If we didn’t have an agenda for Tokyo, we really didn’t have plans for Kuala Lumpur. Aside from booking a hotel, it wasn’t until the last minute that I thought about what we might want to do in the city. Adam wanted to see the Batu Caves, we knew we would make it to see the Petronas Twin Towers, but that still left us with more than a day. The night before we left home I hastily purchased a couple of tickets for a food tour and decided that would be fine in a pinch. I thought nothing more about KL until we were settled into our flight and watching the tiny plane on the map on the seatback screen as it blinked its way toward our next destination.
We arrived into KL after midnight, and the airport, KLIA, was a ghost town. The airport is close to an hour away from the central city, but fortunately organizing transportation is made very easy at the airport, and by 2 AM we were happily checked into a huge room at the Sheraton Imperial Kuala Lumpur. Of course, by 2:15 we were both sound asleep, and neither of us really started to stir until after 8 AM. That gave us three hours to solve our next two pressing problems: getting cash and finding our way to the food tour!
A quick note on money: we typically rely on ATMs when we travel overseas rather than getting money from our bank at home in advance or exchanging our home currency on the road. ATMs offer the best, most current exchange rate, and the fees to take money out are usually nominal and less than the commission we would pay at a conversion counter in an airport. It also saves us from carrying a great deal of cash that would be tough to recover if we were pickpocketed or robbed. Usually, after clearing customs, our first stop is an ATM- but in KL, both of the ATMs in arrivals were offline. Hence problem number one of our first day in the city: we needed to find a way to get cash. Fortunately, there was a full service bank with ATMs just two blocks from our hotel (and recommended by hotel staff), so getting money was easy and safe. Once we had that item checked off our list, it was time to head toward Chinatown!
The Food Tour
A 15-minute taxi ride took us to our meeting point, and by 11 AM a group of eight hungry travelers had formed and were ready to eat our way through the city. Our tour was run by Urban Adventures, a tour company we used once before in Austria, and our guide Charles made it very clear we should expect to eat as much as we could during our four hours. We started off with a stop at a local restaurant in the Brickfields neighborhood that specialized in curry served on banana leaves– and didn’t specialize in silverware. Platters of rice, chicken, lamb, and roti arrived within moments of sitting down, and Charles encouraged us to dig in the way the locals do- with our hands! Having had similar experiences in India years ago, I was pretty familiar with this style of eating, but Adam and a few others looked skeptical and were eventually provided with forks and knives. The food was delicious- just spicy enough without being overpowering, and the chicken and lamb were tender and juicy and very flavorful. I was pretty satisfied after that meal- but it was time to move on to the next snack.
Our second stop was a vendor stall that served all kinds of fried foods. Charles led us right into the middle of the area where the owners were cooking, and we got to watch as they prepared donuts, banana fritters, curry puffs, and a whole host of other delectable treats. As food came out of the fryer we were encouraged to fill up plastic bags with as many types of foods as we wanted- Adam and I shared a couple of banana fritters only to have them replenished moments later, and we split a couple of other bites as we continued the walk. Watching the locals expertly prepare food was a favorite moment for me- and the long lines of people forming to fill a plastic bag or two of their own suggested it’s a favorite place for many people in the area.
Completely full at this point, we had a few more stops to make- a shop serving sticky sweet gulab jamun, a milky, creamy concoction covered in syrup, and another vendor serving cendol, which is shaved ice served with palm sugar, coconut milk, kidney beans, and coconut milk jelly. Gulab jamun was almost too sweet for me- think a custard-like ball rolled in a thick sugary syrup- but most of the group liked it a lot. The cendol was tasty, although the coconut milk jelly had a tapioca-like consistency that I didn’t love. It reminded me of bubble tea, something I used to drink a lot in college but eventually grew away from as I began to dislike the similarity to tapioca. Adam thought cendol tasted a bit like a really sweet cereal. Both desserts were fun to try and very different from what we’re used to- and why travel if not to embrace the unknown?
By this point, I didn’t think I could eat a single bite more- but it was time to sample some Ipoh white coffee, and I decided even if I couldn’t eat any more I could certainly drink something. White coffee is made from beans that are roasted with palm oil margarine; after brewing, the coffee is served with milk (hence the name). We sampled coffee from Yong Bee restaurant, and the coffee was served to us in plastic bags that were tied with a loop for easy transport. After traversing KL in the heat and humidity, the white coffee was a very welcome refreshment (as was sitting down inside the restaurant for a bit to enjoy it!).
Our final stop on the food tour was a Chinese restaurant where we sampled four different noodle dishes, including one with veal and another with seafood. By this point, I had eaten much more than I usually would, so I only had a few bites of each dish, but each was delicious (though reminiscent of the Chinese food we order in the U.S.).
Our tour was supposed to last four hours, but Charles didn’t rush us so our tour lasted closer to five hours. As we walked from stop to stop, we learned about the history of KL and the influences of the Indians, the Chinese, and the Malay who live there. We saw examples of how the new city is encroaching on the older neighborhoods- and how the old parts of the city are fighting to keep their identity. All in all, it was a great (and delicious) introduction to Kuala Lumpur.
Determined not to eat again for a long time, Adam and I said goodbye to our tour group and boarded a Komuter train for the Batu Caves. Just 25 minutes north of downtown, it was a short ride to get there on a very comfortable, modern train. Always a fan of visiting historical sites, the Batu Caves are modern by my standards- excavation didn’t begin until the 1860s, and it wasn’t recognized as a religious site until the 1890s, but the limestone that forms the caves may be as many as 400 million years old- and that definitely crosses my historical threshold. Today, the Batu Caves are a well-recognized Hindu shine dedicated to Lord Murugan.
A visit to the caves is not complete without the ceremonial trek up 272 stairs to reach the caves themselves. We made the climb, albeit slowly given the extreme heat, insane humidity, and small army of monkeys darting across our path. The stairs are steep to begin with, but the hardest part is avoiding the monkeys. They run past you, jump over your hands on the railings, and steal from you if you’re not looking- we saw one who had pilfered a bottle from a baby and was trying to figure out how to drink from it. From a distance, though, they were cute and somehow made the experience feel a bit more authentic.
The Batu Caves were one of our favorite parts of visiting KL- we’re glad we didn’t miss them!
Our last stop for the night (following a quick trip back to our hotel for showers) was the Petronas Twin Towers. Once the tallest towers in the world, the fact that they have since been surpassed doesn’t detract from their magnificence. We took a taxi from our hotel and were dropped off at the base of Tower One, and my inclination to start by looking up was greeted with an incredible perspective on just how tall the towers are. We eventually made it around the corner to a nice vantage point where we got some great pictures. This was definitely a highlight of our trip to KL and the towers did not disappoint! Eventually we went inside to explore the mall, the food court (which looked great- but still being full, we settled for smoothies), and the much-needed air conditioning. The mall was huge and very impressive.
We looked into the option of going up to the observation deck but decided against it for this trip. There is a fee to visit the deck, and reservations in advance are recommended due to its popularity. The view is probably incredible from there- but a downside to seeing the city skyline from the Petronas Towers is that you can’t see the towers as part of the skyline, and they are such an iconic cornerstone for any view of the city. Next time, though, the observation deck just might make the list.
After wrapping up, it was just a quick ride back to our hotel, where we slept in and relaxed after an incredibly productive day.
Where We Stayed
Hotel rates in Kuala Lumpur are inexpensive by our standards in the U.S., so we “splurged” on the five-star Sheraton Imperial KL. Location-wise, it was OK- kind of removed from most of the places we visited, but taxis solved the transportation problem for us and made it that much more desirable to stay there. We also upgraded to a room on a club level, which was roughly the size of our first apartment and had a great view of the Kuala Lumpur Tower. The staff was wonderful, attentive, and knowledgeable, and we felt like valued guests. The best part was the breakfast buffet included with our room rate- everything from Japanese delicacies like sushi and noodles to Indian dishes to a waffle bar were presented in the dining room. Our first day in KL was long and tiring, so we spent our last morning relaxing at the hotel, with a significant amount of time spent enjoying breakfast. When we return to KL we will also return to the Sheraton.
Transportation in KL is easy, affordable, and comfortable. After arriving at KLIA, we were able to prepay for a taxi directly to our hotel at a counter in the arrivals hall. Arriving after midnight meant we were subjected to a 50% surcharge on the total bill, and even after including that amount the taxi only cost about $20. We took a couple of taxis between our hotel and various locations in the city, and we never spent more than about 15 Ringgit for any trip, which is about $3.50. We only used the subway once, and it was to go just one stop, but we did spend some time on the Komuter train and paid four Ringgit each way (less than $2 round-trip!) for a very modern ride. We also took the KLIA train from KL Sental to the airport on departure day, which was just 35 Ringgit per person (about $8) and again was modern and comfortable. I was impressed with the variety, affordability, and reliability of transportation options in KL- the city made getting around easy for a foreigner!
Kuala Lumpur was an unexpected favorite for Adam and me. We were expecting to focus on the Batu Caves and Petronas Towers before heading onward, but immersing ourselves in the food tour was a surprisingly effective way of learning about and connecting with this amazing city. However, this vacation was not designed for us to linger in any one place, so after just a couple of days we were at another airline check in counter and getting ready to board our next plane headed for Yogyakarta!
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we booked a food tour with Urban Adventures, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected Urban Adventures based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review.