Apparently, from my posts on Facebook over the weekend, it came across as perhaps the best trip I’ve been on? To be honest, I don’t know if that’s true. I find it hard to point to any one trip and say “that was the best” as they’ve all had their own individuality and memorable moments.
This time, the individuality came from the lack of individuality! KL is perhaps one of the most mixed places I’ve been to, even compared to London. London has a lot going on, but I find that almost works against it – the constant excitement and buzz, always millions of tourists and even the climate, means that you just know you’re in London. I expect it’s probably the same in places like New York?
AN: I haven’t actually been to New York since 2000, apart from transferring through JFK, which doesn’t really count does it? So I’m totally speculating on the ‘just knowing you’re there’ thing. Maybe it’s time I went back? Thelma & Louise trip for 2016 perhaps? I digress…
In KL, there’s loads of different areas to explore and each has its own story, unique feel and vibe, and on my first day I saw this in abundance.
Firstly, there’s the bit where two rivers converge, the point where KL was founded. When I get here, I walk out of the LTR station straight into a small but bustling street market. They’re selling nothing notable, it just feels like your average locals’ market, a local community, nothing touristy at all. I clamber over rubble and broken pavements to get down to the point where the rough guide says I’ll get the best view of the convergence of the rivers. I get there in one piece, toes and ankles intact, to find a motorbike park on one side and a building site on the other. If I hadn’t previously read-up on it, I’d never have known it was anything significant? But I still think it’s quite interesting because of what it stands for, and I find myself taking photos of piles of concrete, a crane and the odd digger. Hey ho!
From here, I walk South through an unassuming little square with a tiny clock tower in the centre. Not hugely impressed by the tower, but the mishmash of buildings around the square makes me wonder (as I do!) Turns out this was the old market square and the centre of the city – I’d never have guessed, again there’s nothing notable to tell me that, just different eras evident in the decaying architecture around me.
I carry on over the bridge towards the Colonial core. Now this is more obvious. With Moorish looking buildings on one side, a mock Tudor building housing an exclusive Gentlemen’s club on the other, fountains and a flag pole at one end, and arches and pillars at the other, all surrounding a huge square plot of well-kept grass, complete with cricket crease in the centre! You can tell this place has so much significance, even if you dodn’t know the history. In the midst of all this is a giant red model of the initials I❤️KL and markings on the ground for people to queue up to take their picture with it… yep, not proud, of course I did!
In the centre of the fountain stands a huge flagpole, where the Malaysian flag was raised at 12:01 on their first day of independence less than 60 years ago. Suddenly, a city full of such old buildings and history feels so young – it’s like it’s full of people who’ve been there for ever, but who suddenly have a new lease of life? And they’re grabbing it with both hands and rebuilding their city into a magical place, whilst neither losing nor over-exaggerating its past. It makes me feel lucky, humble and excited all at the same time. I also feel very hot (relentless sun, no shade, first day in 30+ degrees, when the forecast suggested it’d rain all weekend…) so I have a moment, take my snaps, then make my way back over the river.
At this point, I’m looking for shade and fancy a drink, but don’t want to head back up to the hotel just yet. Out comes the guide book and #2 on my list (yes, of course I have a list!) is Chinatown. Except they don’t call it that. It’s just an area influenced by Chinese culture, a bunch of street markets with an oriental vibe. Now the guide book says to head for Petaling Street, and shows me a photo vaguely resembling Gerrard Street in London. Looks a bit touristy, so I decide to get to it via the back streets and alleys. And here I discover a very different kind of market. Not for the faint hearted, vegetarian, vegan, or anyone with any other moral foodie preference; this is dark, smelly alleyways, where I’m clambering over milk crates and avoiding puddles of goodness knows what, staring in curiosity at stalls either side propped up by steps and tarpaulins, mostly selling food (although the only indication of what’s on sale is what’s clucking around in the crate under the table), with limited interest in hygiene (although I do see a chap washing a wicker basket under a drainpipe). I generally have the constitution of an ox and not much makes me queasy, but I’ll admit, I may think twice about what meat I eat after seeing this!
As I come back out into the daylight I find myself on Petaling Street, where the markets suddenly become outlets for football shirts, baseball caps, fake watches and touts. Not my kinda thing, so I scurry through with my head down, and scuttle round the corner. Luckily, I’ve already plotted an idea of where I’m going and I manage to find my way to the Little China Café. Goldmine! For a mere 15 ringgit (c£3) I get a delicious freshly squeezed lemon iced tea, served with liquid sugar?! (New fave, the tea not the sugar, if anyone knows where to get this in London let me know!) and fresh spring rolls (perhaps the freshest, lightest and tastiest I’ve ever eaten, they were just delicious!) In fact, there’s heaps on the menu I want to try, but I’m not that hungry yet. So I decide to come back over the weekend and make sure I’m starving!
After lunch, I head back North and see a bit more of the city, literally. Now anyone who knows anything about KL has heard of the Petronas twin towers. They’re the tallest skyscrapers in the city, but you can only go up so far, as the top section isn’t open to tourists. However, the KL tower just across the road is built on higher ground, so although it’s not as big, it actually reaches higher above sea level and is therefore the highest point in the city. And there’s a 360degree platform at the top which you can go out onto. And you can see the Petronas twin towers from there. So that’s where I head.
When I walk in, it’s all very efficient. A lady welcomes me, asks my nationality, and escorts me to the appropriate desk. The chap there asks whether I’m going to the inside view room ¾ of the way up, or the outside observation deck at the top? I think back to a mate in Australia telling me that, if I was going to do a skydive, don’t go for the cheaper 11,000ft jump, do it properly and pay more for the 14,000ft. So I pay my 99 ringgits and am escorted to the next desk, where I’m presented with a piece of paper and asked to sign a contract… Erm, what? Apparently, the small print basically says I promise not to run, jump or push anyone over the edge! Well that’s ok then! Let’s go!
The view from the top is incredible. KL is so much bigger than I realised! Most of the bits in the guide book are walkable, and the light rail train and monorail get you pretty much anywhere quite quickly. So on the ground it seems quite small. But it feels like you can see the whole country from up here! And the skyscrapers aren’t just in the centre, they’re dotted all over the city, which makes it feel even bigger. And there’s random hills popping up everywhere too, not like Yorkshire hills or Everest, but hills big enough to throw up a spot of green in between buildings. I take my photos and after just a few minutes, wonder how long I’m meant to stay up here to consider it value for money? To be fair, 99 ringgits is only about £20, so it’s not silly money. I breathe in the view, make sure I get another picture and head back to the elevator.
Once back on the ground, I realise that, in between here and my hotel and is KLCC – the new city centre. So I follow my feet and aim in the general direction of the twin towers. Now, this is a bit like coming to London and seeing Big Ben. It’s probably one of the best known images of the city, and you can see it from miles away. But when you get up close, it’s something different.
From an early age, I’ve liked interesting architecture – not so much the older stuff, but weird and impressive new buildings. And my favourite for many years has been Richard Rogers’ ‘powerhouse’ – home to Lloyds of London. Well sorry Rich, but the top spot has now been taken over. I LOVE this place! I could honestly stand and look at the twin towers for hours. The fact that it’s sunny does help, and I’ve been told that they look even better at night.
Beyond the towers, is a huge park, with impressive buildings all round it. Like a cross between Central Park and Canada Square, but with heaps of sun, no traffic, lots of fountains and cafes, it’s just lovely, and another distinct change from the Colonial core, Chinatown and Bhukit Bintang.
Talking of which, it’s time I headed back, so I walk from KLCC back to Bhukit Bintang, where I’m staying. This area is surrounded by impressive shopping malls, and Gucci, Hugo Boss and Prada adorn the view from my hotel lobby. It’s bright lights, glamour and credit cards all round, but feels clean, safe and not in the slightest bit pretentious.
Just a few streets away, is the nightlife of Chankit Bhukit Bintang, where I’m heading this evening. One long strip of more uneven pavements, raised kerbs, stationary traffic, convenience stores and Thai spas, this is one of the busiest streets I’ve seen so far, and clearly where the tourists come. As night falls, the streets fill with hawker style eateries and loud bars – there’s the token Irish and, with F1 in town, a few bars are sponsored by race teams like Red Bull and Kingfisher. Luckily, I’m in flats tonight and opted to dress down, so the terrain, touts and tourists are easily navigated. I make my way up to the top of the street before stopping, to decide which establishment to go back to. Across the road is a quieter venue called Havana, perfect. So I grab a table, order a cold one, pull out my book and read up on very thing I’ve seen.
In one day I’ve experienced the Moorish old town, the Colonial core, street market heaven/hell in Chinatown, incredible food, the immaculate KLCC, the view from KL tower, the shopping mecca of Bhukit Bintang and the frenetic nightlife of Chankit. I’ve only touched the surface of each so still lots to explore, but already I love KL… This place is amazing…
Was that really a week ago? I guess having landed home on Tuesday morning and gone straight back to work, I haven’t really stopped and reflected until now, so it feels like I was only there yesterday. But I’d go back tomorrow. The people were friendly, not pushy at all, and didn’t seem to see tourists as a money pot. They were welcoming and seemed genuinely pleased that people want to come and see their beautiful country. I wasn’t offered a selfie stick, not anywhere, quite the contrast from Rome last month. And when I go back – I will go back – my new Malaysian friends have told me to go to Penang and Cameron Highland too. I will, for sure. Just need to save up again first!