Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

As I stood on the sidewalk outside my hostel, I looked to my left to see if there was any traffic. “All clear,” I thought as I proceeded to cross the street. I had only taken one step when I was met with the beep-beep of a small car. I turned to my right and saw the stream of cars heading directly for me. I immediately stepped back onto the sidewalk. “Oh, that’s right,” I thought to myself. “They drive on the other side of the road in KL.”

KL– that’s how the locals refer to Kuala Lumpur– is the capital of Malaysia and one of the most modern cities in Southeast Asia. Malaysia was once a British colony which explains the English style of driving and why most of the locals speak English in addition to their native tongue, Malay. It was also the British who constructed several of the historic buildings that were first on my site-seeing list– Sultan Abdul Samad Building and Masjid Jamek– but first I wanted to grab a bite to eat.

Across the street was a small but busy restaurant. I asked my waiter what a typical Malay would have for breakfast. He suggested an Indian bread called Roti Canai served with a curry dipping sauce and a chocolate drink called Milo Ice.

Indians make up 12% of Malaysia’s population and were brought here by the British to serve as laborers. If for no other reason, Malaysia should be thankful for these immigrants solely for the invention of Roti Canai! The bread is created by tossing the dough in the air much like pizza dough. Once the dough is paper thin it is pan fried on a large grill and continuously folded over on itself eventually forming a multilayered triangle.

Dipping this thin, soft, delicate bread into the sweet curry sauce made for an unbelievably tasty breakfast. The Milo Ice was basically hot cocoa poured over ice to make it a refreshing treat in Malaysia’s tropical heat and humidity. The total for my breakfast was under US$3.

Now that my belly was full, I was ready for my walking adventure. Luckily, my hostel (Pudu Hostel, US$12/day) was located in a central location (directly across from the Plaza Rakyat and the Puduraya Bus & Taxi Station) and everything I wanted to see was within walking distance. Above me passed the Star Line of the elevated Light Rail Train. If you don’t feel like walking, the train is an excellent option since it’s above ground and you can site-see along the way (unlike underground subways).

I decided to walk along the same route as the Star Line in a westerly direction. I immediately noticed a very tall tower north of me which was called the Menara Kuala Lumpur. It is the fifth largest communications tower in the world and I remembered from my guide book that there is an observation deck at the top. “What better way to start my day than a bird’s -eye view of the city,” I thought. Having forgotten my guide book with map, I took the next northerly street and simply walked in the direction of the tower. Luckily this street led directly to the tower.

Within 20 minutes I arrived at Menara Kuala Lumpur which is located at the top of a hill. After climbing the hill, I reached the entrance and took an elevator to the top. I was amazed at the panoramic view offered from this great height. I had a perfect view of the Petronas Twin Towers and they seemed so close I could reach out and touch them. These are two of the most handsome skyscrapers I have ever seen and formerly hold the record for the world’s tallest buildings. I would visit them later in the evening.

After taking in the great view, I took the elevator back down to the ground floor. I heard an announcement about a Malay cultural presentation that was about to take place so I headed towards the theater. Several dancers in traditional dress demonstrated Malay dance. It was quite beautiful to watch and reminded me of Indian dance.

The dancers invited members of the audience to join them and two Australian guys accepted. While going to the stage one of the guys tried to invite two young Muslim Malay ladies to join them. The two ladies, visibly embarrassed and surprised, rebuffed all attempts to bring them on stage. They eventually agreed but kept their distance from the Australians. I then remembered that Malay Muslims are governed by the Muslim law of “khalwat” (close proximity) which limits how close unmarried women can come to men. This would be my first but not my last encounter with the realities of being in a Muslim country.

As I left Menara Kuala Lumpur and headed towards my original destination, I had to avoid several large, aggressive monkeys scavenging outside on the well-manicured grounds. I watched as they snatched a little girl’s food from her hands and ran off with it. It was quite surprising to see monkeys in the middle of a large metropolis but they would not be the last ones I’d see.

Now that my unplanned diversion to Menara tower was complete, I headed down Jalan Pudu towards my original destination– the Masjid Jamek, a beautiful Moorish style Mosque built by the British. On my way I passed a young man wearing an Osama bin Laden t-shirt. This was another reminder that I was in a conservative Muslim country and I should stay aware of my surroundings. (In fact, it was in a town outside of KL where the September 11th plotters met to discuss their plans for the terrorist attack against New York’s Twin Towers.)

Further down this street a group of Muslim men passing by in a car shouted at me. Though I don’t know what they were saying since I don’t speak Malay, from their tone of voice and facial expressions I doubt it was “God Bless America” or “Welcome to Malaysia!” Again, this further reminded me that my status as an American was not particularly a good thing in this country and I should keep my wits about me. But I was determined not to let any of this spoil my adventure!

I finally arrived at the Masjid Jamek and was quite impressed. Architecturally it was a magnificent building. Its brown brick structure interrupted by bold white lines in a fanciful British interpretation of Moorish architecture. The grounds were well manicured with lots of lush tropical plants including palm trees. Many men were lounging around on the ground outside the mosque perhaps having just finished praying inside.

The mosque was surrounded on two sides by separate rivers, the Sungai Kelang and the Sungai Gombak. Ahead of me the rivers appeared to merge into one. I walked towards a bridge that crossed the single merged river (Sungai Kelang). Upon reaching it I had another spectacular view of the mosque. From here it was clear the mosque had been built right at the point where the one river split in two. It made for quite a beautiful location.

In fact, this is the exact location where the city of Kuala Lumpur was founded in the 1850s by Chinese laborers in search of new tin mines. The word “kuala” means river-mouth or confluence and the word ”lumpur” means muddy thus Kuala Lumpur is the “muddy confluence” of these two rivers.

I next walked to Merdeka Square which was only a block away. Across from the square was the next item on my list: the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. A stately historic building rich in character, it was built in 1897 to house several important government departments during the British administration. This Moorish-inspired building, topped by a shiny copper dome and a 40m high clock tower, is a major landmark in the city. It serves as the backdrop for important events when it is decorated in white lights. This makes for an amazing sight! (I would get to view this spectacle a few nights later.) This heritage building is now occupied by the Supreme Court and the Textile Museum.

Merdeka Square is itself a site to see. It is an immaculately-turfed 8.2 hectare area of historical interest. A 100 meter-high flagpole marks the spot where the Malayan Flag was hoisted on August 31, 1957 signifying the independence of the country from British rule. Interestingly, the flag is modeled after the American flag with 13 red and white stripes and a rectangular field of blue in the upper left corner. But instead of 50 white stars in this field of blue like the American flag, the Malayan flag has a crescent moon and star representing its status as a Muslim nation.

At the opposite end of the square is an inviting spot where visitors can relax amid soothing rushing waters of fountains, elegant colonnades and colorful beds of zinnias and marigolds. I sat down and since I didn’t have my guide book with me, I wasn’t quite sure which direction to head next.

It is here where a local Indian man, noticing the lost look on my face, gave me a map and drew walking directions (including estimated walking times!) to other items of interest. He was the first, though not the last, Indian who would go out of their way to be friendly to me. He encouraged me to visit Little India just north of this location which I promised I would do. I also asked him about directions to a Hindu shrine outside KL called Batu Caves and he explained it was just north of KL and I could take a train or bus there. (I would visit a few days later.) His help probably saved me countless hours of walking in circles so I handed him US$20 and thanked him.

After resting in the shade near the fountains, I headed north towards Little India. Once there I found a beautiful Hindu temple. Its pyramid-shaped tower was filled with hundreds of brightly colored statues, human figures and animals. After walking around Little India for awhile I consulted my new map and decided to return to Merdeka Square and then head towards the KL Lake Gardens.

After a short ten minute walk down Jalan Parlimen I arrived at the ASEAN Sculpture Garden which is located in the Kuala Lumpur Lake Gardens. The KL Lake Gardens is KL’s most popular park. It showcases harmony, beauty and tranquility created by both man and nature. Built around two lakes, the sprawling 91.6 hectares tropical garden is a pleasant oasis within the city providing a cool and soothing ambience as one walks through a vista of exotic blooms, luxuriant foliage, imposing sculptures, creative theme parks and majestic-looking raintrees.

The ASEAN Sculpture Garden is just one attraction located here. Waterscape and landscape is combined harmoniously in this sculpture garden. It has a collection of prize-winning sculptures by some of the finest artists in the ASEAN region. It is located just below the National Monument which is my next stop.

The National Monument houses one of the largest freestanding sculptures in the world. Designed by the famous sculptor, Felix de Weldon, this 15.54m high bronze monument was constructed in 1966 to honor the country’s fallen heroes during the Communist insurgency.

My next stop in the KL Lake Gardens was the Butterfly Park. More than 15,000 plants have been used to create the tropical rain forest setting of this park. It houses over 6,000 butterflies. There is a nursery and breeding area for butterflies. There is also a very disgusting (or interesting, depending on your persuasion) tropical bug collection located here.

Following the Butterfly Park I continued to the Hibiscus Garden. Hibiscus, the ‘Queen of Tropical Flowers,’ thrives in glorious shades in this garden where over 500 varieties are grown. Among them is the rosa sinensis, Malaysia’s national flower.

I next continued onto the Orchid Garden. Here one can walk under pergolas, delighting in the exotic blooms of orchids or stroll through orchid-lined walkways! You can even buy a plant specimen as a memento of your visit to KL! Over 800 varieties of orchids, including the exotic species, thrive abundantly on this 1 hectare floral paradise. Cut flowers and plants are sold on weekends. Orchid growers at the garden provide practical tips and advice on the art of orchid growing.

My next stop was my favorite: the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park. One of the largest bird parks in the region the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park houses over 5 ,000 birds, with 90% local and 10% imported from overseas. The park spans 2-8 hectares of enclosure, 3.2 hectares of free flight aviary and 0.5 hectare devoted to the hornbill.

After visiting the Bird Park I stopped for lunch at a snack bar. Here I enjoyed another Malaysian specialty: satay. It generally consists of chunks or slices of meat on bamboo skewers grilled over a wood or charcoal fire. Turmeric is often used to marinate satay and gives it a characteristic yellow color. I ordered three kebabs of beef and three of chicken. It was served with a spicy peanut sauce dip, slivers of onions and cucumbers. The meat had such an incredibly great flavor I never tried the peanut sauce dip. This was by far one of the best tasting dishes I’ve ever eaten! With a good breakfast and now a good lunch, I was very impressed with Malaysian cuisine.

As I prepared to leave I witnessed a very unbelievable sight. A group of Muslim girls, completely covered from head to toe in their veils, were jogging in Malaysia’s 95F heat and 90% humidity. “Now that’s something you don’t see every day,” I thought to myself.

I was now ready to continue my stroll through the Kuala Lumpur Lake Gardens. I next visited the Deer Park. Roaming in idyllic bliss amid ponds, trees and dense vegetation, are spotted deer from Holland. You may also see the elusive Kancil, the mouse deer from Malaysia’s rain forest.

Next I took the short walk to the Planetarium Negara. On the way I ran into another troop of marauding monkeys wreaking havoc on the parks trash cans in their pursuit of food. As cute as monkeys may seem in the zoo, they aren’t quite so cute when there’s no cage between them and you and they snarl as you pass.

I arrived at the planetarium safely, though. This blue-domed structure is situated atop a hill in KL Lake Gardens. Its attractions include the space theatre which screens space shows and movies. In the main hall are permanent exhibits related to space science. Among them is Arianne IV space engine – one of the engines used to launch MEASAT 1, Malaysia’s first satellite into space. The planetarium extends to a space-themed park where replicas of ancient observatories are sited including a replica of Stone Henge. The planetarium is connected by an overhead pedestrian bridge to the National Museum.

At this point I met up with a local Malayan friend and we visited the National Museum together. Located on the fringe of the Kuala Lumpur Lake Gardens, the National Museum serves as the principal museum in the country . The design of this palatial building is based on the classical Malay architecture. The various galleries in the Museum provide interesting insights into the history, political development, culture, economy, arts, and flora and fauna of the country. Located on the museum’s grounds are static displays including old locomotives, vintage cars and a replica of an ancient Malay palace.

After finishing the National Museum my friend invited me to ride the pedal boats on one of the lakes located in the park. This was a nice break from all of the walking I’d done throughout the day.

After our jaunt around the lake, we decided to continue the walking tour by heading back towards my hostel near Plaza Rakyat. On the way we passed by the KL Railway Station. Built in 1910, the station is yet another heritage building that reflects the influence of Moorish architecture. It was extensively renovated in 1986 to provide air-conditioned comfort and modern facilities for rail passengers. From this station, passengers can travel to most cities and towns on Peninsular Malaysia’s west coast and to Tumpat on the east coast. There are also train services to Singapore and Thailand. (While here we checked on tickets to Thailand but since our intended travel date was on a national holiday, the tickets were all sold out. We were forced to take a bus and then an over-packed minivan from KL to Bangkok. Thus you should always book your train tickets well in advance! Read about my Thailand adventure.)

Next we continued walking until we arrived at the Central Market. Once a busy ‘wet market’ the many shops now housed in this heritage building enchanted us with their offerings such as antique clocks, jewelry, gems, woodcarvings, batik and pewter-ware. Those with an eye for the unusual will enjoy buying or browsing through the market’s extensive range of novelty items such as jade trees and blown glass souvenirs. We also saw portrait artists, glass blowers in action, and batik painters transforming a white material into vivid colors.

While walking around with my female Malay friend I experienced more of the dark side of Malaysia. From the glares and stares that we received, it was obvious that her fellow Muslims did not approve of her walking around with a westerner. (It also didn’t help that she was not wearing the hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women. ) Like many Muslim countries, Malaysia has laws restricting the association of unmarried Muslim ladies with non-Muslim men. Instead of seeing a Muslim woman sharing her culture with a foreigner, it seems these people could not see past my western appearance. Again, I was reminded that I was very far from home.

After walking around awhile we decided to simply relax at one of the many restaurants here and sample local food. We chose a nice traditional Malay restaurant on the second floor of the complex and my friend showed me how to eat like a Malay: with my hands. Well, to be precise Malays only eat with their right hand. Trying to eat rice and a sauce-covered meat with my hands was too strange a sensation for me– imagine eating spaghetti with meat sauce with your hands– so I retreated to my fork.

I wish I could remember exactly what I ate that evening because it was quite good. After dinner my friend washed up and we decided to head outside to the pedestrian mall next to Central Market and then to Chinatown on the way back to my hostel.

Petaling Street (known as KL’s Chinatown ) is endowed with a distinct character of its own. This colorful street of shops, restaurants and hawker stalls bustles with vitality. Flanking both sides of this street are shops selling anything from textiles to Chinese herbal medicines. There are also a number of restaurants serving authentic regional Chinese cuisine.

The Chinese make up approximately 30% of Malaysia’s population. They also control a large percentage of the businesses in the country. Yet political control of the country is held by the majority Malays. This allows the Malays to pass laws requiring Chinese business men to have Malay business partners. Government scholarships are also limited to Malays. Thus this discrimination has created much social instability in the country. This instability gave way to massive race riots in the 1960’s which resulted in the Chinese breaking away from Malaysia and forming their own country of Singapore . Once a state of Malaysia, Singapore is now 90% Chinese and one of the largest economies in Southeast Asia. (Read about my visit to Singapore.)

On the edge of Chinatown we came across an old movie theater, the Rex Theater, and decided to take in a flick. Once again, I was confronted with the reality of life in a Muslim country. The Malaysian government censors all motion pictures. Any scenes that go against Muslim teachings (such as romantic scenes, violent scenes, etc) are cut from the film regardless of how it affects the movie. The cuts are very obvious and quite annoying. I learned from my friend that most Malaysians just buy VCDs (Video CDs- like a DVD but cheaper with lower image quality) of the uncut version and watch it at home. Chinatown was filled with vendors selling VCDs of movies including ones currently playing in the theaters! (Sometimes movies arrive in Chinatown long before they arrive in the theater!) The quality was low but the movies were uncut and thus there was quite a market for them.

Kuala Lumpur City Center at nightIt was now getting late and there was still one more item on my must-see list: the Petronas Twin Towers. Yet they were a bit too far to walk thus we decided to take the Putra line of the Lite Rail Transit. Currently the world’s tallest two freestanding towers, the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers soar to a dizzying height of 452m above the city skyline. This gleaming architectural delight inspired by the Five Pillars of Islam is the centerpiece of the ultra-modern Kuala Lumpur City Center. Situated within the towers is the Petronas Philharmonic Hall, home of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and the Petronas Performing Arts Group.

There is also a massive shopping mall on the lower levels of the complex. We walked around the mall for awhile but it’s basically like any mall anywhere else on the planet. Again we got the relentless stares and glares of her fellow Muslims. By now I had had enough of the racism of the Malay people. The Chinese and Indians seemed quite nice but the Muslim Malays seemed ignorant and backwards. Here I was in one of the modern marvels of the 21st century yet surrounded by people holding racist beliefs from the 19th century.

My friend realized I was getting irritated with the constant evil looks thus she took me outside to see the water fountain show. This computer -controlled spectacular is simply amazing. The water fountains dance in time to a musical score and create an amazing visual effect. It seemed like something straight out of Walt Disney World or Las Vegas. It was truly a mesmerizing way to end the night.

My night was now coming to an end. I had spent an entire day walking around Kuala Lumpur and I had still only seen a small part of the city. The city has the most diverse architecture I’ve ever seen in one city. Within a few city blocks you can see modern skyscrapers next to traditional Malay architecture, Moorish-style mosques, British colonial buildings, Chinese architecture and Indian temples.

The city has a lot of charm not to mention amazing food and beautiful parks. I would definitely recommend a visit. Some of the backwards attitudes are quite surprising for such a modern, cosmopolitan city but racism exists in every country. Overall, Kuala Lumpur is an amazing destination– just remember to look both ways when crossing the street.

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