Planning a recent trip to Australia, I narrowed down my stopover options to Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur. I had heard a lot about Tokyo from friends who were there for the 2002 World Cup, and it sounded intriguing. On the other hand, travelling via Kuala Lumpur meant less overall flight time. My annual leave was limited, so this clinched the deal, and the free domestic return offered by Malaysia Airlines was the icing on the cake. Thus I found myself in Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) at 7 a.m. on the morning of 19th March, with two days to kill. With such a short time available to me, this article cannot be a comprehensive guide. The best I can hope for is to give you a flavour of the city, and you can decide for yourself whether you want to know more about it, or visit it for yourselves. Personally, my mind is made up. For me, KL is worthy of a substantial visit in its own right, not merely as a handy way of breaking up the journey.
The flight from Paris had been smooth and the service was excellent. The only break in the almost constant Malaysian charm offensive was the stark announcement as we landed that “passengers are reminded that the penalty for smuggling drugs is death”. Fortunately, the 160 Irish tea-bags I was delivering to my sister did not qualify as contraband. The name ‘Kuala Lumpur’ means ‘muddy confluence’, in Malay. This serves as a suitable metaphor for the city, which is a mixture of East and West, traditional and modern, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim. Malaysia is officially an Islamic state, which in my view adds to the holiday experience.
Traditional Islamic dress is visible on the streets, as is the latest in Western ‘labels’. The locals have a smooth easy elegance, and they seem to almost glide rather than walk. The modern tower blocks (many under construction) are a fascinating contrast of 21st century modernity incorporating traditional Islamic patterns. Alcohol is widely available in a number of bars (centred on the main street of Jalan Sultan Ismail) and all major hotels. While the traditional Muslim call to prayer can often be heard through the city at regular intervals, there is not the slightest hint of threat or oppression that many Western propagandists would like us to believe go hand in hand with Muslim statehood. The only limitation imposed by Kuala Lumpur's Muslim status is the inability to get ham on your pizza, or proper pork sausages!
On arriving in a new city, and particularly one where my time is limited, I like to pick two or three highlights, and apart from that, just wander the streets. The best approach for a new visitor to Kuala Lumpur is to head for either the Petronas Towers or the Menara Tower. Admission to the viewing area of the Petronas towers is free but limited. You need to arrive early (around 9/10 a.m.) and queue for your ticket, which will have your admission time on it. Note that you can only ascend as high as the bridge between the two towers – you cannot actually go to the top. Alternatively, you can pay 15 Ringgits (1 Euro will buy between 4 and 5 Ringgits) and go right to the top of the Menara KL Tower. Queues are rare here – you can usually go straight in – and you get to look down on the viewing bridge of the Petronas Towers! Audio aids describe what you see as you look out in each direction, and this gives you the opportunity to get your bearings. Having sampled the panoramic views of the city, its time to pound the streets a bit more!
Kuala Lumpur has its share of museums, as you would expect from any major city. At the risk of sounding like a philistine, while they are often worthwhile in their own right, I sometimes find museums overly sanitized and not always directly relevant to the city I am visiting. So I stayed outdoors and made for Merdeka Square. It was here that Malaysia's first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, declared independence from Britain on 31st August 1957. The square is dominated by the Royal Selangor Club, a mock-Tudor building that looks every inch the bastion of colonial power that it once was. The green field itself is a cricket pitch, and at the southern end of the square stands what is proudly proclaimed to be the tallest flagpole in the world. The square is surrounded by a collection of courthouses, government buildings, and museums. To the East of the square is the Jamek Mosque, which was once the centre of the Muslim faith in Kuala Lumpur, open to visitors outside of prayer times. Surrounded by fertile gardens, it is a serene peaceful escape from the bustle of the city. The national mosque, or Masjid Negara, is not as impressive inside, although its turquoise-blue roof makes it stand out from its surroundings.