A while ago I wrote a guide on ‘How to survive a layover in Kuala Lumpur.’ For a lot of people, the guide gave them exactly what they wanted – insight into what to do at the airport, how to find the best food and where to rest. But for others, it wasn’t enough! Some of you have nerves of absolute steel and want to make the most of your layover at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) by leaving the airport and heading into Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC). So, here’s my guide to how much you can actually see and do, during a layover in Kuala Lumpur.
These are my essential, must-know tips for anyone planning to explore KLCC during their layover.
1. Plan for bad traffic
First things first, there’s something you really need to know about Kuala Lumpur… traffic is absolutely mad. During peak hours, you’re going to run into a LOT of very bad traffic jams where you find yourself sitting in the taxi or Uber, not moving at all. Anytime from around 4 pm to around 8 pm and 7 am to 10 am, you’re going to run into traffic. If it’s raining, things are going to be even worse. It’s really important, no matter what you do, that you factor this into your plans and allow plenty of time to get to and from the airport. Always err on the side of caution and allow more time than you need.
2. Get around with Uber
I’m a thrifty traveller and usually prefer to catch public transport around a city, rather than relying on taxis or Uber. In Kuala Lumpur, Uber is King and I found it to be an easy, affordable way to get around. If you prefer, you can also use Grab, I just use Uber because I have the app on my phone. If you plan on leaving the airport, please make sure you buy a sim card before you leave, so you can quickly order an Uber if you need to (i.e. you realise you’ve run out of time and need to get back to KLIA pronto!). Our sim card cost MYR8 (with 200MB of data) and we bought an additional 1.5GB for MYR10.
You won’t be able to pay for your Uber via your account, you’ll need to pay cash so make sure you have enough on you. A trip into KLCC at 5:30 pm cost us MYR90 and the return journey at 4 pm cost MYR140. I didn’t have any run-ins with dodgy drivers asking for more than the price quoted by Uber. You may notice I haven’t recommended Taxis, that’s because Taxis in Kuala Lumpur have a bad reputation and some drivers run scams on tourists. At 5:30 pm on the day we were there, it took a little over an hour to get from KLIA to KLCC. Again, travelling on weekends (Friday – Sunday) is going to alter travel time.
3. Be safe
Now, look, I always believe it’s essential for a traveller to be safe no matter where they are in the world. Be alert but not alarmed, people! That said, my Malay friend was horrified to hear Matt and I had been walking around KLCC real casual-like, not being too worried about our safety. He warned us, repeatedly, about bag snatchings. So, while we never felt unsafe during the daytime and didn’t do anything silly to attract attention to ourselves, bad things can happen, so just be sure you take the appropriate steps to avoid bag snatching.
What to see and do
In an attempt to make this as easy as possible for me to write and for you to use, I’m breaking this down into time. The different time groups are the amount of time you actually have free not including travel time. So, it’s time to do a little bit of math: work out how long you think you need to allow for travel time and traffic (plus clearing customs and security and all that airport crap), subtract that from your total layover time and you should have your sightseeing time.
Quick note: I’m terrified someone is going to follow this guide, run into a hideous traffic jam caused by a random set of circumstances, miss their flight and then hate/blame me forever. Please don’t do that. This is a guide only. Leave the airport at your own risk.
3 Hours in Kuala Lumpur
If you’re light on time but still want to see as much of Kuala Lumpur as possible, I’d recommend getting on the KL Hop-on Hop-off Bus. Now, look, I’ll be first to admit those things are super touristy, but Matt and I did the full loop on the bus and we were shocked at how much we enjoyed it. One ticket costs MYR40 per adult, less for kids, and is valid for 24 hours. You can buy tickets on the bus, though I think they’re ever so slightly more expensive (maybe MYR85 or MYR90 for two adults).
The bus takes you past all the things you want to see in KLCC – Petronas Towers, KL Tower, Little India, Chinatown, Central Market, National Palace, National Mosque, and more. We boarded at around 11 am and did the entire loop and it took us around 2 hours, without getting off at any stops. Bear in mind, it will definitely take longer if you’re trying to do it during peak hour times, but what’s great about it is, if you suddenly realise you need to get back to the airport, you can just jump off, get an Uber and get your ass back out there for your flight.
If you’ve only got 3 hours of exploration time in KLCC, this is a great way to see like you’ve seen all the major sights and really made the most of your time. You may like to jump off for a cheap and delicious lunch at Saravana Bhavan in Brickfields or you can scope out the food and shops in the mall below the Petronas Towers.
6 Hours in Kuala Lumpur
Call me crazy, but you might want to think about doing a loop on the ol’ KL Hop-on Hop-off Bus to kick things off. We found it to be a really great way to see all of the major tourist attractions in KLCC and it gave us that peace of mind that we hadn’t squandered our time by not getting to see all the big tourist spots (if that makes sense). Peep the 3-hour guide for bus deets.
With more time up your sleeve, I’d recommend you visit KL Tower. There are absolutely stunning views from the Sky Deck, which is open-air, so you can really get a really great birds-eye view of KLCC. It’s a good opportunity to wrap your mind around the size of the place, see the Petronas Towers, get some great photographs, and feel you’ve seen it from a unique angle.
I was quite taken by the Petronas Towers and how beautiful they are close-up, so I’d suggest you visit them too. You can walk from KL Tower to the Petronas Towers, if you wish, it’s quite an easy walk, just use Google Maps to help you find your way. When you’re there, head directly to the KLCC Gardens for the best photography spots and viewpoints from the ground. We sat for a while under the shade of the trees, just enjoying the moment and snapping photos. From there, you can head inside as there’s a huge mall beneath the towers. Do a spot of shopping, grab a coffee, or have a bite to eat if you wish.
You may also like to look at visiting the Petaling Street Market and/or Central Market, these are both great spots to do some bargaining and scoop up a bargain on knock-off handbags and sunglasses, souvenirs and more. You can also grab a bite to eat in Chinatown at spots like Restoran Kim Lian Kee, Lai Foong Restaurant, Coffee Amo, and Merchant’s Lane.
9 Hours in Kuala Lumpur
Feel free to do everything I’ve listed in the 3 and 6-hour guides… with the extra time up your sleeve, there are some other fantastic things to see and do too. If you’re keen to experience Malaysia’s famous shopping scene, you might want to check out the trendy Bukit Bintang area. There are loads of high-end boutiques and bargain favourites, plus a few malls so big they were kinda scary for a little Brisbanite like me! Eep! We actually scoped out a great shop with really cheap clothes in Bukit Bintang, a shop called Brands Outlet at the bottom of Fahrenheit 88. You can easily spend a few hours exploring Bukit Bintang, shopping, and eating (Note: there’s an amazing Brownies Bar at the bottom of Pavilion)
You may also like to find an hour or so to visit Brickfields (Little India), take a few photos out at the National Palace, explore the Lake Garden or take little ones to visit the Bird Park and/or Aquarium (the bird park has the world’s largest free-flight aviary!) If you’ve got your heart set on visiting the Batu Caves while you’re there, you can find all the details on how to do that in the 12-hour guide below.
12 Hours in Kuala Lumpur
I get a lot of people asking me if there’s time to see the Batu Caves during a layover in Kuala Lumpur. In short, yes, yes you can. That said, you’re going to need a fair bit of time up your sleeve, which is why I’ve included it in this 12-hour guide and none of the others. As always, traffic is going to be your only enemy in getting this done, because the caves are only a 30-minute drive from KLCC. Yep, 30 minutes!
There are a few ways to do it, you can catch the KTM Komuter Train from KL Sentral to Batu Caves. Allegedly, the train ride takes 26 minutes and, I guess, eliminates the associated traffic concerns. It should cost MYR2 per person, one-way. Trains run every 15 minutes in peak-hour times and every 20-30 minutes during off-peak times. The first train leaves KL Sentral at 6:45 am and the last train leaves Batu Caves at 11:50 pm. I asked a few locals about train vs Uber and they all said Uber was easier. Another option, if you prefer to have someone guide you, is something like this half-day tour of Kuala Lumpur Suburbs and Batu Caves.
How long should you spend at the Batu Caves? Well, that’s really up to you. You could haul ass up those 300 stairs, stick your head in the cave, snap a few photos then get the heck outta there if you wish, or you could spend 2-3 hours chilling out. I’ll leave that decision up to you. At the Batu Caves, there is a whole range of different things to see and do. Some parts are free, others have entry fees. There are optional guided tours and all that kind of stuff, again, up to you what you do and don’t want to do.
With 12 hours to see KLCC, I’d strongly recommend you visit Jalan Alor, which is basically just a Hawker-style food street. It’s a touristy spot, yes, but the food is delicious so it’s worth it. We had a Malay friend take us there and he steered us straight to his favourite spot, at the bottom end of Jalan Alor, Restoran Wong Ah Wah, or W.A.W Restaurant. You’ll know you’ve found it because it’s definitely using Mickey Mouse’s ripped-off image without copyright permission. The food here is delicious and cheap, so order heaps of dishes, drink lots of beer, and have a merry time. My friend recommends getting a seat inside, which I agree with – it’s just a more, ah-hem, peaceful, experience.
If you prefer a more local experience and really want to mix it with Malay people, check out Kampung Baru. Another friend took us here and it’s a locals-only spot (not cos visitors aren’t welcome or anything, just cos nobody seems to know about it!) The entire street is lined on both sides with local eateries selling all kinds of food, particularly Malay favourite, Nasi Lemak. This is the real cultural experience to have – I was a little nervous about getting food poisoning but both Matt and I were fine (note: the freshly grilled corn is amazing).
The food here is cheap and authentic, it’s highly unlikely you’ll see another tourist and it’s a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture and have a genuine experience. One quick note, Kampung Baru is a favourite among the Malay Muslim community so I encourage visitors to be culturally respectful – don’t bring alcohol into the area or any pork products and please dress in a culturally respectful way (i.e. no cleavage, short-shorts, exposed midriffs, etc). It’s just part of being a good human!
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