The second half of my whirlwind tour of Kuala Lumpur began after the lunchtime rain. While seeking refuge from the rain in a restaurant along Jalan Bukit Bintang, I tried to plot out the rest of my day. The guidebook I borrowed included suggestions for some walking tours around Kuala Lumpur’s Colonial District and Merdeka Square, Little India, and Chinatown. Each tour route seemed to flow into each other, so that was the perfect itinerary for the second part of my day.
I walked towards the nearest train station, but I was sidetracked by a couple of malls that I had to go through in order to get there. Okay, that made it sound like I didn’t want to go through the mall; the truth is that my guidebook mentioned a Borders bookstore at one of the malls I was going to pass through, so I had to check it out. Being at Borders was like the mothership calling me home. The bookstore carried a lot of books that I was interested in: Plays and scripts, travel books, even Broadway music sheets. I picked up a few books (a couple of plays, a Bill Bryson book, and a pocket guide to Singapore) then continued with my plan for the afternoon.
The first stop on my walking tour was supposed to be Masjid Jamek, one of the oldest mosques in Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, I spent so much time distracted by Borders that by the time I got there, it was closed to visitors (or at least I assumed it was closed to visitors). The exterior looked absolutely wonderful, and I had a nice view from the top thanks to the train station beside it. It’s too bad I didn’t (or couldn’t) go inside.
From there, I walked towards Merdeka Square, passing beside the Sessions and Magistrates Courts. That building was built in 1910 to house the Federated Malay States Survey Department. It’s a pretty (and large) building that was a good introduction to the architecture at the old Colonial District.
I arrived shortly at Merdeka Square, also known as Dataran Merdeka or Independence Square. The green field used to be the cricket green of the Selangor Club, and it was where the Malayan flag was raised for the first time.
Merdeka Square is located in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, which is a large and picturesque building inspired by Moorish architecture. The building was designed by A.C. Norman and was built in 1894-1897, and now houses the Ministry of Heritage, Culture and Arts.
It’s a gorgeous building, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer size of it. It’s also a good place to take an “iconic” picture of Kuala Lumpur, especially since you can also catch the KL Tower in the background.
One of the highlights of Merdeka Square is a 100m flagpole, one of the tallest in the world. It marks the spot where the British flag was lowered and the Malayan flag was raised, signifying the country’s independence.
Around Merdeka Square were many different structures, including a few museums, an old fountain, and the Royal Selangor Club Complex. That building is a Tudor-style building that was built in 1890, and kind of looks out of place amidst all the Moorish-inspired buildings beside it.
After lazing around a bit and cooling down by the memorial arches (the shade and the falling water from the fountain make it a great place to sit down, rest, and cool off from the heat), it was time to head for Little India. Welcoming me to Little India was a mosque (which I suppose was Masjid India) and a street bazaar clearly marked BAZAR. Walking further inside, I saw quite a few apartment buildings, and a lot of stores and shophouses selling everything from saris to Indians CDs, VCDs, and DVDs. I took the opportunity to buy an A.R. Rahman (“Slumdog Millionaire”) CD for a friend, and a Bollywood flick (which I have yet to watch) for myself.
This was my first time to experience anything Indian at a large scale, so it was one of those new things I wanted to soak up. I looked at many shops (including the CD/DVD shop where I bought my swag), marveled at the colors and designs of the saris (I was tempted to get one for myself, but stopped when I realized I was probably never going to wear it, anyway), and, erm, inhaled the various smells and aromas of the food and spices being sold. It was quite the sensory overload, but it was only a fraction of what I would experience in Singapore the next day.
Taking the tour my guidebook suggested, I passed by an old cinema, the Coliseum Theatre, which was still active and screening some Bollywood movies. I then passed by a couple of sari stores and silk shops, including Euro Moda (housed in a pretty if slightly campy Art Deco building) and Silk Street. Another old building in the area was Hotel Noble. I also came across another old cinema, the Odeon Cinema, which was yet another Art Deco building. (It was then that I realized how much I liked Art Deco architecture.)
The suggested Little India walking tour ended at Asian Heritage Row, a collection of 80-year-old shophouses that have been revived and refurbished as a premiere dining location. The guidebook suggested two establishments to check out, but with guidebooks being instantly outdated the moment they’re published, and given the ever-changing nature of restaurants and such, both those establishments were no longer there.
After grabbing an ice cold drink, I headed on foot to Chinatown, passing by more colorful Indian shophouses along the way. The Chettiar House marked the end of the Little India tour and the beginning of the Chinatown tour. From there, I made my way to Medan Pasar, or Market Square, which was the site of Kuala Lumpur’s original market. At the square was a clock tower erected in 1937 commemorating the coronation of King George IV.
Being in Chinatown allowed me to see even more old buildings (many in the Art Deco style) and colorful shophouses. Among the highlights of the walking tour were the old OCBC Building, another Art Deco structure built in 1938 for the Overseas Chinese Banking Company, and the old Bank Simpanan Building, a colorful structure dated 1914 that’s now being used as a hostel.
I took a peek at the Sze Ya Temple, the oldest Taoist temple in Kuala Lumpur. I didn’t get to go inside, but it’s just as well because rain started to fall again. I took refuge inside the Central Market, which was yet another Art Deco building, this time designed by TY Lee. The Central Market was now home to assorted arts and handicraft shops, as well as the usual mix of souvenir shops selling T-shirts and keychains.
It was nighttime when the rain was became more manageable. I headed to the heart of Chinatown, Jalan Petaling, which was where the night market was setup. Jalan Petaling was a frenzy of activity at night, with lots of street stalls opening up and selling assorted wares. You could find almost everything at the night market: CDs and DVDs (legal and otherwise), souvenir items (like keychains and paperweights made to resemble the Petronas Towers), souvenir T-shirts (I bought one, of course), “designer” clothes (possibly a mix of factory overruns and so-so quality knock-offs), leather goods (didn’t expect to see so many belts at the night market), “branded” sports shoes (unsure about their authenticity), toys, and more.
This being Chinatown, there were also a lot of food stalls open. I ducked into one that had a working roof (the rain began to fall again), and ordered my food and a cold Tiger Beer. It was a great opportunity to do some people-watching, observing the lengths people went to brave the rains. (I had a raincoat with me. You don’t grow up in a Southeast Asian country for 26 years without learning a thing or two about the highly unpredictable nature of weather in the region.) Some of the more interesting sights were garbage bags that were turned into ponchos, plastic bags worn as caps on heads or boots on feet, and of course, some people who decided that they didn’t mind getting wet.
After dinner, I explored the night market a little more. The stalls made everything difficult to navigate through as it is, not to mention the sheer number of people there, but with the rain pouring and the people trying to avoid getting wet, it was an even tighter squeeze.
Once I finished doing my bit of souvenir shopping, I decided to head home to get some much needed rest after the long day of walking. After being confused by Kuala Lumpur’s train system once again, I made it back home. I fixed up my stuff and prepared for my bus trip across the border to Singapore the next day.