The Jigsaw City - Kuala Lumpur



Arriving at KL’s ultra-sleek international airport you pick up a city-bound shuttle-bus ticket from a well-signposted, well-ordered and well-run ticket counter – or you catch a taxi with a meter that works! – and struggle to remind yourself that you have arrived in Asia. The hour-long drive down a smooth highway, edged with manicured gardens and crowded with luxury 4x4s, bypasses the technological wonderland of Cyberjaya. By the time you catch sight of the gleaming twin spires of Petronas Towers, presiding over a skyline that has been described as ‘Manhattan of the East,’ you are further than ever from understanding how this impressive metropolis could ever have deserved the name Kuala Lumpur (Muddy Estuary).



Returning after a long absence – and fresh from much humbler Asian ‘boondocks’ – Malaysia’s newfound confidence struck me with a kind of reverse culture-shock. Everything works, shines, happens on time and is done in English. Things even taste the way they are supposed to. In short, KL clicks! Not content with working quite successfully to get themselves the best, KL-ers also seem to be driven by a burning ambition to have the biggest. The brochures that I grabbed at the tourist office were full of boasts that the city is home to not one but two of the world’s tallest buildings; the world’s biggest freestanding sculpture; the tallest flagpole; tallest mosque minarets… These, often spurious, claims are to be seen everywhere and the tourist office itself was currently exhibiting a sculpture of the Shah Alam Blue Mosque; it was labelled ‘The World’s Largest Chocolate Sculpture’…and was chilled by what was probably the world’s coldest air-con system.


Apart from being a mind-blowing engineering challenge and an awe-inspiringly elegant architectural sculpture, the Petronas Towers is the symbol of modern Malaysia’s obsession with Progress. The sky-bridge on the 42ndfloor offers a view over the broad, tree-lined avenues of KL’s ‘Golden Triangle’ business district to the jungle-clad hills of the untamed Malaysia. In this self-consciously modern capital the betel-nut spit that speckles the pavements of other Asian cities is banned. The sacred banyan trees are dwarfed by soaring glass, steel and marble skyscrapers betraying Japanese minimalism, classic Malay or Islamic motifs, stark Western lines and Chinese Feng Shui. The karaoke bars that once offered the city’s only nightlife still exist but they have now been sidelined by a clubbing scene that is as dazzling as the nocturnal skyline of this Oriental Manhattan.


Shopping seems to have become the main obsession of the growing privileged classes of KL. Anybody who thinks that Malaysia is suffering an economic slump should tour some of the chic shopping malls where, at weekends especially, people queue to play ATMs as compulsively as slot-machine addicts. Many KL-ers seem to migrate to the (sometimes frigid) air-conditioned malls in much the same way that the old colonials gratefully retreated to the cool of the hill-stations. Steel bridges and space-age monorails now shuttle shoppers and commuters where once only a muddy estuary carried jungle flotsam.


The area around the confluence of the two modest rivers, where the British administration built their official buildings and played their polo, is now predictably known as Merdeka (Independence) Square. Until the skyscrapers usurped the limelight the immaculately kept colonial buildings with their shiny copper domes were the quintessential KL icons. It is still the downtown areas that visitors feel most drawn to. If the Golden Triangle seems brashly adolescent then Chinatown and Little India could be described as wisely venerable. They came of age when pioneering rubber planters were riding into town and were already middle-aged when KL became a tin-fever boomtown.


Chinese traders with string vests and abacuses still preside over ‘go-down’ wholesale stores that overflow with dried seafood and mysterious, unappetising ingredients that will nevertheless end up flavouring wonderful dishes. Behind the stalls of Petaling Street, stacked with ‘same-same cheap-cheap’ gear, temple gates are perpetually misty with burning incense. Rows of shophouses carry signs that are at times intriguing (‘Tubes, Rubs & Bras Trading Co’) and at others deadly serious (‘Fook-Hin Coffin Shop’). In Little India there are dozens of garishly decorated stores that are, almost without exception, called ‘Palace of the Sari.’ Bollywood stars beam at you from storefronts and the facades of Hindu temples are strung with ritual offerings and brightly coloured garlands. At the night-market the entrepreneurs of the world’s largest overseas Indian population sell mobile phones (another national obsession), Hindi cassettes, bicycles, prayers mats, sacks of basmati rice and, of course, saris all from the same tiny stall.


The ‘hawker centres’ of Little India and Chinatown still offer some of the best (and most affordable) food in the world and even the sleek Golden Triangle malls have tipped their hats to the old town by adopting this concept as the best way of dining. In some of these ‘food centres’ you could spend a year breathlessly working your way around Malay, Chinese, Bengali, Western, Tamil, Singaporean, Thai, Japanese stalls, and trying seafood, vegetarian, meat, noodles, rice, roasts, soups, stir-fries, pancakes, burgers. They are a sensory revolution and even when you are already full are worth browsing; the flash of a Malay satay grill, or an Indian cook spinning a frisbee of naan dough, catches your eye across an acre of clamouring tables. An undercurrent of clicking chopsticks reminds you of the cicadas in the banished jungle. The spicy tang of tandoori, biryani, ‘kari’ and ‘teryaki’ hang over the dense vapours of Chinese steamboats and dim sums…while in one (usually remote) corner the drain-like stench of durian fruit overpowers them all.


Most intriguing of all those ‘World’s Biggest’ boasts – to a frustrated surfer in a country with several thousand miles of wave-less tropical coastline – was KL’s wild claim to being home to a surf-spot that Sunway Lagoon theme-park calls ‘Jeffrey’s Bay.’ In the shadow of ‘Asia’s largest fibreglass volcano’ and under ‘Asia’s longest suspension bridge’ I surfed left-handers that peeled neatly across the ‘world’s largest wave-pool.’ Paddling out of the J-Bay lineout I wandered off to find some post-surf munchies among the eateries – Cape Town Café, Zanzi Bar, Botswana Burgers – in the Zulu Walk food-centre. Unexpected it certainly was. But then the brochures had, of course, warned me that I should be prepared for ‘a world of contrasts’ in the new KL.




David Whitley checks out the best reasons to hit up Malaysia’s capital

Petronas Towers
The world’s tallest twin towers manage to pull off the rare trick of being genuinely superb pieces of architecture rather than just attaining height for height’s sake. They’re arguably best looked upon from the splendid KLCC Park below, but get a clear day and it’s worth shelling out to take the trip up to the top. The 41st floor Skybridge between the two towers isn’t all that gripping, but the observation deck right at the top has a true jaw-drop factor. Video here

The Traders Hotel sits bang opposite the Petronas Towers, and thus many of its rather swish rooms are blessed with tremendous views. What really gives this business hotel its hip swagger, however, is the fabulous Skybar on Level 33. The booths with views at the top of the building are spread around the hotel’s swimming pool – don’t jump in after too many cocktails, it’ll not be appreciated – the DJs start early and its place as Kuala Lumpur’s most spectacular party joint is unchallenged.

Menara KL
It doesn’t look as grand as the Petronas Towers, but the 421m-tall Menara KL has the benefit of being on top of a hill. This means the views from the observation deck are arguably better. The experience certainly is – the windows stretch around 360 degrees, and the audio guides do an excellent job of explaining what’s what. It’s sat in the middle of the Bukit Nanas Reserve – a wildlife-crammed chunk of tamed jungle in the heart of the city. Monkey-spotters should be happy.

Urban wildlife
It’s not just Bukit Nanas where wildlife holds sway. The deer park in the Lake Gardens has various species of deer ambling around, while the Bird Park and Butterfly Park are nearby. The latter is more peaceful – thousands of butterflies flit around the landscaped gardens – but the Bird Park is more impressive. Over 200 species fly freely within the gigantic netted complex, whilst bird shows, eagle feeding and the perennially popular ostriches are big draws.

Islamic Arts Museum
Just down the hill from the Bird Park is Kuala Lumpur’s best museum. The woodwork, textiles and jewellery sourced from across the Islamic world are beautiful, but the real reason to visit is the fantastic Islamic architecture section. This features 3D scale models of some of the world’s most important Islamic buildings. Many of these – such as the Al Haram mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina – cannot be seen by non-Muslims in real life.

Mosques you can visit
Malaysia’s mosques are less restrictive on entry, and as long as you’re appropriately dressed and not turning up during prayer time, you’ll be allowed into the Masjid Negara (National Mosque). It’s huge, with an umbrella-style roof and a 74m minaret. The vast open space of the prayer hall, ringed by stained glass windows, is robustly impressive. The intricately Mughal-style Masjid Jamek is also open to non-Muslim visitors.

Merdeka Square
Masjid Jamek is a colonial era throwback in keeping with the grand public square that it’s next to. The grass in the middle used to be a cricket pitch, whilst the buildings around it are gloriously mismatched and out of place. The Mughal theme is continued with the Moorish domes and arches of the Sultan Abdul Samad building, whilst on the other side are the mock-Tudor houses of the Royal Selangor Club and St Mary’s Cathedral, which looks like a church plucked from the English countryside.

Afternoon Tea
Nothing, however, will transport you back to Malaysia’s colonial era better than high tea at Carcosa Seri Negara. These hilltop mansions, now a luxury hotel, may as well have pith helmets on top. The afternoon tea is straight out of a period film starring Dame Judi Dench and Maggie Smith – all thinly-cut sandwiches and scones – but there are some Malay twists for the more adventurous. Advance bookings are strongly advised.

Jalan Alor
Considerably less decorum is to be found along Kuala Lumpur’s premier eat street. Jalan Alor is wall to wall café terraces and food stalls, most with plastic seats and tablecloths. It’s not sophisticated, but chances are you’ll get a good feed in a crackling atmosphere. Prices are slightly more expensive than at the numerous hawker centres around KL, but you’re partly paying for the buzz. The dishes on offer generally span Asia, although the brave can try dining on frogs…

Learn to cook
There’s a strong argument for Malaysian food being the best in the world, and there are a number of cookery classes where visitors can don aprons and learn to make classic Malay dishes under expert tuition. Cookbook author Rohani Jelani runs highly-regarded day classes in her countryside home just outside of the city. Themes run from village favourites or rice dishes to creating the perfect laksa.

The School of Hard Knocks
Royal Selangor is the biggest maker of pewter in the world, and its factory is in KL’s northern suburbs. The visitor centre tour is interesting enough – you can look at some of the sports trophies that have been fashioned out of this malleable alloy of tin, antimony and copper and watch the incredibly talented craftspeople at work. But the real joy comes from making your own pewter bowl at the School of Hard Knocks using moulds and an awful lot of hammering.

Batik painting
A less vigourously creative outlet can be found at the Kompleks Kraf on Jalan Conlay. It’s a tourist-focused craft studio and shop complex, but the workshops on the lower level allow visitors to make their own batik paintings. These traditional colourful fabrics are made using wax along the pencil lines of a drawing – either do your own, or paint a pre-made design – to keep the paint from flowing into the wrong places. It’s a wonderfully relaxing and rewarding way to spend an hour or two. More here

Mega Sale Carnival
If hammering the credit card is your preferred cultural pursuit, then Kuala Lumpur’s many malls – of which the Suria KLCC and Pavilion are the best - should prove heavenly. Many are giant, multi-level affairs that cover everything from street fashion to high end designer labels. Prices are only a wee bit below those in the UK, but the real bargains can be found in the Mega Sale Carnival, which runs for seven weeks between mid-June and early September.

Berjaya Times Square
Of the shopping malls, Berjaya Times Square is perhaps the most bizarre. It is, as custom dictates, terrifyingly large and full of all manner of places to shop and eat. But it is also a hotel. Oh, and there’s a theme park inside it. Head up to the fifth level and you’re met with roller coasters, chairs being spun around high on rotating arms and contraptions seemingly designed to induce motion sickness.

Lot 10 Hutong
A shopping mall without a food court is barely worthy of the name, but not all food courts are born equal. When the Lot 10 mall was going for a revamp, it was decided to track down some of the most popular hawker stalls from around the city – many of which have been family-owned for generations – and ask them to open up in the same place. Surrounded by industrial chic, Lot 10 Hutong’s stands have stood the test of time – and the food is generally fantastic.

Pudu Wet Market
For a more atmospheric shopping experience, ditch the air-conditioned malls and head out early in the morning for this taste of real blood-and-guts retail. The Pudu wet market marries scarcely-controlled chaos with live wriggling eels and river fish taking their last breaths as knives are slit through them. All manner of bizarre tropical fruit is for sale, and you probably don’t want to ask what’s in the bucket-slopped water you’re tramping through.

Batu Caves
The Batu Caves, carved out of a large standalone hill by nature throughout the years, are stunning enough on their own. But the important Hindu shrine that has been built inside them makes for a human spectacle as well as a natural wonder. Take on the 272 sweat-inducing steps up to the summit, and you’ll be joined by pilgrims. Some apply turmeric to their shaved heads, others give donations to priests in order to perform rituals for them. And the giant Lord Murugan statue standing by the staircase to the mouth of the cave looks down on the city.

You can get Malaysia included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW have some great stopover deals here

KL thoughts



Lai Foong Coffee Shop has been a fixture of Chinatown’s Tun Tan Cheng Lock street for more than fifty years now. It is actually a collection of half a dozen frantically hectic eateries and is famous for Lai Foong Beef Noodles and for what must be the most tooth-rottingly sweet coffee in Malaysia. The rushing waiters yell in shrill Chinese and from the surrounding tables you can hear voices chattering in Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, English and Tamil. The cultural mix is as mind-bogglingly diverse as the menu.


Four ringgit will get you a heaped serving of delicious Penang Fried Kuey Teow – thick noodles served with egg, chicken and vegetable...but for just a little more you can get a plate of omasum, or cow intestines. The board of fare also offers tripe, lean meat, tendon and what is described simply as ‘balls.’ You can wash your tendons and balls down with a glass of something that the menu calls Jolly Shady. Presumably this is in fact a shandy. 

Not being a Muslim establishment, Royal Stout, Guinness and Tiger Beer are also on offer. There’s also Carlsberg Special Brew which reminds me only of High School Days but to which the Chinese typically have attributed some supernatural health-giving powers. But then the Chinese see aphrodisiac qualities in everything. It was here where a Chinese street trader once sidled up to me with a packet of something which he claimed was the world’s most powerful aphrodisiac. "Test it out,” he said – “if you drop just a few grains of this into a plate of instant noodles all the noodles will straighten out!”



Malaysia Elephants


David Whitley finds himself with conflicting opinions at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre in Malaysia 

Right and wrong is rarely black and white. Even when an elephant wakes from the effects of the tranquiliser dart and, to its obvious distress, finds itself chained to the floor.

It’s horrible to watch, a terrible vision of cruelty with the best intentions. And it’s hard to know which side of the fence to sit on.

The video is playing at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre, a couple of hours’ drive to the west of Kuala Lumpur. It’s a surprisingly frank, warts and all peek into the world of the small, under-resourced team that is in charge of looking after Malaysia’s wild elephants.

They have a hugely difficult job. Elephants never forget may be a cliché, but there’s truth in it. They learn pathways – fruitful feeding routes – as youngsters, and stick to them as they get older. Even if a village or a plantation is built in the way later on. Humans set up home along the elephant’s main road, then get surprised and angry when they’re run over.

The choice is conflict – which will probably end up with the elephants dying through gunshots or lost habitat in the long-run – or translocation. Alas, moving a family of elephants further north where they’ve got space to roam is an incredibly dangerous and difficult procedure.

The most touching part of the film is when the trained elephants – there are four of them – of Kuala Gandah come in. Their role is to soothe the horribly distressed wild ellies who don’t understand what’s happening to them. I nearly blub when two flank the angry, flailing captured elephant and wrap their trunks around him. It’s a “there there, it’s all going to be OK” hug.

The conflicting emotions are by no means restricted to the video. There’s something uncomfortable about Kuala Gandah itself. When we get to meet the inhabitants, they look reasonably well-cared for. They happily reach their trunks out to the massed throngs, sniffing out the bananas that the visiting punters have paid five ringgits a bunch for. Everyone wants to feed an elephant; it’s a joy to watch, as they twist the end of the trunk round, curl the bananas towards their mouths and lob them onto their huge pink tongues.

But as much as I find this hugely enjoyable, I don’t quite understand how it matches up with the stated aim of getting wild elephants to safe havens. A couple of the smaller ones were born at Kuala Gandah, whilst others have been rescued from the wild and have injuries that ensure they wouldn’t survive long when they went back.

There are also elephant rides on the four adult, trained elephants. They’re pretty perfunctory, once around a feeble circular path affairs, but most visitors seem to enjoy them. These rides don’t feel quite right, though. Same with the ‘tricks’ where the elephants spray water over the crowd and so on.

Perhaps, though, these things are best looked at as part of the wider picture. I’ve no objection to trained elephants working for human entertainment as part of their work – it’s when it’s happening at a place that’s supposedly about the wild elephants.

But then there’s also the need to look at the people being entertained. Most are children – and local children at that. And if they’re enchanted by the creatures they’re feeding and riding on, possibly taking in a bit of the conservation efforts as they go, then that can only be good for the elephants when those local children become local adults.

If fewer elephants have to be moved from their habitats in future, surely a few crowd-pleasing tricks are worth it?

Johor Bahru



David Whitley takes an ill-advised day trip from Singapore and ends up in the hands of a con artist.


I’d finally made it across the Causeway, through the customs checkpoints and into Malaysia. With a growling stomach demanding attention, the first stop had to be somewhere serving chicken and rice rather than the palace.


And that’s where Martin comes in. “Do you mind if I join you?” he says, pointing at the only free chair in the cafe. He talked while I shovelled badly-needed sustainance down my throat. It turns out that Martin is a Singaporean businessman, in Johor Bahru for a meeting at a hotel. He also has a daughter studying at university near where I grew up in the UK.


I’ve come to Johor Bahru purely so that I can get a Malaysian passport stamp, and to maybe have a look at the Istana Besar palace. “It’s closed today,” says Martin. “But I’m early – I can show you around some other sights if you like.”


In the absence of a better plan, I go along with it. He hails a taxi, and off we go. He speaks to the driver in what I presume is Malaysian, and the magical mystery tour begins. What a cool way of seeing a city this is, I think.


It becomes immediately clear that there aren’t many sights in Johor Bahru. The guidebook did hint at this, but it had probably sugar-coated the reality. It’s a city of big roads, pollution and utilitarian buildings.


Martin, sensing my disappointment, suggests heading slightly further afield to a nearby village where the houses are on stilts above the water. That sounds pretty good, so we head out there. Naturally, it turns out to be a dirty, poverty-stricken hellhole. The stilts are made out of rusting metal, and the water is full of empty drink bottles and other assorted packaging.


We drive around for about 45 minutes in total, before Martin asks the driver to pull over in a random car park. “I have to go now,” he says. “The fare is 380 ringgit, plus 50 Singaporean dollars.”


Hang on a sec. He didn’t have the meter on did he? And that’s about... damn! 100 quid. I’ve been had. I try to argue with the driver, but Martin intervenes. “He doesn’t speak English.” I also don’t have that much cash on me. I can proffer just 100 ringgit.


“What else do you have?” says Martin. I dip back in and get 200 Singaporean dollars in my hand. “That is still not enough – I will have to pay the rest myself,” says Martin angrily, swiping the cash.


I get out shame-faced, realising that I’ve been completely duped, and that I’ve left my new friend in a rather sticky situation. Nevertheless, he is gracious, and gives me his e-mail address, offering to show me a few of Singapore’s best bars in the next couple of days.


It’s only on the bus back to Singapore that a few things dawn on me. Firstly, I speak decent Indonesian, and that’s practically the same as Malaysian – I probably could have negotiated with the driver myself. Secondly, why was the price in both ringgit and dollars? Thirdly, 100 ringgit and 200 Singaporean dollars is about 15 quid more than the original asking price.


Gah! It was Martin - not the taxi driver - who was diddling me. I’d fallen for a classic con – well dressed man, connections to home country, saying that a major attraction is closed and offering to play the guide.Needless to say, I checked out Singapore’s best bars on my own. And didn’t have much money to spend in them.