When in Kuala Lumpur, leave your inhibitions behind and escape the mid-day heat in the heart of Chinatown. Strip down to basics and chill under the shade of five-foot walkways and delightful cafés that popped up in the past few years.
Words and Photography: Abby Yao
Brilliant red lanterns hang above Chinatown’s Petaling Street, whilst vendors crowd the grounds with colourful souvenirs, fake goods and delicious local fare. The oldest district in the Malaysian capital is a treasure trove where storied shophouses that survived the British colonial period are given a new breath of life as the home to backpacker stays, hip haunts and authentic flavours of old KL.
We uncover the strip where the laidback Bohemian atmosphere requires no clothes to explore (though we highly recommend against disrobing for the sake of your modesty and keeping to the law).
PYJAMA GAMES AT LOKL
Undress Code: Come in your sleepwear…but only if you’re staying next door. Most newcomers to LOKL (say “local”) make the mistake of using BackHome Hostel’s door to enter the café, and it’s not surprising why—the two are connected by a courtyard. But the café has the upper hand on the breakfast menu and deserves its rooster logo.
With its simple signage, LOKL is typical of the Chinatown café: a nondescript façade hiding a remarkable gem. Lamps hang from the ceiling and LOKL is spelled out in lights above the dessert display, but don’t let these force you to dress up. The mood is relaxed and casual, with distressed wooden tables lending a worn-in look and cool illustrations brightening up the otherwise stripped-down grey concrete wall.
LOKL’s sandwiches, salads and pastries are made in-house, and its set lunches provide good value. You can even have coffee prepared the conventional way or in the Malaysian method, with condensed milk.
The narrow layout of this hideaway on the former High Street of KL doesn’t make it easy to people watch, but if you need recommendations on what to see and do in the area (chat with the friendly staff if you can’t strike up a conversation with the hot snob at the next table), this is the place to be. Just-got-out-of-bed look optional.
LOKL Coffee Co. 30, Jalan Tun HS Lee. Open Tuesdays to Sundays, 8am – 8pm. loklcoffee.com
LOSE YOUR SHOES AT LUCY IN THE SKY
Undress Code: If you removed your footwear on your visit to Sri Maha Mariamman temple, you can take your sweet time putting them back on as you head two doors away to Lucy in the Sky.
This neighbourhood newcomer, established in December 2013, attracts a young, international crowd that has mastered the art of lounging and lingering. For an establishment named after a Beatles song, the music is surprisingly downtempo and décor just as minimalist, with bare walls and steel tables softened by a small bunch of Malaysian mums (the flower, of course).
The bar seating lets you engage the barista as she makes your flat white or any of their double shot whites. The offerings range from sandwiches, pasta, finger food, big all-day breakfasts, cheesecakes and beers which you order and pay for at the counter. Part of the café was once an alleyway, now with clear roofing to let the sunlight in. If you can occupy the couch in front of the kitchen, you’re set for an afternoon of relaxed conversations with your crew. There’s also outdoor seating for those itching for a puff.
Lucy in the Sky Café. 167, Jalan Tun HS Lee. Open Tuesdays to Sundays, 9am – 7pm. www.facebook.com/lucyintheskykl
BURN MORE THAN THE BRA AT MOONTREE HOUSE
Undress Code: Be yourself. Acceptance is the basic principle of this feminist bookshop café, so nobody will mind if you’re still in yesterday’s clothes. You are, however, required to take your shoes off.
Moontree House is a one-woman labour of love set against a Zee Avi soundtrack, with a choice of cookies, cakes, drip coffee and siphon coffee, and a few vegetarian selections that the owner herself will serve you.
The bookshelves carry books on Malaysian culture in English and a larger collection of gender and identity books in Chinese. There are also goods by independent zakka crafters—think cute stationery, button badges, bags and accessories. Regular screenings of thought-provoking films will have you coming back for discussions and food (or caffeine) for thought. Having like-minded folks for company? Now that’s an idea sexier than showing some skin.
Moontree House. No. 6, 1st Floor, Jalan Panggung. Open Wednesdays to Mondays, 10am – 8pm. moontree-house.blogspot.com
TAKE YOUR HEART OFF YOUR SLEEVE AT COFFEE AMO
Undress Code: If you’re the type who retweets haikus and sees the world with pretty filters, hold it right there. You won’t need any more romanticism here, as there’s enough charm to disarm the jaded coffee connoisseur and emo Instagram user. Best of all, you don’t even need to take anything else off anything except your preconceived notions of coffee culture.
One of Chinatown’s best-kept secrets has an inconspicuous entrance next to a liquor store and the main doorway inside the one-room Petaling Street Art House, a cultural venue and community museum of sorts.
Home-y and friendly (the couch is seldom empty) with red and black folding chairs and round tables, Coffee Amo also adds modern touches like travel photographs taken by one of the owners. At the same time, it embraces its Chinese heritage with vintage posters.
Browse the bookshelf filled with an assortment Chinese books and photography magazines. Ask for the durian desserts and 3D coffee art, unless you’re going for the single-origin specialty coffees—a rarity in these parts. Don’t forget to observe the line drawings on the black walls and be so smitten that you will no doubt turn to social media to share your visit.
Coffee Amo. No. 54, 1st Floor, Jalan Sultan. Open daily, 1030am – 9pm. www.facebook.com/coffeeamo
Can’t wait to get exposed to more? Remove your art snobbery at Aku Café & Gallery and keep your timepieces away at Old China Café, set in the former guild hall of the Selangor & Federal Territory Laundry Association. Generations apart they may be, but these sister cafés are just around the corner from each other and both worth a visit after your stroll down Petaling Street.
Aku Café & Gallery No.8 , 1st Floor, Jalan Panggong. Open Tuesdays to Sundays, 11am – 8pm. www.oldchina.com.my/aku.html
Old China Café 11, Jalan Balai Polis. Open daily, 11am – 11pm. www.oldchina.com.my
GETTING THERE Chinatown is easily accessible via public transport. LRT: Pasar Seni Station. Monorail: Maharajalela Station. KTM Komuter: Kuala Lumpur Station.
AirAsia flies to Kuala Lumpur from various destinations. For flight information and the lowest fares, go to www.airasia.com.
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