27 May 2013

Kuala Lumpur: the highlights

Julie and I at the National Mosque
I have such great memories from my short birthday break in Kuala Lumpur and I’ve already posted about some of them – the bellisimo birds at the KL BirdPark, the striking architecture – but here are a few highlights from those delicious five days.

Cousin Julie comes too
It was so wonderful to see a familiar face and share some of my explorations of KL with my cousin Julie, who flew up from Singapore for the weekend. Gem that she is, she brought Moet, though we had to drink it lukewarm, and treated me to a superb sushi birthday dinner.

She shares my entrancement with Islamic arts, so was as captivated as I was with the National Mosque, the Moorish influences in the heritage architecture, the Islamic Arts Museum. We walked miles, talked more, and, considering neither of us is that keen on clothes shopping, we shopped well. The sale prices and ‘Auntie’, one very persuasive saleswoman and shop owner, also had a lot to do with our success in that quarter, though Julie may not be thanking me when her next credit card bill comes in!

The turrets of the city railway station
I would've gone hungry without the help of this lovely young woman

Charming people
From the delightful elderly Indian gentleman who walked me from his hotel the ten minutes to my hotel after my taxi from the airport dropped me off at the wrong place and I got a little lost to the young Malaysian girl who helped me select some delicious delicacies at a local foodstall where the menu was incomprehensible, I found the people of Kuala Lumpur heart-warmingly helpful and friendly.

At the Petronas Tower, the smartly dressed guide inquired oh so politely as to my age and then delicately suggested that I would qualify for a senior citizen’s discount if I wanted to go up the tower (I didn’t, as it would’ve meant waiting for 3 hours). The Hop-on Hop-off bus tout relinquished his chair and fetched a cold bottle of water for this red-faced, sweaty tourist, then proceeded to tell me some local history while I waited for the next bus. And, by my third visit, the staff at the Secret Recipe were welcoming me like a long-lost friend and all came over to wish me a very happy birthday when I mentioned the cake was my birthday treat.

South Indian food for breakfast one morning
Colourful culture
I was so glad we chose the Golden Triangle area to stay in. Our budget hotel, the Hotel de’Grand Orchard, though difficult to find initially, was perfectly comfortable and had an inviting rainforest shower, but it was the location I particularly loved.

The mostly Indian Muslim neighbourhood is really colourful, with great street food (even if you're not exactly sure what you're eating!), a nearby market selling everything from traditional Muslin headgear to knock-off brand watches, local streets that transform into a bustling market on a Saturday night, and plentiful shopping at cheap prices. It's an easy walk to the Merdeka Square area, to the Central Market, Chinatown, the National Mosque and National Textile Museum.

Check out the little slice of Kiwiana in a stall at the Central Market

From Chinese temple to Petronas Towers
Convenience and contrast
Kuala Lumpur has all the conveniences of a modern go-ahead city yet still manages to retain its small-community charm. There are huge air-conditioned shopping malls, and an efficient transport system of buses, subway and monorail, plus the KLIE express train to and from the airport – for a completely hassle-free experience with no queues you can even check in for your flight at the city station!

In the central commercial area, skyscrapers and tower blocks loom over the tiny pedestrian, yet I still managed to find a fascinating Chinese Buddhist temple just a city block from the Petronas Towers. Heritage shophouses huddle between concrete and glass office blocks, and a vibrantly coloured Hindu temple sits cheek-by-jowl with Chinese shops and supermarkets. 

As you can no doubt tell, I was enchanted with KL and highly recommend a visit to anyone passing through Asia. And now I can't resist adding a few more architecture shots!

The Royal Palace

The Sri Mahamariamman temple

The Petronas Towers sparkle at night

25 May 2013

Kuala Lumpur: the shophouses

Of the many architectural works that attracted my eye during my recent short break in Kuala Lumpur, the old shophouses were some of the most colourful and character-filled.

As the name suggests, these buildings were a practical combination of shop on the ground floor – which might also include some kind of service provider like a barber, or a cottage industry like a lantern maker, or a community space like a school – and living accommodation, for one or more families, on the upper one or two storeys. 

This building type is common throughout southeast Asia, where examples can be seen in those admirable cities that have preserved their historical heritage, and is similar in many ways to the British terraced house, with no separation but rather a single partition wall between the individual structures.

Kuala Lumpur suffered a massive fire in 1881, devastating for the people of the time but fortunate for lovers of these architectural gems, as, afterwards, the British Resident instructed the locals to rebuild a version of traditional attap (wooden houses) but with clay bricks and tiled roofs. Though many shophouses are now sadly crumbling and decrepit-looking, and overshadowed by modern concrete and glass monstrosities, the use of more permanent construction materials has ensured that many have survived into the 21st century.

These are narrow but deep constructions – an approximate size would be 20 feet x 80 feet but there is nothing standard about these buildings! Their narrowness may reflect the fact that buildings were traditionally taxed by the size of their street frontages, or it may be due to the practicalities of obtaining wooden beams to span the building’s width (rather than having to build inner supporting walls).

There is usually an open court-yard in the middle of the building to provide natural light and ventilation throughout the structure, and all shophouses were required to have a five-foot-wide covered walkway (called kaki lima in Malay) along the street frontage, to allow pedestrians to walk in the shade during the summer, to keep dry during the rainy season and to shelter from vehicular traffic. This eminently sensible idea dates as far back as 1573, when Phillip II of Spain included a similar decree for constructions in South China, and can also be seen in the historical buildings of Manila and Singapore.

In inner-city Kuala Lumpur the oldest shophouses can be found along what was High Street but is now called Jalan Tun H.S. Lee (jalan is the Malay word for road). The oldest examples date from the 1880s but the more common are the neoclassical buildings dating from the early 1900s. Their facades incorporate elements of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European design, including Ionic columns, intricate egg-and-dart and Chinese mythological motifs in the plaster mouldings, and ornate wooden window frames and fretwork.

Another interesting feature along these old roads of Kuala Lumpur is that the roads are often higher above ground than the shop frontages. The repaving of roads and the addition of sewers and other utilities has, over the years, raised the road surface above the level of the five-foot walkway.

Though traditionally the shophouses would have been plastered an off-white colour, many of the modern survivors have been painted a riot of bright colours, ranging from sunshine yellow and peppermint green to lipstick pink. In Kuala Lumpur, some of the heritage walking tours incorporate shophouse-lined streets in their itineraries but it is easy enough to discover these beauties for yourself, simply by wandering the old streets of the Chinatown area. They are a feast for the architectural eye and deserve to be conserved and restored to their former beauty.

19 May 2013

Kuala Lumpur: the KL Bird Park

Kuala Lumpurians love their superlatives so it came as no surprise to me that the KL Bird Park is famous for having the largest free-flight walk-in aviary in the world!

Set in the city’s 227-acre green lung that is the Lake Gardens park, the aviary itself occupies just over 20 acres. It’s only 10 minutes’ drive from the central city and close to several other attractions: the Orchid Park is across the road, the Butterfly Park and National Monument are close by.

The aviary is circled in this picture taken from atop the KL Tower

A Spotted Wood Owl

The advertising blurb says the Bird Park houses over 3000 birds, and I can certainly believe it. They were everywhere, and I’m really surprised I came away without being pooped on!

I don’t like the idea of birds in cages, so was a little dismayed to see raptors like eagles and Brahminy Kites, enclosed in relatively small cages with no flying space. Several species of owls are similarly enclosed and looked miserable.

I also wasn’t impressed with the section where all types of birds are used as props in photos for tourists. When I walked past, a group of 4 young Koreans were sitting on the bench, with owls, macaws, a kite, and various other colourful birds – that would probably have hunted each other in the wild – sitting on their arms, shoulders and heads. I was actually hoping for some pooping then but the birds had obviously been well trained. The only advantage for a photographer like me was that the birds all sat relatively still so I got some good shots, especially of the owls, which I adore.

A Superb Starling

Great White Pelican
The best thing about the park is that its two largest enclosures are huge, free-flight areas where the birds live relatively normal lives in a semi-natural habitat filled with trees, a stream and ponds. I saw the cutest baby peacocks scurrying along after their mum, and there was such a proliferation of doves and cattle egrets that I assume they must also be breeding successfully. The park’s brochure boasts that the birds have adapted so well to the environment that many are breeding naturally.

I enjoyed over 2 hours strolling, sitting, watching, marvelling and laughing at the antics of the some of the birds, particularly two intimidatingly large but obviously harmless pelicans that seemed almost to be competing for my attention. I shot over 200 hundred photos … I hope you enjoy this selection of my new feathered friends.

Thanks to my Facebook friends at the Oriental Bird Club for help identifying these birds.

Black-crowned Night Heron

A Yellow-billed Stork and a Cattle Egret
A Red-and-Yellow Barbet

An Asian Glossy Starling and an Oriole

A Mandarin Duck

A juvenile Sacred Ibis (I think) and a Peacock

Buffy Fish Owl

A Barred-Eagle Owl and an Oriental Bay Owl

16 May 2013

Kuala Lumpur: the heritage buildings of Merdeka Square

In Merdeka Square, on 31 August 1957, the lowering of the Union Jack brought an end to the British colonial rule of Malaya and the raising of the Malaysian flag marked the proclamation of Malaysia’s independence.
It’s not surprising then that this is a national heritage site and the focus for many other slices of local history.

The square is the big green area in this image, taken from the top of the KL Tower

The square was developed by the Brits in 1884 and used as a venue for social activities, including the odd game of cricket. The flag pole itself, at 100 metres tall and sporting a huge Malaysian flag, is very impressive and supposedly one of the tallest in the world. Malaysians do like their superlatives!

And nearby there’s a Victorian-era fountain, that was apparently brought in from England in pieces and assembled in situ. My guide book tells me it features some lovely Art Nouveau tile work but it’s currently partitioned off for renovation so the tiles weren’t visible. It did have some rather scary looking gargoyle-like creatures, though.

It’s the buildings that most impressed me about this heritage area, so let me take you on a tour around the square, starting on the side of the square that’s bounded by a very busy main thoroughfare. Here we find some government offices that, when built in 1896, functioned as the city’s General Post Office. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of the building's ‘polygonad (I kid you not!) corner stair towers’.

City Theatre

I did get a photo of the adjoining building, the former City Hall. Built in 1896 and now used as the City Theatre, this shows the influence of the local Islamic culture in its curvaceous arches and its chhatris, the dome-shaped pavilions on its roof. It also has a very grand porte-cochere – that roofed structure out front under which carriages would once have been driven.

The former High Court

Next door is the 1909 former High Court building, with more wonderfully curving arches, these with more of a Moorish influence, and its four towers are finished off with lovely black cupolas.

Across a side road, we come to the magnificent Sultan Abdul Samad building, built between 1894 and 1897. It was formerly the home to the Federated Malay States administration, then from 1972 the High and Supreme Courts, and now houses the Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture. My pamphlet says: ‘The first example of Moghul architecture in Malaysia, this elegant symmetrical brick structure features a 41-metre-high clock tower, arched colonnades and stunning copper-covered domes.’

I've included two photos of this building because I just love those copper domes, especially with the Petronas Towers in the background.

On the next city block is the National Textile Museum, built in 1905 and previously the Federated Malay States Railway Station and Selangor Works department. Unfortunately I don’t have an image of the whole of the building as I was focusing on the contrast between those wonderful onion-shaped domes and the modern but equally stunning building in the background. The museum building features alternating stripes of red bricks and white plaster bands, and also shows Islamic influences both in its façade and in those divine domes. Inside are some fascinating displays of the diverse range of textile designs, patterns and materials produced by the broad range of ethnic groups found in Malaysia.

Crossing the main road and continuing in a clockwise direction around the square, we come first to a building that now houses a restaurant but was the home of the Chartered Bank when it was built in 1919. No photo of that, I’m afraid, but I do have the neighbouring building, what is now the KL City Gallery (note the absence of the word art in that title). Built in 1898, it is another example of Moorish style architecture with a large open interior that was purpose-built to house the large printing presses from its days as the Government Printing Office. Today that space is home to a shop, selling all types of local souvenirs but featuring, in particular, products made of intricately carved and assembled wood veneers. The photo display in an adjoining room was interesting, and the scale model of the central city in an upstairs room was very photogenic and provided an excellent city overview (see below).

One of the City Library's domes

In the corner next to the City Gallery is the City Library. You can see the entire building in my first image as this shot only shows one of its glorious domes. This 1989 building was built to emulate the older buildings that surround it and includes under its roof an auditorium and conference hall, as well as the library itself.

Moving around to the long side of the square facing the road, we find the most bizarre group of buildings, of black-and-white mock-Tudor design with a fake half-timber façade. Built in 1884, these now house the Royal Selangkor Club, an institution that harks back to the days of English gentlemen’s clubs and still bans women from its Long Bar. I could say that I refuse to post a photo of the building in protest against this discrimination but the truth is that I just found the buildings ugly and didn’t take any shots of them.

The scale model of the city inside the City Gallery

14 May 2013

Kuala Lumpur: the streetlights

You’ve got to love a city that pays such close attention to its streetlights. No single-style, boring dullness for Kuala Lumpur!
I have been delighted by the vibrancy and cultural diversity of Kuala Lumpur, by its lush tropical greenness, by the contrast between its go-ahead modernity and its sense of history. All of these things are reflected in the different styles of street light I’ve seen in the central city.

I hope you enjoy these as much as I have.

08 May 2013

Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity

If you decide to tuktuk the 60 kilometres from central Siem Reap to the ACCB, the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, then make sure you allow at least an hour and a half for the journey. I made the mistake of leaving too late the first time I headed in that direction – and ended up exploring undiscovered countryside instead – no bad thing. 

At our second attempt, my tuktuk driver Bunsoth and I left town at 11am, so our ride out was leisurely and I had time for a quick snack of fried noodles at one of the local foodstalls before the ACCB’s daily (except Sunday) tour started.

Grey-headed Fish Eagle
Greater Adjutant Stork

At 1pm sharp, two guides opened the gates and the 90-minute tour began with a brief introduction to the ACCB’s work of rescue and rehabilitation, care, conservation and education. Our main guide was a Khmer whose English was okay, though heavily accented, so he was sometimes a little difficult to understand. And his understanding of English was not good so after a couple of attempts at asking questions, most of our small group gave up. The other guide was from New York but had only arrived at the Centre a week previously so was himself still learning.

The centre houses creatures that are handed in by locals when found sick or injured, or by police and other officials when confiscated from people who have kept them as pets or captured them to eat. As often as possible the animals are rehabilitated and returned to the wild, as the area surrounding the Centre is part of the Phnom Kulen National Park so is, in theory, free from hunters.

In some cases, rehabilitation is not possible so those animals find a permanent home at the Centre. They may then become part of breeding programmes attempting to increase local wildlife populations. We saw two gorgeous Leopard cats but their three most recent kittens were growing up away from public view and being feed live food (like mice) in the hope that they can eventually be released to fend for themselves.

Leopard Cat

The ACCB runs an education programme so, as well as these information-packed daily guided tours, they also visit the schools in the 15 villages in the surrounding area to educate local children about environmental issues.

Some of the Centre’s creatures are on the endangered list. Two that I would have liked to have seen are also nocturnal so were sleeping – the pangolin (a scale-covered creature similar to an armadillo) and the slow loris (a very cute, wide-eyed primate). In fact, except for the Leopard cats, which were difficult to see hiding under a log at the back of their enclosure, and a few monkeys – some caged and some hiding in the trees of their more open enclosures – most of the other animals and reptiles (turtles and monitor lizards) were either asleep or hiding, so the easiest creatures to see and take pictures of were the birds.

Indian Spotted Eagle

Even those weren’t easy to photograph through wire netting and from behind ropes six feet in front of their cages, using only my point-and-shoot camera, but I did manage to get a few reasonable shots. The magnificent Indian Spotted Eagle kept wonderfully still while staring straight at me; the Grey-headed Fish Eagle cocked his head at just the right angle to show off his dangerous beak; and the Lesser Whistling Duck stood as still as a statue while I recorded its stunning colours for posterity. My photos will act as good reminders of a very pleasant afternoon amongst Nature’s wonderful creatures.

Lesser Whistling Duck