Getting to know Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur, or more simply, KL, is the capital city of Malaysia and a thriving, fast-paced city. Flashy, modern buildings, run a race against each other to see who can be the highest or grandest. Since 1999, the Petronas Towers, two identical skyscrapers have held the mantle of the world’s tallest twin towers. Until 2004, they were the world’s tallest building and certainly remain the tallest in KL. But not for long. From my room at the Dorsett Kuala Lumpur where I stayed, I can see the Exchange 106, currently under construction in the heart of KL’s Golden Triangle. This building will become the tallest in Malaysia and South East Asia and at 492.3 metres, it will be amongst the top 15 tallest buildings in the world.
With Malaysia only achieving independence as late as 1957 there are still well-preserved reminders of the previous colonial rule by the British. Important buildings like the railway station and a number of churches and cathedrals temper the modern thrust of glass and stainless steel.
Melting pot is a term that is often over-used but I can’t think of a better word to use when describing KL and Malaysia. A strong mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures creates an intoxicating blend of rituals, food and experiences. The street vendors and local markets sit right alongside the enormous multi-storey, multi-block shopping centres, still determined to showcase the real Malaysia.
Fun places to visit in KL
Staying in the Golden Triangle, it would be easy to think at first glance that all is available is shopping. I’m sure the shopping is fabulous, but I’m not interested in clothes and shoes and god knows, I’ve got enough technological devices to last me a lifetime (well a year in current electronic life terms anyway!).
Whilst still touristy, if you dig a little under the surface, there’s a host of things to do in Kuala Lumpur that allow you to experience and learn a little of the Malaysian culture. This is a great one-day itinerary for Kuala Lumpur but if you are lucky enough to be here for a little longer, check out the three days in Kuala Lumpur itinerary.
It’s a known fact that I am not an artist. When the inherent skills that one is born with were handed out, my portfolio was completely devoid of any pertaining to art or singing. Despite this, I was looking forward to going to Jadi Batek to experience the Malaysian cultural experience of batik painting.
Located only a short walk from the Dorsett Kuala Lumpur, the gallery offers the only opportunity in the city for an authentic batik painting experience.
The display of pre-made batik clothing provides immediate inspiration as we are greeted warmly by the staff of Jadi Batik. As we are guided through the store into the workshop area, the pressure to perform mounted with the gallery of batik paintings enveloping us on both sides.
What I might have lacked in initial artistic talent was more than compensated for with my excitement at being able to learn something new. Hands-on classes are such a wonderful way of harnessing that excitement, as well as improving the learning experience.
We are given a quick introduction to the art of batik painting, but we aren’t left to admire the talents of those who have made this their career for too long. It was time to put our reputations on the line.
A group of us have come to this workshop together, and it proves to be a great way of spending time with each other, spurring each other on to create amazing masterpieces.
Preparing the template
The batik is painted on cloth and we have an option to draw freehand an object of our choosing. For a fleeting moment, there’s a look of mild panic on the faces around me, mine possibly more so. Having just witnessed the incredible talent of some of the team here, there’s no way I’m going to be able to draw anything that can become the basis of something to paint, and still be identifiable at the end. I can already picture my family laughing at my efforts now given my history of poor performance in this area.
Thankfully, I’m not the first to face this task and pre-drawn images have been created to be used to trace over on the cloth. This suits me perfectly. Tracing I can certainly manage.
TIP: Unless you have a large amount of time to spend here, try and find a template which is fairly simple to both trace, prepare and paint. Even my design was a struggle to complete in the time we had.
In hindsight, we all took way too long tracing. A group of perfectionists, we traced every line perfectly, a little unsure of what the next step was actually going to be, and not wanting to stuff any of it up. Always looking to problem solve, I’d recommend to the Jadi Batek team that an initial brief of what we were going to do would have allowed us to pace ourselves much better.
Drawing wax lines
Once the design was ready, it was time to use the hot wax. A canting is used for this stage. With a copper head on the end of a wooden handle, the canting is filled with hot wax. We have to work quickly, being careful not to touch the wax as it is boiling hot. We trace over the top of our pencil design, working swiftly to avoid the wax pooling in the wrong place. There’s a mixture of comments being thrown about. “Oh no it’s too runny”, “My wax won’t move” to “I don’t think that wax was meant to go there!”.
Collectively, it provided the atmosphere for relaxation and fun, and we were all determined to do a good job.
Once the wax had dried, choosing our watercolours and starting the painting process was all that was left for us to do. The paint is applied liberally, as the wax creates a barrier to the paint seeping where it shouldn’t. We try different colours and techniques, watering down the paint to get lighter colours or blends. I feel as though I could stay here all day, but alas, at a time that seems all too soon, we get the wind-up to complete what we can.
I got my painting into the position of the image on the left below, with the team at Jadi Batek rounding out the background for me. They did the same for the others in my group. It was a shame that we didn’t get to finish it all ourselves.
Classes may be booked to make different items such as scarves, handkerchiefs and t-shirts. All have different time frames. Personally, I’d book the one with the longest amount of time to make the most of the experience. All classes are inexpensive with the two-hour class costing USD$36/AUD$50.
There’s no denying that this place has become a haven for tourists, swarming to buy batik clothing or other souvenirs because someone mentioned this is something they should do. The front of house store is overly-efficient, with staff following you around to show you as much as possible, opening packets and spreading things out on the table in front of you, willing for you to buy. This is probably why I hate shopping in these locations as this kind of push selling really turns me off. As it turns out, I was potentially in the market for a particular item, but the prices here also screamed of tourist, so, unfortunately, I let that opportunity slide.
The workshops, however, were excellent and I would highly recommend it as a fun thing to do in Kuala Lumpur. It’s interactive, fun, can be done as a single person or in groups and great for kids. If the weather looks like it’s going to be a bit rainy, this is also the perfect indoor option. Best of all, you get to create and take home your own masterpiece.
Approximately 15 kilometres out of the centre of KL, the Batu Caves are one of the most sacred sites in Malaysia. Having been to many temples in India, including those in caves, I was interested to see how this might compare. Stirling had also visited here back in the early 90’s so I was also interested to see how this may have changed, if at all.
As we arrived at the location, the number of buses and people instantaneously confirmed its popularity. We had arrived on the Malaysia Day long weekend, so crowds were down but it was still busy. As we admired the vibrant area, we were oblivious to the controversy that had recently erupted here. The 272 steps, vividly painted in the colours of the rainbow (and then some) were a very recent change. Stirling surely wouldn’t have seen these in the 90’s!
Armed with some left over paint from maintenance work on local temples, temple workers and volunteers, under the guidance of the board that oversees the property, splashed their colour about. No longer content with the former red and white steps, they wanted to bring life into this area. Their painting didn’t stop there, with the surrounding buildings also given a fresh coat.
The controversy was this. It all happened rather quickly, in a matter of days, and it supposedly didn’t have the necessary approvals of the Malaysian Heritage Authority. Having been granted heritage protection in 2012, any renovations and modifications must be approved.
Superficially, I think it looks fantastic and as no changes have been made to the actual temple inside the caves, I’m sure they’ve done more good than harm.
It does, however, make it a haven for selfies and Instagrammers wanting that solo photo without the crowd! Best be here at 2 am if you want to secure that!
Whilst around 60% of Malaysians are Muslim, it is a country with a diverse religious community. Buddhism makes up around 20%, Christianity 9% and Hinduism around 6%. The Batu Caves are the most important of all Hindu temples outside of India itself. Dedicated to Lord Murugan, whose statue appears at the bottom of the steps, it holds great significance to Malaysian Hindus. Recognising its importance on the world stage, it is also the site of pilgrimages from Hindus all over the world.
Whilst it would be off the charts busy, I would love to visit here during the annual Thaipusam festival, where Hindus come to perform ritual acts and pay penance. The acts can involve being skewered with metal spikes and carrying large, heavy metal kavadis up the 272 steps, filled with milk and flowers as religious offerings.
Climbing the stairs
There’s no getting around the stairs if you want to see what’s inside the limestone cave at the top. The toughest part for me was just climbing them in the searing humidity. Sweat dripping off my face and down my arms is never pleasant, but this is Asia and this is expected. There are landings at intervals along the way, so for those who find the steps a little challenging, there’s plenty of places to rest, although this will be more difficult on really busy days.
As you climb, beware of the monkeys. That is something that certainly has not changed in 20 years. According to Stirling, they were a menace back then and they remain so now. Continually fed by tourists, they probably aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. My tip is to climb up through the middle. Whilst the monkeys will jump around, and you need to be aware of this, they tend to sit more often on the outer parts of the steps.
Take as little as you need to up here and if you do have bags, cameras or anything that dangles, understand you will be more likely to attract the monkey’s attention. Hold onto everything you have close to your body. Sunglasses sitting on top of your head are also fair game.
Inside the caves
At the top of the steps, about 100 metres above ground, the Cathedral Cave opens up to a huge showing of light. Inside, three shrines can be found, brightly painted like the steps.
You can spend as little or as long as you like up here and there are some smaller caves, like Temple Cave to look at also. Going back down the stairs is infinitely easier, although they are quite steep so if you are unsure of yourself, it’s best to hang onto the side rails. Despite the potential for crowds, this is still one of the best places to see in Kuala Lumpur.
Tip: It’s hot! Take a bottle of water with you. There are vendors at the base of the stairs if you didn’t bring any with you.
Royal Selangor Visitor Centre
I’ll admit to knowing nothing about pewter, other than it being something that beer mugs and a few other household items could be made of. I certainly hadn’t heard of Royal Selangor. Lived under a rock? Perhaps. Having spent time with a very knowledgeable guide, I now know a lot more.
History of Royal Selangor
The making of pewter here in Malaysia is steeped in history. Pewter, made mostly from tin, copper and antimony originated from the prosperous tin mining industry during the 1820s. It brought with it Chinese immigrants who settled in Malaysia and developed and worked the mines. With more product came international interest with the British strategically involving themselves in the game. World demand grew and the British introduced innovative methods that reduced labour, impacting the Chinese. Struggles over the ownership of the industry continued well into the 19th century.
Like many other Chinese, a man named Yong Koon arrived in KL to join his brothers who were all working in the tin industry. They were tinsmiths and developed a cottage-business making tin items. He became one of the first pewtersmiths in KL.
Amidst the uncertainty of a global economic downturn in the 1930s and an impending war, Malayan Pewter Works was established. Ever the entrepreneurs, Yong Koon and his sons started making European styled items. The sons created their own pewter companies: Tiger Pewter, Selangor Pewter and Lion Pewter. Selangor was the only company to prosper and survive.
Having made it through the tough war years, and continued to modify their offering, Selangor Pewter commenced exporting in the 1960s and in the 70s acquired Selberan (gold) and Comyns (silver) companies.
In 1979, the Sultan of Selangor issued a royal warrant to Selangor Pewter, making it a supplier to the royal family. To acknowledge this and the merging of all companies, the name was changed to Royal Selangor. This incredible legacy continues today and with the factory built here in 1977, it is now the only pewter manufacturer in the world.
The Royal Selangor tour
As we enter the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre, we are greeted by a guide who is well versed in all things pewter. We are whisked quite briskly around the area, stopping to look at posters of the family descendants and to learn about the history (as told above). There’s a lot to take in, especially if you are like me and are starting from a blank canvas.
I was quite taken with the “animal money”, once used as a form of currency around 400 years ago. Made from pure tin, the value was based purely on the weight.
As we enter an area with glass cases and some pieces that are obviously priceless to their collection, we are introduced to another guide. In a soft voice, she takes us in and tells us the story of the teapot nearby.
“Ah Ham was a villager foraging for rice in a warehouse during the second world war. He saw something shiny and bent down to pick it up. It was a teapot. As he bent down, a bomb fell and shrapnel flew past his head. He took the teapot home and forgot about the rice. He considered this his lucky teapot. Years later, he took it to the pewter factory and the unique markings on the bottom of the teapot highlighted it was made by Yong Koon himself” .
It was at this point that we realised this lady wasn’t just a guide, but she had a connection to the family. Datin Paduka Chen Mun Kuen was the granddaughter of Yong Koon. At 76 years of age, she still holds the fort at the visitor centre, interacting with visitors and telling her story.
The factory tour
With our heads full of trivia and historical facts, we were guided through the operations area of the factory, stopping to view various parts of the pewter making process. Everyone involved in this process is dedicated to producing quality products. Whilst machinery plays an integral role, there is still a great deal of manual work undertaken that requires patience, attention to detail and above all, the ability to handle repetition. Certainly not a job for me.
The pewter experience
Soon, the School of Hard Knocks was calling us. Here in the workshop, we were going to get our hands working and make our own pewter product to take home. I can’t think of a better way to round out the tour. After donning our aprons and getting some very basic instructions, we set about hammering with great gusto our round pieces of tin. Incredibly, and quite quickly, a bowl takes shape, leaving us all feeling very proud of ourselves. Our instructor tells us that it’s an ice-cream bowl, perfect for two scoops. Clearly he hasn’t seen how my family eat icecream!
Like most tours, it finishes in the gift shop with a huge range of pewter items from the more well-known tankards to fill with beer, through to candelabras, trays, figurines and homewares. This stuff is heavy though so if you are travelling and buying, be prepared to carry it and ensure that it fits within your luggage allowance.
The Royal Selangor Visitor Centre is open seven days a week including public holidays from 9 am until 5 pm. Guided tours and admission to the centre is free.
Located only 10 kilometres from the city, it’s another activity that is worthy of being on your list when you visit Kuala Lumpur.
Taxis and train can be taken to get to the visitor centre, but free shuttles also run from a variety of city hotels. Check to see if your hotel is on the list here.
Where to stay
I stayed at the Dorsett Kuala Lumpur in the city, which made access to these three locations very easy. Alternatively, the Saujana Hotel where I also stayed is only about 30 kilometres from these locations. The Dorsett Kuala Lumpur is a highrise four-star hotel in the city whilst the Saujana sits on 160 hectares and is a quiet place to stay. Not far from the Saujana is the Dorsett Grand Subang, a five-star hotel, with excellent dining facilities and a resort-like pool area.
How to get to Kuala Lumpur
Unless you live on mainland Asia, where driving is possible, most people will arrive in Kuala Lumpur via the air or via cruise ship. There are many airlines flying in and out of Malaysia, some do long-haul flights to Europe, the Americas and Australia/NZ and others do the shorter flights to countries closeby.
For us, KL is a great stopover location en route to Europe and I know many Americans who use it to break their trip as well.
I flew with AirAsia via the Gold Coast (Australia) directly into KL International Airport 2, a journey that took only eight hours. AirAsia also flies to many other Asian countries, so getting to Vietnam was also easy.
Kuala Lumpur is a city for all types
Kuala Lumpur looks and feels like a big, modern city if the only place you get to is the city centre. This is always going to be the case of any large city you visit, and of course, if that is all you see then your perspective will be different from those who have travelled further afield. The great thing about these locations is that they are close enough to the city to be able to get to all of them in one day, or over the course of a few days. Despite being close to the city, they offer a point of difference to the cityscape and shopping malls.
KL is also a very easy city to get around in. The public transport with trains, metro and buses are inexpensive, especially the purple city bus which is free to ride. There are loads of taxis around. The people of Kuala Lumpur are some of the nicest I’ve met whilst travelling and it’s clean and orderly, despite the contrary opinion that many have of Asian countries.
Whether you use Kuala Lumpur as a stopover or a destination, it’s a city worth considering.