FEATURE

My Kuala Lumpur Is Better Than Yours

Moving to the capital of Malaysia inspired writer Robyn Eckhardt to launch EatingAsia, a blog that explores Kuala Lumpur through its food. For a city filled with people who live to eat, we just couldn't ask for better guides than Robyn and her photographer husband.

Not a week goes by that we don't hit Pudu Market, one of KL's biggest and oldest food emporiums. The point isn't so much to shop as it is to wander through a traditional wet market—named for the water that vendors use to wash their stalls and products—and explore the range of ingredients that go into the diverse local cuisines. To enter the market, you'll have to work your way through a jumble of outdoor stalls displaying everything from Chinese medicinal plants and Malaysian vegetables to crackly skinned roast pork and flopping fish. Two tips: Go early, and wear waterproof shoes.

Skipping the Petronas Twin Towers is like blowing off Seattle's Space Needle. Malaysia's twin office towers, once the world's tallest buildings, have been a source of pride since the 1999 opening celebrations buoyed the nation when it was reeling from the Asian financial crisis. Architect Cesar Pelli based the circumference of the towers on the Islamic eight-pointed star and drew on traditional Malaysian weaving patterns for interior wall-panel designs. The structures are especially striking at twilight, when their scalloped edges glow against a darkening sky. The Petronas Towers look spectacular from the outside, but the views from within the Menara Kuala Lumpur telecommunications tower are better. The Menara KL looks like an alien mother ship perched on a toothpick, but once you're on the observation deck, you've got 360-degree views. And ponder this: Much of what you'll see didn't exist 20 years ago.

KL's rapid growth has come at the cost of many of its colonial-era buildings, but one survivor worth visiting is Carcosa Seri Negara, a swanky Lake Gardens hotel built in 1904 as the home for the British high commissioner of the Malay States. We like to bring visitors here for high tea and a little nostalgia.

The National Art Gallery has a comprehensive collection of pieces by Malaysian artists and crafts­people. Start off in the ground floor gallery, with its intricate wood carvings from Sarawak and Sabah, and make your way up through displays of Malaysian works organized by decade. KL's alternative art scene, however, revolves around Annexe Gallery, located behind Central Market. The Annexe hosts experimental-dance and music performances, poetry readings, and screenings, as well as exhibits by up-and-coming and established artists. The vibe is friendly, and employees are happy to tell visitors what's going on around town.

Also worth a couple of hours is the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, which houses models of the world's mosques and a gorgeous collection of fabrics, carpets, and clothing from Asia and the Middle East, beneath a striking blue-tiled dome. The museum is in the Lake Gardens, a vast public park crisscrossed by walking paths and studded with botanical attractions, including an orchid garden and a butterfly park. Our favorite, by far, is the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, where almost 200 local and foreign species cavort under a huge net canopy.

As much as we love KL, we sometimes crave a change of scenery. Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre, about two hours from the city, is where you can feed, pet, and ride elephants, many of which are orphaned. On weekends, locals head to Pulau Ketam, an island that's home to two sleepy fishing villages. We take the KTM train from Sentral KL to Port Klang and then catch an 8:45 a.m. ferry. Once on the island, we pick up rental bikes at the jetty and go on a leisurely tour of Taoist and Buddhist temples, stopping to snack on noodles and dumpling dishes that villagers sell out of their homes.

Nightlife in KL runs the gamut from the grungy (expat-oriented Irish pubs) to the flashy (lychee-tini lounges). 7atenine, a downtown bar and restaurant, somehow manages to be stylish and unpretentious at the same time. But the best place to start (or end) a night is at the open-air lounge Luna Bar. With a crazy cocktail in your hand and fantastic views of the city's neon spread, you can't help but feel you've stumbled onto Southeast Asia's best-kept secret.

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