Kuala Lumpur is like no place I’ve visited before. It is a place of fast paced change, a city of skyscrapers and sprawling shopping malls, but it is also a place of tradition, with its blend of Malay and colonial architecture framing its outlying areas. Quite wonderfully, it is a city where three religions blend amongst each other, creating not tension but diversity and melting pot of fusion food, architecture and art. Either by accident or design Kuala Lumpur is known as Asia’s green capital, with its wide open spaces where monkeys roam alongside skyscrapers and lizards slither across highways. It is this meeting of cultures, of the modern world, its history and its geography that make wonderful place to spend a holiday.
After stepping off a 12 hour flight, reassuringly the airport is a doddle to navigate, with yellow signs leading you to immigration. We boarded the airport train which whizzed us to the correct terminal, collected our bags and met our transfer driver. There are a few things you don’t need to hear when you’re travelling into a new, foreign country, one of which is that you’ll basically be staying in a dive… When we were picked up from the airport by our very amicable driver Sam, he was more than a little quizzical about the fact that we weren’t going to one of the five star hotels “Masid Jamek, hmmm, very Indian area, biggest mosques are there too, not many tourists.” We persisted saying the booking was made by our travel agent and that it didn’t matter too much as we really just wanted to explore the city. Sam continued, “I’ve never been there, if you do transfer let us know.”
Still, not to be deterred, we asked about the top places to visit and any considerations we should make. He mentioned the botanical gardens, the Petronas Towers and Kuala Lumpur’s own ‘Times Square’ he also told us about the city’s great safety record “Malaysians like to work so there are no beggars…except in your area…”. The hotel itself wasn’t actually bad at all, but I did long for the Shangri La when I spied it from the viewing deck of the KL Tower. You can really eat and stay like a king in Kuala Lumpur for hardly any money, so if you are visiting the city for more than a few nights, it is worth upgrading, not least for the cool embrace of a swimming pool after a day in the humid streets.
Whilst we waited for our room to become available, we embarked upon a journey into the technological centre of the city, KLCC. Using the Petronas a Towers as our way point, we were able to find the shopping centre. Still feeling somewhat jaded after the long haul, we decided to spend some time in the cooler realms of the underground aquarium. Whilst this is more of a family attraction, the diversity of species, many of which originate from the Malay Archipelago, make for an exceptional display. As does the 90 metre underwater tunnel which gives unparalleled views of sharks, sting rays and beautiful turtles. It’s a gentle way to ease yourself into the inevitable jetlag.
After that we headed back to our hotel for a refresh before attending what was to be a real shock to the senses. My partner and I have a knack for being in the right place at the right time and it was no exception with the festival we stumbled upon. Already knowing we wanted to visit the shrines in the Batu Caves, we found out that during that day the Tamil population of Kuala Lumpur would be celebrating Thaipusam, a festival dedicated to Lord Murugan, the God of war. Worshippers process from Little India to make their offerings, burdening themselves with Kavadi (large decorative contraptions worn on the body) and piercings through the mouth and back – pleading with Murugan to help them with their journey. Others making offerings, all dressed in yellow, processed up the 272 steps to the caves carrying milk as an offering. The scale, noise and spectacle of the festival was intense and almost primal, and it carried us along for the ride.
Feeling a sense of achievement at reaching the top of the stairs, we were able to visit the myriad of shrines and devotional spaces, each for a different god, before we began our descent back to the earth. As we left the procession showed no signs of slowing and it seemed it would continue long into the night.
After such an intense cultural experience we both felt that is was time to understand more of the city’s rich history. Surprisingly given the scale of what we witnessed the night before, the population of Hindus in the city is only 10%, the majority of citizens being Islamic. With that in mind, we visited the stunning Islamic Arts Museum. Located in the grounds of the sprawling Perdana Botanical Gardens, it gives a rich history of the religion and its place in Malaysian history. Perhaps its most spectacular exhibit was a display of intricate models of the world’s most famous mosques. It was a fascinating insight into the development of the architectural styles across continents and a remarkable display of craftsmanship in itself.
The afternoon took us to the other attractions of the botanical gardens, a sprawling green space which seems a world away from the intense metropolis, but one which sits so snugly against the busy streets and construction work. As you stroll through the gardens the calls of the sicadas replace the honks of horns and hums of engines and the fauna begins to gently emerge. We are able to spot monkeys, lizards and enjoy a drink in the company of the Rhinoceros Hornbill – Malaysia’s national bird. The gardens have lots of attractions, including the stunning orchid and hibiscus garden which is a wonderful opportunity to see the diversity and intense colours of these delicate blooms. Another beauty spot is a lovely bandstand, seemingly floating above the lake in the centre of the park. If your legs are beginning to fail you the hop on – hop off bus can take you through all the sights – trust me, you’ll be grateful for some wind blowing rough your hair in this humid climate.
Kuala Lumpur is known as a shopper’s paradise, so if you want to indulge in some retail therapy you can’t go far wrong. Nu Sentral is a lovely mall filled with a great mix of stores and eateries, and rather blissfully is also completely air conditioned. Another spot to visit is the KLCC shopping centre, which sits under the remarkable Petronas Towers. Make your visit here in the evening so you miss some of the crowds and get to see the Towers in their illuminated glory. They are superb example of a blend of the Western capitalist sky scraper and the Malay ornamentation – that melting pot of styles evident once more – time has not dampened their appeal. If you want a more western experience of the city, head to Bukit Butang, the Malaysian Times Square. There’s a wealth of shopping outlets to browse but the jewel in the crown is the wonderful Lot 10. This culinary hotspot has brought together the best hawker stalls from all over the city into a clean, security guarded and air conditioned hall. You can sample some incredible dishes, from light as a feather steamed pork buns, glazed duck and Bak Kut Teh, the Malaysian dish of spare rib soup. It’s a fantastic place to enjoy authentic food but without the worries of eating straight from the street stall.
How can one sum up a place of such opposites, a place where East and West converge upon a land of skyscrapers and creeping vines? I guess you can say you visit Kuala Lumpur to have your opinions of Asia and of capital cities themselves challenged. You visit to see how many different cultures have collided, but have made something characterful and cooperative instead of strained. It’s a city that bears the marks of all of its incarnations – the Malaysian rainforest, the Muslim architecture, the colonial impact and now the influx of Western wealth, a city which always has one eye on the future and one on the past. Whether you visit as a part of exploring the country itself, or just to experience the vibrancy of the city, it will be a trip you will never forget.
Photos Copyright Katie Thomson