Kuala Lumpur city bike tour: Best way to see Kuala Lumpur's more off-beat destinations

An elderly Chinese in a virulent green T-shirt is making teh tarik, flinging tea and condensed milk from one tin mug to another in long, dramatic spouts until it froths. The tea-maker hoots in pleasure as I give a satisfied slurp and dip my accompanying roti canai flatbread into a curry sauce. Ceiling fans stir the humid air, newspapers rustle, and waiters clank pink plastic plates onto tables.

It's early morning, and I'm at Kafe Old Market Square, which opened in 1928 to serve lawyers and civil servants from the courthouses nearby. It has lately been revived by owners untempted by hipster makeovers and keen to preserve an old-fashioned look and menu. Locals crowd in for oily kopi O (coffee whose beans have been roasted with butter and sugar), popiah spring rolls and mee rebus curried noodles. 

This is the first hidden secret on my Hidden Secrets of Kuala Lumpur cycling tour. The cafe is hardly hidden but, on my own, I would probably just have walked right past. This is what I like about tours, which encourage participants to venture where they might otherwise never tread. You learn more, too. Over breakfast, my guide Elena explains the cafe's history and points out wall panels that relate the story of the kapitans (Chinese tin-mine owners) who developed Old Market Square outside in the 1880s. 

Elena drinks her coffee the traditional way, slopped into the saucer to cool it down, then slurped cat-wise. Her take on eggs is less tempting, scarcely cooked and sucked up with a dash of pepper and soy sauce.

Elena Shim Mei Yun is a wiry cyclist, hiker and passionate environmentalist. I join her cycling tour near the cafe on Merdeka Square, dominated by the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, a pseudo-Moorish palace of pink brickwork topped by a clock tower. British colonial builders, observes Elena, were fond of Moghul architecture from their Indian Empire. As we cycle across the Klang River we see another example, Jamek Mosque, built by a British public-works architect to resemble a mad maharaja's folly.

We only glance at such obvious KL sights. Soon we're weaving through the alleys of Chinatown, where giant woks bubble with snack food, and outspread junk-market tarpaulins tumble with CDs, dismembered TVs and underpants. 'If your mobile phone gets stolen, you know where to come to buy it back,' claims Elena as we pedal onwards to Guandi Temple, where bearded Taoist sages stare pop-eyed from door panels. Across the street, the blue-faced gods of Sri Maha Mariamman Temple stare back from an ornate gateway.

There's plenty of variety on this tour. Next we dismount at Kien Fatt Traditional Medicine Shop, where we watch pharmacists mix pungent packages of dried herbs and twigs, before continuing into an alley lined by some of the city's last remaining 19th-century shophouses – though even these will soon be demolished for a new MRT station. For the moment, Black Dog Chinese teahouse, run by the gap-toothed, chatty Uncle Ho, still provides tea and a lingering corner of scruffy, old-time KL beneath ever-mushrooming skyscrapers.

Our next stop is the 1881 Central Market, behind which we have nasi kandar (steamed rice with curried side dishes) at a riverside restaurant with a view to my favourite KL skyscraper, the elegant Dayabumi Building with its Islamic-style, geometric latticework. Refreshed, we cycle beneath giant fig trees along the riverside to Brickfields, one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods and home to Little India, where shops pound with Bollywood music and assault the nose with spices.

We abandon our bikes for a quick peek inside Kuala Lumpur's blissfully air-conditioned railway station, another British-era fantasy featuring Moorish arches and a flamboyant, pavilion, studded roofline. Just across the road, the National Mosque could hardly be more different, with minimalist 1960s lines and a blue-green roof pleated like a fan. Its marble interior and splashing fountains provide a cool reprieve before our pedal back to Merdeka Square, sweat-drenched but satisfied with our city secrets.

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TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/malaysia

tourism.gov.my

TOUR

Bike with Elena runs various tours in KL and surrounds. The 4.5-hour Hidden Secrets of KL tour costs $76 including lunch and refreshments. See bikewithelena.wordpress.com

FLY

Malaysia Airlines flies from Adelaide, Darwin, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to Kuala Lumpur. Phone 13 26 27, see malaysiaairlines.com

STAY

The recently opened St Regis Kuala Lumpur has spacious rooms, impressive dining venues and a sensational spa. It's a walk to Sentral station and a short taxi ride (or cycle) to the historic district. Rooms from $245. Phone 1800 221 637, see stregiskualalumpur.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Malaysia Airlines, Tourism Malaysia, The St Regis Kuala Lumpur and Bike with Elena.

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