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Old 01-04-2007, 07:22 AM   #1
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Side-street travel: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Part 1)

When thinking of Malaysia as a destination, tourists usually (and rightfully) head to the great empty stretches of idyllic beaches and the pristine primary jungles of Malaysian Borneo as they seek their very own paradise for a week or two. They are never disappointed, for Malaysia has some of the world’s truly stunning landscapes. This article however, is not about the picture postcard views, nor is it about the things that the Malaysian Tourism Board might want you to see.

Malaysia is a land of paradox. Futuristic cityscapes have exploded out of dense jungle to sit side by side with basic huts made of wood and corrugated iron. State of the art stadiums and venues are isolated by hectares of palm oil plantation. Sprawling urban developments serviced by a complicated artery of high quality roads that sometimes lead to nowhere. There is plenty of money to be made but don’t drink the water.

The cause of this juxtaposition is rapid and unremitting economic progress in a relatively short period. Consider this: Just over 100 years ago, Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, was a tin mining outpost, today it possesses some of the world’s tallest buildings. This incredible transformation has inevitably left its mark on the city today, with the architectural contrasts from colonial and boom times rewarding those who take the time to explore the side streets.

A short walk from the famous gleaming curves of the Petronas Towers (which were the tallest buildings in the world until recently), situated in Kuala Lumpur’s city centre district, lays the relatively poverty-stricken area of Kampung Baru (literally translated: ‘New Village’). An area entirely populated by the ethnic Malays (due to land ownership laws that I won’t go into at this time), Kampung Baru was founded in 1899 and is the oldest Malaysian residential area in Kuala Lumpur.

Authentic traditional Malaysian wooden houses can still be found here, which, as a fact on its own is incredible if you consider the fact that most Malaysian developers would sooner demolish and rebuild than restore. What is even more incredible is that these ornate, wooden architectural antiquities sit in the shadow of the rest of the city’s towering developments. Most of the houses are inhabited, with the obligatory wire fencing marking out the private property. Squint and try to ignore the 21st Century additions to the driveway and gardens (the car, the scooter, the rusting swings and random concrete supports) and there you have the exact house, in the very same spot as it was nearly a century ago.

The price of the land here is, as you might expect some of the most expensive in Malaysia and you can find tasteless mansions sitting on the plots that the original (and infinitely more beautiful) wooden houses once occupied. Still, there are houses that have been kept in the same family for generations. These houses are generally the ones made of wood and have been relatively untouched – not necessarily through the desire to preserve heritage but mostly likely due to financial deficiencies. Walk a little further on and you’ll see the small, poorly maintained, government-funded flats that the majority of Kampung Baru’s residents call home. It is at this point that I must suggest a little preparation and presence of mind is needed.

Whilst Malaysians are famous for their kindness and warm hospitality, it goes without saying that wherever there is poverty, there is want. And the sight of a lone tourist walking through their neighbourhood might just be too tempting for some. I’ve certainly never encountered any problems but have read the all too frequent stories in the local papers and I suggest that the responsible thing to do is to sort out some form of travel insurance to save you the hassle and heartaches if you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’m no expert in all the legal ins and outs when it comes to what sort of travel insurance to get but I can recommend checking out Travel Insurance Web The site has straightforward advice, some travel news and I’ve used them in all my travels with no complaints so far. Oh, and they’re cheap – which, lets face it, for those of us on a tight travelling budget is always good news!

To be continued...

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