Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Malaysia and Singapore III: Exploring Kuala Lumpur

My two-week Asian adventure ended where it began:  Kuala Lumpur. After six days exploring the island state of Singapore (tale here) and two eventful days in the culturally diverse Malaysian town of Melaka (tale here), I found myself on a coach speeding through a tropical downpour towards the capital city. I can't say the thought filled me with much joy: my one night stopover in KL (as it is often known) had left me with an impression of an uninspiring metropolis bisected by flyovers and speckled with shopping malls. I wished rather than expected my rapidly made up mind to change over the 48 hours that followed.

My mood brightened abruptly on reaching the Equator Hostel in the Golden Triangle area, my residence for the next two nights. The friendly owner greeted me warmly, giving me a hand-annotated map of the city and talking me through the sights and the best way to see them. Spurred on by his enthusiastic descriptions of Chinatown and Little India, I decided to brave KL's unintegrated transport system, made up of a monorail, a metro and commuter trains. Once I'd worked out how to get my 10p ticket to open the barrier and recovered from the resulting embarrassment, I was gliding over the city in a mini-monorail carriage. A short while later I found myself in the gritty heart of Chinatown: Petaling Street. Famous for its trade in designer knock-off goods of all varieties, this thoroughfare requires finely-tuned bargaining skills, the ability to dodge persistent traders and sharp elbows if you're ever to emerge at the other end. Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown is poles apart from Singapore's district of the same name: there are no smartly-painted shophouses, no glossy stores catering to the tourist trade. KL's Chinese quarter bustles with hustle; trade and human traffic reign supreme.

Merdeka Square

Emerging triumphantly from Petaling Street with just one successfully-haggled purchase in tow, I headed for a more elegant area: Merdeka Square, KL's colonial core. Dominated by the world's tallest flagpole proudly flying the Malaysian flag, the square is significant in the country's recent history. Although it retains its cricket pitch and half-timbered clubhouse from British rule, the square is now more commonly associated with Malaysia's burgeoning democracy: this is where the country's independence ('Merdeka') was proclaimed in August 1957. With the Royal Selangor clubhouse on one side and the domed fantasy of the Sultan Abdul Samed Building on the other against a backdrop of modern skyscrapers, Merdeka Square is a microcosm of the city's identity and an ideal spot to linger.

The Sultan Abdul Samed Building
Malaysia's cultural mixture of Malay, Chinese and Indian communities is reflected in KL's make-up: just a ten-minute walk from Chinatown lies Little India, tucked away behind the Masjid Jamek metro stop. Although the Brickfields area surrounding KL Sentral Station is fast becoming the new hub of the Indian community, this petite quarter retains its bustle and atmosphere: market stalls peddling myriad colours of headscarves, henna tattooists setting up their stalls in the street, jewellery shops and restaurants all compete for the attention of passers-by. Shopping opportunities aside, it's also an ideal spot to grab a central bite to eat. Keen to consume as many dosai (South Indian savoury pancakes) as humanly possible before returning to the UK, I filled up on a vegetable-stuffed number at vegetarian restaurant Saravaana Bhavan for just 10 Ringgits.

Contrary to my first impressions, the historical centre of KL is easily walkable. However, the sprawling nature of the city means that some sights are best reached by public transport, taxi or tourist bus. Embracing my holidaymaker status, I opted for the latter option on my final day. But before boarding the bus, I still had to see Kuala Lumpur's most famous sight: the Petronas Towers.

The Petronas Towers

Completed in 1998, these silver-coloured skyscrapers were the tallest buildings in the world until 2004. They're still by far the tallest towers in KL, dominating its skyline from almost all angles. For those who want to see the view from the Skybridge between the 41st and 42nd floors, free tickets are issued each morning: arrive at 7am to be in with a chance of securing one. Valuing my sleep more than the photo opportunity, I contented myself with a ground-level view before taking a stress-free tour of the city. Swinging past the upmarket boutiques of Bukit Bintang (the Golden Triangle), the hilltop Menara KL (KL Tower) and Chinatown, I headed to the KL Bird Park instead. Situated in the city's outlying Lake Gardens, the Bird Park is the world's largest walk-in aviary, and provides fans of our feathered friends with plenty of opportunities to get up close to almost every exotic Asian species imaginable. As my companion for the day Kerry and I discovered, there was definitely such a thing as too close: one particularly menacing-looking creature swooped dangerously close to our lunch on more than one occasion.

Watch where you're pointing that beak!

Suitably impressed with KL's sights, there was just one left on my hitlist: the National Mosque. As a Muslim country, Malaysia certainly isn't short on mosques, and KL's Masjid Jamek (Friday Mosque) and Masjid Negara (National Mosque) are two of the most famous. A short walk from Merdeka Square, the modern Masjid Negara welcomes visitors to selected areas provided they cover up in one of the robes on offer. This sprawling mosque is an island of calm among KL's traffic-choked streets, and helpful staff are on hand to answer any questions about Islam or the building itself.

At Masjid Negara

By the time my departure rolled around, I was sorry to leave this friendly city. Busy as it may be, KL was not as pedestrian-hostile as I first imagined. With many free attractions, cheap food and a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere for such a big place, visitors to South East Asia should be sure to put Kuala Lumpur on their itinerary.

1 comment :

  1. Hi, I been visiting your blog since a few months ago. Nice food you have been having. I have a food blog too. Come visit! ;) ration MREs meals ready-to-eat


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