KL - take a seriously sensory city break

Sultan Abdul Samad Building

After manufacturing, tourism is Malaysia’s second highest foreign exchange earner.

In 2006 there were 17.55 million tourist arrivals, generating more than 36 billion in revenue. For 2007 the country attracted 20.1 million tourists from all over the world, about 300,000 of whom came from the Middle East according to figures from the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board. Kuala Lumpur makes an exciting city break as CHERYL MANDY reports

The overloaded motorbike, groaning like an affronted camel, came to an abrupt halt on the side of the Jalan Klang Lama. Within minutes its owner had transformed it into one of Kuala Lumpur’s many instant portable makan stalls (mobile restaurants) complete with hot plate, umbrellas and chairs for the customers.
In a trice he whipped up aromatic satay with peanut sauce and roti canai (a thin pancake made by skillfully spinning and stretching the dough). He ignored the roaring city traffic nipping at his heels, its fumes, the heat and the dust, and so too did his customers for to them, eating out – even if it was amidst swirling heaving traffic - was a way of life.
For an even wider selection of food, a trip to the city centre’s higgledy piggledy Chinatown revealed an unparalleled shopping experience, not for the fainthearted as this was not the squeaky clean shopping malls of Middle Eastern ilk.
Rather more exciting, this intoxicating throng of Far Eastern culture, buzzing with cars, motorbikes, people and buses, produced wafts of unidentifiable cooking holding enough punch to make your head spin. Carts serving iced cups of freshly squeezed watermelon, mango, papaya and sugar cane were welcomed by visitors and locals alike; thin dried spicy pork smelling pretty bad were a Chinese delicacy; equally bad smelling were the Malays favourite durian, a Camembert smelling prickly fruit banned in hotel lobbies. Somerset Maughan is reported to have said that eating a Durian was …..rather like eating strawberries while sitting on a long drop……..”

Magical taxi ride
On a three day city break to Kuala Lumpur, the holiday started at the international airport where the customs official smiled and said, “have a nice stay” and sincerely meant it. The steam bath-like air was initially a shock, until Joe, a silver haired taxi driver, arrived with his air conditioned vehicle and excellent command of English.
We gaped as a three person family sardined upon a motorbike whizzed past us and fought with the rest of them. Joe turned off the meter. He would be ours for the day. “I’ll give you a special tour,” he said, and he did. He knew every crevice of Kuala Lumpur after 27 years of taxi driving.
 “I never use road maps – too confusing,” he shouted, shooting down a narrow side street lined with rubbish. He still did not believe today’s maps were correct for during the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960 the ruling British and their Malay supporters apparently distributed misleading maps to outwit the opposing Chinese communists.
He punched the horn as another yellow taxi squeezed into a tiny space in front of us. “Maniac! Worse drivers in the world eh?” he chuckled, but we didn’t actually agree with him. We then took a right off the Persketuan Highway and met another part of the city, this time of formally landscaped flowerbeds, each roundabout filled with plants bursting with colour; a city where mirrored skyscrapers mingled with 19th Century architecture.
Most prominent of the latter was its 1885 British built Central Railway Station of Islamic pillars, arches and minarets which, combined with the Moghul architechture of northern India, produced surely the most architecturally magnificent railway station in the world.
Jerking northwards through the traffic we passed mosques, churches and temples all struggling for air among the hundreds of tiny crammed shops selling everything from parrots to petticoats.
Joe slowed down on the bridge spanning the muddy brown Kelang River which joins the Gombak River at the 19th Century Jame Mosque of red, brown and white striped domes and minarets. Kuala Lumpur started here, from whence came its name meaning muddy estuary in Malay. Originally built from the profits of tin and rubber, the latter is still a major earner for the country due to AIDS. Malaysia is a leading producer of latex gloves, latex thread, catheters and condoms, with latex goods accounting for about 76 per cent of total rubber exports to the USA, Europe and Asia.

Garden City of Lights
Our morning tour ended at the five star Shangri-La Hotel. Its tranquil tropical lobby and cool efficiency restored calm, and after a brief rest we were eager to see what the evening brought us. A tropical downpour had cleared the humid air which clings like a shroud and saps the energy of even the most determined travellers. It is indeed only mad dogs and Englishmen that go out in the midday sun in Kuala Lumpur. Average daily temperatures reached 30 degrees C but the 85 per cent plus humidity was the killing factor.
So when evening brought its welcome cool to the city, also called the Garden City of Lights, Joe returned. There was a bustling expectancy all around us as KL once more prepared itself for an energetic onslaught of activity from nightgoers who poured in to work, shop and play until the early hours of the morning.
A spectacular light display covered central KL’s impressive Sultan Abdul Samad Building, its entire length festooned with tiny sparkling bulbs while a waterfall of bright lights cascades down the central 41m high clock tower. This salmon-pink building completed in 1897 is the Judicial Department and High Courts. Behind it, awash in white light, stood the 1980 built Islamic style Dayabumi Complex, a contrast so stark it actually looked right in this city of either new or old. There was not much in-between.
Opposite was the incongruous black and white Tudor style Selangor Club, a social club founded in 1884 by the British who ruled Malaya then. The green or padang in front, now known as Dataran Merdeka, used to belong to the club before it was taken back by the city hall.

Buddist Temple
Other memorable sights discovered in that intoxicating city were the Thean Hou Buddist Temple, sitting on top of a hill, and the Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple near Chinatown with its roof swarming with statues of Hindu deities. The Petronas Twin Towers, the world’s tallest twin buildings, the National Monument, the King’s Palace (Istana Negara) and the country’s largest mosque, the Sultan Sulahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque (also the second biggest mosque in south east Asia after Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia) were also ticked off our tourist-things-to-do list.
Things we did not do but ought to have had we more time: gone to the top of the 421 metre high Kuala Lumpur Tower for an aerial view of the city then walked through a small rainforest reserve at its base walked through the marine and life viewing tunnel at the recently open Aquaria of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.
On evening three after several obligatory Singapore Slings and a sumptuous curry at the Carcosa Seri Negara hotel high on an orchid and hibiscus covered hill – it was built in 1904 and once the governor’s residence - it was time to say goodbye to our friendly Joe.
He disappeared from our hotel foyer into the night to revel into the small hours with friends, while I could only hit my luxurious pillow and was asleep before I could figure out how to spell rambutan.