Whether to stop in Kuala Lumpur and possibly discover a bit of Malaysia as part of my wild journey through Southeast Asia was a big question-mark.
The decision to spend a few days in KL – as Kuala Lumpur is called by locals – was eventually driven by the need to wait for my Visa to Myanmar as a downsize of my incurable preference for unplanned travel. I did not want to spend too much time in Singapore, mostly because everything there is hugely expensive, so there I went off to Malaysia.
Additionally, a stop in KL was possibly a nice opportunity to meet Umei and David after a very long time of ‘virtual friendship’ through Twitter and Facebook, and I was thrilled at the idea to eventually hug them in person.
It didn’t take me long to discover 9 things in Kuala Lumpur that really surprised me
I traveled from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur by bus, a long journey (it was supposed to be 4-5 hours and ended up lasting 8 hours) but all things considered rather comfortable. The bus had very wide and well-stuffed seats, with a lot of space for legs. I was ready to explore KL, not sure about what to expect, and from the very first moment, a few things surprised me.
1. A Real Melting-Pot
I’m not good at recognizing the nationalities between Southeast Asian people, still I can spot the differences even if I may not be perfectly sure of where people come from. It doesn’t take long to get intrigued by the melting-pot of races and religions. Indians, Malays, Chinese and others which I wouldn’t be able to identify. But differently from Singapore – at least at a first glance – all of them seem to have maintained their traditions, while Singapore looked much more globalized. This is not only clearly visible in Chinatown or Little India, but throughout the city and especially at the street food joints.
2. A City of Contrasts
I couldn’t define KL a nice city (at least, according to my taste). Kuala Lumpur is most of all a city of contrasts. Modern buildings – among which the iconic Petronas Towers – flanked by crumbling houses and from time to time a few old colonial buildings in better shape. Huge shopping centers, with all major world class brands, and street joints where people cook directly on the street. Luxury hotels and, only a few meters away, dirty roads full of any kind of rubbish and poor hygiene. Notwithstanding, I found this contrast somehow fascinating. What gives the city a special flavor.
3. Food is Ubiquitous
One thing is sure: in KL you’re not going to starve. Food joints everywhere, serving Chinese, Malay, Indian and more food, street stalls showcasing fresh and colorful tropical fruits, restaurants where you can experience a wide array of international cuisines. Simple places, food chains, fast food, fashionable restaurants and bars. In Kuala Lumpur, food is a feast for the eyes and the palate, and I was lucky have some great local experiences with my friend Umei, who guided me through a culinary journey to places I would never have been able to find alone.
4. Traffic is Like Hell
I think that I’ve never seen such an amount of traffic before. The only city – albeit much smaller – that comes into my mind is Kathmandu. The roads are so full almost all the time that I wondered if there’s ever a time that is not rush hour. Maybe between 2 and 4 a.m.? 🙂 I may be exaggerating, but honestly I was shocked by the endless queues of cars, buses, trucks, very slowly driving up the wide roads. And apparently, most people move by car, as despite a rather modern public transportation system many areas are still cut off (at least, that’s what I understood).
5. The Majority Speaks Very Little English
I was probably influenced by my virtual friends from Malaysia, who all speak and write excellent English. This led me to think that in KL, as in Singapore, English was the official language, which apparently is not. Some people are able to tentatively speak a few words, other not. And in many places, if you don’t know Chinese you have no chance to understand the menu. Your best bet is to go and have a look at the cooking pans.
6. There is a Huge Amount of Tourism from Arabic Countries
From the beginning I was surprised by the large number of women wearing a burka, all dark with only their eyes uncovered. Although I know that Malaysia is a majority Muslim country, and many women in the streets wear a kerchief to cover their heads, I was not expecting to see burkas, and in such a large number. That made me curious and I asked Umei, who explained to me that there is a huge amount of tourism from Arabic Countries, especially in Summer. It is a country of election, because it is Muslim but also progressive. Moreover, apparently some women from the Arabic Countries take the opportunity of a trip to KL to throw their burka away, wearing mini skirts and high heels.
Well… I might have met some, but for sure I was not able to recognize them!
7. Little India is a Nightmare
Umei and his husband kindly drove me for a night tour of the city and we had a short stop in Little India. Nothing to do with the colorful Little India in Singapore. In Kuala Lumpur, the neighborhood is rather ugly and the music is so deafening that I though I was in hell. It was a short visit and for the little I could see I have no desire to go back.
8. Lots of women wear tights
How can women possibly wear tights underneath their dresses or skirts in such a heat? I was not even expecting to find tights in a tropical country. This stuff is so associated to cold climate.
9. Last, but not least… the rats
That was possibly the most unexpected – and shocking – thing in Kuala Lumpur. As soon as I stepped out of the bus from Singapore, the first moving thing I saw was a huge rat strolling along the sidewalk. And that didn’t happen in some far away neighborhood, but in the center and close to one of the most luxurious hotels and malls of the city. Unfortunately, it was not a single encounter and I learned soon enough that rats are part of the urban landscape, and people in Kuala Lumpur don’t seem to be bothered. Besides, this is hardly surprising with all that food (and food remains) throughout the streets of the city
Have you been to Kuala Lumpur? What were your impressions?
18 thoughts on “9 Things in Kuala Lumpur That Surprised Me”
We visited the National Museum (which I highly recommend) in KL travelled there by public transpot,Which is excellent, clean effecicnt and cheap) to get there from the station there are hardly any footpaths and we had to cross a 3 lane freeway/motorway type road risking our lives to get there. It is a city of cars. A city where the contrast of poverty with huge buildings dedicated to making money sit side by side. Our Thai tour guide was mugged as we crossed from the bus station to the hotel, a ride by motor cycle grabbed his gold chain from around his neck. Food was hit and miss, mainly miss! Was happy to leave.
Interesting experience: I didn’t visit the National Museum and now you made me curious. I fully agree with you that KL is a city of cars and for cars, and the contrast between wealth and poverty can be striking. However, I had overall a nice experience in KL, although I’m unlikely to go back.
Hi Simon! Love the post ! Totally agree with the traffic- you should see Jo in peak hour traffic.. not a pretty sight.. haha. And is Singapore it is predominantly the expats and a huge middle to upper class chinese segment, so no wonder they all speak English as compared with Malaysia. It was great hosting you too.. We are missing you loads.. do come back soon. Otherwise see you in Milan.. we are targeting this year to come visit!
Thanks so much, Ciki, I’m glad you liked the post. Of course, as usual I write about my personal impressions and I know that other people may have different views, which is what makes things interesting 🙂
It was fantastic to explore a bit of KL with you. I keep waiting for you in Milan, hopefully soon!
I am sure Big India will be better.
Looking forward to your views on India, if you ever travel to this part of the world.
India has been on my radar for a long time, but truth is that I never made up my mind and haven’t visited it yet. Maybe soon… Who knows?
First, let me say it was a pleasure to have finally met you. My apologies that I could not spend more time with you as during that time, I had a very tight schedule on.
Anyway, I think what you are referring to as many do not speak English, those are the immigrants that come here to work. The original generation speaks quite decent English. And if you explore some of the other parts of the city, you can possible find that. Overall, I think the next time you come around here again, I will take you on my little tour 🙂 And maybe do some scuba diving? Hope to see you here soon!
It was such a pleasure for me as well, David, and it would be great to come back and take a full tour of the city with you. By going around with a local there’s so much more one can discover and learn about a place.
Thank you for pointing out that most of the people not speaking English, or only very little, are immigrants. For a visitor, it’s not easy to spot the difference.
And of course I’d love to go scuba diving with you and discover one of the many amazing diving sports in Malaysia!
Ah the rats. You must be talking about your trip to Chinatown or Chow Kit.
While KL is progressing and skyscrapers seem to be everywhere, I got to confess that many foreign tourists wonder why we leave those pets of ours on the street.
Er… They were everywhere 🙁 Yup… Can’t understand how a city that aims to be modern can have such ‘pets’… as you gracefully call them… strolling around…
I’m afraid any place with a lot of traffic puts me off these days. But still loved the post.
Yes, traffic drives me nuts. Like you, Leigh, I’m much more for the mountains intimate silence…
I spent 48 hours in KL on a visa run while in bali and even in that shirt time I found that I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said! I didn’t check out little india but I can imagine based off my impressions of KL overall that your description is spot on. Also, I too was surprised by the lack of English. I was also stopped many times by locals to have their picture taken with me (usually after I asked them to take one for me and realize that I had to play hand gestures with my iPhone camera for them to understand). I’m thinking it was my blonde hair though that made me stand out so much. It really is a unique place. Hard to for a general impression on it I find.
Interesting that you had similar impressions, Arielle. For sure, Kuala Lumpur is a city of contrasts and therefore very interesting for a foreign visitor, especially when coming from Europe or the USA.
Your big impressions were not mine (but that’s OK)
This is what struck me about KL…
Traffic- the big news I think is the utter lack of tuk-tuks and other fume-spewing junkers, polluting the air far worse in other Asian cities. Traffic, while thick, was far more orderly and rule-bound than anywhere else in SE Asia.
The architecture- yeah, it’s great- I love the skyscrapers, and how they all seem to be color-co-ordinated.
It’s a great walking city- you can walk without killing yourself on the sidewalks downtown. Nice parks downtown as well too. The government grounds are gorgeous, and the mid-town park a relief.
The monorail- it and the rapid transit from the airport made KL the easiest city for us to move around in.
Yeah, saw a rat too… that was surprising, but for an Asian city?
You make KL seem far more ‘hard to do’ than I found in my expereince- I likened it to Vancouver in our country. Clean, neat, and I had no problem with English anywhere we went.
Well, I guess personal experience is what it’s about.
Thanks for the article.
This is very interesting, John, and thank you for sharing your point of view. What I like about traveling and travel writing is that every experience is unique, as are the impressions and emotions everyone of us feels.
Reading about your impression is an enrichment to all readers, as it offers a different perspective of Kuala Lumpur. So… Thank you again for your stopping by and commenting.
Wow thanks John for the very kind remarks! 🙂 You make me proud to be Malaysian.. but yes, there are some dirtier aspect to it.. but we try our best 😀 At least it’s not the worst of the SEA countries I agree!