Immediately south of here, Bukit Bintang is a bustling hub of shopping, dining, and nightlife. Its malls, including Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, Berjaya Times Square, Starhill Gallery, and Lot 10, offer plenty of fashion choices. There’s also a global array of restaurants ranging from Japanese sushi to Lebanese and Iranian restaurants to French fine dining.
With many open-air restaurants and street-hawker stalls serving authentic local food, nearby Alor Road is cheap, popular, and boasts a very lively and unique ambience. For something a little more upscale, the pre-war shophouses of Changkat Bukit Bintang have been refurbished into hip Western-style restaurants and pubs.
Another fascinating neighbourhood, Kuala Lumpur Chinatown is notable for its rows of colourful, crumbling, pre-war shophouses that have so far managed to survive the spread of high-rise urbanization. Known for its bustling street market, historic Petaling Street and its environs have recently been redeveloped and now boast a glazed roof, but this architectural add-on makes it feel like an ugly pedestrianized mall rather than a heritage neighborhood. Vendors mostly sell fake branded merchandise like T-shirts and watches, but it’s also great for street food including Chinese dim sum and Malaysian rojak (meaning “mixture,” this popular local snack comprises fried vegetable fritters mixed with cucumber, bean sprouts, and a spicy peanut sauce. There’s also a fruit version including pineapple and tofu).
Dating from 1928, Central Market retains more of its historical integrity. Behind the white and sky-blue façade are stalls selling artworks by local artists as well as local handicrafts like batik, embroidery, and teakwood carvings.
Occupying a whole floor of the historic, art deco-style Lee Rubber Building, Peter Hoe Beyond is a warehouse-sized shop with an abundant collection of homeware that fuses Asian and modern style. Created by design entrepreneur Peter Hoe, the exclusive range of products is ideal for special gifts or souvenirs. There’s also a stylish café here.
Chinatown is home to numerous Buddhist and Taoist temples and shrines, each dedicated to different deities. With their striking redand-gold embellishments, Chinese lanterns, and rising mists of incense, they’re a peaceful escape from the bustle of city life. Somewhat incongruously located between two Buddhist temples at the edge of Chinatown is the extravagantly decorated Sri Mahamariamman Temple. First built by Tamil immigrants in 1873, Kuala Lumpur’s oldest Hindu temple is unmistakeable thanks to its towering entrance gate adorned with 228 colourful and somewhat kitsch Hindu idols.
You’ll find more Hindu temples, as well as delicious Indian food, in nearby Brickfields (an area also known as Little India), close to KL Sentral railway station.
Kuala Lumpur’s most famous Hindu shrine, indeed one of the most visited Hindu shrines outside India, is located in a series of impressive limestone caves in KL ’s northern suburbs. Said to be around 400 million years old, the naturally cathedral-like Batu Caves became a holy site in the late 1800s when a consecrated statue was installed in what’s now known as Temple Cave. Dedicated to Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war, this unique religious site is accessible via a steep flight of 272 steps. A mix of religion and natural wonder, here you’ll find vibrant Hindu shrines set against jutting stalactites and stalagmites that took thousands of years to form.
A recent addition is the massive golden statue of Murugan that stands at the foot of the caves. Unveiled in 2006, this 140-foot-high statue took three years to construct and is the tallest Lord Murugan statue in the world.
While climbing the steps up to this religious site, watch out for the numerous macaque monkeys who call this their home. If you’re not careful, they may swipe snacks or bottled water away from you, and sometimes they’ll swipe a camera or smartphone too! Although many tours to Batu Caves are available, it’s easy and inexpensive to reach by commuter train from KL Sentral station.
Housing more than 9,000 artifacts from the global Islamic world, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia is Kuala Lumpur’s premier museum with a permanent collection that includes hand-written Korans, delicate filigree jewellery, textiles, and arms and armor. A gallery dedicated to architecture displays beautifully realized models of famous mosques and mausoleums from around the Islamic world, including the colossal grandeur of Mecca’s Al-Masjid al-Haram, the romance of India’s Taj Mahal, and the earthy beauty of Africa’s Great Mosque of Djenné.
Open since 1998, the entrance of this tranquil white museum features columns of fine Iranian tile work, while inside are numerous domed ceilings, including an unusual inverted ceiling dome positioned above the foyer.
Close to the museum is the striking National Mosque (Masjid Negara). Built in 1965, its retro mid-century dome takes the form of a blue star with 18 points to represent Malaysia’s thirteen states plus the five pillars of Islam. Altogether, it can accommodate up to 15,000 worshippers.
If mosques, Catholic churches, Buddhist temples, and Hindu shrines coexist harmoniously alongside Kuala Lumpur’s towering skyscrapers, shouldn’t men and women of different sexualities and preference be able to coexist just as harmoniously here?
“In my homeland, Malaysia, it’s actually the ‘act of sodomy’ that’s illegal, not homosexuality. Call it what you want, for LGBT travelers it’s still a grey area,” says Uwern Jong, editor in chief of London-based luxury and experiential LGBT travel journal, OutThere/Travel. “Like any country, there are liberal pockets, but it pays to be wise and aware when traveling to Malaysia as it is still conservative culturally, and any public displays of affection, gay or straight, may incite a raised eyebrow or more. However, I believe that this shouldn’t hinder LGBT travelers from experiencing this otherwise beautiful and interesting destination.”
The combination of different cultures, religious beliefs, and sexualities make Kuala Lumpur a fascinating city to visit. Although the complicated mix of ingredients would benefit from improvements in terms of gay equality, it isn’t an unpalatable place for gay men and lesbians. Malaysia in fact has a couple of non-governmental organizations that work on LGBT issues, most notably PT Foundation, although their main focus is HIV education, prevention, care, and support. There’s also Seksualiti Merdeka, whose name loosely translates as ‘Sexuality Independence’.
“There is a gay community in Malaysia, from its backwater cities to its modern national and state capitals, and in some cases they’re out and proud,” Jong acknowledges. “Your visit as a gay traveler shows solidarity to this community, and can lead to an exchange of ideas and mutually improved understanding of conflicting values and cultures as seen in its neighbouring countries.”
It remains to be seen whether Malaysia’s conservative society is ready to accept a more open, Western-style gay scene, but it’s still a place worth visiting, even before it gets the balance right. And by visiting Malaysia, you may help swing the balance in the right direction.
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