Going to Malaysia wasn’t a priority when I first came to Asia, but I was sorely mistaken in my assumption. Kuala Lumpur, the capital, was a visit-by-circumstance that turned out to be far more than I had expected. Here’s why the city should be on your next Asian travel itinerary.
After living for three years in South Korea where ethnic diversity is almost non-existent, the multitude of nationalities in Kuala Lumpur came as something of a surprise. Having done an embarrassingly little research before stopping into the city for a few days on the way to the Philippines, I wasn’t aware of how diverse the city actually was. Only 44 percent of Kuala Lumpur’s residents are of ethic Malaysian descent, while 43 percent are ethnically Chinese. The fact that the city has a Chinatown is something of a mystery as the Chinese make up the majority of the city, even if by a small margin. The Indian population checks in at a little over 10 percent, yet their presence in the city is easily felt: Little India and the city’s Hindu temples are fascinating, and anyone spending even a day in the city needs to explore what they have to offer.
Malaysia’s state religion is Islam, although freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed. As a result, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Taoism all make an appearance throughout the city. For anyone interested in religious practices, this means that an abundance of mosques, temples, churches shrines are spread throughout the city and one can easily spend a day exploring the architecture and practices of several very different religions.
In most nations where such a vast number of cultures collide, English becomes the common language, and as a result, a strong majority of Kuala Lumpur’s residents are fluent English speakers, which makes travel much easier if you’re as terrible with foreign languages as I am.
In any place where there is diversity, there’s bound to be good food, and Kuala Lumpur is no exception. The endless options of curries, dumplings, noodles and soups are enough to keep anyone dizzy with choice. Jalan Alor, a quiet side street in the city’s center lined with tents and outdoor street-food dining, is an attraction in its own rite. Be sure to visit at night, when the paper lanterns that hang overhead are lit, when a dozen different songs pump out from all directions, and when the buzzing electric nightlife collides with good food.
Although Chinese food is dominant, Thai food is also easily available, even if only a small percentage of the city’s population is Thai. It goes without saying that Indian food is best in Little India, and Malaysian food is understandably ubiquitous.
Nasi Lemak is Malaysia’s national dish, and as such can be found all over the city. This spicy, nutty, and positively eclectic dish is unforgettably unique and has to be experienced in Malaysia. Although at first glance the mixture of textures and flavours seem dubious, one serving and it will be easy to see why it’s a Malaysian masterpiece.
If you’re traveling Asia, it’s likely that you’re going to cross paths with this low-cost Malaysian carrier, and if you don’t, you’re overpaying for your flights. In 2012, Air Asia was named as the world’s best low-cost airline at the World Airline Awards (yes, that’s a thing). Service is good, food is decent, but most importantly, flights are exceptionally cheap. Flights commonly run as cheap as $70 USD from Kuala Lumpur to almost any city in Asia, and with promotions constantly being offered, it’s possible to find even better deals.
It could be argued that Air Asia is one of Malaysia’s best tourism boosters. Flights branch out across Asia from Kuala Lumpur, which makes the city an excellent base for backpackers and explorers who want to see the continent on a budget.
And I am not, in any way being paid to say that.
The Backpacker Scene
Owing, in large part, to Air Asia’s unbeatable pricing, Kuala Lumpur has become a mecca for interesting people from around the world. Armed with giant backpacks, flip-flops, and an open mind, the city is crawling with inquisitive travellers who are more than ready to share a drink or meal with a total stranger. It’s a place where even the solo traveler doesn’t need to dine alone if they have the courage to invite others to their table for a friendship that might last for 30 minutes to an entire lifetime.
The backpacker scene in Kuala Lumpur might be an unintended attraction, but it stands as one in its own right. A subculture of “let’s just go and see what happens” is a beautiful thing, and that’s something truly worth leaving home for.