First-timers' guide to Kuala Lumpur

Getting there on AirAsia plus where to stay, go and eat
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Kuala Lumpur is the capital city of Malaysia, the crossroads of Southeast Asia. It is one of the most visited cities in the world and home to AirAsia, which recently celebrated flying its 500 millionth passenger. I’m smitten with KL's diversity, probably because our local culture has a lot in common with Malaysia’s: different faiths and ethnicities, palm trees dotting the landscape and homestyle food at every turn. I'm wondering why it took me so long to get here!

A woman prepares a thosa (dosa) plate with daal and curries (RM 4 or $1).
A woman prepares a thosa (dosa) plate with daal and curries (RM 4 or $1) at one of the many foodcourts that dot the city's neighborhoods.

The endless amount of accessible food astounds me. Twenty-four-hour mamaks (Muslim Indian open-air restaurants) sell rich buttery roti canai for RM4 (about $1 US), rolling carts sell icy air mata kucing, a super sweet vermillion drink made with dried monk fruit, longan and winter melon for RM2 (50 cents), and at the pasar malams or night markets, thousands of hungry people line up at vendors’ stalls to — what else? — eat!

AirAsia flew me to Osaka and Kuala Lumpur, all expenses paid, to show you how easy it is to take advantage of their budget-friendly airfares year-round. This was my first visit to Malaysia and I learned a lot planning this trip myself. Here's my guide for first-timers on to how to get to Kuala Lumpur, where to stay and how to experience this incredible culinary destination.

 

 

 

 

Getting there

AirAsia’s flight D72 direct to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL) departs Honolulu at 4 p.m. four days a week with a roughly two-hour transit layover in Osaka-Kansai Airport (KIX), giving you enough time to stretch your legs, use the bathroom and grab a bite to eat in the transit area. If you’re stopping in Osaka before continuing on, visit my First-timers' guide to experiencing Osaka like a pro.

Online checkin is not available for this flight, so I strongly recommend arriving as early as possible to check in at the counter which opens at 1 p.m..

From Osaka, you have two options. If you’re flying directly from Honolulu, the second leg departs KIX around 10:00 p.m. and you’ll arrive in KL at 4 a.m. local time. I flew on AirAsia’s daytime flight D733 that departs Osaka at 11 a.m. and arrives in Kuala Lumpur at 4:45 p.m. local time, just in time for dinner!

I had a standard Low Fare seat without upgrades except for my checked bag. The nine-across seating layout of this Airbus A330 is dense, but not out of the norm for budget carriers. I’m admittedly spoiled when it comes to flying, so I would have paid the $10 upgrade to pick my seat or $60 to sit in a Hot Seat, which are bulkhead seats with extended legroom and priority boarding. Even with the optional Premium Flex package that includes a checked bag, Hot Seat selection, meal and more, a roundtrip to KL comes in under $900 which is stupid cheap from Hawaii. Honestly, that's cheaper than flying to many mainland destinations in basic economy.

What distracted me from feeling squished was the kind service from the flight attendants and the food. Oh the food! Never have I found airplane food so tasty or even something I looked forward to. It was also affordable (for airplane food) to boot – a foreshadowing of sorts. When the meal cart came around, the aroma of my neighbor’s Hainan chicken rice filled our row, so I felt compelled to order something.

Emperor Fried Rice entree onboard AirAsia flight D733 (RM 22 or about $6)
Emperor Fried Rice entree onboard AirAsia flight D733 (RM 22 / $6).

For $7 (they accept dollars, yen and ringgit on board), I got the Emperor fried rice and a Vietnamese iced coffee. Other options included Hainan chicken rice, nasi lemak (the national dish of Malaysia), and lemang with chicken rendang. The fried rice came piping hot but what surprised me the most was that I could identify all of the ingredients by sight: plump chicken (that wasn't dry), curry-tinged rice, slices of chili, pineapple, green peas, spring onion and egg. The Vietnamese iced coffee came from a packet, but it was prepared on the spot and did well to quell the fire from the fried rice. Props to AirAsia for doing airplane food right! 

The lemang sticky rice with chicken rendang was excellent.
The lemang coconut sticky rice with chicken rendang (RM 22 / $6) was excellent. 

On my flight back to Osaka at 2 p.m., I opted for the limited lamang, a coconut sticky rice usually served around Muslim holidays in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, chicken floss and a superb chicken rendang curry. Of the two, this was the clear winner and I could have easily had another but since I wasn't moving around for 12 more hours, it was best I kept my eating to a minimum. 

Arriving in KL

In no time, we landed at AirAsia’s KLIA2, a modern, massive terminal that is completely separate from the main airport. Once you’ve disembarked, be prepared to walk for at least a mile from the gate to immigration and customs. I tracked 3,470 steps between leaving the plane until I sat down on the train into the city. That’s about 1.67 miles, OK? The silver lining is that no forms or are needed to enter Malaysia, just take a photo, scan your fingerprints, get a stamp and you’re good to enter – perhaps the easiest immigration process I've experienced. 

klia, the home of AirAsia
klia2, the home of AirAsia

You can trade dollars or yen for Malaysian Ringgit (RM) at a currency exchange or hit up one of the many ATMs located in the arrivals hall (Level 2) after baggage claim. Just be sure your debit or ATM card (Visa or Mastercard) is accepted by the machine – the nominal exchange fee of around 1 percent makes it the easiest and most economical way of obtaining cash. And in case you’re wondering, the dollar is very strong in Malaysia – $1 US is equivalent to roughly RM 4, so when you see a price, just divide by four. Credit cards are seldom accepted so cash is king!

You'll also want to rent a pocket wifi unit at the airport. There are various kiosks in the arrivals hall, but I booked mine online before I arrived for about $6 a day and it gave me 1 GB of data per day throughout my stay. It required a RM 200 refundable cash deposit ($50) at pickup. 

Entrance to the KLIA Ekspres train terminal
Entrance to the KLIA Ekspres train terminal in the arrivals hall on Level 2.

Your best option into the city is via the KLIA Ekpres, a spacious high-speed train that ferries travelers directly to KL Sentral Station from 4:55 a.m. (the first KLIA2 train departure) until 1:13 a.m. (last train arrival at KLIA2), with trains running every 15 minutes at peak times. The cost is RM 55 or about $13.75 each way and you get lovely views of the state of Selangor. From KL Sentral, you can take a connecting train to the KL City Centre or elsewhere, but since I was on a time crunch, I decided to use Grab, the rideshare brand that recently overtook Uber's market share in Southeast Asia. Most of my rides across town averaged RM 5-8 or roughly $1-2. 

Brickfields
The view from my Airbnb loft in Bangsar / Brickfields, KL. It was $35/night. 

Accommodations

For a first-timer, I would recommend staying at one of the hotels that are connected to KL Sentral. There are many four- and five-star chains that offer very reasonable rates (around $100/night) year-round, so you could very well live like a king or queen on a pauper's budget. I stayed at an Airbnb serviced apartment one stop from the station in a neighborhood called Brickfields, on the border of Bangsar, a major center for local dining, clubs and shopping. Another popular area to stay in is Bukit Bintang, which has plenty of shopping, dining and entertainment. 

Living room
The first floor living room of my Airbnb lofted apartment in Brickfields.

Around KL

Nasi kandar is unabashedly ugly delicious.
Pelita's nasi kandar is unabashedly ugly delicious. Nasi means rice in Malay and kandar means yoke or poll. Hawkers would walk around with canisters of food and make up rice plates with various curries, stews, vegetables, fish, mutton and chicken for workers. Today nasi kandar is found in mamaks or 24-hour restaurants that people from all faiths and ethnicities eat at. 

Bangsar

My friend picked me up from my rental and took me to Bangsar, an affluent neighborhood with tons of bars, 24-hour mamaks (Indian Muslim restaurants), restaurants and Malaysian homestyle cafes. There are plenty of rolling hills and twisty curves lined with private estates and gated communities, but you'll mostly want to stay in the Bangsar Village area. We went to Pelita Nasi Kandar, a mamak that serves rice plates with various curries, fried fish, veggies and roti canai with fillings from egg to Milo, a chocolate malt powder similar to Ovaltine. 

Restaurants to try:

  • Pelita Nasi Kandar - 24-hour mamak serving huge curry rice plates and roti canai flat breads  2, Jalan Telawi 5, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur
  • PappaRich Cafe - a casual cafe serving coffees, drinks and relaxed Malaysian fare late  2, Jalan Telawi 4, Bangsar Baru, Bangsar, 59100 Bangsar, Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur
  • Restoran Devi's Corner - 24-hour banana leaf restaurant, serving Indian fare to be eaten with your hands  14, Jalan Telawi 4, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur
  • Nasi Lemak Famous - a tiny streetside cart that serves Malaysia's beloved nasi lemak (coconut rice with egg, sambal, cucumber, peanuts and fried anchovy) with various side dishes like rendang and fried chicken on the the cheap  14, Jalan Telawi 4, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur

Hawker centres and pasar malam

If you want to really eat like local, you're going to have to leave the touristy areas like Bukit Bintag and KLCC for neighborhoods and areas like Petaling Jaya and Taman Desa. Because I only had one day to to explore, I needed a local guide to help me find the places I wouldn't normally read about in typical guide books or blogs, so I booked a foodie experience on Airbnb with a local named Mercy for $21. 

A hawker prepares a thosa crepe made from a fermented rice and lentil batter.

After meeting up with Mercy at a train station, we went to her neighborhood food court where she introduced us to nearly a dozen stalls and explained what each made. We watched as they prepared our dishes, so eager to share how they cook them up – it was such a beautiful experience to share. There was everything from char kway teow (wok-fried rice noodles similar to pad see yew or chow fun) and bak kut teh (pork bone "tea" or herbal soup) to Indian thosas (fermented rice and lentil crepes served with daal) and roti (flaky, pan fried breads) and Hokkien mee, a specialty noodle dish hardly found outside of Malaysia. It was incredible to see such a diverse array in one spot, especially when many of the dishes ranged from RM 8-16 or about $2-4 for full plates. 

Food courts to visit:

  • SS2 Selera Malam - a local hawker centre in Petaling Jaya  Jalan SS 2/61, SS 2, 47300 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia
  • TDDP Medan Selera Taman Danau Desa - a casual food court serving everything from Hokkien mee to popiah and thosa crepes Jalan 3/109f, Taman Abadi Indah, 58100 Kuala Lumpur,
  • Sungei Wang Plaza Food Court - a fourth floor food court with many options  Jalan Bukit Bintang, Bukit Bintang, 55100 Kuala Lumpur
Hokkien mee
Hokkien mee is my new favorite stir fried noodle! 

Pasar malam or night markets are a quintessential part of the eating experience in Southeast Asia. Regrettably, I wasn't able to visit one because of my short stay but they are prevalent throughout KL. Some happen nightly, while others pop up on specific days. Pasar malam often have a mix of hot food vendors, produce and merchandise. I dream about my next trip to KL where I walk along rows of vendors, eating satay sticks and sipping a teh tarik ais (pulled tea over ice) as I soak up the sights, smells and sounds of the humid evening. 

Pasar malam to visit:

  • Alor Street pasar malam (daily) - Jalan Alor, Bukit Bintang, 50200 Kuala Lumpur
  • Taman Connaught pasar malam (Wednesdays) -  Jalan Cerdas, Taman Connaught, 56000 Kuala Lumpur
  • Telawi Street pasar malam (Sundays) - Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur
Petronas Twin Towers
My dream come true to visit the Petronas Twin Towers.

 

Batu Caves
Inside Batu Caves.

Must-sees

I grew up seeing the Petronas Towers in movies, so it was a dream of mine to visit Kuala Lumpur and see those stunning towers, the tallest twin buildings in the world and the tallest structures in the world at one time. They punctuate the city's skyline along with KL Menara or KL Tower, both equally stunning, but I only had time to see one so I went for the towers.

Outside the city, I wanted to see some of the natural beauty Malaysia is known for. The perfect destination for me was Batu Caves, a 400 milion year-old limestone cave structure that is home to several Hindu shrines and a 140-foot tall golden statue of Murugan, the Hindu God of War. It's about a 20-minute cab ride from KLCC. To access the caves you must climb 272 very steep steps, which in the extreme humidity is tough. I'm sweating just thinking about it.

  • Petronas Towers - Kuala Lumpur City Centre, 50450 Kuala Lumpur
  • Batu Caves - Gombak, 68100 Batu Caves, Selangor
  • Menara KL - 2, Jalan Puncak, Kuala Lumpur, 50250 Kuala Lumpur
  • National Mosque of Malaysia  - Jalan Perdana, Tasik Perdana, 50480 Kuala Lumpur
  • KL Butterfly Park - Taman Tasik Perdana, Jalan Cendarasari, 50480 Kuala Lumpur
Petaling Street
The entrance to Petaling Street market, where you can find knock-off luxury goods and cheap food. 

Chinatown

I spent an afternoon in KL's Chinatown, but you could easily spend a lifetime here and not run out of places to eat, people to watch or things to do. I felt like I was in a different country again, and that's a good thing. I started with a late lunch at Nam Heong's, a restaurant that has been making Hainanese chicken rice since 1938. It's a humble dish, satisfying yet light enough to keep you going about your day. Then I meandered to The Toast Co to have a cup of tea and relax. As I sat watching traffic and people zoom by, time didn't mean a thing. 

 

Hainan chicken rice
Nam Heong's famous chicken rice (with some roast pork) set - RM 6 or about $1.50

I also strolled along Petaling Street, where a market bustles with activity. I heard woks clanging and burners roaring. Hawkers hustled people to look at their knock-off Gucci scarves and the smells of Hokkien mee and bak kut teh filled the air. Chaos can sometimes be too much, but here I embraced it. I also walked to KL Central Market, a former wet market now home to many handicraft, souvenir and batik apparel shops. I purchased a gorgeous handwoven golden songket shirt that will only be worn on the most special of occaisions. 

  • Petaling Street - bustling market with restaurants, food carts, knock-off goods and more in Chinatown
  • Central Market - home to handicraft, batik and souvenir vendors  Jalan Hang Kasturi, City Centre, 50050 Kuala Lumpur
  • Nam Heong - a famous Hainan chicken rice restaurant dating back to 1938  56, Jalan Sultan, City Centre, 50000 Kuala Lumpur

Other tips

  • I'm gonna be real with you. You have not experienced humidity until you've set foot in Malaysia or Singapore where it is about 90 degrees F and 95 percent humidity 365 days a year. The entire country is a sauna, so hydrate often and wear light and breathable clothing. The dryest months of the year are June and July, but you might experience a lighting storm here and there like I did. I would bring a rain jacket just in case – it is a rainforest after all. 
     
  • Download the Grab ride-hailing app before you arrive in Malaysia. Set up your account and credit card (which may require you to enter on a desktop) so you can request rides as soon as you're ready to go. 
     
  • Speaking of tips, tipping is not a cultural norm here so it is not expected when dining out, although you may choose to leave your change and that is appreciated in my experience. 
     
  • It is currently Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, and being that Malaysia is a Muslim country, be aware that many shops and restaurants may alter their hours to accommodate those that are fasting. 
     
  • Kuala Lumpur is home to six of the world's largest malls (who knew?) so you might want to bring an empty suitcase (book it ahead of time) or pack accordingly if you plan to shop. Many, if not all, of the major apparel brands and labels can be found at megamalls that dot the city, which are also great for escaping the humid climate. 
     
  • Arrive early to check in for the flight back home. The flight departs at 2 p.m. for Osaka-Kansai but I dropped off my bag at 11 a.m. when the ticket counter opened so I didn't need to rush through the airport to get to my gate, located about a mile away. I purchased a pass to the Premium Red Lounge in the satellite terminal after the Sky Bridge. For RM69 ($17) prebooked or RM79 ($19) walk-in, you have access to fast wifi, a small buffet of food, comfy lounge chairs, showers and some peace and quiet before the long flight. If you've booked a flat-bed or premium flex seat, access to this lounge is included for flights departing Kuala Lumpur.