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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Kuala Lumpur in 24 Hours

Kuala Lumpur in Twenty Four Hours

Petaling Street during the day. 
Every evening, the street
transforms into a night market
of fake watches, fake designer bags
and real deals.
Kuala Lumpur is definitely one of the most fascinating cities in the world.  This star of Southeast Asia has it all--the shiny newness of Singapore, the gritty backstreets of Phnom Penh, and the diversity you will find nowhere else except Malaysia.  With world famous mosques, Dravidian-style Hindu temples, and massive Buddhist sites, markets, and food, food, food, it is a city one can spend years unlocking.  We, however, have put together a breakneck itinerary for those willing to make every minute in KL count.


KLIA-KL International Airport
Most travelers begin their journey at KLIA, or the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.  It is an architectural marvel in itself--not every airport has a patch of rainforest growing in it (of course, you will fly over miles and miles of palm plantation on your approach and can see the devastating effects of monoculture yourself).  It has been designed to resemble a giant Bedouin tent, and it is very attractive and very accessible.  You can take a bus from here to KL Sentral--the transportion hub of all Malaysia (you can take the train to Bangkok from here)--or you can opt for the fast railway connection--the KLIA Expres--that takes you to KL Sentral in 28 minutes or so.  Do take note that there are two terminals--the budget/freight terminal, serviced mostly by AirAsia, and the main terminal.  There is only train connections to the main terminal, and it is at least 30 minutes drive between them.  On my last trip back to the airport, I had the unpleasant task of explaining to two Dutch backpackers that they were going to miss their AirAsia flight because they were going to the wrong terminal and had cut it too close.  That really hurts when you bought the non-refundable cheap fare.

Once you get to KL Sentral, you can grab a budget taxi for about 15 RM or you can take the rail.  We suggest you begin your voyage by heading to the Pasar Seni station on the LRT--the Central Market station.  From here, it is a five minute walk to Jalan Petaling, where we suggest you find a room among the numerous accommodation offerings from gritty hotels doubling as brothels to nice, mid-range offerings.  The Hotel Chinatown Inn and the Swiss Garden Inn are both mid-range recommendations, the Swiss Garden being a little nicer and the rooms are a little larger.  Drop off your bags and hit the street--two hours have already passed.

Pasar Sini

Pasar Seni, the Central Market, is an old market that has been converted to a tourist hub.  This is a great place to get a glimpse at the traditional arts and crafts of Malaysia and buy a few souvenirs or even some finer objects de art like aboriginal carvings by the Jahut or Mabetesik (also known as the Mah Meri).  We aren't telling you to go here just for the crafts (although they are wonderful, and despite being touristy we love the Pasar Seni!).  There is a great food court upstairs serving up fantastic pan-Malaysian fare in a very clean environment.  Have a kopi ais susu (Iced coffee with sweet milk) and cool down and try a sampling of Malaysia food.  We recommend the Kelantan counter--try the nasi lembu (cow rice), or, try Malaysia's famous laksa.  There is also a nice Old Town coffee shop on the ground floor in case you feel like an expresso to pick you up.

Masjid Negara and the Islamic Arts Museum

Islam is the national religion of Malaysia and it continues to be one of the strongest cultural forces at play.  Islam exists throughout Southeast Asia, and therefore it makes sense to engage with it during your short time here.  From Pasir Seni, you can walk to the Masjid Negara, the National Mosque--it is just under 2 km away.  But it is a quick taxi ride away if you don't want to try to find it on your own and want to beat the heat. It is open from 9:00AM-12:30PM, 2:00-3:30PM, and 5:00-6:30PM.  No shorts or uncovered shoulders are allowed, and they have headscarves for women visitors to dawn when going inside.  The mosque is very nice,  a very contemporary open design overall but modeled after the Grand Mosque in Mecca.  Next door is the Islamic Arts Museum--a nicely air-conditioned way to spend a few hours in case you arrived while the mosque was closed.  The museum is open 10AM-6PM. 

There are various points of interest close by--the National Museum is not far, and the overrated Butterfly Park is close.  We are skipping these, though.  Assuming it is still in the afternoon, it is time to see a little more culture.

Thean Hou Temple

Thean Hou Temple is a fairly new, very beautiful Hainan Buddhist temple.  It is a 20 minute taxi ride from the Masjid or Pasar Sini.  Its architecture is described as "[a] grandiose structure [that] represents a successful combination of modern architectural techniques and authentic traditional design featuring imposing pillars, spectacular roofs, ornate carvings and intricate embellishments."  Like most Chinese temples in Malaysia, it is a syncretic mix of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and indigenous worship. 

The temple is dedicated to Tian Hou (Thean Hou), also known as Mazu or Matzu, an indigenous goddess of the sea who is said to protect fishermen and sailors, and is invoked as the patron saint of all Southern Chinese and East Asian persons. Born as Lin Moniang in Fujian around 960 CE, worship of Tian Hou began around the Ming Dynasty, when many temples dedicated to her were erected all across Mainland China, later spreading to other countries with Southern Chinese inhabitants. Despite the dedication, Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, features prominently with one prayer hall dedicated to her. 

It is about time to head back home.  But on the way, there is another temple to take it--then you will have covered three of Malaysia's rich cultural traditions.  So, it is back to the Chinatown area to visit the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, or the Great Great Mariamman Temple.

Sri Mahamariamman Temple

Open from 8AM until 8PM, a quick visit to this temple--a short walking distance from Petaling Street--is a great example of Dravidian or Southern India temple architecture.  Mariamman, or "Mother Mari," is a traditional village goddess of Southern India and not originally a Vedic deity although as Southern Indian religion traditions merged with the Brahamical tradition of the Aryan invaders, she was gradually brought into the fold.  Mariamman was the goddess of smallpox before the disease was eradicated in India. Now she cures all so-called "heat-based" diseases like pox and rashes.  Devotees also pray to Mariamman for familial welfare such as fertility, healthy progeny or a good spouse. The most favoured offering is "pongal", a mix of rice and green gram, cooked mostly in the temple complex, or shrine itself, in terracotta pots using firewood.  It is Kuala Lumpur's oldest Hindu temple. 

Petaling Street

By now, the vendors will have began setting up their stands as Petaling Street transforms itself into the famed Chinatown Night Market.  Fake watches, fake handbags, fake shoes . . . well, about anything that is name brand can be found copied here from Roladexes to Nikes, perfume to DVDs.  It is a copyright lawyer's nightmare.  As you return home, you will be able to browse through and have a good look at their wares.  There are several Chinese eateries, including a very nice hawker center just off one of the side streets that offers a variety of mostly Southern Chinese dishes but also features a Burmese and Indian stand.  Don't stay up too, late, though.  There is an early morning appointment for you at the Petronas Towers.

The Petronas Towers

The Petronas Towers are the world's tallest twin towers and, thanks to their spires, were the tallest buildings on earth for a short time.  It is reported the office space in them is still mostly empty, having exceeded even Kuala Lumpur's demand for real estate.  They are connected by the iconic sky bridge.  You, too, can go up to the sky bridge.  It is free, but you have to get there early if you want a ticket as it fills up fast.  We suggest you leave Chinatown by six in the morning in order to get an early ticket to go up.  You can reach them via taxi, bus, or rail.  The rail station is KLCC, named for the modern mall housed in the bottom stories and also home to Malaysia's largest bookstore.  You will want to leave at least three and a half hours in order to make it to the airport and get checked in for your onward flight.  There are plenty of places to eat, including a Starbucks for a little get up and go for your early morning start.

Although you won't have "seen it all" in just 24 hours, you will have gotten a glimpse of different cultures, different religions, eaten some great food, had at least two or three great shopping opportunities, and also seen the slick, ultra-modern side of this emerging market and Southeast Asian tiger. 


Malaysia Quick Facts:

  • National Religion: Islam but has large Chinese Buddhist, Hindu and Christian minorities
  • Government: Constitutional monarchy with a system of revolving sultans serving as king
  • Languages Spoken: Bahasa Malaysia, English, Chinese (Hokkien, Mandarin most common), Tamil--and lots of other minority languages
  • Currency: Ringgit
  • Exchange Rate: 1.00 USD = 3.10 RM (February 25, 2013) 
  • Geography: Composed of West Malaysia, or Peninsular Malaysia, and East Malaysia on the island of Borneo 
  • Borders: (West Malaysia) Singapore, Thailand, and (East Malaysia) Kalimantan, Indonesia.  You can reach Sumatra, Indonesia by ferry from West Malaysia and the Philippines from East Malaysia.
  • Weather: The rainy seasons are in March to April and September to November.  Temperatures range between about 22 to 31 degrees.  Daytime temperatures are high as is humidity year around.


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