A cramped dormitory room and a spluttering air conditioning system was my first introduction to Kuala Lumpur. Admittedly it was twenty-odd years ago during my ‘backpacker’ years, but the difference between then and now is nonetheless eye-popping.
When I landed back in the Malaysian capital last month, change could even be detected from just a couple of years previously when I last touched down to catch up with an expat friend who lives in the city. Her residence had been surrounded by building sites and scaffolding at the time – it seems all those construction projects have now reached completion. The city is positively gleaming with glinting ‘scrapers and gleaming five-star hotels.
I had been invited to stay at The Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur, which opened over the summer and is located slap bang in the city centre next to the famous Petronas Towers and with views over KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre) Park. The enormous development comprises a retail mall – Shoppes at Four Seasons – at ground level, plus 209 hotel rooms and serviced apartments. At 65 floors, it’s the second tallest building in Malaysia as well as the world’s second tallest hotel building. The ambitious project began in 2013, developed by Ipoh-born Singapore tycoon Ong Beng partnering with the Sultan of Selangor. It has irrevocably altered the city’s skyline.
“It’s an absolutely stunning building in the best possible location in the city,” says general manager Tom Roelens, who has spent the last 12 months assembling a crack team to front the hotel. Built so close to the Petronas Towers, the hotel has irrevocably altered Kuala Lumpur’s cityscape.
The impressive building was enjoying its soft opening phase when I visited. My huge room overlooked the hotel pool and was among the best I’ve stayed in. Mod cons included a supremely useful laptop on the nightstand from which you could micro-manage your stay. Within half-an-hour of arrival I’d booked a massage, reserved a table for dinner in the hotel’s Curate restaurant and ordered tickets for the Petronas Towers. Other useful drop-down menus included baby gear selection (from cots to baths to kid-friendly robes, pretty much every eventuality is catered for) and a suggested sightseeing itinerary. You can even choose your style of pillow – I refrained, the bed was pretty dreamy as it was.
The hotel has gone out of its way to recognise younger guests, with a goodie bag containing a macaroon, photo frame and tiger plush toy on arrival, as well as a special kids check in experience featuring a low counter and child-friendly check-in forms.
Dining options include show-kitchen Curate, with a suitably laden buffet table and dishes from around the world. This is also where breakfast is served, unless you have access to the pleasant executive lounge – the experienced chef here has been flown in from Four Seasons Resort Maldives and seems to be making his mark on the fledgling Malaysian staff. I was lucky enough to enjoy both breakfast and afternoon tea offerings.
Also worth a look is the glitzy Bar Trigona with killer views over the capital. I checked in for a post Saturday-night dinner cocktail at midnight and the place was rocking – the bartender was hard-pushed to find me a seat. Of course once I was settled at my window-view table that first cocktail quickly became a second…
The restaurants are beautifully decorated – think colourful pink hibiscus petals floating from the ceiling in Curate and an ambitious mosaic tiled bar in Trigona – but Yun House, the modern Cantonese restaurant, was my favourite. Elegant velvet chairs perch around circular tables and beside floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the park, while one wall is dominated by an enormous and impressive sculpture-come-painting of wind rushing over a paddy field. It was quite mesmerising. As you would expect from a five-star brand, there has been no skimping on the detail.
There is also a bar and casual dining by the hotel pool, an area which is dominated in a rather instagrammable-way by the surrounding skyscrapers. Again, pinch yourself that you’re not in Singapore.
Yet more high-end hotel openings are planned for the city – this year saw the unveiling of no less than eight properties, including Pavilion Banyan Tree Residence, W Kuala Lumpur, Hyatt House Kuala Lumpur and an Alila Hotel & Resorts property.
However, despite the new swankiness, the city retains much of its soul through its food and street markets, with countless street stalls, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and markets hawking a delicious messy mix of food cultures representing Malaysia’s Malay, Chinese and Indian residents. Jalan Alor Street Food Night Market is a particular favourite. However, prices are starting to rise and a pint of beer will these days set you back upwards of MYR30.00, or $50. Those heady backpacker days are now just a distant memory.
And as the (higher-end) tourist dollar continues to be wooed, shopping malls have sprung up on every corner. At 10pm the designer-label heavy Suria KLCC was heaving with shoppers. In so many ways, Kuala Lumpur is no longer the country cousin to neighbouring Singapore.
Sadly, my Sunday night flight back to Hong Kong came around all too soon. fourseasons.com