Malaysia's capital a 'traditional' modern city

Travel Weekly editor at large Nadine Godwin visited Malaysia recently. Her report follows:

t first blush, Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur is not obviously a tourist city. It is certainly a corporate traveler's town, with a bustling commercial center, plenty of modern hotels catering to that crowd and all the up-to-date technology the customer needs for doing business.

But, it is not a tourist's city -- that is, if the visitor is not interested in architecture, Asian culture or shopping.

It offers plenty of those things and is likely to be the first point of entry, anyway, for many a tour to other parts of the country, making it downright wasteful not to stay awhile and look around. It can be the point of entry for an entire region, too.

We met Americans who were using it as the center of their sightseeing operations in Southeast Asia; they had purchased Malaysia Airlines' AccessAsia Pass, which covers roundtrip air from the U.S. to Kuala Lumpur plus options to fly to 24 other Southeast Asian cities within 30 days.

Architecture

Many visitors may be surprised at what a modern face this city of 2.3 million presents nowadays. Plenty of skyscrapers are clustered in the center, and -- compared with other cities -- a remarkable number are even pretty.

The Petronas Twin Towers, the world's tallest buildings (even before New York's towers were destroyed), are in the mix. They are not the best-looking of the lot, but they are extremely impressive when lighted and seen at night.

Any decent city tour includes a viewing stop where visitors can take photos, although the hazy sky is not helpful. K.L. suffers some from the haze that results from burning forests, mostly in Indonesia, plus some pollution produced in the city itself.

For modern and impressive, the 4-year-old K.L. Airport is a must-see that, fortuitously, any air passenger will see anyway.

It competes with Hong Kong's new airport in meeting the needs of weary travelers for both form (it is sleek and beautiful) and function. And it makes most U.S. airports look like plain Janes.

The new Express Rail Link provides a 28-minute transfer from the airport to downtown K.L., improving on a minimum cab time of an hour.

Before reaching downtown K.L., customers see another example of "thought-full" architecture, at Putrajaya, the Malaysian government's new administration center, which sits on 1,340 acres, 15 miles from the capital. Putrajaya is halfway between the airport and K.L. The government's move was 80% complete by this fall, our guide said.

Designers planned a futuristic city, with dramatic strokes in the building designs -- sometimes with a kind of art deco look, Asian-style.

It is dubbed the "intelligent garden city" because of an emphasis on electronic communications at work and home. The "smart homes" also are said to offer electronic control over security systems and appliances.

Putrajaya is described as 40% "natural," referring to gardens, lakes and wetlands found throughout. How the inherent conflict between ecology and any development will play out remains to be seen.

Culture

Any discussion of architecture overlaps with considerations of local culture.

K.L. was founded in 1857 by a group of Chinese tin miners, so old isn't that old, but in the older city sections, visitors see a few remaining two-story colonial houses and shops and a bustling, traditional Chinatown.

Both are in walking distance of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building on Merdeka (Independence) Square. This fanciful building, reflecting Moorish, Moghul and other influences, was built by the British in 1897 and houses the supreme court today.

The British, in 1910, stuck with the Moorish when building the K.L. Railway Station, described as Asia's most beautiful. This frothy white concoction is a hotel now.

The huge National Mosque in K.L.'s downtown retains its bold modern look -- with a roof that resembles an umbrella -- after 37 years, but the mosque most visited on tours is the Jame, a delicate, domed affair that looks doll-sized against its backdrop of skyscrapers. It sits at the confluence of two rivers, the place where K.L. was founded.

The Batu Caves, a site for Hindu worship eight miles from K.L., is on several tours. It takes a climb of 272 steps to see the caves, and unless there is a festival under way, the visit is skippable. The caves are the scene of the annual Thaipusam Festival (in January or February), noted for the masochistic feats of devotees.

At the National Museum, built in the style of a Malay palace, our visit focused on the Cultural Gallery, where several dioramas -- with some help from our guide -- tell of the traditions of Malaysia's several ethnic groups. Other galleries take themes like history and natural history, making this a good place to start or top off a tour.

Shopping

Chinatown, besides representing old K.L. in physical appearance, is the scene of a night market, along Jalan Petaling, that's popular with tourists.

At this bustling site of countless stalls, visitors can buy everything from gems to T-shirts plus knockoffs of name-brand goods. It is worth a few not-too-expensive purchases for the entertainment value. Some of our group bought watches and swore it would not matter how long they kept time.

Also in the old downtown is the Central Market, in a covered art deco building, now a handicrafts center devoted to Malaysian goods -- plus plenty of food stalls.

Our visit was devoted to shops and food, but promotional materials say numerous activities are available, too, such as batik painting, shadow-puppet plays and dance classes.

KL boasts a number of shopping complexes, each in a huge building and housing dozens of stores each, although I did not see much that appealed to this souvenir hunter.

The finest of the lot is Suria KLCC, a modern, six-story mall in front of the Petronas Twin Towers, with about 300 stores. The shops are gorgeous to look at but are selling upscale, name-brand goods that can be purchased at home.

One wing, however, is selling the best of Malaysian goods, and they are beautifully displayed in the stores and along the mall arcade.

Most visitors see one or more factories. Our first was the East Coast Handicraft Batik Factory, where we watched skilled artists paint designs freehand with wax, then fill in the designs with color, all on great swaths of silk. The fabric is then dipped in hot water to melt away the wax and leave the color.

The batik shop here seemed as big as the factory; but I succumbed to batik's lure later.

At the Royal Selangor pewter factory, it was another story. I invested unnecessarily in additions to a pewter goblet collection.

The guided factory visit included the opportunity to try tapping a design on smooth pewter, the better to understand how skilled the employees are here.

Some tours also include the Dragon's Home, an exhibition of jade plus a place to buy jade items in a broad price range.

Is it safe to travel now?

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- My trip to Malaysia was a most unthreatening experience, but I traveled just before the terrorist bombing in Bali, which was followed by reports of possible attacks on other Southeast Asian entertainment establishments popular with Westerners.

After the attack, the Shangri-La hotel group launched security audits for all its properties in Southeast Asia (in addition to regular audits), and it closed nightclubs in two Indonesian properties, in Jakarta and Surabaya, to keep them from becoming targets.

But can the region still be marketed?

Ken Fish, president of Absolute Asia in New York, said that political events in the region already had slowed his business there, which leaves him today with the type of clients who won't be deterred.

He said his company, with "very heavy" sales this year, has long fielded calls from people who buy its luxury pleasure trips and then "worry about whether they will die," but he is "very experienced" now at handling anxiety.

As for the current situation, "If I took precautions, I might avoid crowded public places like nightclubs," Fish said. -- N.G.

Room Key

Shangri-La Hotel Kuala Lumpur
Address: 11 Jalan Sultan Ismail, 50250 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; 60 minutes by cab from the airport, a five-minute walk from the heart of the city.
Telephone: (011) 60-3 2032-2388
E-mail:[email protected]
Web:www.shangri-la.com
Manager: Michael Cottan
Number of units: 678 rooms, 36 suites; Horizon Club concierge floors on five levels with separate check-in, free breakfast, cocktails.
Renovation report: Major overhaul under way; first phase completed 2002, as follows: Redone hotel lobby; new themed restaurants, two designed by Adam Tihany (Lemon Garden Cafe and Lafite); Horizon Club executive rooms newly refurbished, now on five floors rather than three; transformed business center. Second phase just launched, to upgrade all remaining guest rooms.
Rates: About $135 to $235, per room, double; $420 to $475, executive suites; $790, specialty suite; $1,840, Royal Suite.
Noteworthy: In Horizon Club rooms, brilliant use of glass and chrome for the desk work area and in the bathroom; gorgeous business center.
Not worthy: Takes too long to figure out which light switches control what; no timepiece in room.

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