Trekking in three cities

04 August 2015

I give in to my exploratory instincts when I decide to trek in Kuala Lumpur, George Town and Malacca and enter their numerous nooks and crannies with interesting old places sandwiched in between looming skyscrapers.

Hot-footing it in Kuala Lumpur

Famously called KL, this cosmopolitan city has many walking routes that let you discover KL’s historic origins, the modern facets of the city and the green lungs for quieter and soothing sojourns.

I opt for the city’s top historic route, beginning from the Moorish architectural stunner, the old KL Railway Station building at Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, and ending at the Central Market at Jalan Hang Kasturi.

The Railway Station will always look like it is still caught in a time warp with its gently curved arches and elevated dome-shaped pavilions that dominate the Moorish-style building dating back to 1910. It is one of KL’s finest architectural preservation efforts. Activities within are quite as slow as the old locomotive train since the city’s rail transportation hub was moved to the modern Sentral Station in nearby Brickfields, less than a kilometre south of the old station.

 

I take the opposite northern route where I see Masjid Negara (National Mosque) standing resplendently with its tall, pointed minaret, geometric lattice work and water fountains gurgling over white marble. I then walk past the General Post Office and Menara Dayabumi, a white complex with filigree-like Islamic design.

In less than 10 minutes, I reach KL’s historical heart – Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), the main venue for the annual Hari Merdeka (Independence Day) countdown where at the stroke of midnight, the big clock at the iconic Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad strikes to herald the 31st of August.

 

The building at Jalan Raja is the former colonial administrative centre. Today, it houses the Supreme Court. Surrounding Dataran Merdeka, where one of the world’s tallest flagpoles stands, are several blocks of colonial buildings, also bearing Moorish design. However, directly opposite Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad is a Tudor-style building, home to another colonial relic, the elite members-only Royal Selangor Club. Fronting it is the Dataran Merdeka, the main venue for Merdeka Day march past and other events. On usual nights, it’s the place where city folk hang out, enjoying the city lights especially those emanating from Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad.

A walk towards Jalan Benteng leads me to KL’s most historic spot: the confluence of two rivers – Sungai Klang and Sungai Gombak, from which the city got its name. The Malay term ‘kuala’ means rivermouth while ‘lumpur’ means mud. Sungai Gombak was previously known as Sungai Lumpur, which means ‘muddy river’. Overlooking the confluence is Masjid Jamek, the city’s oldest mosque that looks majestic with its spires and colonnades.

 

Walking along Jalan Tun Perak, I soon reach the annexe block of Central Market, the city’s landmark cultural-cum-shopping mall where you can shop for a large variety of goods including souvenirs, handicrafts and antiques. Featuring quaint art deco architectural elements, the mall was once the city’s largest wet markets. Just outside the building is Kasturi Walk with many stalls selling a gamut of goods and tantalising local food. Open to pedestrians only, the outdoor shopping strip fronts a row of quaint pre-war buildings housing restaurants, souvenir shops and other businesses. Shopping and eating in the area make for a perfect ending to my half-day city walk.

Heady and happy on Penang Food Trail

A good place to start a walkabout in George Town on Penang Island is Penang Road within the perimeter of the island’s enclave declared as UNESCO world heritage site. Here, sidewalk stalls sell famous Penang hawkers fare from sweet cendol and savoury Indian vadai to tangy asam laksa, tasty fried kway teow and spicy nasi kandar. Life for the hawkers seems unchanged from time immemorial. In fact, the entire place looks like one living museum that ‘showcases’ the old culture and livelihood in a setting that’s predominated by pre-war buildings. No doubt, this ‘live’ showcase contributed to George Town earning a spot on the UNESCO world heritage list.

Since Penang claims the title of ‘Malaysia’s food paradise’, I confine my walk to the popular heritage food trail spanning Penang Road (for famous Teochew chendol, asam laksa, Line Clear nasi kandar and dried fruit and nutmeg at the famous Chowrasta Market) and nearby roads, including Macalister Road (where the famous Sisters fried kway teow stall is located), Jalan Transfer (for its popular roti canai and roti Bengali – good old bread baked the old fashion way) and the bustling New Lane Hawker Centre that sizzles and tempts everyone with its array of hawker food. Wok-fried char kway teow, lip-smacking fruit rojak, tangy asam laksa, popiah — name it, you can find it here. I leave the place with a stomach that’s full to the max, causing me to feel heady but absolutely happy.

Needing to burn off the extra kilos, I trudge along many streets to find famous heritage buildings, including Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Kapitan Kling Mosque, Goddess of Mercy Temple and Khoo Kongsi. Love Lane, Stewart Lane and other nooks and crannies within the heritage site are certainly fascinating to discover on foot. So are Armenian Street, Beach Street, Victoria Street, China Street, Church Street, ‘Street of Harmony’ or Jalan Masjid Kapitan Kling, Muntri Lane, Chulia Street and Campbell Street where the old and modern elements co-exist beautifully. 

Reminiscing the Past in Malacca

If Malacca River could speak, what rich tales and legends it would spill out. Foremost would be the story of how the ancient kingdom of Melaka was founded by Parameswara, a Sumatran prince who sailed from the neighbouring land. He named his new-found territory after a tree which he rested against while watching a fight between a tiny mousedeer and a pack of dogs. No one could tell which animal won but history was created that very moment. And so it was only fitting that I start my walk in historic Malacca from the river.

It leads to the Straits Of Malacca, a vital sea-lane – the gateway between the East and the West since the old days, making Malacca an important port of call and earning the nickname Venice Of The East.

I stroll along the delightful riverside walkways, enjoying the sights of the softly flowing river, riverboats carrying passengers on a Malacca River Cruise, and the hard-to-miss bridges over the river. There are eight bridges altogether: Tan Kim Seng, Chan Koon Cheng (dubbed the Ghost Bridge of Malacca for its ghostly tales), Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat, Old Bus Station, Pasar, Kampung Jawa and Kampung Morten. Each has its own story that harks back to bygone days – from the time of the legendary warrior Hang Tuah to the arrivals of western colonists (Portuguese, Dutch and British) and early settlers including Chinese, Indians and Arabs who each left a rich legacy that made Malacca a melting pot of various cultures. 

On the banks of Malacca River stands Kampung Morten, the traditional Malay village declared as a National Heritage site. Typical Malay houses on stilts can still be found here but an interesting feature is their colourful façade that makes the whole place come alive.

Nearby is a classic Peranakan-style mansion that houses the posh Majestic Malacca hotel. Peranakan is Straits Chinese, also called Babas and Nyonyas. Built in 1927, the mansion used to be the house of a rich Peranakan family.

The walking route from the hotel leads to the core of the UNESCO-listed heritage sites of old Malacca with its maze of narrow alleys, a hotchpotch of old buildings housing antique shops, blacksmith shops and others that fight for space with tacky souvenir stores and numerous eating spots.

Moving along, I reach one of the more famous spots in Malacca – the Dutch Square where the bright red Christ Church stands, touted as the oldest surviving Dutch-style church building found outside the Netherlands. Next to it is another famous landmark, the Stadthuys with its iconic clock tower near a roundabout. The Dutch Square is within the city’s museum enclave within walking distance to the A’Famosa and the sole surviving relic of the ancient Portuguese Fort, Porta de Santiago at the foot of St. Paul Hill where the ruins of St Paul’s Church can still be seen.

Next, I make my way to nearby Dataran Pahlawan and reminisce about the historic day when Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaimed the independence of the then Federation of Malaya from British rule on 31 August 1957. His voice reverberated across the field when he shouted ‘Merdeka!’ seven times and it’s a sound that keeps playing in my mind as I call it a day.

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