Tag Archives: Walking Tour

On the Greatness of Walking Tours: Seeing Sydney by Foot

Part 2 of the Great Sydney Caper


I have written before about my love of walking tours. Guided walking tours are great since you get to learn some of the local history; we have done all three of Visit KL’s excellent (and free!) walking tours and learned a lot about our host city. But a self-guided tour can also be great because you get to move at your own pace and spend as long as you want smelling the roses, as it were…or having a drink in a historic pub. The trick is finding a map or guidebook or something to help you get as much out of your stroll as you can. Before we moved to KL, we picked up the Lonely Planet guide to Malaysia as well as to Kuala Lumpur specifically. I was familiar with this series as a brand, but I hadn’t traveled with them before. I quickly discovered how closely our general philosophy of life- shop local, eat local, find the options with the most “bang for your buck”- aligns with this series. If you aren’t familiar with Lonely Planet, it was originally started by a couple who had traveled around Europe and Asia on a shoestring budget; they are committed to providing “insider information” so travelers can have an amazing experience without spending an amazing amount of money. My favorite thing about the series is that they provide suggestions for self-guided walking tours. (The only downside is that sometimes their maps aren’t as detailed as one would like, so it is helpful to take the time to scout the route on a full map as well. Or have access to a detailed map/GPS on your phone.) Having enjoyed some of the walks in KL, we knew we wanted to try some of the Sydney walks as well.

If you are unfamiliar with Sydney, it has many different neighborhoods. It actually reminded me of Boston a little in this way. In Boston, there’s Beacon Hill, Cambridge, Dorchester, the North End… each with it’s own history and flavor. Sydney’s neighborhoods are the same way. For each different section of the city, Lonely Planet had a walking tour to highlight some points of interest. There were some we definitely wanted to do, some we thought looked interesting given enough time, and some that we actually did by accident.

The first tour we did by accident on our first day. We had plans to meet a friend of mine who now lives in Sydney for lunch around 12:30, but we got to our hotel around 8:30am. After we stored our luggage and had breakfast, we still had about two hours to kill. Since we hadn’t slept much the night before, due to our over night flight, we decided walking around was our best bet to keep ourselves awake! Our hotel was in the Pyrmont neighborhood, very close to Darling Harbour. Doing some local scouting to see what was close to our hotel seemed like a reasonable plan. It was still on the early side of the day so there were very few people out and about and we definitely got to know our surroundings. The only downside was that we felt like zombies and it was raining, otherwise it was a really nice walk. After lunch with my friend, we were finally able to get into our hotel room for a rest. I picked up the Sydney guidebook to read about our area, and turns out we had done most of the walk they recommended!

We walked along the waterfront, through Pyrmont Bay Park, and by what I can only assume to be some very expensive condos. We passed The Star casino and joked about going in to enjoy some of the oxygen-saturated air to rejuvenate us. (Apparently there is a “Welcome Wall” near here, to celebrate immigration, but if we saw it we didn’t know that’s what it was.) We also walked over the harbor on a pedestrian bridge, which turned out to be the Pyrmont Bridge- the world’s first electric swing bridge.  I don’t believe it swings anymore, but whether that is because the function doesn’t work or because it’s not necessary, I don’t know. On the opposite side of the bridge along the harbor front, there were lots of restaurants and bars, as well as some tourist attractions like Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and the Sydney Sea Life Aquarium.

That first day we had also found Circular Quay and The Rocks and knew we wanted to explore that area more. So that’s exactly what we did on Monday, our first full day in Sydney. The walk Lonely Planet recommended was about 4 kilometers and we knew we wouldn’t get through the whole thing, based on the fact that we had a leisurely start to the day and we had scheduled our Opera House tour for that evening. We also know from experience that their suggested time (2.5 hours in this case), doesn’t work for us because we sometimes like to take more time at the points of interest. This walk included the Botanical Gardens, which we thought we would see a different day (turns out we never made it there), so we skipped that half and focused on the half on the Western side of the harbor. We like to think that we are rebels sometimes, so we picked up the trail somewhere in the middle and walked it backwards. The walk took us through some of the oldest areas of Sydney, and the book provided a brief history of the area and the landmarks we walked by. It was a great “first thing” to do in the city.

We started in Circular Quay at Cadman’s Cottage, which was built in 1816 and is the oldest house in the inner city. When it was built, it was on the beach at the edge of the harbor. Now, it’s a good ways back from the waterfront. From here, we walked through some of Sydney’s oldest roads in The Rocks area. We saw Garrison Church, the colony’s first military church, and the Argyle Cut. The Argyle Cut is where the road passes through high walls of sandstone. Lonely Planet calls it “canyonlike.” It’s significant because it was excavated by convict laborers. Work began in 1843 with hand tools and completed in 1867, at some point near the end of excavation, dynamite was apparently used as well. Seeing it’s modern day form, it was remarkable to think of people carving through the rocks with only hand tools. No wonder it took over twenty years! Near here is Foundation Park, which is basically the “preserved ruins” of 1870s houses- the foundations of the houses, as it were. The houses were essentially built right into the cliff face. There is a display of over-sized furniture to highlight the cramped living conditions families here experienced. Next we made our way to the top of Observatory Hill, which was supposed to be the starting point of the tour, and then on to the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel. From here, we walked back towards our own hotel through Argyle Place, a “quiet, English-style village green lined with terraced houses,” and Miller’s Point.  It turns out that a lot of the Miller’s Point area is public housing now. There is apparently some talk of the city selling it to developers and pushing public housing farther out of the city. I’m not at all surprised by this as it was a very quaint area in a great location.  I was pleased to see a lot of protest signs in the area, I hope the residents are successful.

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We spent a significant amount of time at Observatory Hill, because it had wonderful views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the older neighborhoods. Plus, it was a nice park and a nice day. Another area we really enjoyed and spent a lot of time exploring was The Rocks. The first Europeans to settle in Australia landed in Sydney in 1788, when England made Australia a penal colony. They landed near what is now Circular Quay (where the Opera House is), and set up shop there because there was a fresh water stream. The convicts got the land on the west side of the stream and the soldiers and government officials got the eastern side. The convict side became known as The Rocks…because there were a lot of rocks. And we’re talking huge cliffs and ledges, not a few rocks in a field. It would have been a very undesirable piece of land for new settlers. Of course the British gave this area to the convict colonists and took a nicer area for themselves. Today, The Rocks has a lot of historic buildings that house shops, restaurants, and galleries. It was a fantastic place to poke around, even if it was really hilly! We ended our day with a drink stop at the Lord Nelson Hotel & Brewery. It boasts that it is the oldest hotel in Sydney, and is one of two or three places that claim to be the oldest pub in Sydney (and therefore Australia since Sydney was the original settlement). We intended to check out the other “oldest” pubs, but ended up not having time. Lord Nelson’s was pretty great though; it was easy to imagine British colonial soldiers at the tables. And any place that brews their own beer is a place worth trying, in my book.

The second tour in the “by accident” category was a tour of the Central Business District. Downtown Sydney, or the CBD, has a mix of historic and modern buildings. The Lonely Planet walk, about a mile long, pointed out highlights of the historic buildings. We walked through here several times on our way between our hotel and various other activities. Unfortunately, we never stopped to take pictures, but the historic buildings tucked between skyscrapers were always something to marvel at. There are also a lot of small and large parks and green spaces throughout the city, including in the CBD, which gave the city a wonderful feel.

Though not officially on a Lonely Planet approved walk, we also explored the Kings Cross, Potts Point, and Paddington areas. We did this on a photo tour, which I thought would be a bit more tourist-focused based on the Trip Advisor reviews. It was more properly a photo class that happened to be in Sydney. I think we were the only tourists, actually! It turned out to be great because we learned a lot more about our own camera and different techniques for taking (much) better pictures. It was also great because we saw some neighborhoods that we would never have explored on our own. These areas were more residential neighborhoods, so it was really nice to explore a less touristy part of the city. In preparation for writing this post, I went back to the guidebook to see if we hit any of the highlights, and we actually did!  Looks like we hit about three or four of the points of interest, out of about ten, on two different tours.

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The other LP-endorsed walks we did will be covered in Natural Sydney, the next blog post in this epic series. (I won’t say when to expect it, because sometimes my actual job takes time away from blog writing time, and I don’t want to disappoint you by promising something I can’t deliver. Let’s just say “soon”!) The Manly Scenic Walk and the Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach Cliffs Walk really deserve their own post, anyway. Both were excellent.

Sydney felt very familiar to us. In fact, we were talking to one of our cab drivers about living in KL and really feeling at home in Sydney in a way we don’t in KL. He said something to the effect of, “well Sydney is basically like any other city in the US.” And that was very true. We could have easily been in Seattle or San Francisco or Boston. It reminded me a lot of Boston, actually, not only for the various neighborhoods of the city, but because the shared colonial history has left similar marks on both cities. In Boston, we like to think that our forebears were noble people, looking for a place to worship their chosen religion, free from persecution (never mind the fact that the Puritans in the Mass Bay Colony openly persecuted any non-Puritans they could find). This is certainly true, but the colonies also housed a fair number of convicts who had been “relocated” from England. The only difference is that Boston had both convicts and free people, where as Sydney originally just had convicts. Sydney has a lot of buildings that date to it’s founding that are still in use, many of them are in close proximity to modern skyscrapers. Boston has the same mix of historic and modern. And, in the “really obvious” category, Sydney-siders and Americans share the same language, and many of us have shared ethnic backgrounds as descendants of UK-born ancestors, so the people also look physically familiar.

Along with being in a place that just felt familiar, it was really nice to be back in a place where we shared the cultural norms. Much nicer than I would have expected. Before we left for Sydney, I would have said that we have adjusted pretty well to life in KL. But after only a week away, coming back felt like we had to adjust all over again. I am still enjoying the experience of living in a very different place, but there are a lot of things I am just “over.” It was really nice to walk into a café and know that there wouldn’t be a language barrier to negotiate. It was really nice to spend time in a place with a really low population density (372 people per square kilometer) instead of a really high population density (about 6,700 people per sq. km in KL). (For comparison, Dallas has 1,340 people per sq. km, Boston has 4,700 people per sq. km, and Austin has 1,009 people per sq. km.) Sydney has a lot of green spaces and parks, even in the heart of the city. In KL, green spaces are few and far between (though we are lucky to live a short walk away from a nice, though small, park). Sydney seemed cleaner and appeared to have less pollution. And, even though Sydney was very hot, it was nice to be out of KL’s oppressive humidity for a bit. The idea of “personal space” in KL is also very different than in the States, so it was nice to have a little bit more of a personal bubble in Sydney as well.

Coming up next: Natural Sydney. Our explorations of the Sydney Harbour National Parks and the amazing Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach Cliffs Walk.

Selamat Datang to Kampong Bharu!

Kampong Bharu in the foreground, new KL in the background.  It's quite a striking contrast.

Kampong Bharu in the foreground, new KL in the background. It’s quite a striking contrast.

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.”

Mayor of Kuala Lumpur, Datuk Ahmad Phesal Talib.

Mayor of Kuala Lumpur, Datuk Ahmad Phesal Talib.

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?

The martial arts/dance demonstration.

The martial arts/dance demonstration.

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.

Our paparazzi.

Our paparazzi.

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.  Built in 1921.

Master Mat’s house. Built in 1921.

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.

"One more selfie!"

“One more selfie!”

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.

DSCN0626WMNext 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!

The evening street bazaar along Raja Alang.

The evening street bazaar along Raja Alang.

Mud Creepers.

Mud Creepers.

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!

The blue canopies cover stalls in the evening market.  There were a lot of stalls!

The blue canopies cover stalls in the evening market. There were a lot of stalls!

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!

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!