A taste of Kuala Lumpur

JEFFERSON HAGEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 2:20 PM ET

The businessman from San Jose imparted a crucial piece of wisdom at some point on the 17 hour, 35 minute flight from Los Angeles to this city simply known as K.L.

"First trip to Asia?" my business class seatmate inquired.

"Yup," I replied, wondering what it was about my appearance that gave it away.

"Asia's all about the food," he said with a twinkle in his eye, hinting at the workout my palate was about to go through for the next 10 days.

He was right. But I should have known, considering the menu on the Malaysian Airlines flight -- gourmet dining at 30,000 ft.

Malaysia is all about the food -- a smorgasbord of flavours, styles, spices and tastes that represent the entire southeast Asian region. From traditional Malay dishes like roti canai -- a spicy pancake topped with curry chicken that really wakes you up in the morning -- to out-of-this world seafood like shark, lobster and prawns, your taste buds are in for a treat.

But dining is just the starting point of a luxurious Malaysian adventure, where food is merely a metaphor for the entire experience.

K.L., the focal point of the new Malaysia, is a fusion of west and east. In a city that defines a country, its doors have been thrown open to capitalism, its western embrace evidenced in boutique malls, swanky clubs and five-star hotels.

Yet this is a predominantly Muslim country where, at least in theory, pornography is banned and customs forms feature the warning of the death penalty for drug traffickers.

The former British colony is a melting pot of low crime, cleanliness and opportunity -- tenets that make K.L. a great place to visit.

Most people know the city for the 88-storey Petronas Towers -- an architectural marvel that counts among the world's tallest buildings. Attached to the complex in the vibrant Golden Triangle area is Suria KLCC, which is one of the city's premier shopping malls. If money is no object, try this or the Starhill Shopping Centre, which is like Rodeo Drive in a mall.

Fittingly, Starhill is attached to luxury accommodations of the finest order. An elevator ride whisks you into the JW Marriott Hotel, which is connected by walkway to the Ritz-Carlton and the new, ultra-exclusive Ritz-Carlton Residences.

This is all located at the heart of the Bintang Walk, advertised as the city's answer to the Champs Elysees. It's a great area to sip coffee and watch K.L. hipsters strolling by.

For K.L. at its most raw, make a nighttime visit to Petaling Street in Chinatown, where you can barter your way through the sweaty, crammed mess of outdoor vendors hocking faux Rolex, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Smells from outdoor grills waft through the night air. The Central Market and Little India also offer an excursion to the heart of K.L. culture.

To see more, a tour -- such as those run by Peterson Travel Service -- is recommended. Driving in K.L. is not only on the left-hand side of the road, it's a headache of signal light-optional, lanes-invisible chaos.

Peterson offers knowledgeable English-speaking guides on its excursions including the Hindu temple at the Batu Caves.

After, you'll be hungry and any number of restaurants are ready to satisfy that craving.

Shook! has a menu nearly as large as War and Peace. Chinese wok, Japanese, Italian and Western grill show kitchens back it up.

Tophat, a favourite local hangout, projects a British atmosphere. And don't miss Li Yen, a Cantonese restaurant.

Your palate will never be able to settle for mac and cheese again.

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SPA TRIPPIN'

The newly opened Spa Village at the Residences K.L., is an Eden in the middle of a metropolis. It's designed by Sylvia Sepielli, the American spa consultant behind The Peaks Spa in Telluride, Colo., and The Chopra Centre for Well Being in La Jolla, Calif.

"When we built in the city, we wanted more of an international flavour," says Sepielli, who incorporates Malay, Chinese and Indian healing cultures into the spa.

Guests start their visit in the sensory room, a meditative space with vibrating floor speakers. The treatment menu ranges from traditional Malay massage to ancient Chinese treatments such as body smoking and cupping.

There are eight suites at the Spa Village at the Residences, each with a bathtub and outdoor shower. Four come with personal steam rooms. You can cap off the experience with a dip in the pool.

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BOTTOM LINE

WHERE TO STAY

- The Ritz-Carlton: Since opening in 1997, the hotel has received the prestigious Five-Star Diamond award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences seven times. The service level is unparalleled. Rooms come with a personal butler and free laundry service.

- JW Marriott: A solid five-star option in the heart of the city.

- Residences at the Ritz-Carlton: For long stay business executives, the luxury suites feature on-call chefs and butlers.


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