ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY live it up like locals as they take in the signature experiences of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur
The evolution of an old mining town to a centre of trade and commerce is the stuff of dreams. However, here are a few leads to help you discover and get under the skin of Kuala Lumpur, a cultural cauldron of diverse communities and traditions and one of Asia’s most beautiful capital cities.
Learn how to make pewter at the Royal Selangor factory
As you fly into Kuala Lumpur, you spot large brown swathes cutting across the greenery. These are relics of the tin mines that made Malaysia the world’s largest tin producer in the 20th century and established KL as a mining town. No visit to KL is complete without a trip to the Royal Selangor Pewter factory, set up in 1885 by a young pewtersmith Yong Koon who came from China to British Malaya in search of fortune.
On a guided tour, watch workers engaged in casting, hammering, polishing and finishing products. Learn how pewter is made using 97% tin, with a little copper and antimony added for strength. After platinum, gold and silver, pewter is the world’s fourth most precious metal.
In the old days, it was used as currency, shaped into animal figurines like crocodiles, elephants and tortoises! With time, craftsmen found its low melting point and relative softness ideal for designing artefacts. Soon household, decorative and religious objects were in demand for the burgeoning Chinese population.
Don’t miss the old tin mining dredge, a replica of Petronas Towers, the hand imprints of former workers and the world’s largest pewter tankard – measuring 6½ ft, weighing 1.53 tons with a capacity 2796 litres. A master craftsman also teaches you how to fashion molten metal into your own pewter artefact. If it’s a fiasco, there’s always the souvenir store! www.royalselangor.com
Grab some ‘Mud’
It was at the muddy confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers that the frontier town of Kuala Lumpur first developed – kuala literally means estuary in Malay while lumpur is mud. And the most enthralling way to get to know KL is to watch a musical based on its origin. Set during the 1880 tin mining boom, ‘Mud’ traces the journey of three friends – Mamat, a Malay, Meng, a Chinese and Muthiah an Indian, who come to the town in search of opportunity.
Here, they meet a host of colourful characters and their shared stories and strange encounters are an apt portrayal of this diverse, multi-cultural city. The historic venue is Panggung Bandaraya at Merdeka Square, a Mughal style building, where town planning meetings were held in the past. Cost RM60, Timings 3 pm and 8:30 pm www.mudkl.com
Follow the Tamil temple trail to Batu Caves
As you trawl the streets around China Town, the top of a Dravidian temple spire catches your attention from afar. Founded in 1873 by local Tamil leader Thamboosamy Pillai, the Mahamariamman Temple is the oldest Hindu shrine in Kuala Lumpur. During Thaipusam in mid-January, a massive silver chariot transports the statues of Lord Murugan and his consorts Valli and Teivayanni across KL’s streets, before reaching Batu Caves in a procession of 8 hours that covers 15 km.
The devout throng the 140 ft high gilded statue of Murugan, the largest in the world, after climbing the 300 odd steps to his hilly abode set in a knotted outcrop of limestone caves. At the base of the steps, volunteers hand out wraparound lungis to be suitably attired. The area bears a distinctly Indian flavor with a clutch of banana leaf restaurants like Dhivya and Rani serving coconut water and North-Indian, South-Indian or Jain meals to tired pilgrims. Stalls sell garish sweets, souvenirs, ‘Call India’ SIM cards and Tamil literature alongside titles by Nietzsche and Camus!
Learn to appreciate the durian
Love it or hate it, the spiky tropical fruit with sticky sweet flesh wears its laurels like a crown of thorns, often drawing extreme reactions. British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace described durian as “a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds”, though others have been less charitable. Novelist Anthony Burgess compares it to “eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory”. Chef Anthony Bourdain described its taste as ‘indescribable’. “Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.” Travel and food writer Richard Sterling dismisses its odour as ‘pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock’, which can be smelled from yards away.
For this reason, durian is forbidden in hotels, subways and airports. But if you visit KL between June to August, the streets are lined with stalls selling durian and exotic fruits like rambutan and mangosteen… You’re handed out plastic gloves to avoid getting your hands messy. The durian craze is so much, you also find fried durian, durian ice-cream, cakes, crepes and pancakes. To the locals, it is the ‘King of Fruits’, which smells like hell, but tastes like heaven.
Catch a local festival
Though Malaysia hosts several big-ticket events like Malaysia International Gourmet Festival, Citrawarna (Colours of Malaysia), Malaysian Moto GP at Sepang, 1MYES or 1-Malaysia Year End Sale, its charm lies in smaller festivals. Home to diverse ethnicities, Malaysia hosts an event or festival in some nook every day! Whether it is Deepavali, Christmas, Thaipusam, Hari Raya (Ramadan) or Chinese New Year, each festival is celebrated with equal fervor.
During the Hungry Ghost Festival, people make food offerings and burn paper money to keep the ancestors in the spirit realm happy! During the Mid-Autumn Mooncake festival, a lunar harvest celebration of the Chinese community, people make an array of small round cakes with exotic sweet fillings like lotus seed paste or durian. The annual Merdeka (Independence) Day at KL’s historic Merdeka Square is a good opportunity to witness the cultural diversity displayed in colourful parades and floats.
Go shopping in Central Market or Chinatown
In 1888, Chinese kapitan (community leader) Yap Ah Loy developed the wet market by Kuala Lumpur’s riverfront into Central Market, which was later given an Art Deco facelift by the British. Today a vibrant cultural and craft centre, it is a great place to buy batik clothes, Javanese masks, Bornean beadwork, Petronas tabletops, wood carvings, sculptures and other souvenirs. There are shopping avenues dedicated to various communities – Chinese, Malay, Indian, Portuguese and Baba-Nyonya.
Drop by at the ARCH store for heritage gifts – 3-D miniatures, bookmarks, magnets and made-in-Malaysia products representing the world’s greatest heritage landmarks. Pick up traditional kites like wau bulan (moon kite) or wau burung (bird kite) also available in miniature size, besides bunga berbaling, a Malay batik motif of a twining vine. Drop by at the Tenmoku store for exquisite glazed pottery like vases and decorative artefacts. Or if you’re up to some haggling, head to Chinatown for t-shirts and street shopping.
Try local street food at Jalan Alor
Malaysian cuisine is truly a melting pot of diverse flavours, a mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese and colonial influences of the British and Portuguese. The best place for street food is undoubtedly Jalan Alor in Bukit Bintang where stalls dish out ethnic Malay specialties like Kajang satay, Sarawak laksa, Mee Foo (fried noodles) and popular Chinese fare. Tamil settlers run banana leaf restaurants and serve Roti Canai (like a Kerala paratha, but derived from the city of Chennai).
Another popular genre is the South Indian Muslim cuisine of Nasi Kandar – biryani rice served with assorted non-veg curries and fries. In the old days, hawkers often carried all the dishes in baskets strung over their shoulders (kandha) and would set it down on street corners to open pop-up restaurants. One of the most successful of these is Pelita Nasi Kandar. Chinese traders who settled centuries ago and speak Malay specialize in a genre called Nyonya cuisine – a combination of Chinese ingredients cooked with Malay herbs and spices. At Precious Old China, try Nyonya delicacies like beef rendang, asam fish fillet, ayam pong teh, lady’s finger kerabu, chui pei tofu, coconut rice and sago gula Melaka, sago pearl pudding dunked in coconut milk sweetened with palm sugar.
Make a ‘scared face’ at Aquaria KLCC
Easily the most popular attraction at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre Complex, the 60,000 sq ft oceanarium is a maze of delights. Spread over two levels, Aquaria traces the journey of water from land to sea starting in the misty highlands, through rivers, rainforests and mangroves to coral reefs. Be awestruck as you walk past the Piranha Tank and Electric Zone to the Riverbank Jungle with Asian small-clawed otters, Coral walks and shipwrecks, and observe over 250 different species besides over 5,000 land and aquatic animals from Malaysia and around the world.
The 300 ft underwater tunnel is fascinating, as are the interactive information kiosks on fish and turtle conservation. If you’re lucky, you can watch the sharks and rays being fed. Before you go, pose for photographs with dramatic and thrilling backdrops, which are quickly Photoshopped before being printed instantly as a framed souvenir.
Cost RM64 Ph +603 2333 1888 www.aquariaklcc.com
Experience Petronas Towers
Built at the site of Kuala Lumpur’s race track Selangor Turf Club, the Petronas Towers held the record for the world’s tallest building between 1998 to 2004 and are still regarded as the highest twin towers in the world. With an upmarket retail space called Suria KLCC at the base and the KLCC park with fountains and jogging track, it is more than a landmark. Experience the spectacular cityscape as you go up to the Skybridge and Observation Deck on the 41st and 42nd floor – limited tickets for the first thousand people every day!
Cost RM35-85 Timings: 9am-9pm (Closed on Monday and 1-2:30pm on Fri)
Ph +603 2331 8080 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
KL By Cycle Tour
If you think a Hop On-Hop Off bus tour is too sedate for your liking, try their new initiative in partnership with Visit KL. KL By Cycle is a fun way to tour the city – from the oldest park Perdana Botanical Gardens built in 1888 to heritage structures like Sultan Abdul Samad Building and Royal Selangor Club. Pick up a rented cycle from the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery at Dataran Merdeka for a solo Free and Easy Ride or a Guided Group Tour. It’s the most eco-friendly and relaxing way to explore the city, its alleys and heritage buildings.
RM 30-45 Ph +603 2691 1382 Email email@example.com
Jet Airways and the national carrier Malaysia Airlines Berhad fly direct to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, 50km south of the city. www.malaysiaairlines.com
For more info, visit http://www.tourism.gov.my
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August 2016 issue of JetWings magazine.