Alluring Contrasts in Kuala Lumpur
By Chris Millikan
Springing from a tiny muddy mining village, Kuala Lumpur grew into Malaysia's dynamic capital. Despite today's fashionable shopping malls, glittering skyscrapers and futuristic appearance, however, alluring heritage flavours remain in the old city.
Walking streets and alleys over several days, my hubby and I uncovered KL's old world charm.
During the late 1800's, prospectors discovered tin where the Klang and Gomak rivers converge. In sun-drenched reflections from modern glass towers and steel high-rises at the renowned river fork, we could easily imagine early wood and thatch shanties sprawling in the boisterous frontier boom town.
Eventually, brick and tile buildings, strategic location and railroad access guaranteed the city's growth and permanence.
Along that celebrated riverbank, Masjid Jamek (1909) mosque snuggles into shady palm groves. Although the National Mosque with its contemporary umbrella-like roof is much bigger, this delightfully picturesque mosque still serves devotees.
Layers of cream and pink brick support Arabicstyle onion domes high atop cool shining marble prayer-hall floors; red-and white-turreted minarets balance graceful cupolas.
A short block away, we roamed Little India's narrow, hectic streets lined with small crowded shops filled with exquisite saris, gold jewelry, textiles and carpets. Street traders displayed brasses, silver tableware, glass bangles and silver anklets. Mysterious perfumed oils and delicate strings of luscious jasmine flowers dazzled our senses.
Chinatown's excitement lies farther south along the Klang, where generations have lived and traded along the narrow streets. Creating security away from the motherland, early temples, associations, and benevolent societies provided lodging, education, medical and funeral care to Chinese settlers.
Shophouse merchants sold goods from ground floors while living upstairs. Miners spent leisure time in brothels, opium dens and gambling booths, or sometimes at Chinese operas and the Malay theatre.
Part of the old red light district (with 39 registered brothels in 1890), today's frantically busy shops and hawker stalls sell everything imaginable. Bargaining for designer watches and handbags, CD's, or DVD's excites scores of discount hunters.
My hubby and I were simply fascinated with the exotic fruits heaped in open-air stalls: scarlet furry rambutan, pale star fruit, mysterious pink lychees and durians encased in thick thorny skins, 'king of fruit' despite their controversial stench.
Every night peddlers and hawkers take over designated streets to sell their wares.
Closed to traffic, Petaling Street transforms into buzzing night markets, alive with bewildering aromas from local food stalls, snappy music, and friendly vendors negotiating cash 'deals.'
The next morning we reconnected with nature, touring theme parks at Lake Gardens, extensive green belts bordering the city centre. Little pathways and trickling streams at Butterfly Garden wind through lush rain forest homes for 6,000 fragile inhabitants.
Stocked with scarlet hibiscus blooms or thick banana slices, feeders attract fluttery flashes of red, blue and turquoise green. Inside, spellbinding insect collections captivated us with flashing iridescent colours, crusty shells and delicate antennae. Fortunately for me, they were long past being alive.
Within walking distance, the Bird Park was as enthralling. Walk-in aviaries stretch over 20 luxuriant acres; 3,000 birds fly 'freely' in natural splendour.
Feeding time launches frantic feathered activity: raucous shrieking, lyrical calling, wild flitting. With surprising precision, horn bills delicately plucked fresh fruit chunks from shallow bowls with heavy-looking beaks, continually sharing the best bits with each other.
Skeletal snags at hillside feeding stations pierce orange papaya halves, impatiently devoured by perching participants. Leggy storks, beady-eyed herons, and snowy egrets watch deliberately for unsuspecting pond fish; scarlet ibis and pink flamingos dabble, groom and grumble haughtily.
Adjoining the nearby Hibiscus Garden, where the 'queen of flowers' flourishes in countless vibrant colours, the Orchid Garden exhibits 800 species along orchid-lined walkways in floral paradise.
Below the hillside gardens buildings from the turn of the century still surround the colonial city center. On extensive turfed fields once used for lengthy cricket matches, Malaysians now celebrate their independence with annual parades and majestic ceremonies.
Hoisted on a 100 meter pole in 1957, the huge national flag floats proudly over old Merdeka Square. Shaded benches surrounded by flower gardens nestle among colonnades and fountains splash, cascading restfully – great for a little rest to reflect and imagine.
Along the west edge, the rambling Tudor-style Royal Selangor Club (1884) continues to welcome society as it did during the tin rush. Once, playfully teasing the commissioner's wife about parading her Dalmatians there each afternoon, it used to be affectionately called the "Spotted Dog".
Nearby, the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin (1895) retains early gothic exterior buttresses and features exotic Malaysian woods inside. This vintage Anglican church houses a rare pipe organ
Blending Moorish and Victorian details, the entirely brick Sultan Abdul Samad building (1897) dominates several blocks opposite. Graceful horseshoe arches, majestic circular towers, copper dome, and a clock tower first heard on Queen Victoria's birthday guarantee magnificent backdrops for celebrations on the square.
Originally home to British government offices, it houses today's judiciary and a wonderful textile museum.
Escaping the noonday sun, we traced Malaysian history from the stone age in the National History Museum (1909), a three level former bank with unusual hardwood-covered domes.
We were told that in 1926 the vaults apparently flooded, but business continued upstairs in the living quarters; staff floated to work in sampans, later laying out millions of soggy dollars to dry on the square, sternly scrutinized by police. That would have been quite a picture!
Magical at night, pastel blue, pink and green lights glow softly from glorious Moorish arches at KL Railway Station (1911). Renovated in 1988, passengers enjoy train services to Thailand, Singapore and within Malaysia. A funky heritage hotel and restaurant inside the station attracts many travellers.
Leaving Kuala Lumpur's natural and colonial splendour was difficult.
This article originally appeared on the Canadian travel site: http://travel.canoe.ca/