KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — When I was preparing to make my first trip to Malaysia more than 20 years ago, a friend asked me, "Why would you want to go to a Third World country?" My destination at that time was the island of Borneo, so his question was legitimate.
At that time, Borneo was a long way from becoming a tourist mecca known for its orangutan preserves and luxurious jungle retreats. It still bore traces of a time — in the not-too-distant past — when headhunters hung their shrunken trophies in their jungle longhouses.
Borneo has modernized since my visit, as has the rest of Malaysia. Now, there's nothing remotely Third World about the country, and its capital, Kuala Lumpur — or "KL" as it's frequently called — joins Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong as thriving Asian metropolises.
Upon arrival in KL, one is struck first by its beauty, surrounded as it is by lush mountains and dotted with green parks and flowering gardens, and second, by the juxtaposition of old and new.
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The city's futuristic airport looks like something out of Star Wars, but its train station is pure Arabian Nights. The gleaming twin Petronas Towers complex, a 21st-century icon, rises 1,483 feet, making it one of the world's tallest buildings (and from 1998 to 2004, the tallest), but the lovely Carcosa Seri Negara hotel is a throwback to the British colonial era.
This is one fascinating city.
Kuala Lumpur today is light-years removed from the village that tin miners hacked out of the southeast Asian jungle in 1859. You still can see the thatched kampungs (houses on stilts) in some older sections of the city, but you also can shop for designer labels in the Star Hill Gallery in the heart of the Golden Triangle, dine in elegant restaurants and marvel over the spectacular collection of orchids in the botanical gardens.
Spectacular is a word one uses a lot in describing KL — including the skyline studded with minarets and domes (the points of the blue-tiled dome of the National Mosque represent the 13 states of Malaysia and the five pillars of Islam) and the palace of the sultan. In a unique political system, the king of Malaysia is chosen every five years from among the sultans of the various states.
On my first evening in KL, hoping to fend off the numbing effects of a 14-hour flight, I took a walk around Independence Square (a cricket field during the 19th-century British colonial period). The square is surrounded by imposing white office towers, in the midst of which sits an incongruous mock Tudor building. The latter is the Royal Selangor Club, built so colonial-era cricket fans could enjoy a gin and tonic between innings.
Another legacy from the colonial period is the famous Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, which appears decidedly un-British with its fantastical Moorish-inspired concoction of turrets, minarets, spires and arches. It was built during the reign of Queen Victoria to conform to standards applied to all public buildings throughout the empire.
One anecdote has it that a building inspector in England, unfamiliar with Malaysia's steamy climate, held up construction for months with his claim that the roof did not meet specs stipulating that it be able to support 3 feet of snow.
Today, the Eastern and Oriental Express luxury train, which makes the trip from Singapore to Bangkok, stops in Kuala Lumpur, which sits on the Malay Peninsula.
If you find yourself with a free afternoon, make a reservation for afternoon high tea at the Carcosa Seri Negara. This magnificent white-columned mansion, in the hills above KL, was formerly the residence of the British queen's representative.
Now a boutique hotel, it is a perfect place to relax over a pot of tea on the wraparound veranda. Sipping my tea, I listened as the ceiling fans whirred above me and watched as raindrops from a sudden tropical shower beaded the emerald leaves of the banana trees sheltering the veranda.
A completely different kind of experience is a visit to the Batu Caves. Inside these vast natural caverns, 8 miles north of the city, is a shrine holy to KL's large Hindu population. During the festival of Thaipusam in January and February, penitents climb the 272 steps to worship at the shrine in the Cathedral Cave, a huge vault pierced by 20-foot stalactites.
Non-Hindus are permitted to visit the shrine at any time of year, but be warned: The steep steps are harder coming down than going up. If you decide to brave it, keep a firm hand on your camera or handbag, because the impish monkeys that line the steps to the cave are opportunistic.
Malacca, halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, might be Malaysia's most picturesque city and is certainly the most historic. Malacca was the site of both the first settlement on the peninsula in 1400 and of the country's declaration of independence from Britain in 1957.
In the early 15th century, Malacca was a settlement of sea gypsies eking out meager livings as fishermen. By the end of the century, it had become a free port and the center of a great trading empire, attracting the ships of seafaring nations from Cambodia to China.
In Malacca's Chinese sector near the waterfront, visit Cheng Hoon Teng, the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, and Bukit China Hill, one of the oldest and largest Chinese burial grounds outside China.
It didn't take long for Europeans to arrive here — first the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and the British, all of whose influences can still be seen. Early Portuguese churches — one of which, St. Paul's, once held the remains of St. Francis Xavier — and the pastel buildings of the former Dutch settlement on the hill overlooking the harbor are favorites of photographers.
Part of the pleasure of visiting Malacca is just wandering through the town and imagining the days when it was the wildest port in southeast Asia. One thing you won't want to miss is the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum. This museum house, furnished in Chinese Baroque, reflects the privileged lives of the Babas and the Nyonyas, descendants of the Chinese who intermarried with locals.
After visiting the museum, if you would like a taste of Nyonya cuisine (like the people, a blend of Chinese and Malay), go to Restoran Ole Sayang. Among the dishes served family style are tamarind-marinated prawns, with slices of pineapple in spicy coconut milk gravy and grilled shrimp paste with fresh chilis and a squeeze of lime juice.
Back in Kuala Lumpur, continue your journey into Malaysia's colorful past with a visit to Chinatown, where Chinese apothecaries display homegrown herbs beneath glass pots. It's comforting to know that even in this country boasting the latest 21st-century technology, some remnants of the past remain deeply rooted.