Kuala Lumpur for backpackers (part one)

Kuala Lumpur is a modern, thriving metropolis with a highly efficient transport system and a forest of skyscrapers. It is a facinating mixture of various cultural influences. It doesn’t have much to offer in terms of sightseeing, though. Depending on what would like to see and do, KL could be a rather expensive place to be or a totally affordable one. Here is a guide for a budget traveller.

Klang river,  the national mosque and high-rise buildings in the background at Kuala Lumpur city centre

During my 9 days of solo travel in Malaysia (including full 4 days in KL and 3 days in Melacca) I managed to stick to my average £10 a week budget and I believe so could you.

KL transportation

From KLIA/ KLIA2 to the city

Tip number one: if you’re searching for an ATM once you arrive at the KLIA2- they are all bundled up in one corner on the first floor.

The cheapest way to get from the KLIA or KLIA2 to KL Sentral (the major transportation hub in the city) is by bus (using one of three companies operating). The journey takes 1h 15min or more in the peak hours. There is a 2 RM discount if you book the tickets online with Sky Bus.

Getting around KL by rail and by bus

A rather complex system of rail transport including Monorail, Light Rail Transit and Mass Rapid Transit falls under one umbrella of Rapid Transit. You can check the routes and plan your journey on their very user-friendly page.

The commuter trains (KTM) are a separate network but thankfully Touch and Go card works for them as well. You’re going to need one to get to Batu Caves. Since the wait for those trains is longer, it might be worth to check timings ahead on their website.

Some buses in KL are free! If you want to save money, use them but beware traffic is heavy and your progress would be slow. The Purple Line connects Bukit Bintang area to Chinatown, while the Green Line commutes between KLCC and Bukit Bintang. You can see the maps of those routes here

Touch and Go card

If you’re staying in KL for a few days, consider getting a 15 RM Touch and Go card. 5 RM is the cost of the card, refundable upon the return. The card works for all sorts of trains and buses.

Kuala Lumpur TouchnGo card

To be honest, I didn’t find it very convenient to use, though. Not only the top up timings were limited to specific hours, in the morning and in the evening but also there was a minimum top up charge of 10 RM and each transaction costed me 50 sen.

It took me a while to realise there were ways to go around those two obstacles. There are touch and go top up stations open non -stop where no fee is charged. There is one on the second floor of the shopping mall at KL Sentral and you can find one at every Tesco shop. Still not sure how practical that is as I didn’t see a single Tesco during my 9 days stay in Malaysia.

If you want to stick to paying for individual journeys, the travel tokens are sold at the vending machines only. The staff at the ticket booths could at most give you advice and change for the machines.

Touch’n’Go card refund

In order to get a refund you have to surrender the card and show your passport and flight number. The only place to get the refund I know is the aforementioned Touch’n’Go shop at the KL Sentral shopping mall. The card becomes inactive if it’s not used at least once a year. Luckily, the outstanding money on the card can be spent at 7/11 or other major retailers.

Pickpockets

Beware of pickpockets! I took a monorail in the peak hours and when I left the station I realized my wallet was stolen. There was barely any cash there but I did lose my British SIM card.

Accommodation

My dorm room in a China Town’ s cheap hostel was a depressing, dark, tiny, rundown room infested with mosquitoes. There were no lockers at the premises. The initial price wasn’t too high but then 6% tax and a 10 RM tourism tax was added on top, making it in the end rather poor value for money at 28 RM. I was glad I was about to move to a Couch Surfing host the next day.

A row of old buildings in China Town with an ugly high-rise building behind them.

My Couchsurfing experience

KL, like any large city, abound in Couch Surfing hosts. I chose a Malay host, Zar, who would host only female solo travellers or married couples. Technically, she lived outside of KL proper, in Petaling Jaya, but I could easily commute to the city centre by train within 20-30 minutes from there.

The author posing with her Malay female Couchsurfing host

The only rule I had to follow when at her place was to cover legs and shoulders for the sake of her teenage sons. KL is a very cosmopolitan city so covering legs or arms in public spaces wasn’t necessary.

Zar was a lovely host. She took me to the local market and made a delicious, traditional Malay lunch for me: deep fried tempeh with peanut sauce and a vegetable, coconut-milk based curry. She veganised the traditional recipe for me, skipping the shrimp paste. In return, I taught her yoga in a park nearby her home.

Food and drink

In Malaysia you can find many cheap eateries falling into one of three categories: Malay, Chinese and Indian. Both Malay and Chinese canteens serve predominantly meat. It’s possible to find a few vegetable dishes at Malay buffet-style restaurants but you have to be very careful about the hidden surprises in the form of shrimp paste or anchoives.

Malay buffet dishes: rice, greens and tempeh in tomato

Indian eateries are the place to go if you’re vegetarian or vegan but remeber that canai rotis sadly aren’t vegan. The simplest meal of rotis and dal or South Indian style breakfast would set you back just 2.50 RM but a more substantial meal in an eatery of any cuisine would require paying at least 5 RM.

Malaysia, just like Thailand, has public water purifying machines where you can get 1l of water for just 20 sen.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Kuala Lumpur?
By air
Kuala Lumpur is one of the main hubs in South East Asia. Due to large volume of reasonably priced intercontinental flights, it is a good starting point for the journey within the region.

There are 2 terminals at KL airport: KLIA and KLIA2, the second one of which serves mostly the budget airlines such as Air Asia. They are located next to each other and there is a free shuttle bus between the two.

By Bus
You can get to KL by bus from Singapore (6h) and Hat Yai in Thailand (7h). The journey from Singapore would be much cheaper if you travel to Johor Bahru- the nearest city on the Malaysian side- and then take a Malaysian bus from there to KL.

KL has 3 bus terminals, the most important one being Terminal Bersepadu Selatan (TBS, Southern Integrated Terminal). Some of the destinations are: Johor Bahru (for Singapore- 5h), Melacca (2h), Ipoh (2-3h), Tanah Rata for Cameron Highlands (3.5h), Penang (5-6h), Kota Bahru (7h).

By rail
KL Sentral is the main railway station in KL. The trains to nearby Ipoh stop also at the Old KL Railway station.
The only direct trains to KL are from the stations on the main, west coast line such as Ipoh (2.5h) and Penang (4-5h) as well as Hat Yai in Thailand (7.5h).
Getting from east coast would require travelling south to Gemas and then travelling 2.5h from there to KL. Also travel from Singapore would require 2 interchanges (Johor Bahru and Gemas) therefore it’s not recommended.

Prices [in Malaysian Ringgit as of Sept 2018]
45 bus to Singapore
40 4G SIM card and top up for 2 weeks
27 a night in a dorm in a cheapest hostel
15 TouchnGo travel card
12 bus fare from the airport to KL Sentral (paid on the bus)
12 entrance to the Islamic Arts Museum
10 bus from KL to Melacca
7.30 bus from KL to Kuala Selangor
5 entrance to one of the caves at Batu Caves
5 cheapest full meal at a buffet style eatery
4.5 a fresh coconut
3 1kg of plum-like fruit on the market
2-2.5 roti and dal at a cheap Indian eatery
2-3 a few stops on the rapid transit network
1 sweet from a street stall
0.2 1l of water from water purifying machine

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