And so ends my time in city number five as part. It’s wrap-up time once again to see how Kuala Lumpur compared to all the other places as part of my ‘Can I live here?’ experiment as I travel. (I’ve already done wrap-up posts on Beijing, Shanghai, Yangshuo and Taipei so check those out too ).
To be completely honest, when planning my trip around Asia I had considered leaving out Kuala Lumpur and going to Penang instead. In hindsight, part of me wishes I’d done just that but part of me is also glad I got to experience Malaysia’s capital city for myself. (Read about my first impressions of Kuala Lumpur and my first ‘homestay’ experience here).
Let’s see how Kuala Lumpur fared in my ‘points and categories’ comparison. As I’ve said before, I’ve only employed a ‘rating out of 5’ system so I have an easy way to rank and compare each city! I’m not wanting to judge anyone else’s homeland harshly!
Before I even got to Kuala Lumpur, I pictured it as a noisier and bigger version of Singapore, which was rougher around the edges but still had a cultural melting pot at it’s heart. In reality, my assumptions weren’t far off!
Having previously been to Doha in Qatar, I was excited to go to a Muslim-majority Asian country and see how it compared. Despite largely sharing the same religion (according to the 2010 consensus, 61.3% of Malaysians practice Islam), Doha and Kuala Lumpur are worlds apart. I thought it was wonderful that it’s not uncommon to walk down a street and see a women in hijab walking past an ethnic Chinese girl wearing mini shorts and no one has a problem with it! With such a culturally diverse country like Malaysia, tolerance is key for harmonic coexistence. Sure, Malaysia has had, and continues to have, it’s fair share of racial tensions (most notably in 2015 – read this interesting article) but on a day to day basis, I only ever saw harmonious co-existence. One of Kuala Lumpur’s big strengths is that it’s a cosmopolitan city.
And unlike in China or Taiwan, I pretty much just blended into the mix of ethnicities and I wasn’t gawked at for purely being an ethnic minority. Although be aware, if you’re a young woman, particularly caucasian, walking alone through certain areas, you will have plenty of men gawking at you, eurghh. So that wasn’t a nice cultural aspect when compared to the likes of lovely Taipei but in general, although the staring is not at all welcome, you’re unlikely to come to any harm. Kuala Lumpur is a very safe city.
Forever a proponent of free speech and uncensored education, I was interested to find out where Malaysia stands. Whilst Malaysia doesn’t officially censor the internet (unlike China), meaning you can easily get your social media fix in KL, it still ranks a disappoint 144th in the global Press Freedom Index. (For reference, China is 176th and United States is 43rd). But in reality, this has virtually no effect on tourists in Malaysia! Just a bit of info for those, like me, who are interested in civil liberties around the world.
As a former British colony, it’s probably no surprise that everyone I met in Malaysia spoke near enough fluent English. Sure, it was sometimes their own take on English (much like fabulous ‘Singlish‘!) or heavily accented English but generally I didn’t have any real trouble being understood, making conversation or getting around. I even picked up a tiny bit of the Malay language! After a month in China and Taiwan, it was very surreal to be in a city where 90% of the signs and literature used romanised letters rather than Chinese characters! In comparison, it made it easy to read, look-up and learn some Malay words in just a few days 🙂 (jalan = road, tandas = toilets, keluar = exit). Good news for fellow language-learning nerds like me!
Compared to Taipei and Shanghai (and even Beijing!) I found Kuala Lumpur quite tricky to get around unless you’re based in the centre of the city or you’re willing to do a lot of walking. Whilst taxis are cheap and plentiful, these too can be potentially troublesome (read my post on how to avoid trouble!). In defence of KL, I was staying on the Western outskirts which did mean a 20-ish minute taxi ride into the city centre each day and back, so perhaps I’m biased. What I’m certainly not biased in saying is KL traffic can be horrendous. Everyone says it. It’s just one of those big-city things.
KL does have a cheap and sort-of efficient metro system running through the centre of the city and it will get you to all the key places. Although even when using this, I sometimes found myself having to walk 15 minutes from the station to my destination which was sometimes tricky because not all the roads have pavement/sidewalks for pedestrians! So I ended up taking some walking de-tours. But maybe I was just unlucky. The big positive of the metro is that it has a highly efficient dedicated train line (Airport Express) that takes you directly to the airport from the city centre. And the metro also operates a monorail (think Disney World Florida but less exciting) which gives you a fun view of the city. But it only has a top speed of 37mph so don’t take it when you’re in a hurry! Although having said that, KL road traffic can be stationary so perhaps it is quicker to take the monorail, haha.
Things to do/nightlife 4/5
Before deciding to definitely go to Kuala Lumpur, I had read all over the internet that there’s not much to do and that tourists shouldn’t bother staying more than 3-ish days or that they would be better off skipping Kuala Lumpur altogether and doing to Penang instead. Seeing as I’d read something similar about Shanghai (I ended up staying 8 days and even that wasn’t long enough for me!), I was willing to give Kuala Lumpur a go and stayed for 5 days.
Whilst I agree there isn’t a tonne of obvious tourist things to do in Kuala Lumpur (arguably only the Petronas Towers), I think the city is what you make of it. I can’t lie, I was ready to move on from KL after 3 or so days but I think part of that is I just didn’t ‘click’ with KL. But if you make the effort, you certainly won’t be bored. There are plenty of exciting back streets to explore (particularly Little India and Chinatown), markets to shop at, street food to sample, bars to visit, temples to appreciate, and shopping malls to spend whole days in.
If you’re comparing Kuala Lumpur’s air quality to the likes of China then it’s pretty good! 😉 But comparing the streets of Kuala Lumpur to Taiwan, I would say KL is somewhat dirtier, although no more so than Beijing and Shanghai.
Weather-wise, seeing as I went in August, I feel like I was quite lucky. It didn’t rain for 5 days (or if it did, I didn’t notice!) and the weather was beautifully sunny and warm without it being overly sweltering. (Unlike Shanghai…!).
I still love a beautiful city skyline, which unfortunately Kuala Lumpur also lacks but hey, you can’t have everything! It’s still got a selection of shiny skyscrapers in the city centre, like the magnificent Petronas Towers.
Much like with Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and I didn’t quite click. I liken travelling to dating – you and a city can both be perfectly decent but sometimes it turns out you’re just not quite the right match for each other. No hard feelings. Whilst Kuala Lumpur offers plenty to eat and experience down it’s back streets, it’s not somewhere I feel I could call home. But still, I’m glad I went to find out for myself. I’m pretty sure Malaysians and tourists alike would agree that I’ve yet to see the best that Malaysia offers, so I look forward to visiting others parts like Penang and Langkawi one day!
Have you been to Kuala Lumpur before or perhaps you live there? What do you think of the city? Tell me in the comments below!