Elight QR 0350 took off from TIA on time. In fact we were almost late boarding the large Qatar Airways plane bound for Kuala Lumpur. A little over four hours later, the stewardess and then the pilot informed us we were landing soon and signed off.
We were treated to a brilliantly lit city from the air and were soon touching Malaysian soil. Contrary to expectations it was not really that hot in the capital city. A short air-train ride took us to the terminal building from the landing area. That is how far out we had landed and it also gives a picture of how really big the new Shah Alam International Airport is. At midnight Malaysian time, I was surprised to be met by our host at the terminal. That spoke volumes for Malaysian hospitality and gave the true meaning of “Selamat Datang” which means “welcome” in the Malay language (Bahasah Malaysia).
The first impression of Malaysia, (at least for us South Asians) is of a well developed nation. Driving down the freeway to the city, we noticed the disciplined traffic streaming towards central Kuala Lumpur. Unlike Kathmandu, the motorbikes are outnumbered by automobiles (by a wide margin). We later found out they can all afford cars, so why bother buying motorcycles. BMWs and Mercedese Benzs are a common sight. We were driven to Hotel Pan Pacific in northeast Kuala Lumpur and were right opposite the Mall, a huge shopping complex. How convenient. With a room on the 20th floor, the view was stupendous. As the lift rose up, we were greeted by the unforgettable sight of the twin Petronas Towers (452 m) supposedly the tallest building in the world, sparkling with lights against the backdrop of a darkened sky.
Kuala Lumpur, the Garden City of Lights, is immediately captivating and welcoming. Not a soul bothered us trying to sell his wares; no brokers, no hawkers or agents promising you a good time. KL, as the locals like to call it, is clean fun. As Lonely Planet assesses it, “Malaysia is the most pleasant, hassle-free country to visit in South-east Asia.
Malaysia’s history goes back to the Second Great War, soon after which Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei began their separate existence as independent countries. Prior to that, they were all under British rule. At various times in Malaysia’s history, the Malay Peninsula has been under the control of different South-east Asian nations. In the 7th century, the great Sumatran based Sriwijaya Empire reined over the vast country. It has had its Hindu-Buddhist period of which much evidence still exists. Melaka, which at one time was a city-state played a crucial role in the history of this country. Being a strategically positioned port of call, ships sailing from the east and west arrived here frequently, but it also brought in invaders. And so they came: the Portuguese, Dutch and the British. The Portuguese ruled from 1511 until they were displaced by the Dutch in 1641. They in turn ruled for over a century. Then the British landed in Penang in 1786. The British East India Company took Melaka and other Dutch possessions. But in 1818 Maleka was returned to the Dutch. In 1913, Peninsular Malaysia and north west Borneo united to form Malaysia under British rule. The economy then was dependant on rubber and tin.
The British brought in Chinese and Indian laborers into Malaya and these people eventually outnumbered the local Malay people. In 1955, Malaya gained independence from the British. In 1963, Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo were amalgamated with Peninsular Malaya to form Malaysia. Sarawak and Sabah are referred to as East Malaysia.
A large portion of the credit for Malaysia’s progress towards development goes to former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed. As many visitors will remember, the modernization of this country is quite recent.
WHAT TO SEE (Kuala Lumpur)
Around Kuala Lumpur, after the world famous Petronas Towers, the next big attraction is the Menara Kuala Lumpur, which is the fourth highest communications tower in the world. The tower stands 421 metres in all and is a big attraction for both locals as well as tourists. Looking down from the observation deck, we were greeted by a 360degree view of KL. ‘Breathtaking’ is the word. We were provided with audio guides that not only guided us through the various sights around the tower, but also briefed us on Malaysian history. The audio guide comes in a host of foreign languages and the English one that I used, was clear and comprehensible. A revolving restaurant serves international buffet and there are conference halls and shopping centers all within the tower. An Italian restaurant sits in the foreground of the tower.
Some of the fascinating sights around town are the National Theatre that boasts advanced architectural design reminding one of the Sydney Opera House. A sight for soar eyes is the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, which looks even more enchanting if you happen to visit at night. With thousands of lights illuminating the structure highlighting its architectural lines, it is truly a sight worth beholding. Adjacent to the Merdeka (Independence) Square is the giant flagpole. This historic site is where the British handed over sovereignty to the locals on 31st August 1957, and the Malaysian flag was raised for the first time. A very modern mosque, Masjid Negara is also worth a visit. In the evening after sunset, when it is lighted up, it is truly spectacular.
We drove to the National History Museum, an old building constructed in 1909. Here we were taken back to Malaysia’s ancient history, as far as the stoneage. The other influences over the ages is also well represented; Buddhist, Islamic, colonial and post colonial periods.
At the confluence of the Kalang and Gombak rivers sits the Masjid Jamek, of marvelous designs with onion domes and brightly colored minaret. This mosque was completed in 1907 and is a beautiful sight to behold during sunrise or sunset.
Chan See Shu Yuen Temple at Jalan Pataling is one of the largest temples in the capital city. It was built in 1906 and has typical Chinese architecture. And near the Jalan Stadium is Khoon Yam, a Hokkien Chinese temple that was built around the turn of the century. Chinese architecture is always such a delight to see.
If you want to visit a Hindu temple, then there is the large, elaborately designed Sri Mahamariamman Temple. This is of South Indian origin (most Indians arrived from South India) and houses a large chariot dedicated to Lord Muruga. We have often watched the Thaipursam festival shown on the National Geographic channel. It features this particular silver chariot, which plays a major role in the procession of devotees, who visit the Batu caves (details later).
If you want to see Malay architecture, then visit the Museum Negara, which was opened in 1963. Here also we find Malaysia’s history. There are collections depicting Malaysia’s economy, arts and crafts, culture and traditions.
Lake Gardens. KL is resplendent in abundant greenery and to add to the splendor is the Lake Gardens built within 92 hectares of rolling hillocks. A legacy of the British Raj, we can also see beautiful English houses here, built during that period. The Tasik Perdana is the lake here once called the “Sydney Lake”. A delight for nature lovers is the Bird Park. A massive net encloses a huge section of the park encompassing entire trees. There are said to be 160 species of birds. One should visit if time permits. It has a large area requiring much walking around. But it is really worth the sweat, as exotic birds walk a few feet from you. Peacocks roam freely beside you and there are flamingos, hornbills and many colorful birds to be seen and heard. It is a great photo opportunity and the ideal place to take your kids. The entrance is a bit steep at RM 28. The Orchid Garden near by, has 800 species of orchids. The sheer beauty of the flowers makes it worth a visit. There is even a hibiscus garden and a Deer Park, where we could see the little Kancil deer also known as the mouse deer. It resembles a mouse and is tiny in comparison to other species of deer. At the National Planeterium, you can catch an audio visual science show.
People who love gaiety, a lively atmosphere and Chinese cuisine¸ head out for Chinatown. Situated towards the south around the streets of Jalan Sultan and Jalan Tun HS Lee, this section of town has the usual kaleidoscope of colorful signs, bright lights, combined with a display of a wide variety of Chinese food. The crowd of locals and tourists, accompanied by the noise and constant movement adds to the vibrancy of the town. There’s much to shop for here and plenty of bargaining to do. With traffic disallowed in certain sections at night, it is a pleasure walking about shopping and sampling the exotic Chinese cuisine. But you will not have a problem finding continental cuisine either, since this is where the backpackers congregate. The atmosphere is lively and the wares on sale are mind boggling.
KL also has its Little India. Here we see more Indians than anybody else. Most are from South India and predominantly Tamils. Replicating the atmosphere of Indian Bazaars, they sell saris and batik. The other market of interest is the Chow Kit Market, which is one of the busiest of markets with brisk business conducted from morning to evening. A well known shopping center is the Times Square. The shopping plazas around KL are huge, glittery and well stocked with clothes, shoes, electronic goods, watches, food, etc. There are plenty in KL.
FOOD & ENTERTAINMENT
As you walk along the streets of KL, Chinese food seems to predominate and you wonder where you get Malay food. But you do see signs saying “Nasi Goreng”, “Satey”, etc. There are many Indian, Thai and Japanese restaurants in KL. Continental food is available everywhere. There are McDonalds and KFC outlets as well as Starbucks’ Coffee shops all around the city. If you are hungry for live entertainment, then head for the Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood or any of the big hotels. At the Hard Rock Café (Hotel Concorde), we checked out the band, T Rex. No connection to Marc Bolan, but they were quite professional and entertaining, although they were far from a hard rock band. The memorabilia was impressive though, with Clapton’s Strat and BB King’s Gibson to name a few. There’s also the Hyatt that has a pretty decent band to entertain you until the wee hours of the morning. The city abounds in live entertainment.
AWAY FROM KUALA LUMPUR
A drive of 13 km north of KL took us to the famous Batu Caves where the South Indians have their temples. In February, huge crowds of devotees converge here for the Thaipusam. 272 steps lead up to the massive limestone cave and it is steep. Lord Subramaniam, an aspect of Shiva is the central deity. A huge statue of brick is being built in the foreground. There are many cafes on the grounds in front of the steps if you get thirsty.
MELAKA, the Historical Town
A two hour drive from Kuala Lumpur and we found ourselves in a lovely little town. Melaka is a state by itself. In the 15th century this was the greatest trading port in South-east Asia. Today it seems to be the place where a majority of the tourists hang out. What was once just a fishing village, became an extremely important port of call and is now a charming little town with plenty to see and endless shopping possibilities. The town enjoyed growing importance after a Hindu prince from Sumatra named Parameswara took up residence here in 1396. Formally known as Malaca (remember Straits of Malaca from your geography lessons), this town has a long history of piracy, trade and colonization by the Portuguese, Dutch and then the British. It was a port frequented by Chinese, Indian, Arab and European merchants. It became a Portuguese colony in 1511 and became Dutch in 1641. Then in 1795, the great colonial power, Britain overpowered the Dutch and ruled until it was returned to the Dutch after signing the Treaty of Vienna. Eventually it came under the control of the English East India Company in exchange for Bencoleen, Sumatra. No need to remember all the confusing details. Just remember it has a very interesting history.
What to see
Starting our tour at Stadthuys, the most important historical place of the Dutch period, we picked up quite a bit of history here, in a short time. You will see the clock tower and souvenir shops in the front of this striking red building. Built around 1641-1660, it has typical Dutch architecture and also houses the History Museum, which guides you through the entire history of Melaka. Near by is the Christ Church dating back to 1753. It has bricks brought all the way from Holland. The British later converted this Dutch Reformed Church to Anglican use. This town is not to be missed. It also has a People’s Museum but the more interesting is the Maritime Museum, which is actually a re-creation of a Portuguese ship. Walking within this wooden ship gives an insight into what sailing in the good old days really meant with relics placed in their respective places. Melaka’s importance in the past was as a convenient and strategically placed port. Spices attracted people from far and wide. This town has its own Chinatown with signs in Chinese. Most of the ethnic Chinese are descended from immigrants who arrived from South China.
We ate at the Restoran Peranakan, where everyone seemed to converge for lunch. An interesting Chinese temple was the Chen Hoon Teng Temple with intricate carvings. Melaka is a great place to spend a day or two. There are plenty of places to eat or sleep or shop. You can find loads of antiques around town. The town is a beautiful week-end getaway and people do throng here at the end of the week. Cars roll in endlessly. Other places of interest are the Crocodile Farm, which also has albinos, Mini Malaysia where one can see what the traditional houses look like in the 13 different states of Malaysia, and for the kids, the Melaka Zoo, the A’Famosa Water World and Animal World. A trishaw ride is the ideal way to see Melaka and many tourists are seen rolling towards their destinations. In Melaka, we find 600 years of history and it takes us on a journey through its colorful past.
PENANG, The Pearl of the Orient
Driving into Penang was interesting, as we had to cross the 13.5 km bridge that connects this island to peninsular Malaysia. Of course, our first trip was straight to our hotel, the Bayview Beach Resort at the head of the island. Our Chinese guide later explained to us how Penang was shaped like a turtle and our hotel was at the head.
Penang was colonized by Capt. Francis Light for the British East India Company in 1786. When Light landed here, it had a small population but soon grew into a large town, which he named Georgetown after King George III. Today, it is the capital of Penang island, and is a thriving city. It is said Capt. Light fired gold coins into the surrounding forests to entice his men to clear the area. Around this city, you will see some beautiful Chinese houses as well as many colonial relics.
Penang is about 285 sq. km and has roads running right around the island, going up and down the densely forested hills. There are beaches all around and high rise building, many of them hotels, can be seen dotting the landscape. Penang has a historical connection to Nepal. While the British ruled Malaya (later became Malaysia), the Gurkha soldiers were stationed on this island to fight insurgency. At the harbour, an old man asked me where I came from. When I answered “Nepal”, he smiled and said, “Many Nepali soldiers lived here many, many years ago.”
What to see
Our Chinese guide named Stewart (he was raised by a Scotsman) took us around the island. The Chinese are a majority here followed by Malays and then, minority Indians. We visited the Fort Cornwallis in Georgetown that sits by the beach and were confronted by a large statue of Francis Light facing the entrance. The fort has a chapel, store-room for gun powder and cannons aimed towards the sea as if still waiting for invading ships. There is real gun powder in the barrels along with cannon balls. The Penang Museum and Art Gallery built in 1821 has an interesting collection of very old photographs some of them considerably enlarged. The exhibits include maps, original charts, fascinating relics, ancient daggers, exquisite Chinese furniture, embroidery and paintings. There are interesting Chinese and Indian temples besides the mosques in Penang. Worth a visit is the Khoo Kongsi, a clan house of the Khoo family which was completed in 1898 although started in 1853. Permission from the Kongsi office is required for entry into the building. There are many Kongsis (clan houses) around Georgetown.
Our guide took us on a visit to the Batik factory. We were greeted by a friendly Malay lady who introduced us to the fascinating world of Penang Batik. We were quite taken in by the beauty of their art and their creativity. We had not seen anything like it and Stewart informed us the local people are extremely skillful. The vivid colors and the sheer artistry make their batik unique. There is much to buy here besides batik as they also have handicrafts made of pewter, silver, cane, etc. We moved on and crossed over the hill where we saw a large reservoir, which our guide said was for the future, when the Penang population would grow too big for the water supply they rely on now. On the way down the hill we stopped at a roadside outlet of a Fruit and Spices seller, who had some interesting oils made from nutmeg to relieve rheumatic pain and clove oil for toothache. His collection of spices and oils was quite fascinating. I bought a bottle for RM 18. On the way down from the hills our guide recalled his childhood days, “I used to cycle up the dirt road and drink from the spring water.” They are all metal topped now. He remembered fondly how he used to shower under the water falls. The road ways are superb but more are being built. Malaysia seems geared for the future. Although the present roads are more than sufficient for the island, more and more are being built. Knowing the need will arise sooner or later, new roads are being added constantly. Driving around the island is a real pleasure.
Our next stop was at the ultra modern jewelry factory set up by the German firm OE (Oeding-Erdel). A smart girl of Indian descent took us on a tour of the place. Beginning with how a cast is made, we traced each step of the production until the jewels are set by experienced hands with no less than fifteen years of service in this trade. The platinum rings and bracelets set with diamonds are highly prized. The girl showed us a direct order for a piece, placed by one of the stars of the TV production “Friends”. The designs made here at the factory are very impressive and caters to both western and eastern tastes.
Two interesting temples to visit are the Thai and Burmese Buddhist temples that lie side by side. Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram was built in 1900 on land granted by the East India Company. It has a 33 meter gold plated reclining Buddha and many other idols around the compound. The older Dharmikarama Burmese Temple, built in August 1803, has beautiful paintings depicting the life story of the Buddha. It was originally known as Nandy Moloh Burmese Temple, and the land was purchased from a certain George Layton for 390 Spanish Dollars, according to the writing on the plaque. Within the grounds of the temple are a Bodhi tree and a wishing pond. While visiting mosques we found not all allowed outsiders who are non-muslim to go inside, so we had to be content walking on the outside of the building. But the Masjid Kapitan Kling seems to be more liberal as we moved in freely taking photographs. We observed the prayer areas with their beautiful carpets. An ornate chandelier adorned the central dome. We were surprised to find that they have provisions for ladies to enter and pray separately. It is quite unusual to see ladies inside mosques.
One very interesting temple we visited was the Snake Temple. It is dedicated to the priest and healer, Chor Soo Kong and was built in 1850. It is said that there was an abundance of pit vipers here and the locals killed them. Until that is, this Chinese monk appeared and protected them. You will find live vipers lying still on small branches placed within the temple. It is believed the incense smoke renders them harmless. But they are poisonous snakes and signs warn visitors not to touch them. Outside, have a drink of coconut water and scoop up the flesh inside to eat. It is a good drink. T-shirts here are cheap and plenty of souvenirs on sale.
Penang Hill (830 m) To catch a great view of the city as well as the island, head up to Penang Hill. Getting there is easy by means of the funicular railway which has amazingly been in operation since 1922. The hill has beautiful bungalows, colorful flower gardens and a bird park. We seem to find a bird park wherever we go. There are bungalows that can be rented or you could easily stay in a hotel. For the sporting kind, there is a trail that leads to the top and can be covered in four hours. The jungle trail starts from the Moongate at Jalan Air Terjun which is about 300 m from the Penang Botanical Garden entrance. The view is superb at dusk when lights go up in Georgetown. No worry about being late catching the train back, because it runs until 9:30 pm and starts at 6:30 in the morning. Penang Hill is Malaysia’s first hill station.
There are many places to shop depending on what you are looking for. The up scale market is at Gurney Plaza. We were quite impressed with the quality of products on sale here. Even the shirts and trousers seemed to be of superior quality. The plaza is quite conveniently located on the main thoroughfare that goes along the coast. There are many places to shop but bargain prices are available at the Batu Ferringhi’s Sidewalk Bazaar. During the day there is nothing along this road but soon after sunset, it transforms itself into a vibrant roadside market. Anything from clothes to watches, cameras and souvenirs can be bought here. But bargain hard. Some shop keepers will do it for you of their own accord. All you have to do is pretend to walk away.
Penang is a four hour drive from Kuala Lumpur. It can also be reached by air.
Malaysia is a splendid place for a holiday and many tourists seem to have already discovered that. David Cornell from Wales has visited Malaysia six times. When asked what he liked so much about this country, “Good food and the people don’t bother you.” Asked if he would visit again he says, “definitely.”
Together with Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board (Tourism Malaysia), Marco Polo Travels Nepal, organizes outbound tour packages to Malaysia from Nepal. The package includes direct flight from Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur by Qatar Airways.
Dream Holidays I: 4 nights KL/2 nights Penang
Dream Holidays II: 3 nights KL/ 2 nights Genting Highlands. Other packages include the island of Langkawi.
For further details write to : firstname.lastname@example.org
Read about Langkawi and the Genting
Highlands in the November issue.
Kathmandu is not Nepal. You may have heard this sentence so many times, but you can’t agree more when you...