Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur is essentially a modern city where soaring skyscrapers overshadow quaint ethnic enclaves, flamboyant colonial buildings and lush jungle dens.

Kuala Lumpur [muddy confluence] is a relatively young city, which has developed beyond recognition during the past few decades from a humble trading post for the expanding tin industry into the capital of the country.

In the 1840s, tin mines were founded about 16 km north from present-day Kuala Lumpur, which was at the time a small hamlet of just a few houses and shops serving as a hub for the mines. The settlement was established as a town in 1857, when Rajah Abdullah, Chief of Selangor state, raised funds from Malaccan Chinese businessmen to develop the tin industry in the region. Despite the high death toll due to the malarial conditions of the jungle, the mines were successful and the town experienced rapid growth with its associated problems. The Chinese miners formed gangs among themselves and fights between different gangs became frequent. In 1858, Rajah Abdullah instituted the office of Kapitan China, or headman of the Chinese community as a way of imposing order on the gangs. The most famous Kapitan was Yap Ah Loy. In 1869, he found himself at the center of a bloody civil war between different Chinese groups and local Malays. Finally, a mayor victory led by him in 1873, along with the arrival of the first British residents in 1874, put an end to the fighting. Yap Ah Loy is considered the founding father of modern Kuala Lumpur.

The real development boom began when the British took control of the city in the 1880s. A multiracial population of Malay, Chinese and Indian origin began to settle here in larger numbers, congregating in ethnic districts that remain even today – Malay-dominated Kampung Baru, Chinatown and Little India. In 1896, Kuala Lumpur was made the capital of the newly formed Federal Malay State. In 1957, the country’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, declared Malaysia’s independence at Kuala Lumpur’s Stadium Merdeka.

Malaysian capital’s dramatic urban sprawl in recent decades has swallowed up large areas of the surrounding rain forest, forcing out most of its wildlife. However, the long-tailed macaques have remained, tempted by the easy sources of food provided by the human population; making the relationship between the human residents and the monkey population increasingly complex. So beware of the rascal monkey gangs around the city.

Petronas Towers

The Petronas Towers, the tallest twin buildings in the world, dominate the skyline in the business district of Kuala Lumpur’s city center. They are an iconic symbol of the soaring ambitions of the city. Designed by the Argentinian architect César Pelli as the headquarters of the national oil and gas company Petronas, they were completed in 1998. The overall architecture of the towers, made of heat-reflecting stainless steel and laminated glass, reflects Islamic influences. To begin with, the towers resemble a pair of minarets. Their floor plan is based on an eight-sided star, calling to mind arabesque patterns. Islamic influences are also apparent in each tower’s five tiers, representing the five pillars of Islam. The Skybridge, linking the towers at the 41st floor, and the Observation Deck on the 86th offers an excellent bird’s-eye view of the city. Whereas, the Kuala Lumpur City Center Park is the perfect vantage point to take in the Petronas Towers.

Dataran Merdeka

Located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s colonial district, Dataran Merdeka [Independence Square] is a vast rectangular grassy square, where Malaysian independence was declared in 1957. In the British colonial time, the square hosted cricket matches and parades. The square is surrounded by heritage buildings bearing British and Islamic influences including the mock-Tudor Royal Selangor Club and the Mughal-style Sultan Abdul Samad Building.

The flamboyant Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad [Sultan Abdul Samad Building] was built in 1897 to serve as the headquarters of the British colonial administration and named after the ruler of Selangor at the time. Designed by renowned colonial architect A.C. Norman, the building seizes attention with its soaring clock tower, lacy arches and elegant domes. Today, the building is empty and although it is not open to the public, it is one of the capital’s most photographed landmarks.

Kuala Lumpur’s oldest mosque, Masjid Jamek [Friday Mosque], stands at the site where the city’s first arrivals settled in the 1950s. British architect A.B. Hubback’s design inspired by Mughal architecture was completed in 1909 and was the first brick mosque in Malaysia. Its architectural features include three large onion-shaped domes, two minarets and arched colonnades. In 2017, the mosque was renamed in honor of Sultan Abdul Samad, the fourth Sultan of Selangor, who reigned from 1857 to 1898.

Another Mughal-style building around the square is the Muzium Tekstil [National Textiles Museum]. Originally, it was constructed for the railway works department. The museum offers a great insight into the wealth of indigenous textile traditions. The rich collection of the museum is divided into four themed galleries. The Pohon Budi [Tree of Life] collection covers the history of textile making with a particular focus on the country’s predominant textiles, such as batik, ikat (cloth made from threads colored with tie-and-dye technique) and songket (a silk sarong with golden thread woven into it). Pelangi [rainbow] gallery highlights the wealth of textile treasures made by different ethnic groups. Teluk Berantai [interlocking bays] collection focuses on Malaysian fabrics and design motifs. Whereas, surprisingly, Ratna Sari [selected collection of jewelry] gallery exhibits jewelry of the various ethnic groups.

Taman Tasik Perdana

The tranquil Taman Tasik Perdana [Lake Gardens] are the perfect escape from the urban clutter. This lush landscaped park is the largest green space in Kuala Lumpur. Beside the large lake at the center of the park and the Perdana Botanical Gardens themselves, the main attractions include the Deer Park, KL Bird Park with a large walk-in free-flight aviary, KL Butterfly Park, and the Orchid and Hibiscus Gardens. Hibiscus is the country’s national flower.

The Tugu Negara [National Monument] dominates the northern end of the park. The monument commemorates those who died in Malaysia’s struggle for freedom. The central bronze sculpture of soldiers (one of them holding aloft the Malaysian flag) was created in 1966 by Felix de Weldon, who is best known for the Iwo Jima monument near Washington D.C. Part of the memorial is a cenotaph, which is dedicated to the Malay fighters who died in the First and Second World War.

There are few important museums on the edges of the park. Muzium Kesenian Islam Malaysia [Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia] houses artifacts of Islamic decorative arts. Architecture was the earliest expression of Islamic art. The Architecture Gallery features scale models of the important Islamic buildings including the Dome on the Rock, Al-Haram Mosque and the Taj Mahal. Secular Islamic architecture also has its moments of greatness. The highlight of the collection is the restored 19th-century Damascus Room, which exemplifies a life of luxury in Ottoman Syria. Other artifacts competing for the visitors’ attention include handwritten Qur’ans, Mughal jewelry, Turkish Iznik tiles and elaborately crafted wooden objects. The building itself is an impressive modern construction decorated with intricate domes and Iranian tiles.

The Muzium Negara [National Museum] can provide some context for understanding Malaysia’s culture and history. The collection of the museum takes the visitor on a journey from the prehistoric times to the present day. The museum is housed in a  replica of a traditional Malay palace. Inside, the collection is divided into four themed galleries. The most exceptional artifact of the Prehistory collection is the replica of the 11,000-year-old Perak Man. It is the most significant discovery of Homo sapiens remains ever discovered in Malaysia, due to both its antiquity and most complete anatomical state. The focus of the Malay Kingdom gallery is primarily on the Malay Melaka Sultanate, which was the golden era in the history of the Malay-Islamic civilization. The Colonial Era collection highlights the history of the country under the grip of foreign powers – Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese. Whereas, the Malaysia Today gallery recounts Malaysia’s unwavering struggle for independence with exhibits such as the green-silver Parker pen used to sign the Federation of Malaya Independence Agreement in 1957.

The small Muzium Seni Kraf Orang Asli [Indigenous Craft Museum], next to the Muzium Negara, aims to preserve the cultural heritage of indigenous people in Peninsular Malaysia through their crafts. They collect artifacts from different ethnic groups that are relevant to their way of life, culture and animist beliefs. The highlights of the exhibition are the intricate woodcarvings and masks created by the Mah Meri, an ethnic group native to western part of Peninsular Malaysia. Their carvings depict deities, humans, animals and plants at a high artistic level.

Batu Caves

Set high in a range of striking limestone cliffs, the Batu Caves are a vast cavern complex that has become one of the most popular attractions near the capital. These limestone caves house Hindu temples featuring dioramas with scenes from the Hindu scriptures in the shadows of stalactites. Long known to the indigenous Orang Asli people and Chines settlers who collected guano here, the caves only gained popularity when American naturalist Eilliam Hornaday came upon them in 1878. He was impressed by the size and beauty of the main cave, comparing it to a grand cathedral. In 1890, the cave complex was converted into a shrine dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Murugan – youngest son of the gods Shiva and Parvati – and soon became the principal pilgrimage site for Malaysia’s Hindus. Dominating the entrance to the caves is a monumental golden statue of Lord Murugan. From here a steep flight of 272 steps, populated by scampering long-tail macaques, leads up to the main cave, known as the Temple Cave. This cave is partially illuminated by rays of light streaming through holes created by the collapse of the ceiling. The caves are decorated with statues of Lord Murugam, along with those of other Hindu gods, including Shiva, Ganesh and Durga. Visiting the caves is always a lively experience, but never more so than during the annual Thaipusam festival, held in late January or early February, when over one million pilgrims and 10,000 tourists visit the caves.


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