Posted by: Sam Olsen | March 9, 2012


I was in Kuala Lumpur the other day for a job interview (the role was for HK though before people start asking questions). I was very much looking forward to going there as I have met many Malaysians in my time, most of them extremely nice, and they have all been praiseful of their capital city.

KL, as it is known, was founded as a tin mining settlement in 1857 so making it slightly younger than Hong Kong. In a quirk of history it was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs, whereas HK was established by their British equivalents. Home to 1.5 milion people it is a real mix of Malays, Chinese, Indians and Westerners, with the architecture and food mix to show. An entertaining visit lay ahead.

The King's car

After my interview in the Ritz Carlton hotel I ordered a taxi to take me into town. As I was waiting in front of the hotel I was mildly surprised to see the Malaysian King‘s car arrive to pick him up from a meeting, a large Mercedes with a rather smart chauffeur in attendance.

I wish I could have been as equally impressed with the taxi that drove me to the city centre. The Chinese driver refused at first to use the meter (despite their being a large sign in his cab saying that this was illegal) and tried to charge me 15 ringgit. I made him switch his machine on, and was not surprised to see that the journey to the central Merdeka square only cost 5 ringgit. He then claimed he didn’t have change for a tenner, so I asked him to keep driving until we racked up 10 on the meter – the least I could do considering his attempt to rip me off. He did not like this suggestion at all, so grumpily handed over the right change whilst calling me a ‘blood bastard’.

Merdeka square soon soothed me. It is a fabulous hodgepodge of architecture, with colonial and new sitting happily beside each other. Most of the buildings – other than in particular the Anglican cathedral – were at least partly Islamic in style, in line with Malaysia’s official religion. The padang, or green, was very verdant and looked just ripe for a game of cricket.

I meandered into the nearby Central Market, despite the attempts of a besuited local to tell me that it lay in the exact opposite way to where it really was. The market was full of small huts that looked more at home in a German town at Christmas than in a 30 degrees KL. The young women that mostly served the stalls, wearing headscarves, were friendly and not too pushy in their sales technique. On one side was a restaurant with Islamic music so loud it made the coffee jump. Mustachioed men ladled out huge portions of ‘curry food’ to locals of all persuasion whilst managing to not even muster a single smile.

Lovely old colonial architecture with an Islamic twist

I soon realised that the women of the market were the exception and the food ladlers the rule. There was hardly a happy face to be seen which was a surprise given the general warm nature of the city. English language was not in the ascendancy either, as I found when trying to find the post office. I heard later that English had been discouraged in Malaysian schools post 1957 independence as a way to reassert Malay dominance over the country. Not a particularly smart move when it comes to internationalising the economy, or when trying to direct tourists.

Once in the post office I was alarmed to see that the queue ticket I was given was a full hundred places after that currently being served. Were 5 stamps worth the wait? I asked a woman at the front door. No sooner had I had my reply when a counter became free. This in retrospect was hardly surprising given that there were more counters open than customers.

Postcards complete, I headed back to the hotel and then on to the airport. With only 24 hours in the city under my belt it is hard to make a solid judgement, but I was slightly disappointed by the experience. It was not the friendliest place I had ever been to, and some of the buildings were rather run down, with peeling paint and chipped walls. But the shopping malls were good, and the food even better. So long as you think of KL as a slightly below-par Singapore then you will not be disappointed. But Hong Kong still remains our favourite place in Asia.


KL's Anglican cathedral on Merdeka Sq

Jeremy Clarkson: popular in KL too, bizarrely


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