10 Interesting Things to See in Kampong Bharu, Kuala Lumpur

The sign welcoming visitors to the village of Kampong Bharu

photography by: Sinéad Browne

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Kuala Lumpur (KL) is the epitome of a successful city, it is accessible internationally with an affordable visa system; it attracts successful businesses from all over the world giving rise to employment rates over 95%; its transit network is fast and frequent; it is home to 3 of the largest shopping centers in the world; and its juxtaposition of colonial and modern architecture graces the Instagram pages and blogs of many an overseas tourist, in particular the impressive twin Petronas Towers and a melting pot of religious sites of worship. Most people who visit KL see all of this and are dutifully impressed. Yet in the heart of this thriving economic center, there is something truly unique, an irrepressible rarity in the form of a traditional Malay village nestled snugly amongst the towering city blocks. This 223-acre village is called Kampong Bharu (“new village”), the only remaining village of the seven originally forming the Malay Agricultural Settlement and the oldest residential area in KL.

The history of Kampong Bharu

The Malay Agricultural Settlement was established in 1899 when His Royal Highness, the Sultan of Selangor, granted the land to the Malays under a special condition that only ethnic Malays could own the land and live in the area. Malay people under this definition are those who speak the language, practice the Muslim religion and customs and are approved by the Board of Management of the Settlement.

 

While the skyscrapers have grown up around Kampong Bharu, it has retained its village atmosphere and still serves as a prime example of Malay housing, customs and food. The village is replete with local markets, tiny herbal shops and chickens running around the streets. The single or double level wooden houses on stilts contrast sharply with the 100+ story buildings dominating the background. The city is encroaching but hasn’t yet taken over. The question then arises – how can a piece of land in such a prime location, estimated to be worth somewhere between 2.5 billion USD and 15 billion USD, continues to withstand the ubiquitous urban sprawl for so long?

New meets old: The traditional Malay houses provide a stark contrast to the towering skyscrapers less than a mile away

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Kampong Bharu development

The answer is complex. Plans for the development of Kampong Bharu can be evidenced as far back as 1971 but didn’t form part of the larger KL development plan until 2008. Plans around 2010 indicated population growth from 18,000 residents to 77,000, mainly housed in 50-storey high rises.  Many of these plans never materialized for multiple reasons: developers refused to pay city-center land values and residents believed that the development plans had unclear redevelopment objectives, unfair compensation distribution, and posed a threat to Malay identity.

 

In 2014, the “Master Plan” was outlined with a plan to develop the land in clusters rather than tackle the twin issues of overlapping plots and multiple landowners.  Combined lots are naturally more attractive to real estate developers but again, only 61% of landowners agreed to sell and these plans were once again delayed.  There have been numerous revisions to the plan since then and pre-COVID, there were 7 areas highlighted for development, indicating that agreements have been reached with at least some of the owners.


The future of Kampong Bharu

As always, the situation is not black and white.  There are obvious benefits to development such as better healthcare and improved amenities but some residents would much prefer to preserve what they see as an integral part of their culture and heritage. However, there are now only 35% of residents remaining with a direct link to the original settlers and as this number dwindles, the lure of financial wealth may lead to more opportunities for developers.

 

This is further complicated by the fact that existing immigrants and renters are largely excluded from the redevelopment planning process, so there is a dearth of information and therefore misinformation in some areas. Add to this the fact that there are 5,300 potential landowners owning the 890 parcels of land, only 280 of whom have been identified, meaning that bulk development is essentially impossible and even if sales are agreed in principle, there may be future land ownership issues. It is hard to say what the “correct” balance is because the value of culture and community cannot easily be estimated. For now, Kampong Bharu holds out against the rising tide of metal and glass but the future is, at best, uncertain.

Kittens play under an abandoned car in a run-down part of Kampong Bharu

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Exploring Kampong Bharu

Following an extremely useful map and infographic we found on the official Visit KL website, we did a self-guided walking tour of this fascinating neighborhood. There are 10 stops on the tour and allowing time for photos and food stops, you could easily spend 2-3 hours here.

Map of Kampong Bharu

photography by: official Visit KL website


Stop 1: Kelan Sultan Sulaiman

This is a social club established in 1901 for residents of Kampong Bharu formerly known as Sultan Suleiman Club. It has been renovated extensively three times but still maintains the old traditions and exclusive member access.

Outside Kelab Sultan Sulaiman, the exclusive members club

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Stop 2: Master Mat’s House

Built by a popular former headmaster, this wooden house stands out for its bright blue colour, its stone pillars and its curving staircase. The third generation of Master Mat’s family still live here.  The system of land ownership in Malaysia may help to protect houses such as Master Mat’s in the event of the seemingly inevitable encroachment of high-rises. The system, defined by the Koran as Faraid, means that Muslims divide their estate proportionally among their heirs so that a house can have multiple owners spanning many generations.  No sale can take place without the agreement of all those with a claim to the estate. For those seeking to hold on to their Kampong Bharu heritage, this system might yet prove imperative.

Master Mat’s house

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Stop 3: Kelab Sultan Suleiman Gallery

This heritage building tells the history of Malaysia’s early years through the colonial period.  Its design is modelled on the second renovation of the Suleiman Social Club.

Kelab Sultan Suleiman Gallery

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Stop 4: Malay Food Street (Jalan Raja Muda Musa)

Tantalizing aromas waft from this area, especially towards the evening as Malay street food vendors prepare their wares. The food here is cheap and tasty. Local favorites include nasi ayam goreng (fried chicken rice), nasi lemak antarabangsa (international nasi lemak), chicken skewers drizzled in peanut sauce with crispy shallots and tapai, a sweet fermented rice dessert often wrapped in banana leaves.

The entrance to Malay food street, with the Petronas Towers less than a mile away in the background

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Stop 5: Rumah Limas

This is a traditional Malay house built in 1931 and rebuilt in 1949 post-war. It would have been one of the larger houses of the time and yet it is now dwarfed by the extensive urban development taking place all around it. From a certain angle, the glass and steel skyscraper in the background seems to be emerging from the traditional house like some great tree trunk, dominating the skyline while the roots remain solid and largely unseen.

The juxtaposition of Rumah Limas and the towering skyscrapers of the city

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Stop 6: Former Saturday Night Market

In the 1930s, this area was the first Malay trading centre and was an essential part of daily life.  Change is happening quickly here, with one side of the street almost entirely blocked off as a construction site while the other side still clings to its traditional little shops, barbers and tailors; their owners still eking out a living amidst the ever-changing skyline.

Peeking through a gap in the construction site that was formerly part of the Saturday night market

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Stop 7: Masjid Jamek Kampong Bharu

This beautifully ornate mosque has been a place of worship for local Muslim people for over a century. During the holy month of Ramadan, the mosque becomes the main gathering place for the daily breaking of the fast as well as other charitable events.

Masjid Jamek Kampong Bharu

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Stop 8: Herbal and Sundries Shops

A trip to Kampong Bharu would not be complete without a visit to some of these little “herbal and sundries” shops. Arrays of ground herbs line the counters while smiling salespeople gesture towards local beauty products guaranteed to improve your skin/hair/nails/cure any other ailments you may have.

One of the many herbal and sundries shops lining the streets around Kampong Bharu

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Stop 9: Gurdwara Tatt Khalsa

This is a Sikh place of worship located in the middle of the evening bazaar. It is also a religious school and teaches the Punjabi language. The temple was built in 1922 on land given by the former British administration. Free vegetarian Sunday lunches are offered to anyone who stops by, a welcoming gesture observed at many Sikh temples around the world.

Gurdwara Tatt Khalsa, a Sikh place of worship in the middle of the evening bazaar

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Stop 10: Evening Street Bazaar

The narrow street of Raja Alang is transformed into a busy street market in the evening time, selling all manner of fruits and vegetables. The market was just opening up as we passed so we didn’t see it in all its bustling glory. We did however observe queues for durian fruit vendors, which bemused us; durian fruit has been banned from certain public places in Malaysia and Singapore because of its smell so we can’t see the appeal.

Queues for durian fruit at the evening bazaar

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Tourist Trap or Hidden Gem?

We visited Kampong Bharu at the start of March 2020, when the global pandemic was about to take hold so it is difficult to say if that was the reason there were relatively few tourists around. We also visited in the early afternoon so some markets were just beginning to open up as we left. That aside, I know a lot of people who have visited KL and never heard of Kampong Bharu, let alone visited it. I think this in itself places it firmly in the category of “hidden gem”. Given the option, it would be a really unique experience to stay in this part of the city for at least one night to really absorb all it has to offer – before its village charm disappears in the latest spate of urban development.


When to Visit

KL is warm and humid all year round, with temperatures ranging from mid-twenties to mid-thirties (Celsius) so weather-wise, you could visit Kampong Bharu at any time of year. Most of the markets open in the early evening, especially during Ramadan, so this is an ideal time of day to visit to soak up the local culture. Certain markets only open from 4pm to 8pm during Ramadan.


Getting to Kampong Bharu

The Kampong Bharu neighbourhood is outlined on the map below, right beside the famous Petronas Towers. It is really easy to get to by train via the Kampung Baru LRT Station (KJ11) along the RapidKL Rail Kelana Jaya Line, by monorail to Medan Tunaku or Chow Kit or by taxi (located off a main road called Jalan Razak). Alternatively, you can easily walk there in about 30 minutes from the Petronas Towers.