For all the years I spent telling outstation family and friends that I am a KL-ite (it’s a stretched truth – home is in Puncak Alam), I’d never set foot on the city’s iconic independence square – Dataran Merdeka. But then again, most KL-ites, have good reasons to avoid the heart of Kuala Lumpur: traffic and expensive parking.
Those excuses were not going to deter yours truly from signing up for the free Dataran Merdeka Walk, though. It was high time to visit the square and its surroundings – the cradle of the city’s colonial past.
When I arrived at the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery – the starting point of the walk (parking at its cheapest, by KL’s standards, and the venue is within walking distance) – on a sunny Saturday morning, it quickly became apparent that I was one of the few locals in a sea of international tourists.
This was confirmed when Jane Rai, the guide for the day, listed down the participants who had signed up for the tour.
“We have seven different nationalities with us today on this walk. We have people from Australia, Canada, Britain, Denmark, Turkey, Germany and Malaysia,” said the jovial woman in her fifties, as she ticked off the name list in her hand. The only other local participants were my photographer colleague and a travel agent.
“Now, before we begin, it’s important that I tell you something about Malaysian roads,” said Rai, as she peered over her glasses with a serious expression.
“Even when you’re crossing a one-way street, be sure to look both ways – and please be mindful of the potholes,” she cautioned.
Walking through history
Organised by Kuala Lumpur City Hall and the Kuala Lumpur Tourism Bureau, the Dataran Merdeka Walk starts at 9am every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. The two-and-a-half-hour tour takes visitors along the historic patch of field and the 10 heritage buildings surrounding it.
The air-conditioned interior of the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery provides a respite from the heat.
The venue, which also doubles as a tourist information centre, works as a great introduction to the background of the city.
The gallery is set in a beautiful neo-Renaissance-inspired building built in 1899. Back then, it was used for the printing needs of the British administration.
“These iron columns here,” said Rai, as she pointed out to the tall structure at the gift shop, “supported the large interior which held the large printing press machines.”
Today, the place features miniature versions of the city’s iconic landmarks, as well as an interesting collection of paintings and photos of KL’s history.
For the uninitiated, KL has gone through several rites of passage: A tin boom in the mid-19th century, a devastating fire, a major flood, the Japanese occupation, and over a century of British rule.
When we’re at Dataran Merdeka, Rai recounted the story of the great flood that happened in the late 1920s (“Well, if my memory serves me correctly,” she said, as a disclaimer of sorts).
“Where you’re standing now,” she said, pointing to the ground below a shady tree at Dataran Merdeka, “is where banknotes from the vaults of the Chartered Bank were laid to dry in the sun after the great flood.”
The three-storey building that used to house the Chartered Bank has since been reincarnated as the National History Museum and, more recently, as the Music Museum.
It’s interesting to note that the former Union Jack flagpole is located on the west side of Dataran Merdeka. The British flag was lowered for the final time at midnight of Aug 30, 1957, signalling the end of British rule and paving the way for Malaya’s independence.
I looked up and it’s sunny, and the Jalur Gemilang – Malaysia’s national flag – was billowing gracefully in the wind.
Keeping up with history can be daunting, but the professional English-speaking guides keep the tour engaging. Even if you are not a history buff, the walk will prove interesting, thanks to the majestic buildings that pepper the trail.
The alternating red bricks of the National Textile Museum (formerly known as the Federated Malay States Railway Station and later the Selangor Works Department) and arches on the ground level of the old Chartered Bank buildings would certainly make for Instagram-worthy photos.
The beautiful colonial structures provide a contrast to modern-day KL with its many skyscrapers.
In fact, one of the city’s most iconic buildings – the Sultan Abdul Samad Building – is found in the vicinity.
The structure housed the Federated Malay States administration in 1897, and is now currently occupied by the Tourism and Culture Ministry. Built by architects A.C. Norman and R.A.J. Bidwell, its striking clock tower is easily recognisable.
The other landmarks that we passed that day included the Victorian Fountain and the former High Court building.
The icing on the cake was witnessing a wedding taking place at St Mary’s Cathedral.
“It is one of the oldest Anglican churches in the region,” Rai whispered over her trusty microphone, as a pair of love birds exchanged their marriage vows in the background.
When we finally reached the Royal Selangor Club, the final stop of the tour, the afternoon sun was already burning.
Participants of the tour can enter and dine at the club, which is otherwise exclusive to members only.
Here, Rai told us that the venue was once nicknamed “The Spotted Dog”.
“The story goes that the wife of one of the club founders made him take their two dalmatians whenever he visited,” she explained. It would appear that the sight of the dogs outside the club’s entrance was a sign that the husband was at the club and not gallivanting elsewhere. With that juicy nugget of information and a new sense of appreciation for KL’s colonial history, I walked back to my car, feeling happy to call myself a KL-ite.
Those interested to join the walk may call (03) 2698 0332 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. A 24-hour advanced booking is recommended.