Kuala Lumpur: A Historical Sort-of Walking Tour

Kuala Lumpur is not an old city by any means, having only been first settled in the 1800's by tin miners, so its historical sites are limited. It does have a few interesting buildings left over from its days as a British colony, and the sites are fairly close together and make a nice afternoon's visit.

The title of this section refers to this as a “sort-of” walking tour, in that it is pretty hard to actually physically walk from place to place, even though they would be clearly within easy walking distance on normal terrain. The problem is that Kuala Lumpur's frantic development pace has dropped highway overpasses, busy roads and all sorts of other urban obstacles in your path, so you may wish (especially with younger kids) to use a taxi to get between these places instead of trekking on foot.

Historic Train Station and Heritage Hotel

Though I dislike the word “exotic” when applied to non-dancers and travel writing, if there is anything left out there that might be considered exotic it would be the beautiful old train station that once linked Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to British field stations throughout Malaysia to Bangkok. The architecture was done by a British designer fresh from colonial India, who clearly had his contextual metaphors scrambled in how he combined Moorish, Islamic and well, other elements, into something very unique.

Inside the station is the Heritage Hotel, a frozen-in-time spectacle all of its own. You can still get a room here, and disappear back in time. The lobby elevator has a door that you pull open and closed manually, and operates off a hand lever just like in the old movies. There is a bar with ceiling fans, faded mirrors and an oak bar polished to the point where over time it has become more jewel than wood. The hallways remind one more of passages on the Titanic than any Holiday Inn, and roaming around the nearly-empty hotel, one stumbles into dark ballrooms and high ceilinged sitting rooms. It is the way Things Used to Be; not necessarily the best of times, as colonials lived over those they employed, but a piece of history still drawing breath that you can walk through.

Across the street from the station itself (the white building shown in the photos above) is the Malaysian Rail Headquarters building. You can cross easily between the two via an underground passage. While the outside of the building has faded into a dull color that would embarrass Stalinist decorators, the inside still shows delightful architectural touches that echo those of the train station across the street. The building is not a public space per se, but once we expressed some interest in its design (and assured the staff we were not lost looking for the station proper), they welcomed us and allowed us to explore around fairly freely.

If you are traveling to the station by taxi, the driver may get confused and take you to Kuala Lumpur Sentral, the new rail station that serves international routes and the locus for most foreigners (the old station stills serves commuter trains into Kuala Lumpur). Instead, ask for the Heritage Hotel and you'll end up in the right place.

National Mosque

Though it is a real challenge to actually walk to from the rail station area, the National Mosque is only about a four wood drive away. From the right side of the Malaysian Rail Headquarters building, you need to get across several lanes of traffic, a somewhat risky bit of business.

Assuming you survive the journey, you are welcome to wander around the area outside the mosque, visit the souvenir shop and take photos. If it is near prayer time (signs posted) non-Muslim visitors are not allowed inside. It is still worth a visit to enjoy the fountains and exterior design.

Merdeka Square

Don't even try walking from the mosque to nearby Merdeka Square with small kids, though it can be hard to find a taxi for the short trip. Look hot and desperate.

The square represents the political center of modern Malaysia, and marks the spot physically where independence was declared from the Crown. The actual actual spot is the big green space, which ironically used to be the main cricket pitch for the Brits. The beamed building alongside the pitch is Selangor Club, an organization populated by Malaysia's rich and powerful and elite, so don't count on finding a pubic toilet (in fact, toilets are hard to find in this area, so use the potty at the train station ahead of time).

On the other side of the square offers more interesting architecture, colonial era buildings that now house government offices, including the Malaysian Supreme Court. The flag pole in the square is said to be among the world's tallest, a claim that is easy to believe; stand at the base and look up and you get dizzy. Cool.

You're a short taxi ride away from the Central Market from the square, if you'd like to visit. Learn more on our Shopping page.

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