When I was logistically planning this trip, Malaysia was somewhat of an afterthought. I wanted to visit Penang for the food and history, but that was about it to start. However when I found a very affordable non-stop flight from Siem Reap to Kuala Lumpur, I figured I’d spend a couple days there, and I am very happy that I did!
The city the locals simply call “KL” is a very diverse, vibrant, and cosmopolitan city. You see some women in full burqa, some in headscarves, and some in halter-tops. Everything is acceptable so long as other views are also respected. Women own cars and property, and hold high-level jobs. Mosques are everywhere as Malaysia is a Muslim country, but KL is definitely a modern city, with plenty of Hindu temples and Christian churches as well.
It’s a bit of the old world, but it’s also a modern first world 21st century metropolis. Around one corner you feel like you’re in 1800s China, and then walk a bit more and you think you’ve stepped into the future. As it is the official second language of Malaysia, nearly everyone speaks a passable English, so communicating has been quite easy, which is refreshing after Vietnam and Laos, where effective communication was near impossible.
When in KL, for any kind of knockoff goods, head to Petaling Street, shoppers delight.
When in KL, go to Jalan Alor, aka “food street”. The entire street is chalk full of stalls and outdoor restaurants with cuisine ranging from Indian to Malay to Chinese to Thai to snacks, desserts, and everything in between. Naturally, there are many durian stands, including those that sell fried durian. In fact, on Jalan Alor and most of KL’s food streets, durian is somewhat ubiquitous. (For those unfamiliar, durian basically smells like garbage that has been rotting in the sun for a few days.) Once, upon being asked by a friend “where did we eat before on this street?”, my half-joking response was “just downwind of the durian stand.”
I also took a day trip out to Kuala Selangor, which is about an hour away, and visited a place known as “monkey hill”. They were probably about 1-2 feet tall, with 2-foot long tails, and roam freely throughout the area. Food is available for sale to feed to the monkeys, so they are quite personable and friendly, knowing they’re going to get fed. Then when they’re finished, they just go up into the tree. It was a very cool experience to be able to see them up close!
My favorite thing about KL (in addition to the food) was the skyline, and the surreal – and almost post-apocalyptic looking – dusk skies above the Petronas Towers. And for the best view, head to the SkyBar, located on the 33rd floor of the Traders Hotel, directly across KLCC Park with amazing views of the Towers.
One more thing about KL: It’s cheap. Really cheap. Full meals on Jalan Alor for $2, and three-course restaurant meals for $6-$8. And I stayed in a 3-star hotel walking distance from everything for $16 per night. So if you are looking for culture, history, and modern convenience all in a very affordable, green, English-speaking city, look no further than Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Michael Prodanovich is a contributor to Point Me to the Plane, and author of The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel
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