How often do you play tourist in your homeland?
Pre-COVID, I always wanted to ‘discover’ new places and experiences – but this pandemic has made me realise that these things can be had, even in our own backyard: it’s all a matter of how you ‘frame’ it. Even something like grocery shopping can be an adventure!
The hubs finally arrived in Malaysia over Christmas, and while dropping off supplies at his quarantine hotel near Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur, I took the chance to do some sightseeing – and was pleasantly surprised at how much there is to explore within this small but historically-rich area.
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There’s something very powerful and moving about being in places where history was written – you get a sense of being separated only by time, and not by space. Dataran Merdeka, or Merdeka Square, is one such place. It was where Malaya declared its independence from British colonists, where the Union Jack flag was lowered and the Malaysian flag hoisted in its place, and where our forefathers basically laid the foundations of our country.
The field was not purpose-built for this; rather, it was formerly used as a cricket field for the adjacent Royal Selangor Club, which was a country club for wealthy British and government officials. Fitting, then, that it was repurposed – I find the idea of taking something that stood for colonisation and reclaiming it as our own quite poetic.
Standing underneath the giant flag pole facing the green, it’s easy to visualise how this place would have looked like years ago – minus the modern skyscrapers – and marvel at how far we have come as a nation.
SULTAN ABDUL SAMAD BUILDING
Even if you’re not a history buff, there are many beautiful historical buildings around Dataran Merdeka that make for great photos, such as the Sultan Abdul Samad building. Completed in 1897, it was used to house British government offices, and then the Malaysian Courts, post-independence. It is currently home to offices of the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia, as well as the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.
Spanning two floors, the building is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, such as Indo-Saracenic and Neo-Mughal, which were popular in British colonies such as India, Sri Lanka, and Malaya. The arched windows are distinctively Moorish, and the towers are topped with copper domes, which are common elements in Muslim architecture. One of the building’s highlights is the clocktower, which was designed to mimic London’s Big Ben. It first chimed at the building’s completion, and has continued to do so ever since.
ROYAL SELANGOR CLUB
As mentioned earlier, the field that is now Dataran Merdeka formerly belonged to the Selangor Club (now the Royal Selangor Club) – a clubhouse founded by the British administration as a place for British elites to gather and socialise. The club still stands, boasting Mock Tudor design and the style’s distinctive ‘striped’ look (which is meant to mimic historical homes with half-timbering effects).
Access is for members only, where they can enjoy facilities such as football fields, pool and billiards rooms, squash courts, tennis courts, as well as bars, lounges and restaurants. Pre-pandemic, there were tours that the public could join for a glimpse inside the exclusive clubhouse.
OLD CHARTERED BANK BUILDING / MUSIC MUSEUM
Sporting similar Mughal architecture as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building across the road, the old Chartered Bank building was the very first bank to open in Kuala Lumpur. Aside from scalloped windows and a signature arched entrance, the building also has four large domes on each of the roof’s corners. An interesting story: as the buildings here are close to the river, the area was prone to massive floods before KL upgraded its flood and drainage systems. In 1926, a severe flood caused damage to millions worth of bank notes in the bank’s vault. So they took them out and laid them on the field to dry in the sun. It must have been quite a sight!
The building now hosts a Music Museum (I visited back in 2016), which chronicles the history and diversity of traditional and modern music in Malaysia, with displays of instruments and more.
KUALA LUMPUR CITY GALLERY
Just next door is another historical building: the former Government Printing Office building, which was responsible for printing all government reports, publications and other media. Today, it houses the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery, a tourist hub with its own museum, souvenir shop and cafe. There is also an iconic “I Love KL” sign outside the building, which is popular with tourists. The building’s Jacobean facade is a nice contrast to the other Mughal-inspired buildings in the area, and features details such as oriel windows (windows that jut out from the wall). Fun fact: as electricity was not available at the time (the building dates back to the 1900s), the building was designed with lots of windows so that workers at the press could work better with natural sunlight.
I wanted to pop in for a visit, but unfortunately they were closed for cleaning. KL suffered a bad flood in December, and the KL City Gallery was also affected.
KUALA LUMPUR LIBRARY
Bibliophiles will want to stop by the Kuala Lumpur Library (Perpustakaan Kuala Lumpur), which has an extensive collection of physical books as well as audio visual materials. You have to register as a member to enter, though, but the process should be quick and easy. Bags need to be placed in lockers. The library is open in the afternoon on Mondays, from 10am – 6.45pm from Tuesdays to Fridays, and 10am to 5pm on weekends. It is closed on the first Saturday and Sunday of each month.
RIVER OF LIFE – MASJID JAMEK
A short walk away from Dataran Merdeka is the confluence where two rivers meet; namely the Gombak River and the Klang River. They come together in a Y-shape in front of Masjid Jamek — the oldest mosque in Kuala Lumpur — which was built in 1909 and was designed by (surprise!) a British architect. Although opinions might differ, I like to consider this place the true ‘heart’ of Kuala Lumpur, as opposed to the Petronas Twin Towers or even the Golden Triangle of Bukit Bintang. This is where KL got its name, as the Gombak River was once known as ‘Sungai Lumpur’ (literally ‘muddy river’), and Kuala Lumpur itself means “Muddy Confluence”.
There are two bridges spanning the river, one located right in front of the mosque, which is the perfect spot for photos. You’ll also get to see the Kuala Lumpur Tower and Petronas Twin Towers in the distance. The walkway between the River and the back portion of the Sultan Abdul Samad building is nicely paved, and lined with greenery.
If you’re interested in visiting the mosque, it is open to visitors — but non-Muslims would have to wear a robe or scarf to cover up. If you’re a man and wearing shorts, they have sarongs on hand too.
Dataran Merdeka is also quite close to Petaling Street (Chinatown), but I’ll detail that in another post. The area is central and easily accessible via public transport, including the LRT (Masjid Jamek stop). From there, Dataran Merdeka is a five minute walk away.
And there you have it! I hope this mini-guide has been helpful. If you liked this post, please consider supporting my blog via Patreon, so I can make more. Or buy me a cup of coffee on Paypal @erisgoesto.