A long weekend in Kuala Lumpur with Jean-Michel Gathy

The Brussels-born architect shares culinary highlights, clean green spaces and local craft troves in his adopted hometown with Christina Ohly Evans. Portrait by Ian Teh

Jean-Michel Gathy at Marini’s on 57, next to the Petronas Twin Towers
Jean-Michel Gathy at Marini’s on 57, next to the Petronas Twin Towers | Image: Ian Teh

What makes Kuala Lumpur special is its people. They’re a wonderful mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian, all considered equally important, so everyone is kind to each other. They are genuinely friendly and welcoming, and since everyone speaks English, a visit is very easy. The racial mix means a rich variety of foods, types of worship, ways of dressing and also, of course, different kinds of architecture. The diversity, tolerance and acceptance of everyone: these are the city’s most powerful assets.

The dramatic golden statue at Batu Caves
The dramatic golden statue at Batu Caves | Image: Getty Images/EyeEm

If you like celebrations – and particularly fireworks – then this is the place, as there are holidays and festivals for the country’s myriad faiths throughout the year. Because of its variety of religions, Malaysia has earned itself the reputation of having one of the highest numbers of public holidays in the world. And in KL, there’s almost always something fun going on.

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Because Malaysia was a British colony until 1957, the courts of law, the infrastructure, the police and the medical systems are all very balanced, much like you’d find in western Europe. Despite Kuala Lumpur’s lush, tropical feel – we’re basically on the equator – with the jungle that surrounds the city, you will still feel quite at home here as a foreigner.

Passage Thru India restaurant, which has a magical atmosphere and a memorable prawn masala
Passage Thru India restaurant, which has a magical atmosphere and a memorable prawn masala

The city is a bit like Singapore in terms of its urban landscape, but I think of it as a more of a residential-feeling, cosy place. We have rain every day, which is good for the palm trees, the many golf courses and our public parks, and because we’re so close to the sea – it’s just 30km away – I think KL must be the world capital for incredibly dramatic lightning. I often recommend the very central Shangri-La hotel, not just because my office is there, so I gravitate towards it, but because everyone is drawn to the buzzing lobby. I’m a big fan of its Japanese restaurant, Zipangu, where the uni sushi is fantastic, but so is the hotel’s Sunday brunch in the Lemon Garden restaurant. Next to the city-centre KLCC Park, just below the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, is the Mandarin Oriental, where rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows overlook all the greenery, and there are great views from its MO Bar too. I think it’s the best location in the city – but almost as good is the Grand Hyatt, which is just 300m from the towers and has a very contemporary look.

Malacca has many ornate temples and makes for a great day trip out of Kuala Lumpur
Malacca has many ornate temples and makes for a great day trip out of Kuala Lumpur | Image: Alamy Stock Photo/Adrian Baker

KL has many suburbs, and each has a weekly market with a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indians selling goods of all kinds. In Petaling Jaya, for example, you’ll find day and night markets with every single kind of fruit and an abundance of vegetables. But the fish stalls are the stars – it’s not so much about the butcher here – and they sell everything from seabass to prawns to rock lobsters, as well as famous local dishes: nasi goreng, or fried rice, and nasi lemak, a mixture of rice with coconut milk, cucumber, chicken or seafood, and egg, which is delicious.

The lobby of the city’s Shangri-La hotel is a popular meeting place
The lobby of the city’s Shangri-La hotel is a popular meeting place

People don’t really entertain at home in Malaysia, so restaurants with all types of cuisine to choose from are plentiful. To enjoy real Malay food, I send people to Bijan, for the nice ethnic feel – soft lighting, stone floors and wooden screens; it’s quite romantic – and the classic kerabu pucuk paku, the local fiddlehead fern salad, which is very good. The Chinese restaurants here tend to be the opposite: overlit, quite noisy and always very showy. But South Sea Seafood in Kampung Baru Subang and Hakka Restaurant in Jalan Kia Peng are both reliably good – bright and festive, and offering good versions of standards like spring rolls and stir-fried crab. The Indian restaurants here are visual feasts, always red or pink – they worship these colours! – with lots of gold decoration. The best place for prawn masala and all kinds of roti is Passage Thru India, with its magical, slightly exotic atmosphere. 

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One of the best go-to restaurants in general, though, is Marini’s on 57, a lively Italian spot on the 57th floor of a building next to the Petronas Twin Towers – from the terrace, it feels as if you could touch them. The cocktail bar has good music and is always full of stylish people – it’s the place to be. And the founder of the restaurant, Cavaliere Modesto Marini, has another restaurant called Marble 8 that serves the best steak in town. 

There are so many cultural highlights in KL, but top of the list is the Hindu temple Sri Mahamariamman. It’s the oldest (and richest) temple in Kuala Lumpur, founded in 1873 at the edge of Chinatown, on Jalan Tun HS Lee. The Batu Caves is another Indian temple in the limestone hills near the city; it’s in a very dramatic grotto and has a tall golden statue at the base of a staircase that leads visitors up to the snug cave temple. It’s not for everyone, because it can be a messy walk, but I think it’s really worth making the trip. The city’s main mosques – Masjid Jamek Sultan Abdul Samad and the National Mosque of Malaysia – are both must-sees; the latter is set in 13 beautiful manicured acres and holds 15,000 people. And my golfing friends are always happy about the 15 courses within about a 10km radius of town, including the famous Kuala Lumpur Golf & Country Club, where they host PGA and LPGA tournaments.

For real local immersion, I always recommend Bangsar Shopping Centre, where you’ll find a little of everything: spa and beauty products, clothes, shoes and a massive food hall. It has a very local feel – it’s not at all about big chain stores. One of my favourites to browse in is Jasons, the food hall, which has other locations in Singapore and Hong Kong and is basically a department store for all things edible. The huge selection and incredible lighting make it special, and its mangoes, my favourite fruit, are the best. For jewellery that’s influenced by Asian culture and mythology, it has to be Lotus Arts de Vivre: it makes use of raw natural materials – seeds, coconut shells, scarab wings, ebony and precious woods, sea shells, bamboo – and you’ll see wonderful examples of traditional craft techniques.

It’s well worth exploring KLCC Park in the middle of town. It isn’t Hyde Park or Central Park, but it is 20 beautiful hectares and makes the city feel so clean. It’s a wonderful place for children to play and there are running tracks too. For a city escape, take a day trip to Malacca. It’s just 120km south of KL and, since it was variously a Dutch, Portuguese and British colony, there’s an unusual mix of architecture with many ornate temples and a lovely harbour.

Kuala Lumpur is growing rapidly – we have good subways, elevated trains and everything is wired, which makes a visit here very user-friendly. But I hope it keeps its private, slightly homey feel, because when things get too urban, you lose the intimacy. Most of all, I love the genuine kindness of the people; they are what will continue to make it such a special place.

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