There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Kuala Lumpur: Part 2 of the Malaysian Peninsula

27th of February 2017
We enjoyed the unusual luxury of a late start, setting off almost promptly at ten - once the receptionist had pointed out that while we were waiting for our driver by the front door, he was waiting for us at the back; long, thin Malaccan houses are ideally designed for such confusion.

The return journey to Kuala Lumpur was the same as the trip down, only this time we were awake. Our bleary impression of speeding along well-maintained dual carriageways through endless palm oil plantations had, we now discovered, been strikingly accurate.

The Malaysian Peninsula
Today Malacca (Melaka) to Kuala Lumpur
The 150km journey took a couple of hours, but we were not the only people visiting Kuala Lumpur that day, King Salman of Saudi Arabia was also in town. We had one car and one driver, King Salman had an entourage of 600 requiring 100 cars; roads were closed when he drove by. Our driver showed some ingenuity in getting us to our hotel with minimal delay.

Kuala Lumpur, despite its complex traffic systems and high rise buildings, has a more human feel at street level and we checked into a ‘boutique hotel’ in the Bukit Bintang area, 2km east of the city centre. ‘Bukit’ is Malay for ‘hill’, though like many urban hills, Bukit Bintang is barely discernible.

Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
Spilling out from the semi-basement of the adjoining building was a basic curry house, and as soon as we were settled in, we headed there for lunch. Malays comprise only 65% of the Malaysian population with Chinese (25%) and Indians (7%) making up most of the rest. This diversity is reflected in their food. Noodles are, of course, Chinese, while curry is Indian. For lunch we had mee goreng, a Malay name for fried Chinese noodles topped with curried, chicken (Lynne) or lamb (me) - and very good it was too.

After a nap – we still had a sleep deficit – we took a walk to orientate ourselves. Finding it was raining, though still very warm, we borrowed a hotel umbrella and paddled off firstly in search of an ATM. It proved elusive but we eventually found one in a 7 Eleven store on a road packed with western restaurants, Italian, German, and Irish among others. Our main objective, though, was to investigate Jalan Alor, a street allegedly of ‘Chinese stalls.’

We passed a street side shrine on our perambulations
To describe the establishments lining both sides of the 200m long pedestrianised Jalon Alor as food stalls is like calling Buckingham Palace a detached house. Naturally we returned in the rain-free evening, picking a ‘stall’ largely at random.

Dusk at the Chinese food stalls, Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur
Sweet and sour grouper and a dish of beansprouts, garlic and fried aubergine made an excellent dinner. As often before we marvelled not only at the variety and quality of the food, but also at the slickness of an operation which served so many people with so little waiting time.

Sweet and sour grouper, Chinese foodstalls, Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur
28th of February 2017

Ordering our breakfast yesterday we had selected the Indian option and today enjoyed aloo paratha with chick peas and ‘puffed bread with a spicy sauce’ seated on a balcony overlooking the street. Our fellow guests had retired late (we knew, we heard them) so we were not totally surprised to eat in solitary splendour.

S, the guide for our walking tour was a small, wiry energetic Chinese Malaysian in a shirt that demanded attention. He picked us up in an Uber taxi which threaded its way through the traffic to Little India, beside the city centre.

Café, Little India, KL
In a small café S introduced us to teh tarik (lit: pulled tea), a sweet, milky tea served frothy from being poured repeatedly from a great height. Now the national drink, it was allegedly an invention of the small Indian Muslim community (most Malaysian Indians are Hindus) but it is not that different from some teas in India, though served in much larger glasses. It is a surprisingly pleasant drink and refreshing in a hot climate, though its similarity to weak, milky instant coffee was striking.

Teh Tarik, Little India, KL
The short walk to Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) took us beneath a flyover with a tantalising glimpse of non-Malay architecture on the far side. It hardly looked British, either.

What is that building on the far side?
KL’s colonial centre hosts an unparalleled collection of mismatched buildings. In the corner is St Mary’s Anglican Cathedral, built in 1894 and typical of Anglican churches in far flung corners of the empire. During WW2 the Japanese occupiers used it as an ammunition store, believing the allies would never bomb a church. That might sound optimistic, but St Mary’s survived unscathed.

St Mary's Anglican Cathedral, KL
The interior would be comforting and familiar to any homesick colonial administrator. Reading the brass plaques gives an insight into their lives, listing the good works of some and the sad early deaths of others.

St Mary's Anglican Cathedral, KL
The centrepiece of Dataran Merdeka is a grassy sward and the mock Tudor clubhouse of the Selangor Club which was founded in 1884 for high ranking members of colonial society. Unusually, the qualifications for membership were education and social standing rather than race.  Though most early members were British, businessman and leading member of the Tamil community K. Thamboosamy Pillai, was a founder member, we shall meet him again later.

To the British eye this is obviously a cricket ground and pavilion, and so it was. Today the grassy area is home to various events, cricket never having taken off here as it did in other parts of the empire. The game, however, is still played. The national team currently compete in Division 3 of the World Cricket League and hosted the 2014 tournament when several games were played here.

The Selangor Club and cricket field, KL
Across the road is the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the structure we had glimpsed under the flyover. Constructed between 1894 and 1897 and originally known as Government Building, it was the brainchild of Charles Spooner, the Selangor State Engineer. AC Norman is usually credited as the architect, but Spooner disliked Norman’s Classical Renaissance design and had the plans reworked by his assistant RAJ Bidwell and then again by AB Hubback (of whom more later). The result, variously described as Indo-Saracenic, Moorish or Neo-Mughal, looks like an attempt to capture the romantic - and entirely western - idea of the ‘mystic orient.’

Sultan Abdul Samad Building, KL
The building is empty. Since 1999 the federal courts and government offices have been progressively moving to the purpose built city of Putrajaya 30km to the south. The old colonial administrative buildings are lovingly preserved but largely unused.

Clocktower, Sultan Abdul Samad Building, KL
The square also includes the 100m high flagpole which was the world’s tallest when the Union Jack was lowered in 1957 and replaced by the flag of the Malayan Federation - which became the Malaysian Federation in 1963 when Sarawak, North Borneo and (briefly) Singapore joined. A tall flagpole does not make an interesting picture, so instead here is the 1897 memorial to Steve Harper, a popular police inspector (and that is all I have been able to find about him). It is pleasingly known as Cop’s Fountain. In the background is another of AB Hubback's Indo-Saracenic fantasies, once the railway headquarters, it is now the National Textile Museum.

Cop's Fountain, Merdeka Square 
The Kuala Lumpur City Gallery is tucked into a corner of the square behind the flagpole. The star exhibit is a model of the city with a sound and light show. KL was a riverside hamlet until tin mining started in 1857. Chinese workers were imported to work the mines and KL became a boom town with all the associated social problems, not to mention poor sanitation and the tendency of wooden and atap buildings to catch fire.

The city model, KL City Gallery
The British recognised the new town's strategic importance, moved their capital here in 1880 and set about rebuilding the town in brick. The 20,000 inhabitants of 1890 have now become 1.75 million and the city stands at one end of the Klang Valley Urban Agglomeration, home to 7.25 million.

Kuala Lumpur means ‘muddy confluence’ and the now clean and canalised coming together of the Rivers Gombak and Klang is nearby. The Jamek Mosque at the confluence, though dwarfed by the surrounding modern buildings can accommodate 5,000 worshippers. Work is underway to expand its capacity even further so there could be no visit. Opened in 1909, it was another AB Hubback design – though how a Liverpudlian non-Muslim came to build the city’s foremost mosque is a mystery.

Jamek Mosque and the no longer muddy (lumpur) confluence (kuala) of the Rivers Gombak and Klang
Kuala Lumpur
We continued east to the old market square with its Art Deco clock tower built in 1937 to commemorate the accession of George VI. It looks as out of place as the Sultan Abdul Samad building, but for entirely different reasons.

Art Deco clock tower, Former Market Place, KL
Turning south into Chinatown we stopped at the Guan Di Temple founded in 1888. Guan Yu (d. 220AD) was a general of the collapsing Han Dynasty whose real life exploits have been submerged beneath his fictional ones. In the 14th century Romance of the Three Kingdoms, he is portrayed as the epitome of loyalty and righteousness and in one of the many cross-overs of Taoism and Chinese folk religion he became Guan Di (Divine Guan), a god taking particular care of police forces and, oddly, triad gangs.

Guan Di Temple, KL
The old lady in the picture below had made a donation and was about to beat both drum and bell to share her merit.

Sharing merit with a bang on the drum and the bell, Guan Di Temple, KL
A few paces beyond Chinatown, is the Sri Mahamariamman Temple. Built in 1873 as the private temple of K. Thamboosamy Pillai (him, again and he will pop up in the next post, too), it was donated to the Tamil community in 1920. The 20m high gopura added in 1968 may be modest compared with the gopuram of Madurai and the other great temples of Tamil Nadu, but it stands out in Kula Lumpur.

Gopura, Sri Mahamariamman Temple, KL
Like all Hindu temples it is brightly painted, but cleaner and shinier than those in India. It was prayer time, bells were struck, a band played and a small queue soon formed to do puja.

Sri Mahamariamman Temple - the puja queue will form in a minute
Sri Mahamariamman, an avatar of Parvati, looks after travellers and so is a favourite among the Tamil diaspora.

Sri Mahamariamman at her eponymous temple, KL
I particularly like this picture of Shiva and Parvati with Ganesh and other members of, apparently, their band.

Shiva and Parvati, with Lord Murugan on bass, Sr Mahamariamman Temple, KL
 We walked back up through Chinatown central market, passing, among much else, fish stalls...

Fish stall, Central Market, KL
 ….and a man roasting chestnuts with coffee beans.

Roasting chestnuts with coffee beans, Central Market, KL
S pointed out that today most stallholders are Indian and it was not just the stallholders. The picture below captures one elderly Chinese man but he was the exception not the rule. S was downbeat about the future of the Chinese in Malaysia, feeling they are under pressure not from Indians, but from the majority Malay/Muslim community (those words are almost synonymous). I had made a casual remark about beer being relatively expensive. I felt his reply: ‘The government rely on Muslim votes, and you don’t lose Muslim votes by putting up the tax on alcohol,’ had relevance to more than merely alcohol. Tellingly he sent his own children abroad (to Liverpool) for their university education; one now lives in Dubai, the other in Singapore.

Chinese faces are becoming rare in the Chinese Central Market, KL 
We had lunch in the market building….

Central Market Building, KL
 …but before that we had an ice-cream. Odd? Maybe, but we had been talking about durians and no Malaysian, of any persuasions, would pass up an opportunity to force durian on semi-willing foreigners. Actually, I may be getting to like it.

Durian ice-cream. Are we beginning to develop a taste?
Outside the Central Market building, KL

After the disappointment in Malacca we approached a second pre-paid four course menu with trepidation, but this one redeemed the genre. Crispy little hats to be filled with shredded vegetables, crumbled egg and spicy tomato paste made a good start.

Crisp little hats to fill with goodies, Central Market, KL
Beef rendang, a Malay dish in which beef is boiled to tenderness with garlic and ginger in coconut milk until only the coconut oils are left, was close to perfection; ayam pongteh, the Nonya chicken and mushroom stew that had been such a disaster in Malacca, was now a delight. Despite its alarming blue colouring, I enjoyed the rice with coconut.

Beef rendang, blue coconut rice and ayam pongteh,
Central Market, KL
We finished with tapioca and sweet potatoes in coconut milk. We were happy and certainly not hungry by the time we had finished, but we were not as stuffed as the write up might suggest.

Our KL tour was over, S called us an Uber taxi (I cannot approve, but this was no time to stand on principle) and we returned to our hotel. Fortunately we were inside before the heavens opened. The temperature hardly dropped below its customary 30° as the rain bounced off the streets; it may have been muggy but it ensured that all was dry again by 5 o’clock when a driver arrived to take us to the Petronas Towers. The journey took 15 mins and our ticket was for 6 so we had plenty of time to attempt the perfect photograph; a doomed enterprise shared with several dozen others.

The Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur
The best picture of a dozen, but not perfect
The driver had told us to go through an adjacent mall so we entered and followed the signs. It was easy to find the ticket office for tomorrow’s tickets, but the entrance was mystifyingly obscure. After taking advice from several official looking people we eventually found the right place, had the appropriate passes hung round our necks and with the rest of the 6 o’clock posse made our way to the lift.

The 450m Petronas Towers were the world’s tallest buildings when they opened in 1998. They lost that crown in 2004 to the Taipei 101 though they remain the tallest twin towers. (‘Tallest building’ allows for multiple counter claims depending on whether architectural height, roof, tip of antennae or something else is your chosen criterion.)

or perhaps this was the best
Petronas twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur
The Skybridge joining the 41st floors is not structurally part of either tower, but it feels secure enough. We walked across it, but the views are better higher up.

On the Skybridge, Petronas Twin Towers, KL
The top is the 88th floor. There is little else to say about the towers, but the view was good whether you were looking straight down….

Looking straight down, Petronas Twin Towers, KL
 …or across Kuala Lumpur….

Looking south east (I think) across KL from the Petronas twins Towers
.…or at the adjacent tower.

The adjacent tower, Petronas Twin Towers, KL
The return journey was a stop-start affair. We were stationary in a jam when I recognised the road opposite as being five minutes’ walk from the hotel though in present conditions 20 minutes driving time. We hopped out and let the driver turn for home.

We were soon back at the ‘Chinese food stalls’. After a large lunch we wanted something light, and our eye was caught by the Thai stalls at the end of the line. In 2015 we had greatly enjoyed squid with lemon and chilli beside the Mae Klong (or, erroneously, the River Kwai) so we ordered it again. Squid is rubbery if not cooked with precision; the dish arrived almost immediately and the squid was meltingly, deliciously perfect. How do they that?

Squid with lemon and chilli, Chinese food stalls, Jalan Alon, KL

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