With gingham tablecloths and modest seating, Jalan Alor Street certainly isn’t the Ritz. But then, when the fare along Kuala Lumpur’s biggest foodie road is this good, it scarcely matters. From a generous helping of sizzling dark noodles and roast pork, to succulent chicken satay with fragrant steamed rice followed by a decadent scoop of creamy coconut ice-cream, the hungry traveller can savour superb cuisine, al fresco style. With friends enjoying a post-work beer, jostling business types and large families sharing a get-together, the atmosphere is homely, inclusive and electric.
Of course, the Malaysian capital has a lot more going for it than just its sensational street food. Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it’s affectionately known by the locals) is one of those hard to define east-meets-west metropolises, where the visitor is just as likely to see global companies’ logos adorning the side of glossy skyscrapers as they are to see a street market full of Malay textiles. KL is home to some one-and-a-half million people, but this thriving city – which began life as a modest tin mining settlement – is also interspersed with unexpected oases of tranquillity.
One such place is Tun Abdul Razak Heritage Park, also known as The Lake Gardens. Taking a stroll along the park’s winding paths is first on the agenda – but go early, before the midday heat and humidity kicks in.
The 170-hectare green space is, unsurprisingly, one of KL’s most visited attractions. Despite the sky-high cityscape that acts as a backdrop for the verdant foliage, the vastness of the park – which includes a boating lake, waterways, a bird and butterfly aviary, plus manicured gardens featuring native flora – makes the bustle of the city seem like a distant dream. When the humidity begins to take its toll, the adjacent Islamic Arts Museum, home to one of the world’s most impressive collections of Muslim art, and the nearby National Museum, rich in national treasures, beckon. For those staying longer, a visit to the region’s Batu Caves – a stunning limestone natural wonder – is well-worth a day trip, too.
After a wander, it’s time to snap a selfie in front of the most iconic architectural wonder in town – the soaring 88-storey steel Petronas Towers. The world’s tallest twin towers – and the emblematic heart of the city – offer a journey to the not-for-the-vertiginous “sky bridge” viewing platform, which provides unparalleled views. Although a must-see, this does involve a detour to the towers at 8am to secure one of the 960 tickets released each day.
“The 88-storey Petronas Towers offer a journey to the not-for-the-vertiginous sky bridge viewing platform”
Next on the list is an exploration of Kuala Lumpur’s abundance of shopping treats. A top choice for souvenir hunters is Central Market, which offers a unique wealth of treasures, from Asian artefacts and Batik art, to handcrafted jewellery and clothing.
Laden with gifts, head back to the serenity of the St Regis Hotel, a plush five-star pad in Sentral district. Indulging in a fortifying afternoon tea in the Drawing Room – a colonial-era tradition that’s stood the test of time in modern Malaysia – or a cocktail at the glittering Astor bar and restuarant are both highly recommended.
Once you have immersed yourself thoroughly in the Malaysian capital, it’s time to journey north – in short, it’s time to hit the beach.
Malaysia is home to over 850 islands. On the Malay Peninsula in particular, both the east and west coasts offer a wealth of choice for travellers. To travel north – and experience a quaint touch of old Malaya – a leisurely locomotive journey is on the cards. Boarding a train at Kuala Lumpur Sentral Station, the five-hour journey to Alor Satar offers a chance to see an alternative perspective of the country. The scenery changes, evolving from a world of metropolitan modernity to one of tea plantations, rice paddies and swaying bamboo. Snapshots of rural life flash past – a man collecting mangoes, a young girl leading a mule. Stations pass, one after another: Ipoh, Kamuting, Butterworth.
All too soon it’s time to disembark.
Hailing a taxi and speeding towards Kedah ferry terminal, the final leg of the journey begins. Climbing aboard, the aquamarine expanse of the Andaman Sea stretches out ahead and the first breath-taking glimpse of Pulau Langkawi peaks on the horizon.
“White sand and mangrove-fringed shores contrast with the turquoise of the calm waters”
Langkawi is known as “The Jewel of Kedah” so it comes as no surprise that arriving on this 480-square kilometre island is like stepping into a postcard. Most visitors head to Pentai Cenang – and with good reason. Here, white sand and mangrove-fringed shores contrast with the turquoise of the calm waters. Other, smaller island neighbours rise out of the sea like jagged green giants, while parasailers glide across the scene. Relaxing with a refreshing tipple of choice on a beach shack bean-bag immediately appeals, but then so do the upmarket fusion bistros next door, the kind that demands bare-foot dining à deux.
Kicking back on the beach is a great way to spend the afternoon, but after a day of travelling, the lure of the salubrious Bon Ton & Temple Tree Resort and Spa is hard to resist. Colonial-style rooms sit alongside Malay stilt-inspired villas, and the leafy-green grounds offer much-needed relief from the tropical glare.
As supper time rolls around, the resort’s renowned Nam restaurant serves a range of Malay and international dishes. After sampling the nine-course Nyonya Platter – which features showstoppers like succulent prawns in pandan leaf and aubergine coconut curry – it’s all too easy to while away the evening on Nam’s canopied terrace.
Pentai Cenang is deserving of further culinary exploration, though – namely the roving night market which pops up at different places on the island, depending on the day of the week (Thursday is Pentai Centang’s turn, head to Bohor Tempoyak).
By day, a great way to explore the island chain is on a day cruise or, for the more adventurous, a jet ski – an option that lets you admire the coastline from a distance. Following a knowledgeable local guide, it’s an exhilarating trip across the water to the first of eight islands on a stunning half-day tour with local company Mega Watersports. The first stop, Dayang Bunting Island, is home to a lake (according to legend, swimming in it boosts female fertility), several jungle treks and enough pesky monkeys to populate dozens of zoos.
Another Langkawi activity is scuba diving. Albeit a slightly murkier experience than on other Southeast Asian islands, there’s still ample chance to spot coral, clownfish, sea horses and more. After, sip ice-cold sundowners on the beach as the sky turns from azure blue to golden pink.
While Pentai Cenang offers much to keep the traveller entertained, Langkawi’s star attraction is the Panorama Langkawi – a 20-minute cable car journey up the magnificent Gunung Machinchang Mountain. If you conquered Petronas Towers then brave Langkawi’s version of the sky bridge, a single span suspension bridge that seems to hover over the rainforest below.
Of course, it would be unfair to let Langkawi steal the limelight when it comes to Malaysian islands. There are equally beautiful archipelagos on both sides of the Malay Peninsula. Yet as bucket-list destinations go, this tropical gem is definitely up there. Far too soon it’s time to return to bustling KL (this time by plane). But as the island disappears under the clouds beneath you, you’ll already be vowing to return.
Text: Siobhan Brewood-Wyatt