As a journalist and travel blogger, I’ve been fortunate enough to some amazing places. But for me, there’s always something special about returning to Kuala Lumpur.
I spent a lot of my childhood in Malaysia’s capital city. At the start of each summer holidays, we’d bound off the plane from Sydney and straight into my grandmother’s kitchen where she’d pile chicken rendang and freshly made roti canai onto our plates.
Like a true Malaysian, my experiences revolved around food and family, each occasion more colourful (and filling) than the last. But as I’ve gotten older, my relationship with Malaysia has taken on a new dimension – one in which I’ve come to appreciate how my own family fits into the country’s historical narrative and kaleidoscope of culture.
Take my own grandfather: he was one of many Indian workers brought to Kuala Lumpur by the British to staff the country’s railways. Some of my relatives of Chinese descent can even trace their roots back to the early days when Kuala Lumpur was nothing but a collection of muddy marsh fields, before being opened up to Chinese tin miners.
My own family narrative has helped me understand modern Malaysia, a place where culture is fluid and cuisine is plentiful. But it’s also fuelled my thirst to know more. On a recent trip back, I hit Kuala Lumpur’s heritage trail by foot to find out more. Here are my top places that you’ll love.
Petaling Street, Chinatown
My first stop was Petaling Street, the heart and soul of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. It is said that Petaling Street was the first place where the leader of the city’s Chinese community, Yap Ah Loy, founded a tapioca mill after a civil war left the neighbouring tin mines in ruin. Soon after, wealthy traders came to the area to set up ornate shop houses, most of which can still be found today.
Centuries later – and sandwiched between two grand arches at either end – the street is the centerpiece of Malaysia’s Chinese enclave. Like many other parts of Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Street springs to life each morning as the myriad of food stalls begin preparing for lunch and vendors push racks of colourful fabric.
If, like me, you love Malaysia’s incredible food, then Petaling Street is a must. It is particularly good if you’re hankering to try local favourites like Hokkien mee (stir fried egg noodles with sambal), ikan bakar (barbecued fish, usually snapper) and my personal favourite, curry laksa.
Veering left onto Leboh Pudu Street, you’ll soon reach the grand façade of the Central Wet Market. Built by the British in 1888 to serve as a traditional wet market, it was once frequented by city dwellers and travelling merchants.
Now, it is mainly a hub for tourists and the city’s artistic community. The building itself sits on prime real estate, and has endured numerous bids by developers hoping to knock it down. Thanks to Malaysia’s Heritage Society, it remains one of the oldest (and beautiful) landmarks in the city.
I spent a good couple of hours (and lots of Ringgit) here browsing the handicraft stalls and batik shops before heading upstairs to recharge my batteries with a glass of teh tarik (milk tea), Malaysia’s national drink. If you have time, it’s always good to scope out the Annexe Central Market at the back to catch some of the city’s freelance artists at work. You can also get a glimpse of traditional kampong-style houses that have been built on the ground floor and resemble those still used by Malaysia’s ethnic groups.
After the devastating floods of the early 1880’s, British Resident Frank Swettenham responded by declaring that houses could no longer be built from wood, but rather from bricks. Chinese kapitan (meaning “leader”) Yap Ah Loy followed suit, allocating a large swathe of land to setting up brick factories to rebuild the city, lending itself to the name “Brickfields”.
Many of these brick workers and those operating the nearby railway terminal, known today as Kuala Lumpur Central, came from India and Sri Lanka, and lived nearby. Today, it remains the pulsating heart of Kuala Lumpur’s Indian community, now proud citizens of Malaysia.
But what makes Little India so fantastic is its authenticity. With space-age skyscrapers springing up around it, this chaotic and colourful enclave adds a much-needed dose of humility to the city. As you stroll through the markets, you’ll be hit with a sensory overload of vendors hawking freshly made gajras (Indian flower garlands), the smell of spices emanating from deep plastic tubs and the loud echoes of Bollywood tunes thumping from a nearby speaker.
And then, as quickly as it started, you cross the street, the chaos descends to a dull roar and the colonial shop houses disappear, leaving you to wonder: did that really happen?
Islam in Malaysia traces its roots back to around the 15th Century, way before the British, Dutch and the Portuguese arrived. Today, around 60% of Malaysians are Muslim, resulting in a stunning collection of mosques that can be found across the capital.
Just a short 10-minute drive from Brickfields is stunning Jamek Mosque, one of few mosques designed by a British architect, Arthur Benison Hubback. Located where the Klang and Gombak rivers meet in the heart of the city, the site is set to be home to Malaysia’s first burial ground. The building itself summons romantic images of the Middle East with its Moorish architectural style, sculpted domes and open balconies.
Flanked by the Royal Selangor Club and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building – now home to the Ministry of Culture – Independence Square was where the Union Jack was lowered and the first Malaysian flag was finally raised in August, 1957. Since then, it has witnessed Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee procession and countless new years and mederka day (Independence day) celebrations.
While the elegantly designed square stretches from the cricket greens of the Selangor Club – once a whites-only social club for British officials – at one end to the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery at the other, the main attraction is the Sultan Abdul Samad building. Built by the British to house the secretariat of the British administration, its Moorish colonial style, shiny copper dome and mosque-like appearance make it arguably Malaysia’s most photogenic structure.