Located at the crossroads between the far east and south Asia, and situated conveniently between the South East Asian hotspots of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and Oceania, Kuala Lumpur is on the route of many inter-continental journeys. And while I obviously love overlanding, sometimes money or time constraints have this pesky habit of getting in the way and these inter-continental journeys are essential to do by air. But something that I always try and do if I have to fly is make the most of any layover countries.
My ‘Malaysian layover’ was more of a visa run from Bali – I wanted to stay in Asia for six weeks so I could spend time with two separate groups of friends who were also going to be there, but couldn’t be in Indonesia for that long on one visa – so I booked a cheaper than chips Air Asia flight to Kuala Lumpur. But rather than fly in and fly out, I thought it would be kinda rad to see what this country had to offer for a week.
After this layover week, I really really want to spend some time backpacking Malaysia – I only saw Kuala Lumpur and Penang (and could easily return to them both!) – but I think I made the most out of my week in Malaysia. I spent three days of my week in Kuala Lumpur, and really loved the city. It’s definitely a capital well worth exploring: it’s a place with a lot of racial harmony (a lot of countries could take some lessons from Kuala Lumpur!), stunning religious buildings and delicious food.
So, if you’ve got a layover in Kuala Lumpur, don’t waste it, and be sure to get out of the airport and explore the nation’s capital.
A Layover in Kuala Lumpur: What To Do
Firstly, I’d recommend seeing if you can do a stayover rather than a layover. You can see a lot of Kuala Lumpur in a day, but staying overnight will enable you to pack in some more, plus experience an evening in the city. With night markets, a gorgeous skyline, and bars aplenty, exploring KL after the sun goes down is a completely different experience to the daytime.
But, if you only have one day to explore Kuala Lumpur on a layover, here’s what I’d recommend doing:
After landing, you’ll need a transfer from Kuala Lumpur airport. Take the bus (14 RN, takes about an hour, recommended if you’re on a budget and are not in a rush) or the train (55 RN, takes just over half an hour, recommended if you are more fussed about time than money) into the city.
You’ll get off the bus/ train at KL Sentral, which is a great springboard for lots of the attractions of the city.
Firstly, I’d recommend visiting the National Mosque. It’s 2.7 kilometres from KL Sentral – I walked it but one downfall of KL is that it’s not a very pedestrian friendly city. It was a fun (if somewhat hair-raising) adventure though! There’s also lots of taxis from KL Sentral which are relatively cheap – probably the more sane option.
The National Mosque is only open to the public at certain times – 9am to 12 noon, 3pm to 4pm and 5:30pm to 6:30pm every day except Friday – on Fridays it does not open for visitors in the morning. If that doesn’t align with your schedule, it’s still worth admiring from the outside!
There’s lots of information about Islam in Malaysia within the mosque and if you’re lucky a volunteer might be around to tell you some more. You need to be covered to enter the mosque – full body coverage and a headdress for ladies – but this is provided on entry. The mosque is free to enter.
The National Museum is nearby and is well worth an hour or two of your time. It’s cheap – just 5 RN for entry- and it details Malaysia from prehistoric times to modern day. I’m more of a social history keeno than anything, so I found the colonialization to modern day exhibitions fascinating. But there’s lots of natural history information there as well!
Near to Chinatown is the Sri Mariamman Temple. Entry is by donation, and it’s a beautiful form of Hindu architecture. I lucked out when I went and met a lovely Hindu guy who told me all about the religion and its history within Malaysia – which was absolutely fascinating! He told me he spends a lot of time in the temple talking to tourists and explaining exactly what it is that they see – so keep an eye out for him! I also got to experience a prayer which was a beautiful and uplifting event.
The temple is very near Chinatown, which is famous for the Central Markets. Here they stock pretty much… everything, from shoes to furniture. It’s a great place to go shopping and has a unique atmosphere not really found anywhere else in the city. There’s also some amazing street food within the district.
Another fantastic Kuala Lumpur must-see is Masjid Jamek (Jamek Mosque). Jamek is widely known for the beauty of its exterior, and visitors can only enter so far into the temple. There are also volunteers here detailing the history of the mosque, Islam in Malaysia and Islam in general – a guide told me all sorts of interesting information including that the mosque stands on the site where Kuala Lumpur was founded, and the name Kuala Lumpur means ‘muddy place where two rivers meet’.
There are lots of local restaurants lining the streets of Kuala Lumpur, or lurking in the food markets. Malaysian food has a distinct flavour and style but takes inspiration from some of its surrounding countries and different ethnic groups as well. It’s pretty good for vegetarian dishes, especially in the big cities – much of the food is Indian inspired. Some delicious specialities are ramen, roti and nasi goreng.
If you’re only stopping over in Kuala Lumpur for one day, it might be time for you to head back to the airport. You’ve managed to see a good amount of the city in this time, so give yourself a big pat on the back!
But, if you’ve managed to wangle a stayover, here’s some fantastic things you can do at night in Kuala Lumpur. Firstly, I highly recommend staying at Paper Plane Hostel. They have both dorms and private rooms and a fun, sociable atmosphere but also a quiet at night policy – perfect if you’re wanting to catch up on sleep between flights. I’m not a great sleeper, and the fact that I had three fantastic nights’ sleep at this fresh and funky hostel, which is perfectly kitted out with all the amenities you could need and more, says a lot! Check out my full Paper Plane Review for more information and use this link to book accomodation.
As evening falls, I’d recommend wandering up to the KLCC district and checking out the Petronas Towers. They’re the tallest twin towers in the world, and are iconic to Kuala Lumpur – the Eiffel Tower of Malaysia, if you like. Seeing them at night, when they are all lit up, is a marvellous experience – the architecture is so unusual and it really reminds you of the modern side of Malaysia.
You can also ascend to the the 276 meter observation deck of the Kuala Lumpur Tower, another iconic landmark of the capital, and enjoy a glittering view of the city by night below. I didn’t do this during my stay, but here’s some more information for visiting the Kuala Lumpur tower.
If you’re hungry, check out the 24 hour food market. There’s plenty here to satisfy even the pickiest of eaters, with cuisines from all over Asia and other parts of the world. If you’re travelling in Malaysia on a budget, head down to the bottom end of the markets (as if you’re walking away from the Petronas Towers direction) and there’s some really cheap (and delicious) eateries there.
There’s plenty of places in Kuala Lumpur to grab a drink after the sun goes down. From Kuala Lumpur’s best rooftop bars to speakeasy-style venues, to local streetside bars offering ice cold beer, you won’t be short of options within the city.
On the second morning of your stayover in Kuala Lumpur, be sure to get to the Batu Caves if you have time. The caves are both a natural phenomenon and a spectacular Hindu site of worship. They’re free to enter and take about 2 hours to explore. There’s also lots of street vendors there selling food for you to pick up before your flight! Take into consideration that the KTM Komuter train from KL Sentral to Batu Caves can take a while and the service is often delayed – especially on a Sunday. Make sure you leave lots of time to get the train back to the city and onwards to the airport!
If you’re not all templed out, another great option if you have time is the Thean Hou Temple. It’s a six tiered Chinese temple dedicated to the sea goddess of the country. It’s built in the style of a Buddhist pagoda, with ornate, beautiful architecture and a stunning interior.
To return back to the airport, head to KL Sentral to take the bus or train return. And there you have it – Kuala Lumpur! This layover in Kuala Lumpur guide takes you to the best parts of the city and will hopefully give you a taste of what this diverse and dynamic country has to offer. There’s so much more to Malaysia – after a week in Kuala Lumpur and Penang I’m already desperate to return – but a layover in Kuala Lumpur is a fantastic way to scratch the surface of the country.