Chaotic traffic, skyscrapers with rooftop bars, multi-ethnic cuisine, hawker markets and religious temples; Kuala Lumpur (KL as it’s affectionately abbreviated) really does have everything you’d expect from a major South-East Asian capital city. Whilst it might not be the first city on the tourist ‘hit-list’, the touristic diversity of Malaysia more generally (including the beaches of Langkawi and rainforests of Taman Negara in the West and the cave systems of Gunung Mulu National Park and the proximity to Borneo in the East), means that a lot more tourists are stopping over in KL on their way to the country’s other highlights. As a result, and for those spending a couple of days in KL, I hope the following guidance might be of some use.
The main airport for KL is a huge agglomeration of what is actually two principle airport terminals sharing one runway system. As you’ll be arriving from overseas you’ll be landing at KL International Airport (KUL or KLIA), but if you’re transferring to a low-cost carrier like Air Asia, then you may need to transfer to the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) at the other end of the runway (there is an express train connecting the two).
Assuming you’re heading into KL (why would you be reading if you weren’t) then the KLIA Express Train is your best option. It only takes 28 minutes in to the city center (compared to about an hour if you take a taxi or private car) and connects with the rest of KL’s network of transit options (known as the Klang Valley Transit System) at KL Sentral. Even better – on the way back you can actually (for certain airlines) check your luggage in at KL Sentral station meaning that you don’t have to lug your bags all the way to the airport yourself!
However, if you have oodles of luggage and the thought of getting the train doesn’t appeal (or if you’re on a business trip and aren’t footing the bill) then a taxi is obviously a possibility. As you exit customs you’ll be greeted by fixed coupon taxi desks. Just tell them where you’re headed and how many items of luggage/people you have with you and they’ll give you a quote. Once you’ve paid you can head straight out with your coupon and join the taxi line for those having already purchased a coupon. No need to pay anything more to the driver!
The Klang Valley Transit system is really useful getting around the immediate city using the monorail and heading out a little further on the train. For example, if you plan to visit the Batu Cave Temple complex then the train gets you directly there without having to sit in the traffic in a taxi; particularly for when you head back in to the city.
KL can be a pretty hot and humid destination. As a result, and if you don’t fancy having to shower and change clothes 6 times a day, in all likelihood you’ll want to jump in a taxi at least a few times. The good news is that taxis in KL are plentiful and cheap. Drivers hang about at major tourist landmarks and even if you’re off the beaten track it won’t be long until one finds its way to you like you’re wearing a honing beacon. Make sure you insist on the meter being switched on and don’t accept fixed price deals – that’s an easy way to get ripped off in KL.
A hop-on hop-off bus operates in KL and is probably the cheapest I’ve ever seen. Although I didn’t use it myself it seems to hit basically all of the key tourist landmarks except Batu Caves, so you’ll need to bear in mind the additional cost of getting out to the Batu Caves Temple Complex (see Activities section below). I’ve added the website to the Additional Resources list (below) for those who might be interested.
Petronas Twin Towers: Probably the one thing people instantly recognise about KL when they see the pictures, and as a result, the area surrounding the towers can get pretty ‘heaving’ with tourists. At the base is a sprawling shopping mall (with just about every western brand you could imagine….and a Chili’s restaurant of all things!!) and a large fountain which lights up at night for a regular show with the towers as the backdrop. If you plan on heading up the towers to the sky bridge that interlinks the two then best get there early as tickets are limited and available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Alternatively you can buy tickets for the sky bridge and observation deck in advance on the Petronas Towers website – see Additional Resources below.
Batu Caves Temple Complex: The complex is about 10 miles outside of town so you’ll need to jump on the train or in a taxi to get there. The Hindu temple complex (which is free to enter) is built into a series of caves in the mountain and is guarded by a huge, golden Hindu God statue which stands next to a decidedly ungodly 272 steps to the entrance of the cave itself. Take plenty of water (and a towel to mop yourself down) and try not to carry open food with you; if you do, you’ll provide some fantastic entertainment for the other tourists as the monkeys attempt to search you. My best advice is to get there as early in the day as possible whilst the temple is relatively serene. By mid-morning the coaches roll in and you’ll likely find yourself in the middle of multiple gaggles of tourists with flag-wielding leaders. Most tour groups seem to visit the main cave and then leave, but if you walk over to the right of the car park there is a secondary cave temple complex. It is fairly new (and does have a certain ‘disneyfied’ feel to it) but was basically empty when I got there and having the place to myself meant a more relaxed way to explore and take photos. A small fee does apply to this second cave.
Rooftop Bars: There are a few in town and they provide fantastic views over the city in the evening; particularly on a clear day where you can enjoy the sunset over a hard earned beverage. If you’re looking for the best views of the Petronas Towers then I would recommend Sky Bar in the Traders Hotel. If you’re looking for something a little more unique then check out Heli-Bar which, you guessed it, is set up on an ‘active’ helipad (hopefully not when you’re there).
Menara Tower: With an F1 Simulator, on-site aquarium, XD theatre, cultural performances etc. etc., the tower might be a little bit too touristy for its own good. You can buy a combo ticket to see all of these; however, my advice is to skip the add-ons and head up the tower for views which rival, or possibly exceed, those you can get at the Petronas Towers.
Sri Mahamariamman Temple: So, let’s be honest, this isn’t the greatest Hindu temple you’re likely to see in your lifetime. However, I’m a big fan of its ornate design and, assuming you catch it at the right time, it’s a great little atmospheric temple worthy of sparing 30 minutes of your day. Just across the road you can also find the small, but perfectly formed, Guan Di Taoist temple. Both are right next to Petaling Street Market, where you could spend hours gazing at Chinese knock-offs of Michael Kors handbags and designer watches (as undoubtedly we all do; I mean who doesn’t like a poorly made bargain).
Petaling Street: Set in the heart of China Town, Petaling Street is a partially covered street market selling a wide variety of cheap goods and designer knock-offs. It is active all day, but come nightfall, the market really gets going and is worth visiting for the atmosphere alone. It’s also a great place to sample street foods drawing on the multi-ethic background of Malaysia. Nighttime is also the best time to grab a bargain (it seemed as though sellers were far less willing to barter during the day; whereas at night, it was easy to haggle for prices of only a fifth of the original asking price).
Sultan Abdul Samad Building: Set on Merdeka Square, across from the Royal Selangor Club, the Sultan Abdul Samad building, and the entire square more generally, is like stepping back in to the British Colonial period, and provides a great contrast with today’s modern skyline in KL. If you happen to be in KL during Malaysia’s annual Independence Day parades then this is best spot.
Central Market: Where Petaling Street provides the cheap knock-offs, Central Market provides the cheap but authentic, souvenir crafts (and in some cases not so cheap). There are a good 100 stalls in the covered (and, thank goodness, air conditioned) market selling a wide variety of batik designs, artwork, wood carvings, textiles and knick-knacks. Be sure to barter as there’s always a deal to be struck (even if the signs say ‘fixed price’).
Klang Valley Rail Information: http://www.spad.gov.my/klang-valley-rail-transit-map
KLIA Express Website: https://www.kliaekspres.com/
Petronas Towers Website: http://www.petronastwintowers.com.my/
Menara Tower Website: https://www.menarakl.com.my/
KL Hop-on hop-off Website: http://www.myhoponhopoff.com/kl/visitor.php