Visit KL offers three different (FREE!!) walking tours: Heritage tour of Dataran Merdeka, Little India (aka Brickfields), and the brand new Kampong Bharu tour. I’ve now done two of them, with the Brickfields walk on deck for this weekend. The Heritage tour of Dataran Merdeka is really great, I’ve actually done it twice. You learn a lot about the history and founding of the city and about many of the different buildings around Merdeka Square. The first time I did the tour, I went on a weekday by myself. It was my first week in KL and I really enjoyed it. It was a great introduction to my new city. A few weeks ago, I did this tour again with Micah and our friend Rick who is also an expat with the same company. Our wonderful tour guide Jasmin asked us where we were from, how long we are staying, what we did for work, etc. When she found out that a) we are long term visitors and b) I do free lance work and have a very flexible schedule, she invited me on a special tour. The tour goes through Kampong Bharu, which is the Malay quarter of the city. It was launching with a special event this past Monday and the mayor would be there. She also asked me to invite as many other international tourists as I knew, I assumed they wanted to have a good showing for the mayor, to make sure the tour was well attended on its first day.
Micah and Rick are in Malaysia on a one-year expat rotation. There are two other guys from their company here on a six-month rotation, with their significant others. We’ve met and socialized some, but because I sometimes do some work during the day, I don’t get to hang out with them very often. So I invited them to join me on this tour. The three of us get to the tour’s starting point and sign in. We are given lanyard badges with our group assignment on them. We are then led into a banquet room with about a dozen tables. Some tables are reserved for media, some are reserved for specific organizations or companies, and one table is clearly for dignitaries, as all of the people there are very dressed up. This is where the mayor is seated. We are seated at a table with other “international tourists.”
We are offered “tea,” which should be understood in the British sense of a light afternoon meal. So we have tea, and people start giving speeches and issuing proclamations about the importance of this tour and the history of Kampong Bharu. (Kampong Bharu means “new village.” It’s the Malay quarter of the city, established in 1900 by the British colonial government to allow the Malay residents of the city to live in a traditional village style settlement in the city. It’s basically right downtown and has resisted development.) The mayor talked about how it is the Malaysian way to be hospitable to visitors and that starting this tour is a way to be hospitable to international visitors. At this point, every camera in the building is pointed at our table and we begin to understand that we were not invited strictly to make sure the inaugural tour has good attendance.
The speeches conclude and we are introduced to our tour guides. This is where our Group A badge comes in. We look for the guide holding the Group A sign. The international tourists seem fairly well divided among all of the groups. We assume this is to just spread us out and make sure each group has a mix of dignitaries, locals, and tourists. Then we are instructed to go find our guides so the tours can begin. All of the tourists get up to do that, while everyone else in the room continues to sit at their tables. Uh oh. Is there something we didn’t understand? Why isn’t anyone else moving? And why are the cameras following us?
We find Jane, our guide, and she says we are waiting for the mayor to join us. Cool! The mayor is in our group! Or, rather, we are in the mayor’s group! He comes over, introduces himself, shakes our hands (more cameras) and we are off. We think “That’s it! We’ve had our photo op with the mayor!” Outside there is a ribbon cutting and a martial arts/dance demonstration (it’s unclear to me which one, perhaps both). We are shuttled to the middle of the group, behind the mayor, “So we can take pictures.” At the time, I think the Visit KL organizers are being solicitous of us, so we can take better pictures of the demonstration. That’s very nice of them! Later it becomes clear that this might not have been 100% their motivation.
After the demonstration, we are officially on the tour. Jane is telling us about something, probably the history of the building we just left or of the area in general, but we can’t hear. The group is too large and we are too far back. The organizers try to get us closer to the front. “The media wants you behind the mayor.” OK. Got it. The first stop is Master Mat’s House, a traditional Malay house. As soon as we stop walking, the tour organizers shift us to stand next to the mayor. It is at this point that we understand our job for the day: Stick close to the tour guide and/or mayor so the media will be able to take pictures of the international tourists in Kampong Bharu. Now the earlier offers to stand in the middle “for pictures” makes more sense. It is not so we can be the photographer, it is so we can be photographed.
Master Mat’s house was built in 1921 and is still owned by Master Mat’s descendents. Jane tells us about the architecture and describes different aspects of the traditional home life of Malay families. I don’t understand a lot of it, because I cannot see the pictures she shows. She can’t move the book, because then the mayor (and cameras) couldn’t see them. I can’t move to a different position, because we have been carefully positioned for the cameras. I am a guest of Jasmin, my first tour guide, and I don’t want to do something that will reflect poorly on her. So I stand politely, slightly behind Jane, and smile and nod along. I did hear enough to get the general picture.
As we begin walking to the next stop, one of my fellow expat ladies stops to take a selfie of us. Immediately we are swarmed by cameras. “Hold it! One more, one more!” I bet we stood there for 5 minutes taking selfies, or pretending to take selfies since one only needs so many selfies. I have never felt more like a zoo animal on display! Awww, how cute! Look at the Americans taking a selfie! Do it again, do it again!
We have to rush to catch up and at this point we meet Ernie. She is one of the organizers behind the whole day. She takes us to the next stop and fills us in a little bit on what we’ve missed. We are walking down Jalan Raja Muda Musa, or the “food street.” There are restaurants everywhere, and Jane stops in front of some of them to explain various dishes. It all looked so tasty! At every place we stop, people want to chat with the Mayor, shake his hand, and get his picture so there is some “down time” while we wait for the mayor to glad hand. Different people on the tour start telling us more stories or explaining other things to us while we wait. It was really, really nice for everyone to share things with us. I felt like they wanted to make sure we were having a good time and that we learned as much as we could. It went a long way to balancing out our experience on the tour. Because there were so many photo ops, we felt like we were missing out on some information we would have otherwise learned. People chipping in different pieces of information helped fill some of that gap.
Next stop is Rumah Limas, a house originally built in 1913 and rebuilt to the same specifications after WWII. The style and architecture of this home was different from Master Mat’s, the first house we saw. The homeowner comes out to greet us and have his photo op with the mayor and we are invited inside to see the house. This was a really special perk of being on this circus of a tour. The regular tours will not be allowed inside the homes. As we are leaving, we are asked to pose for a photo with the mayor on the verandah. The media asks us to wave and we all stand there for several minutes while they take pictures. It actually was kind of fun, we felt like celebrities for the day!
We continue walking through the neighborhood, with Jane explaining various aspects of daily life in Kampong Bharu. We see shops, barbers, small food carts, and learn about the work of the mosque in the community. The mosque is undergoing renovation, so we did not see anything beyond the gate. We saw a few more sights and we wrapped up the tour walking through the evening street bazaar. The bazaar is set up in the late afternoon and evening so residents can get what they need to prepare dinner. There were so many good looking fruits and veggies! Jane explains some of the local produce that we might not have experience with and points out a tub of mud creepers. They are rough, knobby looking things about 2-3 inches long. I thought it might be a root of some kind, until I saw them squirm. I had a moment of repulsion as I realized they are alive! I asked Jane about them later. They are snails, often prepared steamed or steamed in milk and Jane said they are quite delicious. I’d be willing to try them if I find them at a hawker stall or restaurant, but I don’t feel brave enough to try cooking them on my own!
The tour finished in the hotel where our new friend Ernie works. We were given drinks and invited to stay for the dinner. This was a surprise, we didn’t know there was going to be a dinner. We all had dinner plans with our significant others, and one of us was a vegan and wouldn’t be able to eat anything. We declined the dinner invite, although we maybe should have stayed to be good guests. Before we left, Ernie brought us up to their pool deck which was undergoing renovations for aerial views of Kampong Bharu. Another really nice perk of being on this special tour!
Overall, this tour was a really fun experience. We felt like celebrities for the afternoon and got to do and see some special things. Because of the special circumstances of the day, I feel like the tour was more of a preview than the actual tour. I’m looking forward to taking the tour again and learning more. If you’d like to learn more about what you can see on the tour, here is a great review of the whole day.
I really love the Visit KL tours. If you’re in KL, you should check them out. They are free, which is great, and cover a lot of the history of the city. They do a great job of providing interesting information that a tourist wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I’m really excited to take the Brickfields tour this weekend and complete my Visit KL walking tour triple crown.
17 October Update: We made the newspaper!