Words and photos by Bert Casal
When the British colonized Malaysia, the latter was teeming with tin. Miners hired workers from China to help mine the metal. During those days, they would move the tin from one place to another via the rivers. But this took too long, so workers from India were brought in to build railroad tracks for trains to transport both goods and passengers.
In 1881, tragedy struck the nation when a huge fire consumed the town. This was known as The Great Fire of Kuala Lumpur. The townspeople tried desperately to snuff the flames, but the fire was too great. But with a sudden twist of fate, rains from the heavens poured down and aided in putting out the fire. The people rejoiced at their luck, for the time being that is, for the rains did not stop. Floodwaters began to rise, and rise, and rise, until the muddy waters decimated the whole town. The Great Flood of December 1881 should have driven the people away; instead, it awakened their spirits and fueled their determination to rebuild the town.
This story of Kuala Lumpur’s beginnings is staged in a one-hour musical entitled “MUD” at the Panggung Bandaraya building. This structure was built at the turn of the twentieth century and was one of the first few structures to mark the new city of Kuala Lumpur. This Mughal-inspired complex features a unique facade with a copper dome above the main porch. It served as the first official administration office for the Kuala Lumpur Sanitary Board, as well as a venue for officials to plan the city of KL. It was also the home for performing arts and contemporary performances.
Beside the Panggung Bandaraya building stands the historic Sultan Abdul Samad Building. This structure formerly housed the superior courts of the country. Today, this historic landmark houses the Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture of Malaysia. Directly across it is Merdeka Square, a symbol of British sovereignty as it was used as a cricket ground for the colonial administrators. It is also the venue where the Union Jack flag was lowered and the Malaysian flag was hoisted for the very first time in 1957.
Along Merdeka Square’s periphery is the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery. This historical building used to be a printing press that produced official government reports, government books, and train tickets. It was then converted into the Metropolitan Postal Security Office in the 1970s. Today it is the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery, a museum that tells the story of KL through photos and miniatures. The main attraction is a light and sound show in a room that displays a scaled miniature of the whole city.
The city of Kuala Lumpur has mosques and old government structures amongst modern high-rise buildings; the most famous of all is the PETRONAS Towers, the tallest twin buildings in the world. A sky bridge connects the two towers on the 46th and 47th floors; the former dedicated to tourists while the latter serves the tenants. The bridge is not actually attached to the buildings. Instead they were designed to slide in and out in strong wind conditions. The bridge also serves as an alternative exit point from one building to the other. On the 86th floor is another viewing deck where you get, quite literally, a bird’s eye view of the city.
Another attraction that Malaysia is known for is its racing circuit. Slated at the beginning of the year, Malaysia hosts the Formula 1 race at Sepang International Circuit. Equally popular is the Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix held in October. But for 2016, the Malaysian Formula 1 race will take place in the first week of October, a couple of weeks before the MotoGP. This gives motorsport fans the chance to see both races in one trip.
During my stay in Kuala Lumpur, the International Aborigines and Indigenous Art Festival was ongoing. We went over to Stadium Titiwangsa at the Titiwangsa Lake Gardens, a public recreational park that includes jogging tracks, aqua biking, canoeing, and other outdoor activities. The Festival aims to build a strong network of the Aboriginal community. The countries that participated in this event are New Zealand, Indonesia, Ghana, Thailand, the Philippines, China, and Canada. The participating nations featured local goods in their respective booths as well as a performance art demonstration on stage. The indigenous music and tribal costumes of each country truly define the word “festival” and gave life to the celebrations. Much like the Philippines, Malaysia has a couple or more festivals and events every month of the year. The festivals pay homage to their roots, varying from offerings of gratitude to the sun for a good harvest to a simple revelry of song, dance, and performance arts.
I also had the chance to visit Putrajaya, Malaysia’s third and latest Federal territory. The city spans an area of almost 5,000 hectares and lies 25 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur. A lot of planning was put into the development of Putrajaya. The buildings exude a blend of modern architecture with touches of Islamic arts along well-paved roads. Putrajaya has become the home of the International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta where balloons of all shapes, sizes and colors converge.
Another attraction in Putrajaya is a river cruise, available during the day or nighttime. Boats can be rented for varying purposes, such as sightseeing, dinner parties, sunset cruises, wedding receptions, and even an educational tour for children. Signing up on one of these cruises, you will surely see the Putra Mosque, Putrajaya’s most distinctive landmark. The Putra Mosque is built using Islamic architecture and blends traditional designs, local craftsmanship, and the use of indigenous materials. The mosque is constructed in rose-tinted granite, giving it a desert pink hue that offsets the cengal woodwork on the doors, window frames, and panels. It can accommodate up to 10,000 worshipers at a time and can be used to hold conferences, seminars, and symposiums.
A new and exciting adventure will open in Malaysia next year. Opening in 2016 is Asia’s first animation theme park called Movie Animation Park Studios (MAPS). Occupying 52 acres and strategically located in Ipoh (a two-hour drive from either Kuala Lumpur or Penang), the park will feature more than 40 attractions in 6 themed zones that include Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Megamind, The Croods, and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Twenty-three rides and shows are slated along with 18 themed dining venues. Additionally, the park will feature Southeast Asia’s first live Car and Bike Stunt Show with seats that can accommodate up to 2,000 spectators.
The nightlife in Kuala Lumpur is quite active, as restaurants and bars buzz with locals and expatriates. Bar hopping is best experienced when walking from one establishment to the other. Walking around at night is quite safe for tourists, so long as you stick to the main and well-lit roads (as I was told). Malaysians love coffee, and what you might call “third wave” coffee shops can be found around the city.
Kuala Lumpur is an awesome city. It is a city filled with cultural diversity, yet united as one nation. They showed their fiery spirit when they had to rebuild their city after the muddy floods. Not only did they build a city, they built it with a plan and a purpose. Now it’s your turn, take that first step and visit Tourism Malaysia’s website at www.tourism.gov.my to check out the wonderful attractions that Malaysia has to offer. Red Rock Travel Facilitators (www.redrocktravel.net) has a list of packaged tours that may interest you.