Kuala Lumpur: Tin town’s all grown up
For a dot on a map that started out as a shantytown known only for mining tin, Kuala Lumpur has evolved into one of the most cosmopolitan and vibrant cities in Asia with something for everyone.
From a petrolhead’s perspective, it’s one of the stops on the world tour for Formula One and MotoGP teams; the world renowned Sepang International Circuit at the back of the airport.
But it would be churlish to think fans of motorsport are only interested in watching cars or bikes go around and around.
For many who travel to watch their favourite sport, it’s also an opportunity to have a gander at what the country may offer outside the racetrack.
Kuala Lumpur, or KL as it’s affectionately known, offers the perfect mix of motorsport at the elite level, and a perspective on a truly amazing example of cultural diversity.
It’s only about an hour’s drive, or about 30 minutes on the fast train to and from the airport, between downtown KL and the track. As such, on a short stay it’s possible to see quite a few city highlights.
The place is a melting pot of all the folk who flocked to the area in the 1850s, including the indigenous Malays, British colonials, as well as Indian and Chinese adventurers chancing their luck in new lands.
KL has had its growing pains over the years but is now one of the most diverse cities in the region with its mix of 21st-century high-end technology among historic temples and mosques.
The great thing about KL is that you can get a fair old cultural taste of the place in a single day before jetting off back home after a race meeting.
If you’re staying anywhere near the heart of the city, there is a hop on-hop off bus route that loops around the city past most of the attractions. It’s a great way to see most of what KL has to offer if you only have a short time to spend there.
A very reasonable NZ$14.70 gets you a 24-hour bus pass that allows you to hop on and off any time you want and there are about 22 stops on the route.
Be aware, though, that the bus stops running at 8.30pm.
If you just sit on the bus the trip takes between two and four hours, depending on the traffic, which can be pretty heavy at times.
All the bus stops clearly indicate that they are hop on-hop off and are near most of KL’s tourist hot spots, including Bukit Bintang, the National Museum, the National Mosque, the National Palace, Chinatown, Islamic Arts Museum, Lake Gardens, Titiwangsa and, of course, the world-famous Petronas Twin Towers.
There are also stops near most of the major shopping centres and accommodation areas, and those who like lively nightlife can jump off at P Ramlee, reputed to be one of the city’s newest, most fashionable and eccentric areas.
It’s particularly busy on a Friday and Saturday night when the locals really come out to party.
If you’re after something a little more traditional and familiar, head to the Bukit Bintang quadrant to eat and drink just about anything you like.
The architecture of the inner city may not be to everyone’s liking but it’s what the people want and it does have a certain individualistic appeal. Despite the high-rise buildings and modern infrastructure there are still many pockets of gardens dotted around the place, and for the culture vultures, the city’s heritage is still very much in evidence.
There remains a heavy Islamic influence that sits happily beside stately colonial buildings and old-school shophouses. One of the most spectacular buildings is the KL Railway Station, which I first thought was one of the most beautiful mosques I’d ever seen.
The National Mosque was actually up the road and looked very modern. I asked a taxi driver who said it was a common mistake for Western tourists to think like that, but the locals wanted a mosque locally designed and built and that’s what they got.
The juxtaposition of the old and new was particularly evident at the National Mosque when, around the back of the building, I watched a group of young lads kicking a soccer ball around while their parents finished their prayers inside.
If you want a short, sharp and intense shot of sensory overload, in the nicest possible way, KL city is the place for a short break – after watching the motorsport of course.