BladeRunner City. Welcome to the future or more correctly, welcome to the confluence of the future and the past. This is the city of Kuala Lumpur, or the “Place of the Muddy River Mouth”. Here, monorail sky-trains, space age skyscrapers and glitzy materialism spill over into a culture of ancient traditions and religious tolerance.
It is a city, and a nation, of great/surprising diversity, where Chinese and Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, brash shopping centres, tempestuous street markets and monolithic office blocks mushroom. Shoulder to shoulder they co-exist, a concrete and steel metropolis straining to become an Asian tiger.
On the surface, all seems perfect. Muslims, Christians, Hindi and other religions co-exist in relative peace; the economy is burgeoning (with virtually zero unemployment), and a stable democracy has been in place for more than three decades, yet one senses social and political undercurrents in what is essentially a patriarchal society. Economically, Malaysia has also under-performed, but only if measured against the unfairly high expectations of the international community, especially those of the country’s major trading partners.
In a nutshell, the story of Malaysia is a tale of two countries. To the west of the Straits of Malakka lies Peninsular Malaysia, or the original Federation of Malay States. A collection of seven sultanates, this 2800,900 ha? strip of land is without a doubt the country’s financial powerhouse. From the high-tech streets of Kuala Lumpur to the endless palm oil plantations, it is a region proud of its culture of growth and acquisition.
Across the South China Seas, to the east, lies Borneo. Here one will find Sabah and Sarawak, states invited to join the Malay Federation, just on 40 years ago. This is the home of the orang asli, or jungle people, where untamed forests stretch as far as the eye can see. Orang-utans, exotic orchids, alien reptiles and giant butterflies inhabit a diverse and incredibly rich natural wonder world, and until a handful of decades ago, headhunters ruled these wild and untouched lands.
For most visitors to Malaysia however, their first point of contact would be Kuala Lumpur. Passenger airlines from around the globe jet into the futuristic and impeccably organised KLIA international airport, from where sweeping highways and express trains boom into the capital.
The hour-long or so drive sweeps past the brand-new cities of Putra Jaya and Cyber Jaya, allowing tourists a view of Malaysia’s vision of the future. These are true cyber-age cities, with all homes and office buildings connected via fibre-optic cables to the world-wide web. No expense has been spared in this brave new world and world-class architects and engineers have been commissioned to design and construct the buildings, bridges and other structures reflecting architectural styles from a myriad of different countries.
Travel beyond the boundaries of this global village and you will soon be transported to the ordered chaos of KL proper.
From the giant outdoor video screens of Jalan Bukit Bintang to the sensory overload of Chinatown’s
Petaling Street, overall ambience is that of a city about to dash headlong into delicious disorder. However the admirable restraint, tolerance and gentle demeanour of the general populace consistently keeps KL from coming apart at the seams.
Shopping seems to be the main raison d’etre for visiting the Malaysian capital, with designer centres such as KLCC and Times Square drawing serious shoppers from Jeddah to Johannesburg. But there is more to KL that their Guess and Giordano or Dior and DKNY. Venture beyond the marble and stainless steel temples to materialism to experience the vivacious tastes, sounds and smells of the open-air street markets in Petaling Street. Here, in Chinatown, you can invest in good karma by having a traditional letter written by a Confuscian elder, or buy a bootleg copy of yet-to-be-released DVD’s just across the street.
Down the road, within the tumult of Little India, you step into the “Land of Bargains”, my friend, and anything goes but aggression. A smile, a friendly bit of banter, feigned exasperation and you too can own a 100% plastic kris dagger or a framed quote from the Quoran. And all around, the delicious smells of traditional cooking will assault your sensibilities, tempting you to tuck into satay kebabs, nan curry or glazed duck way before the next meal is really required.
Once you’re sated and your wallet is markedly lighter, set out in search of some of the city’s leisure sites. The King’s Royal Palace, resplendent with guards on horseback, is a worthwhile stop-over, as is Merdeta (Independence) Square with its historic buildings. Then fast-forward to the future by ascending into the bowels of KLCC Twin Towers, the highest dual structure building in the world.
Tranquilize your day by heading for the Lake Gardens, where hornbills, pelicans, parrots and colourful birds from around the planet preen themselves within the largest covered bird park in the world. An orchid- and hibiscus garden and adjacent deer park add to the Lake Gardens’ attraction. Also on the itinerary of the well-travelled KL visitor will be the Botanical Gardens, the Islamic Museum of Art and the bridges and mosque of Putra Jaya.
And, if you have the time, you could head out of the city on any number of day trips. The Batu Caves, a Hindu religious site where the annual Diparali celebrations take place, is a must. Something completely different is an evening boat trip on the Selangor River, approximately 2 hours from Kuala Lumpur. Drift along the dense mangrove-tangled shores while the current tugs at your craft, watching as thousands of fire-flies “kelip-kelip” their light into the night.
All of this is but the tip of the tourism iceberg, with a multitude of eco-, leisure and adventure options awaiting exploration. From jungle boating at Sukan and orang-utan trekking near Sepilok, to ascending the towering peak of Mt. Kinabalu, an incredible experience awaits. No wonder the country’s tourism slogan is “Malaysia – Truly Asia”.