Malaysia

Exploring Kuala Lumpur, Day 1: Arrival Essentials and Downtown Adventures

Welcome to Malaysia! In this short series, I’ll walk you through a 3-day itinerary for Kuala Lumpur, plus a bonus trip to Melaka.

We’ll dive into food, culture, nature, and nightlife. Indeed, Malaysia is quite a party for the senses. Its sights, sounds, smells, and tastes blend Arabic, Indian, Chinese, and of course Malay origins and influence.

Exploring the country’s fascinating blend of culture is a seemingly endless journey, and one you’re sure to enjoy. But first, let’s find our footing with some arrival essentials.

Day 1 of 3: Downtown Checklist

To do on arrival:

  • Get some local currency
  • Navigate the railway and bus system
  • Get a local sim card and data plan

If you’re arriving at KLIA at, say, 1 am, there won’t be any trains or buses. Your best (or only) option to get anywhere is Grab—the Uber of South East Asia.

But before you leave the airport, you’ll want some cash.


Withdraw or exchange? Getting money at the airport

I never do currency conversion at airports; the exchange rates are excessive. Instead, I withdraw local currency from an international ATM—usually HSBC. 

Withdrawal fees will vary depending on your bank and account type, but the exchange rate is likely to be much better than what you’ll get at the currency conversion counter. 

It’s worth finding out what your bank charges for overseas withdrawals and, of course, budgeting to withdraw what you need in a single transaction.


How much should I budget for my trip to Kuala Lumpur?

For an idea of what things cost, here are some price estimates in Malaysian ringgit (RM).

1 RM is about a quarter of a dollar.

  • Transport. roughly 4 RM per trip (on the LRT/MRT/KTM/SkyTrain/Monorail); or budget at least four times as much for getting around with Grab Car. Also note that a trip from the airport to KL Sentral via the KLIA Express line costs about 55 RM one way for adults, and 25 RM for children. (see Things to know about Kuala Lumpur’s rapid rail system below).
  • Food & Drink. you can safely budget about 20 RM per meal; expect to pay 25-30 RM for a beer at a sky bar. 
  • Sim card: from 12 RM for a U-Mobile sim at 7-Eleven to 30-40 RM from providers with better coverage and/or unlimited internet (see Getting a sim card below).
  • Activities: Museum entrance might range from 5-15 RM, while the planetarium is 36 RM and the aquarium is 60 RM. If you’re planning to hang out at KL Tower Observation Deck, plan closer to RM 80.
  • Accommodations: on Agoda, prices range from RM 15 to over 150 per night. Alternatively, try Couchsurfing—KL has an active and very helpful community.

Pro Tip: if you’re not in a rush for time, take a bus to and from the airport instead of the train; it’s cheaper (10-20 RM) and much more comfortable. Sure, the train might get you there in 30 minutes, but the buses have dark curtains and fully reclining chairs. An hour was hardly enough; I didn’t want the ride to be over.


I did, in fact, arrive at 1 am and my host was gracious enough to pick me up from the airport. Though we had to drive all the way to the north of the city, it didn’t take long on empty roads.

A few hours of sleep later, it was time to head for TBS—a central bus terminal that can get you all around (this half of) Malaysia. I’ll be back here in two days time, for that trip to Melaka.

Insider Scoop: The TBS (Terminal Bersepadu Selatan) bus station is right beside BTS (Bandar Tasik Selatan) train station.


How to get a bus at TBS in Kuala Lumpur

Tickets. Either come to TBS in person at least one hour before the scheduled departure (with your passport) or have a friend book your tickets for you online. (Full name and passport number are always required to make a booking).

Booking online can save you a lot of time, especially on weekends and holidays when ticket counter lines are long and buses fill up quickly. You have to be set up for it, though. Otherwise, worst case scenario, you may have to spend a few hours at the terminal.

Alternatively, you can come to the terminal and buy tickets in advance of your trip.

Reservation. If you reserved online, simply bring your passport to the terminal and claim your ticket. There are separate counters for this, with shorter lines.

With your ticket, printed at the counter, you can go through security to wait for your bus at the gate. Buses will leave on schedule.


The idea, at TBS, was to get a bus ticket and a sim card. A passport sure would’ve come in handy for this, but mine was up in Mont Kiara—a hop, skip, and jump from the Batu Caves in the far north of the city. In other words, quite a leap from TBS down in the south.

Pro Tip: Carry your passport with you. It’s essential for things like activating sim cards and buying bus tickets; plus, it can sometimes get you discounts or special entrance. 

Not that I was going to let my empty-handedness stop me. The bus ticket I could leave behind for now; still, I wanted that sim card.

I don’t know about you, but I like having a local sim card and prepaid data plan when I travel. I find it essential for connecting with friends and family, keeping up with work, and getting around smoothly.

Granted, I didn’t want it enough to go all the way to the northern suburbs and back for my passport. I was ready to explore the downtown! Using free wifi at TBS, I consulted a friend and found that select stalls near KL Sentral might activate a sim for me sans passport.

With a general idea of where to go, I turned my attention to navigating the rapid rail.

The first thing I did was make another mistake: buying a ticket on the wrong line.

As I walk from TBS to the trains at BTS, Google Maps tells me I can get a train directly to Sentral on the KLIA Transit line. Walking past it though, I couldn’t seem to find any counters.

So I kept going until I found some ticket machines. (Right after grabbing a Rotiboy.)

I poked around, found something to Sentral, and bought my ticket. Then I had the thought to check in at the information desk. Since there were so many lines, I wanted to make sure I went to the right one.

And it’s a good thing I did, because the ticket I bought wasn’t nonstop at all. It was for a completely different line, made multiple stops, and included a change-over.

Well, I figured, I’ve spent the money already (a lot less than I would have on the KLIA line; hurray) so I’ll just try this route.

Still, I wasn’t particularly excited about having to switch trains—yet another opportunity to end up on the wrong one.


Things to Know about the Kuala Lumpur’s Rapid Rail System

Cards. If you expect to spend a lot of time in KL, definitely consider a Touch ‘n Go card. Load it up at kiosks and stores throughout the city and you won’t have to worry about buying the right ticket for each rail trip.

Tickets. That being said, if you’re only in KL for a few days, it might make more sense to buy individual rail tickets. These little button shapes are scanned to get on the platform and dropped in the machine to get out. They are single-use and non-refundable.

Ticketing things to keep in mind:

  • Different line, different ticket. Buy tickets at or for the line on which you’ll be traveling.
  • Small bills and coins only. Unless you’re paying by card, make sure you have change. Also, ticketing machines can get crowded during rush hour.

The rail system is know as RapidKL. you can plan your trips on myrapid.com.


Sure, there might be a bit of trial and error at first, but Kuala Lumpur’s public transit network makes getting around the city a walk in the park.

And lucky for me, even the train-line mix-up worked out in my favor.

I got off at Hang Tuah station, where I supposed to switch trains. Never mind that: I found I was now very near a spot called Berjaya Times Square, which is in reasonable walking distance of the Petronas Towers. (I love seeing how much of a city I can explore on foot.)

Still sim-card-less, I enjoyed a leisurely, disconnected walk. At Berjaya—misleadingly called a square when it is in fact a mall, I stopped for food and wifi.

I took the chance to get some work done and map out a thing or two for the day. I even got a hot tip on a little stall beside a nearby KFC where a guy just might have what I’d been looking for.

The quest continues.


Getting a sim card in Kuala Lumpur

With passport: 

  • At 7-Eleven, you can get a U Mobile sim card and have it activated at the counter.
  • Any telecommunications store will do the same. According to locals, Maxis Hotlink has better coverage than networks such as Celcom Xpax, U Mobile, Digi, and TuneTalk.

Without passport:

  • Select stalls, mostly downtown. At the one right next to this KFC (pictured below), the cheapest option for a sim with data (though it was more than I needed) was 40 RM.
At this little hole in the wall, you can get you a sim card without showing your passport.

Done!

The Petronas Towers and KLCC

Now that I have my sim card, I’m free to roam. Next stop: Petronas.

In truth, at this point, my phone battery is too low to bother using it for directions. Instead, I follow the skyline.

The towers can supposedly be seen from anywhere. Except, the closer you get, the more readily they hide behind other buildings.

But I made it and took the obligatory selfies and photos of other solo travelers. 

Behind Petronas, KLCC park and its dancing fountain are best seen by night.

The day was wrapped up over dinner with some Couchsurfers at Halab—where I had my favorite of all meals in KL. 

Yum! I can’t even say how good that food was.

A few relaxing hours later, it was time to explore the nightlife.

On our way to the convenient cluster of nightlife activity that is TREC, we passed the National Mosque of Malaysia.

My companions, who were raised Muslim, shared stories of getting drunk for the first time: well into adulthood, with a large bottle of Guinness. One poor fellow got so sick, he still can’t touch the stuff.

It must have been late enough that the mouthwatering spread of middle-eastern food at Halab has left room for more grub, because we stopped for McDonald’s. That when the Dutch-American wished we’d taken a doggy bag.

At TREC’s street of bars, beer is consumed by the bucket and liquor by the bottle all throughout the week.

Insider scoop: Every night is ladies night in KL.

In my next post, we’ll explore a Hindu temple inside the Batu Caves, tour Little India at Diwali, and eat some of the best vegetarian KL has to offer. 

Don’t miss Day 2! 

3 thoughts on “Exploring Kuala Lumpur, Day 1: Arrival Essentials and Downtown Adventures

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