Friday, 6 June 2014

How to tackle Kuala Lumpur - divide and conquer

Scale model of Kuala Lumpur

Arriving in Kuala Lumpur it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the city's sheer size and the height of its colossal buildings. I know I was. For a start, the receptionist at the hotel welcomed me and said that my bedroom was on the 14th floor and I looked out of the window at the sprawling city beyond.

It became quite apparent from this moment on that I would have to work out a plan to tackle the city, otherwise I was going to end up feeling lost, tired and that I hadn't seen everything I wanted to. Getting a decent map was the first step, as those in the guidebook simply didn't offer enough detail.

By cross referencing the book and map I could work out what I wanted to see. With just three and a half days at my disposal I needed to be clever about travelling around KL. So, I decided to divide the city into sections and tackle one at a time, ticking off everything that I wanted to do in one area, before moving onto the next.

This meant that I didn't have to spend ridiculous amounts of time navigating KL's complicated public transport system nor dedicate hours walking to and from various areas of the city multiple times. There was just one place that was an exception to this rule and that was Jalon Alor - I returned to this famous food street on three separate occasions - after all, it would be silly to eat anywhere else.

View from Merdeka Square

Merdeka Square area

My first full day in KL was spent in the Merdeka Square area and I have to admit that it was a good introduction. I walked there, soaking up the atmosphere of the city along the way and stopping off at the Masjid Jemek Mosque. I was furnished with a lilac hijab at the entrance in order to explore the cool white marble structure without causing offence.

This part of the city is full of stunning buildings and the contrast between the old in the foreground with the ultra modern Petronas Towers and KL Tower poking out from behind makes for an interesting comment on development. My best recommendation for this area is the City Gallery, which is free to visit and full of interesting exhibits.

There is also a scale model of Kuala Lumpur, which makes the centrepiece of an impressive light show. In a darkened room a presentation begins and each part of the city is lit up as it is mentioned in the audio. This even goes for the routes the public transport takes. This gave me a greater insight into the place, but also the daunting task at hand - trying to make the most of my time here.

The ARCH workshop housed within the gallery is also worth time pondering. Behind a large glass screen all the craftsmen and women are at work creating intricate models. A few of them have little boards stating their experience and area of expertise. I was particularly taken with a man who had been in the business for 22 years and spent his time making tiny models of the Petronas Towers.

Central Market

Central Market and Petaling Street

Two fantastic shopping opportunities, although totally different from each other, can be found to the south of the Merdeka Square area. These are the Central Market and Petaling Street. The market has been in existence since 1888 and is a fabulous place to buy souvenirs. I purchased a batiked kite for my boyfriend and some placemats, but had to bargain hard to get the price I wanted.

Meanwhile, Petaling Street is the knock-off capital of KL and it took a lot of will power to get through the crowds with everyone trying to flog me watches and bags. I did cave in the end and bought a replica Cath Kidston bag, as these appeared to be everywhere.

Petronas Towers

Central business district and Batu Caves

Getting up at 6am may not appeal to everyone, but it was totally worth it to set off across the city and join the queue for the Petronas Towers. Only a certain number of tickets are available to ascend the mighty structure, so getting in line is a must. I opted to go up as soon as possible and was adopted by a lovely mother and daughter from South Africa, who helped me get some photos from the Skybridge, which links the two towers together, and the 86th floor. Visitors cannot go up the the top floor - number 88 - as this is reserved for the office of the chief executive officer of Petronas, or so I'm told.

Unfortunately it is difficult to get a good shot of the whole structure from below, as you can't get far enough away, because the area is pretty built up. This wasn't too much of a problem for Hector, however, as he can be held up, so I managed to get the tops of both towers in for his photos.

There wasn't much else I had identified I wanted to do in the central business district of KL, so I used the second half of this day to head out of the city to the Batu Caves. For this I managed to get my head around the public transport and traversed the city by monorail, then took a train out to the site. You can tell which platform at KL Sentral the trains to the Batu Caves go from, as it is the one teeming with tourists - this should have been my first clue.

The Batu Caves are a bizarre mixture of stunning natural caverns, traditional Hindu temples and tacky tourist souvenirs for the hordes of visitors. It was certainly an experience, but a strange one at that. The highlight for me was seeing the monkeys stealing the flowers from the temples to eat.

Orchid and Hibiscus Garden

Lake Gardens

Not flying out until late in the evening, my third and final day in KL was spent exploring the leafier area of the city to the west of the centre, which is full of interesting parks and gardens. One of the main attractions is the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, which prides itself on being the biggest free flying aviary in the world. While some of the birds are free to roam, others are in enclosures. No doubt the larger birds would eat the smaller ones if they were all allowed to go where they pleased. As well as flamingoes, peacocks and macaws, the stunning hue of the scarlet ibis really stood out, as did the hornbill.

The Orchid and Hibiscus Garden was beautiful and very extensive, with every variety of these two flowers you could possibly imagine. An interesting display in the centre of the gardens explains the significance of the hibiscus rosa sinensis or the Bunga Raya, as it is known in Malay, which is the national flower.

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