Monday, April 5, 2004

A backwater no more, Malaysia's multifaceted capital
is taking its place among the great cities of Asia

By David Armstrong, Chronicle Staff Writer

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- It is my first visit to Malaysia, and I arrive appallingly late at night. Exhausted by the long journey from California, I want nothing more than a good night's sleep. I go straight to my hotel and begin to draw the curtains. And I stop. There, framed in the window and glistening in the night sky, are the Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest buildings in the world. I have an unobstructed view.
Over the next several days, I grow addicted to this view. The Petronas Towers aren't just tall, they're drop-dead gorgeous. By day, they are gleaming metallic ziggurats, with elegant step-backs. At night, when the interior lighting comes on, they morph into slender electrical wands.
The Petronas Towers are the defining icons of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital and largest city. Soaring 1,483 feet high, the towers, topped off in 1997, symbolize the transformation of Kuala Lumpur from a backwater river town dependent on exporting local palm oil, tin and rubber into a big city with first-world ambitions and a growing embrace of modernity.
I never grew tired of looking at the Petronas Towers, but as I soon discovered, there is much more to Kuala Lumpur than big, modern buildings. Located 20 miles inland on peninsular Malaysia's west coast, Kuala Lumpur is heir to a romantic seafaring tradition that brought traders from India, Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain to the East in search of riches and exoticism. The new arrivals brought their religions, cuisine, customs and languages, which mixed with native Malay culture to produce a new, multicultural metropolis.
KL, as Kuala Lumpur is known throughout Southeast Asia, is lush and pretty, perfumed by flowery gardens, serenaded by flitting, brightly colored tropical birds and traversed on the outskirts by beautifully landscaped parkways. Like most big Asian cities, KL has its share of disruptive construction and ham-fisted redevelopment, chiefly in the city center. But it has wisely retained many grace notes: vibrant Malay, Chinese and Indian neighborhoods, lively street markets, lovely Islamic and European colonial architecture, an incredible variety of savory foods available everywhere from dirt-cheap hawkers' stalls to fancy expense-account restaurants. (Malaysia's currency, the ringgit, is pegged at RM3.8 to the U.S. dollar. Prices in this story are given in dollars.)
For all its virtues, KL is little-known among Americans. This is understandable, if lamentable. It lacks the glamour and fast-forward futurism of Tokyo, the spectacular harbor of Hong Kong or oddly exhilarating chaos of Bangkok, and it is slightly in the shadow of its enterprising neighbor, Singapore.
And yet, KL, in some ways, has an edge. It is less expensive than Hong Kong and much less expensive than Tokyo. It is much easier to get around than Bangkok. It matches even Singapore for great food and is almost as clean and safe as that famously squeaky-clean and safe city-state. And, with just 1.4 million people, KL is smaller than more-famous Asian cities and less formidable for first-time visitors.
Malaysia's strong Muslim presence may put KL at a disadvantage with Westerners, but I never felt unsafe there. The country's new prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is a moderate Islamic scholar, and his broadly tolerant views reflect the character of a cosmopolitan capital. A visitor often sees traditional Muslim women swaddled in headscarves and shapeless clothing gliding down the sidewalk next to stylish modern women in short skirts. While Islam is the state religion, Malaysians enjoy freedom of worship. KL is dotted with picturesque Hindu and Buddhist temples that are must-sees for travelers.
The city's most ornate Hindu temple, Sri Mahamariamman, is in the heart of Chinatown. Elaborate carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses adorn the towering temple gateway, and a ceremonial silver chariot awaits your admiring gaze inside the temple, which dates to 1873. As with any temple or mosque, you take off your shoes and cover up before entering.
After visiting the celestial temple, I set off in search of more worldly sights. I found them nearby on Masjid Jamek Street, where I lingered before vintage shop houses with brightly painted wooden shutters, a touch of pre-war graciousness. I liked their patina of age and the idealized lifestyle they evoke: I envisioned Somerset Maugham, in a white inner jacket, with a long cigarette holder and bottle of Boodles' best gin at the second-story window, presiding over the scene with utmost languor.
Another, even older, structure that has been skillfully renovated is KL's former main train station. Built in 1911, it was designed by British architect A.B. Hubbock as a Moorish fantasia, all minarets and arches, alabaster white on the outside. The first time I saw this fanciful building, during a bumpy, sleepless, two-day train ride from Singapore to Bangkok, I thought I had finally fallen asleep and was dreaming. It has recently been superceded as the central depot by a brand-new station, but this wonderful building, partly occupied by an eccentric old hotel, is worth a look for the sheer pleasure of seeing it.
Despite its concentration of well-preserved heritage buildings, KL is younger than San Francisco. It was founded in 1857 by tin miners at the confluence of the muddy, sluggish Klang and Gombak rivers. (Kuala Lumpur means "muddy estuary'' in Malay.) Today, the quiet, green, founding site nestles below a steel-and-glass curtain of skyscrapers. The lovely 1909 Masjid Jamek mosque, also the work of A.B. Hubbock and graced with colonnades and domes, shares the site.
Not far away, in vibrant Chinatown, hushed reverence gives way to commercial clamor. Chinatown is one of KL's liveliest neighborhoods, with a popular night market stocked with inexpensive shoes and clothing and knick-knacks such as pens, pocket knives and stone carvings. Chinatown centers on Petaling Street, where some sidewalks are covered by charming old arcades for protection from the sun and rain. While air-conditioning is obligatory in KL's upscale hotels, shopping centers, banks and government buildings, here you will find shopkeepers in baggy shorts, flip-flops and sleeveless cotton T-shirts, struggling to cool off with swiveling electric fans.
After night falls, locals beat the heat by buying up soft drinks and fresh fruit juice and scarfing down snacks at dozens of hawkers' stalls. These are no-frills, bargain joints roofed with tin and illuminated by florescent lights. Small meals of noodles, rice and savory soups cost just a buck or two. I am wary of street food in Asia, feeling fully comfortable only in Japan and Singapore, but KL has done a fine job of raising sanitation standards. Most hawkers have been weaned from portable street carts and relocated to outdoor food courts that are cleaner and more thoroughly inspected than carts along the busy streets. But it is still advisable to drink bottled water, hot tea or beer and to avoid iced drinks in Malaysia.
Though KL is not really big, getting from place to place takes a bit of forethought. I am an inveterate walker, but KL's freeway overpasses, wide boulevards and vanishing walkways make walking from district to district difficult. When you do hoof it, be careful crossing the street; Malaysians drive on the left, like the British. Taxis are cheap, but often slow; woe be unto you if your cab gets caught in the snarl of traffic. Bus routes, for a foreigner, can be hard to decipher. Happily, KL has an excellent and affordable light rail system (the LRT) and a monorail line (the PRT).
On my second day in town, with jetlag beginning to ease, I hopped the LRT and headed to Little India. Shops clustered around Jalan Masjid India, the main drag, are piled high with garlands of flowers, saris, silver bangles, hot chiles, Indian sweets and other quick snacks. Although most dishes are less fiery than in India or Thailand, they pack enough sweet heat to wake you up. Nasi briyani is a local favorite, combining rice cooked with almonds, raisins, cinnamon, turmeric and cardamom and served with curried chicken.
After trying some nicely spiced dishes in Little India, I walked off my lunch by strolling through the Lake Gardens. It was the right decision. The gardens, a sizable park laid out around a cooling central-city lake called Tasik Perdana, are lovely and eminently walkable.
The gardens were landscaped in the 1880s by the British, who ruled what was then Malaya from the late 1800s until 1957. They encompass a butterfly park, a hilly deer park (which includes amazingly dainty kancil or mouse-deer), a bird park with a huge, enclosed, walk-through aviary and a lovely orchid garden. Malaysia is home ground for beautiful orchids, and you can get a close-up look at some 3,000 varieties in this exceptional garden.
The equatorial steam-heat worked its stultifying effect on me; finding some bracing air-con seemed like a good idea. I set off for the Golden Triangle, KL's high-rise and high-rent city center, where air-conditioned shopping and dining is everywhere. Brand-name shops and hotels are concentrated there, catering to both Malaysians and foreigners. Broad boulevards such as Jalan Sultan Ismail thrum with activity.
KL's chic bars and toniest restaurants are installed in the Golden Triangle's international hotels. Sleek business travelers enjoy cigars and fine wines at Lafite in the Shangri-la Hotel and belly up to the bar at the JW Marriott Hotel, which adjoins the popular Star Hill shopping mall.
Away from the Golden Triangle, KL offers generally high-quality arts and crafts. The city is especially well-known for pewter ware (utensils, mugs, brooches), as well as colorful batik, tightly woven baskets and intricate woodcarvings. Songket, or Malaysian brocade, incorporates silver and gold threads into women's evening wear. At smaller shops, you can haggle over price; indeed, you are expected to barter. In big department stores, however, the price is final.
I found KL's most energetic and affordable late-night entertainment in the Bangsar district, west of the Lake Gardens, where the city's relatively small expatriate community hangs out. Bangsar boasts a variety of late-night drink and dance clubs where expats take to the floor with Malaysia's homegrown cell phone generation. This is the place for your basic, woo-hoo, hands-in-the-air dancing: your hip-hop moves, your deep-house styling and your techno trance groove. Club Nouvo at Sangria and the gay-friendly Liquid are popular haunts.
I was more interested in traditional dance. Malaysians are justly proud of their ethnic dance troupes, shadow-puppet plays and music, and are eager to show them off. I caught a performance by stately, elaborately costumed Malay dancers in the old Central Market, an eye-pleasing 1930s Art Deco structure converted into a cultural center with a large food court. Central Market showcases Malay cooking in its air-conditioned hawkers' center, where juicy charbroiled satays and nasi lemak (coconut-milk rice with fried anchovies, curried squid and boiled egg) sell for slightly more than you'll pay out of doors: $2 per dish, say, instead of $1.50.
It all went by too quickly: the food, the flowers, the architecture, the art. I was on my way to Malaysian Borneo, and I wanted to fix the city in my mind's eye.
For a panoramic last look at Kuala Lumpur, I rode the lift in the Petronas Towers to the 41st floor Skybridge, a walkway linking the two 88-story towers. From this height, the city is an enormous tropical garden, a spreading canopy of green punctured in the middle by skyscrapers but otherwise verdant and vast, reaching to the fabled sea lanes of the Strait of Malacca. On the far side of the water, on a clear day, you can glimpse Indonesia.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"