NB: This article was published last year in Experience Travel and Living magazine. I am posting this for the benefit of a friend who wants to read the full text. Unfortunately, I cannot post pictures. My KL pictures were damaged and lost when my laptop was infected with a vicious virus recently. What's left were photos of myself, which I am posting at the end of the article.
In the late afternoon of February 10, 2008, the little, globular Chinese lanterns were already festooned all the over Bukit Bintang Street, as people rushed in and out of offices, malls and
boutiques. Tourists lounged at the coffee shops that dot Bintang Walk, watching traffic starting to build up in one of the busiest districts of Kuala Lumpur, popularly called by its nickname KL.
By twilight, the lanterns glowed with red light, bobbing gently in the breeze over the crowd that comprised KLites, tourists and journalists from more than ten countries including us from the Philippines. Being one of the first major events of the year, the Chinese New Year was being celebrated by Malaysia in a grand fashion, aiming to attract tourists and underscoring its image of being a multiethnic country that revels in its diversity. That ideal is encapsulated in its slogan “Malaysia, Truly Asia,” sung in their ads that run throughout the year 2007, the Visit Malaysia Year. It ran so frequently and was effective that the slogan ran on and off in my head even before I got the chance to visit Malaysia.
Here in the middle of hubbub, I saw overwhelmingly Chinese scene. Distinctively Oriental music filled the air. Dancers in flowing and gauzy costumes performed a lotus dance. Red banners with Chinese characters twirled with every gust. The red loot bags were filled with Chinese cakes and “lucky” fruits. The lion and dragon dance ushered in Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and other high-ranking officials donned in bright and shimmering Mandarin suits, while confetti rained like no tomorrow with fireworks punctuating it.
Jarring the scene was the crowd overwhelming the area of the media that I was beside a woman clad in black robe and veil. She and her husband were on vacation from Iran, she said. Carefully scanning the crowd, one could see people not only of seemingly Chinese descent but also of Indian, Malay and European. After the show, an unmistakably Middle-Eastern couple with a baby in his perambulator strolled towards the lion dancers and took a snapshot with them.
At this event, it seemed that the Malaysian government’s aims had been achieved: people of
different races came together and celebrated in an important festival of a significant ethnic minority and tourists were lured.
Yesterday, the press delegates were welcomed in an afternoon conference followed by a welcome dinner at the Grand Millennium Hotel. It was one of the biggest gatherings of journalists from different countries in Malaysia, invited mainly to cover the Chinese New Year open house and get to know the tourism developments of this booming Southeast Asian country.
In recent years, tourism is one of the fastest-rising industries in Malaysia. It is the second important industry after manufacturing, said our guide Raman of Pakistani descent. This is evident in the capital Kuala Lumpur where tourism played an important role in the economy. Global hotel chains have strong presence here. Shopping complexes and malls dot the city, making it an international shopping destination. The tourism department recognizes that accommodation and shopping top the list of tourists’ expenditures, accounting for 35 and 26 percent respectively. Thus, mega sale events are regularly held.
Other big events, many related to sports and recreation, are always thought up, and these drew tourists. A major one is the Formula One races. In fact the race is said to be responsible for raking in tourists despite the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, when cities around Asia suffered declining tourist arrivals. In Kuala Lumpur, tourist arrivals increased to about ten million in 2000 from about six million in 1997.
A decade later, Malaysia launched the Visit Malaysia Year, which became more significant because it coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of its independence from British rule, popularly called Merdeka. With it, Tourism Malaysia, the tourism marketing arm of the country, embarked on an aggressive campaign. Beautiful and informative brochures were readily available with alluring images of the country. Television ads flickered frequently in internationalchannels like CNN. Familiarization trips for the media and travel agents were regularly conducted. The Philippines have sent six groups last year.
Here now in the conference, the director of the Southeast Asia Division of Tourism Malaysia announced that there was an increase of twenty percent in tourism arrivals in 2007 compared to last year. It was all paying off. Zainuddin Abdul Wahab said there about 20 million tourists who came to Malaysia in 2007, bringing in about 47 billion ringgits in foreign exchange earnings and surpassing their targets. The government believes that the growth will continue the following year and projects that twenty-two million tourists will come, bringing in revenue of fifty billion ringgits. Thus, it is extending the Visit Malaysia Year and the campaign until August 2008.
This year, the thrust will be more on promoting destinations as last year was more events-driven. Wahab also said that they will aim to strengthen niche tourism like education, as the country has about fifty-thousand foreign students, and medical tourism, as the country has about a hundred-thousand foreign patients in the last four years.
Additionally, three northern states in Peninsular Malaysia are having their own version of the “Visit” year, spurred by the country’s success. Terengganu, Kelantan and Kedah are priming up their destinations and lining up big events, which range from international races to festivals focusing on food and crafts.
The news were carried by Malaysia’s English-language newspaper The New Straits Times the following day with other good news—a new Malaysian graduate to deliver a lecture in Oxford; Malaysia being highly-rated by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum in travel and tourism; and the per capita income growing to 15,819 ringgit, a forty percent increase from 2004—and issues regarding the upcoming general elections, a handful of crime and something about the search for a little girl who has been missing for more than a month.
Presently, the Malaysian government was preparing for the Formula One race slated for late March and the Chinese New Year open house. Aside from races and sports competitions, religious and cultural festivals and holidays are primed up like the dazzling Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights, in late October; the Wesak Day of the Buddhists in late April, whose celebration is centered in Malacca; the Christmas of the Christians in late December; the Gawai Dayak, the harvest festival of the indigenous Ibans and Dayaks of Sarawak in early June; and the Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, a Muslim celebration signifying the end of a month-long fasting, important especially for a predominantly Muslim country like Malaysia.
Most of these are being celebrated nationally and declared official holidays, showcasing their giving importance and recognition of other cultures and races, even not indigenous, that had trickled into Malaysia, contributed to its formation and called it their home. This diversity is one of the sources from which their tourism, or at least its campaign, draws its strength and identity.
Malaysia is predominantly Malay, but it is also made up of Chinese, Indians and a few indigenous groups.
Malays make up about sixty percent of the country’s 27-million-people population, and it is considered that all Malays are Muslims. Belonging to the Malayo-Polynesian group, it is thought that their ancestors are the Proto-Malays and Deutero-Malays who came from Yunnan in China and first reached the peninsula around 2000 BC.
It is thought that the early Malays may have been Hindu and Buddhist because of influences from India, which dates back from 3 BC, and the domination of the Sri Vijayan Empire, which was based in Sumatra and whose territory included the Malaysian peninsula and Borneo. Though having contacts with Arab traders, being in a strategic location, the peninsula only began adopting Islam in the fifteenth century, when the rebellious Sri Vijayan prince Parameswara, expelled from Sumatra, established a kingdom in Malacca and officially adopted Islam. Soon after, sultanates began to sprout in the peninsula.
The Chinese, who now form about thrity-five percent of modern Malaysia and mostly speak Mandarin Chinese, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka and Teochew, had ancient trade ties with the peninsula. But it is recognized that the first establishment of a Chinese community was in the fifteenth century when the Ming princess Hang Li Po and her entourage arrived in Malacca. This is said to give rise to the so-called Babas and Nyonyas.
More Chinese, mostly from southern China, came in the nineteenth century as immigrants and migrant laborers, mainly in the tin mines of Perak and Selangor. Because of industriousness and enterprise, they soon thrived, venturing into trade and industry and reaching economicdominance. Kuala Lumpur itself, once a muddy mining town, can be said to begin to grow as the Chinese prosper.
The Indians also have ancient ties with the peninsula, but the bulk of present-day Indian Malaysians traced their forefathers from the indentured laborers brought by the British colonials, mainly to work in plantations of rubber and coffee. Many of the Indians are Hindu Tamils from southern India. Some of them wanted to escape the caste system of their own country but many migrated as traders, teachers and skilled workers. Today, the Indians make up ten percent of Malaysia’s population, the smallest. While most are Hindu, there is a small percentage of Muslims. They speak Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and Telugu. Also included in this grouping are the Punjabis from northern India, who are mostly Sikhs and who mostly came to join the army in Malaya; Sri Lankan Tamils, who came as white-collar workers; and some Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who came looking for employment opportunities.
Aside from these, Malaysia has a number of indigenous peoples like the Orang Asli in the peninsula, and the Ibans, the Bidayuhs and the Kadazan-Dushuns in the Malaysian part of Borneo in the east.
By the looks of it, Malaysia is a melting pot, and it is “truly Asia” as the ads say. Moreover, the government wants to project a harmonious coexistence among the different groups, and also itself as a developed nation with the celebration of its fiftieth anniversary in 2007. But many said that the picture is not rosy as the government wants to paint it. Ethnic tensions do exist, which occasionally erupt into confrontations. Many blame not just government inaction but to large extent its discriminatory policies.
Though the clamor about race relations in the country has increased in the recent years, Malaysia has had racial frictions in the past. One prominent episode is the race riots of 1964,where the Chinese and Malay groups clashed in Singapore, then a part of the Federation of Malaya.
Now, the specter of racial and religious tensions is said to still haunt Malaysia, and there are several cases and incidents that stressed that.
In April of 2007, ethnic Indian Revathi Masoosai was detained and sent for “rehabilitation” when she was found living as a Hindu when she is born a Muslim, and her 15-month-old daughter was seized from her Hindu husband. On the other hand, the Muslim-born Lina Joy was disallowed from converting to Christianity.
A Chinese-Malaysian student living Taiwan posted a video in YouTube mocking Malaysia’s national anthem in the wake of the preparation for the Merdeka celebration. While the Malays were enraged, some Chinese said that the video just restated a fact about the Malays’ laidback-ness and the Chinese’s industriousness.
In November of 2007, about ten-thousand Indians held a protest on the streets, supporting a lawsuit filed by a rights group against the British government for bringing their ancestors to Malaysia and showing their anger over the fact that they are still one of the poorest sections of the country.
These cases accentuate the perception of many on the divisiveness and polarization among the races in Malaysia as well as the growing Islamic influence that alienates other groups. An Indian activist remembered having friends over during Deepavali, even they were not Hindus, which seldom happen today, and notice that many children today seldom have friends of other religion. This scenario was notably affirmed by Raja Nazrin Shah, the crown prince of Perak, who remembered a boyhood in which children of different races and religions mingled more freely.
Many felt that the country’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which should have ended long ago, is still in effect. The controversial NEP is a socio-economic restructuring affirmative action program began in 1971, aimed at reducing the socio-economic gap between the Chinese and the Malays by, among others, according special privileges to the bumiputra, literally meaning “sons of the soil” and referring to the Malays and the indigenous peoples, and redistributing wealth with the bumiputra given a larger share.
It was aimed that the goals of the NEP will be achieved in twenty years and after that the policy will expire. In 1990, the New Development Policy, said to be just an extension of NEP, was implemented and was said to expire in 2000, which by that time it should be replaced by the more equitable National Vision Policy. However, there are talks whether NEP goals have been achieved and that it should continue, prompting clamor and debates.
An outside observer believes that the NEP made sense “when Malays were the poor underclass, and the economy was owned and run by Chinese, Indians and foreigners. But it now looks out of place in a modern Malaysia where Malays are clearly in charge and which aspires to join the ranks of developed nations by 2020.”
While joining the Chinese New Year celebrations around the country, Prime Minister Badawi inevitably touched on the race issue. While in a Chinese New Year celebration in George Town in Penang, the resort island with a sizable Chinese population, “Abdullah stressed that in fulfilling his responsibilities, he had to be fair to all races and called on everyone to work together to create a prosperous country,” The New Strait Times reported. The newspaper quoted him declaring, “As Malaysians, we must always feel we are among friends even though we are from the minority group when a function is organized. If we can have mutual respect among us, then we will be all right.”
Despite the racial tension and the lukewarm government response to it, what is undeniable is the fact Malaysia is determined to shuttle towards a development and modernity.
This was affirmed with the initial encounter of Malaysia—the sprawling and shining Kuala Lumpur International Airport, one of the biggest in Asia.
The airport is some fifty kilometers south of Kuala Lumpur. From the airport to KL, one passes by Putrajaya, a carefully-planned administrative capital, and the Multimedia Super Corridor.
Arranged by Tourism Malaysia, my cursory tour of Kuala Lumpur, with a couple of times venturing at its outskirts, consisted principally of the modern showcases—grand signs of progress and recreational facilities—and a smattering of cultural and historical sites, many of which I saw in passing glimpses.
But before I saw more of KL, I was shown Putrajaya.
Malaysia Puts its Best Foot Forward With Putrajaya
The Chinese New Year being a national non-working holiday, most of Putrajaya was a ghost town. The swish of water could be heard from a beautiful fountain in a wide island park in one portion of the city. The island was flanked by wide, clean streets accented with lampposts designed like a curling ribbon. I found out that each street has different designs of lampposts. One bore a flourish that resembles a traditional kite and another has a postmodern geometric design. One can miss the lampposts and the hedges and topiaries, also in varying shapes, as one looks up at the rows of buildings, most in glass and steel, lining the streets, silent and gleaming. Most of the buildings here were built along the lines of modern Arabic architecture that at a glance Putraraya looks like an affluent Middle-Eastern city. There is criticism on the dearth of native Malaysian design.
Most of the buildings here are government offices. In the 1980s, there were plans of building a new administrative center where government offices will be relocated. This was in part to decongest and prevent the overcrowding of Kuala Lumpur. A location was found 25 kilometers south of Kuala Lumpur, and Putrajaya rose in the mid-1990s. It was named after the first Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, and was made a federal territory like KL and the island of Labuan. In Malay, putra means “prince” and jaya “excellent” or “success.” While Putrajaya serves as the administrative center, KL remains to be the national and financial capital.
The center of Putrajaya, at least for tourists, is the Putra Square area in the part called Precinct 1. Two of the must-see attractions in the city are here: the Putra Mosque and the Perdana Putra.
That day, the people in Putrajaya were mostly tourists, who came by the busloads. They spilled into Putra Square, which is actually circular and designed as two concentric plazas with pocket gardens, fountains and flags. A large eleven-point square, representing the 11 states of the then newly independent Malaysia, adorned the center of the square. Inside the star is another star with thirteen points, representing the thirteen states forming Malaysia in 1963. Then finally another star at the innermost portion, this time with fourteen points to include the federal territories.
Just across the stars is the imposing Putra Mosque, made distinguishable because of its pink domes that look like plump dragon fruits, sitting by the bank of the man-made Putrajaya Lake. The mosque was completed in 1999 using rose-tinted granite and modeled after Safavid-era Persian architecture. From the square, the main entrance looks commanding. It is said to be patterned after the gates of public buildings in Muslim Persia while the basement walls after the King Hassan Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. Other architectural elements were drawn from other Muslim cultures. The minaret, for example, is inspired by the Sheikh Omar Mosque in Baghdad, Iraq.
Rising to 381 feet, the Putrajaya Mosque can accommodate 15,000 worshippers, and is divided into the prayer hall, the courtyard and the function rooms. There is also a library, a seminar room, a Koran manuscript museum, an auditorium and a foyer for exhibits.
We were not allowed to go inside the mosque, although on other days they allow visitors who are properly attired. For women, they provide pink robes and head scarves. We went to the stores instead. Beside the mosque there is a cluster of small shops and eateries, and a promenadeoverlooking the lake.
Also around the square is the most important government structure—the Perdana Putra. The Perdana Putra is a building complex that houses the offices of the prime minister, the deputy prime minister and other top-ranking officials. It is distinguished by a green onion-shaped dome, which crowns the main building. Completed the same time as the mosque, the Perdana Putra has an interesting mix of architectural styles—Islamic Mogul, Malay, British colonial and Roman.
Aside from these, the tourists has many choices to visit, mostly parks and buildings: the Putra Bridge, the Putrajaya Independence Square, the Millennium Monument, the Palace of Justice, the Seri Perdana, the Seri Perdana Bridge, the Putrajaya Landmark, the Putrajaya Wetlands Park, the Selatan Park, the Perdana Leadership Foundation, the Melawati National Palace, the Heritage Square, the Putrajaya Ministry of Finance, the Wisma Putra, the Selera Putra, the Darul Ehsan Palace, the Alamanda Putrajaya Mall and the Souq Putrajaya.
For a sweeping view of the city, one has to go to the Putrajaya Convention Center in Precinct 5 at the west end part of Putrajaya. The large convention center, which has the shape of a moon kite embellished with a design that resembles the pending perak (the royal belt buckle), sits atop a hill in one of the highest points of the city. One can contemplate on Putrajaya, an artificial city in the sense that everything is planned, landscaped, new and orderly, from the biggest building to the smallest street lamps. It is an “intelligent city” they say. They also call it garden city, taking into consideration the beautifying presence of nature however directed, thus the presence of the lake, wetlands and several parks. The most prominent is the 650-hectare Putrajaya Lake, where five of the projected eight bridges span over it, each having its own unique and avant-garde designs.
One can see construction going on. Putrajaya is still in development is and is projected to be finished in 2015. By then, all government agencies will be in Putrajaya, which will have a population of about 320,000 living in 64,000 housing units.
It is hard to imagine this area of about 5,000 hectares as a former plantation, the Prang Besar Estate once owned by the Harrison and Crosfield group of companies. Here rubber trees and oil palms, once Malaysia’s bounty crops, were cultivated. Some of the trees can still be seen today, perhaps as concession to history. They are of course dwarfed by the buildings and the parks in this shining showpiece of progress and planning.
Also exhibiting progress is Kuala Lumpur itself although there is less of the planning, at least in the past, and more of the past.
Views of Kuala Lumpur on Elevations
Kuala Lumpur is of course a more vibrant city, throbbing with life. It is also a city that is speeding towards modern development and fast keeping up with the times. Like any other capital of developing nations, it is speckled with posh hotels, sparkly commercial buildings and bustling malls. It is crisscrossed with smooth wide streets and flyovers. KL is a late-riser though. Most of these developments occurred in the latter part of the 20th century though and before that KL was a sleeping city. Before the century concluded, the city woke with a start, got into action and now shows no signs of stopping.
KL is relatively young compared to other cities in Asia. It is said to be founded in 1875 and started as a mining town in the Klang Valley in central Selangor in the west coast of the peninsula. It was initially located where the rivers Gombak and Klang meet, thus its name, which means “muddy confluence.”
Raja Abdullah of the Selangor royal family opened up the area for Chinese tin prospectors, and settlement started. It began attracting traders, who set up shops, and the town began to grow. The British administrators at that time appointed headmen for the community, called kapitan Cina or Chinese captain. The third kapitan Cina, Yap Ah Loy, was responsible for turning the town into a bustling city, which eventually became the biggest in Selangor and then its capital.
Many historical events happened in KL. The Malayan Union was declared here by the British in 1946. Congresses were held here objecting to the implementation of a Malayan Union. The first election was held in1952. And the independence was declared and the first Malayan flag raised here. In 1974, KL was declared a federal territory, detaching it from its mother state of Selangor, and it thus came of age. In the 1990s, during the Asian Economic Boom, KL began its rapidprogress to what it is now.
As if trying to catch up big time and wanting to make a splash in the world, KL built many things in a grand scale. Of course, foremost is the Petronas Twin Towers, which changed the city skyline forever and became KL’s most distinguishing mark as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the Big Ben to London. It is a feat in branding as much as it is in architecture. It is also a tourist draw.
When I was attending the Panagbenga, the flower festival of Baguio, which have been criticized as “artificial” being not rooted in tradition, a Filipino tourism undersecretary advised that one must create if there is not much in a place and mentioned the Petronas Towers as an example of that creativity that is able to lure tourists. I wondered if people went for the Petronas alone and thought that of course there is much more to KL than the building. It is undeniable though the strength and ambition this single—or double—building represents, which from 1998 to 2004 is the tallest in the world, especially for a developing country like Malaysia.
At night, the Petronas Towers is impressive, gleaming and beautiful. It is bathed in lights, slicing the night sky. It seems you can see the towers from any point in KL, a specter of the future. Up close, the towers become more impressive, relegating things around you to something like distant memory. I hardly remember the things around me when I went near the towers for the first time except that there is a park and people gawking and taking pictures. I can’t remember if I saw stars in the sky. Most likely there were none for the towers is one, outshining others here on Earth.
Designed by Argentinian-American architect Cesar Pelli, the Petronas Towers began construction in 1992 for Malaysia’s national oil and gas company. When it was completed in 1998 with1,483 feet, it toppled the Sears Tower in Chicago from being the tallest building in the world, passing the title to the another continent where it still stays. Petronas was surpassed by Taiwan’s Taipei 101, which is being challenged and according to some has been surpassed by a building in Dubai even if it is not yet completed. But Petronas remains to be the tallest twin buildings in the world.
But it is not only the height that makes the Petronas Towers remarkable. It is also the engineering and the design. Pelli wrote a book about its construction, Petronas Towers: The Architecture of High Construction.
“From the West, the Petronas Towers embody the great spirit of buildings that reach to the heavens, a spirit born on the plains of the American Midwest and now found on nearly every continent on earth. The towers reflect the latest technology in making tall buildings, with modern materials such as stainless steel cladding, which makes these spires glisten on the skyline,” he wrote. “From the East, the design embraces the architecture and decorative arts of Malaysia. When viewed in plan, the towers appear as two overlapping squares — interlocking heaven and earth — to create an eight-pointed star, which is further refined with half-circles between the star points. The spirit of the geometry is Islamic, the dominant Malaysian culture, and the geometric pattern is found throughout the country in screens, architectural ornament, and decorative arts.”
He also wrote about the Skybridge, which connects the two towers at the 41st and 42nd floors. “The skybridge was not a requirement of the building program, but as the project developed it became an essential part of the overall functions of the towers,” he said. “It links two sky lobby levels in both towers permitting easy access to meeting rooms, an executive dining room and a surau (prayer room), distributed between the towers.”
The 88-floor buildings with a steel and glass façade were largely constructed of reinforced concrete, which was considered unusual at that time. There was a dearth in the preferred material, steel, and it was too costly to import it, thus high-strength reinforced concrete was used, which is said to be as effective as steel in sway reduction. It made the buildings heavy on their foundations though. The Petronas Towers is supported by thick concrete cores and an outer ring of widely-spaced super columns.
Thousands of visitors go to the towers everyday. Every morning, they line up for the free passes that will take them to the 41st and 42nd floors, where the Skybridge is. The rest of the building is off-limits to them. Tower One is occupied by the Petronas company and its subsidiaries and associate companies, while the other is leased to other companies for their offices.
It will eat up half of your day before you can go up the towers, said our guide, who had decided to chuck going to the Petronas out of the itinerary. Instead we went to the Kuala Lumpur Tower which in his opinion is a better option and which offers an equally good view of the city. It may be even higher than the Petronas, he believes, because the tower stands on a hill.
The hill he mentioned is called Nanas. Along with its surroundings, it is a forest reserve with an area of about nine hectares and a century-old jelutong (Dyera costulata) tree protected by a retaining wall. The tower was moved at a cost when it was about to be built to avoid harming the tree.
Surrounded by the oldest gazetted forest reserve at the heart of the city, the KL Tower rises to 421 meters, the fifth highest tower in the world. It began construction in 1991 and was completed in May 1996. The base is a beehive of activity. The terrace, adorned with fountains, leads to a cluster of souvenir and food shops, including the highest McDonald’s in the world. Around, there are more shops and a small open-air amphitheater.
Domes encrusted with pieces of glass adorn the lobby of the so-called touristic building. They are made to look like Muqarnas of Esfahan, Iran, and Iranian craftsmen were hired to fashion this Islamic design. Under one dome, we took the lift to the observation deck where there were more shops, including a photo studio with royal costumes for rent, and a spectacular view. The tower affords visitors a view of Kuala Lumpur from every direction. There are binoculars stationed around the deck, and audio tour services are available.
Being at the heart of Kuala Lumpur, the KL Tower enables one to see the sprawl of buildings and patches of green, stretching to the hazy yonder. The Petronas Towers dwarf other buildings around it but it is somehow dwarfed by the stretch of mountains and hills on its background.
Aside from telecommunication, the KL Tower is also used to look for the crescent moon that will signify the start of the Muslim month of Ramadan and the start of fasting. Now, we were looking at the bright sky and looking down at a rousing city, on the verge of discovering a different way of seeing things.
We looked at another part of Kuala Lumpur at an elevated vantage point again but on a Ferris wheel. By the man-made lake of Titiwangsa Lake Garden, one of the many parks and gardens of the city, the Eye on Malaysia rises to 60 meters, once the largest portable observation wheel in Southeast Asia.
When the Visit Malaysia Year was launched in 2007, so was the Eye on Malaysia, patterned after The Eye of London, set to be one of the country’s attractions. The wheel has forty-two gondolas, including a VIP gondola equipped with plush leather seats, a small refrigerator, a DVD player, a plasma TV and a mobile telephone.
The twelve-minute ride affords a view of the KL skyline with the Petronas Towers of course and the surrounding area—the lake with its spurting fountains, the gardens, the recreational facilities and the sports complex.
That Ferris wheel ride was complemented by a visit to an underwater park, which every major city in the world is beginning to have. The Aquaria KLCC is one of the newest attractions of Kuala Lumpur. Again, it is one of largest of its kind in the world. It is located underneath the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center, near the Petronas Towers.
The Aquaria sprawls to about 60,000 square feet in two levels, filled with aquaria, tanks and about 250 species of animals. The concept of the park is about showing the journey of water from land to sea. Environments touched by water, like mountains and rainforests, are featured as well as some animals that live in them like frogs, turtles and lizards. One wall is studded with glass cases containing different species of geckos and wreathed with artificial vines. A series of tanks displays different freshwater fishes including a giant catfish. There is the requisite petting pool with turtles, rock lobsters and starfish.
There is also a large cylindrical aquarium with a live tree inside it and surrounded by a large school of fish. More tanks lay at its foot. There are nineteen all in all. The highlight of the park is its largest aquarium, which can hold about two million liter of water and features a 90 meter tunnel that affords visitors the sensation of being underwater with sharks hovering above. Schools of fish, sharks and stingrays swim around the aquarium, darting in and out of a mock shipwreck, a replica of Royal Nanhai. An occasional diver feeding the fish delights viewers.
The underwater park seems to be a popular destination. It was a tad crowded when we went there. The park averaged a thousand visitors when it opened, and it did not seem to diminish. They all spill into the souvenir shop, which is almost large enough to be a mall, at the end of the tour. It is almost as interesting as the tanks, selling stuffed toys of dolphins and seal pups andoctopus refrigerator magnets, among others.
Shopping from Bukit Bintang to Petaling Street
But serious shopping can be done all over the city, which has myriad malls and shopping districts. Most of it can be found at the Golden Triangle, northeast of the city center, the location of the Petronas Towers. It is also where the night life of KL is, along with a number of five-star hotels.
At the Petronas Towers itself, there is the posh Suria KLCC, 140,000 square meters and six floors of shops, boutiques, restaurants, cafes and movie theaters. There is also a concert hall, an art gallery and a science center.
South of Petronas is the famous Bukit Bintang, or Star Hill, spanned by three streets, Bukit Bintang, Pudu and Sultan Ismail. Berjaya Times Square, Bukit Bintang Plaza, Imbi Plaza, Kuala Lumpur Plaza, Low Yat Plaza, Starhill Gallery, Sungei Wang Plaza, Lot 10 and the newly opened Pavilion make shopping here lively. The most happening place here is the Bintang Walk at Bukit Bintang Street.
Southwest of Bukit Bintang is KL’s Chinatown, marked by its main street Petaling, which is for shoppers of tougher constitution. Part of the street is overflowing with portable stalls that operate late into the night. Petaling Street is notorious though for fake items, from fashion to DVDs, and haggling is the way to shop. One can also find many restaurants and food stalls here as well as a number of cheap hotels.
The Petaling Street area was home to rival Chinese secret societies during the mining days of Kuala Lumpur. Wars occasionally erupted. One in 1870 saw many buildings in the settlement burning down before the British authorities could intervene. Kuala Lumpur was on the verge of disappearing when the tin mines became unworkable after the Selangor Civil War but Captain Yap Ah Loy persuaded the workers to remain. He opened a tapioca mill on Petaling Street and persuaded the Malays to cultivate rice and vegetables in the surrounding district.
Petaling Street now is one of the busiest areas in KL. Around the street, the Jamek Mosque with its Moorish architecture; the Central Market with its handicrafts; and Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, one of KL’s oldest and richest Hindu temples are sites of interest. After a face lift in 2003, there are plans of making the street a heritage site.
A Dash of Culture and History
Interspersed within the tour were sites important to Malaysian culture and history.
The National Palace or Istana Negara and the Dataran Merdeka or Merdeka Square top the list of places to go in Kuala Lumpur.
On Istana Street, at the slope of Petaling Hill overlooking the Klang River, is the Istana Negara, the royal residence of the king of Malaysia, called here as “yang di-rertuan agong,” which is usually translated as “supreme ruler.”
Along the highway, one notices the place because of the number of tourist buses parked on the side. Tourists come to see the ceremonial changing of the guards. Because the palace is off-limits to the public, they can only gawk at the yellow-painted palace from the gate.
Sitting on an eleven-hectare landscaped compound, the palace is originally a mansion built in 1928 and owned by Chan Wing, a Chinese millionaire. It was taken by the Japanese during the Japanase occupation in the early 1940s. After that, the mansion was bought by state of Selangor and made it the palace of its sultan. In 1957, it was bought by the federal government and made it into the royal residence. The sovereign post then was newly created.
Being a constitutional monarchy, Malaysia is headed by a king, which is elected among the nine rulers of the nine states of Malaysia. The de-facto position rotates every five years. The current king is the sultan of Terengganu, Mizan Zainal Abidin.
The Istana Negara has two wings—the east and the west. In the East Wing is the throne room. This is where ceremonies, receptions and banquets are held. The West Wing is where the Conference of Rulers is held. Around the palace, there are gardens and recreational facilities.
The king also has another royal residence in Putrajaya called Istana Melawati.
On the other hand, the Merdeka Square is the site of one of the most important events in the country’s history: its independence.
The Merdeka Square is in the heart of the city center, a grassy field. It is actually a former cricket green called Selangor Club Padang of the Selangor Club (now Royal Selangor Club), whose Tudor-style building built in 1890 is adjacent to the field.
Across the field is a row of charming old buildings, among which the State Secretariat Building, now the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, stands out with its Moorish architecture. Built in 1897 by the British, it housed several important departments during the British administration. There is also the building of the National History Museum and the Memorial Library, which dates back to 1909 and century-old, Gothic-style Saint Mary’s Anglican Cathedral.
At the southern end of the square is a 95-meter flagpole, once the tallest in the world. On this spot, the Union Jack was lowered and the Malaysian flag was hoisted up for the first time on August 31, 1957. People gathered on the field on the eve of August 31, and watched the clock of State Secretariat Building. At the strike of midnight, they shouted “Merdeka” seven times. TheBritish officially handed power to Malaysia with Tunku Abdul Rahman becoming its first prime minister.
From a Foundation of Pewter
One of the must-visit sites in Kuala Lumpur is the Royal Selangor pewter factory in Setapak. Other historical sites in KL stand out because of its political importance. On the other hand, Royal Selangor tells the story of a migrant worker who came to Malaya during the tin mining rush to make a life for himself and succeeded. Royal Selangor is also a remnant of the tin mining days of Malaysia.
Tin is one of the major resources of Malaysia, and the mining industry, which was one of the oldest, has contributed substantially to its economy. Tin mining started in the 1820s and was concentrated in the Kinta Valley in the state of Perak. The tin belt includes the states of Kedah Selangor and Johore. Kuala Lumpur was also a bustling tin-mining area.
During those times, Chinese immigrants, mostly Hakka and Cantonese, came to work in the mines. In 1885, fifteen-year-old Yong Koon Seong, the founder of Royal Selangor, traveled from Shantou in Guangdong province to Malaya. He brought with him enough knowledge in pewter-smithing. In Kuala Lumpur, he set a little shop called Ngeok Foh, selling objects made of pewter, mostly for ceremonial use like joss sticks holders, incense burners and candle stands. Theoffering expanded to tankards, ashtrays and tea sets with the arrival of the British.
Yong Koon’s business grew, and he returned to China and got a bride. He had three sons, who eventually set up pewter businesses of their own. One kept his father’s business alive. Yong Koon died in 1952 at the age of eighty-one.
By the 1970s, the company started exporting to Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia. Europe and Japan followed in the 1980s. Now, Royal Selangor exports to more than 20 countries and offers amazing array of products from the traditional tankards to tableware and gift items, which are noted for their designs and craftsmanship.
The factory in Setapak, a glass and steel affair, constantly receives streams of visitors. Recently, it opened a visitor center, which includes a museum and a shop. Beside the building is the world’s largest tankard. Crafted in 1985, the company’s centenary, the tankard stands at almost seven feet and weighs 1,557 kilograms.
The museum tells the story of the company as well as about tin mining in Malaysia. The center has a number of parts that aim to inform and amuse. There is a replica of the Petronas Towers made entirely of tankards. Visitors are also shown how some pewter items are crafted. Actually the company also offers workshops on pewter ware.
One item, an old melon-shaped teapot, in the museum tells an interesting tale. During the Second World War, villagers of Kajang were rushing to get rice. One villager picked up the teapot instead when a bomb exploded and a piece of shrapnel missed hitting his head. The villager believed that the teapot saved his life. It turned out the teapot was a handiwork of Yong Koon.
But the Royal Selangor itself is one inspiring story.
The National Museum and the Batu Caves
On our last day, the schedule was freer, and we were able to squeeze in two more destinations—determinedly cultural. We felt that we must pay a visit to a museum. There are several in Kuala Lumpur, but the aptest choice was the National Museum, or the Muzium Negara.
The museum is located outside the Perdana Lake Gardens and sports a Minangkabau-inspired architecture and a large mural depicting the history of Malaysia. History is further told inside, from the tin mining days to the independence. There were other small thematic exhibits in the museum. But many parts were under restoration. Some artifacts and models of traditional houses were on display in the gardens. But overall, it was a modest affair. There is not much to see, our guide said. Thus, it was not in the itinerary.
In the Gombak district of Selangor, thirteen kilometers north of Kuala Lumpur, the 400-million-year-old limestone hill with a series of caves attracts devotees and tourists alike. Coming from Kuala Lumpur, the hill rises among the network of highways and houses, a gathering of big gray stones wreathed with vegetation. The Batu Caves house a complex of Hindu temples, which is officially called Batumalai Sri Subramaniar Swamy Devasthanam.
By the entrance, stalls lined the streets, selling leis of bright flowers. The temple complex is dedicated to the Hindu deity Muruga and his imposing statue, painted in gold, stands by a flight of stairs that lead to the main cave.
At the foot of the hill, there are souvenir shops, vegetarian eateries, offices and other temples. The Batu Caves is managed by the board of management of Sri Maha Mariamman Temple Devasthanam, which also managed the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur and the Kortumalai Pillaiyar Temple, and serves as consultant on Hindu affairs to the Malaysian government.
The temple complex is said to be founded by the Tamil Indian trader K. Thambusamy Pillai in 1891, installing a statue of Sri Subramania Swamy in the main cave, now known as the temple cave. To get there, one must take the flight of 272 steps. Along the way, one is likely see macaques, waiting for handouts. Devotees oblige by giving pieces of fruits. At the Temple Cave, there is an eatery, a few shops and a few temples.
The Temple Caves is said to attract between three- to five-thousand people daily. Many are devotees, some coming from other countries. During the Thaipusam festival, many more come. The Batu Caves have become an important pilgrimage site.
It was dark inside the main cave, but it was lit by the sacred fires and brightened by the colorful saris of the Indian women. A skylight opened at the end of cave, and sunshine bathed a small temple with dappled light. Incense smoke curled upwards towards the sky.
I saw several men in saffron robes with their bald head covered in curry. A couple carrying a sleeping baby was considering a religious portrait in one of the stalls. I thought it was similar to us buying a picture of the Virgin Mary, only the image of their deity has too many arms. As I went down, one family was going up, carrying a baby in an orange hammock strung on poles of sugarcane.
I thought I was in India, but it has always been Malaysia with its confluence of the old and new, and different cultures.
Malaysia Airlines has regular flights from Manila to Kuala Lumpur. Its Manila office is at Unit F, ground floor, Legaspi Towers 300, Vito Cruz Street corner Roxas Boulevard, Malate, with telephone numbers (632) 525-9404 and (632) 525-9415.
Air Asia Airlines, a Malaysian budget airline company, also has Manila-Kuala Lumpur flights. Check out Web site at www.airasia.com.
The Tourism Malaysia headquarter in Kuala Lumpur is at the 17th floor of Menara Dato' Onn, Putra World Trade Centre, 45, Jalan Tun Ismail, with phone number +603-2615-8188, fax +603-2693 5884/2693 0207, tourism Infoline: 1-300-88-5050 (within Malaysia only), and Web sites www.tourism.gov.my and www.tourismmalaysia.gov.my
In the Philippines, its marketing office is at the Malaysian Embassy, 11th floor, The World Center, 330 Sen. Gil Puyat Avenue, Makati City, with telephone numbers (+632) 864-0761 to 68, fax number (+632) 891-1697 and email firstname.lastname@example.org.
There several overseas Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board offices.
In Australia, it is at 355 Exhibition Street, Melbourne, Victoria, with phone 00613 9654 3177 and fax 00613 9654 3176; at the ground floor, MAS Building, 56, William Street, Perth, with phone +0061894810400 and fax +0061893211421; and at Level 2, 171 Clarence Street, Sydney, with phone: +0061292994441/4442/4443 and fax +0061292622026.
In Canada, it is at 1590-1111, West Georgia Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, with phone +006046898899, fax +006046898804 and Web site www.malaysiantourism.ca.
In China, it is at 2, Liang Ma Qiao Bei Jie, Chaoyang District, Beijing, with phone +00862065322531/2532 and fax +00861065325376; at Unit 1915-1918, CITIC Plaza, No. 233, Tian He Bei Road, Tian He District, Guangzhou, with phone 00862 0387 73691 and Fax 00862 0387 73692; and at Unit 1109, Level 11, CITIC Square, 1168 Nanjing Road West, Jing An District, Shanghai, with phone +008621-5292-5252 ext 201/205/206/207 and fax +0086-5292-5948. Log on to www.tourismmalaysia.cn.
In France, it is at 29 Rue des Pyramides, Paris, with phone +33 1 429 741 71, fax +33 1 429 741 69 and Web site www.ontmalaisie.com.
In Germany, it is at Weissfrauenstrasse 12 - 16, D-60311 Frankfurt am Main, with phone 0049 69 460923420, fax 0049 69 460923499 and Web site www.tourismmalaysia.de.
In Hong Kong, it is at the ground floor, Malaysia Building, 47-50 Gloucester Road, Hong Kong, with phone 00852 2528 5810/5811, fax 00852 2865 4610 and Web site www.tourismmalaysia.com.hk.
In India, it is at the4th floor, Vijaya Towers, No. 4, Kodambakkam High Road, Chennai, with phone +0091 44 4506 8080/8181/8282 and Fax +0091 44 4506 8383; at 123, Jolly Maker Chamber II, 12th Floor, Nariman Point, Mumbai, with phone +0091 226635 2085 and fax +0091 226639 0702; and at the Le Meridien Hotel, Commercial Towers, first floor, 8 Janpath, Windsor Place, New Delhi, with phone ++91-11-41506105/08 and fax +91-11-41506106.
In Indonesia, it is at Jalan H.R Rasuna Said, Kav.x/6, No. 1-3, Kuningan, Jakarta Selatan, with phone: +0062215220765/4947 ext. 3030 and fax +0062215220766; and at 43, Jalan Diponegoro, 20152 Medan, Sumatera Utara, with phone +0062614523192 and Fax +0062614523179.
In Italy, it is at Via Privata della Passarella, Nr. 4, Milan, with phone +390 279 6702/6723 and fax +390 279 6806.
In Japan, it is at the 10th Floor, Cotton Nissay Building, 1-8-2 Otsubo-Honmachi, Nishi-ku, Osaka, with phone +0081664441220 and fax +0081664441380; and at the fifth flor of Chiyoda Building, 1-6-4 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, with phone +0081335018691/8694 and fax +0081335018692. Log on to Web site www.tourismmalaysia.or.jp.
In Saudi Arabia, it is at Lot 241, Al Mualiffin Street, Al Rehab District, Jeddah, with phone +0096626728019/7740 and fax +009662652391.
In Korea, it is at the second floor, Hansung Building, 47-2 Seosomun-dong, Chung-ku, Seoul, with phone +008227794422/4251, Fax +008227794254 and Website www.mtpb.co.kr.
In Russia, it is at Mosfilmovskaya Ulitsa 50, Moscow, with phone +749 514 7 1514/1512/1523 and Fax +749 593 796 02.
In Singapore, it is at #01-01B/C/D No. 80, Robinson Road, with phone +0265326321 and fax +0265356650.
In South Africa, it is at the first floor, Building 5, Commerce Square, 39, Rivonia Road, Sandhurst, Johannesburg, with phone +0027112680292/5 and fax +002711 268 0296.
In Sweden, it is at Klarabergsgatan 35, 2tr, Box 131, Stockholm, with phone +468 249 900, fax +468 242 324, and Web site www.malaysiaturist.net.
In Taiwan, it is at the Suite C, 8th floor, Hung Tai Centre, 170 Tun Hwa North Road, Taipei, with phone +00886225149704/9734 and fax +00886225149973.
In Thailand, it is at Unit 1001, Liberty Square, 287, Silom Road, Bangkok, with phone +006626311994/1995/1996 and fax +006626311998.
In Turkey, it is at Valikonagi Caddesi, 11/1, Oba Apt., Nisantasi, Istanbul, with phone +902 122 252 761/368 and fax +902 122 403 691.
In the United Arab Emirates, it is at Suite No. 9, Mezzanine Floors, Al-Shafeena Building, Near Lamcy Plaza, Al-Zabeel Road, Al-Hamriya, P.O Box 4598, Dubai, with phone +0097143377578 and fax +0097143353318.
In the United Kingdom, it is at 57 Trafalgar Square London, London, with phone +442 079 307 932 and fax +442 079 309 015.
In the United States, it is at 818 West Seventh Street, Suite 970, Los Angeles, California, with phone +0012136899702 and fax +0012136891530; and at 120 East, 56th Street, Suite 810, New York, with phone +001 212754 1113 and fax. +001 212754 1116. Log on to www.tourismmalaysiausa.com.
The Personal Album