Kuala Lumpur: from bottom to top

Cover John Brunton explores Kuala Lumpur, Asia's dynamic and futuristic insider's city that offers its best culture, food and nightlife only to those in the know.

The sun has only just started setting, but the crowd of movers and shakers that flock to Kuala Lumpur's SkyBar every evening is already firmly ensconced in a comfy cabana or poolside table, sipping exotic drinks and nibbling sushi from a metre-long silver platter. Everyone is fixated, gazing out of the enormous windows at the ultimate city panorama, a glittering skyline of futuristic buildings, dominated by the Twin Towers, whose flickering lights resemble a space rocket preparing for take off.

The towers enjoyed 15 minutes of fame at the end of the 1990s when they were briefly the world's tallest building, but even today they symbolise the metamorphosis of Kuala Lumpur from a sleepy colonial backwater into one of Asia's most dynamic hubs. The scene in the bar could come straight out of Blade Runner, but then KL, as everyone calls this intriguing Malaysian metropolis, is an electrifying mix of contradictions: cutting-edge technology and avant-garde architecture alongside a vivid colonial heritage; fabulous street food where you feast for a king for less than US$10 (Dh37) or inventive, gourmet cuisine that would easily merit a Michelin star; and a colourful, dynamic melting pot of races and religions that span Malay Muslims, Chinese Buddhists and Hindu Indians, benevolently tolerating each other to concentrate on the greater good of making money.

KL is a genuine "insider's city", a hidden destination that most tourists never spend enough time in, always in a hurry to speed off to an idyllic beach resort. Friends in Europe always ask me why I spend time in KL, but you need to spend a few days here to scratch the superficial surface and discover what is one of Asia's hidden, secret destinations.

This evening at the SkyBar, I'm having drinks with Habsah and Tom Saufi, two party-loving Malay sisters who were my next door neighbours back in the 1980s when I lived here for five years. Tom is now one of the country's most celebrated fashion designers - complete with an honorific Datuk title, conferred by a Sultan and similar to an English Dame - and they are whisking me off for a dinner of old friends back in their colonial bungalow. The residents of KL always seem immune to any of the world's financial crises, and the favourite Malaysian word boleh - can do - means there is always a financial backer ready to bankroll the next hot idea.

Around the dinner table, the friends I used to hang out with are now successful businessmen running a property empire, organising an Islamic Fashion Festival or fronting their own TV programme. Successful but unchanged, which is what I've always loved about KL. It's a place that's constantly reinventing itself, but the friendly, welcoming people are always the same. Habsah echoes my thoughts.

"The city is more vibrant than ever, with so much to offer the discerning visitor in creative fashion, gourmet cuisine and designer hotels, but it has never lost its irreverence, its sense of fun, and that is due to the locals themselves - get to know a few and you have the key to open up a whole new world here," she says. The only culture shock for me is that throughout the meal, everyone seems more interested in sending Twitters from their BlackBerrys than the spicy beef rendang and biryani rice the cook is sending out from the kitchen.

At the end of the meal, all the girls pile into the waiting limo and drive off to KL's latest exclusive nightclub, the Mandarin Oriental's Sultan, while I grab a cab for Jalan Ceylon. This neighbourhood is the heart of the city's seething nightlife scene, jam-packed with partygoers till the early hours of the morning, hopping between dozens of funky live music venues like Bar Italia, Havana and the Reggae Bar. I head straight down a side street though, to No Black Tie, a brilliant jazz club that could be in New York or Paris.

NBT, as it is universally known, is the brainchild of Evelyn Hii, a classical pianist who has turned all her enthusiasm to creating the ultimate club both for musicians and jazz enthusiasts. Every night is different here, from a big-band tribute to John Coltrane to the outrageous Drag Artiste, Rozz, who wows the crowd with her Ella Fitzgerald classics. Even in the early hours of the morning, Evelyn is articulate about the success of NBT, which aims to showcase musicians from the thriving young indie scene in KL.

The next morning I set out to check out KL's tourist sights. While it can't compare to the wondrous golden temples of Bangkok, the Malaysian capital has its own surprises, perfectly reflecting the ethnic diversity of the local population. A quick drive out of the centre and I'm suddenly face-to-face with a towering limestone outcrop which houses the 400 million years-old Batu Caves. Around 10 per cent of Malaysians are Indian, most originating from the Tamil Nadu, initially brought here by the British to work on rubber plantations, and they have transformed the Batu Caves into one of the most important Hindu shrines outside of India. After an arduous trek up the 272 steps that lead up to a holy cave, I sit down at a cafe alongside priests dressed in skimpy white robes and devotees with their heads newly-shaved, drink a teh tarik (theatrically poured tea with condensed milk), and taste tiny portions of a dozen different vegetarian curries, ceremoniously laid out on a freshly-washed banana leaf.

Then it is back to real life KL, a hairy drive through a spaghetti junction of jammed flyovers, bypasses and motorways before coming out right in the centre of town where the Islamic Arts Museum is an oasis of cool, Zen-like calm. The museum boasts an outstanding collection of calligraphy on scrolls and manuscripts, jewel-encrusted daggers and swords, rare ceramics and glassworks, but the real star of the show is the architecture of the building itself, four floors of minimalist design, bright white and flooded with natural light. Just outside is Malaysia's symbolic National Mosque, Masjid Negara, but I prefer to take a more nostalgic journey into the heart of old Kuala Lumpur, where the ancient Moorish Masjid Jamek is situated, near the spot where the city was originally founded and took its name, on the muddy waters of the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers.

Until independence from Britain in 1957, Kuala Lumpur was essentially a Chinese town, run by wealthy merchants who controlled the country's lucrative tin and rubber industries. And just a few minutes walk from Masjid Jamek, I find myself right in the middle of Chinatown, a gritty, colourful neighbourhood that resists any attempts to sanitise it and lose any of its authenticity. The main drag, Petaling Street, is a crazy, chaotic market, where hawkers trade everything from pirated DVDs of the latest Hollywood blockbuster to fake Lacoste and Gucci bags, to traditional Chinese herbs and dubious-looking medicines like Malaysia's very own Viagra, Tongkat Ali, taken from an obscure jungle root and apparently very popular as a testosterone-booster for American pro-footballers. The food street is the adjoining Jalan Sultan, where chefs toss succulent prawns, cockles, flat noodles and spicy belacan sauce into a red-hot wok to make char kway teow, and while expectant diners squat on stools around pavement tables, waiters vie to serve local favourites such as Hainanese chicken - the most tender chicken I've ever tasted - and a grouper fish steamed Teochew-style with tart sour preserved plums, plus a host of dim sum specialities.

KLites themselves rarely do any sightseeing, preferring to channel all their energy into two favourite pastimes - shopping and eating. Singapore and Hong Kong may be more well-known as bargain shopping destinations but, in reality, KL is unparalleled when it comes to quality, choice and price. The city's Golden Triangle for shopping is Bukit Bintang, which pits two of Asia's biggest and most luxurious malls right opposite each other - Star Hill and Pavilion. Star Hill's mega Louis Vuitton showroom stares out across the street at the Pavilion's Bulgari, while inside fashionistas fight to be first for the latest designs of Hermès, Versace, Prada and YSL, not forgetting the irresistible shoes of Malaysia's very own star designer, Jimmy Choo. But shopping is not just about international brand names, and my own favourite shopping mall is just round the corner, the quintessentially local Sungei Wang, the River of Money. Thronging with thousands of avid shoppers, I always end up staying all afternoon thanks to the unbelievably low prices on all the latest mobile phones, computers and software, plus a hip fashion corner called Young Malaysian Designers where you'll find with a handful of boutiques. Nowhere in Asia can compete with KL when it comes to eating out. Malaysians are food crazy - just check out one of the local blogs like feedmelah.com - and the city's hottest chef, Chris Bauer, has agreed to take me out for a tour of the best street eats. Chris is from Luxembourg, and his gourmet Frangipani restaurant serves a dazzling menu of French cuisine subtly influenced by Asian flavours and products. At first, I secretly wish we could be tasting one of his signature dishes like deep-fried, spice-dusted soft shell crab with chickpea aioli and saffron foam. But as soon as we hit Jalan Alor, we are confronted with an impossible choice of exotic stalls tempting us with stingray grilled in banana leaf, steamed chilly crabs, drunken chicken, fish head curry, the delicious smell of satay slowly cooking over red-hot charcoal, a wonderfully aromatic bak kut teh, herbal stew simmered for hours in a clay pot. Jalan Alor is filled with hungry eaters from 6pm through till 4am, and right at the end of the road we come to Restaurant W.A.W., a favourite hangout in the early hours when elegant ladies in ball gowns sit down next to building workers just for what locals claim are the best crispy chicken wings in the world. Chris insists that, KL's street food is second to noneand that in the last 10 years, the city has gone from Asia's backwater to Asia's watering hole - without losing its youth and edge. Before leaving, I can't resist revisiting the Coliseum Cafe, where I was first taken back in the 1980s by a typically old-school-tie British diplomat, who I suppose wanted to reassure me that behind the sweltering tropical heat and humidity, there still existed a more ordered world, harking back to the old colonial times. Walking through the saloon-like swing doors of the Coliseum today is like taking a step straight into a scene from a Somerset Maugham story about dissolute British planters. The head waiter, Captain Ho, now 89, is still serving Oxtail soup and Welsh rarebit, while the bar is full of a lively bunch of regulars who are always ready to start chatting with travellers. If this were in Hong Kong, some entrepreneurial businessman would have just smartened up the bar and made a fortune selling sanitised nostalgia to tourists, while in Singapore, the old place would just have been demolished years ago. Somehow KL manages to hurtle into the future without destroying its heritage, and this human face is what makes it different from its South-east Asian neighbours. travel@thenational.ae

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