I’ve met a lot of travellers who apply the land and leave style of travel to Kuala Lumpur, which is a shame, because it is more than just a convenient travel hub in Southeast Asia. I’ve just completed my second stop in the city and love it just as much as I did last time…perhaps more.
If you do land in the Malaysian capital, don’t dismiss it (after a quick glimpse at the Petronas Towers). Instead, take some time to explore this rich city where India, China and Malaysia meet. Here’s my recommendations on what to see in Kuala Lumpur.
1. Petronas Towers (& KL Tower)
Known locally at the Twin-Towers (Petronas is the name of the oil and gas company the towers are named after), there is no doubt that the Petronas Towers are Kuala Lumpur’s most iconic sight. Cesar Pelli is the genius behind this masterpiece, which is the world’s tallest twin-tower structure. Be prepared to get a stiff neck staring up these 88 storeys.
(If you’re interested, here is a list of the world’s tallest buildings – There is some debate over definitions, but the Petronas Towers definitely make it onto the list.)
It is possible to travel up the towers but you have to get up early to catch one of the limited tickets. Instead, consider ascending KL Tower, which also gives city panoramas that, more importantly, include sights of the Petronas Towers – something you don’t get to see from the tower’s skywalk (for obvious reasons!).
KL Tower, in my opinion, is largely only worth visiting for the panoramas and views it offers of it’s bigger, bolder cousin, the Petronas Towers.
Ideally, visit the towers by day and night to see the contrast but if you have time for only one visit, by night is much more spectacular (I always think the towers look like they are out of a Batman movie when they shine silver against the black night).
To get there: Take the Kelana Jaya Line to KLCC Station.
Tip: You will arrive from the station inside the towers, which includes a beautifully air-conditioned mall, so you need to exit the building to see the towers. Pop back into the mall for coffee once you’ve sweated your eyebrows off taking pictures.
2. Central Market & Petaling Street (China Town)
Even if you’re not looking for handicrafts, Central Market is interesting for its age (it was built in 1888), and is a nice place to stroll around day or night. Stay until evening and Petaling Street (China Town), just around the corner, comes to life. If there’s a designer brand in existence, there will be a rip-off of it in Petaling Street, but if that’s not your thing (my intellectual property lawyer friends would vomit at the idea), go hungry and eat your way through the streets – roasted chestnuts, fruit, noodles, Chinese restaurants, I always manage to stretch my appetite during a trip here.
To get there: Take the Kelana Jaya Line to Pasar Senai.
3. Jamek Mosque & The National Mosque
Try as I might, I’ve still not managed to make it inside the Jamek Mosque. The first time I got lost and confess I gave up after a long day of sight-seeing (which is stupid, because it is actually very easy to find) and the second time it was closed for renovation. Nevertheless, Jamek Mosque is worth a visit (if it’s open/you can find it) because it is the oldest mosque in the city (it was built in 1907).
On the subject of mosques, the National Mosque of Malaysia offers an interesting photograph – although more modern, the design is based on the Grand Mosque in Mecca and features a domed roof that has 18 points to represent Malaysia’s 13 states and the 5 pillars of Islam. Plus, there is a 75 metre high minaret. A fair view of the top of the mosque can be seen from up KL Tower.
4. Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square)
Perhaps this space, which is the main sqaure in KL, is of interest to my British nationality as the place that marked the end of colonial rule in 1957 when the Union Jack was lowered and the Malaysian flag raised for the first time signifying Malaysian Independence. If nothing else, this area is a pretty place to stroll (the green used to be a cricket green – the sport we invented but fail to excel at) and the Tudor-style houses reminded me of home. Perhaps unsurprisingly, amongst the flags flanking the Malaysian flag in the middle of the square, the Union Jack is notably absent!
5. Little India
Having spent time in India, I was impressed by the ability of Little India in KL to transport me to another country with its sights, scents and tastes. Little India (Jalan Masjid India) is a good place to wander through stalls catering to the Indian locals in the city while the streets from Jamek Mosque to Little India have plenty of Indian restaurants and stalls serving typical Indian treats. Food. Heaven. Try Thali and don’t forget to dispense with the cutlery – get stuck in with your fingers.
6. Old KL Railway Station
A cross between a mosque and a western train station in style, the Old Railway Station is as beautiful as it is functional.
One of the quickest ways to view the station is on a train between KL Sentral and Pasar Senai stations when you will briefly sail past the station that sits below, but be quick with your camera or you’ll miss it.
7. Thean Hou Temple
I confess to not having made it to this sight (I really should spend less time at the street food stalls), but it is on my list of spots to see when I return to KL next time (third time lucky). The Thean Hou Temple is a recommended sight because it is a good place to catch a glimpse of a temple with a Chinese design without having to procure a visa for China!
8. Batu Caves
Before you leave KL, leave the city just a little bit and visit the Batu Caves. Sitting 13 kilometres out of town, the caves are a major tourist attraction and one of my favourite sights in Kuala Lumpur. A series of limestone caves that have been adopted by and used as a significant site for Hindu worship, the shrines and statues combined with the natural beauty of the caves are collectively staggering.
Cathedral Cave, the main one out of a series of three, is 180 metres long and 100 metres high. Take good shoes as there are 272 steps to get to the cave (I got this information off the internet – I didn’t count them between my panting breath), but the sight of light filtering through openings in the chamber ceiling, makes the climb worthwhile. Walk through to the cave that lies beyond and it feels like you’ve been dropped down a well in the middle of the jungle -skylight is a long tunnel upwards and fury greenery plants adorns the cliff walls.
And yet the caves are not (in my humble view) the most impressive part of the Batu caves. Standing at the entrance is a 42 metre high statue of Lord Murugan. The gold painted statue was revealed in 2006 after 3 year’s construction, and is currently the world’s tallest Lord Murugan statue.
You can reach the cave by bus (U6 or U10) or take the Port Klang Line from KL Sentral to Batu Caves. Note: if you take the bus, you’ll get dropped off on a busy roundabout. Ask where to get the bus back otherwise the train station is located at the exit of the caves and makes for an easier return journey.
Beware of the monkeys – they may look cute but they can be vicious.
Don’t be a naive tourist – this is a temple. Dress respectfully (knees, shoulders and chest covered).
Getting around Kuala Lumpur
There are a number of train lines that serve the city (and KL International Airport) including the KL Monorail, Light Rail Transit (LRT) and KTM Komuter Train Network. For practical purposes, the lines interconnect.
Pick up a free Map of Kuala Lumpur (available at the airport and around the city) and there is a train map on the back. I’ve found the best way to understand the buses is simply ask the locals on a journey by journey basis.
Prices are very cheap on public transport costing on average 1 to 2 RM per ride (around 50-75 US cents). The biggest inconvenience is trying to get the machine to accept the Ringitt notes. Be patient and expect some machines simply to refuse or reject your money. Move on, and don’t hold a technical grudge.
Getting to Kuala Lumpur from the Airport
KLIA: Unless you’re on a really tight budget, the KLIA Express is by far the best way into the city (it spits you out at KL Sentral Station). Costing 32 RM (around US$10) one-way, the journey takes 28 minutes (not 29 or 30!) and runs around every 20 to 30 minutes).
LCT: If you’re going to the Low Cost Terminal where airlines like Air Asia and Zest Air fly from, you can also take the KLIA Express from KL Sentral station, but you get off one stop early at Salak Tinggi. From there, a shuttle bus meets the train and takes you the additional 20 minutes to the terminal. Best of all, a combined train bus ticket is only 12.50 RM – less than half the price of the journey to KLIA.
Of course, there are many more sights than I’ve listed above, but these are some of my favourites. Do feel free to share with me if you have any other recommendations because, unlike many visitors, for me Kuala Lumpur deserves more than the land and leave style of travel.
For more travel planning tips and stories about Asia, see: