This Side Of Paradise
Grace Lim 
Damansara Heights in Kuala Lumpur recently made it to Lonely Planet’s list of “10 of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods to visit right now”

What do Florence’s Borgo San Frediano, Seoul’s Seongsu-dong, Coppenhagen’s Vesterbro, London’s Tooting, and Kuala Lumpur’s Damansara Heights have in common? These are places travel guru Lonely Planet deems as some of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods last month. In fact, Damansara Heights is the only spot in Southeast Asia to be given the honour.

For some of us living in Kuala Lumpur, it was even more surprising considering nearby Bangsar and Mont Kiara are better known for their vibrancy. Curious as to why Damansara Heights, one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in Kuala Lumpur, stood out for Lonely Planet, we do a little exploring.


Hip and happening

Sasha Sabapathy, culinary director of the Huckleberry Group, describes Damansara Heights residents as savvy and well-travelled, which is a key reason the F&B group’s restaurants and bars are located there.

“We opened Mezze about a decade ago in the then-quiet nook of Jalan Kasah. We were one of the first restaurants in the area,” she says.

Another outlet, Huckleberry Food & Fare, opened in 2015 in Plaza Damansara. Huckleberry After Dark was launched a couple of months later, followed by Skullduggery, a hidden cocktail den created by Sasha’s brother. Their latest venture, Birch, is located in the newly-opened Damansara City Mall.

Having lived in Damansara Heights all her life – her family has called it home since her grandparents started living there – Sasha describes it as an interesting mix of neighbourhood charm and worldly inquisitiveness. “It’s wonderful that Damansara Heights is listed out of all the trendy, up-and-coming areas in Kuala Lumpur, not to mention the world. It has undergone a revitalisation in the past few years and that has made it a destination for intrepid foodies. The cocktail scene has also been rapidly developing in the area,” she notes.

“It’s exciting that so many of the much-talked-about dining and drinking venues are right here. It has made Damansara Heights a destination in its own right, especially on weekends, but without disrupting the neighbourhood’s sense of routine.

She opines that the recent commercial boom is good for the neighbourhood, with more facilities like banks and an MRT station for the convenience of the people. There is also a private college and a small public library. “But there’s still a nice balance between the new and the old,” she says.

Yellow Brick Road is a popular cafe in Plaza Batai

Her sentiments are echoed by Shaun Liew of Yellow Brick Road, a hugely popular café in Plaza Batai. Having recently undergone a facelift, this commercial block along Jalan Batai is a hive of activity on both weekdays and weekends, which really makes the neighbourhood interesting.

“There’s a diverse crowd here; you get people from all over the city, both locals and expats. The age groups are a good mix too. And this is all thanks to a variety of eateries here, from fine dining to the kopitiam.”

Upscale supermarket chain BIG is one of the anchor tenants and there are also a florist, a juice bar and no less than three fitness studios advocating today’s trendiest workouts.

“Since this is also a housing area and there are offices nearby, there is a nice mix of families and office workers. The addition of an MRT station has also brought in more crowd.”

What Liew finds most attractive about the area, though, is the comfort. “It’s very homey. Security is good and there’s a sense of community. When the kopitiam was shut down for refurbishment, residents made a lot of noise, worried that their favourite hawker food would be gone too. They were also up in arms when a favourite bar closed to make way for the new – that’s how protective they are, which is kind of nice.”

To reiterate the appeal of Plaza Batai, Liew adds that they get a lot of repeat customers, especially those living in the neighbourhood.


Green haven

Everyone we speak to agree that one of the most appealing things about the neighbourhood is its relatively lush greenery. Martijn Langhout from the Netherlands has been living in Damansara Heights for the past four years. “Before this, I was living around the KLCC area, and it was noisy and congested. In contrast, this neighbourhood is green and quiet, but also centrally located (in good traffic, city centre is only minutes away). There are many amenities close by too. It reminds me a bit of where I lived back home, minus the hills as the Netherlands is flat as a coin,” he shares.

“With everything that I need nearby, whether food or other essentials, I sometimes find myself not leaving the area for days. It’s a reasonably quiet neighbourhood although weekends can get busy with crowds.”

Not surprisingly, he loves the F&B choices here. “I love contributing to their existence since they are so close to where I live. What I don’t care for is the double parking – and queuing for a table,” he says.

Born in Kuching and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Regina Toyad has lived in Damansara Heights her whole life; even when she moved, it was within the area. The marketing executive and part-time ballet teacher has many fond memories growing up in the neighbourhood. She recalls how kids cycled around, played badminton and visited one another’s homes.

“I was very young when we first arrived in the neighbourhood. There weren’t as many buildings and it was like living in a jungle. There were monkeys everywhere. The sight of monitor lizards in drains was common too. We even had woodpeckers perching on car windows. And I saw a python once!”

Toyad thinks that despite all the development over the years, Damansara Heights has retained its charming personality. “It has always been a really cool place to live in, no doubt about that. It hasn’t lost its soul despite all the additions. It’s still cosy and the eateries are great places to hang out in with friends and families. I just never thought it would be listed with neighbourhoods in New York, London and Rio de Janeiro!” Toyad exclaims.

Dr Sundari Ampikaipakan and Mark Harwood 

Husband and wife Mark Harwood and Dr Sundari Ampikaipakan’s experience is a little more unique. Harwood hails from Oxford, UK while Dr Sundari grew up in Damansara Heights before moving to the UK where she remained for about 20 years.

Six years ago, she returned to Malaysia to work as a consulting respiratory physician in a local hospital. She and Harwood live in her family home.

“Having lived overseas for many years, it’s like sweet homecoming, returning to something that is familiar and filled with memories,” she says. “And it’s nice to have my own family here with me too, as I’ve lived most of my adult life in the UK.”

The essence of the neighbourhood, she opines, hasn’t changed. “It has retained that homey feel. Until recently, we had the same neighbours. I remember walking down the road with them to (fast-food chain) Wendy’s for milkshakes,” she muses. “My friends from the UK have even given the neighbourhood a cool nickname – Damansara Heights 50490, taking a leaf from the popular TV series Beverly Hills 90210. They thought we have such a cool postcode.”

Harwood, who relocated from the UK a year ago, appreciates the “small town” vibe and its greenery. “I have lived in small towns and in the countryside. Damansara Heights has that same leafy suburban feel. Don’t get me wrong – I like living in the middle of the city such as Chicago where I was for a long time. But there’s no feeling like leaving work and coming back to this tranquillity at the end of the day,” he says.

“When I first moved here, the fact that the house was surrounded by trees was very appealing to me. What fascinates me most is that it is a green oasis so close to the city.”

Sundari hopes the new developments will not rob the neighbourhood of its bliss and comfort. “When my parents first bought the house here, people said it was a bad idea because it resembled a jungle back then. But it has transformed into a really nice suburb. Yes, there are new malls and big condominiums now, but it’s still my favourite place in all of Kuala Lumpur. Whenever I drive back after work, it feels like I’m getting away from the busyness of the city. It truly is home,” she enthuses.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 252.