Kuala Lumpur (“KL” to most) is Malaysia’s shiny, cosmopolitan capital, probably most known for the Petronas Towers (the world’s tallest twin towers) that shoot 451 meters into the sky. This town has about everything a visitor could want: history, activities, universities, museums, a bustling economy, a vibrant nightlife, good public transportation, tons of hospitals (should you need it), shopping galore (and I mean really shopping galore, with every possible venue from super slick malls, chic boutiques to aromatic night markets), a sunny climate where practically anything will grow, excellent food, some really cool islands like Penang or Langkawi just a ferry or a quick plane-trip away … you get the picture. But like most large cities around the world, KL can be pricey, too. So when you’ve only got a day and a half free in this swanky town, how do you make the most of your time-lah* and what is there to see (and eat!) on a budget-lah?
There are the usual activities like a hop-on-hop-off tour, visiting the twin towers and museums, or shopping, but if you want to see something outside the city center, here’s our list of things to do in Kuala Lumpur on a budget, things not to do and things we wish we did:
1. Phone: Get a local SIM card for your hand phone.
Okay, this isn’t exciting, but it will make your life much easier. Just pop into any local phone shop and ask for a pre-pay SIM card and data pack. For 8.80 Ringgit, I was able to purchase a SIM card and for 10 Ringgit more, I had a basic phone credit and data package.
2. Taxi: Download GrabTaxi app. This thing is awesome. Now that you’ve got your local SIM card, you can use the nifty GrabTaxi (also known as MyTeksi in Malaysia) app which allows you to plug in your current address and the place you want to go and then your scheduled time (either present or in the future) and … voila! A list of nearby taxis and the meter rate will be displayed shortly before a taxi is chosen. Confirm and a minute or so later (or whenever your scheduled time is), a taxi rolls up at your doorstep! (UPDATE: I’ve updated the GrabTaxi link above to reflect the latest for that company)
3. Food: For a lazy night in, avail yourself of FoodPanda.com. While we had a day and a half free in KL, we also spent a few days before that when Sam’s course obligations did not provide adequate time to dine out. Solution? FoodPanda to the rescue. This website has tons of cuisine to choose from. Just order what you like from your restaurant of choice and … dinner is served! Be sure to order ahead of time as most deliveries take about an hour and a half. As with GrabTaxi, you’ll need a local phone number so your pre-pay SIM once again comes in handy.
4. Transport: Have a transportation plan before arriving.
KL has excellent public transportation within the city center, but this is a spread out town with several suburbs and significant traffic issues at certain times of the day and night. Depending on where you are staying, some destinations may be difficult to reach. Taxis are a cheap and convenient option, but if you want to travel to farther-flung places, book a rental ahead of time (see below), book a tour or allot enough time to accommodate public transportation schedules. For example, we had hoped to visit the beautiful tea plantations of Cameron Highlands — only about 3 hours away by car. Since we didn’t have a rental, we considered taking a bus, but because we were staying in the northern section of the Petaling Jaya suburb, just getting to the bus station would take about an hour out of our day, not to mention the time required to book and then the three-hour bus ride up there. It is definitely a do-able venture, but if you’re on a tight schedule, planning ahead will make traveling around the KL area a much more pleasant experience.
4. Private Tour: If you are short on time but want to see some harder-to reach sights, consider investing in a private guided tour.
We booked with the excellent Pak Amir whom we found through Synotrip. Mr. Amir charges a very reasonable flat rate (100 USD) for an entire day of touring by private car, going pretty much anywhere you want to go. If it is out of town (we went to Melaka), a small sum is added to the flat rate, but considering the amount of driving and gas invested, even the extra fee for out-of-town tours remained an excellent value. Another extra bonus? Because it’s your own tour, you can take the routes you like and stop wherever you want along the way.
5. Live local: Book your room with a local condo or apartment owner through sites like airbnb.
We chose airbnb.com more out of necessity as Sam was in KL for an ATLS course which was located in the suburb area of north Petaling Jaya where hotel options were limited. Happily, there are tons of condo owners in the area, however, eager to rent out their place. For half of what we would’ve spent on an average hotel room, we booked a cute little efficiency condo, complete with a small kitchen and pool and gym access, fifteen minutes from the conference site and a half kilometer walk in either direction to major malls and local dining options. In addition to feeling a little more enveloped in the local life here, we had the added benefit of our host who gave us some pointers about the area.
6. What not to do: Rent a car last-minute. Alas, we learned this the hard way. We thought: Hey, there are tons of car rental places in town. Let’s just show up at one of the larger establishments and rent a car the day we need it. Wrong choice! Apparently, the concept of walk-ins is not an anticipated option by the good car rental offices of Kuala Lumpur. We showed up at a huge establishment that had at least 100 cars parked around the building and asked to rent a car for the day. After recovering from momentary astonishment, the clerk excused herself and disappeared behind a door for ten minutes, before re-appearing with someone else who asked if we were serious about renting a vehicle “on the spot.” Long story short, it took over an hour to confirm that they had a car to rent, and then another hour where we sat patiently in the lobby where we were asked to wait while they did who-knows-what with our paperwork. Finally, after these initial two hours, I asked how much longer it would be and discovered that, in fact, it would most likely be another 2 or so hours before we were provided with a vehicle! Ugh.
7. What not to do part deux: Assuming various sights are open during “normal” operating hours. Malaysia is a Muslim country, and as such, many businesses and sights may be closed to accommodate various prayer times — especially on Fridays, when the noon prayer time is uniquely important. Since many locals take these times for granted, it may not occur to them to mention special hours to visitors in the area. For example, while visiting the Batu Caves on a Thursday afternoon, a local recommended we visit the nearby Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), a popular forest nature park with walking and cycling trails and a canopy bridge. We asked when the park (and specifically, the canopy bridge) was open and were informed it was open every day until dusk, but since it was nearly five o’clock, it was suggested we try to visit in the morning. Accordingly, the next morning we hailed a taxi and set out for FRIM, but upon arriving at the park’s gate, we were informed that the canopy bridge was not open on Fridays (or Mondays). We should have checked the website before showing up and should not have assumed that the central draw of the nature park would not be open during what we considered to be normal hours. Lesson learned.
8. And what to do as much as possible: Eat street food!
KL is crammed with practically every kind of restaurant one can think of — and probably more recognizable Western franchises than one may want to see, including all the usual Stateside fast-food chains. No doubt many restaurants are world-class destinations, but in our book, it’s the street-side cafes and stalls that make KL such a wonderful place to visit. Why? Malaysian cuisine represents Asian fusion before “fusion” was ever a thing. You’ve got tasty hamburger carts grilling burgers topped with stir-fried cabbage and onion, garnished with thinly sliced cucumbers and then drizzled with sweet chili sauce. (so, so, so good). You’ve got tiny kitchens with plastic tables and chairs spilling into the streets, serving sweet, creamy ice coffee for 2 Ringgit (about 60 cents USD) and Char Kuey (a/k/a Kway) Teow — an amazing, smoky, stir fried, rice-noodle dish of mixed vegetables and assorted seafood — for anywhere from 5 to 10 Ringgit.
And don’t forget Malaysia’ famous Chicken Rice, found in open-air stalls all over the place. The rice itself is cooked with chicken broth, and served on a plate with a portion of chopped rotisserie chicken, various sauces, chili and usually cucumber. All this for about 5 Ringgit!
And then finally, last but not least, the stupendous, out-of-this-world Indian food. SO good. You can grab a “buffet” lunch or dinner for 6 to 10 ringgit. Here’s how it works: show up and indicate you want the buffet, whereupon a freshly cut banana leaf will be placed in front of you. You will be asked if you want white rice or something else that appears to be seasoned noodles cut into pilaf-sized portions. I recommend the rice. Either way, a large portion is scooped onto your banana leaf. You’ll then be asked if you want vegetarian or meat dishes, and according to your choice, a tray of cute little silver bowls filled with small portions from the buffet will be brought to your table. Just choose which ones you want to accompany your rice. Once you’ve got your sides, you’ll most likely be served a spoonful or two of lentils or curry potatoes and then a nice ladle of curry is poured over the rice for seasoning. So delicious!
9. Try Roti Canai.
This could have gone in the above category as it definitely qualifies as street food, but as it is the most delicious thing known to man, it deserves its own category. What it is: Roti Canai is very similar to the Indian bread called Paratha known in most places or another variety called “Martabak” in Indonesia. It’s super-simple: just a bit of oiled dough that’s rolled very thin, layered together to form a pancake and then cooked over a gridle with a little oil. The trick is making it so that the outside it crunchy and crispy and the hot, steamy inside consists of several layers that are soft and almost stretchy. The best I can do to describe it is that it’s like a hot, pancake croissant. But what makes this so good is the curry you dip the steamy pieces into or, for a breakfast or dessert treat, try sweetened-condensed milk. Yum. Best time to find the stuff is mornings or evenings as it is rarely served at lunch or mid-afternoon.
KL has tons of street markets, especially at night time, but two of the most well known are found downtown within close walking distance: Central Market, which is located mostly in a large art-deco building smack-dab in city center, and Petaling Street, an outdoor night market in KL’s China Town. The air-conditioned inside of Central Market is crammed with artsy shops and stalls (if a little overpriced), and once they shut down around 7 at night, just meander outdoors where more stalls spring up along the sides.
Also, there is a fantastic Indian food restaurant, Restoran Yusoof Dan Zakhir, where you can sip on ice coffee, people watch and observe hand-made naan bread being baked inside the outdoor tandoori oven!
If you’re hankering for Chinese street food instead, just wander a couple blocks over to Petaling Street where red lanterns glow overhead and small stalls selling t-shirts, backpacks, knock-off watches and headphones … and lots of little outdoor kitchens serve yummy noodle dishes.
11. Climb the 272 steps to Batu Caves
Thirteen kilometers north of KL, Batu Caves allows you to sweat off some of those street-food calories by climbing 272 steps leading to a large, limestone cavern where various Hindu shrines take up residence (and so do an army of macaques!). Entrance to the main cavern is free.
Branching off to the left from the stairway, just before reaching the main cavern, a “Dark Cave” educational tour is led in an adjoining cavern for 35 Ringgit per person. The tour lasts about 45 minutes and is actually quite interesting as the tour guide points out various indigenous (and one invasive) creepy-crawlies.
Stalls along the parking area outside the entrance steps to Batu Cave sell lots of yummy food and some nifty trinkets that are often hand-painted by the artisans who sell them. This friendly man originally hails from Sri Lanka.
12. Take a day-trip to Melaka (a/k/a Malacca)
The colorful port city of Melaka is about 2 to 3 (depending on traffic) hours south of KL and provides a welcome change of pace. It is here that Malaysia first announced independence after a long run of foreign rule, originally by Portugal, then Holland, and finally Great Britain.
As a result of Malacca’s textured past and coastal port position, this town reflects a fascinating mix of cultures in its smallish vicinity. In the old town center, you’ve got the Portuguese, Dutch and British buildings, but across the Melaka River, you hit Jonker Street where Chinese homes, temples, restaurants and shops jumble together with the packs of sweaty tourists wandering around.
And just before hitting Old Town center, you’ll go through a Little India where eye-catching textiles and (of course!) some great stall food is waiting. Our pick for lunch? Restoran Selvam, where one of those fun, banana-leaf buffets will keep you full for hours.
There are many museums here as well (admission fees vary), such as this rather interesting … uh, “restored” Maritime Museum ship.
And you can wander for free through Melaka’s fort ruins, as well as the scenic ruins of Porta de Santiago and St. Paul’s church that hovers on a hill above.
On the way home, we took the much more congested coastal route from Melaka to Port Dickson, and stopped to stretch our legs at the popular public beach there.
13. Get a local haircut!
It might be a little on the short side, but hey, for 10 Ringgit (under 3 USD) it’ll grow! … right?
And things we wished we’d done … but didn’t have the time:
–Visit the rolling, verdant tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands, about 3 hours north by private car. I remember going once in high school — and it is truly beautiful. I’d like Sam to see it someday.
— Booked a taxi or private car ahead of time to drive up to see the fireflies at Kuala Selangor. This is said to be a very special experience where you float down the river at night on a little wooden boat, surrounded by hundreds of fireflies as you weave between mangroves. We didn’t want to do a package tour (where they take you to several other places beforehand that you may or may not want to visit) and learned the hard way that many taxis don’t want to go so far out of the way. Public transport is tricky since the activity is at night (after 7), so catching a bus back is unlikely.
— Gone to Batu Caves a little earlier in the day so we would have had time to check out the rain forest park and suspension bridge at FRIM, which is close by the Batu Caves area.
*And finally, what’s with the “lah”?
I actually grew up partly in Malaysia, but I honestly don’t know the etymology behind this catchy habit. It’s just something folks here like to tack onto a word-lah. For fun-lah. Maybe it’s something Canadians can add insight into … eh?