Kuala Lumpur is a city that settles into its streets like a comfortable pair of jeans. Hawker stalls and coffee shops spread out on the pavement, where a vast range of people — old, young, Indian, Malay, Chinese, immigrant — eat delicious food on folding tables and bright plastic stools.
But the irony is that, despite this vibrant, informal streetlife, Kuala Lumpur is a resolutely suburban place. Its neighbourhoods sprawl for miles, connected only tenuously by sidewalks and public transit. Without a car, the Klang Valley, as the whole metropolitan region is known, can be a very alienating place.
We didn’t have a car when we visited KL last September, but we did make an effort to venture out beyond the small city centre and into the suburbs beyond. One day, we took the train out to Petaling Jaya, a large suburb just west of the city proper, where we walked and took taxis to get a sense of what everyday life in the Malaysian capital is like.
Petaling Jaya was a palm oil plantation until 1952, when 800 new houses were built to handle overflow from Kuala Lumpur’s burgeoning population. It expanded rapidly into a series of new districts given cold, cryptic names — SS22, Section 14 and so on — with a familiar postwar pattern of convoluted streets set between arterial roads.
We started our visit in SS2, one of the older sections of town. In many ways, this part of Petaling Jaya resembles an inter-war British suburb, with long blocks of neat rowhouses interrupted by the occasional commercial strip. Most houses have lush front gardens well-stocked with fruit trees. If it weren’t for the lack of sidewalks, it would be a perfectly pleasant place to stroll around.
Short commercial strip in SS2. Looks like Toronto.
Residential back alley. Most of the houses in older sections of Petaling Jaya are rowhouses with small front yards that are often used for parking.
Chinese altar in front of a house. Petaling Jaya is predominantly, though by no means exclusively, Chinese. Cantonese is probably the most commonly-heard language around these parts.
SS2’s town centre, which consists of several blocks of four-storey commercial buildings. Shopping malls and hypermarkets are common throughout Petaling Jaya but the early 1960s-era commercial districts are still popular destinations for food.
Chinese coffeeshops are common throughout Kuala Lumpur. They act like food courts: a central kitchen makes drinks and some dishes and the rest of the space is sublet to street vendors.
Every Monday evening, the streets around a vacant lot in SS2’s town centre play host to a large night market.
Roadside durian stalls are popular after-dinner stops when the fruit is in season. At this stall, a TVB soap opera from Hong Kong was playing on the TV as families munched on various kinds of durian.
At the far end of SS2 from the night market, another side to Petaling Jaya. Plaza Rasta is an open-air collection of cafés and restaurants that is a popular late-night hangout for Malay students, who sit drinking tea, coffee and smoking shisha.
Tags: Exploring the City, Kuala Lumpur, Streetlife, Suburbia