Many travellers come to the quick conclusion that they don’t like Kuala Lumpur, or KL as it’s often known, but look a little deeper than the tourist den of Chinatown and there’s so much to see and enjoy, not to mention – eat!
This relatively young city (200 years old) is a melting pot of multi-culturalism 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.
Where to stay in Kuala Lumpur
Welcome to Chinatown
Chinatown is the go-to place for backpackers. There’s loads of choice of budget accommodation 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.
Our Number One Pick in Chinatown! – BackHome Hostel
A chilled out hostel with wonderful rooms, amazing social spaces and some of the nicest staff around, BackHome Kuala Lumpur is the perfect choice for a traveller wanting to be right in the heart of the city. This hostel is ideally located for the budget backpacker, as it’s within walking distance from wallet-friendly (and delicious) local restaurants, main public transports links and some of KL’s top sights, meaning you won’t have to dish out on expensive cabs to explore what the city has to offer. Rooms here may cost a little more than in other areas, but you’ll save tenfold in the transport costs!
We’ve visited KL several times during our travels and BackHome is the best hostel we’ve stayed in. Not only are the staff wonderful and really helpful, but it’s got amazing rooms, some of the comfiest pillows we’ve ever slept on and the best communal areas yet – they have a Movie Room with unlimited Netflix! The courtyard is such a nice place to have breakfast (which is free) and even though it’s right in the city centre, the noise from the traffic and nearby trains don’t disrupt from a good nights sleep. (Dorm beds start at around $14 US and double rooms around $40 US.)
Other good hostels in Chinatown
Space Hotel @ Chinatown – An accommodation that has gone all out with their futuristic theme. Stylish containers are available for $10 USD, it’s very clean and the internet runs at an intergalactic speed (sorry).
Capsule Town Hotel – Along the same theme, is almost as futuristic (and their capsules are pretty much identical). Clean, friendly and well-placed. And… What’s that?! Only $7 USD for a capsule and $20 USD for a private double!
The Explorers Guesthouse – If you can drop the capsule dream for a moment, and consider a standard dorm bed, Explorers will provide you with one in return for $6 USD, or up to $10 USD if you fancy sharing with fewer people. Doubles start at $18 USD.
Mingle Hostel is a little bit more expensive at $10 to $14 for dorm beds and $25 USD upwards for privates. It’s a popular place with a sociable vibe about it.
The Alternative: Bukit Bintang
Bukit Bintang is the fancier end of town where you’ll find the majority of the expensive hotels, shopping malls and bars. Right in the heart of the action, the area also has hostel options for the more party-orientated and flashpacker tastes. Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit more expensive to stay in Bukit Bintang. Some good options are…
Melange Boutique Hotel, which is very clean and comfortable with privates available from around $20 USD. From the street, you might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps “boutique” is not the ideal word for it, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find on the inside.
Container Hotel has ticked as many hipster boxes as it possibly could, offering a “campsite” (inside), concrete rooms and converted shipping container rooms and suites. If you want to use your time in KL as fuel for your Instagram account, this is probably the place for you! Prices range from $35 USD to $70 USD. Read our full review here.
Staying Elsewhere in KL
We’re big fans of iO Hotel run by the lovely Kristine and Derek who really make travellers feel at home. The hostel has private rooms and funky capsule beds that start at just $9 US per night.
iO Hotel located in Pudu, a neighbourhood a little far away from the centre that doesn’t seem to see many tourists. So if you’re looking for a more authentic stay in the city, where locals will be pleased to see you, it’s a great option! The multicultural neighbourhood around iO Hotel offers a fantastic mix of people (Chinese, Indian, Burmese), and of course, cuisines – we didn’t eat a disappointing bite in the local area! (We’d particularly recommend the curry house on the corner from the hostel). Read our full review of iO Hotel here!
Is Kuala Lumpur safe?
Kuala Lumpur certainly isn’t any more dangerous than any other city else in the world, but the Petronas Towers and the touristy heart of Chinatown 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.
Top 10 Things to do in Kuala Lumpur
1. Visit the Batu Caves
The Batu caves are only a few kilometres outside of the city and an important site for the Hindu population of Kuala Lumpur and a culturally fascinating tourist destination. The giant gold statue that stands proudly outside the cave is Lord Murugan. It is the second largest statue of a Hindu deity in the world and has been in place at Batu Caves since 2006.
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. (Read more about Thaipusam Festival below).
How to get to the Batu Caves: Buy a ticket from the old KL train station near Chinatown, 4MYR return. If Thaipusam Festival isn’t scheduled during your visit, the temple (and it’s 272 steps) still holds plenty of appeal. A worthy warning – watch out for the monkeys who will steal your food and drinks!
2. Visit the Petronas Towers
The Petronas Towers, an iconic image of Kuala Lumpur, (also famous from that Sean Connery film Entrapment) 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.
3. Visit Merdeka Square
Merdeka Square (Merdeka meaning Independence) 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.
From here, you can also 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 with 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!
4. Visit the Islamic Art Museum
The Islamic Art Museum houses a great collection of Islamic artefacts and exhibitions. The building itself is a work of art and it’s a great place to spend a scorching hot day. (It’s also good value at only 12 Ringgit to enter.)
5. Visit Masjid Negara
Situated almost next door to the Islamic Art Museum is the National Mosque (Masjid Negara), a beautifully photogenic building which allows visitors at certain times of the day. The main dome is a star with 18 points which represent the five pillars of Islam and the thirteen states of Malaysia. To enter you must be wearing appropriate clothing with your arms and legs covered, or you will be given something to wear.
6. Go up The KL Tower for amazing views!
The KL Tower is one of the highest building in the city, giving 360-degree panoramic views for those who take the lift right up to the top (apparently it only takes 54 seconds to get there!). Every year KL Tower hosts a base-jumping event!
7. Visit the Botanical Gardens
The Botanical Gardens are accessible from both Chinatown and Central Station, making it a nice place to get some fresh air or go for a run. The gardens are huge and there are various aspects from a park with a lake to a butterfly garden and a tropical bird park which gets good reviews. Don’t miss the foot massage stones which walk a fine line between pain and pleasure.
8. Wander to Kampung Baru
Kampung Baru is 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.
9. Eat your way through the city on a food tour!
Offering some of the most diverse cuisine in the entire world, Malaysia is one place you have to do a food tour! Avoid the tourist traps and head out with a local chef to get insider tips about the best places to eat and the opportunity to try the most delicious food that the capital offers. A Kuala Lumpur food tour is an incredible way to explore the city on foot, all the time filling your face with delicious treats. What could possibly be better?!
10. Visit Sri Mahamariannan Temples
The oldest Hindu Temple in the whole of the city, Sri Mahamariamman Temple is a wondrous example of Kuala Lumpur’s multicultural diversity. With its intricate designs and bright colours, it really stands out amidst the red temples and backpacker hostels of Chinatown. It’s a religious meeting place for the local Tamil community, but tourists are free to explore the temple grounds.
For more of what’s on offer in KL check out our article for more alternative and unusual ‘Things to Do in Kuala Lumpur’.
Food in Kuala Lumpur
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. 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, tehtarik and all the other Malaysian favourites. Go forth and indulge! Here are some of our must-try places (all located in Chinatown)…
Santa Chapati House
The Indian food at the highly recommended Santa Chapati House is a must try. It’s super cheap, at RM 1.80 for a chapati, RM 4 for a portion of chicken curry and RM 1.50 for a iced lemon tea – we ate a huge meal between 2 for RM 22/under £4.20!
Hong Ngek Restaurant
If it’s Chinese you’re looking for, then Hong Ngek Restaurant is the place to go. We highly recommend the incredible Ginger Chicken Rice (RM 8) washed down with some Chinese Tea (50 sen).
Cafe Old Market Square
Yummy Malay food can be found at Cafe Old Market Square. We didn’t get a chance to go there because at the time of our visit it was Hari Raya Eid-al-Fitr, which meant that it was a public holiday and many places were closed, but this restaurant will definitely be on our list if we make it back to KL. Prices are reasonable and we’ve heard the Nasi Lemak is delicious!
Drinking Culture in Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and as such there is isn’t the same drinking culture you find in Thailand and some other Southeast 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 for backpackers to get a few curb-side 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! So, while you’re here, why not give that liver a break and try out KL’s variety of delicious non-alcoholic beverages…
The first thing to do when you get to KL is to order Malaysia’s favourite beverage – a Teh Tarik, reminiscent of India’s ‘chai’. Teh Tarik is rich sugar hit of condensed milk tea which is stretched, or as the name translates, ‘pulled tea’. 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, aisis 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. Our advice? Stick with the local stuff.
Festivals and Events of Kuala Lumpur
Thaipusam Festival – Every January
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamil Indian communities around the world. Malaysia has a large Tamil community and the celebrations in Kuala Lumpur are said to be some of the best in the world! Thaipusam does not fall on the same date each year as it is a celebration of Thai, the Tamil month and Pusam, the name of a star. The celebration is held when the star is at it’s highest point. The simplest explanation of the festival is a celebration of good overcoming evil, when the Hindu God, Lord Murugan, (to whom the festival is honoured) was given a spear by his mother and he used it to defeat evil forces.
The Thaipusam celebrations at the Batu Caves date back to 1888. On the night of the event, the festival begins at Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Chinatown where throngs of people surround the temple handing out food parcels. Around 10pm a procession begins which continues along a set route, stopping traffic across the city, all the way to the Batu Caves (some 15km or more away). An ornate silver chariot is a representation of Lord Murugan coming to greet the people.
The streets are packed full with people making offerings to Lord Murugan. People dress in yellow or orange and offer flowers of the same colour (said to be Murugan’s favourite colour). The vases carried on top of peoples heads are full of milk and are carried all the way as a sign of faith. Many others will carry structures attached to their body called kadavis, seen as a sign of devotion… Continue reading about Thaipusam Festival here.
Getting around KL by Public Transport
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.
Another tip? Use 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!
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).