Die-hard shoppers may want to visit the AEON Bukit Tinggi Shopping Centre, about 20 minutes away.
Depending on traffic, it takes a little more than an hour to get from Port Klang to Kuala Lumpur; expect longer times during rush hours.
On Foot: Attractions can be far apart, so consult a map before setting off from the Central Market to, say, Petronas Towers. It's doubtful you'd want to hoof it; the traffic is often wicked. You'll find a stroll in the city's old colonial heart to be pleasant, though.
By Taxi:> Taxis are plentiful within the city -- and fares are a bargain. Drivers are always required to use the meter. If you're booking a longer trip outside the city, limousine services offer very competitive fares in addition to a higher quality of car than normal taxis.
By Mass Transit: Within the city, mass transit includes buses, a light rail and a monorail that operates through the major areas and offers a good overview of Kuala Lumpur.
By Train: An extensive rail network connects suburbs and the city. However, it doesn't connect conveniently with the port. The modern KL Sentral is the main railway station.
Watch Out For
The credit card fraud risk might make you think twice about using plastic. It seems like a fraud ring is busted in KL every year, and another pops up. Travelers have reported fraud even when cards have been used at major hotel chains.
While Kuala Lumpur has numerous gardens and lush greenery, the air can be quite hazy and occasionally almost dangerously so for people with breathing problems.
Some visitors complain about the practice -- not uncommon in other countries, either -- of charging foreigners more than locals for admission to attractions. The price difference can be considerable in Kuala Lumpur.
The Petronas Twin Towers feature an extraordinary sky bridge between the twin buildings at levels 41/42, 558 feet above ground, and an observation platform on level 86, 1,181 feet above ground. The towers are located in the "Golden Triangle" bounded by Jalan Imbi, Jalan Ampang, Jalan and Tun Razak. This section is home to most of KL's hotels, office complexes and shopping malls. (open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday but closed from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Fridays)
Despite the rapid pace of building in the past few years, the Colonial District is still replete with historic buildings that offer a quaint ambience. You'll find many colonial buildings in and around Merdeka Square, including the Royal Selangor Club (a former magnet for British society) and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (also constructed by the British as their administrative seat). The square features a flagpole said to be the tallest in the world. Other notable colonial architecture nearby includes the former post office, the National Textiles Museum and the original Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, a fantasy of turrets and gingerbread.
The National Museum features exhibits -- all with information in English -- that focus on the country's history, culture, arts and crafts, economic activities, weapons, transportation and more. (open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; free tours at 10 a.m.)
Also found in the "Golden Triangle" is the Kuala Lumpur Tower (called Menara Kuala Lumpur). From a height of 905 feet, visitors can enjoy superb views of the city, except during hazy or rainy days, of course. A cultural village, aquarium, F1 race car simulator and other attractions are located in the same complex. (open 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.)
With its lush gardens, the old King's Palace ranks as a popular photo stop during sightseeing trips. The new palace (Istana Negara), with its impressive 22 domes, also has been popular for shutterbugs since it opened in 2011. Neither is open to the public.
The Central Market is a former fresh-food market that has been transformed into stalls that sell crafts, antiques and souvenirs. On the upper floor of the Art Deco building, a food court serves local cuisine. (Jalan Hang Kasturi; open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.) Not far away is Petaling Street, KL's historic Chinatown. It's been pedestrianized and covered with a green roof dubbed the "Green Dragon." If you like to haggle for knockoffs, this is your spot. Try to pay no more than half the initial asking price.
With a very international and bustling atmosphere, Bukit Bintang is one of the busiest areas for shopping, dining and entertainment; think of it as Kuala Lumpur's version of New York's Fifth Avenue. Numerous shopping malls, such as Pavilion, Sungei Wang Plaza and Lot 10, are located in this area. These are great places to shop for affordable clothing, among other things.
Been There, Done That
If you're prepared to climb 272 steps (yep, we counted them), Batu Caves is an awesome attraction. Founded by American naturalist William Hornaday in 1878, the limestone cave has become a popular spot for Hindu pilgrimages. A wild population of monkeys brings an added challenge on the steep climb, as they are very aggressive when seeking something to eat. Batu Caves is located eight miles north of the city center. (open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
An hour's bus ride from Kuala Lumpur sits the mountain retreat of Genting Highlands, one of the most popular resorts in Malaysia. Located 6,500 feet above sea level, Genting Highlands is a bit like Las Vegas -- with an amusement park, the largest show restaurant in the country (often with some of the most famous entertainers in Southeast Asia) and the only place with legal gambling in Malaysia. The resort also features several hotels, a water park and golf courses.
Kuala Lumpur's dining scene offers something for everyone, ranging from Western fast food chains like McDonald's, KFC and Starbucks (and, yes, Hard Rock Cafe) to ethnic specialties. The majority, naturally, feature the cuisines of Asia. While Malaysia is a Muslim nation, alcohol is available in most of the restaurants.
Shopping centers, such as Suria KLCC at the base of the Petronas Towers, feature food courts for a quick bite.
Hawker food is quick and affordable. The best areas for hawker food are places like Jalan Imbi and Jalan Barat as well as Chinatown. Everyone probably knows what satay means (marinated and grilled meat), but other popular options include hokkien mee (noodle soup with prawns, ribs, bean sprouts and chili paste) or ikan bakar (grilled fish), just to name a few.
Hotels typically offer good restaurants in Kuala Lumpur. The Kuala Lumpur Hilton features several dining spots, and Lafitte Restaurant at the Shangri-La Hotel is a nice choice for French dining.
Starhill Gallery in Bukit Bintang (close to Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott Hotels) features an extensive selection of good restaurants. Those serving lunch include Fisherman's Cove (seafood), Koryo-won (Korean), My Thai (Thai) and Pak Loh Chiu Chow serving Chiu Chow-style Chinese cuisine.
Malaysian handicrafts are your best bet. Batik, carved wood and pewter items can be found at the Central Market and at Kompleks Kraf Kuala Lumpur. An artists' village sits behind the complex.
Staying in Touch
GSM telephones work in Malaysia. Port Klang terminal offers Wi-Fi but no Internet cafe. In the city, you'll find Internet cafes at most malls, and the Malaysia Tourism Centre, but sluggish, PC's with Internet access. (109 Jalan Ampang, between KLCC and Dang Wangi; open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Best for First-Timers: A "Highlights of Kuala Lumpur" tour typically features visits to the National Museum and all the photo opportunities along the way, including Selangor Club, Jamek Mosque (one of the oldest mosques in KL), Blue Mosque (the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, accommodating up to 16,000 people), National Monument (which commemorates Malaysia's heroes of World War II) and King's Palace (Istana Negara).
Best for Flower Children: A garden-oriented excursion visits the Orchid and Hibiscus Gardens, which feature about 5,000 species of hibiscus flowers and some 3,000 species of orchids, including 800 from Malaysia alone. The tour also squeezes in photo ops at other sites like Petronas Towers and Merdeka Square.
Best for Foodies: A "local flavors" tour takes you into Chinatown and the Central Market, both of which offer local food vendors. You'll visit Chinese and Hindu temples, then taste the local teh tarik (pulled tea, poured high in the air) and roti canai (crispy, layered Indian flatbread). Lunch is a Malay buffet, followed by a visit to KL Tower.
Best for Nature-Lovers: Putrajaya, "the Intelligent Garden City," stretches over 11,320 acres, with more than 70 percent devoted to greenery and water, including 13 gardens. You'll visit other sites, including a mosque, and take a leisurely cruise on the lake.
For More Information
On the Web: www.tourismmalaysia.gov.my
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--Updated by Gayle Keck, Cruise Critic contributor