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Bukit Bintang: Kuala Lumpur's Beating Heart

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If there’s any street in KL that embodies the city’s heartbeat, it’s Jalan Bukit Bintang. Sooner or later, most visitors find themselves on this eclectic, vibrant thoroughfare. Join David Bowden as he takes a stroll and finds his senses engaged.

There’s probably no street in Malaysia with as much contrast as Jalan Bukit Bintang situated in the centre of Kuala Lumpur in an area called the Golden Triangle (so called because of its premium real estate although this name doesn’t seem to be applied so much these days). While the road starts from Jalan Tun Razak and extends approximately three kilometres to Jalan Pudu, visitors will mostly experience the central area focused around Pavilion Kuala Lumpur.

Bukit Bintang is bisected by Jalan Sultan Ismail with the east side being dominated by premium retail and several five-star hotels, and the west side being so markedly different, it may as well be in a different country. Hurriedly cross the road from Lot 10 Shopping Centre, westward, and the street is lined with dozens of enthusiastic and persistent streetside purveyors of reflexology. Can there be that many people wanting reflexology services and can this all be above board, you might ask yourself? As a spectacle, it’s rather interesting watching these people go about their daily lives and hear the patter they use to entice passersby.

In addition to the reflexology on this side of Jalan Sultan Ismail, budget accommodation (KL’s oldest international hotels, the Federal and the Royale Bintang are the exceptions here) dominates as do money changers. This is definitely the place to change money and shopping around for the best rates is advisable.

Bukit means ‘hill’ in Bahasa Melayu (‘bintang’ meaning star) but it’s a little hard to imagine that this part of Kuala Lumpur is actually located on a hill. A riser may be more appropriate with those who walk from the bottom of the Pavilion to the main intersection with Jalan Sultan Ismail hardly raising a sweat.

Heritage Row

Bukit Bintang is typical of many parts of central Kuala Lumpur, urban Malaysia, and indeed, urban Asia as history is talked about in decades. So much has happened in such a short time that if things don’t work, they quickly get changed, knocked down, and life moves on. There’s no time for nostalgia in this part of the city or so it seems. Sungei Wang Plaza of just over 35 years of age is almost a heritage site in an area surrounded by high rise towers.

Kuala Lumpur’s oldest school formerly stood on the site of the Pavilion Kuala Lumpur. Opened in 1893 in suburban Brickfields as the Chinese Girl’s School, it relocated to Bukit Bintang Road in 1930 and remained there until 2000 when it was unceremoniously demolished to make way for the mixed retail, commercial and residential use that it now serves. The school was renamed and moved to Cheras in the suburbs. While there are many famous ‘old girls’ of the school, it counts Dato’ Yasmin Yusuff (radio personality) and Fong Foong Mei (Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) among its illustrious ranks.

Retail rendezvous

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Shopping is an important element in many people’s holiday experience and those who head to Jalan Bukit Bintang won’t be disappointed. While there are several retail hubs in the city, Bukit Bintang is arguably the area that attracts most shoppers.

Shopping Centres include Pavilion KL, Starhill Gallery, Lot 10, Fahrenheit 88, Low Yat Plaza and Sungei Wang Plaza. There’s not too much you can’t buy in the area with designer labels and leading anchor tenants in all the shopping malls. Pavilion KL has a list of tenants that reads like a roll call of the world’s leading fashion labels. Apart from anchor tenants of Harvey Norman, Mercato, Padini, Parkson, and Tangs there’s also AIX Armani Exchange, Bally, Burberry, Bvlgari, Coach, DKNY, Esprit, Fred Perry, Gucci, Hermes, and even automobile showrooms for Jaguar and Bentley. At the front door, Malaysia’s own Japanese-inspired bakery, The Loaf, has prime position.

Across the road is the flagship Louis Vuitton store and adjoining that is Starhill Gallery with many ritzy and luxurious brands with an emphasis on leading watchmakers. Further up the road is Fahrenheit 88 with an focus on labels that appeal to the young and stylish. Lot 10 is anchored by Japanese department store Isetan and fronted by the new H & M store. Across the road on the budget side of Bukit Bintang there’s a Metrojaya department store and the retail rabbit warren of Sungei Wang which is especially appealing to locals seeking bargains. Just to the back of this is Low Yat Plaza, which is where IT geeks and computer nerds flock to.

One of the best views of the street is afforded from the open area on the rooftop of Lot 10. The area is also home to Rootz (nightclub) and Teeq (bar and restaurant).

Makan-Makan

Eating is a national pastime and no one will go hungry along Jalan Bukit Bintang. One of Malaysia’s greatest dining assets is that a bowl of noodles can be had on the streets for a few ringgit while the stratosphere is the limit for those who choose to dine with a vintage bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild in fine dining restaurants such as Shook! in Starhill Gallery (the restaurant has the world’s largest vertical collection of the aforementioned wines from 1945 to 1997, with the 1982 being a Senses favourite). All the hotels have restaurants and while few of these provide great bargains, they do offer an oasis of tranquility from the hectic street life.

Some of the finer hotel restaurants include: Five Senses, Prego and Qba Latin Grill & Bar (The Westin KL), Shanghai (JW Marriott Hotel KL), Lai Ching Yuen (Grand Millennium KL), and Mandarin Palace (Federal Hotel).

One of the greatest congregations of restaurants is on the Feast Level of Starhill Gallery where there are some 20 leading restaurants and bars. These include a United Nations of dining styles including: Angus (grills), Enak KL (Malay), Jake’s (steaks), Roryo-Won (Korean), Sentidos (Mexican), and Spice of India.

There’s also a congregation of Middle Eastern restaurants between the Grand Millennium Hotel and the Jalan Sultan Ismail intersection. The street often looks like a souk as vendors spread their wares out onto the pavement and offer what appears to be some incredible bargains on ‘genuine’ branded watches. Sometimes you have to be quick as these traders often vapourise when officials appear.

Accessibility

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For those with a car, there always seems to be ample, if pricey, parking in the shopping malls and hotels located in the area except perhaps over the weekend when the retail frenzy hits top gear. Public transport is good with the Bukit Bintang and Imbi Monorail Stations located in the thick of things. While there’s an abundance of taxis parked along the main road visitors can expect that most of these will have broken meters and that fares then become negotiable and certainly not in favour of the passenger. It’s a matter of buyer beware with hotel queues or taxis on the move being better options.

Jalan Bukit Bintang’s west side is currently undergoing major infrastructural changes to make way for the new MRT station and line which will operate from Sungai Buloh to Kajang and open in 2016. Currently, the street is a little chaotic with lots of noise and construction activity.

A new enclosed, air-conditioned walkway departing from the back of Pavilion KL also weaves its way down to the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre and then underground to the Petronas Twin Towers and while it takes 15 minutes to walk, it could well be the fastest way to connect these two leading tourism destinations during peak hour traffic.

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Source: Senses of Malaysia Jul-Aug 2013

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