It should come as no surprise that I love to research the absolute shit out of every destination we visit. I think it might actually freak Alex out a little bit to see me studying the country we’re headed to as if for an exam, but to me it’s comforting to know I’m as prepared as humanly possible. This is how I survived college, and it is how I am surviving life.
With that said, Malaysia was a bit of a curveball for us, because neither Alex nor myself did any research at all. We knew there would be good food, and that was pretty much it. We booked our flights on short notice, about a week in advance, and we were still suffering from the bad burnout I mentioned in our last post on Koh Samui, so we kinda just said ‘screw the itinerary’ (I know, I’m the worst) and didn’t make a game plan other than booking a hostel in Kuala Lumpur.
I’m happy to say that KL rejuvenated us almost completely - we finally got back into the swing of traveling, and we felt energized and ready to see new stuff, something that had been missing for a while. I don’t know if it was the lively atmosphere, interesting sights, or the incredible food (or a combination of all three) that did it, but we loved our time here and left feeling eager to return. \
Let’s start with the basics. KL is a massive city and it requires far more time than the four and a half days we spent to really get a feel for it. That being said, we felt like we got a good taste of the city center, and as I said we left wanting to come back and discover farther-out areas of the city.
KL is wonderfully easy to get around - there’s plentiful (and dirt-cheap) public transportation and a free city bus called Go KL that runs all around the city. Plus, Uber is plentiful and very cheap. For the most part, though, we were able to walk everywhere in the city center thanks to clean sidewalks, well-marked street crossings, and a lovely elevated pathway, the Bukit Bintang Walkway, that leads to a lot of the major sights in the KLCC (city center) area. We purchased SIM cards in the airport, and this was probably the cheapest data we’ve encountered since India - we each got a 6GB data plan good for 30 days for around $10, but it includes a bonus 30GB of data to use at certain hours, like 1pm-7pm (very convenient). It made using Google Maps and our other travel apps super easy.
On the recommendation of some friends, we stayed at Step Inn Too guesthouse, right in KLCC just on the edge of Chinatown. Our room was tidy, it was really cheap, and the location was perfect. However, this is definitely a party hostel, the kind where it’s weird if you’re not going out, and after many nights out on Koh Samui we really wanted to take a break from the booze. Still, it was a perfectly fine bed to sleep in, and we were mostly active during the day so we didn’t spend a lot of time there.
We mostly stuck to exploring the area within walking distance of our hostel, which fortunately included quite a lot of stuff as we were in the heart of the city. We obviously headed over to KLCC Park to photograph the skyscrapers. We opted not to go up to the observation deck in the Petronas Towers because we were way over-budget after leaving Thailand, and unfortunately that meant making some sacrifices. Luckily we still got to observe these giants from the park, and they are ridiculously huge and awe-inspiring in person. The park surrounding the towers is really cool - there’s a huge playground and a water park(!), along with a little pond/fountain.
We also visited Aquaria in the KLCC center. It’s pretty much a standard city aquarium, but we really enjoyed the moving walkway that passes under a huge overhead tank. The marine life was very diverse and active, and we got to see some stingrays being fed which was incredible to watch.
KL has some truly impressive mega-malls, including the Pavilion KL, which we wasted a whole afternoon exploring. It’s seven or eight stories high, and it seems like half the businesses inside are restaurants! The Pavilion has an entire Japan-themed section, with sushi and teppanyaki restaurants, stores selling Japanese trinkets, and popup shops with all kinds of quirky items for sale. If you can’t tell, we love visiting malls in foreign countries. I don’t really know why, but we usually love people-watching, and malls in Asia have some truly amazing food courts. Wandering through the Pavilion was fascinating, and while it may not have been a traditional ‘cultural’ travel experience, we had a blast and that’s really all that matters.
Of course, we didn’t come to Malaysia just to gawk at some skyscrapers and walk through a shopping mall. We also came for the food. This should come as no surprise if you know us, or if you know anything about Malaysia, which is justifiably infamous for its food. Bottom line: if you’re coming to Asia, and you love food, you CAN’T skip Malaysia. Period.
The country’s number one foodie destination is Penang (which we would visit next), but KL is a close second and you really can’t beat the variety here. From legendary night markets to hipster cafes to luxury five-star rooftops (not that we went to any of those), you can find any food your heart desires, and generally you’ll be able to eat extremely well without making a dent in your wallet. Literally the only thing we knew about Malaysia before coming here was that we needed to eat ALL the things, and we did so with gusto.
Malaysia is known for its street food and as a result we ate most of our meals either in Chinatown or along Jalan Alor, which are both really famous street food areas that were conveniently within walking distance of our hostel. We visited Chinatown a lot during the day, as Jalan Alor is really only active in the evening. We would typically swing by one of the many dim sum stalls in Chinatown for a mid-afternoon snack after a long day of sightseeing to tide us over until dinner.
The main event (at least for us) is Jalan Alor, which is famous for a reason. This place is unbelievable. It’s a relatively short street but it’s positively overflowing with food stalls as well as restaurants with seating that spills out onto the road. Anything you could possibly want here - Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, fried chicken, fresh fruits, donuts…it’s all here, and it’s glorious. The best part? Everything is SO CHEAP. If you sit down and order from one of the restaurants along the side of the road, it’s a little more expensive although still low by Western standards. But if you stick to the stalls and just eat your way from one end of the street to the other, you can get a gut-busting dinner for like $6.
If you’re not into street food or the idea intimidates you, Malaysia is a great place to get your feet wet. Unlike other countries with strong street-food cultures (ahem, India), hygiene really isn’t a concern here and we didn’t experience any digestive issues. Plus, most vendors speak at least some English and can explain menu items to you. And Jalan Alor is especially good because it’s quite popular with tourists, so it’s a well-oiled machine. Street food is a way of life here, and frankly you would be crazy to miss out.
Since we mostly ate street food, we don’t have a ton of recommendations for sit-down meals, but from asking around we know that KL is full of fantastic options running the gamut of cuisines. We loved Tg’s Nasi Kandir, which is an open-air (semi-street food) restaurant serving Malaysian Indian food, we ate a huge, delicious meal for about $7. The mango lassi is amazing here.
We also spent a TON of time at our favorite coffeeshop in town, VCR - we literally went every day. Alex wrote a Roasts Around The World post on it, but let me just reiterate that this place is amazing. It’s not cheap, especially by KL standards, but it’s fresh, healthy, and the coffee (proper filter coffee, which is so rare on our travels) is absolutely divine. The crowd was super diverse - tourists and locals alike, of all ages - and the atmosphere is very relaxed.
One thing that we found wasn’t cheap in KL was drinking, at least in bars. To be honest, I think if we had ventured a little farther out of the city center it’s possible we could have found cheaper bars, but the bars near Jalan Alor were all rather pricey - even during happy hour, a round of drinks in a pub would cost 2 or 3 times as much as our dinners! We wound up not going to a rooftop bar, which are hugely popular in KL owing to the many spectacular skyscrapers, because we learned that most places charge a cover fee and we weren’t trying to spend $40 for one beer just for the photo op (sorry guys!).
We left KL feeling like we should have stayed longer, and we would definitely be back in a heartbeat. There’s just so much to do here! It’s a very modern city that is clean, safe, easy to navigate, and full of amazing food and nightlife options. But we were ready to head to Malaysia’s main foodie city: Penang! More on that next time.