Kuala Lumpur has been described as a kaleidoscope of old-world culture and modern life, mixing Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures with Portuguese, Dutch and English influences. It is a vibrant, busy city replete with museums, world-class sporting venues, outdoor activities shopping, and nightlife. There are many high-end luxury hotels and restaurants to choose from. The city is filled with parks, and is nestled in beautiful tropical hills and jungles.
Recently, I spent four days exploring the sights, colors and sounds of KL (the nickname given by the locals), including a stay at the fantastic Impiana Hotel. Located only a few blocks from the famous Petronas Towers, in is the business center of the city, and the Impiana is located directly across from the KL Convention Center. While primarily a business hotel, the Impiana comfortably caters to tourists, especially those that prefer a clean, modern room with “extras” like a nice bathroom and a view. I was pleasantly surprised to find the staff not only incredibly helpful and accommodating, but full of useful info about where to go, what to see, and how to get there. Some of the best tips came from the doorman. Impiana also has a fantastic restaurant, the Tonka Bean. Open 24 hours a day, they serve a tasty selection of local and international fare at decent prices. The evening buffet, consisting of over 100 delectable Malay dishes, is not to be missed, and at 49RM each (about US$ 14) it is a great deal for travelers.
Touring the City
To get a feel for KL, I was taken on a personalized half-day tour of the city with a fantastic guide from Triways travel. Named Zulkifli, one of the first things he explained what that his name was very long and confusing to Westerners, so he uses Zul instead. We traveled in a nice luxury car, a big, cushy Korean-built car that is a spitting image of a Mercedes.
Zul started the tour by taking me to the Istana Negara. Overlooking the Klang River, this is the 28-acre national palace and official residence of the King and Queen of Malaysia. Although you cannot tour the interior, it is an impressive place with colorful guards at the gate and beautiful grounds.
Tugu Negara (national monument), is an impressive sight that commemorates the struggle for independence won in the years between 1946-60. It bears a striking resemblance to the statue at Iwo Jima, because it was designed by the same man. This is an important memorial to Malaysians; they are celebrating their 50th year of independence in 2007, and the evidence is all around that it will be a fantastic time to travel here and experience the extra attention the country will be putting forth to commemorate the event.
A short drive brought us to the Thean Hou Chinese temple, where I saw the colorful place of worship built in the traditional manner, although the structure is only 15 years old. Although it has a fantastic view of the city I was not able to take advantage; there was a thick layer of fog that had rolled in, common to KL at this time of year. Nonetheless, for some great pictures or views, and an interesting look at a modern version of a Chinese temple, definitely plan to visit Thean Hou.
Next Zul and I traveled to the Royal Selangor Pewter factory, a fixture in Malay heritage as the area is well known for its tin. Serving as a both the factory and a museum, they offer a free 15 minute guided tour of their collection of photos and artifacts, as well as a peek into the actually factory floor. Most of the jobs in the factory are held by women, and everything is made by hand: casting, sanding and polishing. We were able to see a woman hammering out a pattern of small “dents” in rows around a cup, their signature design. A first-hand attempt at it was surprisingly difficult and good for a laugh as we ended the tour.
Lastly, I visited the Masjid Negara, or National Mosque. It is very modern in design, and unlike any other mosque I have visited. The roof looks like a partially opened umbrella, while the minaret has a “closed umbrella” roof, symbolizing the tropics. The interior exhibits the traditional phrases from the Koran, but in a contemporary manner. The main floor is carpeted, and there is a marble extension area filled with rows of columns for a total capacity of 14,000 worshippers. We were fortunate to chat with a man that often leads prayer, and he gave us a thorough explanation of Islam and what it means to the people of Malaysia. For Western travelers, especially Americans, this is a great way to get a better handle on what Islam is and how it connects to other regions around the globe, free from the sensationalized view we get from news and television media. In light of current world events this is a highly recommended stop, as you may well learn a few things, not only about Malaysians but about Islam and religion in general.
Along the way, we were able to see many other famous sights in KL, including the Victorian Moorish Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, Merdeka Square (Independence Square), and the Menara Kuala Lumpur, the worlds 5th tallest concrete tower. With this great introduction to the city, it was much easier to travel around, and we had a thorough understanding of the options that KL has to offer.
The following day we were again traveling with Triways and Zul, this time to Melaka, the original capitol city of Malaysia and the former center of the spice trade going back 400 years. Melaka is about a 2-hour drive from KL, almost directly South on the modern multi-lane highway. Along the way, we stopped off at Putrajaya, the new, modern city being built to house the Malay government as they relocate from KL.
Onward to Melaka. Comprised of Malay, Chinese and Indian people and also a community of Portuguese descendants still speaking the older Portuguese tongue called Kristang, it is the original melting pot of Malyasia. Melaka is a quaint little town with a nice river filled with the traditional multicolor Malay fishing boats. One of my favorites places was Jonker Street, a narrow roadway lined with great little shops to explore. Much of the town still reflects Dutch colonization, such as the Stadhuys Building where the Dutch governor lived, and is now the Ethnography Museum. There are many other museums here built to house the rich cultural heritage of Malaysia and Melaka as well. A number of Christian churches are located in Melaka, including the ruins of one created for the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier in the mid 19th century. Xavier is credited for his catholic missionary work throughout Southeast Asia in the 16th century, and formally known as the “apostle of the East”.
I said goodbye to Zul, and spent the next two days exploring the city. Due to the great hotel location, it was an easy walk to the subways of KL, not to mention the monorail suspended above the city that bisects the main commercial district. For shoppers, KL is a paradise. There are a number of huge mega-malls, very similar to high-end shopping malls in the US, with all the famous labels represented. For more traditional shopping, there is the Central Market and Petaling Street in the Chinatown area. Here you will find all manner of goods sold out of small booths, many of which are open all night. This is also bargaining town, so be prepared to negotiate the price as this is expected and highly recommended.
It is easy to enjoy a visit to Kuala Lumpur. It is safe, English is widely spoken, and there is an amazing blend of old and new, and lush tropical jungle. Whether you are seeking culture, sports, nightlife or tradition, it is all here and more, in the heart of the beautiful country of Malaysia. Come visit in 2007—it should be an outstanding time to travel and to experience the warmth of the local people and modern, vibrant metropolis of Kuala Lumpur.
Written by Jesse Siglow