Founded at the head of the Klang Valley in the mid-nineteenth century, Kuala Lumpur – widely known as KL – has never had a coherent style. The earliest grand buildings around Merdeka Square, dating from the 1890s, are eccentric fusings of influences from across the British Empire, now overshadowed by soaring modern landmarks (notably the Petronas Towers) that wouldn’t be out of place in Hong Kong or New York. This melange extends to the people too; attractions aside, you could spend a visit simply soaking up KL’s excitingly diverse Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures: the conversations heard on the street, the huge range of food, and the profusion of mosques, Buddhist temples and Hindu shrines.
Although KL is also a noticeably sociable and safe place, many Malaysians have mixed feelings about their capital. Though the city is second only to Singapore in regional economic clout, the former prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, hit the mark when describing KL’s first-class infrastructure as betrayed by a third-world mentality, and demonstrating a poor grasp of planning, maintenance and service. Untrammelled development over the last decade has bequeathed the city many featureless buildings, follies and terrible traffic snarl-ups, which some locals tolerate only because KL offers them good money and experience before they retire to a cherished provincial village. Conversely, others feel that it has been their salvation, the one city in the country that’s big and broad-minded enough to allow them to explore their true artistic or spiritual identity.
Travellers who visit both KL and Singapore often conclude that if only KL could acquire some of Singapore’s ability to organize systematically and transparently, while Singapore had some of KL’s pleasingly organic qualities and didn’t take itself quite so seriously, then both cities would benefit. As things stand, they remain rivals, competing in their own way for investment and recognition while grudgingly admiring each other.
A stay of a few days is enough to appreciate the best of KL’s attractions, including the colonial core around Merdeka Square and the adjacent enclaves of Chinatown and Little India, plus, to the east, the restaurants, shops and nightlife of the so-called Golden Triangle, the modern heart of downtown KL. It can be equally rewarding just to take in KL’s street life, in particular its boisterous markets, ranging from fish and produce markets stuffed into alleyways, to stalls selling cooked food of every shape and description, or inexpensive clothes and accessories.
KL’s hinterland is hardly devoid of worthwhile sights either, among them the rugged limestone Batu Caves, which contain the country’s most sacred Hindu shrine; FRIM, or the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, with a treetop canopy walkway for a quick taste of the rainforest; Kuala Selangor and its magical fireflies; and the hard-to-reach birding hotspot of Fraser’s Hill.
Brief history of Kuala Lumpur
KL was founded in 1857 when the ruler of Selangor State, Rajah Abdullah, sent a party of Chinese to prospect for tin deposits around the junction of the Gombak and Klang rivers. The pioneers duly discovered rich deposits 6km from the confluence near Ampang (east of the present-day city centre), which grew into a staging post for Chinese mine labourers. Unusually, the settlement acquired the name Kuala Lumpur (“muddy confluence”) rather than, as convention dictated, being named after the lesser of the two rivers – KL should, by rights, have been called “Kuala Gombak”.
At first, KL was little more than a wooden shantytown; small steamers could approach within 30km along Sungai Klang, but the rest of the trip was either by shallow boat or through the jungle. Yet settlers poured in, seeking to tap the wealth of this unexplored region: British investors, Malay farmers, Chinese towkays (merchants) and labourers. The Chinese also formed two secret societies, the fierce rivalry between which restrained the township’s growth until the influential former miner Yap Ah Loy was appointed as Kapitan Cina, or Chinese headman, in 1869. Ah Loy brought law and order to the frontier town by ruthlessly making an example of criminals, parading them through the streets on a first offence and executing them if they re-offended twice. He led the rebuilding of KL after it was razed during the Selangor Civil War (1867–73) and personally bore much of the cost of a second rebuilding after a devastating fire in 1881.
The British Resident of Selangor State, Frank Swettenham, had most of KL’s remaining wooden huts demolished in the 1880s and imported British architects from India to design solid, grand edifices suitable for a new capital. By 1887 the city had five hundred brick buildings, and eight times that number in the early 1900s, by which time KL had also become capital of the Federated Malay States.
The early twentieth century
Development continued steadily in the first quarter of the twentieth century, during which time Indians from Tamil Nadu swelled the population. Catastrophic floods in 1926 inspired a major engineering project that straightened the course of Sungai Klang, confining it within reinforced, raised banks. By the time the Japanese invaded the Peninsula in December 1941, the commercial zone around Chinatown had grown to eclipse the original colonial area, and the towkays, enriched by the rubber boom, were already installed in opulent townhouses along today’s Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and Jalan Ampang. While the city suffered little physical damage during World War II, the Japanese inflicted terrible brutality on their historic enemies, the Chinese (at least five thousand of whom were killed in the first few weeks of the occupation alone), and sent thousands of Indians to Burma to build the infamous railway, of whom very few survived. At the same time, the Japanese ingratiated themselves with certain Malays by suggesting that loyalty to the occupiers would be rewarded with independence after the war.
Following the Japanese surrender in September 1945, the British found that nationalist demands had replaced the Malays’ former acceptance of the colonizers, while many Chinese felt alienated by talk that a future Malay government would deny them full citizenship. The ensuing Communist-inspired Emergency left KL relatively unscathed, but the atmosphere in the city was tense. These issues finally came to a head in KL’s May 1969 race riots, in which at least two hundred people lost their lives, though things calmed down rapidly after the imposition of a state of emergency.
In 1974 KL was plucked from the bosom of Selangor State and designated Wilayah Persekutuan (Federal Territory), an administrative zone in its own right; Shah Alam, west along the Klang Valley, replaced it as Selangor’s capital. After a period of consolidation, KL and the rest of the Klang Valley, including KL’s satellite new town of Petaling Jaya, became a thriving conurbation in the 1990s. That decade, and the early part of the new millennium, saw the realization of several huge infrastructural ventures that are part and parcel of local life today – KL’s international airport and the Formula One racetrack, both at Sepang in the far south of Selangor; the Petronas Towers and the attendant KLCC shopping development; the various urban rail systems across the city; and Putrajaya, the government’s administrative hub off to the south (though KL remains the legislative centre and seat of parliament). The transformation of swathes of KL and much of Selangor is less dramatic today, but still proceeds apace – not least in the ongoing construction of the Klang Valley MRT rail network – and concerns are being voiced over the potential strain on water resources and other environmental repercussions.
- Be awestruck by the Petronas TowersCome to gawp at these surprisingly serene twin towers, then browse in one of KL's best shopping malls just beneath.
What to do in Kuala Lumpur
- Scale the Menara KL TowerForget the Petronas Towers' Skybridge – this is the place for bird's-eye views of KL in all its glory.
- Explore the Islamic Arts MuseumOne of the most sophisticated museums in the capital, documenting Muslim cultures through arts and crafts.
- Eating around Jalan AlorKL has excellent restaurants offering cuisines from around the world, but it's the street food, notably around Jalan Alor, that's often the most memorable.
- Drinking in TRECKL is Malaysia's party capital, home to exceptional clubs like Zouk that draw big-name DJs.
- Shopping in KL's malls and marketsWhether you prefer the bright lights of the state-of-the-art malls or the bustle of the city's endless street markets and bazaars, KL is a city made for bargain-hunting.
- Visit the Batu CavesEqual parts spiritual destination and theme park, these limestone caves on the edge of KL house a Hindu temple complex and offer subterranean adventures. Book a day trip that includes exploring the Genting Highlands.
- Take the kids to the Aquaria KLCCSome sections of this aquarium are wonderful; the pièce de résistance is the vast Living Ocean tank, which is traversed on a moving walkway through a transparent tunnel, replete with sand tiger sharks, octopuses and huge rays.
- Discover KL's greener sideIt can be easy to get lost in the urban jungle, but make sure to take time out to visit KL's bird park, butterfly park, orchid and deer gardens. Tours can be booked to take in the lot.
- Cool off at Sunway LagoonSunway Lagoon is Malaysia's most famous, and one of Asia's most popular, water parks.
Kuala Lumpur drinking and nightlife
KL’s most fashionable bars and clubs are concentrated in the Golden Triangle, while Bangsar also plays host to a few slick bars. If the drinking scene seems to tick over healthily enough, KL’s clubbing scene appears surprisingly buoyant for its size. Only during Ramadan are both the bars and clubs distinctly quiet. The modest local performing arts scene is split between KL and its satellite town Petaling Jaya, which, with its complex system of numbered roads that even residents don’t understand, is best accessed by taxi. Theatre is probably the strongest suit, with concerts, musicals and so forth throughout the year, by local as well as international performers and troupes. There’s also a dedicated community of people working in the visual arts.
Accommodation in Kuala Lumpur
While Chinatown has traditionally been the favourite location for budget travellers, with its surfeit of inexpensive places to sleep, eat, drink and shop, it faces growing competition from Bukit Bintang, a 15min walk east. Here, close to the abundant fancy hotels and malls, not to mention the celebrated Chinese food stalls of Jalan Alor, you’ll find plenty of excellent guesthouses on and around Tengkat Tong Shin. Even though they’re more expensive than Chinatown, these are often better value – less cramped and noisy, with slicker facilities and self-service breakfasts included in the rate. Slightly further afield, more upscale hotels can be found along Jalan Sultan Ismail and Jalan Ampang, which, together with Bukit Bintang, form part of KL’s Golden Triangle. All other parts of KL pale as regards accommodation, though Little India and nearby Chow Kit, linked by the fiendishly busy Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, feature several mid-range options.
Eating in Kuala Lumpur
Food is without doubt a highlight of any visit to KL. There are simply more opportunities to enjoy high-calibre cooking here, in assorted local and international styles, than anywhere else in the country, and whether you dine in a chic bistro-style restaurant or at a humble roadside stall, prices are almost always very reasonable. Despite plenty of scope for cosmopolitan, upmarket dining, eating for many locals is still fundamentally about Malay, Chinese and Indian street food. Stalls, whether on the street or collected into food courts (found in or close to major office blocks and shopping malls), are your best bets for inexpensive, satisfying meals, as are kedai kopis, though these are a little scarce in the Golden Triangle. The best-known food stalls are held in the same kind of reverence as a top-flight restaurant might be in a Western city, and people will travel across KL just to seek out a stall whose take on a particular dish is said to be better than anyone else’s; if you find customers lining up to partake of some stall’s spring rolls or laksa, it’s a sure-fire indicator of quality. Ranging from small affairs in beautifully refurbished shophouses to banqueting halls in five-star hotels, KL’s restaurants are an equally vital part of the food experience. Be aware, however, that price and decor are not a watertight indicator of consistency or quality, and that service can be hesitant even in big hotels.
Gay Kuala Lumpur
KL’s gay community is fairly discreet, though the smart cafés of fashionable Bintang Walk – the stretch of Jalan Bukit Bintang just east of Jalan Sultan Ismail – attract a noticeably gay clientele at weekends. Friday is gay night at Frangipani, Nuovo hosts a GLBT night the last Sunday of the month, and if you see other clubs advertising “boys’ nights”, you’ll know you can head there too. There’s also Blue Boy. For more on gay venues and social events in the city, try wutopia-asia.com or wgaygetter.com.
Shopping in Kuala Lumpur
There’s no city in Malaysia where consumerism is as widespread and in-your-face as KL. The malls of the Golden Triangle are big haunts for youths and yuppies alike, while street markets remain a draw for everyone, offering a gregarious atmosphere and goods of all sorts. Jalan Petaling in Chinatown is where to find fake watches and leather goods; some of these have started to creep into the covered market on Jalan Masjid India and the nearby Lorong Tuanku Abdul Rahman pasar malam, but their mainstays remain clothes and fabrics, plus a few eccentricities such as herbal tonics and various charms alleged to improve male vigour. Chow Kit Market has some clothing bargains but little else of interest. A great just-out-of-town market for knick-knacks and general bric-a-brac happens every weekend inside the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya, close to Taman Jaya station on the LRT. If no specific business hours are given in the shop listings that follow, then the establishment keeps the usual Malaysian shopping hours, opening by mid-morning and shutting at 8pm (an hour or two later in the case of outlets within malls), six or seven days a week.
Central Kuala Lumpur
Rather than a discernible city centre, Kuala Lumpur has several hubs of activity. Close to the rivers’ original “muddy confluence”, the former colonial district and its distinctive architecture surrounds Merdeka Square – don’t miss the informative new Textile Museum here – with the busy tourist hub of Chinatown just southeast. In between the two lie the city’s attractive old Jamek Mosque and the craft cornucopia that is Central Market. Worthwhile forays can be made north to Little India’s more locals-oriented shops and altogether grittier Chow Kit Market.
Some 2km east, the Golden Triangle presents the city’s modern face, lively Bukit Bintang packed with upmarket hotels, restaurants and designer shopping malls. Overlooking it to the north is the tall, strikingly modernist Petronas Towers; visitors flock to the skybridge here, though in fact the westerly Menara KL Tower, poking out of wooded Bukit Nanas, has better views.
Southwest of the centre – and tricky to reach across one of KL’s many pedestrian-unfriendly traffic flows – a clutch of worthwhile sights surround the green and airy Lake Gardens, notably Masjid Negara, one of the country’s largest mosques, and excellent Islamic Arts Museum. Below here, the National Museum is not as good as it could be, while Brickfields is another strongly Indian district, worth a peek for its day-to-day residential streetlife.
Brickfields and KL Sentral
The laidback residential neighbourhood of Brickfields, 2km south of the city centre near KL Sentral station, was first settled by Tamils employed to build the railways, and named after the brickworks that lined the rail tracks. Even today, the area retains a strong South Indian presence along Jalan Tun Sambanthan – the main thoroughfare – especially the western stretch beyond the huge pink fountain marking the intersection with Jalan Travers; the road has flowers painted on it, buildings are pastel-hued, and Indian pop tunes blare out of sari shops and grocers. This is another corner of town to visit for local ambience rather than monumental sights, though it does hold some good places to eat.
Spreading out southeast from Central Market, Chinatown was KL’s original commercial kernel, dating from the arrival of the first traders in the 1860s. Bordered by Jalan Sultan to the east, Jalan Tun Perak to the north and Jalan Maharajalela to the south, the area had reached its current extent by the late nineteenth century, with southern Chinese shophouses, coffee shops and temples springing up along narrow streets such as Jalan Tun H.S. Lee and Jalan Petaling. Though the shophouses today are fairly workaday, it is encouraging that many period buildings are being refurbished despite recurrent threats of redevelopment; in 2011, public outcry saved a row of old shophouses on Jalan Sultan from demolition during construction of the ongoing Klang Valley railway.
Although Chinatown scores more on atmosphere than essential sights, it’s a hub for budget accommodation, and holds a wealth of inexpensive places to shop and eat, so you’ll probably spend some time here.
East off the lower end of Jalan TAR, Little India is a commercial centre for KL’s Indian community, though these days it is being eclipsed by Brickfields. Only a few steps north from the Masjid Jamek LRT station, Jalan Melayu holds Indian stores, some selling excellent burfi and other sweet confections; its name derives from the former Malay community here. Approaching Jalan Masjid India, you encounter a popular covered market, smaller but otherwise similar to Chinatown’s Jalan Petaling. Further up is Masjid India itself, an Indian-influenced affair dating from the 1960s and tiled in cream and brown.
A few minutes further along the street, you come to a little square, to the right (east) of which you’ll find plenty of kedai kopis and, come evening, street vendors selling food; turn off to the left to reach Lorong Tuanku Abdul Rahman, whose northern end is dominated by a night market, busiest at weekends. Mainly Malay-run, the stalls sell both food and eclectic bits and pieces, from T-shirts to trinkets. Just past here, Madras and Semua are two huge haberdasheries, packed to their roofs with Indian textiles.
The colonial district
The small colonial district, which developed around the confluence of the Gombak and Klang rivers in the 1880s, is the area of KL that best retains its historic character. At its heart on the west bank of the Klang, the beautifully tended open padang (field) of Merdeka Square is where on August 31, 1957, Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, hauled down the British flag and declared merdeka, or independence. The 95m-high flagpole to the south is supposedly the tallest in the world, and the tiled square below is a popular spot for people to gather in the evenings.
East across Jalan Raja, the superbly florid 1897 Sultan Abdul Samad Building is a fine example of Anthony Norman’s Moorish-style architecture. Its elegant two-storey grey-and-red-brick colonnade frontage, pierced by arches and windows, supports a facade topped by a 41m-high clock tower and copper cupolas. Formerly the headquarters of the colonial administration, then law courts, it currently houses the Information, Communication and Culture Department; come here at night to see it outlined in fairy lights.
Kuala Lumpur’s Moorish style
KL’s colonial “look” originated with Charles Edwin Spooner, the state engineer, and architect Anthony Norman, who in the 1890s fused a Neoclassical Renaissance style – then the standard for government buildings throughout the British Empire – with “Eastern” motifs, which were felt to be more appropriate for an Islamic country. This Moorish style, however, characterized by onion domes, cupolas, colonnades, arched windows and wedding-cake plasterwork, owed more to Indian Moghul architecture than wooden Malay structures. Buildings by Norman in this mould include the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the old Post Office next door, and the Textile Museum further south. Norman was succeeded in 1903 by A.B. Hubbock, who had actually lived in India and so smoothly continued the Moorish theme in the Jamek Mosque, old Kuala Lumpur train station and elsewhere.
The Golden Triangle
The heart of modern KL, the Golden Triangle is a sprawling area bounded to its north by Jalan Ampang, and to the west by Chinatown and Sungai Klang. Many visitors make a beeline for KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre; wklcc.com.my), a group of huge developments surrounding the bland KLCC Park, on a site once home to the Selangor Turf Club. The chief attractions here are the Petronas Towers, soaring above one of KL’s best malls, Suria KLCC, and the city’s glossy aquarium.
Further south, the Golden Triangle’s other magnet is Bukit Bintang (“Star Hill”), home to upmarket and workaday malls, many of KL’s best hotels and restaurants, and some engaging street life. East, Kompleks Budaya Kraf is the city’s largest handicrafts gallery, while northwest lies Bukit Nanas, a forested hill where the Menara KL communications tower affords great views of the city.
The Petronas Towers
Very much the symbol of modern Malaysia, the twin columns of the Petronas Towers rise 451.9m above KL’s downtown, completely dwarfing the enormous Suria KLCC Mall at their base. When they were completed in 1998, as the headquarters of the state-owned oil company Petronas, many questioned whether the US$1.6 billion price tag was an unwarranted drain on the Malaysian economy, but the tapering steel-clad structures (designed by the Argentinean architect Cesar Pelli) are a stunning piece of architecture. Despite a definite Art Deco feel, the unusual eight-pointed cross-sectional profile obviously draws on Islamic art, while the profusion of squares and circles on the interior walls symbolize harmony and strength. The project is also permeated by Chinese numerology in that the towers have 88 floors and the postcode 59088 – eight being a very auspicious number for the Chinese.
One tower was built by a Japanese team, the other by rivals from Korea; while the Japanese topped out first, the Koreans had the honour of engineering the skybridge, which joins the towers at both the forty-first and forty-second floors. The views from the skybridge of KL’s sprawl are pretty spectacular, thanks not least to the blue, glassy towers soaring either side of you – though not as good as from the Observation Deck on Level 86.
At 421m, the Menara KL tower offers vistas east across the Petronas Towers to the blue peaks of the Titiwangsa range that marks the start of the Peninsula’s interior, and west along the unmitigated urban sprawl of the Klang Valley. Dusk is an especially worthwhile time to come, as the city lights up, as does the tower itself on special occasions – green for Muslim festivals, purple for Deepavali and red for the Chinese New Year. Though free audio guides describe what can be seen in each direction, it’s probably best to hold off visiting until you know KL well enough to be familiar with its general layout.
The observation deck sits inside in the bulbous portion of the tower, which was designed in the shape of a gasing, the Malay spinning top. Fixed binoculars (free) allow you to espy city life in minute detail, even picking out pedestrians narrowly avoiding being run over as they scurry across the streets of Chinatown. You can also combine a visit with tea or a meal at the revolving Seri Angkasa restaurant one floor higher.
The Lake Gardens
West of the colonial quarter, the Lake Gardens offer a pleasant escape from KL’s more frenetic streets amid a humid, hilly spread of green. Behind the sizeable modern Masjid Negara, which fronts the area on Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, a cool white building contains the superb Islamic Arts Museum. Uphill lie the gardens themselves, complete with close-cropped lawns, water and a host of children-friendly attractions – including a Butterfly Park, a Bird Park and the National Planetarium – while Malaysia’s National Museum is just south. Although you could easily spend half a day strolling around, focus on the two museums if you’re pushed for time.
The easiest access on foot is via Kuala Lumpur train station and the underpass to the KTM building, from where you can edge around to the mosque – otherwise you have to risk crossing the usual furious traffic flows. As smaller roads run through the gardens, however, it’s perhaps easiest to get here by taxi.
Islamic Arts Museum
The ultramodern Islamic Arts Museum is housed in an elegant open-plan building with gleaming marble floors. This well-documented collection is a real standout; allow around ninety minutes to do it justice, and bear in mind that there’s an excellent on-site Middle Eastern restaurant (open during museum hours, daily except Mon). If you’re arriving by taxi, you may find that the driver will know only the museum’s Malay name, Muzium Kesenian Islam – if that doesn’t work, just ask for the Masjid Negara.
Level 1 begins with a rather bland collection of dioramas of Muslim holy places, though that of the Great Mosque of Xi’an in central China draws attention to the neglected subject of Islam in the Far East, a theme continued elsewhere on this level. In the India gallery, devoted to the Moghuls, look for an intricately carved wooden locking mechanism, designed to cloister the harem away from the rest of the world, while the China gallery features porcelain and scroll paintings bearing Arabic calligraphy. Best of all is an impressive 3m-high archway in the Malay gallery, once part of a house belonging to an Indonesian notable, with black, red and gold lacquering and a trelliswork of leaves as its main motif. An equally fine trunk below it was used as a travelling box by Terengganu royalty. Built of the much-prized cengal hardwood, it’s decorated in red and gold and bears the names of Islam’s revered first four caliphs.
On level 2, richly embroidered textiles and marquetry back up unusual examples of Western European ceramic crockery, influenced by the Islamic world in their design – and sometimes produced for that market. Most interesting here is the terrace containing the museum’s main dome, a blue-and-white affair with floral ornamentation. Built by Iranian craftsmen, it’s the only one of several similar examples in the building that’s intended to illustrate the exterior of a grand mosque. Finally, look out for the bizarre reversed dome ceiling, bulging downwards from above – it’s the last thing you see as you make your way back to the foyer from the area containing the excellent gift shop.
Around Kuala Lumpur
With the reckless urbanization of the Klang Valley proceeding apace, worthwhile excursions from KL are becoming increasingly rare. The most obvious attraction is 13km north, where limestone peaks rise up from the forest at the Hindu shrine of Batu Caves, one of Malaysia’s main tourist attractions. Nearby, the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) encompasses a small but surprisingly thick portion of primary rainforest, where you can see birds and a few animals within an hour of downtown KL.
Further northwest of KL, the quiet town of Kuala Selangor offers the chance to observe the nightly dance of fireflies, while northeast, Fraser’s Hill is one of Malaysia’s many hill stations, set up in colonial times to allow government officials an escape from lowland heat. The most surreal day-trip you can make from KL is to the very Chinese fishing village on Pulau Ketam, off the coast near southwesterly Pelabuhan Klang, which hardly feels like Malaysia at all.
Batu Caves and Pulau Ketam are easy to reach on public transport, but you’ll need a car or taxi to reach FRIM. About the only package trip widely offered by KL’s accommodation and tour agents goes to see the fireflies; you can do this on public transport, but it’s a bit of a slog and requires an overnight stay at Kuala Selangor.
Fraser’s Hill (Bukit Fraser)
Set 1500m up in the forested Titiwangsa mountains, 75km northeast of KL, the collection of colonial bungalows comprising FRASER’S HILL was established after World War I as one of Malaysia’s earliest hill stations, a retreat for administrators seeking relief from the torrid lowland climate. Though less visited than the much larger Cameron Highlands to the north, Fraser’s Hill boasts excellent nature trails and superb birdwatching; some 250 species have been recorded here, and the Fraser’s Hill International Bird Race each June (wpkbf.org.my) sees teams competing to clock up as many as possible within a day. Even if you don’t have the slightest interest in twitching, the hill remains a good getaway from the heat and hubbub of KL, and at weekends (when accommodation prices shoot up) it draws families from as far away as Singapore. Bear in mind that no public transport comes all the way up here.
Communists on the Hill
During the Emergency in the 1950s, the mountainous jungle at Fraser’s Hill provided perfect cover for some of the communist guerrillas’ secret camps, from where they launched strikes on British-owned plantations and neighbouring towns.
If you approach Fraser’s Hill via Kuala Kubu Bharu, due north of KL, roughly halfway up you’ll see a sign, “Emergency Historical Site”, marking the spot where Sir Henry Gurney, the British High Commissioner for Malaya at the height of the communist insurgency in 1951, was ambushed and killed. The guerrillas hadn’t known how important their quarry was: their aim had been only to steal guns, ammunition and food, but when Gurney strode towards them demanding that they put down their weapons, they opened fire.
The Forest Research Institute of Malaysia sits amid a fifteen-square-kilometre reserve of rainforest and parkland, threaded with sealed roads and walking trails. A popular spot for weekend picnics, appealing to birdwatchers, joggers and anyone after some greenery and fresh air, it has the added attraction of a short canopy walk between the treetops, providing views of KL’s skyline. It also makes a good warm-up for wilder affairs at Taman Negara. A couple of hours here is plenty of time for a walk around; for a full day out you could always continue to the Batu Caves and Orang Asli Museum.
Taxis deliver to the gates; pick up a map and follow the main road 1km into the park, past open woodland and lawns, to the One Stop Centre, where you can book the canopy walk and seek general advice. A small museum nearby, strongly biased towards the timber industry, gives thumbnail sketches of the different types of tropical forests and the commercial uses of various woods.
For a good walk, follow the clear “Rover” walking track past the mosque and uphill into the forest; there are some huge trees, birds and butterflies here, and a rougher side-track to the canopy walk, a single-plank suspension bridge across a deep gully. You may see monkeys too, and can join up with a couple of other tracks that bring you back to the One Stop Centre in about 90min.
Coastal KUALA SELANGOR lies 70km northwest of KL, close to the junction of routes 5 and 54 on the banks of Sungai Selangor. A former royal town, today it’s a small, sleepy affair; the chief reason visitors continue to come here is to see the river’s fireflies, which glow spectacularly in the early evening. This natural spectacle appeared at one stage to be in terminal decline: the fireflies’ mangrove habitat was rapidly being cleared, and the river becoming polluted. Government intervention seems to have stabilized things, and you stand a reasonable chance of enjoying a decent light show, weather permitting – the flies don’t perform in rain. It’s easiest to see Selangor’s highlights on an evening firefly package tour from KL, though you can visit independently if you’re prepared to stay overnight.
Kuala Selangor’s fireflies, known as kelip-kelip in Malay, are actually six-millimetre-long beetles of a kind found between India to Papua New Guinea. During the day, the fireflies rest on blades of grass or in palm trees behind the river’s mangrove swamps. After sunset they move to the mangroves themselves, the males attracting mates with synchronized flashes of light at a rate of three per second. Females flash back at males to indicate interest and initiate mating. The most successful males are apparently those that flash brightest and fly fastest.
Boats leave on 30min firefly-spotting trips from two locations several kilometres from town: Bukit Belimbing (run by Firefly Park Resort) on the north bank across the river bridge; and at Kampung Kuantan, on the south bank. It’s important to remain quiet when watching the firefly display and not to take flash photographs, as such behaviour scares the insects away.
Orang Asli Museum
Run by the government’s Department for Orang Asli Affairs, the Orang Asli Museum aims to present a portrait of the various groups of Orang Asli, former nomadic hunter-gatherers in the jungle who are now largely resident in rural settlements.
A large map of the Peninsula in the foyer makes it clear that the Orang Asli can be found, in varying numbers, in just about every state. That surprises some visitors, who see little sign of them during their travels. Besides collections of the fishing nets, guns and blowpipes the Orang Asli use to eke out their traditional existence, the museum also has photographs of Orang Asli press-ganged by the Malay and British military to fight communist guerrillas in the 1950s (see The Emergency and the Orang Asli). Other displays describe the changes forced more recently on the Orang Asli – some positive, like the development of health and school networks, others less encouraging, like the erosion of the family system as young men drift off to look for seasonal work.
The head carvings
Hidden in an annexe to the rear of the building, examples of traditional handicrafts include the head carvings made by the Mah Meri tribe from the swampy region on the borders of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, and the Jah Hut from the slopes of Gunung Benom in central Pehang. Around 50cm high, the carvings show stylized, fierce facial expressions, and are fashioned from a strong, heavy hardwood. They still have religious significance – the most common image used, the moyang, represents the spirit of the ancestors.
The moment you set foot aboard ferries to PULAU KETAM (Crab Island) you’re in a kind of parallel universe: this is Chinese day-tripper land, with videos of Chinese karaoke clips or soap operas blaring from the on-board screens. Ketam’s five thousand inhabitants are Teochew and Hokkien Chinese, who traditionally live almost entirely by fishing from their low, flat, mangrove-encrusted island. Every house is built on pilings above the sand, and practically every street is a concrete walkway or boardwalk raised in the same fashion. Aside from the chance to eat tasty, inexpensive seafood, you’d visit mainly for a slightly surreal break from KL’s pace, with a couple of places to stay if you like the quiet.
From the jetty, walk past the mosque and into the village main street, lined with grocers, general stores, and stalls and restaurants selling seafood – including, of course, crab. Beyond a shop selling Buddhist paraphernalia is a sort of central square where you’ll find the Hock Leng Temple, as well as a small grotto containing a representation of Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, looking decidedly Madonna-like with a halo of red electric lights. On from here, you come to a residential area of concrete and wooden houses, nearly all with their front doors left wide open. There’s plenty of refuse littering the mud flats beneath, unfortunately, but more appealingly you’ll also see shrines outside many homes and occasional collections of pans made of netting containing seafood products being left out to dry.
Top image: Batu Caves statue and entrance © anek.soowannaphoom/Shutterstock
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