“Is there anything we can do to help you? Come and join us for a cup of tea.”
The offer came from Dr. Sayyid Musa Al-Kazimi, a serene and smiling man in traditional Muslim dress, seated just beside the entrance to the main prayer room at Malaysia’s National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. As Head of the Muslim Welfare Organisation of Malaysia, Dr. Sayyid had set up shop among the cool marble columns, domes and minarets of the masjid, offering support to community members and passers-by, in the build-up to the holy fasting month of Ramadhan. Together with his assistant, he was handing out parcels of food for the poor, relevant scriptures to those in need of spiritual guidance and a friendly welcome to new arrivals in search of local knowledge.
“There is no such thing as strangers in Malaysia”
Several cups of tea and a few life stories later, I left Malaysia’s biggest mosque with a warm glow, a list of the best spots to see in the city, and most precious of all, my first friend in Malaysia. That chat with the kind doctor was to be the first of many discussions with the people of Malaysia, and a sign of things to come. From Chinese taxi drivers working long hours in the city, to Sungai tribespeople paddling their kayaks in the rainforest, there really is no such thing as strangers in Malaysia; just a multicultural cast of friends waiting for an introduction.
With its unique blend of faiths, cultures, languages and backgrounds, Malaysia is a melting pot of diverse characters. In a story that would unfold over two wonderful weeks of travel through the peninsular and up into the jungles of Borneo, every step of the way would be accompanied by experiences beyond compare, in the company of unforgettable people.
The adventure begins in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia’s bustling capital city has it all; amazing architecture, vibrant nightlife, eclectic cuisine and great transport linking it all together. Here you will find towering monuments to the ultra-modern, standing alongside the ancient spires of Arabic-style mosques and bazaars. With many iconic stops scattered around, Kuala Lumpur’s city streets are a mix of old and new, all framed by banyan trees and blue skies overhead.
First stop on the itinerary was the dizzying heights of KL tower. Standing 335 metres (1,099 ft) tall, this is the highest viewpoint in the city that’s open to the public. Up here you can walk around a 360-degree observation deck and even step out onto glass-bottom platforms suspended over a chasm of empty space between your feet and the city streets below. The tower is a favourite launchpad for base jumpers, who come from all over the world to leap from its summit. It also acts as the Islamic observatory, monitoring the crescent moon that marks the beginning of Ramadhan, Syawal, and Zulhijjah. For panoramic views of the city, KL tower is the place to go.
On the outskirts of the city, the Batu Caves combine natural wonders with spectacular feats of construction and religious devotion. After dodging a troop of wild monkeys and navigating my way through a crowd of pigeons, I climbed the 272 steps at the mouth of the cave, through the colourful arches of the temple gateway and past a gigantic golden statue of Sri Murugan Swami, to whom the temple is dedicated. Standing 42 metres (140 ft) high, the world's tallest Murugan statue is made of 1,550 cubic metres of concrete, 250 tonnes of steel bars and 300 litres of gold paint. It reportedly cost around 24 million rupees; a suitably eye-watering price tag for such a lavish monument.
“A vast natural cavern framed by stalactites, where bats, swifts and pigeons come to roost”
At the summit of the staircase, the view is truly remarkable. In the distance, the Tetris outline of skyscrapers in KL sits inside a natural bowl in the landscape, cradled by undulating hills and a patchwork of farmland. Murugan’s golden eyes watch over it all from his vantage point in the limestone cliffs. To his back, the caves form a vast natural cavern framed by stalactites, where bats, swifts and pigeons come to roost. A pile of crumbling bricks waits at the entrance, with a sign that politely asks visitors to carry some masonry up to a temple that’s taking shape at the back of the cave.
The cave and its outlying temples form one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India and are the focal point of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Malaysia. Inside is a colourful collection of reliefs, murals, deities and dioramas, each telling epic tales of heroism from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. As I carry my brick up to the temple, the enormous cavern reverberates to the music of a traditional Bansuri flute, accompanied by a Tabla drum. The melodies drift over sculptures of peacocks, elephants and statues of Shiva, Hanuman and Lord Rama, as pilgrims arrive for prayers and pujas in the cave temple. For a moment, it’s as if the Ganges has rippled its way into the rock.
A tangled labyrinth of lanes, food venders and market stalls, Petaling Street in Chinatown is home to a daily flea market where you can find just about any kind of merchandise you can imagine. Besides knock-down branded goods such as clothes, handbags, trainers and watches, you can also find music CDs and DVDs of the latest releases, each for less than RM10. The alleys are crammed and there’s plenty to see, from glistening roast ducks slung up in the windows of restaurants, to painted hermit crabs clambering out of baskets on the backs of bicycles. Take some time to explore, haggle and barter, or simply pick a comfortable spot and watch this colourful retail carnival go by.
“A daytime alternative to the hustle and bustle of Chinatown’s night markets”
A short walk from Petaling Street is Jalan Hang Kasturi, where you’ll find Pasar Seni (art market). This expansive bazaar is a daytime alternative to the hustle and bustle of Chinatown’s night markets. Housed in a large building, it also gives you options if the weather’s not so good. On the ground floor you’ll find plenty of local handicrafts, silversmiths and clothing stores, as well as camera equipment, snacks and jewellery. Upstairs there’s an excellent food court, with a range of cuisines that perfectly embody the multicultural character of the city itself. Pasar Seni is the perfect place to get some lunch or hunt for souvenirs.
Other places of interest
Kuala Lumpur has plenty of interesting stops to offer, whether you’re staying for several days or just passing through. Head to Independence Square, where you can find the world’s largest free-standing flagpole, or cross the road to explore the Old Railway Station and British colonial architecture. Not far away you’ll find a spot where two rivers converge. It is this meeting of waterways in the heart of the city that gives Kuala Lumpur its origin story; in 1857, 87 Chinese prospectors in search of tin landed at the crux of the Klang and Gombak rivers and set up camp, naming the spot Kuala Lumpur, meaning 'muddy confluence’. Today, the location is marked by a rather more poetic testament to the city: Masjid Jamek; a beautiful Arabic-style mosque that’s hemmed in by both the rivers and a gang of skyscrapers, flyovers and roads that have since sprung up on its doorstep. With its trickling fountains, shady trees and cool white alabaster walls, Jamek mosque is an oasis of heritage and tranquillity that exists in spite of the modernity that surrounds it.
After Kuala Lumpur, Panorama Destination journeyed to Langkawi. Click here to Travel With Us.