Exploring Asia’s Surprising New Capital of Cool

The capital of Malaysia has become a hotbed of art and design. Kuala Lumpur’s most influential residents guide AFAR through five of the city’s creatively charged neighborhoods.

Exploring Asia’s Surprising New Capital of Cool

Photo by Che’ Ahmad Azhar Bin Che’ Fadzil

What makes a city inspiring? For photographer Che’ Ahmad Azhar Bin Che’ Fadzil, it’s the richness of life on the streets. He has spent years documenting everyday people in the neighborhoods of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As you can see in the photographs that accompany this story, he has an eye for moments of unadorned humanity. We asked him, along with several other members of the city’s creative class, to share the places that stimulate their senses, spark their imaginations, and offer them room to think.

“My place of creative inspiration in Kuala Lumpur is Kampung Baru, an old Malay settlement in the center of the city. Kampung means ‘village’ or ‘rural.’ I was a kampung boy myself; I grew up in a small town north of Penang. We did all the things small boys do—catch fish, climb trees, and play good-guys-bad-guys, just like in the cowboy movies. I moved to Kuala Lumpur in the early ’80s to further my studies, and after I graduated, I rented a room in Kampung Baru. It was very cheap, and its traditional Malay shop houses, small alleys, and coconut trees reminded me of my village. Even though modernization has started to dilute the place, Kampung Baru offers a slice of life that still brings back a lot of my childhood memories. That’s why I do photography here. I want to shoot the classic side of Kuala Lumpur—before it’s gone.


Photo by Che’ Ahmad Azhar Bin Che’ Fadzil

“Saturday is my day for shooting. Because there’s no school and the businessmen aren’t working, there’s a lot of leisure activity. Kids are playing soccer or riding bikes and skateboards; ladies are sitting and chatting; men are playing chess in the coffee shops. I try to be invisible. And I never ask people to pose for me. I just observe my surroundings and shoot whatever catches my eye. Along the way, I make a lot of friends. If I skip a week in Kampung Baru, the next week people will say, ‘Where’ve you been?’

“Because I shoot all day long, from dawn until dusk, I take breaks for lunch, tea, and dinner. Kampung Baru is a foodie paradise. In the morning, I have teh tarik [milk tea] and nasi lemak [coconut rice] or roti bakar [roasted bread]. At lunch, Indian fish-head curry. For dinner, maybe satay. Kuala Lumpur is a melting pot—whatever I want to eat, I can find it in Kampung Baru. Some stands serve food until 3 or 4 in the morning; it’s like a fiesta! You can’t even find parking, it’s so jammed. And then at 5 or 6 a.m., other shops open early for breakfast. The coming and going of people is continuous. If I find a composition with good light, I can set up my camera and just wait for the right moment.”

Wei-Ling Lim

Founder and director of Wei-Ling Gallery and Wei-Ling Contemporary art foundation

“I find inspiration in Brickfields, also called Little India. My association with the neighborhood goes back to my teens. My parents would take us there on weekends for dosa breakfast. In the late ’80s, my father bought an old shop house in Brickfields. It was on the fringe at the time, a bit edgy—like Brooklyn to Manhattan. My father moved his architectural practice there and people said, ‘Wow, Brickfields? Why are you doing that?’ Fast-forward 20 years and Kuala Lumpur Sentral, the main railway stop that links the downtown to the airport, is right by Brickfields.

“It’s an interesting juxtaposition of old and new. The Brickfields area has the town’s highest concentration of places of worship—including one of the largest Buddhist temples in the city and three or four important Hindu temples—and you’ve got people selling banana-leaf rice, dosas, saris, incense. But right across the street you’ve got the KL Sentral Station, the St. Regis Hotel, and King Cole Bar. Brickfields has gentrified a little bit, but most of the shops I grew up with are largely untouched. It has maintained its authenticity.


Photo by Che’ Ahmad Azhar Bin Che’ Fadzil

“The building my father bought was gutted in a fire in 2004. He rebuilt it for me as a private gallery. While my exhibitions aren’t necessarily influenced by the neighborhood, we are a private space—meaning our artists have more freedom of expression. We do have censorship in Malaysia. But showing in a private gallery, tucked away in Brickfields, allows the artists to present more subversive work.

“To experience Brickfields like I do, start at the Buddhist Maha Vihara temple. The grounds are lovely, and it’s very spiritual. People come here to meditate and bring food to the monks. Follow this with classical Indian dance and superb home-cooked vegetarian food at the Temple of Fine Arts. The buffet is pay-what-you-wish. Stop off for a bowl of chendol [an iced dessert] at the corner stand next to the 7-Eleven and behind the YMCA. It’s the best in KL. Finally, across the street from my gallery is the Sree Veera Hanuman Temple [which is still being constructed]. Go and have a look. A 40-foot-tall monkey god peers down at you from the ceiling. Wonderful craftsmanship, narratives, and drama! I take huge inspiration here, just seeing the carvings and people chiseling away at wet cement, making these amazing three-dimensional forms with so much detail. It’ll take your breath away.”

Farah Azizan and Adela Askandar

Cofounders of Studio Bikin, a multidisciplinary design studio

Askandar: As architects and designers, we draw a lot of inspiration from the little pockets of greenery contained within our city. Lake Gardens is a park built by the British—it’s kind of like our Central Park. Azizan: Lake Gardens is surrounded by interesting historical buildings. The hills that overlook it are also quite green, almost jungle-like, which is rare for an area so close to the central business district.

Askandar: The pace of Kuala Lumpur is very fast. The work culture is very intense. The park provides a respite for us, a thinking space. I go there at least three times a week to recharge. My favorite way to enter it is from the back road at the top. It’s a green, undulating route that passes by some beautiful Moorish architecture. It goes past our National Mosque, which is a modernist icon for the city, and past the new Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, which was built in the Ottoman style. Meander up the hill and you’re surrounded by mature greenery. When you get down to the park itself, it’s really lush, there are lake trails, and much of the land is beautifully landscaped. The sense of arrival is really quite special.


Photo by Che’ Ahmad Azhar Bin Che’ Fadzil

Adeline Chong

Owner of Snackfood, a concept shop

“The core of my creative inspiration comes from a trio of neighborhoods with colorful old housing, eccentric vintage signage, and mom-and-pop shops. When I started my shop in 2009, I took a sabbatical from my corporate job in brand consulting, and these were the three areas where I would walk around. I was scouting old Kuala Lumpur for ideas, but I also enjoyed just seeing how locals lived in their homes and how they ran their businesses. It helped me conceptualize my store: Snackfood is a representation of how people live in Kuala Lumpur. Our tagline is ‘collector of happy things,’ and I tend to go for small items that remind us of childhood. Decorative yet functional.

“One of my favorite neighborhoods is Lucky Garden. It’s very homey, almost kitschy. It’s in the old part of Bangsar [southwest of the city center], and there’s a lively market with fresh meat and vegetables. You still see grandmas bringing in carriages to buy fruit. Pudu is another old neighborhood full of character. In the 1960s, there were clans of Chinese gangsters here. There’s no gangsterism now, but you can still feel the rowdiness and see some of the old men, tattooed, smoking, and drinking coffee, surrounded by their friends.https://www.afar.com/travel-tips/kuala-lumpur-3a5425e8-f02f-4834-bc8e-135724d3bb07 The architecture is really nice, too: old-school townhouses with lots of plants. If you walk down Pasar Road, you’ll see a stretch of traders selling electrical wiring, clothing, and fish. Yung Kee, one of the best beef noodle spots in the city, is in Pudu. You can order Wagyu for $25 or get a bowl of delicate beef intestines for $2; that’s how democratic our food stalls are.

“I also like the inner part of Chinatown. If you meander into the back lanes and alleyways off Petaling Street, you see old people lounging around. There are barbershops and pop-up food vendors and even a few modern speakeasies, including PS150, the Berlin KL, and the Attic.

“None of these neighborhoods are ‘to do’ neighborhoods; they’re places to wander without intention, to see how life was and how life is.”


Photo by Che’ Ahmad Azhar Bin Che’ Fadzil

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Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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