The last time I had been in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, the now famous Petronas Twin Towers hadnít yet been completed in this developing country. Now with an enormous growth spurt and the unhesitating leap into the future with modern skyscrapers, shopping malls and a new efficient monorail system, like a teenager, the training bra is gone and the development is visible. KLís skyline is mesmerizing.
With travelers seeking new destinations, Malaysia may be off the beaten path but itís a great jumping off place for other Asian countries. As one of the Asian tigers, this country offers up a large tray of unique cuisine, old charm, history, various cultures and dazzling architecture.
Spending 24 hours in KL (as it is affectionately called) is just enough time to see the surface of this now throbbing former capital city , just 35 k from the mid-west coast with a population of about 2 million . Tourism attracts about 15 million visitors annually and the Tourism Ministry sees these figures doubling in the near future.
Indulging in an early morning wake-me- up cup of coffee brought to my room by the floor butler at the well located Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur Hotel was just one of the fine services. However, I was soon eating hardy, protein filled buffet breakfast in the Lobby Lounge- a wise move considering the hectic full day itinerary where the temperature is well into the thirties and the humidity in the nineties..
Malaysia is known for having the largest and biggest flower in the world, the rafflesia; and the largest cave passage, Deer Cave. My first stop was to the 452m twin Petronas Towers, once the tallest buildings in the world which lost that status to the 101 Tower in Taiwan. However, it was featured in an action movie, Entrapment, starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones. Locals still boast about this complex.
Queues for tickets start forming early, by 8AM. Since 9/11, for security reasons, the 88 story building which opened in 1997, now stops at floor 44 where one of the two sky bridges is located, the other on the 41st floor. From here the panoramic view of the city is the perfect perch.
Handicraft centres can be Ďkitschyí and a herd of bulls canít usually get me in. But KLís Craft Complex within the Golden Triangle, (the cityís business district), is a one-stop destination to learn about Malaysian craft heritage- batik and weaving (songket), intricate wood carving, a chance to see the largest earthen jar in Malaysia. I spoke with on-site artisans who enjoyed showing me the techniques involved in many of the crafts and purchase gifts.
Although traffic jams are a major consideration, if necessary cope with these gridlock juggernauts to see the National Palace. Visitors canít get past the high black iron, gold crested gates but a view of the grand exterior is part of the experience of being with many Malaysians who have come to see their palace. Seemingly shy of westerners, many burka clad women did say hello. The changing of the horseman may be short and not as grand as Buckingham Palaceís ritual, but is worth the wait. .. How these guards stand at their two-hour post in sweltering heat and heavy decorative uniforms is mind boggling! One on-guard horseman almost fell off his horse as he was about to doze off - literally. My flashbulb immediately woke him. I single handedly saved the nation an embarrassment. There are 9 sultans in Malaysia, each taking turns with revolving, friendly 5 year terms as King, allowing each, during their reign, to move into this esteemed residence.
The worldís largest covered bird park (Taman Burung, Sangkar Terbesar Di Dunia), needs the 3.2 hectares itís on since there are 2000 birds winging freely in the natural landscaped environment. Birds with fabulous plumage strut around. However, when I asked a friend to snap my photo and decided to sit near a group of elegant storks, one of these white wonders took a nip at my arm, which lead me to a very tentative on-site medical assistant who asked if she should apply some anti biotic ointment.
Just across the way, and still holding my bandaged arm, I toured the Orchid Garden with 3000 identified species. Orchids and their vast palette of colour, sizes and shapes helped soothed me and my ego.
Like a blue umbrella, the undulating blue tiled roof of the National Mosque is an architecture triumph. The mosque can accommodate 5,000 but timing is everything since only Muslims are allowed into the building during prayers. Twice when I visited, prayers didnít end until 3PM, the deciding factor that I would not be able to see the interior. In KL, the Muslim population is 60% while Hindu, Buddhists and Christians make up the rest.
Street vendors selling ice cream and hog dogs separate the mosque from the Islamic Arts Museum. The intricately designed, multi-coloured mosaic entrance leads into a very modern, very white, large 270,000 sq. foot building. Artifacts are well displayed, albeit limited. There are ceramics and glassware, an alcove of art of the mosque, scrolls, porcelain and bronzes The textile and jewellery exhibits are opulent, many from India. Children are everywhere doing what kids do, their burka clad mothers trying hard to keep them close by.
By now itís time to lunch and one of the finest meals I ate while in Malaysia was at the museumís modern, white, glassed-in restaurant with a buffet (buffets are everywhere) of Mid east, Indian and Malay food. Curried chicken, humus, various salads and a huge assortment of sweets certainly cater to everyoneís taste buds. The alternate choice would be at the Menara KL Towers, a revolving 282m above ground restaurant with an outstanding view of the city. However, the food, (another buffet), doesnít quite match the museum food, although the choice is much larger with a counter of continental food, besides the Malaysian food and another counter full of deserts.
Spas have mushroomed in most modern hotels around the world and the Ritz Carlton Kuala Lumpur Hotel recently opened a 10,000 sq. foot Spa Village Kuala Lumpur, dimly light peaceful spaces surrounded with quiet water moats and floating lotus flowers. .However, I opted for treatments at Vila Manja ( means beautiful) in an old Colonial mansion. Opened in April 05, itís located in a very swanky, very private in-city residential area. The former expat tenants of the villa obviously hadnít done much upkeep. It took 29 year old entrepreneur, former banker Yen-Nee Loo, to have the vision and make this property an oasis in the Golden Triangle close to various embassies and affluent residences. Indoor and outdoor still water ponds with granite stepping stones to get you from one area to another is very Zen- shoes are left at the entrance. Obviously, Villa Manja has been an instant success since getting an appointment is difficult. With her four trained estheticians plus two others when needed, Villa Manja offers a varied a la carte menu of rubs and scrubs..
Shiny dark wood stairs lead to the second floor spacious, double treatment rooms, separated by carved wood antique Chinese screens. The breeze flows through the red and gold curtains. The staff may look tiny but I soon discovered their hidden strength. Rose, my masseuse, entered holding a dim sum basked steamer but instead of goodies, out came cold towels soaked with aromatic oils. Disposable paper panties and a kimono were handed to me. I was asked to sit on a small stool, she on a floor pillow, for a foot bath filled with lime, oranges and rose petals. "You have to wash feet first to relax the body" Rose told me as she saw my questioning raised eyebrows. Then onto the bed where tiny Rose asked whether I wanted a reflexology massage with soft, medium or strong pressure. I opted for the latter which I was assured by Rose, would loosen my very knotted muscles. A mixture of Balinese coconut based oil and green tea oils was used. It began well enough with somewhat long soft Thai strokes but more action had to be taken when she located all my tight areas. Obviously this called for immediate attention with shiatsu massage. I didnít scream out loud but half way through the massage, I bravely conceded asking for reduced pressure. Thai twisting and bending of joints were rewarded with hot stone back rub, originally an ancient Japanese treatment, which makes the lemon grass oil penetrate into the skin. As it turned out, I did feel great afterwards and I enjoyed a cup of tea with Loo before leaving.
What would seem too touristy for savvy travellers, a buffet (of course) dinner with a variety of choices and a short, colourful cultural show, are, in fact, a great way to end the evening and surprisingly there were more locals than visitors filling the tables. The colourful show performs Indian, Malay and Chinese dances. (Sri Melayu, Jalan Conlay)
Since prices are very inexpensive, itís a must to find time to shop. Stores like British India in Lot 10 shopping complex (centre junction of Jalan Bukit Bintang and Jalan Sultan Ismail, Golden Triangle) designs combining westernized styles with fabrics from Italy manufactured in Malaysia. This keeps the costs low and the quality high. Actually, thatís the summation of Kuala Lumpur, the costs are surprisingly low and the quality is surprisingly high.
Article by Barbara Kingstone
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Last Updated on March 26, 2006 by M. Maxine George editor.
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