A Self-Guided Walking Tour of Chinatown

During the day while Micah is at work, I have made sure to keep busy.  I don’t really do “idle” well anyway, so this hasn’t been an issue.  Sometimes I do my own work, sometimes I “work” and spend time on the internet, sometimes I do laundry or run errands, and sometimes I play tourist.  Playing tourist on my own can actually be a very tough decision.  Should I find something that Micah doesn’t want to do?  Should I do whatever looks interesting and hope it’s interesting enough to do a second time if Micah wants to go?  Should I just start with page 1 of the guidebook and work my way through?  So far I have opted to find cheap/free things that I think I would do a second time, and so far both outings have been very interesting and well worth doing again.

There were two outings I decided to try last week: a self-guided walking tour through Chinatown and a guided tour of the Merdeka Square heritage area.  Due to the fact that I missed the start of the Merdeka Square tour on Monday, I decided to walk myself through Chinatown and save the other one for Wednesday.  I have done more than the average person’s share of walking in my life, so walking tours are right up my alley.  Self-guided, official tour, just wandering around – doesn’t matter, I’m for it.  Walking in heat and humidity is not as much fun, but there is no better way to “claim” a city for yourself than by walking through it.  You find local landmarks, random stores, great eateries, and all manner of interesting things.

Personally, I like to walk with confidence, like I know where I’m going.  Sometimes that means I go a block or two (or eight) out of my way before I consult a map or ask for directions.  It’s not that I think I’m right, because I will be the first person to admit that I am directionally challenged, it’s more that I am stubborn and want to find my own way without help.  (To frame this in my favor: after I’ve gone a roundabout way once, I can usually find the more direct route the next time.  I choose to think of my sometimes very extended detours as orienting myself!)  My walk through Chinatown is a classic example.  It was supposed to take about 2 hours, according to the guidebook.  I stopped for lunch and did some shopping, so let’s add on an hour to that and make it 3 hours.  I also think the guidebook did not factor in enough time to “stop and smell the roses” at the various sites, so let’s add another 30 minutes to an hour for good measure: 3.5 – 4 hours.  Champion walker that I am, I managed to do it in 5 hours.  Yes, part of it was my “walk with confidence” rule, but part of it was also the fact that some of the side streets are not very well marked, if they are marked at all, so it was very difficult to know which street to walk down.  I walked down a lot of streets looking for my next landmark, didn’t find it, turned around and tried a different street.  A benefit of this is that I saw a lot of “extra” sights that I would not otherwise have seen.

One of the "extras" I found.

One of the “extras” I found.


Masjid Jamek

Masjid Jamek

The tour directions start from the train station.  “Head south down [this street]…”  Here’s where I made my first wrong turn.  I didn’t know where that street was and I certainly didn’t bring my compass to find my cardinal directions.  I walked very far out of my way, found a bench and consulted a map.  I still didn’t know how to find the original street, but I knew where the first landmark was.  I decided I would just get there and try to pick up the tour from there.  Masjid Jamek was built in 1907 at the confluence of two rivers.  It is this point where Kuala Lumpur gets its name: Kuala Lumpur means “muddy estuary.”  I’ve also heard that it’s the only place inside KL city limits where coconuts grow.

The clock tower in Medan Pasar

The clock tower in Medan Pasar

Next up is Medan Pasar, which was the original market square.  It was established by Yap Ah Loy who is considered to be one of the original founders of KL.  The buildings around the square used to house all kinds of illicit activities: gambling parlors, opium dens, brothels.  The clock in the middle was built in 1937 to commemorate the coronation of King George IV.  The clock is an art deco clock.  I was surprised to find that there are a lot of art deco style buildings.  You don’t see this a lot in the US anymore, outside of Fair Park in Dallas anyway.

After Medan Pasar, the book pointed out two other buildings.  The OCBC Building was built in 1938 for a banking company from China.  The other building houses a pharmacy that has been in business since 1909.  Impressive, but not photogenic.  I skipped taking pictures of these buildings.  But the good news is that the OCBC Building is a very tall building, so I could use it as a landmark as I made my way through the other side streets.  I frequently came back to Medan Pasar to “try again” as I hunted for the next sights on the list.

Ranger Duck goes shopping!

Ranger Duck goes shopping!

The next thing I was supposed to find was the Sze Ya Temple, and after that Central Market.  I found Central Market first though, so I decided to do that.  Central Market used to be the home of the main wet market.  Now it’s home to an arts, crafts, and souvenir market.  Some of the souvenirs are the “normal” kind you would expect- key chains, coffee mugs, t-shirts.  Some of the arts and crafts souvenirs are actually really nice and made by local artisans.  It was a great place to look for things.  I decided to stop at a coffee shop for a break and then decided just to eat lunch there as well.  I chose a dish that’s considered one of the national dishes of Malaysia- asam laksa.  It was the first thing I didn’t like!  It was kind of a fish soup with a sour broth.  It wasn’t necessarily bad, Micah has tried it and liked it, it just wasn’t for me.  Oh well, I was bound to not like something sooner or later.

Sze Ya Temple, squished between other shops.

Sze Ya Temple, squished between other shops.

After lunch I went back to find the Sze Ya Temple.  The book says, “Its odd position, squished between rows of shop-houses, was determined by feng shui.”  It was definitely in an odd position and that’s why it was difficult to spot.  It was built in 1864 at the instruction of Yap Ah Loy, who I started to think of as Mr. Chinatown.  The court yard of the temple opens on to two different streets, and I noticed a lot of people using the court yard as a pass through.  It’s open for tourists, according to the guide book, but I didn’t feel comfortable going in to the main temple room.  I just stayed in the court yard.

The altar area inside Guandi Temple.

The altar area inside Guandi Temple.

Next up was the Guandi Temple.  It’s similar to the Sze Ya Temple, built in 1886.  This one was much bigger and had a lot of tourists walking in and out.  Again, the guidebook said it was open for tourists, so I decided to walk in.  There were benches along one wall, so I sat there and observed the goings on for a while.  It was really peaceful and nice to sit and reflect and meditate for a little while.  The smell of the incense stayed with me for the rest of the day.

DSCN0187WMAcross the street and down the block a little bit was the Hindu Sri Mahamariamman Temple.  It looked like they were preparing for some kind of special event, I have no idea what kind of event but I guessed a wedding.  A man and a woman were more dressed up than everyone else and there were photographers taking pictures of them.  I didn’t stay very long because it didn’t seem nice for tourists to hang around while something very special was happening.  The temple was originally founded in 1873 by the Pillai family, who I later learned were the founders of the Indian community in KL.  It was a private shrine for a while and opened to the public in the 1920s.  The tower was built in 1972.  I didn’t see it, but the temple houses a chariot that takes statuettes of Lord Murugan to Batu Caves during the Thaipusam festival.  Since we have already been to Batu Caves, it was neat to be able to start to make connections among the different tourist sites here.

The wet market.  Not really what I envisioned, and felt like I was walking down a passageway to some seedy underworld rather than going grocery shopping.

The wet market. Not really what I envisioned, and felt like I was walking down a passageway to some seedy underworld rather than going grocery shopping.

The next thing I found was the Petaling Street Market and the wet market “where locals shop for their groceries.”  I would love to find a a place to shop outside of the mall, so I was looking forward to checking it out.  I thought the Street Market might be another place to find local stuff, but it turns out they sold counterfeit anything you can imagine.  The book said Malaysia’s “relaxed attitude towards counterfeit goods is on display” and it was.  As a linguist, I appreciated the flexibility of the vendors.  “Hello Miss!  Buy a nice purse?” When I didn’t respond, he switched to French.  When I still didn’t respond, he switched to German.  By that point, I was out of earshot so I don’t know what he tried next.  It must work often enough for the vendors to learn how to hawk goods in multiple languages!  As for the wet market, apparently the time to go is first thing in the morning.  By the time I was there, just after lunch, most stalls were closed up.  I did see a stall selling chickens though.  You could purchase a live chicken, which I assume they then prepared for you, you could buy a freshly killed and plucked chicken, or you could buy pieces of chicken, just like at a regular grocery store.  It was an interesting experience, but I’m not sure I’ve found my new market.

There were two more temples on my tour.  At this point, I was very hot and very tired and I was ready to not be on a walking tour anymore.  I had to walk by the temples to get to the train station anyway, so I decided I would take pictures and enjoy the outsides of the buildings but not go in.  The Chan She Shu Yuen Temple had a lot of very detailed carvings.  It was impressive.  I should go back sometime to take it in better.  The last temple, the Guan Yin Temple, is dedicated to the goddess of mercy.  It was originally built in the 1890s.  I must have looked a mess on the train!  But it was well worth it.  Next time I will bring more water with me and wear a sun hat.

And now for something completely different…

While we were at Batu Caves, Micah had the chance to have a monk pray over him.  That made me start thinking about tourism at religious sites and what might or might not be appropriate.  The Chinatown tour included many religious sites, for several different religions.  In each case the guidebook said that the temples, shrines, and mosques were open for visitors.  If the book did not explicitly state that, I don’t think I would have been OK with going in to them.  The ones that I chose to visit had a lot of people participating in worship.  Mostly the people were praying or worshiping on their own – it’s not as though I walked in to a Christian church during Sunday morning service and walked around during the sermon.  But does that make it OK?  Just because a house of worship is a historical and/or an architectural gem, does that mean tourists should have open access while it’s open for worship?  Some of the areas of the temples were very clearly marked as places I should not go.  So I didn’t.  Other areas, however, were not marked and were clearly open for practitioners- like the altar areas.  While I chose to observe from the sides of the buildings, I did see many tourists walking everywhere that was open to them, including altars while people were praying.  It made me very uncomfortable.

At the Guandi Temple, many people were there in business suits with ID badges on, I presume they were there on a lunch break.  If I was trying to worship on my lunch break, I’m not sure I would want to have tourists there, watching me like a spectacle.  I also think it might make the holy space a little less reverential for me.  It’s tough to say.  The denomination I grew up in has a reputation for being plain.  Not sparse or undecorative according to church dogma or anything…just…not really fancy either.  I’ve always described it as “Vanilla Protestant.”  I can’t imagine a tourist wanting to see any of the churches I have been a member of.  Maybe if I grew up worshiping at a grand cathedral I would have a different perspective, I really don’t know.  I do know that for me, personally, I definitely feel uncomfortable being a tourist in someone’s place of worship while they are worshiping- regardless of whether it was “allowed.”  What I decided worked for me was to stay to the side, be respectful of the space, and observe with my eyes & ears more than with my camera.

While I was walking home, I heard the Muslim call to prayer from one of the mosques.  In KL, this is not exactly uncommon, we’ve heard it several times so far.  For non-Muslims, business continues as usual during prayer time.  After seeing several different religions practice their faith, and hearing another one begin prayers, I felt very humbled.  For the first time in my life, I live in a place where I am a religious minority.  Only 6% of the population of KL identifies as Christian.  The religious diversity of the world is remarkable.  I think that’s something that is easy to forget in the US, especially when you live in the Bible Belt.

One of the carvings on the Sri Mahamariamman Temple tower.

One of the carvings on the Sri Mahamariamman Temple tower.

More pictures

I’m trying something different, to preserve storage space.  The full photo album for this tour is on Flickr, find it here.  (Anyone should be able to see the albums but only my Flickr friends can comment on pictures.)  Please go look at it!

1 thought on “A Self-Guided Walking Tour of Chinatown

  1. Pingback: On the Greatness of Walking Tours: Seeing Sydney by Foot | adventure pengembara

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