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