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Of course, when I signed up for a tour with BeMyGuest to see the Seven Wonders of Kuala Lumpur, I was a little sceptical. I mean, sure there are maybe one or two landmarks in Kuala Lumpur that I would consider a “wonder”. Like the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, or the 421 metre spindle-pointed Kuala Lumpur Tower. That’s two, but seven wonders? Really? Imagine my surprise when my guide told me that neither are on the list of seven we will be visiting!
It was around 10 in the morning when the tour van picked us up at the hotel. There were 7 of us in total, 8 plus our guide cum driver, Thomas. Two Canadians, a German and two Belgians, all travelling around the region. After a brief introduction on the itinerary for the day, we set off for the first stop.
Wonder #1 – The Old Colonial District of Kuala Lumpur & the City Gallery
Sure, I have been to KL plenty of times. It is after all just a stone’s throw away from neighbouring Singapore. But it was always along the shopping belt around Bukit Bintang. Never have I been to this Old Colonial District. So you can imagine my surprise getting off the van and seeing the Independence Square, where the flag proclaiming Malaysian independence was first raised, and the buildings at its perimeter. There were European influenced buildings with Moorish architecture, Corinthian columns capped with Mughal domes. All remarkably restored and housing various museums.
We made for one of the museums – the City Gallery is housed in a historical building constructed in 1899. Inside, interactive displays recount the history of Kuala Lumpur, starting from when it was a quiet tin mining settlement, to its current status as the capital of Malaysia. The centrepiece of the City Gallery is a 12m x 15m room, complete with sound and light displays, containing the largest scale model of Kuala Lumpur City.
Wonder #2 – Batu Caves
To the north of the city, the next destination on our tour: The Batu Caves. This is one of the more well-known sights of Kuala Lumpur, and has been on my ‘to visit’ list for quite a while. The Batu Caves is a complex of large limestone caverns located at the top of a hill. It is also the site of a Hindu temple to one of the main deities worshipped in South India, Lord Murugan, explained Thomas.
“Wow”. As the van approached the site, the unmistakable towering gold-painted statue of Murugan, all 42.7m of him, came into view. Here was the tallest single figure of Murugan in the world. Just off to his left, 272 steps rise up to the top of the hill. We started to climb.
Some bits of info, garnered from my knowledgeable guide and my background as a museum guide myself. Murugan, sometimes known as Kartikeya or Subrahmanya, is the Hindu god of wisdom. The son of Shiva and his consort Parvati, Murugan is worshipped especially in South India. And in Malaysia, where the Tamil community primarily originated from South India, Murugan is very relevant and important.
As we climbed the steps, I cannot help but notice the excitable monkeys. These monkeys of Batu Caves are notorious for their boldness. They would come up to visitors and grab any food, loose items and water bottles right off their unsuspecting victims. And indeed, we saw one making for a plastic bag of snacks, grabbing it off a lady and not letting go. A mini tug-of-war ensued, until the lady gave up and released the bag. Monkey 1 Lady 0.
At the top of the steps, the cave opened up into a high ceiling cavern. There were shrines everywhere. The last one at the end, which I assumed was the inner shrine, had all these devotees offering their prayers, and then engaged in this peculiar act: They grab a coconut husk, and proceeded to smash it into the ground with force, breaking the husk and revealing the white flesh inside. Thomas explained that this ritual is one of purification, where the symbolic act of cleansing oneself is performed, with the white flesh symbolising purity.
Pottering about the caverns are roosters (I could also hear them crowing if I could not see them). Roosters, along with peacocks, are the mounts of Murugan. Mounts? Each of the Hindu deities would have their varanas, or animals which they use as their vehicle. And Murugan’s happen to be roosters, which explains why there are chickens at the top of 272 steps.
Wonder #3: Royal Selangor Pewter Factory
I was not expecting to enjoy this Wonder as much as I did. After all, how is it that a pewter making factory is even on the list? I was proven wrong though.
The visit started with an introduction by the in-house guide, who was witty and informative. He explained how pewter was made (alloy of tin, copper and antimony), showed us some very elaborate pieces of pewterware in the museum. He then took us down to the factory itself, where workers did actual demonstrations of the steps involved, from moulding to cutting to filing. We even got to drink 100 plus from pewter cups.
The pieces for sale in the gallery on the ground floor were pieces of fine art, each with patterns and designs elaborately knocked into shape. There were bowls, cutlery, frames, and pendants, amongst others. Some of the costliest items were priced in the thousands.
Lunch: Kampung Bahru (Wonder #3.5)
I’m classifying our lunch point as a wonder in itself. Kampung Baru, where we had lunch, is a traditional Malay village located right in the middle of Kuala Lumpur’s bustle. A little enclave amongst tall skyscrapers and busy streets. It came to be when the colonial powers in the early 20th century created it to encourage Malays to migrate into the city, yet retain their traditional way of life. Kampung Baru today is a bastion of simple living, holding out against development.
Lunch at the open-air hawker stalls in Kampung Bahru was an experience. It was a very communal affair, with rows and rows (and rows) of dishes to choose from. You simply get a plate of rice, scoop up all the dishes you want and pay accordingly later. I picked out a few dishes to sample, delicious. There was even live entertainment, some youths playing the guitar and singing.
Wonder #4: The National Mosque of Malaysia
We continued after lunch (burp!) to the next Wonder: The Masjid Negara, or National Mosque. The building, recognisable by its 73m high minaret, was built in 1965 and can seat 15000 worshippers at any one time. The main prayer hall was high-ceilinged, with large windows that let light in.
Of course, we had to be dressed appropriately to enter the mosque. I was fine, but the rest were given robes to wear. The robes, I have to say, made them really look like characters from a Star Wars movie set. We spent another twenty minutes or so looking around and taking photos, and listening to a caretaker-guide explaining about the mosque.
Wonder #5: The National Monument
The National Monument is a towering sculpture of soldiers, one holding the national flag. The seven bronze figures symbolises leadership, suffering, unity, vigilance, strength, courage and sacrifice. The monument was set up to commemorate the dead who fought in the World War II and the Malayan Emergency. A cenotaph nearby commemorates those who fought in World War I, with their names inscribed on it. Interestingly, the faces of the soldiers do not look Malaysian at all. And this was because the artist who was commissioned to do up the sculpture was the same guy who made the famous Iwo Jima Memorial in the US.
Besides the sculpture, the memorial park also had other visitors, the most fascinating were the group who were apparently filming some sort of Bollywood style dancing. The guy and the girl would dance to the beat of music, before the director would cut in and order a retake after giving instructions. Over and over again, very much the perfectionist. Too perfect, probably, as it started to drizzle and they had to clear up the set. Haha.
And that was the end. Unfortunately for me, I had to catch a flight back home, and had to forego the last two Wonders. It was still a very enjoyable experience. I was not expecting much, and so was pleasantly surprised by all the various sites around KL. My conclusion? KL is not just all shopping and glitzy skyscrapers. There is plenty more!
And here, for the sake of you readers who are interested, are the other two Wonders.
Wonder #6: The Thean Hou Temple & Little Indian Brickfields
The Thean Hou temple is one of the largest Chinese temples in Kuala Lumpur. Little India Brickfields is a place to learn about Hindu culture and temples.
Wonder #7: National Palace
The National Palace is the official residence of the head of state of Malaysia.
The idea is to get the Egypt visa on arrival at Al-Nozha airport. No problem here, since all major airports there issue visa-on-arrival. Until an innocent email to the Singapore embassy in Cairo inquiring about a Letter of Introduction. The reply came “…oh and by the way, the embassy is closed from 26th to 30th because of the Eid Al-Adha holidays…” Hmmm, that got me thinking, if these guys are closed, then where would my arrival into a secondary airport at 2am in the morning without a visa leave me? Not a brilliant idea to be stranded at the airport. So early Tues morning finds me queuing at the Egyptian embassy for a last minute visa (2 days processing time).
“Eid_Mubarak” goes the guy in the pressed shirt at the embassy “Your visa will be ready on Monday, because we’re closed on Hari Raya eve”. Lovely, i thought, i fly this Friday. ><. The staff there were accomodating though, i plucked out my flight itinerary from back at the car and gave my most pathetic face. I got my visa this afternoon today (1 day processing time!) =)
On a sidenote, how am I going to carry so much cash on me? TCs have lousy rates, and ATMs are hit and miss, even if there are ATMs in the first place. I need to find space in my underwear to chuck stashes of USD notes. 2 days and counting. Woot!
Luang Prabang has a lovely feel to the place, with historical sites, monks and a nice tourist touch that is not too overdone. Probably one of the better places I have had the pleasure to visit.
2pm, took a motorbike taxi to the THai Myanmar border. Tourists can cross over to Myanmar and visit the town as long as they have their passport. The Myanmar immigrations will keep the passport and you have to return to Thailand by 5pm latest. I have 3 hours.
On the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, met this ‘volunteer translator’ Thong Li, who speaks very good English. He offered to take me around. Basically Myawadee the town is very different from Thailand. Streets dusty, broken sidewalks. Lots of temples. I visited 3, in depth, since the guide was there. Explained all to me. In detail. See pics. 2nd temple even had porridge at communal gathering in the temple with the people. Got introed to the head monk. Pretty much was very lucky, brought me to market and bought some stuff as well. Actually lots more happened, but spent too long now on this PC. maybe will elaborate later.
Went back cross border, Mae Sot, had dinner at Indian place, chat with this fella who was jailed trying to illegally immgrate to Malaysia…
Yawn. Sorry. Goodnite all. Tomorrow its 1st bus out to chiangmai. Just see pics for more details lah. Damn tired, already halfway down to Bangkok…
Early at 5.30 am, I dropped my key at the front desk, everyones sleeping, and rushed to take the songthaew (those 2 row pickups) to Mae Sot. Its a 6 hour ride south, on hills. No coaches go down, probably no tourists too. Starting from Mae Sariang, Im getting mistaken for thai more and more. Prob they see much less foreigners down here. Flemming the danish guy went separate ways, we said bye. He’s going up to Chiang Mai then Laos. Me, I’m off to Mae Sot. Took breakfast of coffee and 2 halfboiled eggs. The two eggs were a real bad idea. In the Songthaew, which was terribly cold, because of the wind, bumpy, motion sickness and I keep feeling the 2 eggs coming up. But the trip itself, in 6 hours, passed throught the countryside, and lots of people boarded on and off. Met a lot of villagers close up that way. Reached Mae Sot at about 2pm. Got really lost trying to orientate myself. Plus this far south, no signs were in English, and even fewer spoke the language. Mostly Thais come to tour here, from Bangkok etc. And its low season. The stupid unupdated map in Lonely Planet didnt help either. After hunting for the tourist police without success, found a guesthouse which appeared on the map. Orientated myself, dumped stuff in hotel. Then set off for Myanmar. It was 2pm.
I need more time. 2pm after the village visit, rushed to take bus to Mae Sariang, thats like 4 hours south. Flemming had tons of stuff/souvenirs in his pack. Mailed home at the post office. Some screw up or what, maybe they couldnt understand him, we nearly missed the 2 o clock bus. Havent eaten anything whole day except for peanuts from the morning market. Not sure if I will go back Chiangmai after this or travel more. Reached Mae Sariang in evening. Uneventful, beside border police checking for refugees. Stayed at a very cosy guesthouse by the river. Needed sleep, cos decided to go even further south to Mae Sot. This far down in Mae Sariang, number of foreigners very much less. Guesthouse even offered us 120baht ($5), instead of normal 150. We felt that we were ripping them off, we paid 140 baht each for 2 rooms.
Day 5, woke up about 6.30, went down to the morning market. Local crowd. Took in the smells and sights, nice. Early at 8 oclock, set off for Longnecked Karen village. Again got a good deal, planning everything ourselves. The agency charged 1000baht/pax, we went with Flemming’s guesthouse person and got 500baht/pax, which include the 250baht village entry fee.
The longnecked village Nai Soi was primarily catered to tourists. Fled from Myanmar and settled in Thailand. We arrived like just when the villagers were setting up their handicrafts. Since we were the only 2, plus one Taiwanese chap who was on the bus last night, we had a lot of time on the village. The agency gave us one hour at the village. We spent 2.5 hours there. Talked to the villages for a bit. Took photos. Went to their school. (You have to see the photos). Learnt that their primary source of income is the tourist flow. They dont do agriculture, they depend on tourists to sustain them. A bit exploitative, to gawk at them like tourists do, but its like their way out of a poor life. The 250baht entrance fee goes to buy necessities for the families. The school was amazing. Lots of kids from nearby villages attend the school. You see really cute 4 year old kids from the tribes. Just see the photos. As we were travelling back to town, passed by 15 van-loads of tourists (not exaggerating) going to the village. Lucky us. Avoided crowd again.