It’s midday, it’s raining but it’s around 36 degrees centigrade with a sticky humidity in the air.
Welcome to Malaysia.
I arrive in from Thailand in the middle of the day. My first encounter with Malaysia was back in 2010 when it was recommended that I visit. To tell you the truth, Malaysia was never on my itinerary/wish list of places to see but has turned out to be one of the places I love the most.
The beauty of travel is that you end up meeting people who have just returned from a destination that may not have been on your radar and can offer tips and advice for places you haven’t been. As many travelers will reiterate the world over, open-mindedness is key. So, if you feel like taking that risk and stepping into the world, keep reading for an introductory guide to Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia.
The buzzing capital is home to over 1.6 million people, the majority of which are a blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian citizens of the Muslim and Hindu faith. Getting around Malaysia is relatively straightforward. The official languages are Malay, Mandarin, Hindi and English, with most people speaking English. If you’re wondering what your money looks like here, it’s worth checking currency conversions websites for the most up to date rates. The currency is called the Malaysian Ringgit (RMB) and in December fluctuated between 4.8-5.1 RMB to the GBP.
There are 2 main airports in the capital and both are a fair journey away from the centre of KL. If you’re travelling from the domestic airport, it’s a sort of organised chaos. It’s hot & there are usually a lot of people bustling around balancing their extremely large freight-like boxes on tiny airport trolleys while trying to avoid stepping on the few who have taken refuge on the airport floor for the day/night…(yes, I have been here and have been one of these people). There are many companies stationed in their ticket booths offering the shuttle service as soon as you step off of your flight. For a small fee of around £2, you can jump on an air conditioned coach that will take you to KL Sentral, the main train station in KL. I jumped in a taxi once and paid 10 times as much. Not fun.
If you’re coming from KLIA, Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport, the experience is much more serene. This airport boasts 2 spacious terminals and designer stores ranging from L’Occitaine to Gucci & there is a service direct from the Airport to KL Sentral, which has great connections to the rest of KL. Check out the KLIA Express site for details. If you’ve booked in to a hotel chain such as the Hilton, Le Meridian or Aloft, these are also within a 2-3 minute walk from KL Sentral.
Although the roads are very big, there are a LOT of cars and bikes on the roads. A 20 minute journey could take you up to 2 hours on the bus, so when in KL, avoid the buses or driving during the day, and hop on the train or the monorail. Some parts of KL, much like any large metropolitan city, can be sketchy at night if you’re out after dark. Most of the train services shut down around 11:30pm. The Blue and Red taxis are best and it’s fairly easy to flag one down within a few minutes.
The city is currently going through some major transportation developments. The installation of an underground network is currently in progress and is due to finish in a few years so be prepared to see some construction and a bit of disruption around the city however, the rest of the train network is still in operation.
If you’re a social media butterfly, you may want to find a cheaper way to stay connected. Some of the phone companies offer unlimited access to social media apps on the purchase of a sim card for as little as 7 Malaysian Ringgit for the week (7RMB) DiGi is one of the largest and offers a variety of pre paid deals but you can shop around for the latest deals. I picked up a HOTLINK sim from Maxis which served me well for a week. These can be picked up from the vendors directly and you can add more credits at most 7 Eleven stores.
(Note: you will need your phone to be unlocked to accept the sim card).
KL is a built up city, literally. Acommodations thirty floors up is the norm here. A must see (if you can) is the iconic Petronas Towers and KL TV tower. I have to say both are pretty impressive from the outside and worth a look. There is an allocation of first come first serve free tickets for the Petronas Towers, but you’ll have to be an early bird. Head down at 6am to be at the front of the queue or you can purchase tickets in advance for around 80 RMB online. I had the intention of getting up that early but never made it… The TV tower is taller and tickets are available on arrival. Try and head up on a clear day (get that weather app ready). Evening visits are also a fantastic to see the city lights come alive.
Spend the evening down Jalan Alor
A short walk from Bukit Bintang, Jalan Alor is unmistakably one of the best places in KL. During the night this wonderful street comes to life and turns into a thriving eating street littered with plastic tables and chairs. Restaurants and food carts open their shutters and extend their restaurants out into the pavements. Surprisingly, traffic is still allowed to pass so expect to play chicken while dancing around a menu or two. Try something new, maybe jump in and start a restaurant crawl by picking one dish from every restaurant and build your feast portfolio before moving on to the next one. Jalan Alor houses the best in authentic Malay and Chinese cuisine served in tapas style portions. The spicy chilli squid and honey sesame ribs should get you started. After, move on to try traditional delights such as Nasi Lemak and Laksa. Jalan Alor is a welcomed escape from the shiny indoor malls, restaurant chains and designer shops. Pick a seat facing the road here & you can sit back, relax and people watch until your hearts content.
Get Fruity and try some Durian
Because you should try everything once right? The Durian fruit is the most popular and smells, quite frankly, revolting. Interestingly, the pugent smell of Durian is so bad it’s banned in many hotels and indoor areas such as some of the shopping malls. However, once you actually get into the fruits, the thick yellow flesh is actually quite sweet and tasty, if you can bear the smell. If you would rather trying some fruit that smells more ripe than raw, a selection of other popular fruits to try are Jackfruit, somewhat similar to Durian in features and texture but sweeter in taste (and smell) & Rambutan, akin to Lychee in taste and flavour. Last on this list is Mangosteen. Unlike anything I’ve ever tried, it’s a superfood rich in Vitamin C and antioxidants. Bonus.
For a hidden gem
Delicious Coffee, Tea and Cakes at Feeka, 19, Jalan Mesui, 50200. A contemporary vibe, recently opened and a very cool place to hangout.
Shop until you drop
Apparently I’m told by the locals that KL is ranked #4 in the world as a shopping haven. When you look around, it’s easy to see why. You’ll find Shopping Malls on tap and many of the transportation systems will take you straight into the shops. I’d first recommend Berjaya Times Square, as it serves up an eclectic mix of all types of fashion, food and of course, a theme park.
You will need the entire day to explore it. There are 12 floors dedicated to your shopping pleasure. The place is alive with shoppers from all over the globe buzzing from store to store and with it’s ever changing interiors. If you’re planning on buying more than one item, try haggling on the price.
Check out the KL City Gallery
The Gallery is located a short walk from the monorail station Masjid Jamek. Entry to the KL City Gallery is free, and you can soak up some history of how KL was founded, through to the development of the town and the scale model of the city in all it’s glorious form. From the looks of things, KL is getting bigger and taller. The gallery ends the tour with the viewing window of artisans who sit and faultlessly carve wood veneer articles with machine like precision by hand. The technique is called ARCH and each of whom is a craft master. Pieces can be purchased in the museum store next door.
Make your own way to Batu Caves
An 8-mile journey from KL, this visit to the popular Batu Caves can be done in a day. Guarded by the worlds largest Murugan statue. Wander through the brightly coloured Hindu murals, watch a cultural dance performance & feed the monkeys (if you dare). You will need to get the bus but it’s a cheaper alternative. Take headphones, snacks, water and a fan for the bus.
Have a Blind Massage
There are a number of blind massage centres offering body massages and reflexology in KL. KL Sentral a short monorail journey from Bukit Bingtang and here you will find a number of blind massage centres off the main road. Locals are trained and qualified and giving massages allows them an opportunity to earn a living. A full body massage can start from around £10 for 60 minutes. Reflexology is also available at the centres for around the same price. Head behind the monorail station and along Jalan Thambipillay and you’ll find a wider choice of centres to choose from.
Drop your bags
You can find a whole range of accommodations depending on your budget. Hostels are generally clean and well maintained. From personal experience – I would recommend staying in the areas closest to the monorail such as Imbi, Bukit Bintang and KL Sentral. These are all great locations for food, entertainment and plenty of places to chose from to set your bags down while you get out there and explore.