Why You Should Visit The Orang Asli Crafts Museum: Muzium Seni Kraf Orang Asli, Kuala Lumpur

When visiting the National Museum of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, most people make a beeline for the grand main building – a three-storey structure with various galleries within chronicling the history of Malaysia from Palaeolithic times up until the modern era.

Next to it, however, is a smaller, humble-looking building that can be easy to miss – which houses the Orang Asli Crafts Museum, aka Muzium Seni Kraf Orang Asli. Displays are limited but they offer an interesting insight into the often overlooked Orang Asli community in Malaysia.

Suku Jahai (12478358795)
The Jahai tribe. Image via Muhammad Adzha from Penang, Malaysia / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

The Orang Asli (literally ‘aborigines’ or the ‘original people’) are natives of Peninsular Malaysia who pre-date the arrival of the Malays. Numbering around 150 – 200, 000, they form around 0.7% of the population.

Despite being the true natives of the land, many of them live below the poverty line, with their rights often trampled upon (especially in regards to land ownership, as many Orang Asli live off the land) and their access to modern facilities such as healthcare and education are limited. There are three distinct groups: the Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay, further divided into 18 ethnic tribes, each with their own language, culture, traditions and practices. Most still live in or close to forests, and practice animism. Some of these tribes include the Mah Meri, Jakun, Temuan, Temiar, Seletar, Bateq and Semai, among others.

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Most of the items on display at the Museum are masks and carvings from the Mah Meri and Jah Hut tribes. The Mah Meri of Selangor are among the most well known Orang Asli tribes. They live close to the coast and make a living as fishermen, although in recent years, tourism has also become an important source of livelihood. They are extremely skilled at woodcarving, hence the masks which are used in rituals and ancestor worship. Ancestor Day, a massive celebration that honours the tribe’s ancestral spirits, is a spectacle to behold, attracting tourists from all over the world to Pulau Carey, where most of the tribe are concentrated at.

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Typically carved from Pulai wood which is soft and pliable, Mah Meri masks are a representation of their ancestor spirits, called Moyang. Some are based on animal figures as well, such as Siamang (monkey – far left), and cow (top row, far left). The masks are named after the Moyang Spirits, such as Moyang Bojos, Moyang Hapok and Moyang Belangkas, which the Mah Meri believe are imbued with extraordinary powers.

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Tools used for carving.

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Masks are not the only thing unique to the Mah Meri, as they also have statues that represent the spirits. (Above) Spirit of Mother and Baby, carved from Angsana wood, depicting a mother carrying a suckling babe.

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Another wood carving of a tiger spirit in chains.

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Aside from Mah Meri carvings, visitors will also find many Jah Hut wood carvings on display. The Jah Hut live in the highlands of Pahang, with the name ‘Jah Hut’ meaning ‘different people’ in their language. They live in or near forests with agriculture as their main income, as well as hunting and gathering the bounty of nature. Pahang is home to lush and dense rainforests, and the Jah Hut, like many Orang Asli, have a strong connection to spiritualism and the land. Their carvings are representation of beings from their beliefs and mythology.

(Above) Spirits of Genting, Batu Hulu and Sawan.

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The carvings are actually a little frightening to look at, almost demonic.

I believe that there exists a realm beyond our own, which is why you should never disrespect anything while you’re hiking in a jungle (in Malaysia, we believe in ‘makhluk halus’ and ‘penunggu‘, ie spirits). Having to live off the jungle, I’m sure the Jah Hut know more of these things than we city folk do, and who is to say that these representations are not real?

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Another room in the museum houses displays on traditional clothes, arts and crafts, tools and burial ritual items.

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Pensol or nose flute, a traditional musical instrument

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Some Orang Asli tribes, such as the Jah Hut, build wooden tombs for their departed, while others place the body in bamboo or a simple wooden coffin.

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Many tribes are also known for their weaving skills, such as the Temuan and Temiar. In recent years, NGOs such as Gerai Orang Asli have helped to promote these handmade crafts to the public, where they have amassed a loyal following – thereby providing the women of these communities a way to utilise their skills for income.

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Mah Meri clothing, which consists of a tree bark shirt and palm leave skirt, as well as additional garments and accessories that are intricately plaited. The headdress worn by both the men and womenfolk resemble long dreadlocks.

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A life-sized carving of Penjaga Gunung Tahan or the Guardian of Mount Tahan. Tall and long limbed, the guardian is shown as having long protruding fangs and holding a stick, with a loincloth and a container slung around the waist. A scary apparition to bump into if you’re out hunting, to say the least.

While the Orang Asli Crafts Museum is not large by any standards, the displays are certainly interesting, offering a fascinating insight into one of Malaysia’s smallest but oldest communities. The Orang Asli have been here for thousands of years, way before any of the great civilisations came to be, and their knowledge of the land and seas have been handed down the ages. Their language and culture is slowly being eroded in modern times – which is all the more reason to educate the public on the importance of preserving them.

That being said, I think there are a couple of things that the museum can improve on to make visitor experience better:

  • Update the data and stats on display, which are a little outdated.
  • Improve the information billboards, especially the portions in English. The explanations were rife with odd syntax and grammatical errors, which is unseemly for a national museum.

How To Get There 

The Orang Asli Crafts Museum is located within the grounds of the National Museum complex. From KL Sentral, KL’s main transportation hub, there is a 240-metre covered walkway to the museum grounds. Alternatively, take an MRT and alight at the Muzium Negara station.

MUZIUM SENI KRAF ORANG ASLI (ORANG ASLI CRAFTS MUSEUM) 

Jabatan Muzium Malaysia, Jalan Damansara, 50566 Kuala Lumpur

Opening hours: 9AM – 6PM

*Tickets cost RM2 (USD 0.50) 

We Spent Six Hours At The National Museum in Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand has a rich and colourful history, and it’s chronicled incredibly well at the National Museum in Bangkok.  From the early days of its ancient Buddhist kingdoms of Sukhothai, Lan Na and Ayutthaya to the more modern eras under the Rama kings, the museum offers visitors a look into the history and various facets of what makes up Thailand today – and it’s absolutely fascinating. N and I spent six hours exploring the vast museum grounds, and would have spent more if it wasn’t for the fact that we had other items on our itinerary to go to :’D

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The museum was about 1.5 kilometres from our hostel in Rambuttri, and it was packed with tourists, locals and students, despite being a weekday. From the outside, the museum didn’t look very large, but there were actually many buildings within. There was an entrance fee of 200 baht (RM27) for foreigners.

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Our timing was excellent as the museum was running a temporary exhibition, “Qin Shi Huang: The First Emperor of China and Terracotta Warriors” during our visit. The showcase included historical artefacts and items from the rule of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, some of which were flown in from Xi’an.

QSH was a bit of an obsessive personality and during his lifetime, drank mercury in an attempt to prolong his life (mercury was believed to be the secret to immortality back then). When he died (presumably from mercury poisoning), he was entombed in a necropolis, complete with 8,000 life-sized terracotta warriors. The mausoleum, which was designed as a reflection of a palace / city so that QSH could continue ruling in the afterlife,  has never been fully excavated due to fears of possible damage.

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Although it said ‘life-sized’, I felt like the sculptures were actually taller than normal, averaging about eight feet.

The original statues that were discovered were actually coated in paint, so they weren’t all grey and dull looking. The paint evaporated into the air after the mausoleum was excavated.

 

 

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Terracotta horse-drawn chariot.

Beyond just his odd practices of drinking mercury and burning books, SHD was an extraordinary figure who united China’s many warring factions under one banner. The exhibition also detailed this, explaining the economic and political reforms that took place during his rule, as well as cultural and historical impact that can still be felt two millennia later.  On display to tell the narrative was advanced weaponry, decorative statues, household items, ritual objects, and more.

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A distinctive stone armour worn by soldiers, made up of hundreds of interlinked stone pieces connected by bronze wire to offer more flexibility.

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Decorative / ritual objects in the shapes of farm animals like horses, cows, goats, pigs and sheep; or scenes from everyday life like a rice mill, shrines and small houses.

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N was fascinated, and I had to literally drag him out to the main courtyard (lest we stay there the entire day). We next ventured into the Buddhaisawan Chapel. Built in the early 18th century, the main hall houses one of the most sacred Buddhist images in all of Thailand, the Phra Buddha Sihing.

The vast hall had sleek wooden floors, with a red ceiling and walls decorated with images of the Devas, as well as old paintings telling Buddha’s story. Some of these were faded with age and were difficult to discern, but you could still see the meticulous attention to detail poured into creating each one.

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The entrance to Buddhaisawan Chapel is guarded by garudas – mythical creatures in Buddhist and Hindu mythology that sport avian and human features.

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Another building you can check out within the museum is the vibrant-looking The Red House. Constructed from teak, it was originally the private living quarters of a princess. Today, it houses items used by royals in the past, including those of Queen Sri Suriyenda.

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A beautiful gold pavilion with intricate decorative features and exquisite detailing on the ceiling.

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The halls within the museum seemed to go on forever – there were just so many things to see. There were sections dedicated to Buddhist art from Thailand and neighbouring regions, the evolution of the country’s monetary system and currency, paintings, weaponry, clothing worn by royals, palanquins which were used to mount onto the backs of elephants, war drums, dioramas and much more.

 

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Royal throne. The colour gold is prevalent in Thai colour, as it is an important colour in both Buddhist and Thai culture.

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Life-sized replica of an elephant with a palanquin strapped to its back. Elephants are the national animal of Thailand.

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Students writing notes down as they observe a diorama, complete with war elephants, cavalry, foot soldiers and archers

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Thai royals were a fashionable lot, with ceremonial and everyday costumes featuring rich fabrics, elegant colours, beautiful detailing and patterns, and slim silhouettes.

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Everyone likes beautiful things – and there were sections detailing Thai art, such as how artisans apply mother of pearl to everything from furniture to sword scabbards; as well as a section for enamel pottery.

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Another impressive section was a hall containing numerous royal funeral chariots. Built from teak, the chariots were ornately carved, painted and gilded in gold, with mythical / religious figures and decorative fixtures such as nagas and devas.

Thais have deep respect for their royalty (they have some of the world’s strictest lese-majeste laws), and they revere them as much in death as they do in life. When a member of the royal family passes, the chariots are pulled by hundreds of men in a parade down the streets with the urn carrying the ashes of the deceased royal sitting atop a tall roofed shrine.

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Grand send off.

The Bangkok National Museum is, by far, one of the most impressive museums I have been to in Southeast Asia, and it’s definitely worth checking out if you love history and culture. Allocate at least half a day for the place if you’re planning to have a more in-depth experience.

BANGKOK NATIONAL MUSEUM 

Na Phra That Alley, Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200, Thailand

Opening hours: 9AM – 4PM (closed on Mon – Tues)

 

National Museum of Anthropology (Formerly Museum of the Filipino People), Manila

There are many things to do while at Rizal Park in Manila. If you’re a history buff like me, then visiting the museum is a must!

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With it’s tall, white-washed Corinthian columns and wooden doors, the grand-looking Museum of the Filipino People is hard to miss. Part of the National Museums of the Philippines, it houses the anthropology and archaeology divisions, spanning five floors (only four are open). Entry was PHP150 (RM15), which also allowed us access to other museums (Planetarium and National Art Gallery).

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It was close to empty on a weekday, so we had the place to ourselves (Hence, the above mucking around for photos. Don’t worry, we didn’t touch anything). There were tours going around, conducted in Filipino. Food and drinks were not allowed inside so we had to leave our bottled water somewhere.

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A section of the museum was dedicated to artifacts recovered from the sunken San Diego galleon. A Spanish trading ship built in Cebu and supervised by European boat-builders, it was hastily converted into a warship against invading Dutch troops in 1600. But because it was never built for fighting and there was too much stuff on board, the ship listed and sank without firing a single shot.

The ruins were discovered 400 years later in the 1990s about 50ms deep outside of Manila Bay, and massive efforts were undertaken to retrieve and conserve artifacts onboard. The ship had been sleeping, untouched for centuries, with many of the items still intact. (Above) Some jars and urns used to store food/water/other essentials for the more than 300+ men onboard the San Diego.

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An old Spanish-style helm. Idk why but they remind me of chickens. Some of the artifacts still had bits of coral attached to them.

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Exhibit detailing how the Spaniards came to the Philippines and spread Christianity – which is prevalent throughout the islands today. More than 90% of the population are Catholic.

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The Philippines was a rich, trading outpost – carrying everything from spices and exotic wares to ivory. 

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Chinese carvings, beads, amulets and bracelets carved from ivory. Poor elephants   20160205_104826-tile

A smaller section of the museum was dedicated to the preservation of local plant and small wildlife/insect species. This included a showcase of dried and pressed flowers and leaves, preserved butterflies/beetles, and

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Pickled lizard. My worst nightmare. OMG LOOK AT THE ONE AT THE BOTTOM IT IS SMILING EVILLY

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There was a nicely lit chamber with stained glass and chandeliers. After the gloomy dark of the exhibit area, this was like an ‘intermission’. A colourful, graffitied part of the Berlin wall (gifted to the museum by Germany) sits in the middle.

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Moving on, the exhibits had more local stuff, explaining to visitors on the local cultures and customs of the Filipino people pre and post-Spanish era. I was fascinated by this titty jug oddly shaped urn that seemed to have nipples.

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Perched on top of burial urns were small figurines of men in boats. This reminds me of the River Styx in Ancient Egyptian lore.

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Statues of heads. Their odd features and aesthetics convinced the fiancee further that ancients were, in fact, aliens. 😀

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Bags and containers used by local tribes.

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There are dozens, if not hundreds, of ethnic groups in the Philippines – with their own beliefs, cultures, art and history. They still live a way of life free from Western influence, so researchers study them to gauge how life was like before colonization.

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One thing is for sure – them tribes sure have an amazing fashion sense. Vibrant colours and patterns were embroidered onto their clothing, emphasised with funky beads every hippie/hipster would die for.

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Traditional musical instruments

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Anthropologist Professor E, explains.

“Here is a flying grasshopper hippo hybrid, carved from centuries old wood and considered a guardian of the galaxy.”

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The ancient Filipino text, or ‘BayBayin’. 

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Rice is a major staple in the Phils (they eat rice with everything!) so it’s no surprise that they had a section dedicated to that as well.

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Traditional textile machines. The cloths produced reminded me a lot of the Pua Kumbu by Malaysia’s Iban community.

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We wandered around downstairs where the research labs are and was greeted by this. 😀 Someone has a sense of humour.

MUSEUM OF THE FILIPINO PEOPLE (MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY) 

Ermita, Manila, 1000 Metro Manila, Philippines

Open: Tuesdays to Sundays, from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Free admission on Sundays.

Ticket prices: 150PHP (Adults), 50PHP (Students)

 

 

Poison & Venom Exhibition @ The National Museum

I was bored over the weekend, so I thought of dropping by KL to explore Muzium Negara (the National Museum). Unlike the US or the UK, Malaysian museums aren’t big on interactivity – the exhibits are static and haven’t changed in years. I can see how people see them as dull, drab places compared to glitzy, air-conditioned shopping malls.

Still, it’s an interesting place to visit once in awhile and a welcome change from the mall-culture we’ve gotten so used to. Not to mention cheap – entry is only RM3 for Malaysians.

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You don’t even have to pay for the outdoor exhibits. Apart from a large steam locomotive replica at the front, visitors can find old train cars, like this one from Penang Hill..

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And the very first Proton Saga which came out in 1985. My dad had one of these, in red.

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A carved hornbill (?) ship masthead.

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The museum is currently having a temporary show, the Poison and Venom Exhibition, until October 31. Located next to the main building, entrance is free.

Upon entering, visitors were greeted by a wall of text. And I mean, literally, a wall of text of buntings and banners. It was like the curators wanted to cram as much info as possible into the small space, resulting in tiny text that you had to squint to read.

I learnt something new though – did you know that poisonous and venomous animals/plants/etc are different?

Venomous organisms inject toxins directly into their victims (snakes, wasps, bees), whereas poisonous organisms do not but are harmful when touched/eaten (some plants, frogs, etc).

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I didn’t know wtf this was until I had stared at it for a full minute. Turns out it was a giant octopus attempting to smother(?) a ship. The exhibit looked tacky, but I can imagine that the museum doesn’t get much of a budget. Malaysians aren’t exactly known for our appreciation for culture and history. I mean, just look at the museum’s HTML-ish website that still runs on Javascript and Flash. I bet it has never seen an upgrade since 2002 or something. Still, a good effort by the museum, working with what little resources they could glean.

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An entire wall was dedicated to explaining venomous and poisonous organisms according to the Al-Quran.

And then there was a sculpted model of Medusa, the mythical greek Monster who was said to be a beautiful woman once until she incurred the wrath of the Gods and was turned into a snake-like half creature with serpents for hair. Mannequin on the left (with very shapely, womanly legs, for some reason) represents a man who was turned to stone after looking at Medusa’s hideous form.

I was excited to see the glass cases behind.. but it turns out they were just static displays with fake snakes. lulz

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I was feeling slightly disappointed, but the exhibit got more interesting as we walked further in. (Above) A realistic (and cute looking) model of a monitor lizard (Biawak Air). I’ve seen these buggers running around on the road or swimming in small ponds in parks. Didn’t know they had venom. @_@ Did I mention I’m afraid of reptiles (except snakes)?

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What’s a venom/poison exhibition without some giant spiders ?

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I’m glad I’ve never encountered ones as large as these.

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Some body parts, to make it interesting.  We were trying to figure out if they were real preserved specimens, because some of them had this old, rubbery texture, like it had been soaked in formaldehyde for a long time.

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*stares intently*

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A classroom setting for the kids.

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Another section housing preserved snakes in bottles and jars.. which reminded me of snake/lizard wine souvenirs I saw while travelling in Vietnam. They’re supposed to be good for libido. Not that I’d care to try any..

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Small, live animals like frogs and fish were also on display. The bright colours on this frog warn predators that eating it is not gonna be pleasant.

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Stingrays might look harmless, but are lethal due to their venomous tail stingers.

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Mini aquarium area with actual fish and aquatic life

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Spot the stone fish.

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A type of fish that still retains its primitive evolutionary-looking legs. It’s like a fish with trousers.

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The Poison and Venom Exhibition started off boring, but kept its ‘gems’ to the end. Pretty good for a free exhibit, and a nice way to spend the afternoon especially with family.

Open daily from 9am – 6pm (until Oct 31).

Muzium Negara 

Jalan Damansara, 50566 Wilayah Persekutuan,

Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur,

Malaysia
+60 3-2267 1111

Things To See At The Muzium Negara Kuala Lumpur (National Museum)

MY Indonesian friend, Livinda, was in KL over the weekend for a visit, so I was busy playing tour guide around the city.We went to Batu Caves in the morning, and on our way back, we passed by the National Museum (Muzium Negara) along Jalan Damansara and decided to stop by for a bit.  The impressive-looking building, built in the Minangkabau Rumah Gadang, can be seen from the highway. Its colourful facade is influenced by traditional Malay art and modern features.

about01
source: Muzium Negara website

The museum opened its doors to the public on Aug 31 1963, the sixth anniversary of our Independence day, and was officiated by our first Prime Minister, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman. On the outside, visitors get to see various modes of transport, from an old train carriage, a modern chopper, our first national car the Proton Saga, to bullock cards, trishaws, etc.

Entry is RM2 for Malaysian citizens and RM5 for non-Malaysians.

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Spanning two floors, there are four sections arranged in chronological order, from the early days of human habitation in the Mesolithic era, the bronze age and then on to the early Malay kingdoms, such as Champa (south Vietnam) and Langkasuka (now Kedah) from the 2nd to 14th century. Under the mighty Indonesian kingdom of Srivijaya, Hinduism was prevalent and was a major religion in the region – reflected from the remains of many pottery items recovered from archaeological sites. (Above right) Cowrie shell necklaces were a form of jewellery for women in ancient days, before the discovery of precious gems or ore.

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Some well-preserved pots from a the early Malay kingdoms. There were also exhibits on primitive and bronze age tools. These were mostly shards or oddly shaped rocks. There was also a replica of the Perak man, which was one of the earliest human remains to be found in Malaysia (dating back to 400,000 years old).

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(Left) traditional door carvings, (Right) Statuette of a Hindu deity.

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The next section chronicles the heyday of the Malay kingdoms from the 13th century onwards, when Islam was brought to the region by traders. One of the most important ports was Malacca (Melaka), which was located smack in the middle of the trading route between East and West. Malacca was founded by an Indonesian prince from Palembang, Parameswara, who used to rule over Temasek (now Singapore) but fled due to an invasion by a neighbouring kindgom. He landed on the shores of Melaka in the early 1400s.

There’s an interesting legend about how Parameswara was resting under a Pokok Melaka (hence the name!) and was surprised to see a small animal, the kijang (mousedeer) kicking one of his hunting dogs into the river when the latter attempted to attack it. Parameswara thought that the animal, despite being so small in size, could courageously defeat a much bigger hunting dog – surely a good omen that he should start a kingdom here.

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Ornate keris (an old Malay blade) with beautiful hilts and scabbards inlaid with gold and jewels. One unique feature of the keris is their long, curvy blades, which was designed in such a way as to inflict maximum damage to opponents by ripping their guts out instead of just slicing through flesh.

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One look at the excellent craftsmanship and you’ll know that the kingdom was a powerful and rich one, to have such highly skilled artisans at their deploy.

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Even their clogs are painted and have exquisite decorations.

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Malacca was a center for the propagation of Islam, and this is reflected from the later pottery works that feature Arabic elements.

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Malacca’s trading partners went so far as China, where their good relations even merited a royal marriage between the fifth Sultan of Melaka, Sultan Mansur Shah, and the Chinese princess Hang Li Po as fifth consort. It was said that the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) are descended from Hang Li Po’s entourage of 500 servants who intermarried with the locals. (Right) A Ming vase of china with Arabic inscriptions.

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The royal throne. Yellow is the colour of royalty in Malaysia.

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A tapestry featuring Hang Tuah, a legendary Malay warrior.

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Moving on to the colonial exhibition, where various artifacts from the our former Portuguese, Dutch and British masters were on display, along with replicas of structures they have left behind in old Malaya – A’Famosa (Portuguese), Stadhuys (Dutch) and Fort Cornwallis (English).

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A ‘pokok mas’ (gold tree), which is an ‘ufti’ (gift) presented to neighbouring kingdoms by the Sultanate of Malacca as a gesture of friendship –  A testament to how rich and glorious the kingdom was, that they could afford to produce something like this.

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Replica of a tin dredge, which is a large machine-like structure that digs and processes tin ore – a valuable mineral that was exploited by the British during their conquest here. Many Chinese immigrants were brought into Malaya to work in tin mines… and that is partly how Malaysia has one of the largest overseas Chinese population in the world today.

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A display dedicated to the various ‘tengkolok’, which are elaborately folded hats worn by our Sultans. Each one differs according to the different states. They have names like ‘Dendam Tak Sudah’ , Ayam Patah Kepak and Sekelungsung Bunga.

The National Museum is worth the cheap entry fee and a few hours of sightseeing, so do drop by if you’re in KL!

We also went to Central Market and Petaling Street for some souvenir shopping.

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Our last stop for the day was, of course, the iconic Petronas Twin Towers – coz you can’t come to KL without at least one photo with it. As a local, I guess I got desensitized seeing it every other day, but I can see why tourists think of it as a marvel. It rises up intimidatingly in the day, a marker of Malaysia’s progress towards modernity , and at night it’s a pair of towering bastions sparkling with lights against the night sky.

It was a really great day and I’m glad that I finally got to meet Liv in person.