Kuala Lumpur

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Kuala Lumpur (KL) in its totality ' peripheral townships and all ' is a fairly large city, and can seem unwieldy to the unaccustomed eye. Proudly, it is home to an amazing array of cultural and historical vestiges handed down by a colourful past; home to a multitude of tongues, languages, religions, customs and quirks; and home to its three largest communities of Malays, Chinese and Indians, plus a multitude of lesser known tribes.

Malaysia gives you an enticing concoction of the best cuts from the world's most populous countries ' a sort of value-for-money deal to the Internet-age traveler who wants to see, smell, hear, taste and feel it all. And KL is its distillate, a kaleidoscope of architecture and lifestyles, tropical flora and fauna, cymbals, gongs and percussions, and international cuisines. Free your mind and welcome to its magic!

Colonial Core: The Soul of the City

So this is the place where KL had begun. A few square miles of unspectacular landscape which, 130 years ago, had belonged to just one man. Expect to see lots of brick and mortar today ' beautiful monuments crafted from the hands of people who made a difference.

Align yourself to a heavyweight landmark in modern history and you won't get lost. Get to the Supreme Court, or the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, a Moorish-looking, elongated building dressed in salmon colours and which, apart from being the most photographed site, has been courting a lot of international press lately. Its functioning clock tower has witnessed many historical milestones and is a faithful host of important national events, like the annual National Day Parade.

Across the street is the Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, which has evolved from the original cricket green and is now further complemented by a pretty done-up set of water fountain, colonnades and flower beds and an underground food and entertainment offering. You also can't miss the Selangor Club and the St Mary's Cathedral, both unmistakable ornaments of the colonialists? once exclusive lifestyles.

Progressive Islamisation since the 15th Century has bequeathed us some of the greatest mosques this side of Istanbul. Masjid Jamek, the oldest mosque in the country standing just behind the SAS Building, is a fine start.

Chinatown: Bazaars of the Past

The Central Market was a wet market in the older days; it now houses painters, sculptors, fortune-tellers and traders hawking a wide range of curios, collectibles and passable art. Another paradise for connoisseurs of kitsch is to be found in Petaling Street, a 500m tarmac street of century-old shophouses, which, together with the neighbouring blocks of similar offerings, are collectively known as Chinatown. When KL was ruled by one salt-of-the-earth Hakka immigrant, gambling dens, brothels, opium parlours and secret societies flourished. Glimpses of the past can still be had ' if you look hard enough ' in the frantic deal making, the Chinese-ness in the air and the seeming lawlessness of pirate VCD peddlers.

Lake Gardens Area: Serenity amidst Solemnity

The greener side of KL began as a vegetable and tapioca field. The Lake Garden and its vicinity is one of the better-executed public works. It's flagged today by the Parliament House and the commemorative National Monument, the Tun Abdul Razak Memorial, the National Monument and numerous parks ' the Orchid Garden, the Bird Park, the Hibiscus Garden, the Butterfly Park and the Deer Park. Explore further and you would be rewarded amply with the Islamic Art Museum, the National Mosque and aptly, the KL Railway Station at the end of the line. Not just any railway station, this one definitely qualifies as an 'Around the World In 80 Days? filming prop, with a Malaysian twist for treat ' KL's grid of motorcar flyovers has managed to bisect this turn-of-the-century artifact at a convenient overhead entry. See it for yourself.

Golden Triangle & KLCC: Portal of Consumerism

For the city's latest entry for the consumerist race, tell the cabbie to head for one of the shopping establishments. Which one? To err on the side of caution, choose the tallest among them ' still for now the tallest in the region ' the Petronas Twin Towers. However, to appreciate what this gigantic petroleum-funded structure meant for this country's conscience, take a stroll in the KLCC Park and see golden dusky rays bounce off the 452m pleasure dome plastered in silver and glass, and take a moment to reflect.

Certainly there were other shopkeepers and department stores before KLCC. And the most expensive and well stocked of these are scattered around the intersection of Jalan Sultan Ismail and Jalan Bukit Bintang, which lends its name to the latest and most happening café and party strip ' the Bintang Walk.

Ampang: Home of the Millionaires

What happened to the tin barons who got rich from the mineral that made KL? The Kapitan Cina's considerable fortune and power lasted less than three generations, but others were smarter and lived within their means. The Ampang enclave hides a precious loot of private residences where the moneymen once lived and still live. Some of these architectural marvels serve as glimmering veneers of cool and clever enterprises and conceal some of the city's best-kept secrets.

As for the old footpath to the Ampang tin mines, the evolved Jalan Ampang is now lavishly adorned with eateries and merry-making joints of tantalising varieties, seamlessly blending with and into the adjacent necessary instruments of commerce ' the high-rise office blocks, hotels, foreign embassies, and political offices. For an unbeatable view of all these and more, head to the third tallest telecommunications tower in the world, the KL Tower, on Bukit Nanas.

Other Interesting Districts

Kuala Lumpur is just as fascinating for lovers of Indian subjects ' check out Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, a mile-long street running north from SAS Building, and the adjacent Jalan Masjid India.

Bangsar, a district comparable to Holland Village in Singapore and Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong, is a yuppie and expatriate haunt with matching menu prices and snob appeal. Chow, grog, fads, raves and revelries converge within three blocks of double-storey shophouses. Party on!

History of Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur's early history started taking shape when the state of Selangor gained eminence in the 16th century as tin deposits, a material much needed by western colonists to build their empire, was found. This brought the Chinese and the Bugis, Malays from Maccassar, into the state's economics and politics. There they established themselves throughout the 18th century, thus forming the Selangor sultanate.

Kuala Lumpur (KL) itself was not built yet until 1857 when 87 Chinese tin miners ran up the Klang River and set up a village at the river's muddy confluence. This soon gave birth to the city's name ' Kuala Lumpur ' which means 'muddy confluence? in Malay. The spot where it all began is overlooked today by the city's oldest mosque, Masjid Jamek, built back in 1908.

With that came the beginning of the growth of KL into a mining town of gambling dens and brothels, and of the infamous Chinese clans or secret societies. The continuous fighting amongst these tongs worried the headmen so much that they elected a 'Kapitan Cina? (Malay for Chinese captain), a man named Yap Ah Loy, to establish peace and order. This was the very man venerated as the founding father of KL.

Unfortunately KL burned to the ground a few years later and Yap Ah Loy's Chinatown today has lost much of its original shacks and buildings. However, a few shops in Petaling Street still retain an air of the old days of the 40s and 50s, especially eateries, incense shops and medicine shops. Several temples that have stood the test of time here include two Chinese temples (Chan See Shu Yuen and Sze Ya Temple) and the highly ornate Sri Mahamariamman Temple. These religious monuments were built between 1873 and 1906.

Visitors to Chinatown can still feel the essence of those days from antiques and artifacts, which resonate with the arts and cultures from other Malay states, like Kelantan and East Malaysia. You can find these items in shops in the Central Market
and National Museum.

Towards the end of Yap Ah Loy's era, the British stepped into the picture in 1874 when a Resident was brought in to stem the fighting amongst the Malays, Chinese and Bugis. 22 years later, during which time the Malay Federated States were formed to consolidate all the Malay states, the British pulled Selangor into the federation and made KL the capital.

It was the Resident, Frank Swettenham, who chose KL as the administrative centre, and ordered the construction of new buildings in brick. During this time the Sultan Abdul Samad Building and other colonial establishments were built. These include one of the country's oldest Anglican churches, the St Mary's Cathedral, and the Royal Selangor Club, once the main communal centre for the colonial society.

Later on in 1910, the city's oldest railway station, the KL Railway Station was built. Though renovated with air-conditioning and restaurants, it still evokes the colonial ambience with its Moorish and Edwardian architectural style. Seven years later, the Malayan Railway Administration Building was erected in a similar architecture just opposite its predecessor.

KL was to become historically significant again in 1957 when the first Malayan flag was raised on the grounds of the cricket field, known today as Merdeka Square, to mark the independence of the country from British rule. Till this day the colonial buildings still remain: Sultan Abdul Samad Building today houses law courts; the cricket field sometimes has foreign cricketers playing on warm evenings, and underneath it is a shopping mall, Plaza Putra; the Royal Selangor Club is a restaurant now, but you can still order Tiger Beer there.


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