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Articles Blog

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Karyn Planett

Who’s The Tallest Of Them All?

Admit it. Until they got into the skyscraper sweepstakes, Kuala Lumpur was just another thriving business center among the “Asian Tigers”, right? Then their Petronas Towers rose and suddenly an identity began to take shape.

Now, tall buildings are a serious element of civic ego and not to be taken casually. In fact, there’s an organization called, I’m not kidding, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat that acts as judge and jury over all “world’s tallest” claims. Recently they decreed that spires (like the Empire State Building’s) were structural components and would count in the measurement, but antennas (like the ones atop Chicago’s Sears Tower) would not. That really shook up the standings and allowed the Petronas Towers to claim the title until Taipei 101 came along in 2004. It will, in turn, be surpassed by Burg Dubai as soon as it’s completed. But, phew, Petronas will retain the title of world’s tallest twin towers… for now.

A Chinese Enclave 

“Muddy Estuary” is the rather unceremonious English translation of the words “Kuala Lumpur” that identify the spot where the Klang and Gombak Rivers meet. This location was the birthplace of Kuala Lumpur, the place where a band of rugged and ragged prospectors set up camp while mining for tin. Scores followed, settling here with tin in their eyes and visions of untold wealth in their heads. Instead, they were ravaged by malaria and tropical fevers, pelted with torrential rains, and felled by relentless heat. But they came in droves and carved out a boomtown overflowing with rowdy and raucous miners. 

Enter a character named “Kapitan China,” the moniker given him by a local Malaysian sultan. Given, too, was the mandate to clean up this lawless community, a task the captain took very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that more than one miner received a nasty thump on his head when he stepped too far out of line. 

But prosperity blossomed. Fortunes were made. And the few truly blessed were flush with their newfound wealth. They settled, built rambling estates, and developed a community complete with schools, a rail and road system plus shops that catered to the needs of the nouveau rich. 

This jumbled canvas blends old with new, east with west, Chinese immigrant with Indian merchant, Malay born with the new arrival. Today, KL prospers. 

Don’t Forget To Look Down       

If you can lower your point of view from the stratospheric towers K.L., as Kuala Lumpur is called, is a sightseer’s dream. City planners have created manmade landmarks that serve as guides for visitors. In fact, a 275-foot-tall flagpole in the center of Merdeka Square, near the confluence of the two rivers, is one of the best. Residents literally rally ‘round this flagpole for public holidays and parades. And wicked cricket matches are still played by lean cricketers in crisp whites, a civilized remnant from Malaysia’s colonial past. 

Mementos of the early tin-rush days are visible in Chinatown where Chinese laborers, shipped here by the boatloads, lived. Narrow streets are still lined with aromatic noodle shops, competent herbalists, and the clatter of historic, tight quarters. A walk here inevitably leads to the Central Market, a jumble of art dealers and craft merchants. 

Many temples are scattered throughout the city. Two of note are the 1906 See Shu Yuen Temple in Chinatown and the century-plus-old Sri Mahariamman Temple where Hindus come to pray and view the silver chariot housed within, a gift to Lord Murga. 

Somehow, It All Works 

The National Mosque (Masjid Negara) is Southeast Asia’s largest mosque, so large in fact it can accommodate 8,000 faithful at once. Respectful and properly dressed visitors are welcome when the faithful are not in prayer. Do ask before entering. 

K.L.’s fanciful Railway Station is one of the city’s most curious sights. It’s a whimsical compilation of colorful cupolas, spires, towers, and Moorish minarets all tossed together by serendipitous colonists in 1911. 

A more somber mood is reflected by the powerful bronze figures of the National Monument, in the Lake Gardens, dedicated to fighters who perished in Malaysia’s conflict with local terrorists. The same artist created both this monument in 1966 and the Iwo Jima Monument in Washington D.C. 

The bustling city of Kuala Lumpur is the unmistakable capital of Malaysia. It’s an interesting mixture of colonial remnants that speak of privilege and personality blended with a modern push into the 21st century with high-rises and superhighways. The irony to this is that it all works. In fact, it works rather well. Kuala Lumpur is a city of success.