Kuala Lumpur: A city of contrasts

From the air Kuala Lumpur is vast, surrounded by palm plantations and mountains rising from the cloud. Huge new suburbs in Mediterranean colours line the motorway from the airport into the CBD. Malaysia is a country with a deeply held traditional respect for the past. It also has high tech industrialisation, natural resources and a growing economy. Over one-and-a-half million people are crowded into this densely populated metropolis and it was the rich sense of the stunning contrasts of this human microcosm that impressed me.

Panoramic view of Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur. Pic: Ezry Abdul Rahman, Wikimedia Commons.

The smooth, empty grass of Independence Square – Dataran Merdeka – is surrounded by historic buildings. From the Moghul-style Sultan Abdul Samad Building built in 1897 to St Mary’s Anglican Cathedral and the Selangor Club, which once used the square as its cricket ground. The flagstaff here marks the beginning of the independent Malaysian state in 1957. And the city itself does not have the ancient pedigree of some other Asian cities. Only 150-odd years old, KL has developed fast but retains a plethora of local colour. In Chinatown the noise and bustle of Petaling Street and the surrounding lanes is offset by rainbow fairy lights looped from palm trees around the Central Market. The ruined façade of a building has foliage peeping through empty windows, peeling paint and moulded motifs of a once grand building now abandoned and disintegrating. Strings of red and gold paper lanterns rub shoulders with bright neon signs. Street vendors fan a smoking barbecue and a dried fish stall smells particularly savoury. I keep walking and suddenly I’m in the pristine, beautifully designed area around the Petronas Towers, with parks, pools and fountains framing the twin towers that have become symbolic of Malaysia’s fast-forward development. Along with the KL Tower, these skyscrapers set the KL skyline alight.

Tourists take photos of Kuala Lumpur’s iconic Petronas Towers. Pic: AP.

On the roads, limousines and SUVs thunder past and then a family on a low-powered scooter phuts along, the mother’s headscarf fluttering out from under her helmet. In a quiet street nearby I spot a monkey peering out from behind a building. Malays, Chinese and Tamils rub shoulders in the concrete and glass jungles but the colonial legacy and modern town planning has also left KL a surprisingly green capital. The lush 92 hectares of Lake Gardens near the parliament buildings has Southeast Asia’s largest bird park and there are three forest reserves within the city limits and a surprising amount of wildlife. Burkit Bintang is Kuala Lumpur’s temple of consumerism and along with this retail heaven the city has over 60 shiny shopping malls. In Medan Pasar, the Old Market Square, highrises dwarf the pre-war shopfronts. The art deco Central Market is thronged with teenagers playing with their smart phones.

A street in Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

Running on from Chinatown the exotic Sri Maha Mariamman Temple with its elaborate gopuram reflects Kuala Lumpur’s nearly-10 percent Hindu population. Little India is a surprisingly relaxed enclave. Listening to tabla rhythms and tucking into a banana leaf full of steaming rice and dhal, I wanted to drop everything and buy up all the strings of brilliantly coloured flower garlands for sale as votive offerings. From the temple a silver chariot carrying the effigy of Lord Muruga is paraded through the city and out to the Batu Caves during the Thaipusam festival. The limestone geological feature is nothing short of spooky once you pass the monkeys lying in wait before the 272 steps. Sheltering from a tropical downpour I wait to catch a local bus out of town to visit the caves, a revered Hindu shrine. Stopping along the way in KL’s extensive slums filled with immigrant workers, little boys racing alongside the bus wearing fake football shirts from European clubs. Just near the National Mosque, Kuala Lumpur’s Islamic Art Centre carries a special multi-cultural message. Over 30,000 square metres it displays decorative work from centuries of Islamic culture from the Arab heartlands to China, India and Southeast Asia. Through illuminated books, jewellery, textiles, weapons and delicate underglazed fretwork on earthenware tiles it examines how cultures absorb the arts of others and form new amalgams of creativity, unifying through diversity. Celebrating KL’s urban culture is a thriving street art scene. Along the Sungai Klang river bank for hundreds of metres the results of the Kul Sign Festival can be seen: vibrantly creative graffiti art.

Again and again contrast and diversity is reflected in the architecture and atmosphere of the city, which offers both an assault on the senses and recreation for the mind.

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