I landed in Kuala Lumpur after a traumatic flight with Vietnam Airways from Heathrow, despite being told at check in I couldn’t board because I had no visa for Malaysia and, bizarrely, because I had no return flight from Australia. Both myself and the lady trying to check me in dissolved into tears amid the chaos. That she had left a son in Romania to work in the UK was her trigger, until her senior arrived and took control of the entire mess. No visa is needed for UK citizens to get into Malaysia. You receive a visa exemption stamp, at no cost, when you pass through immigration and, as I first thought, Australia was irrelevant. A less than ideal start to my first solo trip. In contrast to the disorganisation at Heathrow, the plane journey was fantastically comfortable and I landed in KL with no further hassle. The KLIA express then sped me for the extortionate price of 55 MYR to KL Sentral, where I took a 13 MYR budget taxi to my hostel in China Town. What should have been a very simple journey, ended up taking an hour and a near crash when the taxi driver left me on a hill with the handbrake off to check directions. I rolled backwards towards a parked car and had to reach through to put the break on myself! My mood wasn’t helped by finding out the Star Bus charged 11 MYR for the entire journey from the Airport to a stop in China Town!
I had no expectations for KL; being a hater of cities and with the knowledge that KL was big and busy. I checked into my dorm in The Explorer Guesthouse and Hostel (35 MYR for a 10 bed dorm with air con) and passed out on my bed, expecting to move on to somewhere more manageable the next day. And yet there I was, four days later, sitting at the computer in that same hostel. KL is a city for everyone, on any budget.
My hostel borders the overflowing, inviting China Town market, adorned with beautiful red lanterns. Inside, the road is lined with stalls of tourist tat, but look through the gaps to the alcoves behind these and you will find street food courts and fresh (less so towards lunch time) food markets. To the left of the central cross road is one such food court, an expansive room cluttered with stalls of Chinese, Malay and Indian treats. One stall does delicious fresh Naan, baked in front of you, with curry for just 10 MYR, another beef fried rice for 7 MYR, you really can’t ask for cheaper! I’d avoid the stagnant buffet at the front, but a wrinkled old man wanders round in an angry birds T-shirt and black, scuffed wellingtons throwing plates, food and all into a bucket he drags along, which keeps the wandering cockroaches from the tables. Food courts are really popular here. If Indian is more to your taste the court near the blue building of Central Market serves everything from dosa to thali to curries and the standard asian rices and noodles, all for around 10 MYR.
The Mayor of KL, whoever he may be, is desperate to get KL on the tourist map; so much so that he’s made the place practically a budget backpacker paradise. Free buses (GoKL) run from 6am – 11pm most days, all over the city with one at least every 15 minutes. I used this free transport to make my way between the free walking tours he generously provides. There are four in all. Feeling a little homesick I took the Heritage Tour to explore the old British Colonial area of KL and take in some of the history of the ‘muddy’ city which sprung from where a shaman pointed and declared there to be tin beneath the ground. A later tour round the traditional stilted wooden houses of the Malay area took us through traditional herb and food markets where our guide let us try refreshing water apples, sweet rice flour sweets with a core of brown sugar and fresh crispy pancakes filled with crushed peanut and caramelised corn.
GoKL can take you close by to both the cities important towers too. The KL tower is best with a ticket up to the viewing point, you can’t see anything of it from the base. But the most beautiful view of the iconic Petronas Towers is from the park at its base, where you can relax on the grass to watch the sun set and the buildings come to life with lights. Their clean metallic geometry is stunning on a clear day against the blue of a tropical sky.
KL is a real hotchpotch of culture and religion; in one day you can visit the crisply mosaiced national mosque where you will don a floor length robe and headscarf, a Sikh gurdwara in the Malay District to sample their vegetarian food which they offer for free three times a day and a Hindu temple to the God Muruga set in the spectacular Batu Caves. The caves are around 15 minutes on the train from Kuala Lumpur station (2.5 MYR each way). Although my still jetlagged body hated me for the early(ish) start, arriving at 8am was definitely worth it for our almost exclusive experience of the caves; there were maybe 10 other tourists there with us. We clambered the 272 steps to the Temple Cave, harassed by monkeys, watched over by the tallest ever statue to Muruga, for a hazy view over KL before entering the gaping cave. The temple is a little underwhelming; its rectangular shape completely un-melded with the cave itself, but it is still worth a visit; entry is free and the monkeys playing perilously on the steep cave ledges is very entertaining. I passed on the Dark Cave with its promise of sheer ledges and trap door spiders (35 MYR entry and 80 MRY for a guide) opting for the gaudy Ramayana cave (5MYR) instead, with it’s bright depiction of Ramayana’s battle with Rama and a huge stalagmite worshipped as a phallic symbol of fertility by visiting Hindus.
I packed my three days with dawn to dusk tourism, most of which was free, and yet there is still so much I could come back for. I challenge you not to enjoy yourself here, even if you arrive as a sceptic.