Planning Your Trip
Kuala Lumpur Guide
What to Eat & Drink
Get ready: Your trip to Malaysia is going to be unlike any of your other travel adventures! Of course, there’s abundant nature to be enjoyed (orangutans, anyone?), and spectacular islands await off both coasts. But Malaysia’s mix of ethnic groups are what differentiates it from the rest of Southeast Asia. As a traveler in Malaysia, you’ll get to enjoy a diversity of culture that spans food, fashion, religious traditions, and festivals—all in one place!
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: Monsoon season months differ between coasts on Peninsular Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur gets plenty of rain throughout the year but has more sunshine in the summer months. Meanwhile, the islands on the west coast such as Penang and Langkawi enjoy better weather in December, January, and February. Malaysian Borneo (East Malaysia) receives a lot of rain all year long. Sarawak is drier in the summer; the driest months in Sabah are from January to March.
- Language: The official language in Malaysia is Malay (Bahasa Melayu); however, English is widely understood and spoken between the various ethnic groups.
- Currency: Malaysia's currency is the colorful Malaysian ringgit (MYR). Each ringgit is divided into 100 sen. Prices are usually preceded by “RM” (e.g., RM 1, RM 3.50, etc).
- Getting Around: Malaysia’s public transportation infrastructure is excellent. A combination of trains, long-haul buses, or low-cost carrier flights from KLIA2 can get you anywhere in the country. Grab is the most popular ridesharing app for finding drivers.
- Travel Tip: Kuala Lumpur as well as Sarawak and Sabah in Malaysian Borneo receive a lot of annual rainfall. Afternoon downpours keep landscapes green, but travelers should have an umbrella on hand and a plan in mind!
Things to Do
Malaysia is blessed with enough tropical islands and rainforests to keep you chasing outdoor adventures for a long time, but the cultural diversity is what makes Malaysia especially appealing. Strolling around Kuala Lumpur or Malacca on any single day, you may feel as though you’ve visited (at least) three different countries!
- Explore Kuala Lumpur: Stroll, shop, and eat across Chinatown, Little India, and the other exciting neighborhoods scattered around Kuala Lumpur. Cross the canopy walk in KL Forest Eco Park on Bukit Nanas, the only slice of virgin rainforest remaining in middle of the city. While there, go up Menara KL (Kuala Lumpur’s space needle) for a panoramic view. Finish your rounds of the city with a meal on Jalan Alor and seeing the Petronas Towers lit at night.
- Enjoy Food in Penang: Malaysia’s big island of Penang is famous for its colonial past and culinary traditions. Georgetown, a UNESCO World Heritage City, has a reputation for cooking up some of the best street food in the world.
- Visit the Cameron Highlands: Malaysia’s green Cameron Highlands are the place to go when you’re ready to escape Southeast Asia's heat. Nighttime temperatures can even feel chilly! The hills are home to verdant tea plantations along with rose and strawberry farms that can be toured. Jungle trekking, either independent or guided, is also available.
What to Eat and Drink
Malaysia’s culinary scene is as diverse as the many ethnic groups who live there. Perhaps the most “local” way to eat is to enjoy nasi campur (Malay) or nasi kandar (Malaysian Indian) food in the many family-run eateries. Prepared meats, fish, vegetables, and eggs are displayed without prices; you pay for how much you put atop your plate of rice.
Kopitiams (coffee shops) are an inseparable part of Malay culture. Sweetened tea and coffee drinks (teh tarik is a classic) are served along with inexpensive snacks such as roti dishes. Although kopitiams are a Malaysian Chinese tradition dating way back, they’ve enjoyed a reboot as modern, hipster hangouts where people meet, socialize, and conduct business.
Frequently eaten for breakfast or on the go, nasi lemak could be called Malaysia’s national dish. The rice in nasi lemak gets steamed in coconut milk to lend it savory sweetness. Many variations of nasi lemak exist, but usually a hard-boiled egg, spicy sambal sauce, peanuts, and fried anchovies are included.
Where to Stay
Kuala Lumpur has an abundance of affordable hotel choices, but you’ll first have to determine which part of the city you prefer to stay. If eating and shopping at big malls are important to you, consider one of the glitzy hotels nearer to Bukit Bintang. If you prefer smaller hotels in a neighborhood with a little more grungy charm, consider staying nearer to Chinatown. If ease of transportation is important, consider a hotel close to KL Sentral (the heart of Malaysia’s rail network) near Little India.
Accommodation options in Malaysia span every budget, and room prices are much cheaper than those in neighboring Singapore. You’ll find hostels and small guesthouses starting at less than $15 a night. On the other end of the spectrum, you can often find surprisingly good deals for 5-star hotels between $100 – 150 per night. Airbnb is an option, but check the location carefully. You’ll spend too much time waiting for drivers if based in a residential neighborhood too far from the action.
Proceed with caution when booking online. Some of the cheapest places in Kuala Lumpur can wind up being a lot rougher than advertised. Room photos and reviews on booking sites often get doctored up!
Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL) is located around 28 miles south of the city. Malaysia is well connected with Asia and Europe via KLIA, especially after the KLIA2 terminal opened as an expansion in 2014. Unfortunately, there aren’t yet direct flights from the United States to Kuala Lumpur. American travelers will need to connect elsewhere in Asia.
Kota Kinabalu (BKI), Kuching (KCH), and Sandakan (SDK) are the three top ports of entry for Malaysian Borneo. For quicker access to Penang, fly into Butterworth (BWH). For Langkawi, you can fly directly into Langkawi International Airport (LGK).
Malaysia can also be entered overland from Singapore and Thailand. Many of the lavish buses from Singapore to Malaysia appeal to business travelers by offering onboard attendants, work desks, and Wi-Fi.
Culture and Customs
To be polite, avoid using your left hand when interacting with others. Stick to using only your right hand as much as possible when eating in public. When paying or receiving something (e.g., change or food items in a restaurant), do so with your right hand. For extra respect, you can rest your left hand on your right forearm or elbow so others can see you aren’t using it.
The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is an exciting time to travel in Malaysia. Special markets, store sales, and celebrations can be seen everywhere. In places such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang, plenty of eateries will still be open before sundown. In some smaller destinations, you may have less choices when Muslim-owned businesses close. Regardless, have a little extra patience for locals who fast during daylight hours and may have lower energy levels than usual. The server bringing food to your table may be hungry!
Although saying “hello” will work in any circumstance, greetings in Malay are based on the time of day. Learning the simple expressions can add a little fun to interactions on your trip.
Money Saving Tips
- Tipping in Malaysia isn’t customary; however, gratuity is becoming more expected in high-end hotels that attract Western tourists. Large restaurants may add a service charge (usually 10 percent) to the total bill. Unlike in China and Japan, showing your appreciation with a small tip won’t cause a scene. You can choose to tip porters and bellboys a ringgit or two; round up fares for drivers.
- Take advantage of Kuala Lumpur’s inexpensive train system, particularly the LRT and monorail, for moving between sights. Save going by Grab as a last resort for when no train stations are nearby.
- If you’re forced to use a taxi in Malaysia, negotiate the fare first. If the taxi has a meter, pay extra attention to the route taken by the driver.
- Don’t pay the first price you’re given! Haggling is expected in Malaysia, particularly when shopping in big markets such as Jalan Petaling in Chinatown and Pasar Seni, the Central Market.
- Big events can really increase accommodation prices. Chinese New Year is an exceptionally busy time as many people head out to islands and top destinations during their time off. Book your visit during big festivals early. For instance, the annual Rainforest World Music Festival causes a sharp jump in hotel prices around Kuching.
- Enjoying delicious local cuisine isn’t expensive at all. Be bold: Don’t eat in the hotel! Visit the neighborhood nasi campur eateries and food courts that become frenetic with locals around lunchtime—the busier, the better.
- Due to taxation of alcohol, partying is a pricier endeavor in Malaysia than in neighboring Thailand. Langkawi and Tioman are two duty-free islands where having a sunset beer is cheaper than elsewhere.