A fitting end to the travel odyssey in the capital of Malaysia

Posted: June 22, 2011 in Malaysia
Tags: , , ,

Kuala Lumpur, which means ‘muddy estuary’ in Malay, began life in 1857 when Raja Abdullah opened an area in the Klang Valley for tin prospectors. It has since grown from a tiny tin mining community into the cosmopolitan capital of Malaysia. And as with most countries East of the UK, the British have played a role in that history.

The strong Chinese influence can be traced back to the 1860s when two rival Chinese gangs, who had migrated south to tap into the tin rush,  fought in a bloody civil war. The victorious gang leader, Yap Ah Loy, rebuilt the devastated town and populated it with even more Chinese miners, as well as encouraging Malay farmers to settle in KL to provide for the miners. KL’s oldest temple, Sze Ya, was built in 1864 by Loy and remains the oldest Tao temple in the city today.

In 1880 the British envoy, Sir Frank Swettenham, drew up the first city plan, which pushed KL forwards to become a modern town. Colonial houses sprouted up across the city as people cashed in on the tin trade. As the price of tin rose, so KL expanded. The opening of the railway in 1887 connected KL with the harbour and consolidated its economic strength. KL remained under British colonial influence until 1957 when the Union Jack was lowered and the Malaysian flag raised for the first time. Tunku Abdul Rahman, as first Malaysian PM, declared independence (Merdeka) after 151 years of British rule. KL was chosen as the capital of the independent Federation of Malaya. In 1963 Malaysia was formed, incorporating Malaya, Singapore and North Borneo. Singapore has since sneaked off to become a country in its own right but Malaysia still comprises the Peninsular land and the states of Sarawak and Sabah in North Borneo.

A cultural melange

Modern KL is a cultural melting pot for Asia. Very much like Singapore, it has attracted a cornucopia of Asian settlers, from the Malays to the Orientals and Australasians. The streets are awash with a wonderful variety of skin tones, facial features and languages. Alas my camera memory card has broken so I can’t upload any photos. Just think brown, lots of it.

The Golden Triangle is perhaps the most interesting part of downtown KL. It’s the crossroads for the trading hub of the main cultures in town; the Chinese, Indian and Malay communities. A walk up the main drag of Jalan Bukit Bintang will tease the taste buds; strong aromas of North Indian and Pakistani cuisine waft out from a myriad of eateries. Our pick is Rashid’s Restaurant UK Asia, a place with a buzzing atmosphere, convivial welcome and excellent service. Oh and the food is incredible; the ‘all you can eat’ buffet for MYR25 per person will send your stomach home full and content. On the corner of Changkat you can find the Bangladeshi market. Like its distant cousins in Dhaka, the market is crammed with stalls and eager shopkeepers trying to tempt you into buying things you just don’t need. I walked in with my Bangladesh cricket top on, quite by accident, and soon remembered the quick smile and affable character of the Bengali people. They really are friendly and hospitable and if you show an interest in their country, genuinely delighted. That pride in one’s home nation is nice to see, something we often lack in the UK.

There’s no mistaking the transition into the Chinese quarters. Suddenly the neon beats out from roadside eateries and the smell of MSG fills the air. It’s a constant bustle as the road is full of tables, chairs, people, cars and stalls. The sharp tonal cries of Mandarin can be heard above the street din. As quickly as you enter, it’s over and you emerge at the other end into a street that shows no sign of Chinese influence. It’s very much like a Mr Ben episode, leaving the fancy dress outfit in the changing room.

As you wander north towards the renowned twin Petronas Towers, the energy of the bustling street vendors is replaced by the sanitised polish of shopping mall Mecca. Consumerism is live and well in KL and a pantheon of malls adorns both sides of the road. The most impressive, though also most depressing, is the behemoth Times Square. Arguably the largest mall I have ever seen, it was built by the Berajaya Group and consists of East and West Wings joined by a central hall. Each Wing has 10 floors of shops and stalls and the central hall throws in a few surprises. Bang in the middle towards the rear is Malaysia’s largest indoor theme park. There is a huge rollercoaster than rumbles throughout this area, wrapping itself in an inverse loop around bridged walkways and hurtling out into open spaces that overlook the shopping mall. You can be walking around sniffing out your next consumer indulgence as the carriages of the rollercoaster hurtle overhead. Despite my dislike for the shopping mall experience, I was impressed by the vision and audacity of man’s creativity.

My shopping experience was, however, rather sober. I was hoping to pick up an iPad2 for Muni jani (they are £150 cheaper over here) but there was no stock anywhere in Malaysia. Depsite the huge window posters in the Apple Store, no stock was due for 4 weeks. I asked why there were no signs advertising this and, quelle surprise, there was no answer. Typical Apple marketing machine; build the hype, deliver a small amount, drive the expectation to fever pitch, then flood the market with stock to nail the revenue. Predictable but it works because us humans are tech whores.

A vibrant, proud local music scene

I must admit I arrived in KL rather blaze about what another Asian city could offer. Singapore left me cold and dry; it was the dullest city I have been to and I just couldn’t get myself into its vibe. However, in KL we found something completely different and we loved it.

KL has a vibrant local music scene. Creativity, culture and history mix to produce a healthy choice for the discerning punter. Having failed to plan a night at a jazz club in Singers, we decided to get organised and search out the spirit of jazz before we landed. From our island bolt hole on Tioman, I looked at the options and found some excellent reviews from local press and KL residents on the No Black Tie jazz club. A brief conversation with them on Facebook netted a table for Monday 20th to see a performer called Isaac Entry (no, not Isaac Hunt…).

We rocked up after a much needed siesta and a belly full of food and took our table at 21.00 ready for the 21.30 performance. Now of course this is Malaysia, so 21.30 really means around 22.00, so we had fired down a few generous JDs before Isaac kicked off.  The venue itself is excellent; a small bar area is separated from the live stage by a thick velvet curtain, keeping the noise out. The stage is small with a handful of tables on the ground level and a small balcony above. Capacity is perhaps 60 people max and it was 75% full.

The interior design is smart wooden panelling on the walls with monochrome for the stage. It’s minimalistic so the focus is on the performer. Isaac was good but not exceptional, though he as a wonderful voice. The second half of the show was by far the better with him performing songs from his new album, which had a satirical bite to them. A brass instrument specialist, who joined in with regular solos on sax, bassoon and flute, and a talented mouth organ man accompanied him. For a free show it was a great way to spend an evening and I would recommend anyone coming to KL to book a table at NBT to experience a different side of the nightlife. By the time we got home I was so fuelled on whisky that I left my bro chatting to a cute Danish girl at the hostel as I went and passed out.

The curtain draws..

As a last stop on a 9.5 month journey, KL was a good friend. I am pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the few days we spent here. From daytime walks to soak up the culture and history in Merdeka Square and Chinatown, to nightime jazz performances, it has a lot to offer. Our base at the super friendly Step Inn Guest House made it easy for us to explore the city and come back to calmness when we needed to escape the heat. If you are planning a trip out East and looking for a stopover city, we’d recommend KL above Singapore; it’s much cheaper and much more fun. Of course, that’s a personal take.

And once more into the breach, dear friends. In 1hr we head to the airport to board the Air Asia flight to Stansted. A mere 14hrs of high altitude tedium stands between me and my jani. I’m not sad to be leaving my travels behind; I have had an amazing time and am looking forward to catching up with friends and family and attending to the small matter of organising a wedding and finding somewhere to live. Back to life, back to reality, back to the here and now…..

love jamer & bro

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Comments
  1. Ria Madison says:

    Thank you James and Muneeza for the write ups, its been wonderful following you since you left Botswana. Roger and I are now fully inspired to do the east trip in a year or so, so we looking forward to your future publications/journals for reference.

    Good luck with your up-coming wedding, wish you two all the best,
    Much Love, Madisons – (Botswana)

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