24 Hours in Kuala Lumpur
Take a trip to Ain Arabia – the 'Little Arabia' of Malaysia's alluring capital city
The city of Kuala Lumpur – lovingly known by its locals as KL – has long fancied itself as a melting pot, and rightly so. Together, Malaysia’s myriad communities constitute
a cosmopolitan frenzy of dizzying shopping plazas and world-renowned street food, the latter including everything from roadside dim sum to chilli, peanut and anchovy-sprinkled coconut gelato.
No wonder it’s a firm favourite with tourists, especially those from the Middle East. Indeed, the Arabic influence here is pronounced, with a steady influx of Middle Eastern travellers visiting during the summer months. Al Ain in the city’s Bukit Bintang district is KL’s ‘Little Arabia’, also referred to as ‘Arab Street’ – home to Arabic restaurants, stores and a kitschy garden complete with a sculpture of an ‘Arabian’ coffee jug and cup. KL is multiconfessional and Islam its most dominant faith, making the city a good place to explore the Islamic culture of Southeast Asia: its significant mosques blend Islamic, Malaysian and modernist architectural influences, while one museum boasts the largest collection of Islamic art in the region.
A city that’s truly come into its own since Malaysia’s independence in 1957, KL refuses to let the ubiquitous concrete development that’s sweeping Asia turn itself into a same ole’, same ole’. In the city centre, the striking peaks of the Petronas Twin Towers cut through the skyline, but its street-level sights could still throw you back to quainter times. Twenty-four hours in KL is ample time to get to know it, but by the end of the evening, you’ll probably be arranging a second date.
8:00am – National Mosque
A stone’s throw away from other popular attractions like the National Bird Park and Independence Square (Dataran Merdeka), the National Mosque is the perfect place to begin a day in Kuala Lumpur. Its sprawling grounds and gardens are dotted with fountains and clean lines, a reflection of the building’s own striking geometry.
Look out for the key architectural features that make this building so distinct. Built in 1965 as a collaboration between two Malaysian architects and a British architect, it takes its cue from the principles of modernist design, while drawing on the foundations of Islamic art. Tall white columns support the 16-pointed star roof, and swathes of light stream into the halls via the mosque’s screen façade. The minaret has a folded cap, in keeping with the structured architectural style. Inside, the main prayer hall also melds a contemporary approach to traditional form. Bedecked with rich carpets, stained glass and embellished columns, tourists may enter outside of prayer hours.
The National Mosque’s distinctive style makes it a popular visit, yet it is one of many of noteworthy mosques in the city. The smaller Jamek Mosque served as the main place of worship before the National Mosque was built, with its Moorish-inspired curves, arches and domes, while the Albukhary Mosque on Jalan Hang Tuah is another example of more modern architecture.
11:00am – Islamic Arts Museum
Escape the mid-morning heat by passing by the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM). A short walk from the National Mosque, the museum’s construction was funded by the Albukhary Foundation (the brainchild of one of Malaysia’s most affluent businessmen).
To date, the museum houses Asia’s largest collection of Islamic art, and it is justifiably one of KL’s key cultural destinations. ‘IAMM has around 1,500 artefacts on display, from as small as a seal to as large as an Ottoman room,’ notes Noor Nizreen Osman, the Islamic Arts Museum’s education manager.
The museum hosts both a permanent collection and travelling exhibitions. The great inverted dome in the main hall upstairs is an attraction in itself. Inside the actual galleries however, it’s the artefacts that, naturally, steal the show. Textiles from the Malay world showcase the fine craftsmanship of yore, while jewel-encrusted weapons and miniature paintings from India narrate tales of bygone kings and the lives they led. Other marvels here include a display of architectural models of the world’s leading mosques and a significant exhibition of Arabic calligraphy.
Finish off your visit with the obligatory gift shop pit stop. The shop has a resourceful and extensive selection of books, with a major focus on art and Islamic culture, as well as porcelain plates and tiles with traditional designs from Samarkan, Turkey and Iran. The museum’s on-site restaurant is also a popular city secret, and serves both local and Middle Eastern cuisine.
2:00pm – Wadi Hadramawt
For a taste of the Middle East in the Malaysian capital, grab a cab and head towards the Golden Triangle – the pulsing centre of the city – and down its main thoroughfare, Jalan Ampang. Here you’ll find Wadi Hadramawt, whose staff can boast of having served Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and King Abdul Halim of Kedah.
Named after a valley town in Yemen, the restaurant’s setup is simple, but the fare is authentic thanks to its Yemeni owners and staff. Many of their dishes are cooked in a traditional earthen or underground oven, and classics like the popular lamb mandi and mullawah flat bread feature on the menu, which is heavily punctuated with a number of Arabic and Mediterranean delicacies.
The restaurant is run by Mr. Yasser, who manages the restaurant with his family. He is proud of its status as the only Yemeni restaurant in KL. ‘It was a type of study,’ he says of the restaurant’s beginnings. ‘We worked here before and saw that a lot of Arabs and Malaysians liked Arabic food, so we decided to establish a restaurant.’ His nephew Jehad, recalls that there were only a handful of Middle Eastern restaurants back in 2010 when they first opened their doors, but the number has gone up since. ‘But it’s not the same everywhere,’ Jehad cautions. ‘We care about our quality.’
5:00pm – Ain Arabia
In the heart of the city lies Bukit Bintang (which also translates to the less catchy ‘Star Hill’), an area known for its cheap electronics and designer goods, streets lined with reflexology massage parlours, a 3D cinema and labyrinthine escalators.
Ain Arabia is another of Bukit Bintang’s charms, otherwise known as KL’s own ‘Little Arabia’. A part of town that established itself organically amidst KL’s booming development, this is where Middle Eastern shops and restaurants are concentrated. It’s now a little worse for wear, however you’ll still find barbers and specialty shops selling Arabic fare on the main street, and hidden at the back by the worn but well-known Fortuna Hotel and its connecting (and popular) Sahara Tent restaurant, is a small garden that features a sculpture of a giant-sized ‘Arabian’ coffee jug and cup.
There’s always a lot to do and see, and it’s definitely KL’s most exciting area
Weekends see this spot at its busiest, with tourists and expats roaming the area in search of food or a bargain. Ain Arabia’s influence has also seeped out onto the main stretch of Bukit Bintang. Right next to the Lot 10 Shopping Centre, restaurants battle it out to cater to Middle Eastern residents and visitors with specialty menus and even belly dancing performances. ‘I come here at weekends because I love the energy. There’s always a lot to do and see, and it’s definitely KL’s most exciting area,’ says Mohamed, a Middle Eastern student living in KL.
8:00pm – Petaling Street
No visit to KL is complete without a dive into the chaotic charms of Chinatown’s Petaling Street. Planted in a historic part of the city, during daylight hours the area’s colonial architecture competes for attention with the local traders plying their goods. When evening sets however, the scene is altogether different as Petaling Street’s night traders begin wheeling out their carts filled with the latest trainers, watches, fake designer goods and tourist paraphernalia.
I come here at weekends because I love the energy
This night market’s charm lies in its atmosphere. Busy, cacophonous and colourful, Petaling Street promises a fun shopping experience with a couple of pedestrian-only streets devoted to the experience. Early visitors can duck into Peter Hoe Evolution + Beyond at the Lee Rubber Building (Level 2) for cool and contemporary Malaysian homeware, and take a peek at the ornate façade of the Sri Mahamariamman Hindu temple on Jalan Tun HS Lee.
Tip: A superstitious bunch, Petaling Street’s vendors are hell-bent on making that first sale. A successful pitch ensures the rest of the evening will follow suit, but failure to secure that first customer is said to be a bad business omen. Use this to your advantage when it comes to bargaining.
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