KL’s most traditional neighbourhood
Look back a handful of decades and Kuala Lumpur was a predominantly low-rise city, with hardly any buildings more than a few storeys high. Fast forward to today though, and KL is awash with shiny new high-rises—everywhere that is, except for development hold-out Kampung Baru.
KLCC, with its iconic Petronas Towers and massive air-con shopping centre, epitomises the new KL. Within only a few hundred metres of KLCC though, is Kampung Baru, a settlement that has, to an extent, resisted the march towards bland modernity. For anyone who wants to see a different, more traditional side to KL, then Kampung Baru is well worth a visit.
Established in 1900 as a township for Malays, to an extent Kampung Baru retains the feel of a conservative, rural Malay settlement. A decade ago, we’d be on the money describing most of the buildings as being one or two storeys high, built at least partially out of wood, but sadly this is the case no no more. The developers have their eye on here (the entire spread is considered to be worth over a billion dollars) and the landscape is changing. Fast. Like go here today not tomorrow fast.
The area was originally gazetted by the Brits as a means for allowing Malays to cultivate rice, but when that didn’t work out residents shifted to market gardens—banana, papaya and so on. Today, you’ll still see the occasional plot, but it is mostly a residential area rather than farming.
Politically it is complicated. For starters you need to be a Malay Muslim to own land in Kampung Baru and because Malay men are legally allowed to have up to four wives, sorting out land title when an owner passes away can be a little bit more complicated than you may expect. Secondly, despite protestations by landholders that they’d never sell, developers are moving in. Big time. They’re negotiating parcels of land to build condominiums and while the condos need to be owned by Malay Muslims, they can be rented out to anyone. With Kampung's prime positioning with regards to KL’s business district, those condos are in very, very high demand—almost as high as the simmering controversy about the development plans.
As a casual traveller walking through, this probably doesn't mean much but it does go a long way towards explaining the towers which are slowly encroaching into the enclave—one of the most beautiful buildings we saw, a blue wood panelled house with the Petronas Towers right behind makes for a great juxtaposition, and, when we visited in late 2017, the very friendly lady who lived there explained to us she was planning to move out shortly—to make way for a mass-transit construction project.
There are a number of ways to explore Kampung Baru. We rode throughout it in the evening by bicycle on a tour with Ride With Elena, on another food walk and also on a free walking tour run by Visit KL and each time we saw a different aspect to the place. If you just want to have a poke around yourself a good way to do so is to get the monorail to Chow Kit, walk through Chow Kit Market and then just randomly dog leg your way from the western edge of Kampung Baru over to the southeast corner where you can jump on a train at Kampung Baru station.
Regardless of which approach you take, it is telling how much you’ll feel like your are not in the city at all. Kampung Baru is truly a village within a city.
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.
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