Big thanks to Nicole Kow of NextTrainOut for compiling this fantastic guide to Kuala Lumpur! Southeast Asia is filled with awesome cities for creative professionals, and I’ve been to several, including Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang and Hanoi, but with only long layovers in Malaysia under my belt, I couldn’t fulfill requests I’ve gotten for a guide to KL. I hope this special guest post opens up yet another amazing destination for career breaks and RTW trips to you – and I can’t wait until I make it back to Asia to try out Nicole’s tips!
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Malaysia is a melting pot of cultures and in Kuala Lumpur, you can see that mishmash of cultures try to embrace the 21st century. It’s evident in the food, in the way people talk, and, most fascinating, in how people of all colors and beliefs live together in a majority Muslim country. KL boasts great food from really cheap to extortionate prices, and a growing cafe scene that’s great to work from or just escape the afternoon heat. English is widely spoken and understood in the city, making it the perfect place for nomads and creatives to meet new faces, explore a unique culture, and learn about a country struggling to develop and grow 60 years after independence.
Table of Contents
When to Go
Malaysia is hot year-round and in KL, it thunderstorms in the afternoons between April to October.
Try to visit the country over Ramadan (which could fall May, June or July depending on the lunar calendar), when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. During the month, local Ramadan markets pop up all over the country and it’s a true feast for the senses. You’ll find all sorts of traditional Malay foods from chicken or beef satay, to nasi kerabu (rice dyed blue served with condiments and curry, my favourite), to fantastic grilled fish served with mouthwatering chilli sauce.
How Much to Spend
A one-way flight from America can range from $400 to $500 with one or two stops in between.
Decent Airbnb options are available for $30 or less, a bed in a hostel starts at $6 per night and private hostel rooms go for $15. These accommodations are well located, either within the city or in a nearby suburb.
Transportation in and around the city can be cheap if you rely on buses and the LRT (light rail transit), averaging just under $1 per trip. If you choose to take a taxi, Uber or Grab (a local version of Uber), expect to pay more depending on traffic and time of day.
As for food, you’ll find a plate of fried rice or a bowl of noodles at the local mamak or kopitiam for less than $3, or order a feast of rice and other dishes for roughly $20. Swanky hipster cafes will charge you $3 for a cuppa and at least $12 for a meal.
The exchange rate is roughly $1 to 4 ringgit (RM).
If you’re taking a standard flight into Malaysia, you’ll land in KLIA 1. From here, take the Express Coach into KL Sentral for $3. Budget airlines like Air Asia land in KLIA 2. From here, you can take the Sky Bus for $3 which runs every half hour into KL Sentral or Bandar Utama (where I grew up!).
(Side note from Danielle: For the cheapest airfare, I recommend using Skyscanner to compare dates and routes.)
Another more comfy but expensive option is the KLIA Ekspres Train which will drop you off at KL Sentral as well.
Nationwide, our national rail service Keretapi Tanah Melayu or simply KTM connects most of West Malaysia. I’d recommend booking your tickets through Easybook where the website is in English and is much much easier to navigate. You can also take buses around the West Coast, but remember that our main bus station is outside the city, a 15 minute drive from KL Sentral. You can get there with the KTM Komuter or the KLIA Transit Train. Personally, I’d just grab a Grab.
Most of KL isn’t pedestrian friendly. The few pavements and walkways we have are covered by overgrown shrubs or have bulging roots from strong trees bursting through the cracks. However, main areas like Bukit Bintang, Masjid Jamek, Chow Kit and Pudu are walkable. Just beware of pick pockets.
Locals escape the heat by taking an LRT, KTM Komuter or a bus to get about. My most important tip is to download a map of KL via Google Maps and save it on your phone before heading out as our road signs can be confusing.
For those who prefer a little more comfort, while Uber exists in Kuala Lumpur, I personally prefer Grab. It’s cheaper and gives you the option of paying your driver in Ringgit bills. Also, they treat their drivers and staff a lot nicer than Uber.
What to Pack
Before visiting Malaysia, remember that we’re a Muslim country. While people in the cities are more liberal than in rural areas, a general rule of thumb is to be respectful in the way you dress. It’s okay to wear shorts and flip flops for most days, but if you’re visiting a cultural sight, like the Islamic Arts Center for instance, dress conservatively to avoid unwanted attention.
Having an umbrella or a cap to shield you from the sun is also a good thing. So are sunscreen and mosquito repellent. Hot and humid climates bring out the crazy in mosquitoes.
Malaysia uses Type G power outlets, the same as the UK. Americans and Europeans will need to bring a power adapter.
Where to Stay
There are a variety of options from luxe apartments to backpacker hostels to pretty decent Airbnbs and home rentals (like Sekeping Serendah who have just the most beautiful spaces on offer).
In the city centre, there are plenty of hostels to choose from. To be on the safe side, I would advise solo female travelers to stay away from Petaling Street and Kampung Baru at night.
If you’re looking for a truly local experience, I would stay in a suburb as they’re not as far and are generally more calm and quiet. The flip side is that getting a cab into the city can be costly. Here are a few neighbourhoods that are connected to the LRT line and MRT line:
- Bangsar (LRT)
- Taman Tun (LRT & MRT)
- SEA Park / Taman SEA (LRT)
(Side note from Danielle: Another great way to get a local perspective on any city, and save some money while you’re at it, is by staying with a Couchsurfing host.)
Where to Eat
Where do I even start? A nasi lemak is something everyone who visits Kuala Lumpur needs to try. It’s a local Malay dish that’s made up of rice, boiled or fried egg, chilli paste, fried anchovies and ground nuts. You can find this in a nearby mamak or kopitiam or from a mak cik selling it from the back of her car outside the Masjid Jamek LRT station. The best one in town is in Village Park in Damansara. Make sure to get it with a side of fried chicken.
Wan tan mee is a local Chinese dish that consists of egg noodles doused in dark sauce, served with slices of siew yeuk or roast pork and a side of clear soup with wan tan or dumplings. Have it with pickled green chilli and you’re set for life. Again, this is widely available in many Chinese run kopitiams and Old Klang Road Wan Tan Mee is a good place to start.
Lastly, my favourite thing to eat in the whole wide world is banana leaf rice. It’s South Indian curries with rice, served on a banana leaf. You’re served rice with 4 or 5 different types of vegetables, a generous pouring of curry and rasam. Order a side of yoghurt to take the heat down a notch. You’ll also be able to order a few side dishes but be careful because this can add up pretty quickly. My favourite places to go are Aunty Maju’s in Taman Tun, Sri Ganapathi Mess in Old Town Petaling Jaya, and Annalakshmi in Brickfields.
Another not-to-miss foodie spot is Jalan Alor, where stalls open in the evenings until late. Other interesting Malaysian dishes include roti canai, nasi kandar or economy rice (you’re served a plate of rice and you pick out the dishes you want from a large selection), all the different kinds of laksa (especially assam laksa and Sarawak laksa), anything Nyonya, kuih and so much more. I could go on but then this post would never end.
Where to Work
Co-working spaces are popping up all over KL, where you can rent a desk for a day from $7 a day, or an entire month from $113.
I like the The Co. @ The Row, situated in a part of the city where old 1940s shop houses were restored and refurbished. It’s an up and coming part of the city filled with delicious restaurants and cafes. Close to Quill City Mall and LRT stations, getting there shouldn’t be a problem.
An older and more established co-working space is Uppercase in Bangsar. During the week, you’ll be sharing the space with other freelance creatives or non-profit organisations and over the weekends the space hosts a tonne of different events, perfect for someone interested in meeting locals. If you go, don’t forget to drop by Agak Agak, a non-profit restaurant and catering business that trains youths from vulnerable backgrounds.
A newbie to the scene, Komune is a beautiful space situated in Bangsar South and is close to public transport options. Again, it’s surrounded by ample eateries and cafes with enough options for your 3pm caffeine top-up.
A great cafe to work from is VCR in Jalan Galloway. Arguably one of the oldest and most established cafes, VCR’s patrons are usually students looking for a place to study or digital nomads. Try a slice of their Tres Leche cake while you’re there.
What to Do
I personally think that the best way to learn about a culture is through comedy and I have two recommendations here. The Crack House Comedy Club in Taman Tun hosts shows Wednesday to Saturday evenings, and invites established local and international comics to perform. My other recommendation is One Mic Stand, hosted Tuesday evenings at the General Space in Seksyen 16. This has become a space for up and coming comics still learning the ropes, as well as established comics to test out new material. Check their schedules and book tickets online.
The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia is the largest museum of Islamic Art in South East Asia. It not only houses Islamic art and artefacts from around the world, but also curates displays to portray Indian, Chinese and Malay culture. Other cultural sites include the National Mosque and Buddhist Then Hou Temple, where friends of mine held their Indian wedding ceremony.
For some (somewhat) fresh air, head over to Lake Gardens, just outside the city. A short walk into the park away from the busy roads can transport you to a different world, where all you hear are trees and birds. Take a nice stroll in the afternoon and enjoy the shady trees, or visit the bird park or butterfly park in the gardens.
Finally, if you’re interested in meeting other like-minded nomads, creatives, and people-who-color-outside-the-lines, attend a Tribeless dinner. This initiative was started by Gwen Yi, a local social entrepreneur who started in tech but ultimately found her passion in building communities. It’s a great way to meet locals and internationals, and to connect with the city in a truly unique way.
Kuala Lumpur is clearly filled with opportunities for digital nomads and creative professionals. Thanks again to Nicole for sharing all this great info – if you’d like to keep up with her travels, you can find her on Facebook and Instagram.
What would you do first on a trip to Kuala Lumpur? Tell us in the comments!
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