Many travellers I’ve met and spoken to say they don’t like Kuala Lumpur, or KL as it’s often known but look a little deeper than just the less than salubrious Chinatown and there’s plenty to see and enjoy.
This relatively young city is a melting pot of multiculturalism and its three main ethnic groups are Malays, Indians and Chinese. Add to this, periods of British and Japanese occupation and you have a vibrant city of great food with varied culture and architecture which includes colonial pre-war, Islamic influences, temples and mosques as well as modern skyscrapers and iconic buildings such as the Petronas towers. It’s really quite interesting, honest.
Places to stay in KL
Chinatown is the go-to place for backpackers. There’s loads of choice and it’s centrally located to get to pretty much anywhere of interest, within walking distance or on the LRT. There are loads of restaurants and temples to keep you going in Chinatown, too. Bukit Bintang, the more fancy end of town also has hostel options for the more party orientated and flashpacker tastes. Check out these two hostels on our 'Best Hostels' list...
Things to do and see in Kuala Lumpur (KL)
The Batu caves are only a few kilometres outside of the city and an important site for the Hindu population of Kuala Lumpur. Every January, the Festival of Thaipusam descends on these temples and millions of people come to celebrate, pray and people watch. It’s a riot of colour and rituals and absolutely recommended if you’re in town at the right time.
To get to the Batu Caves, buy a ticket from the old KL train station near Chinatown, 4MYR return. If Thaipusam isn’t scheduled during your visit, the temple (and it’s 272 steps) still holds plenty of appeal. A worthy warning across SE Asia, watch out for the monkeys!
The Islamic Art Museum houses a great collection of Islamic artefacts and exhibitions. It’s good value at only 12Ringgit. Situated almost next door is the National Mosque, a beautifully photogenic building which allows visitors at certain times of the day (appropriate dress essential).
Merdeka Square is where Malaysia proclaimed independence from Britain in 1957. Merdeka translates to ‘freedom’. This was previously a colonial HQ with a cricket pitch and an infamous whites only club. Nowadays it’s quite a busy area with traffic but Merdeka Square is surrounded by beautiful and ornate colonial architecture.
You can see the Petronas Towers and the Menara (KL) Tower poking out from behind the surrounding buildings. Take an hour to relax in the evening, it’s a great place to read a book or chat to curious local families.
There is also a useful tourist information place just behind the flagpole offering lots of free tours and good information as well as an ‘I Love KL’ sculpture for a pretty decent new Facebook profile picture.
The Petronas Towers, famous from that great Sean Connery film Entrapment and are well worth gazing at. It’s most glorious at night, but daytime is also pretty stunning. Underneath is a super mall with just about everything you could want or need. Just outside of the towers is a nice area of green (KLCC Taman) in the middle of the otherwise busy, urban city. It’s a great place to hang out and relax. KLCC Suria, the mall underneath the towers also has an aquarium.
The Botanical Gardens are accessible from close to both Chinatown and Central Station, making it a nice place to get some fresh air or good for a run, there is also a bird park which gets good reviews.
The (KL) Tower is one of the highest building in the city, giving panoramic views and every year hosts a base-jumping event!
Berjaya Times Square, another mall close to Bukit Bintang, in Imbi has an unusual attraction, a small theme park including a roller coaster on one of the upper floors.
Kampung Baru, is another great place to check out - a small residential enclave in the shadow of the towers which has resisted any calls to modernise or develop. It’s predominately Muslim area so dress with modesty. It’s a good area to head to around dinner time for some traditional Malay fare and reputedly, some of the best nasi lemak in town.
For more of what's on offer in KL, check out our article '7 Alternative Things to Do in KL'.
Getting around KL
- It’s really cheap to get around on the public transport network which is fast and efficient (1-2 Ringgit per journey), it opens at 6am and closes around midnight.
- However, walking is an adventure in itself! Most of the city is flat, sights of interest are relatively close and the diversity of KL means that you will often stumble across something unexpected and find plenty of 'kopitiams' (traditional coffee shops) to recharge in.
- The purple GOKL! Buses will take you from Chinatown (outside Pasar Seni LRT station) to Bukit Bintang (Pavillion shopping centre) and back free of charge!
- Whilst you’re staying in KL if you plan to take taxis you should download the Myteksi app, which allows you to book and track and rate your taxi. Drivers then have to take you to the pre-confirmed destination on the meter or risk being barred from bidding for jobs on the service. No tourist tax, or ‘meter broken’ here!
Where to eat in KL?
For cheap and delicious food, it's a no-brainer. Eat at the food courts and pop-up street restaurants. If you’re not so keen to eat at actual street kitchens there are several decent food courts that serve similar meals, in a restaurant setting. Lot 10 shopping centre and Food Republic in the Pavillion shopping centre at Bukit Bintang offer Malay and other Asian dishes. The quality is good and popular with locals, too.
There are Mamak food courts, Chinese tea houses, Indian banana leaf curry restaurants and twenty-four-hour food areas to get your fix of roti, teh tarik and all the other Malaysian favourites. Go forth and indulge.
Something to drink?
Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and as such there is isn’t the same drinking culture you find in Thailand and some other SE Asian countries. Having said that, it’s not hard to get hold of a beer. There’s a cosmopolitan bar scene in the city around the Bukit Bintang/ KLCC area and there are a few high-rise bars where you can get an expensive drink and gaze at the skyline including the Petronas Towers. Chinatown is a cheaper, more casual place to get a few curbside beers. However, drinking in KL is going to blow your budget to pieces, with many happy hours in Bukit Bintang more expensive than the average pint in the UK!
Malaysia has a heap of great non-alcoholic drinks and you can order teh tarik, a rich sugar hit of condensed milk tea which is stretched, or as the name translates, ‘pulled’. Servers will use two cups and continuously pour the hot tea between them, widening the gap and increasing the frothiness of the brew. There’s also iced drinks made with sweetcorn (jagung) or milk and rose (bandung) flavoured as well as iced Chinese teas, soy drinks and internationally popular bubble tea chains.
Coffee, known in Malay as kopi is sold everywhere in Kopitiams, (the Hokkien Chinese dialect word for a coffee shop) hot or cold and served with condensed milk. (panas is hot, ais is iced although Chinese Malays will use the term ‘peng’ for iced. ) There are a few places which sell European style espresso coffee and a few (very expensive) Starbucks dotted around. Stick with the local stuff.
Getting in and out of KL
KL is the main transport hub of Malaysia, and the home of AirAsia – Buses and trains come in and out every day to every corner of Malaysia, Singapore and up to the Thai border. Air Asia currently flies to almost every corner of SE Asia, as well as India, China and Japan.
Northbound Buses depart from Pudu Sentral, which is only a few minutes’ walk from Chinatown although many buses( those going south) depart from the new, airport like TBS which you can get to on the LRT. If you’re headed out from Pudu Sentral (also known as Puduraya) be aware of the helpful touts, generally they will send you to a kiosk that is going where you want, but check the rates at others too – Transnasional and Plusliner are the professional standard national companies as opposed to the other companies which are smaller, locally run on older buses. In my experience, there’s nothing wrong with any of the companies, but Plusliner or Transnasional might get you there a little more comfortably (but not necessarily quicker). Like most transport hubs, be aware of petty crime and pickpockets.
From the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) it’s possible to take an express train into the city as well as bus which are both far easy ways to travel the 50KM trip than negotiating with taxi drivers. Air Asia and a host of other budget airlines also fly from KLIA across SE Asia, but from the LCCT (low-cost carrier terminal).
Note: KL isn’t any more dangerous than anywhere else in the world, but the Petronas Towers are a magnet for people trying to sell tourist rubbish and fake or possibly stolen phones. Be on your guard for all the usual opportunistic big city crimes, pickpockets, bag-snatching etc. which unfortunately do happen.
Written by Ben Turland.