By Soumitra Biswas
March 12, 2010
Our deep slumber was interrupted by the cabin crew announcement… "short while from now we will be landing at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport"…the Jet Airways’ flight from Chennai was on the dot, starting its descent for KLIA as the early morning rays filtered through the windows. The aerial view spoke nothing of a cityscape; it was rather lush green vegetation all around.
As the aerobridge transported us into the terminal, smart and savvy interiors of KLIA came into full view…Selamat Datang!! Welcome to Malaysia’s most showcased airport for the world! KLIA, inaugurated in 1998 and thrice voted the best airport in the world in its category (15-25 million passengers per year), is located 50 kms. away from KL. And with the recent laurel of Green Globe 21 award, KLIA is,to date, the first and only environment friendly airport in the world! The environment is a serious business here, a major focus of the corporate social responsibility of KLIA, so much so that services of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia were called upon to recreate a rain forest within the airport by transplanting trees straight from the jungles...the KLIA tag line goes…airport in the forest, forest in the airport.
As I discovered later, all international flights arrive at the satellite terminal of KLIA and we took an Aerotrain, an unmanned three-coach train to the main terminal building. The immigration formalities were pretty quick and we proceeded to pick up our bags. I chatted with Arumugam, the driver of our pre-paid taxi, who was a Tamil speaking descendent of Indian migrants, who had reached the shores of Malaysia three generations ago. Our taxi zipped along the expressway to the city. The infrastructure in Malaysia is truly world-class; eight-lane expressways from the airport were built for the future. We crossed about 40 km. in 35 minutes flat to drive into our hotel, the Palace of Golden Horses at the Mines Resort City on the outskirts of KL.
The Palace of Golden Horses, proclaimed as Asia’s most extra-ordinary hotel and designed with a blend of Moorish and Malaysian architecture, is truly palatial with over 400 guest-rooms, 80 suites and many specialized restaurants. For authentic sushi and teppanyaki, one can walk into restaurant, Kin No Uma and be treated to spicy Szechuan and Cantonese cuisines at Kim Ma. While the restaurant, Cavallini's specializes in North Italian gastronomic delights, Carousel has all-day dining facility with local and international choice of foods. The hotel, overlooking a 150-acre lake, boasts of a state-of-the-art conference facility with large auditoria and several meeting rooms. Palace of Golden Horses proudly displays clusters of photographs of its important guests, from Mr Nelson Mandela to Dr. Mahathir Mohammed to President Pervez Musharaf. Bollywood heartthrobs, Shah Rukh Khan, Abhishek Bachchan and Hritik Roshan had also camped here while participating in Zee Awards ceremonies in Kuala Lumpur.
In the afternoon of our first day, we went for a city tour to experience the sights and sounds of KL. Our driver-cum-guide this time was Stevens, whose ancestors came from Palghat district of Kerala. KL unfolded all its beauty as we rode through the city’s network of wide roads, landscaped gardens and well preserved greenery in Steven’s 10-seater Kia. Our first stop was Istana Negara or National Palace, the official residence of His Majesty, the King of Malaysia. The stately mansion located on the slope of a hill, Bukit Petaling, offered a commanding view of the city. The mounted Royal Guard next to the ornate gateway provided a lot of photo-ops and the mount seemed to enjoy all the attention it received from the groups of tourists. There was the changing of the guard at three o’clock and shutters went crazy all around!
Winding up and down the undulating terrains, we proceeded to the National Monument, the edifice erected to commemorate the sacrifices of valiant soldiers, who lost their lives defending the country in two World Wars and also during the communist insurgency in 1950’s. The huge bronze sculpture of soldiers with the national flag in front of a beautiful fountain added a solemn touch to the environment.
Our next stop was the Butterfly Park, a sizeable piece of verdant greenery on the natural slopes with nets covering the high ceiling. The park hosts 120 species of butterflies with their spectacular hues fluttering all over. Colourful koi carp swam in the lily pools along the meandering walkways. The setting is sure to soothe a city dweller’s jaded nerves! The park has a butterfly nursery and a good collection of live beetles, scorpions, exotic frogs, lizards and snakes. The museum on the way out displayed varieties of butterflies, moths and bugs collected from all over the world. The souvenir shop was selling plastic paperweights with butterflies and beetles cast in them.
Steven brought us to the famed Merdeka Square, where the Union Jack was lowered on 31 August, 1957 as the Malaysian national flag was unfurled, ushering in the independence (Merdeka in Malay) ending the British colonial rule. Merdeka Square, now a beautifully landscaped public place with gardens and fountains, is the most visited and photographed tourist spot in KL. The large national flag of Malaysia fluttering atop a 100-metre high flagpole, apparently the tallest in the world, proudly symbolizes the spirit of nationalism. Directly across Merdeka Square, Sultan Abdul Samad building, constructed in 1897, has the majestic aura of colonial architecture. The building is the abode of justice in modern Malaysia housing the country’s Supreme Court.
Our last stopover for the day was the Aquaria, located at the concourse level of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center (KLCC), almost adjacent to the city’s iconic Petronas Twin Towers. The Aquaria spanning across 60,000 sq. ft. of space with a veritable display of exotic marine life and riverine species from all over the world was opened to the public in August 2005. KLCC Aquaria aims to promote eco-tourism and the journey of discovery for all its visitors. Such a gigantic panorama of underwater life, supported with the latest technology, makes it an expensive affair with high operation and maintenance charges.
We caressed the baby sharks and starfishe at the touch pool near the Aquaria entrance and walked through the endless display of green tree snakes, geckos, tortoises and crocodiles. The small Bumblebee dart frogs with their shiny black and yellow coats looked almost lovable; completely belying the fact that they are one of the most toxic animals on earth. Some varieties of dart frogs in the wild are known to secrete poison enough to kill a grown man! We saw Arapaima, the largest fresh water fish, wading nonchalantly through their huge tanks. An adult Arapaima can grow up to 4.50 metres in length and weigh about 200 kgs. We had close encounters with the red-bellied piranhas flashing their countless sharp teeth and hawksbill turtles with their shells like shields borrowed straight from the medieval war fields. The lionfish with their beautiful armour of poisonous spines were truly mesmerizing. We strolled along the 90-metre long moving walkway transporting us through the oceanarium with over 3000 marine creatures. The large sand tiger sharks looked especially aggressive with their jagged rows of teeth. The giant grouper were almost stoical, pretty oblivious of their environs. The stingrays hurriedly sweeping across the oceanarium were a delightful sight. The mock shipwreck in the oceanarium drew shoals of small fishes hiding in its nooks and crannies. And the groups of eels stuck their necks out of the crevices. We truly experienced a journey of discovery exploring the creatures in their near natural habitats.
On a sunny Saturday, we headed to the Menara Kuala Lumpur; the all too famous KL Tower standing tall within the Bukit Nana forest reserve. KL Tower, 421 metres high, is the 4th tallest telecom tower in the world. The first place rightfully belonging to CN Tower of Toronto with its height measuring over 550 metres. We waited at the lift lobby with its mirrored dome styled on the design from Esfahan of Iran. The high-speed elevator almost silently took us to the observation deck. The round observation deck provided a 360-degree panoramic view of KL city. The multi-language audio-video gadget gave a well-guided tour of the city’s beautiful skyline. On one level higher than the observation deck, a revolving restaurant offers fine dining featuring north Indian cuisine. The mega-view banquet deck at the next higher level can be rented exclusively for special events and functions.
Kuala Lumpur may not boast much of ancient architecture and archaeological monuments, but the city has preserved its heritage with utmost care, embraced modernism with humility and created an extremely tourist-friendly infrastructure. KL has developed into an amazing city, where both the leisure seekers and business travellers can explore avenues catering to their varied tastes and very importantly, taste buds. The great Malaysian dream of turning KL into an important Asian hub is fast taking shape.
Before boarding the flight from KLIA on my way back, I picked up an exquisitely painted wooden mask from Borneo at the souvenir shop...to carry home a piece of Malaysia, truly Asia!
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