‘Kuala Lumpur’ means ‘muddy confluence’, referring to the meeting of the Gombak and Klang Rivers. This name was probably appropriate when it was a small tin-mining settlement in the 1850s, but it doesn’t quite capture the vibrant mood of the gleaming city that stands there today. Now you’d be hard pushed to find the confluence of those rivers, hidden somewhere between overpasses, underpasses and soaring skyscrapers; in fact, ‘cement city’ would be a more accurate, if unflattering, title. I’m not sure whether it’s because Kuala Lumpurians want to disown their muddy heritage, or perhaps because acronyms are currently fashionable, but these days the city’s inhabitants prefer to be called KL-ites, and their city simply KL.
I’ve been to KL several times before, but never got nearer to the city than Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), which is over 50km away, to the joy of taxi drivers. Now I find myself based in the city for a few days researching a story on Malaysian starfruit, and find time to check out a few sights.
The one ‘must-see’ sight in KL is undoubtedly the Petronas Twin Towers, the city’s most prominent icon. It’s not far from my guesthouse, so I decide to brave the heavy traffic and walk. Luckily I check with the receptionist, who sends me in the opposite direction to the route I’ve planned, to take a raised walkway that isn’t marked on the map, and which leads all the way to the towers. I notice that pedestrians on the walkway are protected from the fumes and noise of traffic choking the streets below, so well done KL! One of the few cities I know that makes provisions for pedestrians as well as car drivers.
The ‘towers’ experience is as I expected—a rigid routine of ten minutes on the skybridge (41st floor) and twenty minutes on the observation deck (86th floor), ushered around by staff sporting fixed smiles. It’s difficult to compose images creatively in a place that’s been photographed a million times, but I have fun shooting architectural details and people taking selfies.
On leaving, I pass through the enormous Suria KLCC, one of the city’s most popular malls with several floors of designer shops, and I notice smartly dressed KL-ites pondering purchases that are way out of my league. I head into KLCC Park looking for an image of the towers from the outside and am immediately relieved to be among trees, ponds and lawns. Here’s another treat—a precious green lung right in the city centre, even if it is surrounded by cacophonous construction.
The towers may be Malaysia’s best-known symbol, but for a taste of the country’s multi-cultural character, I make my way to Chow Kit, the city’s biggest fresh market. Indian, Chinese, Malay and mixed-race vendors sing out their wares such as mangoes, jackfruit, and guavas. The vast, covered area displays a staggering variety of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish, and helps to explain the rich diversity of Malay cuisine.
After a few days in KL, I realize that the entire population is obsessed with food. It seems that the main thought on everyone’s mind is “What shall I eat for my next meal?” This question comes to a frenzied climax each evening along Jalan Alor, a street dedicated entirely to eating, and along Bukit Bintang, which is lined with trendy bars and restaurants. Locals and tourists wander up and down, gazing at displays of seafood on ice, barbecued meat on sticks, spicy curries and durian, all the while being badgered by barkers to sit down in their restaurant.
I join the throng to sample a pan-Asian fusion meal; Cambodian amok (a seafood curry) a Thai tom yam (spicy, sour soup) and a Malay mee goreng ayam (stir-fried noodles with shallots, egg and chicken). As I wash it down with a starfruit shake, I’m beginning to understand the KL-ites’ fascination with food. With so much to choose from, it’s easy to experience new taste sensations every day.
Getting around a city is always important, and KL gets a big thumbs-up for its user-friendly transport system. Well-marked and regular trains and buses run a great service for just a few cents, or in some cases free. From Raja Chulan, a KL monorail station just five minutes’ walk from my guesthouse, I can get almost anywhere in town.
While riding the monorail, I notice the sharp contrast between the rigid lines of high-rise towers and the intricate and colourful carvings on Hindu temples tucked away in the backstreets. So I head round to the Sri Maha Mariamman temple and marvel over the craftsmanship of carvings that adorn the temple, and the quietness of its courtyard induces a relaxed mood.
Not for long, however. Round the corner from the temple I hop on a bus to the Batu Caves, about 15km north of the city centre, to see something of Thaipusam, KL’s biggest annual Hindu festival. At the caves, amazing scenes are unfolding—men performing the kavadi attam, or ‘burden dance’, while carrying circular decorated canopies above their heads, spinning round in a trance. Many of them have hooks in their backs and are restrained from charging forward by someone holding chains behind. On the steps up to the caves, a solid mass of humanity surges up and down beside a giant-sized statue of Lord Murugan, to whom the festival is dedicated.
As I leave the city on the KLIA Ekspres train, having already checked in for my flight, I feel strangely calm before the experience of passing through an international airport, which can be fraught with anxiety-inducing delays. After undergoing the security checks, I sink into a vibrating massage chair and ask myself if I’ve ever had a smoother introduction to a new city before. The answer, I think, is no.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.