It may not have pirates, sabres or tigers, but it does boast burning hot food, women with a distinctive beauty as well as architecture and design that reveal the city’s modern and cosmopolitan face few know about.
Whoever goes to Malaysia with the exotic images of Emilio Salgari’s fiction, or the face of Kabir Debi and his legendary Sandokan, may be disappointed when they find in Kuala Lumpur a modern metropolis where the most basic religions live side by side with the most futuristic buildings, among them the unrivalled Petronas Towers.
Sports enthusiasts will find what they are looking for straight away, as not far away from Sepang International Airport is the famous race circuit that shares its name, home of the Formula One Grand Prix as well as motorsports, a setting that made the name of great motorists such as Valentino Rossi, and where others lost their lives, such as the charismatic Mario Simoncelli.
The vast fields of olive palm trees flank the Kuala Lumpur motorway and as visitors enter the urban structure they scan the horizon in search of the Petronas Towers, at one time the highest in the world, an engineering masterpiece built by Japanese and Korean constructors.
After almost an hour circling at full speed, you arrive at the heart of the state of Selangor, once the home of Malaysia’s executive and judicial powers before being moved in 1990 to the recently built administrative capital, Putrajaya.
The cosmopolitan heart of Kuala Lumpur- known in Malaysia by its initials KL- has a population of 1.8 million inhabitants, spread out over an area of 243.65km, while 7.2 million people live in the metropolitan area.
As in much of South East Asia, the fact that Buddhists and Muslims live side by side make this city an example of tolerance and respect, although both sides know their limits and take care not to cross them, as the authorities are not exactly permissive either.
Without falling into the extremes that neighbouring Singapore goes to, where throwing away a cigarette butt can incur a 500 dollar fine on the first offence, and a beating with the rod on the second, in Kuala Lumpur standards of cleanliness are maintained, at least in the more central areas.
Here one can get by speaking Tamil, Malay, Chinese and a heavily Hindu-accented English which many find impossible to understand, but helpful and efficient to survive in this enclave, which was founded in 1897 by tin prospectors at the confluence of the Gombak and Klang rivers on the Malay Peninsula, surrounded by the sea from the East.
Except during Monsoon season, when flooding causes great inconvenience, it is recommended to go around Kuala Lumpur and discover that it is more than two gigantic twin towers, with its colourful mosques, the reflection on Lake Titiwangsa, the shop windows in Sultan Sulaiman street as well as restaurants where an iron stomach and guts made of ice are required.
For example, the Nasi lemak is a popular creamy rice dish, which is usually accompanied by strongly seasoned and spicy chicken as with the Asam laksa soup, which makes you sweat almost as much as the Boston Marathon, but without moving an inch.
Furthermore, the road structure with its high urban motorways, where a Malaysian chauffeur can drive at over 100km/hour allows you to see, albeit at a glance, local buildings such at the Istana Budaza theatre, the old Jamek mosque and the Bukit Jalil stadiums.
On the streets women wear the statuary Islamic veil, or cover themselves completely and in black, even if the accompanying husband flaunts Bermuda shorts and t-shirts like a Western tourist: nobody is allowed to look at his gem of a wife, although it isn’t as if anyone seems interested.
Even if it may seem a let-down to readers of Salgari, Kuala Lumpur makes up for its lack of pirates, sabres and tigers with other extravagances such as, for example, a monarchy in the 21st Century, burning hot food and women with a distinctive beauty. (PL)
(Translated by Jose Stovell)