Four Days in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

When much of your life has been lived in cities like New York and Chicago, it is hard to imagine a major city that is so different from those places, yet as exciting and inspirational.

Kuala Lumpur is one such.

Like all great metropolises, KL has at least one icon, in this case, the 1,381 ft tall Petronas Towers, for a while – and thanks to a tricky definition that would have put Texas voter redistricting to shame – the tallest building in the world. There is more text below the photos. But, as everywhere else in this web site, you can click on an image to expand it.

The gentleman in the dark suit and golden tie is no gentleman. He’s a King. Malaysia has 7 Kings, each ruling over what we might call a state or province. But while he has duties such as the event he was attending this day, and some regal authority within his own region, the nation is a democracy of great ethnic, cultural and religious diversity.

They seem to get along very well with each other, operating in a concious and constant sense of the importance of tolerance and respect.

My hotel was about a quarter-mile from the towers but when I first checked in, my “standard rate” 5th-floor room was on the side of the building that faced away from the towers and was directly above the 24-hour construction site of a huge property under development next door. They were driving the piles for the foundation with a steam driven hammer.

After a sleepness night, I sought out Mr. Grant, the hotel manager, and negotiated a deal with him. I promised I would buy at least one meal per day in the hotel restaurant if he would move me to a room on the other side. He more than kept his part by putting me on the twentieth floor, with the Petrona Towers perfectly framed by my fl0or to ceiling windows. The fact that the restaurant was excellent made it easy to keep my part of the deal.

On my first visit to the towers I discovered they are not at all the tourist-delight I had expected. There is a certain misunderstanding of a tourist’s expectations. If you open an observation deck in the “world’s tallest building,” it seems to me there is a reasonable expectation that a visitor can go somewhere near the top.

In the World Trade Center, The Empire State Building, the RCA Building, Sears Tower, and so forth, the Observation Deck is within the upper 3 floors.

At Petronas, tourists are not allowed anywhere near the top of either tower.  Public access is limited to the sky-bridge that links the towers less than halfway up the building.

Passes to the sky-bridge are limited to 1,700 per day, spaced out over 1/2 hour intervals.  When I arrived at 8am, thinking that an hour in advance of the ticket office opening would be early enough, I was shocked to see hundreds of potential tower visitors already in line ahead of me.

Someone near the head of the line said she had arrived at 6:30am.

I joined the end of the line. At 9am, they opened a single file line to a single desk where each visitor showed an ID, had the details recorded and was issued a pass. I timed the first first dozen or so. Each transaction was taking 5 minutes to process. I did the math and said, “The hell with this.”

I had read a guidebook entry about of one of KL’s open secrets. That’s where I headed on foot, about 30 minutes away.

Menara Kuala Lumpur (also known as KL Tower) is, from its base to the roof of the slowly rotating observation level, substantially shorter than the Petronas Towers. However, the KL Tower sits atop a steep hill, putting visitors to its observation deck at . . . 1,381 ft- the same height as the TOP FLOOR of Petronis Towers on the low flat plain below!

With a 360 degree view from a vantage point twice the height of the sky-bridge, no waiting lines and even a free shuttle bus up and down that hill i sits on, the KL Towwer, it’s a much better all around deal than halfway up those twin towers.

To be fair, the Petronas Towers contained other excellent attractions that I enjoyed on other days.

Dewan Filharmonik Petronas is a world-class concert hall in the ground-level building between the two Petronas Towers. It is home to the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. I attended a concert that included Brahms, Mozart and Gershwin in a performance that was the equal of any I’ve attended in New York and Chicago. The acoustics were excellent, seating and sightlines very good, and the performance wonderful.

Underneath the Towers is  vast multi-level concourse and shopping center that seemed larger than Woodfield Mall in suburban Chicago.

Shopping malls in KL are amazing things. The typical mall in the USA opens sleepily at 10:00am, bustles for 8-plus hours and is almost certainly deserted and shut down by 10:0opm.

KL shopping malls often are 10 story, open-atrium structures on expensive urban  space, not the US midwestern commercial battleships sprawled across a suburban sea of asphalt-covered parking lots where once there had been fields of waving grain.

Malls in KL open at 8am to admit the crowds standing at their entrances. The malls I saw did not close until Midnight, active with shoppers to the end.

BTW – all the Starbucks in KL have FREE WiFi. (hello Starbucks USA. Do you wonder why millions of us decline to spend $4 on a cup of coffee?).