Confession: We didn’t really love Kuala Lumpur

Trash outside the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur is the capital city of Malaysia and a bustling metropolis that is full of diversity and some very interesting sights. However, based on everything that Kelly and I read going into our trip, we expected a flashy and wealthy city that maybe wasn’t on par with Singapore or Dubai, but was close. What we found is a city that has a few charms and a few sights, but was dirtier and smellier than we expected, was hard to get around and quite simply underwhelmed. We aren’t saying not to go to KL, but it’s possible you should lower your expectations, because ours were high and we didn’t really love Kuala Lumpur.

There wasn’t a lot to see

You can check out Kelly’s full two-day KL itinerary here, but if the nation’s capital and largest city can be summed up into two days of worthwhile stuff to see, it probably doesn’t have as much going for it as you might think.

One of the first struggles with planning your trip to Kuala Lumpur is that the planning is going to be pretty hard. There are four or five things that constantly make the top “must-see” lists, but there isn’t usually a whole lot after that. We got a couple of helpful suggestions from friends, but some of that included just marveling at the shopping malls, which is only good for so much time-killing.

Looking at a few websites, your Kuala Lumpur to-do list will probably look like:

  • Petronas Towers: RM85 / $20
  • KL Tower: RM105 / $25
  • Butterfly Park: RM18 / $4.35
  • Bird Park: RM50 / $12
  • Masjid Negara (National Museum): Free
  • Muzium Negara (National Mosque): RM5 / $1.25
  • Batu Caves: Free

You’ll notice that the first four things on that list all cost a fair amount of money (when you consider that we’re trying to spend no more than $50 per day for two of us in Malaysia), and if you’re like us, going up a tower and looking out over the city isn’t worth the price tag. We lived in New York City for over four years and never went up the Empire State Building or 30 Rock, so Petronas and KL towers weren’t going to make the cut. Likewise, going into the Butterfly and Bird Parks in Kuala Lumpur may be highly entertaining for some, but it wasn’t worth its price tag in our opinion.

Once you’ve taken out the expensive things to do in Kuala Lumpur, you’re not left with a ton of options. We loved taking in Muzium Negara (paid) and Masjid Negara (free), but those will only take you about an hour each. The Batu Caves were also a free sight (though we had very mixed opinions of it), as was the National Textile Museum, but those four things could all be done in a day at a leisurely pace. For a city that many people talk about spending a week in, we couldn’t figure out what you would do for that long, even if you did pay for the expensive sights.

Public Transportation and Signage

After you’ve mapped out all the things you want to see, you’ll want to know how to get there, and this will be a journey all its own. Kuala Lumpur has four different commuter rails, as well as over 100 different bus lines across multiple systems. While getting from stop to stop on the same train system is relatively easy, making transfers to another train line isn’t clear. If you’re brave enough to try the bus system, good luck, because there isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason that we could figure out to the timing, direction or frequency of buses at any given stop. Trying to get to the Petronas Towers (just to look at the outside, not go up), we got so turned around that we were left choosing between walking 30 minutes to the towers or 30 minutes to our hostel (we chose hostel).

One would think that a huge city like this would have better signs to help alleviate some of these problems, but they just don’t. Based on a transit map you might be lucky enough to find, it would seem reasonable that two train lines at the same stop would either be easy to transfer between, or at the least have clear signage to point the way. That wasn’t usually the case, and gets even worse if you’re trying to identify the buses that come by a particular stop. If you’re like us, it’s one thing to wander the streets just taking in the sights. It’s an entirely different proposition to carry your bags around after a multi-hour bus ride looking hot, sweaty and lost. It makes us relatively nervous to not know where we’re going and KL signage is so sparse that it routinely gave us that feeling.

The signage problem extends well past public transportation into the major sights and even just navigating through the streets. Very few things in Kuala Lumpur are marked as well as they should be. When trying to get to the famous Batu Caves, we were lucky enough that the commuter rail nearest our hostel went straight there. However, navigating through the train station to the actual caves was a process. You can see the caves from the moment you get off the train, but you have to wind your way around to actually get to the entrance. We didn’t see a single sign and for such a major tourist and religious destination, it was pretty shocking.

A dirty, smelly party town

So much of our beef with Kuala Lumpur is again rooted in the lofty expectations that we had going in. Of course, we understand that relative to some other parts of Asia, Kuala Lumpur is a paradise, but we definitely didn’t expect a town with such a flashy reputation to be so dirty and stink so constantly. There was significant litter pretty much everywhere, and it was worst at the Batu Caves.

The partying aspect of KL is something we knew a good amount about going in. We had actually taken the time to search out a guest house that wasn’t labeled as a party hostel so that we could get a decent night’s sleep if we wanted it. It turns out that there may be no such thing in Kuala Lumpur as a hostel that doesn’t like to party. I just feel bad for anyone who went to even more of a party hostel, because we were woken up at 6am by loud group choruses of “La Bamba,” “Livin’ on a Prayer” and other cliche drunk songs from our hostel mates who still hadn’t gone to bed from the night before.

Prepare to be harassed

The entire service industry wants your business, and they aren’t afraid to show it. From taxi drivers to hawkers in street markets, to hosts at streetside cafes and even within malls, everyone will try and solicit your business, and it will quickly wear on you if you let it. Again, this is far from unique to Kuala Lumpur, but it still caught us by surprise for a place with such a high-end reputation.

After our experience in Malacca with the taxi drivers, having KL cabbies stop and honk at us like we didn’t know what a taxi looked like or race across the street trying to flag us down even though we didn’t want a taxi wasn’t new. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t annoying every single time it happened. It also wasn’t necessarily surprising that it happened at the street markets when you walked right past the entrance to their stall. However, it was shocking how often someone would call out from the other side of the street to ask me, “New watch sir? Maybe some new sunglasses? New purse for the m’am?”

What floored me was when I would hear this inside of Kuala Lumpur malls and their food courts. It’s fine if you want to hold out a menu or maybe highlight a store item, but it’s the second and third and fourth attempt when you don’t even bat an eyelash, much less look their way that really can get under your skin. The restaurant hosts on the street will get really close to you and start talking really fast basically trying to herd you into a seat despite, again, showing absolutely no interest.

There are a couple of strategies for dealing with the harassment, and we tried them all. Option one is probably simplest, and that’s to just keep moving forward and try your best to tune it all out. Alternatively, you could really keep your neck loose by just constantly shaking your head “no,” or use the word no or a similar hand gesture. There is also the method that Kelly and I both resorted to at points, where we gave the person the meanest, coldest stare that tried to convey “Talk to me again and I take no responsibility for my next actions.” They all work for that particular hawker, but unfortunately there isn’t an unsubscribe button for street harassment, so I’d just suggest option one for your own sanity.

It’s not all bad in Kuala Lumpur

Yes, there are a lot of things that we didn’t love about KL, but there was great food, fascinating museums and interesting culture. It’s also a major train, bus and plane transit hub, making it easy to fit into a Southeast Asia itinerary. The issues we had aren’t exclusive to Kuala Lumpur, so this is all about what we thought we were getting. We were expecting a brighter, cleaner and more interesting metropolis based on the research we’d done, but it frankly disappointed us. Should you skip it? No, certainly not, but we didn’t think it was worth spending more than two days there.

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