Kuala Lumpur Travel Guide

Kuala Lumpur is the largest city in Malaysia and the capital of the federation. The executive branch of the Malaysian Government has shifted to a new administrative capital, Putrajaya, but the residence of the King of Malaysia, the Parliament of Malaysia, and the judicial branch remain in Kuala Lumpur. It's a modern Asian city of gleaming skyscrapers, but it retains much of the local colour that has been wiped out in other Asian boom-cities such as Singapore. It has plenty of colonial buildings in its centre, a vibrant Chinatown with street vendors and night markets, and a bustling Little India.

Kuala Lumpur is one of the three Federal Territories, and is an enclave within the state of Selangor, on the central west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Within Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is almost always abbreviated to KL. The city is an Asian tiger that roars: in 130 years, it has grown from nothing to a modern, bustling city of almost two million people. Take in its high-flying triumphs from the viewing deck of the world's tallest building, then dive down to explore its more traditional culture in the back lanes of Chinatown.

Facts in a glance

Area: 243 sq km
Population: 1.8 million
Country: Malaysia
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +8 (Peninsular Malaysia)
Telephone Area Code: 03


1857: Kuala Lumpur was founded at the confluence of the Gombak and Kelang rivers. In Malay, the name means "muddy confluence". The settlement started when a member of the Selangor royal family, Raja Abdullah, opened up the Klang valley for tin prospectors. 87 Chinese prospectors went up the river Klang and began prospecting in the Ampang area, which was then jungle. Despite 69 of them dying due to the pestilential conditions, a thriving tin mine was established. This naturally attracted merchants who traded basic provisions to the miners in return for some of the tin. The traders set up shop at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. Thus was a city born.

As the town grew, the British, who ruled Malaya at the time, felt the need to appoint a headman to administer the settlement and ensure law and order. The first Kapitan Cina was Hiu Siew. It was the third Kapitan Cina, Yap Ah Loy, who oversaw the rise of Kuala Lumpur from a sleepy little mining town to become the foremost city of Selangor. In the early years, Kuala Lumpur was the centre of the Selangor Civil War, in which two conflicts could be discerned; a fight between Selangor princes over the revenue of tin mines, and the other one a vendetta between Kapitan Yap and Chong Chong, who wanted the Kapitanship. Kapitan Yap and his backer, Tengku Kudin, were successful and it was from then, thanks to Kapitan Yap's able leadership, that Kuala Lumpur became Selangor's biggest city. He rebuilt Kuala Lumpur, which was devastated by the Civil War and repopulated it with Chinese miners from elsewhere in Selangor. He also encouraged Malay farmers to settle near Kuala Lumpur in order to have a steady and accessible source of food.

1880: Kuala Lumpur superseded Klang as the state capital, and its rapid growth thereafter has been attributed to Sir Frank Swettenham, British resident after 1882. Frank Swettenham, the Resident of Selangor, chose KL as his administrative center and oversaw the rebirth of the city, ordering the construction of new buildings using brick. He initiated construction on the Klang-Kuala Lumpur Railway and encouraged the use of brick and tile in buildings as a fire precaution and as an aid to better health.

1896: Swettenham united the Sultans of four states under the umbrella of the Federated Malay States (FMS), and KL was chosen as the capital because of its central position. The city became a classic center of British colonialism. Sharply uniformed officers and bureaucrats administered the FMS from beneath the distinctive copper domes of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. In the off-hours, they played cricket on the field of the Padang and sought liquid comfort in the Selangor Club, where only whites were allowed. The club became a symbol of British imperialism and oppression and fueled the ever- growing dreams of independence.

1942: During World War II Japanese forces captured Kuala Lumpur on January 11, and occupied the city for 44 months.

1957: After independence, Kuala Lumpur was the capital of the Federation of Malaya and continued to be the capital of the renamed Federation of Malaysia in 1963. For the occasion of independence, A large stadium, Stadium Merdeka (Independence Stadium), was built, where Malaysia's first prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, declared Malaya's independence in front of a massive crowd. The Union Jack was lowered from the flagpole at the Padang (now known as Dataran Merdeka; Independence Square) and the Malayan flag was raised. The Padang symbolized British sovereignty as it was a cricket ground for the colonial administrators and fronted the Royal Selangor Club, Malaya's most exclusive Whites-Only club.

KL was poised for its greatest transformation ever. One of the city's darkest days came in 1969, when civil unrest, spawned by racial tensions, swept through the city, sparking a state of emergency that would last for two years. Bolstered by a growing economy and a sincere desire for cooperation between Malaysia's ethnic groups, the tensions subsided, and in 1974 the city was given the status of Wilayah Persekutuan (or Federal Territory). The last 10 years have seen Kuala Lumpur undergo phenomenal growth, with a population explosion of almost 50 percent, not to mention development on a monumental scale. The world's tallest buildings, the Petronas Twin Towers, now rise above the city of 2 million. The patriotic locals are always out in force on 31 August, the anniversary of Malaysian independence back in 1957, KL's proudest moment as the Union Jack slid down and the new Malaysian flag was hoisted above the capital. If those 87 Chinese miners could have poled their way 140 years up the river of time, they probably wouldn't recognize the legacy that began where the two muddy rivers met.

1974: Kuala Lumpur seceded from Selangor and the city became a Federal Territory (Wilayah Persekutuan).

1990: Kuala Lumpur has advanced by leaps and bounds ever since the Asian Economic Boom, when Malaysia was averaging 10% economic growth. Skyscrapers have shot up and Kuala Lumpur, formerly a languid colonial outpost, has become one of the most lively, advanced and vibrant cities in South East Asia. Unfortunately the infrastructure has barely been able to keep up with this rapid growth, although a new rapid transit system was built in the 1990s. Traffic jams are a scourge commuters endure daily, despite the numerous 6-lane highways constructed all over the city (including two elevated highways). Bus services are notoriously irregular and inadequate and water quality has suffered severely.

Most of central KL has grown without any central planning whatsoever, so the streets in the older parts of town are extremely narrow, winding and congested. The architecture in this section is a unique colonial type, a hybrid of European and Chinese forms.
The National Monument commemorates those who died in Malaysia's struggles for freedom principally against the Japanese occupation and during the of 1946-60.

The stretch of road facing Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) is perhaps the most famous road in Kuala Lumpur. The Federal Court (the highest court in the federation) building with its signature copper domes and Moorish architecture stands here, as does one of the tallest flagpoles in the world, which stands in the Dataran Merdeka itself. The Dayabumi building is visible, being down the road. This area used to be the focal point of Malaysia's Hari Merdeka (Independence Day) parade, which was televised all over Malaysia.

2003: Tthe parade was moved to the Boulevard in Putrajaya, in keeping with Putrajaya's status as the new administrative capital of Malaysia. Interestingly, the white Police Headquarters located atop Bukit Aman (literally 'Peace Hill') faces the Dataran.

Notable examples of this fusion are the Dayabumi building, Kuala Lumpur's first skyscraper, the Tabung Haji Building and Menara Telekom, both designed by local architect Hijjas Kasturi, and, of course, the Petronas Twin Towers. The rest of the city has mostly developed in the standard way, with the standard skyscraper format. Aware of this, architects have been urged to incorporate traditional design elements into their work.

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