I drive past Dataran Merdeka every now and then, on my commutes. But it was only in 2020 that I got around to exploring it on foot. When the pandemic lockdowns eased a bit in 2020, Malaysians were allowed to travel within our larger neighbourhoods. There was no vaccine yet at the time, and nobody was quite sure whether infections would rise again if the government lifted the lockdown. So the authorities experimented with allowing movement within the same district, as well as travel to some tourism ‘bubbles’.

But as a slow traveller, I was confident I didn’t need to go to tourism bubbles for vacation. I decided to have a staycation instead. I figured, it was high time I got around to exploring the old part of Kuala Lumpur, in much the same way as I would if I were visiting the capital of another country. And since it was coming up to Malaysia’s Independence Day, a staycation focused around the Independence Square seemed fitting.

Dataran Merdeka in lettering over a semi-circle of colonnade, with the Bank Koperasi Rakyat building on the left in the background
Dataran Merdeka. Visiting on the run-up to Independence Day meant I got the bonus of Malaysian flags appearing in my photos of this area, which is on-theme!

Why you should visit Dataran Merdeka

Dataran Merdeka is named after the independence proclamation of Malaya (later Malaysia). It was here, at midnight on 31 August 1957, that the Union Jack was lowered and the Malayan flag hoisted for the first time, signifying the end of British colonial rule of the peninsula.

History of Kuala Lumpur

Dataran Merdeka is the original town centre of Kuala Lumpur. Although there have been native Temuan people in the area since at least before the mid-19th century, Kuala Lumpur only grew into a settlement of villages when Malay peoples from around the region arrived.

Despite being a young city, Kuala Lumpur had an eventful history. Following the establishment of the Malay settlements, Chinese also came, seeking their fortune after the crumbling of Imperial China following the Opium Wars. They formed societies in the new land. Some were secret societies (aka “triads” in modern parlance); some of these then followed different native feudal lords in expeditions to seek mining territory. This included fighting for their lords in the Selangor Civil War between rival princes over tax and mining rights.

However, the Dataran Merdeka area as per its current layout, dates from the arrival of the British. In 1874 the Sultan of Selangor agreed to accept a British Resident to advise him in modern state governance. The third British Resident, Frank Swettenham, is widely credited for the development of Kuala Lumpur into a hub for governance. Modern engineered infrastructure and administrative buildings were constructed at this time. This avoided repeats of fire and flood, and so the city prospered.

Sultan Abdul Samad building in front of Dataran Merdeka
Sultan Abdul Samad building, the first British Government Offices in Selangor. 100 years after the ruling Selangor Sultan first agreed to accept a British Resident, the building was re-named after him.

Where is Dataran Merdeka

Dataran Merdeka is the true city centre of Kuala Lumpur. The settlement was originally founded at the confluence where the Gombak river merged into the Klang, which then meanders onwards to discharge at the Klang estuary, where Port Klang is situated (previously named Port Swettenham).

This muddy confluence is the reason why Kuala Lumpur is named Kuala Lumpur in the first place. Surrounding it are the old neighbourhoods of Kuala Lumpur: the hills of the former British residences, Chow Kit, Kampung Baru, Bangsar, Brickfields and Bukit Bintang.

Landmarks around Dataran Merdeka

There are many landmarks around Dataran Merdeka, as it had once been the administrative centre of Selangor. It continued to be significant, because Kuala Lumpur was ceded as a federal territory to become the capital of the Malayan federation following Malaya’s independence. However, this article focuses on the landmarks in the immediate area of Merdeka Square, within walkable distances.

1. Landmarks on the colonial heritage trail

The most obvious landmarks in Dataran Merdeka are the British colonial buildings. The British would, obviously, centre their government administration around a cricket lawn. And that’s basically what Dataran Merdeka was: the field, or padang, of the Selangor Club just opposite the Government Offices. They built the government buildings around this Padang. The British architects at the time drew heavily from architecture in British India and other colonial territories of similar climate. The result is an interesting and uniquely colonial style, which gives Dataran Merdeka its iconic look.

The Colonial Walk route picks up these historical colonial buildings. I found the plaques explaining the history and architecture of significant buildings fairly interesting. This article is a great recap of the colonial era heritage buildings around Dataran Merdeka, if you don’t want to miss anything.

Pro Tip: One of these heritage buildings houses the National Textile Museum. Although it sounds a bit nerdy, I highly recommend visiting it. The history of textiles in Malaysian cultures is closely tied to the history of trade in Asia. The museum provides insight into the richness of Malaysia’s traditional textile craft, as well as an understanding of the ancientness and breadth of trade in Asia before the arrival of Europeans.

2. Dataran Merdeka flag tower

At one end of Dataran Merdeka, there is a massive flagstaff. A huge Malaysian flag is always flying from this flagstaff, visible from a considerable distance. There is an array of shorter flagpoles around it, flying the flags of all the states in the Malaysian federation.

The interesting part about this flagstaff are the mosaics at the base. One depicts Kuala Lumpur when it was still a collection of villages. The other reproduces the iconic scene of the first Malaysian Prime Minister thrice proclaiming “Merdeka!” – that the peninsula was free.

3. The confluence of Gombak & Klang rivers

Of course, the original landmark is the spot of the ‘muddy confluence’ that gave Kuala Lumpur its name. Today, the river sections in question have been retained and the riverbanks paved, and probably looks nothing like the name it inspired. However, both rivers were notorious for being ‘dead rivers’. So the city eventually launched the River of Life project to revitalise it. I can’t say whether the rivers are living rivers now, but it did result in a nice facelift for the area.

The Masjid Jamek of Kuala Lumpur, upgraded and rebuilt by the colonial administration, still lies at the triangle of land exactly on the confluence. Today, the area is lit in blue light at night, and there is a fountain show in front of the mosque, which is still in active use and still hosts Friday congregational prayers. The Masjid Jamek LRT station conveniently stops nearby.

Masjid Jamek at the confluence of the Gombak and Klang rivers at night. The riverbanks are lit in royal blue and a dancing fountain in front of the mosque is in the midst of a choreographed show.  In the background, the KL municipal office facade is lit up to display a giant Malaysian flag banner.
Masjid Jamek and the River of Life at night

4. Jalan Yap Ah Loy

Jalan Yap Ah Loy is a street in the KL downtown area across the river from Dataran Merdeka. It is named after another prominent figure in the founding of Kuala Lumpur, a migrant Chinese community leader (or ‘Kapitan Cina’), Yap Ah Loy. In an alley off of this street, you will find a series of murals recounting his life story. He had an eventful life, which was probably par for the course in those times. I personally found it quite funny in its honesty. My takeaway was that, you could absolutely start out mediocre and a ne’er-do-well (later even a downright mob boss), and still end up rising to the occasion, becoming a patron of your community and earning an honourable place in the history books. (Although, one can’t help but wonder how much falling in love with a Melaka nyonya girl contributed to his turn to respectability.)

One of the murals off of Jalan Yap Ah Loy telling the life story of the founder-patron of Kuala Lumpur.
One of the mural series about the life story of Yap Ah Loy.

Pro Tip: There are other street art highlights in this general downtown area. The downtown area is the original market zone of Kuala Lumpur. If Dataran Merdeka was the tidy administrative side, the ‘pasar’ was the market area where goods arriving by river and train were unloaded and re-loaded, and where the commerce actually happened. It is the people’s side of Dataran Merdeka, and the street art reflects those themes of ordinary life.

5. Other landmarks around Dataran Merdeka

While exploring the landmarks above, you’ll come across a few smaller ones.

The zero mile stone for Kuala Lumpur is next to the field in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad building. Indirectly, it reflects the importance of surveying in colonial Kuala Lumpur. Indeed, one of the government offices that the British built was the Survey Department.

You’ll also notice a green public fountain that wouldn’t be out of place in Europe. This is Victoria Fountain, after the British Queen Victoria. I wondered whether the penny dropped for locals then, that they were actually colonised. For the British advisor named the fountain after his own queen, instead of the local (ostensibly) reigning king. Nonetheless, we have kept the fountain and its name.

The Kuala Lumpur library is a relatively new building. Built next to the old government printing office (now the City Gallery), it has an interesting architecture that fits the overall look around Merdeka Square.

There’s a clock tower in the old market grounds just behind the river. The clock tower itself isn’t that interesting. But there’s a series of fountain spouts in front of it. I guess it keeps the area cool, and kids like to play with the spouts. (There’s also another clock in front of the old survey department. It’s a countdown clock and has a water curtain that turns on at certain times. But it didn’t seem to be working when I was there.)

How to get to Dataran Merdeka

Depending on your transportation, getting to Dataran Merdeka can be easy or difficult. As a city centre pre-dating the mass adoption of automobiles, if you come by car you can expect traffic jams and limited parking spaces. You can also get Grab rides, but figuring out where to meet your driver can be tricky if you’re in the downtown side. There are few places where it makes sense for them to wait without obstructing traffic.

On the other hand, if you use public transport, it’s pretty easy to get to Dataran Merdeka. There are many bus stops in the downtown area, and an LRT station on the north and south end of the area. See sections below for more detail.

Significant areas beyond Dataran Merdeka

You might want to combine a visit to Dataran Merdeka with other popular spots in KL (aside from downtown KL itself, of course). Or they might be your main interest, and you want to know if you can easily pop over to Dataran Merdeka from there. Below are a few districts next to Dataran Merdeka, what attractions you can find in them, and how to get to Dataran Merdeka from there.

South: Pasar Seni area

There are a couple of significant colonial era buildings which are not in the Dataran Merdeka town centre. The old Kuala Lumpur railway station and the headquarters of Malayan Railways are located south of Merdeka Square. I stayed in this area for my staycation in a heritage hotel nearby, The Majestic.

The KL railway station is still in use, though the rail hub of KL has now moved to KL Sentral in Brickfields. The Komuter train stops here. There is an overpass crossing the river that connects it to the Pasar Seni LRT station. As you cross, check out the graffiti art along the river channel walls below. This station is also the Pasar Seni stop on the MRT.

More immediately south of Dataran Merdeka, you will find another two significant buildings, albeit not as old. The headquarters of the Malaysian postal service is an icon of post-independence government. Next to it is the Dayabumi complex, Malaysia’s first commercial skyscraper with an iconic facade and 8-pointed star floor plan.

On the other side of the river is the Central Market district. Originally built by Yap Ah Loy as a normal wet market, today it is a market for crafts. Hence, ‘Arts Market’ or Pasar Seni. Walk along the Kasturi Walk (named after this legendary figure) along Jalan Hang Kasturi from the Pasar Seni LRT station to get there.

Malayan Railway headquarters at night
Malayan Railways (KTMB) headquarters at night

Pro Tip: Think City organises the Arts on the Move programme at the Pasar Seni LRT/MRT station. Commuters can enjoy art performances, workshops, and exhibitions. Check out their website for the most current programme schedule. Although, sometimes the programme’s Instagram might be more current.

Southeast: Chinatown area

Petaling Street, or KL’s Chinatown, is another popular place. Previously (?) notorious for selling fake goods, it still attracts the curious. RexKL, one of the earlier cinemas in Kuala Lumpur, is also located here. Today, it is no longer a cinema, but is now an arts & community hub with hipster vibes.

You could walk over to Chinatown from the Pasar Seni LRT station on the Kelana Jaya line. Alternatively, you can also come via the MRT. Stop at the Merdeka station and walk over from the eastern side. You can also take the LRT Ampang Line and stop at Plaza Rakyat in the same general area as the MRT Merdeka station.

Petaling Street arch at night, during the Covid19 pandemic.
Chinatown arch at night. The area was uncharacteristically quiet, with all the shops closed due to the pandemic.

Northeast: Masjid India area

The Indian Quarter is to the northeast of Dataran Merdeka. Indian traders are historically famous for textiles. It is referred to as Masjid India, after the mosque built by Indian Muslims. The Masjid Jamek LRT station is in between Dataran Merdeka’s Masjid Jamek and this mosque. To this day, if you want to find the best shopping in KL for cloth and traditional clothing, this area along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman (affectionately called ‘Jalan TAR’) is still the place to go.

Masjid India in yellow and maroon, particularly recognisable as Indian Muslim aesthetic.

If you’re visiting Kuala Lumpur, why not add Dataran Merdeka to your itinerary? Share this article!

12 Responses

  1. E P says:

    such great and informative blog post! thankyou for this 🧙‍♂️

    • Teja says:

      You’re welcome! When doing this staycation I realised no one writes guides about this area in a geographical way, only in a touristic way. And as I’m a believer that the history and meaning of places is a lot easier to understand if you saw it spatially or geographically, I tried to fix that.

  2. Oh I love this post as it brings back so many great memories from my recent trip and helps me go even deeper in my education. Thank you!

  3. Marya says:

    Ohhh, I went to Dataran Merdeka in 2016 when I wanted to take a picture in front of the I love KL sign. Is the sign still around these days? :D

  4. Mayi says:

    Malaysia is high on my bucket list. I hope to visit soon and will make sure to add Dataran Merdeka to the itinerary. It has some lovely architecture.

    • Teja says:

      Yes, it’s quite interesting. If you look closely, the architecture is actually an amalgamation of many different influences – Mughal, Moroccan, Greek, Gothic… Proper Malaysian architects have always kinda griped that they’re not actually native architecture, but on the other hand it’s also so iconic to KL.

  5. Vidya says:

    I have visited Detaran Merdeka and my guide told me about its history and meaning of its name which is Independence Square in English. This is an interesting historical landmark in Kuala Lumpur.

  6. Alma says:

    A great insight into the landmarks of Dataran Merdeka. Thanks for sharing this info.

    • Teja says:

      You’re welcome! I wanted to write something that doesn’t just cover ‘go here, look at that’, but give a bit of spatial sense to the place and imagine the flow of people in the old town centre of KL.

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