Kuala Lumpur (or “KL” in short) is one of the cheapest cities in Asia for a vacation. Foreign currency exchange rates of the Pound Sterling and US Dollar, for instance, as against the Malaysian Ringgit are highly favourable. Backpacking is popular as the city has a very low crime rate and English is widely spoken. If you need directions, or wish to order food from a hawker stall rest assured that someone will be able to communicate with you in English. However, some planning is in order to stretch your vacation money to the maximum if you are a backpacker.
CHEAP AIR FARES
Malaysia’s AirAsia and Singapore’s SilkAir are two low-cost carriers that can fly you cheaply from many destinations around the world to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore respectively. (From Singapore, you can take a bus or train to Kuala Lumpur). For details of the flight schedules and fares of AirAsia and SilkAir, please check their websites. Another Malaysian budget airline is Fireflyz which caters mostly to domestic destinations in the country; however, it links Kuala Lumpur with Medan and Bandar Acheh (both in Indonesia) and Phuket in Thailand.
To get the best prices for budget airlines, bookings have to be made at least a few months ahead. It is also best to avoid the Malaysian school holidays which fall during December, mid-March and mid-August.
The airplanes of AirAsia land at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) about two kilometres from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) at Sepang, which is 60 km from Kuala Lumpur. The cheapest way to get to KLIA from the LCCT is by shuttle bus operated by two companies; namely Nadi KL and Airport Liner. Fare is only RM 1.50 per person per way. The pick-up point is from Platform 8, bus station at Ground Floor, Car Park C. Frequencies of the buses are 15 – 20 minutes. From KLIA, the economical way to get to the capital is by airport coach. Fireflyz’s aeroplanes land at Sultan Abdul Aziz Airport in Subang, about 15 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur.
WHERE TO STAY
The most popular area for backpackers to stay in KL is Chinatown. Its heart is Jalan Petaling (Petaling Street). Accommodation ranges from simple bed-and-breakfast inns with communal bathrooms to one-star and two-star hotels that are air-conditioned. (Hotels in Malaysia are rated by a star system, ranging from one to a maximum of five stars; those without any star rating are classified as “budget”). Another advantage of staying in Chinatown is its closeness to Puduraya bus station. This is the main station for buses going to other cities in the country. Chinatown is also within walking distance to the KL Monorail station on Jalan Maharajalela and also the STAR Light Rail Transit station near the Central Market. Chin Woo Stadium which has a swimming pool that is open to the public for a nominal fee is just 20 minutes away by foot from Jalan Petaling. Perched atop a hillock, it is a great place to cool down after a day of hectic sightseeing.
My second recommendation for accommodation is Brickfields, near Stesen Sentral (Central Station), which is the city’s rail transportation hub. All Light Rail Transit (LRT) trains stop here, including the KLIA Ekpres that plies to and from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The five-star Hilton Kuala Lumpur and Le Meredian are located within the complex. However, just across Jalan Tun Sambanthan are affordable accommodations. They include Hotel Summer View, De Sentral Hotel, Mexico Hotel and Hotel Florida to mention but a few — they all come with air-conditioning and attached bathrooms. A few inns that one rung down the price ladder are also available, including the YMCA. The negative point about this area is the lack of evening activities. Also, food is mainly confined to vegetarian eateries and Indian fan-ventilated restaurants serving banana leaf curry rice.
A useful contact is the Malaysia Budget Hotel Association at No. 52 Tengkat Tong Shin, 50200 Kuala Lumpur. Tel: +603-21412313. Fax: +603-21439313. Email: mbha1 @tm.net.my. Website: budgethotel.org.my
WHERE TO EAT
Finding cheap and hygienic food is probably the least of all problems for backpackers. Countless alfresco stalls are found in hawker centres. Two popular havens for cheap hawker food are Jalan Alor and Jalan Petaling. A meal with a fruit juice or soft drink can cost as little as RM6! For more comfort, go to the food courts of shopping complexes, which are often tucked away in the basement. Fast food outlets such as McDonald, Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken to mention but a few are scattered in many parts of the city. For Indian fare, go to Lebuh Ampang; Malay food is aplenty in the districts of Chow Kit and Kampung Baru. Avoid 24-hour Mamak (Indian Muslim) eateries unless you want to take the slight risk of a stomach upset. The food (fish, chicken, squid, etc) on display in glass containers in such eateries may have been heated and re-heated umpteen times. Order something that is cooked on the spot instead such as fried rice, fried noodles or chicken chop to guarantee that what you eat is fresh. To cut costs on food, my recommendation is to try roti canai (a type of pancake) in the morning which can cost as little as RM1.50 per piece. Variations such as roti canai with egg, sardine or banana are also available. Two or three pieces washed down with the “the tarik” (literally means “pulled tea” ) will give you sufficient fuel for your tramping around. All major shopping complexes also have food courts that offer local food at decent prices.
Travelling around KL by taxi can be an expensive affair. The fare meter keeps ticking even though the vehicle is stuck in a massive jam, and this can burn a hole in your pocket. A ploy by a few black-sheep drivers is to take the longest possible route to your destination. Worst, a few drivers may refuse to use the meter and insist on an exorbitant flat fee. On rainy days, especially, it is a take-it-or-leave-it situation. Remember, there is also a surcharge for travelling after midnight and for putting luggage in the boot.
Though buses cover most parts of the city, it can be difficult for foreigners to find out the routes of each bus. Most buses don’t have conductors, and passengers drop the correct fare in coins into the ticket vending machine. If you drop in excess fare, you will not be given any change.
Despair not! The city has a network of train systems (referred to as Light Rail Transit or “LRT” in short) that run on elevated rails, (and sometimes underground) that can whizz you from one part of the city to another, whereupon you can take a short stroll to your desired destination. Rail maps showing the different stops can be found in all the train stations. Services usually start from 6am till midnight. Three LRT trains are in operation: STAR LRT, Putra LRT and KL Monorail. They each have a different route but you can change trains at Stesen Sentral (Central Station).
AFFORDABLE SHOPPING COMPLEXES
Avoid all shopping malls in the city’s Golden Triangle unless you just aim to browse around. This area is bounded by Jalan Bukit Bintang, Jalan Sultan Ismail and Jalan Raja Chulan. Tucked within the area are Lot 10, KL Plaza, Sungei Wang Plaza, BB Plaza, Low Yat Plaza and Starhill Shopping Complex that are targeted at middle- to upper-class shoppers. The same advice applies to the highly popular Suria KLCC in the podium block of the PETRONAS Twin Towers and Mid Valley on the Federal Highway. However, affordable shopping complexes can be found around Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, nicknamed “Kuala Lumpur’s “Golden Mile”. They include Pertama Complex, Campbell Complex, and independent stores such as Mydin and Globe Silk Store. In the fringe of Chinatown, Kotaraya Complex, UDA Ocean and S&M Shopping Arcade also offer excellent for value-for-money buys. Not to be missed is Jalan Petaling, which is chocked with stalls selling almost everything, especially cheap imitations of prestigious watches and leather goods as well as pirated VCDs of the latest Hollywood movies. Haggling is the order of the day. Highly popular with tourists, Central Market on Jalan Hang Kasturi specializes in collectibles, souvenirs and also has an excellent food court. Cultural performances are also held at scheduled times, and best of all, they are free. Haji Taib Hawker Centre in Chow Kit is good for jeans and second-clothes but the area suffers from a bad reputation. “Pasar malam” or “night markets” are held in Kampung Baru and Lorong Tuanku Abdul Rahman every Saturday evening. These spots offer excellent opportunities to try local fare at dirt-cheap prices.
There is no need to throw away your hard-earned money on expensive travel guides. You can get free travel literature such as maps and brochures from tourist information centres operated by Tourism Malaysia. They are located as follows:
Stesen Sentral (Central Station)
Lot 21, 2nd Floor, Arrival Hall, Kuala Lumpur City Air Terminal, Stesen KL Sentral, 50050 Kuala Lumpur, Phone: +603-2272 5823
Kuala Lumpur International Airport
Visitor Service Centre, International Arrival Hall, KLIA, Sepang 64000, Selangor
Phone: +603-877 656 47 / 51
Malaysia Tourist Centre (MTC)
109 Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur 50450
Phone: +603-9235 4848 / 9235 4900 Fax: +603-2162 1149
(Tourists are allowed a maximum of 20 minutes free internet surfing here!)
Putra World Trade Centre
Level 2, Putra World Trade Centre, 45 Jalan Tun Ismail, PWTC,
50480 Kuala Lumpur
Phone: +603-2615 8540 Fax: + 603-2692 4554
(Note: Putra World Trade Centre is located next to the Best Western Premier Seri Pacific Hotel).
Another helpful spot is Kuala Lumpur Tourism Association (Tel. no. +603-22871830), which is head-quartered in a charming wooden shack in the grounds of the National Museum on Jalan Damansara.
IF IN DOUBT, ASK, ASK, ASK!
Kuala Lumpur has a sizeable population of Bangladeshi, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Myanmar contract workers. Most of them work as waiters, petrol pump attendants or retail sales persons. Avoid asking for information or directions from such foreigners. Also, avoid touts who offer to take you on a walkabout. The most reliable sources of information are front liners in the tourist information centres, and personnel manning information counters in shopping complexes. The owner of the budget hotel you are staying can also provide useful advice. A word of assurance is in order: Kuala Lumpur has a Tourist Police unit that has a high profile in the Golden Triangle, so your safety is highly assured. Enjoy your stay in Kuala Lumpur and happy backpacking!