Kuala Lumpur is where Malay tradition meets KL cool

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Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, is a bustling, energetic city that manages to retain the traditional features of its multicultural past even as the ever-changing, 21st century skyline of the present continues to shoot skyward.

The name of the city, often shortened to just KL, derives from two Malay words meaning "mouth" and "muddy." The city, the country's largest, was founded in the 1850s at the confluence of the Gombak and Klang rivers by Chinese miners, at the behest of a Malaysian chieftain. The point where the two bodies of water become one was a landing point for boats coming upriver to the Ampang tin mines. Now it is home to a local mosque, the Masjid Jamek, which is nestled in a grove of coconut palms.

Nearby is Dataran Merdeka, the city's Independence Square, where the Union Jack of the U.K. -- the nation's colonial overseer for two centuries -- was lowered on Aug. 31, 1957, signaling the end of British rule and the birth of Malaysia.

On one side of the square lies the distinctive, Moorish-style Sultan Abdul Samad building, with curving arches, domes and a large clock tower.

A short distance to the south is the Masjid Negara, or National Mosque, one of the largest in Southeast Asia and distinguished by its 240-foot-high minaret.

On the other bank of the Klang River, near Chinatown, is the incredibly ornate Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple, incorporating gold, precious stones and colorful tiles. The temple dates to 1873.

The Lake Gardens, Kuala Lumpur's "green belt," contains three important attractions. Parliament House is a strange building, comprising a three-story House of Representatives and Senate dominated by an adjoining, 18-story office complex. 

The National Monument, constructed in 1966, commemorates Malaysia's national heroes, while the Tun Abdul Razak memorial honors the country's second prime minister.

Also within the Lake Gardens is the KL Bird Park, home to over 3,000 avian specimens, and the Orchid and Hibiscus Garden.

A highlight of a visit to Kuala Lumpur is the National Museum, originally built in Malay-style architecture as a tin tycoon's mansion. Today, it displays material relating to Malaysian history, arts and crafts, flora and fauna and the development of the tin-mining and rubber industries.

Until recently the old, main railway station, built at the turn of the 20th century, was one of the most photographed buildings in KL. A mixture of an Islamic-influenced exterior shielding a large glass-and-iron train shed straight out of Victorian England, the station is nowadays rather dilapidated. The focal point for rail traffic has shifted to the new KL Sentral Station.

The city is home to modern architectural wonders, too. Two of the world's tallest buildings dominate the Kuala Lumpur skyline. The KL Tower, measuring 1,381 feet from the ground to the tip of its spire, is the world's fourth-tallest communications tower. Its observation deck, located at over 905 feet, provides breathtaking views of the sprawling city.

The Petronas Twin Towers, meanwhile, are even more dramatic. Nearly 1,500 feet high, the steel-and-glass structures are the world's tallest freestanding twin towers, joined by a sky bridge at the 41st floor.

Kuala Lumpur is quite spread out, so a city tour is an excellent way to get an overall impression of the main sights of the city.  Some tours also include a short excursion to sites within a short drive and can include a visit to a pewter factory -- Selangor pewter is most attractive -- watching batik being made and seeing how rubber is tapped.  

One popular attraction is the Batu Caves, about eight miles from the city center. The caves, located in a huge outcrop of limestone cliffs, are reached via 272 steps. In the muggy Malaysian climate, this is quite enervating, and the chattering of the hordes of monkeys seem to mock climbers' efforts. Nevertheless, Batu is a Hindu shrine, and during religious festivals many thousands of devotees make the pilgrimage.

Kuala Lumpur is centrally situated for trips to other Malaysian destinations, such as Malacca, with its mixture of Dutch, Portuguese, British and Malay influences, or the cooler hill stations such as Genting Highlands and Cameron Highlands.

Malaysian trading

Back in town, there are many distractions besides sightseeing, such as shopping. Chinatown, centered on Petaling Street, is home to myriad tiny shops selling everything from clothes to herbal medicines.

The central market is popular for antiques, jewelry, woodcarvings and other crafts items. At night the area is transformed into an open-air bazaar, buzzing with activity.

In recent years, large shopping complexes have also sprung up, especially around Bintang Walk. Malls such as Lot 10, Sungei Wang Plaza and Starhill are always busy. If visitors get sore feet trolling all the retail venues, they might try some acupuncture, reflexology or massage to ease weary bones.

Eating is another of Kuala Lumpur's many pleasures. The city boasts a range of restaurants catering to all budgets and specializing in Malay, Chinese, Indian and western cuisines. Visitors can choose from open-air market stalls and fast-food outlets to the superb restaurants found in all major hotels.

While tourists are sampling the tasty Eastern specialties offered in hotels, the locals are often tucking into McDonald's or sipping a coffee at Starbucks.

There are many excellent hotels across Kuala Lumpur. The Bintang Walk area, close to the upmarket shops, hosts well-known brands such as Ritz-Carlton, Westin, Regent, Grand Plaza Park Royal and JW Marriott. A Hilton and a Le Meridien rise above Sentral Station.

Opened in September 2004, the Hilton Kuala Lumpur Hotel is located atop KL Sentral, the city's huge, new, mixed-development project incorporating a state-of-the-art transportation hub, corporate office suites, condominiums, a retail complex and a convention and entertainment center.

The 505-foot-high, 35-story Hilton houses 510 guest rooms, including 32 suites (some with private Jacuzzis on an outdoor terrace garden).

Rooms are light and spacious with modern fittings, including 42-inch, plasma TVs in all rooms and a second LCD TV screen in every bathroom. Suites have home theater systems, as well.

Executive-floor guests also enjoy access to the executive lounge, where Internet access is free and a dedicated manager offers assistance and business support.

Another feature of the hotel is the dome-like Studio, a three-level spiral of floors that includes seven restaurants and bars. It's a one-stop dining and entertainment center bringing together an eclectic variety of cuisines and themes within one location.

For example, Caffe Cino is a funky coffee bar offering a great cafe experience, while Vintage Bank, with one of Malaysia's finest wine collections, is perfect for drinks before dinner, a nightcap or a casual meeting.

Sudu offers the best of Malaysian cuisine blended with international offers throughout the day. Its Malaysian breakfast is a perfect change from bacon and eggs. 

The Noodle Room is a haven for Asia's most popular dish, and Chynna treats diners to the best of Cantonese cuisine.

A singular culinary adventure awaits guests at Senses, where global cuisine combines modern and traditional techniques drawing on the flavors and textures of fresh ingredients from around the world.

For Japanese cuisine aficionados, Iketeru encompasses both culinary and visual delights that invoke traditional and modern features of Japanese cooking.

The hotel's Zeta Bar, based on its popular London namesake, unites the concepts of power-packed cocktails, cool vibes and great ambience with an eclectic choice of the latest world music.

As befits a major capital city hotel, the Hilton has an entire floor dedicated to meetings, conferences and events with a number of flexible spaces such as the pillarless Grand Ballroom.

The hotel also is distinguished by a health club; a 400-foot, free-form terrace swimming pool; and 2,500 pieces of original artwork -- mainly by local artists -- complementing the contemporary design of the hotel.

For more on the Hilton Kuala Lumpur Hotel, visit www.kuala-lumpur.hilton.com. For more on travel to Kuala Lumpur, visit Tourism Malaysia's Web site at www.tourism.gov.my.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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