Mul­ti­cul­tural Kuala Lumpur is one of the re­gion’s most vi­brant cities, writes Nel­lie Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

IT is an­other sticky dawn in Kuala Lumpur and I’m on my way to the world’s big­gest birth­day bash. The sky is still dark, but party-go­ers are flow­ing into the streets, stop­ping at hawker stalls to un­wrap leafy parcels of co­conut break­fast rice be­fore join­ing the mi­gra­tion to Merdeka Square.

Prince Andrew is here, as is the King of Thai­land, the Sul­tan of Brunei, our own Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral Michael Jef­fery. It’s a right royal af­fair: the of­fi­cial an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion of Malaysia’s 50th year of in­de­pen­dence from the Bri­tish.

I take my spot in the bleach­ers and as the sun rises and the mer­cury soars, 25,000 men, women and chil­dren surge down the road in pre­ci­sion for­ma­tion as the an­nual Merdeka, or free­dom, pa­rade be­gins.

The Malaysian cap­i­tal must have had its seam­stresses on 24-hour shifts, whirring away for months, be­cause this is one heck of a fancy-dress party. There are bat­tal­ions of march­ing space­men in Jet­sons- style sil­ver suits (the Na­tional Space Agency team, ap­par­ently), and a troupe of Flash Gor­dons in tights stitched with tongues of flame (it’s not clear which or­gan­i­sa­tion they rep­re­sent but they look so cool).

There’s a bristling con­tin­gent from Malaysia’s armed forces. One hun­dred com­man­dos, run­ning and rolling in their berets and face paint and, loom­ing over their shoul­ders, the ar­mory: anti-air­craft mis­siles, enor­mous rum­bling tanks, mis­sile launch­ers and can­nons. A friendly and rather im­pres­sive re­minder to the for­eign dig­ni­taries, per­haps.

Fevered chants of ‘‘ Merdeka’’ ring out, but there’s no ran­cour to this in­de­pen­dence day. It was a good-na­tured han­dover of power 50 years ago and, re­ally, they’re rather fond of the Bri­tish.

Take K. S. Viji of Seri Malaya Travel & Tours, my mus­ta­chioed Malaysian-In­dian tour guide: ‘‘ The Bri­tish gave us ev­ery­thing,’’ he coos, misty-eyed, into his mi­cro­phone. ‘‘ They gave us rub­ber, tin, palm oil, schools, roads and, of course, their noble val­ues. Be­fore them there was fight­ing, mos­qui­toes, hunger but, worst of all, no sys­tems . . .

‘‘ Yes,’’ he says, puff­ing out his chest, ‘‘ I am writ­ing a book, to be called A Word of Thanks to the Bri­tish.’’

Fifty years ago, when the Brits handed over power, Kuala Lumpur was not much more than a colo­nial out­post sur­rounded by jun­gle, tin mines and bam­boo vil­lages. Now it’s a glit­ter­ing high-rise, hi-tech city. The Gov­ern­ment has the na­tion work­ing over­time on plans to achieve de­vel­oped-na­tion sta­tus by 2020. In this shin­ing city, you can al­most taste the am­bi­tion in the hot, hu­mid air; it is un­abashed, as­pi­ra­tional Asia. There are ad­ver­tise­ments ev­ery­where, on ev­ery cen­time­tre of spare space, ex­hort­ing Malaysians to con­sume. And why wouldn’t they? It can’t be de­nied Kuala Lumpur gives good shop­ping. From mar­ble-lined de­signer shops to plas­ti­cawninged street mar­kets, the city of­fers a smor­gas­bord of re­tail in­dul­gences. With the best of the Euro­pean high street and the world’s most up-mar­ket brands on of­fer, it’s not a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to just give up and go shop­ping.

I start in the Bukit Bin­tang area, first stop Sungei Wang Plaza. This is the place for a good rum­mage of cheap and ser­vice­able Asian fash­ion, mo­bile phones and elec­tron­ics. I go in for a peek, am­ble up and down the es­ca­la­tors, and pick up some jaunty nau­ti­cal shoes (the last pair in the shop for West­ern Big Foots). Then the com­bi­na­tion of equa­to­rial at­mos­phere (no air­con), low ceil­ings, flash­ing lights and hordes of ex­citable teens has­tens me to the exit and on to the next re­tail port of call.

A short stroll up Jalan Bukit Bin­tang and I ar­rive at the posh­est of Kuala Lumpur’s malls, Starhill Gallery. Cool mar­ble, cold air, gloved door­men and themed floors called Pam­per, In­dulge, Adorn . . . you get the pic­ture. There’s Gucci, Dior, Fendi and 93 lux­ury spa treat­ment rooms. But best of all is the Feast Vil­lage down­stairs; it’s a gor­geously de­signed, mood­ily lit labyrinth of 13 in­ter­con­nected up­mar­ket bars and restau­rants. At the Vil­lage Bar, a glam­orous, glit­ter­ing cave of coloured glass pil­lars and am­ber lanterns, there are 400 dif­fer­ent wines and a ded­i­cated rice wine bar with vin­tage liquors from China and Ja­pan. I pull up a leop­ard­skin bar stool and taste my way through Asia’s finest fer­mented of­fer­ings.

The next day Viji takes me to ex­plore the other end of the shop­ping scale: the Chi­na­town mar­kets on Pe­tal­ing Street. Noisy, steamy and crammed with hot damp bod­ies, this is the place for those pre­pared to hone their hag­gling skills over knock-off de­signer hand­bags, sun­glasses, watches, sneak­ers, wal­lets and cuff­links.

Nearby is the Cen­tral Mar­ket. With ev­ery kind of batik and ori­en­tal cu­rio on of­fer, it’s a one-stop shop for sou­venirs. I leave with a swag of men’s sarongs, pat­terned with fine stripes and checks in sub­tle olives, golds, greys and greens. I’ll cut them up and make cush­ions or hand them out to the men in my fam­ily. (If David Beck­ham can wear one. . .)

Viji sug­gests an af­ter­noon an­ti­dote of sooth­ing na­ture and spir­i­tual seren­ity, and off we go to visit some of the city’s loveli­est tem­ples and lush­est gar­dens. Like most Malaysians, Viji is proud of his na­tion’s mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and he’s all geared up to show off the bub­bling in­gre­di­ents sim­mer­ing away nicely in this aro­matic melt­ing pot.

A di­verse pop­u­la­tion of Mus­lims, Hin­dus, Bud­dhists, Sikhs and Chris­tians means the city’s gleam­ing sky­scrapers and fu­tur­is­tic malls sit side by side with mosques, tem­ples, churches and Sikh gur­d­waras. We stop at the Batu Caves com­plex, a sa­cred Hindu pil­grim­age site, 12km from the city cen­tre, where we’re greeted by a 42m-high golden statue of Lord Mu­ru­gan, stand­ing guard with a spear in one hand and a lit­tle roll of sa­cred golden flesh spilling over his sarong-like lungi.

Be­hind him, 272 steps climb a sheer lime­stone hill to the sa­cred caves at its sum­mit. The ghoul­ish may pre­fer to visit in Jan­uary-Fe­bru­ary when up to one mil­lion Hindu pil­grims con­verge for the three-day fes­ti­val of Thai­pusam. In a spec­tac­u­lar and stom­ach-churn­ing dis­play of mor­ti­fi­ca­tion of the flesh, devo­tees pierce skin, tongues and cheeks with skew­ers and at­tach heavy bur­dens to their bod­ies with chains and hooks.

But there are no hooks and chains to­day, just a lugubri­ous snake-charmer with a dopey-look­ing green python. Af­ter an ex­cel­lent sweet dosa in the In­dian cafe at the gate, we’re off to the Thean Hou Chi­nese tem­ple. With its or­nate winged roofs, keyhole arches and golden Bud­dhas, this six-tiered tem­ple is a glo­ri­ous cen­tre of wor­ship for Kuala Lumpur’s Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion. Sa­cred lo­tuses grow in pots of wa­ter and there are of­fer­ings of pink lo­tus-shaped can­dles, or­anges, chrysan­the­mums and in­cense.

No tour of the city’s re­li­gious build­ings is com­plete with­out a stop at the Masjid Ne­gara, the na­tional mosque. This sprawl­ing, post­mod­ern con­crete struc­ture looks like a huge, half-opened um­brella, large enough to shel­ter 15,000 wor­ship­pers.

De­spite the city’s sky­lines and streetscapes of glass and con­crete and slick moder­nity, there’s an ev­er­p­re­sent sense of the jun­gle press­ing in. Be­tween the build­ings there are lit­tle pock­ets of trop­i­cal green­ery; ba­nana trees, enor­mous birds of par­adise, bright bougainvil­lea and all man­ner of deep green lush­ness cascade over walls and trail over hills.

Viji takes us for a restora­tive am­ble through the 92ha of the city’s Lake Gar­den. We pass the rain­for­est but­ter­fly park with its 6000 ex­otic, flut­ter­ing but­ter­flies, the gi­gan­tic bird park, full of rare and beau­ti­ful birdlife, and the orchid gar­den.

It’s Sun­day af­ter­noon and time for high tea. But as much as they love the Bri­tish, there’s no cu­cum­ber sand­wiches or pots of earl grey at the Ber­jaya Times Square Sun­day high tea. This is an af­ter­noon feast to cel­e­brate Malaysia’s glo­ri­ously di­verse cui­sine and there are ta­bles of freshly pre­pared tit­bits orig­i­nat­ing from all across Asia. The only prob­lem is that no mat­ter how mi­nus­cule the por­tions, we can’t pos­si­bly try them all. There’s som tam pa­paya salad, freshly pounded be­fore our eyes; se­same bar­be­cued duck and chicken cleavered for our plates with ex­pert vi­o­lence; co­conut and palm sugar cakes steamed in pan­dan leaves; and too many more ex­otic morsels.

Ev­ery­one we meet knows the na­tional tourism slo­gan: Malaysia, Truly Asia. It means that here is Asia in minia­ture, the best of In­dia, In­done­sia, China and in­dige­nous Malay. There’s the bus­tle and colour of Delhi or Bangkok, but none of the mad­den­ing has­sle. You can walk the streets of Kuala Lumpur with­out be­ing trailed by rick­shaw driv­ers or ho­tel touts, but al­though it’s clean, tidy and per­fectly or­dered, it seems to have lost lit­tle of its ex­otic char­ac­ter.

A half cen­tury of am­bi­tious de­vel­op­ment and Malaysia is now one of Asia’s most vi­brant economies. So while they sweep up the se­quins in Merdeka Square and pull down the blinds to sleep off the birth­day cel­e­bra­tions, Kuala Lumpur’s di­verse cit­i­zens are al­ready look­ing to the next 50 years.

Nel­lie Blun­dell was a guest of Tourism Malaysia.

Hip and hap­pen­ing: From left, Kuala Lumpur’s Starhill Gallery; a colour­ful float in the an­nual Merdeka pa­rade; Ber­jaya Times Square shop­ping cen­tre, top right; old and new hap­pily co­ex­ist in the Malaysian cap­i­tal, bot­tom right

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