Southeast Asia’s Islamic City

Published for TALK Magazine in December 2009

piqhm4bdzzi-pawel-szymankiewiczKuala Lumpur’s spirituality is felt, not immediately seen.

On approach to Kuala Lumpur, as your plane circles the metropolis two things come to mind … one, that it’s not quite as big as you were led to believe and two, “why on earth did they choose this mosquito-infested plain to build Malaysia’s capital in the first place?”

Not 50 years old when it became the capital of the then Federation of Malaysia, this mining town turned cosmopolitan city has seen its fair share of colour and diversity throughout the years. The Chinese built it, and now the Malays define Kuala Lumpur as an Islamic centre for Malaysia, attracting Muslims throughout Asia with its religious tolerance, good governance and spectacular itinerary of activities.

DECEMBER ISSUE (dragged)Most tourists from South China come to Malaysia to experience the vibrant Chinese communities; which is a shame really, considering the country is distinctly Muslim, having enjoyed centuries of rich Islamic heritage dating back to Indian Muslim traders who brought their religion to the peninsula in the twelfth century. Many are still there, having maintained strong continental roots to India. You can see them in every facet of life in Kuala Lumpur, most obvious of which at the Chinese-styled Indian Halal coffee shops that dot the old neighborhoods of the city. Shades of Hong Kongese ‘cha chaan tengs’ at these ‘kopi’ shops serving up rich milk teas and strong coffees alongside old staples like the roti canai and mee goring, two dishes that have helped establish Malaysia’s reputation as one of the greatest countries in the world in which to eat. The process in which restaurant cooks whip up their roti canai– thinly layered folds of pastry fried in butter or oil – is something that can’t be replicated in other parts of the world. It’s something to do with the weather, the cook’s leathery hands slapping together pieces of dough day in, day out and the people who come in the morning to read the paper and at teatime in the afternoon. These cafes, Muslim Indian or otherwise, help define what community means for the people of Kuala Lumpur.

What’s there to do in Kuala Lumpur besides eat? Shopping comes in at a pretty close second, and there’s no better place to lose yourself in a mall than at Starhill Gallery, the city’s most upscale shopping centre. It’s been said that Malaysians love to shop because of shopping malls. They love shopping malls because of the weather. They hate the weather because of the horrendous heat and humidity, hence the reason why they love indoor, temperature controlled shopping malls. Starhill isn’t your average mall, though. Situated on Jalan Imbi, a quick stroll from Bintang Walk, the city’s most popular shopping area, Starhill Gallery is seven floors of pure shopping essence. Floors named after human experiences like ‘Indulge’, ‘Relish’ and ‘Explore’ go a long way to set this mall apart from the rest. It doesn’t hurt that some of the biggest names in luxury retail are here as well, drawing shoppers from as far away as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

Kuala Lumpur is an extremely attractive destination for people with means from the Middle East looking to get away for the summer. It can be difficult for people from traditional Islamic societies to travel abroad but Malaysia offers the best of both worlds: cultural convenience and social stability. This is perhaps why one of the finest museums of Islamic history is located in Kuala Lumpur, a city thousands of kilometers away from the origins of the religion. The Panduan Muzium is three expansive floors of artwork, jewelry, manuscripts and architecture from each period of Islam’s history. Running until 30 December, guests are treated to a ‘Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals’ exhibit. The museum gives spectators an unbiased, rounded view of the history of Islam – something quite hard to come by in this day and age.

It’s impossible to come away with the feeling that you’ve seen everything there is to see in Kuala Lumpur. What the city lacks in land area compared to say, Guangzhou, it more than makes up for with its colossal slurry of language and Asian culture. It’s a city that requires at least two visits before it starts to sink in and make sense. KL’s Islamic heritage is as good a place as any to start – not always seen but deeply felt in this mosquito-plagued little mining town.