12 hours in KL
Updated: Nov 13, 2018
16 Apr 2009
On the way out I came across a piece in the in-flight magazine called “KL city tour”. Having utterly failed to do any background research on the city, I decide to let this be my guide. The itinerary has me starting at 8am, but I fluff that and don’t get out of the hotel until after nine.
The hotel overlooks a very nicely manicured park, on the other side of which are the Petronas Towers. One of the benefits of my room is the park view and being on the 27th floor it offers a close-up and absolutely stunning view of what was, up until recently, the tallest buildings in the world.
I’m taking the light rail (aka subway / underground) to my first stop on the grand tour. Once you’re in the station it’s a painless and non-intimidating system to use. (There’s something about using a subway system in a new city for the first time. After a day or so you feel like a local and can navigate your way round easily, but on the first encounter it’s all rather new and confusing.)
However, the main challenge for KL appears to be actually finding the station. Most are underground and I spend a fruitless few minutes walking up and down the street trying to find the one I’m looking for (KL City Centre). In hindsight, I should have remembered that KL is one of the shopping Mecca’s of Asia and of course the best way to get to it is via the monstrous shopping mall underneath the Petronas Towers. (I only discover this at the end of the day.) During my repeated scampering across the highways trying to find the subway entrance, I’m distracted and amused by the walk signal for the pedestrian crossings In the good old days, you got a green guy when it was time to walk, and a red one when it was time best not to. Then the traffic engineers raised the ante by giving you a flashing red guy when it was time to get the hell off the road if you were still crossing. Some countries have gone a step further to give you a countdown timer, telling you exactly how long you have before you get run over. In KL, they’ve taken an amusing twist on this – the little green guy is an animated icon that walks when it’s time to walk, and when time is running out, he starts to run. Nice one.
I exit at Masjid Jamek station and walk up the road towards Independence Square. My stroll takes me past the old Magistrates Courts, posted outside of which are a handful of guys, each setup with a couple of small stools and a typewriter sitting on a box. They appear to be typewriters-for-hire, as one of them had a customer who was chatting away to him as he furiously typed up some important looking document.
Independence square is a great big rectangle of manicured grass flanked by relics of the colonial era including and St Mary’s Church (visited by the Queen (bless her) not once, but twice) and the old boys ground zero, the Royal Selangor Club. When the Brits were turfed out of the country in 1957, the Malaysians rather pragmatically appear to have simply erected a massive great flagpole at one end of the green, hosted their shiny new flag and called the whole place Independence square. Saved a lots of tedious hassle constructing your own square that way.
I head into the Chinatown to get my sampling of temples (Sri Maha Mariamman and Tze Ya if you’re taking notes), which offer a lovely respite from the noise and crowds of the streets and a great place to grab a lung full in incense, before launching back out into the streets. KL really has the feel of a city with real intent and purpose, rather than being primarily a tourist destination. We Anglo-Saxon tourists are definitely in the minority; pasty pale skins aside, we’re easily identifiable by the slightly starry-eyed look, shorts (none of the locals wear them) and (only for the Brits), sandals with black socks. We’re reasonably sparse on the streets and exchange the eye-contact and faint smile of camaraderie as we pass each other.
Continuing to follow my city tour to the letter, lunch is at Sin Seng Nam, a hole in the wall place near Independence Square. It’s authentic – while I eat, the local bankers and shop merchants hurry in their suits for a quick bite. It’s also clearly a local favourite – one guy pulls up outside at a red light, gives three honks on his horn and exchanges some terse but complex hand signals with the owner at the front door. Before the lights have changed, a portion of chicken and rice is wrapped and handed to him through the window. I wonder what four honks gets – chicken curry?
After lunch, my guide suggests taking a cab to the Lake Gardens as a break from the city hubbub. I flag one down, jump in and confidently call out “Lake Gardens – front entrance please!” to the driver. He turns round, looks me up and down and patiently explains that it’s a very big place and there are many entrances. Where exactly did I want to go. Err…umm… I rummaged in my pack for a map and pick an attraction in the park more or less at random – “Bird Park please.”
For the Aussie readers: One of the sections was endangered parrots. Inside I was rather amused to see that this included a healthy flock of Lorikeets and Sulphur Crested Cockatoos. Someone should probably reassure these guys that these two species at least are doing very well and in no danger on extinction in Australia.
Bird Park turns out to be to be the world largest enclosed, walk through aviary and is quite special. It’s a little rough round the edges and seedy, but they have an amazing collection of feathered friends and it’s huge – you could happily spend a couple of hours wandering around inside. It’s not just Malaysian birdlife on offer either – they have a selection from around the globe, ranging from the tiddliest songbird, to a flock of Ostriches.
Having my fill of birdlife, I decide to walk back into town through the park. Lake Gardens is a massive space and seems to be a breading ground for national intuitions. On the relatively short hike back I pass the national mosque, museum and planetarium to name a few. The last stretch is somewhat a challenge through – I’m trying to get to Pasar Seni subway station, but have to cross a handful of rather busy roads, a train track and a river to get there, and for the life of me can’t figure out how to do it. It gets almost surreal when I get to the incomplete pedestrian crossing that stops 10 feet short from the overpass I’m standing on.
I get there eventually, take a painless ride back to KLCC and discover the proper way in and out of the KLCC station – via the awe inspiring Suria KLCC shopping mall.
I’ve trolled the web sites and guide books and decided to eat at Enak tonight, which allegedly offers an excellent sampling of real Malaysian food and is in the Starhill Gallery Mall. Usually not the most inspiring location for a place to eat, but this mall is something else; opulent and fancy doesn’t begin to do it justice. It’s the kind of place that an average guy (among which I include myself) can’t afford to shop at a single store. It’s packed to the rafters with Gucci this, Dior that and Valentino the other – I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The restaurant section is almost some kind of theme park in of itself - each one has an architectural theme and that theme extends out to take over the pavement, walls and ceiling as well. Anyway, the food was great, the service wonderful and a good time was had by all. I round off the evening with an aperitif at the Skybar back at the hotel, which includes a pool and picture window booths overlooking the awesome nightscape of the Petronas Towers.
So, first impressions of KL is a typical Asian city – mopeds, noise and chaos, but probably not nearly as full-on as Bangkok or Hong Kong (or indeed, as we will learn later, Hanoi). While there are plenty of busy streets, the city seems to have a very good scattering of parks and green spaces that are immaculately kept. Everyone is very friendly to the stand out tourist such as myself, and I wasn’t hassled by beggars or hawkers once. It’s hot and humid, but if you like that kind of thing this counts as a plus. Overall, a big thumbs up – my only disappointment in hindsight is that I only had a day to see it.
Early start tomorrow for my next stop - Hanoi.