Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia is simply breath-taking in its diversity of people, nature, and infrastructure. The Malay people are very proud of their engineering prowess, and rightly so. A quick scan across the skyline tells you that this is no ordinary world city.
If you are wanting to travel Malaysia and ‘cover’ the country, think again. Unless, of course, you book a few months! Malaysia has a rich and diverse history, encompasses many different facets and cultural influences, and offers a vast array of experiences, so the idea of defining ‘a’ Malaysia would be challenging at best.
You may as well begin with the most obviously spectacular accomplishment of engineering and design in the city, the Petronas Towers, which was until relatively recently the tallest building in the world. Clad in stainless steel and glass, adorned with intricate cultural designs, the feats of engineering that went into building these towers are many, including the most sustained concrete pour in Malaysian history, lasting fifty-four hours, non-stop! The project employed thousands of Malaysians, with the left tower being built by a Japanese contractor and a Korean company leading the team for the right tower. If you’re wondering, the Koreans started later, finished first, and even built the Skybridge, but the towers are of equal quality. Even if you just pass by and gaze into the heavens, these towers are well-worth the time. If you can, book a visit to the Skybridge and marvel at the capital city from on-high.
Cultural diversity is everywhere, and this is evident in the city’s architecture. Many modern cities have adopted regulations whereby buildings have to be ‘in-keeping’ with all the rest, and the result is blocks of same-same, but not in Kuala Lumpur. If a design or theme has already been used, architects need to find another one! The array of beautifully designed structures looks like the finalists in a high-end art contest. One stunning example is the 38-storey Lembaga Tabung Haji building in Jalan Tun Razak, which is designed as a Malay drum turned on its end. There are many, many more, and it is well-worth talking the time to snap a few of these up-close.
Federal Territory of Putrajaya
Putrajaya, or the Federal Territory of Putrajaya (its proper name), is a short half-hour train ride from Kuala Lumpur and where you will see an intense display of beautiful architecture. This really does reflect the ethos of Malaysia. Basically, the intense development of Kuala Lumpur saw the Malaysian federal government move to Putrajaya, creating an administrative and judicial capital. By 2012, all governmental ministries had relocated to Putrajaya and the result is truly spectacular.
A ceremoniously wide and straight road carves a track between the government buildings and ends at the foot of the main hill in Putrajaya. Atop the hill, is the glorious Perdana Putra building, which houses the Prime Minister’s office. Once again, the Malay penchant for design and engineering is obvious, with every building created to reflect its precise function and cultural ties. As to the surrounding neighbourhoods, a rule was put in place allowing only ‘soft walls’, so no block fences are permitted, only hedges and trees. The reason? Encouraging kids to come out outside and the adults will duly follow, which fosters the building of community and relationships.
For a spot of shopping, the Pavilion shopping centre is in the Bukit Bintang district, fondly known as the shopping and entertainment district of Kuala Lumpur. To be honest, ‘spot’ of shopping is a gross understatement: Pavilion boasts over 700 shops and restaurants, with closing time at 10:00pm every day. There are seven levels, plus the ‘beauty hall’ across the top, and there really is not much you cannot find, from sporting goods to bonsai trees.
In fact, you could spend the entire day there and still not cover it all. Easily accessible with a swath of public transport nearby, it is worth just standing on the ground floor and gazing up at what really looks like a mini city. Outside Pavilion is a spectacular water fountain called the Grand Bloom of Fulfilment, which underscores Malaysia’s diversity. Three bowls, and the water flowing between them, symbolise Malaysia’s multiracial culture and the coming together of Malay, Indian, and Chinese peoples. The popularity and significance of this fountain is obvious, highlighted by the people continually gathering beside with reverential expressions.
The ingenuities that went into building Malaysia as the country it is, today, are reflected everywhere. Tin mining is responsible for much of the early economy, and from tin, pewter was made. It is probably understandable that, for most people, the suggestion of visiting a pewter factory would not set their world on fire. However, do not be deceived, as the Royal Selangor pewter factory is undeniably one of Kuala Lumpur’s hidden gems and not to be missed. When you visit the factory, you are treated to the history of tin mining in Malaysia, and how this shaped the making of a great country, with one family playing a significant role. In 1885, a young Pewtersmythe named Yong Koon arrived in Malaysia from the Chinese port of Shantou.
His son, Yong Peng Kai, took over from him and retired in 1980, with the operation now being run by the fourth generation. The pewter factory has been in operation since the 1970s, with at least 40 per cent of staff having disabilities. Outside the entrance stands the world’s largest tankard. Just under two metres high and weighing over a tonne-and-a-half, it was made in 1985 to commemorate their centenary. Then, you will immediately notice clusters of hand imprints adoring the walls. After five years’ service, employees get to put a pewter handprint on the wall, and there are so many of these around the building in different fashions and colours, with a gold print signifying 40 years of employment.
A Top city to explore
Kuala Lumpur is a big city, but rest assured there are easy ways to navigate this and get a real sense of history. Malaysia takes heritage walks very seriously, and these have been expertly curated. There are many examples, and a quick internet search will tell you all you need to know. In Kuala Lumpur, there are numerous guides available, and their experience is invaluable, or you can tackle these walks yourself. A string of signs and QR codes mark the way, offering rich insights into the history of the city. One of these must-do walks takes you past the River of Life, a seven-year project of the Malaysian Government to transform ten kilometres of the Klang River into a vibrant and liveable waterfront.
The history of this river is one thing, but what has been done to revitalise it is another, especially when the ’mist’ jets are turned on and you get the lit-up night view. Nearby, you will also witness some of what may be the most spectacular street art, which adorns entire sides of some buildings. Kuala Lumpur may be a progressive world city, but this has not happened at the expense of its history and culture.
From many vantage points, you will see beautifully preserved traditional buildings, such as mosques, backdropped with the best of Malaysian engineering and design. This is all rather symbolic, as the old and new coalesce serenely, like the coming together of cultures in the country, itself.
Culturally Rich Heritage Walks
The heritage walks will take you past all manner of food outlets and these are well worth trying. Malaysian cuisine is, as one would expect, diverse. In general, the food is like a holiday for your taste buds all on its own. The choices between the Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences are vast, and with some dishes, all are present. Like the country itself, you would find it difficult to cover all the cuisine and its influences in one trip (but it is certainly worth trying). To get a taste of some delicious Chinese cuisine, mixed with many local influences, head to Lot 10 Hutong Food Court in the heart of the city.
You will notice that this is always frequented by locals, which is a sure-fire way to know that it has good food! The only issue you will face is what to have, as there are so, so many great choices. It will take you far longer to decide what to eat than it will to eat it, but the sumptuous Penang Fired Chee Cheong Fun coupled with the Chilli Crab should give you a good start.
An array of Markets and Bazaars
There are so many markets and bazaars in Kuala Lumpur, where you can get all the touristy goodies you desire and pick up some beautiful examples of Malaysian crafts. A quick internet search will bring up a seriously good selection, although the Central Market would be a good starting-point. This is not the biggest market, which is ideal, as some of these can be overwhelming in size and number of people for the first timers. Central Market is quite manageable, has an excellent range of sellers, is situated in a lovely heritage building, and you will find it between China Town and the Colonial District. A short walk from there is Jalan Petaling, which is a market street in Chinatown.
This underwent a facelift in 2003, is now regarded as a heritage site, and boasts a host of good eats and market stalls. After visiting Jalan Petaling, enjoy a stroll through Chinatown and take in the architecture, along with some ancestorial temples. You will feel like you are in another world amongst streets adorned with lanterns and breath-taking, intricate art. All the culture is guaranteed to make you hungry, and about three minutes’ walk from Jalan Petaling is the Old China Café. The building, itself, is worth a visit. The cafe is beautifully furnished with antique décor and an ample helping of fascinating history. The food will impress as you enjoy mouth-watering, traditional Malay & Chinese dishes. This is certainly one place you could return to again and again.
The Magnificent Batu Caves
Malaysia is the only Asian country with inland caves, and inside one of these is the most breath-taking experiences you may ever have: the Batu Caves, which are located just 13 km north of Kuala Lumpur in Gombak, Selangor. The name of the caves was taken from the Malay word for ‘rock’. K. Thamboosamy Pillay, a leader of the Tamil Hindu community in Malaya (as the region was then called), built a temple within the caves in 1891. Allegedly, he saw similarity in shape of the cave entrance to the tip of the spear traditionally wielded by the deity Murugan. Thus, an impressive and colossal gold-painted statue of Murugan.
The statue is made from reinforced concrete and stands at just under 43 metres high, right at the foot of the 272 concrete steps that lead you to the caves. On your journey up, you are likely to meet some very friendly monkeys who will sit and gaze at you inquisitively.
Batu Caves are free to enter and an absolute must-see. The Hindu history, including the creation of the world with Lord Shiva’s Ecstatic Dance, has been so beautifully portrayed that you cannot help but be awestruck at the intricate detail and care that went into this temple. Batu Caves is one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India, and one of four in Malaysia. It is a pilgrimage site for Hindus worldwide.
A change of scene at Sunway Lagoon Park
For change of pace and some tourist indulgence, the Sunway Lagoon Park is a great way to spend a few hours and it is about 30-40 minutes from central Kuala Lumpur. Sunway is an old mining town, named after Sunway in South Africa. At the Lagoon Park, you get what they call the Best Day Ever experience and have a choice of around 90 rides and attractions. There are six Nickelodeon-themed zones: the Amusement Park, Scream Park, Water Park, Nickelodeon Lost Lagoon, Wildlife Park, and Extreme Park. In the wildlife park, there are over 150 species of animals, many of which you can get up-close and personal with, including the very friendly and colourful birds.
There are also some you probably want to keep your distance from, such as the white tigers, Samson and Asha, or the white lions Zola & Zuri. You can marvel at sun bears, panthers, and more, with feed kits available for some of the more sedate friends. On the amusements side, enjoy a roller coaster, the classic pirate ship – the one that turns you upside down – and many others. The water park is seriously stunning and must be one of world’s best: slides, beeches, a bungy jump, and on it goes. A perfect way to cool off in the Malaysian heat. You can even rent a shelter beside the water in which to spread out and cool off. However, the stand-out experience must be Sunway’s new Camp Out! experience. Basically, this is glamping in a theme park overnight. There are only 14 tents available, fully air conditioned, with all amenities nearby, including a pizza shop! Easy to book, just search Sunway on the internet, and each package comes with a BBQ dinner and breakfast. It would be a struggle to imagine any kid (or kid-at-heart) who would think that this is a bad idea.