Once a small tin mining town, over the last 200-odd years Kuala Lumpur has developed into an energetic, cosmopolitan city and an in-demand international travel destination, as Kate Kennedy explains.
As Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur is home to nearly 1.6 million people. It is the country’s centre of finance, insurance, real estate, media and the arts.
Kuala Lumpur literally means ‘muddy confluence’ in Malay, which is apt, considering the city is situated at the confluence of the Klang and Gombek rivers. The Klang River is 120 kilometres long, with 11 tributaries.
Sitting midway along the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia puts KL, as it’s commonly known, at the centre of the Peninsula’s extensive and modern transportation network.
The area was founded by a Sumatran prince in the 13th century and was colonised in the early 1500s by the Portuguese. The Dutch took the city in 1641 and were in control of the spice trade for nearly 200 years. The British took over from the Dutch in 1819.
In the mid 1800s, Chinese labourers were hired by the Malay Chief of Klang, Raja Abdullah, to open new tin mines in the area of Kuala Lumpur, making it a frontier town. Tin prospectors formed gangs and the two largest groups fought frequently to gain control over the tin production.
Their continual rivalry brought the mining to a standstill, so the British, who ruled neighbouring Selangor as one of the Federated Malay States at the time, of which Kuala Lumpur was part, stepped in and appointed a Chinese Kapitan (headman) to administer the town.
The third man to take the position of Kapitan, in 1869, is considered the founding father of Kuala Lumpur. After the Selangor Civil War and despite constant fires, flooding and disease plaguing the area, Yap Ah Loy began building and making a small mining community into a booming frontier town. He set up a brick factory so that structures would no longer be susceptible to fire; restructured the building layout and road access to the city; implemented law reforms, introducing new legal measures and presiding over a small claims court; built a prison, the city’s first school and a major tapioca mill. In 1896, Kuala Lumpur was chosen as the capital of the newly-formed Federated Malay States. KL’s position as the capital of modern Malaysia is mainly due to his contribution.
KL is an alpha world city, an important node in the global production and distribution of goods and services. Being the capital of Malaysia, it is the cultural, financial and economic centre of the country. The city and its surrounding urban areas form the most industrialised and economically, the fastest growing region in Malaysia.
The infrastructure development in the surrounding areas such as the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the creation of the Multimedia Super Corridor, a Special Economic Zone established to transform Malaysia into a modern state by the year 2020, and the expansion of Port Klang all serve to highlight the city’s economic significance.
With the large number of international insurance companies and foreign banks developing a presence in KL, the city is a cultural melting pot, offering some of the world’s most affordable 5-star hotels and shopping, great food and some natural wonders that must be seen to be believed, such as the fireflies of Kuala Selangor and the Tempurung Cave, the largest natural limestone structure in Peninsular Malaysia.
The Petronas Twin Towers offers a bird’s eye view of the city. The building reaches 451.9 metres into the KL skyline. The structure was inspired by the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia – Tun Mahathir Mohamad’s vision for the country to be a global player. The world’s highest two-story Skybridge connects the two towers at 170 metres above ground, and level 86 offers spectacular views of the city. If you would like to visit the Skybridge, make sure you arrive early in the morning. You can dine on the top floor – level 88 – at the Seri Angkasa Revolving Restaurant.
Batu Caves is the site of a Hindu temple and shrine in Selangor, just 20 minutes from KL city. Its interiors are home to a Hindu shrine lined with different deities. The Hindu God Lord Murugan is situated at the entrance, welcoming guests. The shrine itself is located deep inside the high caverns, which take 272 steps to reach. The ceiling of the immense Cathedral Caves is 100 metres high, and offers a stunning skyline view of KL.
The Lake Gardens offer a little tranquillity in the middle of the city. The oldest and most popular park in Kuala Lumpur, today its landscaped hills and beautiful trails provide the perfect escape. The main attraction is the lake surrounded by lush greenery, but you can also take a leisurely stroll through the aviaries at the Bird Park, Butterfly Park, Deer Park, or gorgeous Orchid Garden. The park is open daily between 09h00 and 18h00. Admission is free.
The six-tiered Thean Hou Temple is a bit off the beaten track, but worth a visit if you have some time to kill. It displays some of the richest features of Chinese architectural beauty in Malaysia. The original temple was said to have been built about 100 years ago in Jalan Sultan, Kuala Lumpur. In 1989, the temple was opened after extensive renovations that cost $2 million. Activities at the temple include the grand birthday celebrations for Goddess Tian Hou, Goddess Kuan Yin and the Goddess of the Waterfront. Buddhist activities include Dharma Prayers and Wesak Day celebrations. Cultural activities include the annual Mooncake Festival during the eighth lunar month and the Chinese New Year celebration.
Driving is the main mode of commuting in Kuala Lumpur. The city is well connected by highways. However, traffic jams are a common occurrence, and beware of parking on the streets of busy districts, as you may find yourself parked in by other cars. Use car parks where available.
There is an extensive network of public transport, consisting of buses, trains and taxis, although only about 16% of the population make use of it. That explains the high incidence of traffic jams.
There are six train lines run by four different companies – LRT, KL Monorail, KMT Komuter and KLIA – which are not always well-connected. Although connectivity has improved and a single ticket is sufficient for LRT and Monorail lines, you will still need a separate ticket for the KMT Komuter lines.
RapidKL operates a cheap and comprehensive public bus network, but low frequencies and the lack of signs makes it hard to get around for the uninitiated. The buses themselves are clearly marked with destination information, so if you do see one heading in the right direction, jump on board. Be prepared for cramped waits in rush hour traffic.
Where to Stay
Along with many smaller establishments and local hotel groups, KL offers a number of well-known international hotel brands.
Hilton Kuala Lumpur is 28 minutes by direct train from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. It offers 503 rooms, 14 meeting spaces and 10 hotel restaurants and bars.
Starwood offers numerous hotels, including the Westin Kuala Lumpur, the Sheraton Imperial Kuala Lumpur Hotel, the Le Méridien Kuala Lumpur and the St Regis Kuala Lumpur.
Rezidor is to be represented in the city by Regent Kuala Lumpur, which will open in 2015 opposite the Petronas Towers.
The InterContinental Kuala Lumpur offers 5-star accommodation and a free shuttle service to Jalan Bukit Bintang and the city centre.
Weather in KL is generally warm throughout the year, thanks to its location close to the equator. Temperatures range from 22ºC to 33ºC, although it often averages out at between 27ºC and 28ºC. Between December and February it’s slightly cooler; March and April are usually a degree or two warmer.
April and October are the wettest months; January and February are the driest. The city is sheltered by mountains to the east and west, so the rains are not as heavy as in other nearby regions. However, prolonged heavy rainfall isn’t unheard of and often results in flash flooding. For the most part, rainfall occurs in heavy but brief afternoon downpours, leaving plenty of dry weather even in the wettest months.
Qatar Airways flies direct to Kuala Lumpur from its hub in Doha. Getting to Doha from Africa is easy, as Qatar flies regularly from these African cities: Addis Ababa (newest African route), Alexandria, Algiers, Cairo, Cape Town, Casablanca, Dar es Salaam, Entebbe, Johannesburg, Khartoum, Kigali, Kilimanjaro, Lagos, Luxor, Maputo, Nairobi and Tunis. Flights from Cape Town connect through Johannesburg; Kigali connects through Entebbe; and Kilimanjaro connects through Dar es Salaam.
Passport holders from the following African countries require a visa before entering Kuala Lumpur: Angola, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, DRC, Congo, Cote D’Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda and Western Sahara.
Nationals of the following countries do not require a visa for social and/or business visits not exceeding a stay of one month: Benin, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea Republic, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritania, Mauritius, Sao Tome & Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Passport holders from these countries may stay for up to three months: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Tunisia.
Libyan nationals may visit for up to two weeks without obtaining a visa.
Population: 1.6 million
Time zone: GMT +8
Plugs: Three-pin square British style
Dialling code: +603
Currency: Malaysian Ringgit; exchange rate$1 = MYR 3.
Language: Standard Malay and English
Religion: The dominant religion is Islam (61%), but Buddhism (19.8%), Christianity (9.2%) and Hinduism (6.3%) are also popular
The King of Malaysia
The King of Malaysia, or more commonly known as the “Yang di-Pertuan Agong” is rotated every five years among nine rulers from the Malay states. The current Yang di-Pertuan Agong is Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah. He was sworn into office in December 2011 for a five-year term. In a system maintained since Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957, a king is chosen from nine hereditary state rulers for five years. During his time on the throne, the King is the upholder of Malay tradition and the symbolic head of Islam – administrative power sits with the prime minister and parliament. This is Sultan Abdul’s second term as King – he was first crowned in 1970. At 84, he is the oldest King of Malaysia.