Mimicking The Fireflies: Kuala Lumpur By Night

Anastasia Ashman in GOING PLACES for Malaysia AirlinesIn most parts of the globe the setting sun signals a natural winding down of the day's activity in preparation for rest and renewal.  As the sky darkens and shadows grow, tucked-in babes embark on dream-filled journeys.  Although no early-riser, often I am not far behind.  Yet in sultry, equatorial Kuala Lumpur, or KL, I find it just the opposite. At twilight both I and the city seem to awaken from our heat-of-the-day slumber, refreshed and full of plans. And my fellow bedtime buddies, young boisterous children, are seen and heard at KL's nighttime establishments, accompanying their families as they all partake of the temperate breezes.

Many others seem enlivened as nightfall offers its welcome change to the heavy tropical air.  The sound of electric generators and motorbikes add their man-made whine to dusk's cacophony of enduring inhabitants: the cicadas, bats and bullfrogs.  Just as the forest has its set of nocturnal creatures, so too does KL's city-within-a-jungle.

While city-slicking, storm drain-dwelling bullfrogs make their amorous presence known at twilight, energized Malaysians begin their zip around town. Checking the air for signs of a cool current, pedestrians emerge from the steelwork of office buildings and exhibit a new briskness of step on the illumined streets.

Meanwhile, veteran teksi drivers and suburban commuters alike leave a swift streak of red tail-lights in their wake, inspired less by the dropping temperature than evening's empty stretches of road, a rarity during sluggish, traffic-logged daylight.

KL's night shift shows its face: packing the sidewalk restaurants and coffee shops, and thronging popular pasar malam night markets.   In narrow alleys, deserted parking lots and commandeered thoroughfares like Chinatown's Petaling Street and Bukit Ceylon's Jalan Alor traders begin a ritual.  Vans and lorries are unloaded, makeshift tables and generator-powered lights assembled, wares laid out to best advantage. As fire is lit under a hawker's huge wok, stirred chili padi peppers release their arresting oils, contributing an acrid accent to the city's medley of night scents.

Is that a whiff of durian I smell, the swamp gas King of Fruits?

Elsewhere in the low-rise shadows, delicate night-blooming jasmine wafts on the breeze, a chance treat from tended but unseen garden pots cluttering tiny urban balconies.

When I ramble through the dusky streets, taking in the sights and smells -- and an unexpected bowl of Hokkien prawn noodles, for no Malaysian excursion is complete without an unscheduled food stop -- I often become engrossed in a miniature nighttime ballet. Close to the dazzling night lights, there gather flurries of flying insects, reeling from the amperage of KL's street lamps shining brighter than the jungle moon ever has.

Omnipresent and waiting nearby are their foes, the predatory and gravity-defying cicak lizards. A small taupe one advances with measured steps, sometimes to battle for territory with its fellows, other times to corner a fluttering, light-stunned prey.  Then sated and heading home over a backlit acrylic shop house signboard, the lizard's transparent skin reveals its inner-workings.

Yet KL's real nighttime spectacle takes place on a grander scale, one best viewed from a passing car, or a skyscraping lookout. A perfect vantage point graces Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve in the heart of the city's Golden Triangle district, the Telekom Tower.  This third-tallest radio spire in the world offers a sparkling panoramic view of the Klang Valley, complimentary with a tasty dinner.  The reverse prospect isn't bad either with the pale mauve edifice a visual triumph in its own right, observation decks glistening like gems in a jeweler's setting.  At its darkened base, high-rent monkeys doze in their precious parcel of virgin forest.

Nearby, the fashionable pylons and sky bridge of the world's tallest structure, the Petronas Twin Towers, blaze as they pierce the clear night sky.  The KL City Centre monument is awesome at any distance, yet its height is most unfathomable when one looks up from the sprawling park at its foundation.

But look up I must, until a crick in the neck and the park's ground-level features seduce me away.

A favorite gathering place in the evenings, the clean wide esplanade offers the perfect runway for a popular tropical evening institution: after dinner strolling cum people-watching.  The humanity spectrum is broad here, with business people from the surrounding corporate neighborhood still crisp from their office work; perfumed shoppers laden with packages spilling out of the glittery Suria KLCC mall; and sightseers from nearby kampung villages and far off countries, drawn by the world famous landmark, like moths to a flame.

Meanwhile, the jogging pathways meandering through a grove of replanted ancient trees attract courting couples who cease their sweet nothings to admire the ever-morphing fountain sprays and attendant laser show.

Across town at the convergence of the Klang and the Gombak rivers, what is the birthplace of Kuala Lumpur, stands a glorious nighttime exhibition of more human proportions.  Bounded by a procession of colonial buildings full of both history and life, Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, has long been a beloved circuit to saunter of an evening, as well as a chosen site for national gatherings.

Taking a turn around the padang field, I soak up the historic mock-Tudor Royal Selangor Club with its raucous, patron-brimming Long Bar.  The Club's wide verandah looks out onto its famous cricket field and beyond that, to the fanciful domes, arches and spiral staircases of the Sultan Abdul Samad courthouse.  Stunning during the day, at night the eclectic Indo-Arab details of this 1894 justice building are transformed into a three-dimensional wonder of light.

The Moorish architectural influence continues downriver, where the fantastic and light-hearted 1911 Railway Station is a feast for the eyes.  Cupolas, turrets and keyhole arches are so reminiscent of a childhood carnival ride I half expect a little train to rocket through the arches, filled with squealing people.

Nearby the appealing lattice work high-rise Kompleks Dayabumi provides a twentieth century translation of Islamic design while the nation's site of worship, Masjid Negara, sports chic international style architecture.  And overlooking everything from the Lake Gardens hill above, the National Planetarium echoes the mosque's color scheme, its blue dome and white observation tower peeking over the tree-tops.

Yet further downstream on the outer edge of the city there awaits a most meaningful nighttime phenomenon.

Fronting the King's Istana, the official seat of Malaysia's royal ruler, techno-festive strings of lights dangle like ethereal tendrils from the broad branches of tall and seasoned trees.  In a moving and masterful embellishment, the city fathers here seem to mimic the cascading roots of nature's mighty banyan -- and the incredible, magical blazing created when forest fireflies gather by river's edge. The tribute is palpable. Behind its gilded portal, the golden palace gleams in silent, awestruck reflection of a brilliant equatorial moon.

This rejuvenating starlit experience will redeem me tomorrow when I oversleep the chilled and dewy dawn.

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This appeared in Malaysia Airlines' inflight magazine GOING PLACES.