2023 Travel Update: As of 2023, Malaysia essentially is open for tourism by both vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers without Covid-specific documentation or testing. However, be sure to double check the official government site and travel alerts for up-to-the minute details.
Kuala Lumpur derives its name from the muddy confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers, so it shouldn't be too surprising that the old colonial sector of the city literally was built at the intersection of the two.
Centered around what once was known simply as Government House, now the Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad (building) — built in 1897 — and the Masjid Jamek (mosque) — built in 1909 — the architecture in this area long has been beautiful.
However, when travelgasm.com first visited Kuala Lumpur years ago, the historical buildings clearly had been underloved for quite some time and the river itself effectively was a fetid open sewer with cars parked on the sides. Just getting from the Masjid Jamek LRT station to the nearby Dataran Merdeka (Freedom Square) involved a long, grimy walk along unpleasant high speed streets and a mad dash across an unprotected intersection. It wasn't much fun at all.
Thankfully, that all has changed. In 2011, along with other important initiatives, the Kuala Lumpur city government launched the "River of Life" project, an ambitious decision to completely transform 10.7 kilometres (6.6 miles) of waterfront and supporting rivers at a cost of 4.4 billion MYR (more than one billion USD). Most of this cost went toward plumbing improvements and water treatment facilities to improve Kuala Lumpur's water quality, but the most visible changes are that the historic river intersection and surrounding area are vastly better.
As well implemented by AECOM, the River of Life now is far more beautiful, functional, and accessible. It has a real sense of identity and place that was lacking before, as well. The buildings have been restored, attractive sidewalks and paths have replaced the cluttered parked cars, and a people-only bridge has been added to make it pleasant to get from the rail station to the historic buildings on foot. Even the crosswalks are protected. Hooray!
When we last visited on multiple occasions, the area still needed more life and things to do — activation and programming in city planning lingo — but as foot traffic increases, this should improve in time.
Seven Notable Colonial-Era Landmarks
Although the River of Life is worth a visit by itself, we also have selected seven notable colonial-era landmarks to see on a quick walk nearby. These are organised in order on our map below:
- Jamek Mosque (Masjid Jamek) - Built in 1909 and recently restored, this is one of Kuala Lumpur's oldest and most beautiful mosques. It is a functioning religious building, but non-Muslims are welcome inside when prayers are not in session. There are seven prayer times each day, but 9 AM to 11 AM would be a good time to see the inside, except for Fridays. Note that all men must have fully covered shoulders and knees and women must have no exposed skin at all and be wearing a head covering. Non-Muslim women are required to wear a red full body cloak with a hood that looks like it is from the costume department of the Handmaid's Tale. To enter the gated portion at all, if staff considers you not to be Muslim, you are required to write a name and a country in a register, also.
- High Court Building (Jabatan Warisan Negara) - Completed in 1915, this former courthouse by the people-only bridge now sometimes is used as an art gallery.
- Sultan Abdul Samad Building (Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad) - Built in 1897 as a British government office, and renamed in 1974 after the sultan who ruled when it was built, this beautiful building with its distinctive clocktower is the crown jewel of the area. Be sure to see the attractive courtyard in the back toward the river. It's difficult to even believe that it once was a car park.
- National Textile Museum (Muzium Tekstil Negara) - Completed in 1896, and originally housing the railway headquarters, this beautiful colonial building now is an inexpensive museum that covers the history of Malaysian textiles. The wide variety of colors and patterns used in traditional clothing is quite remarkable.
- Kuala Lumpur City Gallery (Galeri Kuala Lumpur) - Completed in 1899, this former Government Printing Office now hosts an art gallery and a tourist information centre with models of the city, a cafe, and the I♥KL sign that is popular for tourists to photograph for social media. Be sure to take a peek at their events calendar for the time frame when you visit the city, as well. During special events, there are food trucks in this area, also.
- Freedom Square (Dataran Merdeka) - This green space across the street from the Sultan Abdul Samad Building might look like just a field to an outsider, but it is where Malaysia formally became independent in 1957 and it is special to Malaysians accordingly.
- Royal Selangor Club (Kelab Di-Raja Selangor) - Established in 1884, this British social club looks a bit out of place with its mock Tudor style, but it is attractive nevertheless.
There are not a lot of places to eat in the immediate vicinity of our colonial walk, but our favourite has long been the attractive Cafe Old Market Square, a traditional Hainanese coffee shop (kopitiam) that has been serving both coffee and food since 1928. It closed for two years for the pandemic and subsequently sprung back to life, but it seems to be open only sporadically now. If Cafe Old Market Square isn't open when you visit Kuala Lumpur, other convenient eateries include the ARCH Cafe, which has moved, but traces its origins back to 1957, and Makan Buzz, which is a new coffee and dessert shop, but inexpensive for its location and boasts a nice waterfront view. If you want a more substantial meal, the top-rated restaurant in the area is the Nepalese Mandala Restaurant and it could be well worth trying, too.
Below, we've mapped out a logical route from and back to the Masjid Jamek LRT Station. It's a pleasant walk between the River of Life and Chinatown, so we have included Chinatown as an alternate arrival or departure point, too.
How to Get Here: Take LRT Ampang (Line 3, Yellow), LRT Sri Petaling (Line 4, Brown), or LRT Kelana Jaya (Line 5, Pink) to Masjid Jamek Station (AG7, SP7, KJ13). Take the Jalan Tun Perak Exit from the LRT Ampang Line 3/LRT Sri Petaling Line 4 portion of the station toward the Masjid Jamek (mosque) to begin our suggested walk. To go to or from Chinatown on foot, Leboh Pasar Besar and Jalan Petaling are a pleasant walk.
travelgasm.com's Colonial District/River of Life Map (Full Screen)
Like the River of Life, Masjid Jamek, or other buildings on our Colonial walk? Tell your friends and frenemies on social media that you discovered them first:
Be sure to see our 7 Things Tourists Don't Do in Kuala Lumpur, but You Should, too.
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