Kuala Lumpur: Morning Drive

It’s a little after breakfast on a cloudy morning. We’re standing just outside the gates of Port Kelang a few kilometers from Kuala Lumpur, trying to seal a deal with taxi drivers to whisk us off to the Malaysian capital. The ashen sky isn’t providing much help in livening up the aura at the port, but the drivers, speaking in broken English, try to make the bargaining game – or the conversation at least – interesting.

“We need to get back here by four,” Ate Cel tells their boss, who looks as much as the typical Malay.

“No problem,” he replies. “You leave KL by two-thirty and you are here by four.”

A little discussion among our group ensues. Ate Cel returns to the boss. “How much?” she asks.

“Eighty-five ringgit, okeh?” the boss tells her.

“No discount?”

The boss shakes his head. “I can’t give you discount, lah. I have to tell my superior first and that will take time.”

Ate Cel relentlessly bargains to no avail. Time is running out. We give in to MR 85.

It’s the first stop in a four-day cruise and our group – all 16 of us — bypass the ship’s tour, preferring to do the exploring by ourselves. A middle-aged ethnic Chinese driver, one of the many that flock at what seemed to be their makeshift garage – approaches us and lead me, Tita Marie, Joseph, and Abie to his cab, a somewhat dilapidated red-and-yellow box of nonya-smelling car. The others are herded off to their respective taxis. All in all, we hire four cabs and we’re off to an hour-and-a-half drive to the city, where the clouds gradually give way to the scorching sun.

Kuala Lumpur, or KL as the locals call it, is Malaysia’s largest city and the main exporter of the country’s political, economic, and cultural trends. It’s a relative newcomer as far as Southeast Asian cities go, coming only to existence in 1857 when more than 80 Chinese miners founded a settlement in the Kelang Valley with hopes of finding tin. The confluence of the Keland and Gombak rivers around which the city was built eventually lent the city its name: Kuala Lumpur means “muddy confluence.”

The discovery of tin soon drew more miners into the area and in 1880, the economic spurt led the British to relocate the central government from Kelang to KL. Headed by Frank Swettenham, the city saw the construction of several brick buildings and a railway that connected KL to Kelang. Moorish architecture also became prevalent, eventually providing an interesting mix with Chinese temples and colonial structures. By 1895, KL had become so prosperous that it was chosen as the capital of the newly established Federated States of Malay.

Following the lead of the cab where Ate Cel, Chio, Yanyan and Ate Sean were riding, Mang Chua parks in front of what looks to be a hill. “We’re here at the National Monument,” he says.

We look around but only see verdant surroundings “Where is the National Monument?” Tita Marie asks.

Mang Chua looks at her with puzzlement. “Here,” he replies frustratingly.

Tita Marie quietly groans. It turns out that the monument is on top of a short uphill walk.

Of course our driver’s name is not Mang Chua but Abie says he looks like the Chinese vendor who used to live near our house, so we refer to him by that name. He doesn’t speak much English so trying to get him to act as our tour guide is a defeating task. For instance, Mang Chua doesn’t know what is honored by the monument, a bronze statue created in 1966 by Felix Whedon, the same guy behind the Iwo Jima monuments in Washington, DC. Fortunately one of the other taxi drivers knows his history, telling us that the monument was built to honor the Malaysian soldiers who died in World War II.

The structure itself is located at the Lake Gardens, a sprawling area of manicured lawns where houses of the colonial elite were once erected. Now it’s open publicly to provide a relatively soothing antithesis to the chaos and heat of KL. There’s a bird park and a butterfly garden in the premises, and those who prefer not to sweat it out walking under the scorching weather can rent a boat instead. At the front of the gardens is the National Museum, a magnificent structure that houses many of Malaysia’s historical treasures.

Malaysia is an ever-evolving nation optimistically embracing change while clinging to multiculturalism. Barring the occasional racial tensions, Malays live together with Chinese, Indian, and native populations, giving the country an intriguing feel of variety. In fact, Malaysia itself represents the dichotomy of its people, with one part hanging at the southern part of the Asian mainland (where Indochinese people are prominent) and the other occupying most of the northern third of Borneo (where the Austro-Polynesian stock dominates).

Such blend of cultures is responsible for the mix of architectures that stand side by side in KL. Here, cosmopolitan skyscrapers share space with minarets, Chinese temples and Moorish buildings from the colonial era. The latter is best typified by the railroad station, our next stop.

A few minutes later, we’re at the air-conditioned comforts of the Central Market, where stalls selling Asian artifacts vie against Western outlets for customers’ money. It’s an interesting stop, if only to recharge for another round of exploring around the city’s sweltering heat.

We also visit the Menara KL Tower, a 421-meter-high structure used for communications, but more popularly enables one to get a bird’s-eye view of the city. The tower stands on top of Pineapple Hill, Forest Reserve, Malaysia’s oldest gazetted forest reserve. We drive next to a Beryl’s store to buy some chocolates.

We conclude our tour by stopping by at Kuala Lumpur’s – and at one time the world’s – tallest building. The iconic Petronas Towers, standing 88 storeys and around 450 meters high, imposingly dominates the urban skyline and commands at least a photo op from visitors to the city. Designed by Argentinian architect Cesar Pelli based on Islamic patterns, the pair of buildings house the headquarters of the state-owned Petronas oil company, among others. Tickets are given free daily but they are limited and only early birds get to go as high as the Skybridge at the 41st floor.

The day is still begging for more possibilities but the tight schedule is beckoning us to hop on the taxi again for the trip back to Port Kelang. Around 90 minutes later we’re back at the harbor, and the clouds start to hover overhead yet again. We climb on board the ship as the steady hum of the ship’s engines replace the noise of the port. “Thank you,” a port worker says. “Come back soon to Malaysia, lah!”

I don’t know how soon, but he can bet I will.

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