Ignoring the humidity, Tim Richards plunges into the melting pot of a city filled with faith, laksa and shopping malls.
The Malaysian capital is relatively compact and easy to get around and it's blessed with diverse historic and cultural layers. This makes a perfect day here perfectly possible.
Kuala Lumpur was founded in 1857 by Chinese miners, invited by a local ruler to work on tin mines in Selangor's Klang Valley. Its name means "muddy confluence", named after the point where the Klang and Gombak rivers meet. Younger than most Australian cities, KL has the energetic feel of a city still in the process of establishing its identity, symbolised by the contrasts between the modern Kuala Lumpur City Centre, bustling Chinatown and the colonial architecture remaining from 150 years of British rule. The icing on the cake – or the sambal on the laksa, perhaps – is the city's multiethnic population: primarily of Malay, Chinese and Indian descent, along with a sizeable number of foreign residents.
Start the day with faith at the massive Thean Hou Temple at Robson Heights. The temple, opened in 1989, caters for Buddhist and Taoist worshippers, with a focus on Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy. Religion apart, the temple is worth visiting for its architectural splendour, including intricately carved pillars supporting beautifully painted timber beams, beneath vast tiled roofs with upturned eaves in the traditional Chinese style. Outside the entrance, there's a small garden featuring statues of animals from the Chinese zodiac.
Thean Hou Temple, 65 Persiaran Endah; +60 3 2274 7088; hainannet.com.
To continue the theme of art inspired by faith, visit the Islamic Arts Museum next to the National Mosque. This modern gallery houses a diverse collection of jewellery, weaponry, glassware, ceramics and textiles and it hosts temporary shows such as a recent exhibition on Islam in Britain. Most fascinating, however, are its exquisitely detailed models of mosques around the world.
Islamic Arts Museum, Jalan Lembah Perdana; +60 3 2274 2020; iamm.org.my. Entry $M12 ($4.30), children free.
Take a lofty view of KL by ascending the central Menara Kuala Lumpur communications tower. Its observation deck is 276 metres above ground level, giving impressive views of the metropolis. The tower is located within Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve, so you can stroll downhill through greenery to the lively Golden Triangle district nearby.
Menara Kuala Lumpur, 2 Jalan Punchak; +60 3 2020 5444; menarakl.com.my. Entry $M38.
Once within the Golden Triangle, a popular shopping and entertainment area, walk along Jalan Bukit Bintang and take a sidestep into parallel Jalan Alor. This narrow street is lined by hawkers' stalls. A good choice is the simply named One Plus One, which serves tasty dim sum in traditional steamer baskets, or try a bowl of its rice-wine chicken noodles.
Restoran One Plus One, 21a Jalan Alor.
Return to Jalan Bukit Bintang and its array of massage centres, with services from traditional Chinese tui na – pressure-point massage – to the classiest ofWestern-style day-spa treatments. Considering the walking you've been doing, treat yourself to a reflexology foot massage at the elegant Liang Xin Reflexology Centre while reclining on a divan surrounded by Chinese vases.
Liang Xin Reflexology Centre, 28 Jalan Bukit Bintang; +60 3 2145 2663; liangxin.com.my.
Continue east along Bukit Bintang as it heads upmarket into vast modern shopping malls. Among the most spectacular is the Starhill Gallery, divided into floors labelled not with mere numbers but words denoting experiences: "Muse", "Relish",
"Pamper", "Adorn" and so on. Even if you're not hungry, descend to the basement to admire the spectacular decor of "Feast", a food court that mixes traditional icons with cutting-edge design.
Starhill Gallery, 181 Jalan Bukit Bintang; +60 3 2782 3855; starhillgallery.com.
After this dose of consumerism, seek some peace in nature. Head west to the Lake Gardens, 92 hectares of greenery that was once the favoured location for the homes of British colonial rulers.
The gardens are dotted with attractions such as a lake with boat hire, an orchid garden, an aviary of local species and a butterfly enclosure. For afternoon tea, step into the Carcosa Seri Negara hotel within the gardens, the former official residence of British governors.
Carcosa Seri Negara, Taman Tasik Perdana; +60 3 2295 0888; ghmhotels.com.
For an insight into KL's earthier, energetic side, head into nearby Chinatown. Centred on pedestrian-only Jalan Petaling, this district is heaving with diners, shoppers and traders in narrow laneways. Thread yourway through the stalls and choose a meal from whichever eatery takes your fancy; or, for something a little classier, sample nyonya cuisine, a fusion of Chinese and Malay traditions, in Old China Cafe. Its premises, within the former headquarters of a laundry guild, are decorated in eclectic colonial style with sepia-tone photographs, framed calligraphy, old clocks and timber furniture.
Old China Cafe, 11 Jalan Balai Polis; +60 3 2072 5915; oldchina.com.my.
After a busy day in KL's humidity, you'll need a refreshing drink in a soothing atmosphere. So settle poolside at the Sky Bar on the 33rd floor of the Traders Hotel in KL City Centre and sip an excellent martini while gazing at the strikingly illuminated Petronas Towers. The hotel's 21stcentury vibe, chilled music and laid-back ambience couldn't be more of a contrast with hectic Chinatown – and contrast is Kuala Lumpur's defining feature.
Sky Bar, Traders Hotel, Kuala Lumpur City Centre; +60 3 2332 9911; www.skybar.com.my.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Malaysia.
Malaysia Airlines flies to Kuala Lumpur from Melbourne and Sydney return for about $719 including tax. Air Asia flies from Melbourne only. Singapore Airlines often has cheaper fares, with an aircraft change in Singapore.