A breath of fresh air and a history lesson
Merdeka Square (or, as it is now officially known, Dataran Merdeka) is a breath of fresh air and offers not just the opportunity to lay about in the sunshine but also to observe a bit about the history of Malaysia.
When the Brits were still running the show, this grassy expanse was referred to as the Padang, or Parade Ground, and while it had an official purpose as a parade ground for official ceremonies, it was also used as a venue for cricket (and other sports). Today there is less cricket—and more local activities and rotating shows and exhibitions.
Merdeka Square is the focal point for independence celebrations in Malaysia as, when the British were all out, it was here at midnight 30 August 1957, that the British flag was lowered and the new flag of Malaya was raised, followed by the national anthem and seven chants by onlookers of “Merdeka”.
Despite its importance in the formation of the nation, the square (well, really a rectangle) is ringed by spectacular historic buildings which were designed by the British. In recent years, considerable funds and effort have been spent beautifying both the buildings and the immediate riverside areas making the park a popular point of interest for visitors, regardless of the historical importance.
Merdeka Square is orientated roughly in a north-south direction, so in a clockwise direction, you have the Royal Selangor Club at nine o’clock, St Mary’s Cathedral at eleven, the old supreme court at one o’clock, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building at three o’clock, the old post office at four o’clock, the Textile Museum at five o’clock, Kuala Lumpur City Gallery at six o’clock and Kuala Lumpur Library (not a historic building) at seven o’clock. Dizzy yet? Lets go through them one at a time.
The Royal Selangor Club, established in 1884, looks like it has been transported straight over from Stratford-upon-Avon, but what you are looking at is largely a replica of the original building which was built in 1910 but suffered a fire in 1970 (along with repeated flooding), razing the main section of the club. Originally a hang-out for the establishment figures through the colonial period, since independence, it has swapped one privileged clientele for another.
The diminutive St Mary’s Anglican Cathedral was consecrated in 1895 and like the Royal Selangor Club, could easily be situated in countryside England somewhere, but its services (English, Malay and Iban) suggest otherwise. Pop inside to read some of the plaques on the wall dedicated to those who passed over a century ago.
Next around are the City Theatre and the old Supreme Court. The architect behind both was the same A.B. Hubback (who had a hand in many of the other buildings around Merdeka Square) and the the Supreme Court took three years to put together, opening in 1915. In 1984 the courts were moved to the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (see below) and a few years later, fire gutted it. The court has since been renovated.
The main attraction, facing across Jalan Raja and separating Merdeka Square from the river, is the former administrative headquarters of British Malaya, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, with its distinctive 40-metre tall clock tower and onion-shaped (and coloured!) domes. The building is named after the Sultan of Selangor (at the time of its construction in the late 1890s) and a signboard on site notes a legend that four million bricks were thrown up to the brick-layers, two at a time—without a single one being dropped.
Beside Sultan Abdul Samad Building is the old post office, then on the south side of Leboh Pasar Besar is the Textile Museum—housed in a beautiful and historic building which dates back to 1905 when it was home to the headquarters of the Federated Malay States Railway. Designed by architect Arthur Hubback, the building was intended to blend with the already mentioned colonial administrative offices (at the time) across the road.
Cross Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin and you’ll hit Kuala Lumpur City Gallery—a tourist trap which we’d say skip unless you have kids in tow (who may enjoy the selfie photo posing on the upper floor). The original building was built in 1899 to house a government printing office. Much later, in 1989, it became Kuala Lumpur Memorial Library, which has now moved to the adjoining modern building just to the west.
Last but not least, we have the Victorian Fountain, which sits at the southeast corner of Merdeka Square. It was made (in pieces) in England before being sent out to KL to be put together. Those crazy Brits huh.
As you’re in the area, do make the effort to walk down behind the Sultan Abdul Samad Building where you’ll reach a lovingly restored stretch of riverfront—a part of Kuala Lumpur’s River of Life urban beautification project. It includes seating under huge shade trees and terrific views across to Jamek Mosque.
There is no admission charge for Merdeka Square and it is roughly equidistant between Pasar Seni and Masjid Jamek LRT stations. It is about a 15 minute walk from Chinatown.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Kuala Lumpur