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A Beginner's Guide to Living in Kuala Lumpur

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Lynne Lessard
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Considering moving to Southeast Asia? Kuala Lumpur should definitely be on your radar! Lovingly known by its acronym “KL”, Kuala Lumpur is the capital and beating heart of Malaysia.

When I was offered a job here, I didn’t know much about it except that it’s a great base for exploring Southeast Asia. How good does it sound to pop off to Vietnam for the weekend? Although I work as a social media manager, many expats find jobs teaching at international schools throughout Malaysia.

Having arrived just a few months before the pandemic, I haven’t been able to travel much, so I’ve been learning what else KL has to offer - from ancient rainforests to epic urban food scenes. Kuala Lumpur offers a comfortable, familiar and even luxurious lifestyle at a reasonable cost for expats.

Around 1.8 million people live in this urban jungle, but nearly 8 million live in the metro area, including residential suburbs in the surrounding state of Selangor. While this big city is generally expat-friendly - in fact, it’s consistently ranked a top 10 favourite city for expats in InterNations surveys - it can be a challenging place to navigate as a foreigner.

You’ll find that Google searches are less reliable, with results for shops that no longer exist or don’t sell the product or service you’d expect. For example, it took me a couple days to figure out where to get bedsheets when I first arrived!

To make things happen, you’ll need certain apps and local contacts, so be patient and continuing reading this expat guide to set yourself up for success.

Getting set-up in KL

Visa

Malaysia offers one of the most generous tourist visas in the region, with 90 days to explore. Work visas vary between 1-2 years depending on nationality.

Note that it is not possible for foreigners to gain Malaysian citizenship, but if you’re looking to establish longer-term roots, you can apply for the “Malaysia My Second Home” program (currently on-hold but expected to reopen).

If you need to visit immigration while you’re here, know that it’s located in the administrative district of Putrajaya, and takes about an hour to reach from the city center of KL. If you need to make a Visa run, people often go to a nearby city like Bangkok or Singapore

A woman taking a selfie on the rainbow stairs leading up to Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur
Enjoying a day out at the famous Batu Caves


Apps are life

No, I don’t mean the delicious kind. Knowing which apps to have on your phone will absolutely make your life in KL easier! To start, set-up these two before you go:

  1. WhatsApp: It’s necessary for messenger and calls. It's also a great way to stay in touch with friends and family, without needing to pay for international data.
  2. Grab: Southeast Asia’s answer to Uber is very advanced and prevalent everywhere. Taxis are integrated into this app, so it is the only option to get a ride. It’s also useful for:
  • Grab Pay: Load your Grab wallet for cashless payments at many stores and restaurants, and to easily transfer money between people.
  • Grab Food & Mart: Get real-time deliveries of almost anything you need, like takeout food, groceries, household items, tampons, etc.
  • Grab Express: Easily send something to a friend in another part of town.

Other useful apps:

  1. Lazada and/or Shopee: While far from perfect, these are the best online shopping avenues here. Filter your searches for items shipped from Malaysia, otherwise wait times can be long!
  2. Food Panda: Use this for alternative food delivery options.
  3. LaLaMove: Use this to get a van or truck for moving and/or deliveries, including door-to-door assistance.
  4. Kaodim: Use this to book home services like repairs and cleaning - and you can even find personal trainers, beauticians, catering and more.

Finance apps: If you’re living here and opening a local bank account, you’ll want to have your bank’s app so you can easily make payments on-the-go via transfer. The Xe app can help you do quick currency conversions. Lastly, I use Wise to make quicker and cheaper transfers from my local bank to my bank in Canada.

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Getting Around

A Neighbourhood Guide to KL

KL is considered as one district and its neighbourhoods weave around KL into Selangor state. The main areas you’ll want to know, to start, are:

  • Bukit Bintang: This touristic hub has chaos and ambiance with lots of street art, shops, Changkat (bar street), Jalan Alor (food street), malls like Pavilion and Lot 10, and nearby Menara KL (aka KL Tower) and its surrounding park.
  • KLCC: Kuala Lumpur City Centre is where you’ll find the Petronas Twin Towers, with Suria KLCC mall at its base, the aquarium, and the forested KLCC Park and fountains out front. Restaurants and bars around here are very expensive.
  • Ampang: A large, mostly residential and commercial area encompassing KLCC with plenty of restaurants, bars and activities. Home to the national stadium and site of Merdeka 118, soon-to-be the 2nd tallest building in the world (644 metres).
  • Chinatown: A nice area to spend an afternoon, it has Central Market, lantern-laden Petaling Street, Buddhist and Hindu temples, Chinese street food, and nightlife. A short walk to Merdeka Square with views of the beautifully-lit Masjid Jamek (mosque).
  • Little India / Brickfields: Home to great Indian and Sri Lankan food, Nu Sentral mall and the Sentral train station, including KLIA Ekpress to the airport.
  • Bangsar: Home to Bangsar Village shopping centres and a nice strip of restaurants and bars, and bordering Midvalley Megamall.
  • Mont Kiara: Residential suburb with international schools, 
  • Others: You’ll learn about other areas as you spend time in the city, like Mont Kiara, Damansara, Petaling Jaya (PJ), Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI), Bangsar South and Cheras.

Walking

KL is not very friendly for pedestrians. You’ll soon understand why Malaysians don’t really like to walk anywhere, even short distances, because of the intense daytime heat and humidity.

Traffic is chaotic and drivers are not concerned about pedestrians - so please be careful! Many places don’t have sidewalks, or sidewalks will end randomly without warning. Keep an eye out for staircases to pedestrian bridges to get across busy roads.

Jalan Alor (during lockdown - usually crowded with outdoor dining and people - now quiet at sunset
Jalan Alor during lockdown- usually it's crowded with outdoor dining and people

Public Transportation

While there are busses, light rail trains and a monorail in KL, public transit is only helpful to and from certain destinations. Busses are often packed and subject to the same traffic jams as cars. The monorail is good for certain routes and offers nice city views, but it can be quite slow, with new cars only coming every ~15 minutes. The LRT and MRT are good options if it makes sense for your route.

Public transit is very affordable. You can purchase a token for one ride or save time and money by purchasing and loading a “Touch ‘n Go” card at Watsons pharmacies and some train stations (but they are often out of cards at the stations).

Tip: Hold on to your token and/or card - you must deposit it or scan your card to exit the station at the end of your route.

Grab

Grab functions just like Uber and is the only taxi or rideshare option in KL. It’s affordable and works great most of the time, but you will sometimes experience issues finding a car during peak traffic hours and/or when it rains. Drivers are normally very friendly and helpful if you have questions about the city.

Note that drivers are not well paid, so I suggest tipping (even just 2RM) after your ride to help them out.

Know before you go

Petaling Street in Chinatown (normally would be crowded with people and stalls)
Petaling Street in Chinatown (normally would be crowded with people and stalls)

Communication is key

Whether you’re looking to chat with a friend, make a hair appointment or fix a leaking pipe, almost all communications in Malaysia take place on WhatsApp. You can get a local SIM card cheaply from most convenience stores. Note that 4G data is not reliable everywhere, including in some buildings, but it’s OK for light use.

The national language in Malaysia is Malay (aka Bahasa Malaysia), but many people speak English. English lessons are mandatory in school, and English is the primary language used in many universities and businesses. Learning some basic Malay words will still be appreciated by locals.

The English in Malaysia can be quite different, whether in style or accent, so you’ll need to be patient and listen carefully. For some Malaysians, their first language is Malay, while for others it’s English, Cantonese (or another Chinese language), Hindi or Tamil. Those working as security or in service jobs like grocery stores and restaurants often speak Bengali. You’ll also hear informal Malaysian-English languages like Manglish and Singlish.

Tip: A common reply instead of yes/no is “can/cannot” and the word “lah” is commonly added as a filler in phrases (ex. “cannot lah”).


Things to pack

Overall, there isn’t much you can’t find in KL, even if it may sometimes be difficult to figure out where to find certain things. If you feel particular about them, you may want to bring tampons (you can find them here, but not all brands/types), Advil (they sell Panadol instead), hair products for curly/wavy hair, and natural or reef-safe sunscreen. Oh, and maybe chocolate peanut butter cups 😉. 

Check labels carefully on skin products like moisturizer and sunscreen because many of them contain harsh whitening agents. In general, organic products can be harder to find, but this niche is growing with stores like The Hive and Claire Organics, which offer natural and low/zero waste options for basic groceries, hygiene and/or skincare products.

Fun fact: As you’ll see on signs in the airport on arrival, it’s illegal to bring a dildo into Malaysia. As far as I understand, “personal massagers” and vibrators are OK, but lifelike dildos are filed under “obscene items” and punishable by imprisonment. I think authorities tend to look the other way when it’s a foreigner, but it’s best to avoid any trouble.

Tip: Ben’s Grocer in The Linc tends to carry a lot of groceries that Western expats may miss from home and Watsons pharmacies carry some hard-to-find cosmetics and supplements.

A close up of iced cham, a typical drink in malaysia, taken on an outdoor patio in kuala lumpur
Iced Cham, a typical drink made by mixing milk tea and coffee


Money talk

The only accepted currency in Malaysia is the Malaysian Ringgit (MYR), written “RM” before or after the amount. Currently, 1RM = $0.24USD. Cash, debit, Visa and Mastercard are accepted at most places, and cashless payments via Grab Pay and other apps are becoming more common at stores and restaurants.

If you can’t take the heat...

It’s hot and humid year-round in KL, on average around 30 degrees Celsius, which I love and so does my wavy hair!

There are short rainy seasons around October and April, but you’ll still find the sun shining almost every morning. Rainy periods are usually consistently timed in the late afternoon, so you can plan to do outdoor activities in the morning and take shelter later. The storms can be intense, with torrential downpours and epic lightning and thunder shows.

Weather can change on a whim, so keep an eye on the clouds and an umbrella on-hand.

Safety

Overall, in the neighbourhoods I’ve lived in, I feel relatively safe as a single woman in Malaysia. Like in most places, I have experienced harassment and cat calling here, which can be very unsettling.

As a precaution, I usually take a Grab car door-to-door when I’m alone at night and share my ride with a friend via WhatsApp. In a year and a half, I haven’t had issues besides verbal harassment. However, friends have had their purses stolen by motorcyclists while walking in busier areas, so keep your bag on the shoulder opposite from the streetside as a precaution.

When it comes to the police, know that corruption and extortion are somewhat common. Bribery is illegal and apparently you can get in trouble for paying a police officer, even if they suggest it. If you have a run-in with police, ask to call your embassy and make a noticeable note of names/plates of the police officers. Some people say this helps scare them off.


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What to wear

You don’t need to cover-up

While Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, KL is very diverse and you’ll find women dressed in all different ways. Malay women do tend to dress conservatively and many choose to wear the hijab, whereas you’ll see Chinese women wearing shorts and dresses.

You are free to wear what you like without judgment. That said, when I’m alone, I do find it uncomfortable to wear short dresses or shorts in some areas, because unfortunately it can draw unwanted attention.

Tall ladies, take note

Keep in mind that Asia isn’t designed for tall people, so you may want to bring a good supply of shoes and bras you love since sizing here is mostly very petite. For tops, bottoms and dresses, you’ll find mainstream international stores (like H&M) with many sizes.

a view of Kuala Lumpur from a rooftop during sunset with the entire city in view
Don't miss out on rooftop views like this one


Best things to do and food to eat in KL

Girls just wanna have fun

The entertainment industry isn’t exactly supported in Malaysia and alcohol is relatively expensive for the region (about on-par with what I would pay in Canada). Still, there are pockets of great nightlife. Just bear in mind that Malaysia is not known for customer service, so keep your spirit light and patience high while you’re out, as service takes time here. This is partly due to the fact that service workers are poorly paid and turnover is high.

One thing I recommend to everyone: get to a rooftop bar ASAP because this city is best enjoyed from above!

With the stunning Petronas Towers (the tallest twin towers in the world), the revolving KL Tower and the Merdeka 118 tower (soon-to-be second tallest tower in the world), the skyline is stunning at any time of day and offers incredible sunsets.

My favourite rooftop bar is Vertigo, located on the 59th floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel in Bukit Bintang. It has the best sunset views I’ve found and delicious cocktails (~48RM or $12USD), plus it’s a short walk to Jalan Alor for some street food afterwards (~10-15RM or $2-4USD).

While more touristy, Heli Lounge Bar is worth a visit for its unique 360 degree views of the city, and you can treat yourself to a drink at the WET Deck for a fancy night out and close-up view of the Twin Towers.

The most touristic bar street in KL is Changkat, in Bukit Bintang, where you’ll find mostly generic bars and restaurants. It can be fun, although expensive, and you can find great Italian and Spanish food here.

I tend to prefer the speakeasies, which are tucked away all over the city and have great ambiance, like PS150 and Attic Bar in Chinatown. Drink menus usually feature fabulous cocktails and mocktails, wine and fresh juices. For beer, you’ll find lots of light Thai beers like Tiger and Chang, as well as imports like Carlsberg, Heineken and Asahi. To try local flavours like pandan and jackfruit, check out Pahit gin bar in Bukit Bintang.

For more down-to-earth vibes and (pricy) craft beers, check out Taps Beer Bar and the Beer Market. For a night of laughs and great pizza, you can enjoy KL’s small but hilarious comedy scene at the Crackhouse Comedy Club in TTDI. 

If you like hiking, Bukit Kiara and Bukit Gasing both offer accessible trails within the city, and you can also find lots of challenging hikes to try within an hour of KL. Other ways to take in nature in the city are a walk in KLCC Park (free), Perdana Botanical Gardens (free) and the KL Bird Park (admission applies, but show your visa for a discount!).

For culture, try Batik painting or a cooking workshop and check out a museum, like the Islamic Arts Museum. Visit some of the local temples, including Batu Caves, which features a colourful staircase and giant golden statue of Lord Murugan (watch my video about Batu Caves here).

To escape the tremendous heat in the city, you can easily book a weekend getaway to nearby highlands or take a 50-minute flight to the island of Langkawi. If you can’t get away, condo swimming pools are abundant!

Nasi lemak - national dish of Malaysia at Kedai Mamak Husin in Bukit Bintang
Nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia at Kedai Mamak Husin in Bukit Bintang


KL knows the way to this woman’s heart

A city after my own heart, the best activity in KL has to be eating! Malaysians love their food, and so do expats!

Thanks to the diversity of the city, you’ll find Malaysian, Indian and Chinese food all over, as well as western options and everything in between. Western food isn’t always up to the standard you might be used to (I don’t recommend ordering a burger or a steak just anywhere!), so check reviews if you’re looking for something specific. 

For a classic experience, grab a plastic chair at a mamak - an open-air restaurant or stall selling inexpensive halal Indian-Malaysian food. Even in touristy areas, you can eat like a queen from a mamak for 8-15RM ($2-4USD). Be sure to try the national dish of nasi lemak (watch my video about it here), which is fried chicken and coconut rice, served with Malaysian staples of fried anchovies, runny egg and sambal (chilli paste).

Other Malaysian dishes I love are laksa, curry mee (spicy noodle soups) and char kwey teo (stir fried noodles and seafood). For a simple but classic breakfast, head to a kopitiam - traditional Chinese Malaysian coffee shop - for kaya butter toast (thick toast with lots of butter and coconut jam), dipped in half-boiled egg and soya sauce, with a glass of iced cham (half coffee, half milk tea).

For amazing Indian, Sri Lankan and vegetarian food, head to Brickfields aka Little India, to restaurants like Gandhi’s, Chapati House, Annalakshmi and Yarl.

For great coffee, baked goods and Western-Malaysian food (including epic brunch), visit any Kenny Hills Bakers location.

Eating Malaysian food is one of the most authentic travel experiences you’ll get these days, because it’s not a cuisine that’s found much outside of Malaysia. Be prepared to try new things, and follow KL Foodie for help discovering restaurants in the city.

Breads, curries and chicken at a Kedai Mamak Husin in Bukit Bintang
Breads, curries and chicken at a Kedai Mamak Husin in Bukit Bintang

In Kuala Lumpur, you’ll find that the cultural diversity, prevalence of English, low cost of urban living, amazing food and more can make it easy to find some comforts you’re used to while still exploring fun new things. Just like living anywhere in Southeast Asia for the first time, It takes a while to get the hang of a new city, so be compassionate and patient with yourself as you learn.

It gets easier every day and you’ll be an expert in no time!

xx,
Lynne

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