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Kuala Lumpur Basics

If you’re arriving in a country for the first time, it’s helpful to have some idea of what to expect when you get there. Do you need to take local currency with you? Should you book a hotel before you go? How do you get out of the airport? Here’s a bit of help for those on their first visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital.

The chances are that you’ll be arriving at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). This modern airport – opened in 1998 – is quite a distance outside the city. Not to worry, though, as there are several quick and easy ways to travel into the city, whether you’re arriving at the main terminal or the low-cost carrier terminal (LCCT).

First, though, you’ll need to get some money. The Malaysian ringgit (commonly abbreviated to RM within Malaysia; the international code is MYR) tracks the US dollar fairly closely (it was pegged to it for many years, including during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s). As of early December 2008 the rates were RM5.40 to the pound, or RM3.60 to the dollar. Anyway, you should find plenty of places to exchange money within the airport, at reasonable rates – many of the cash machines accept foreign bank cards too, so just look out for one with the appropriate card issuer’s symbol (Visa, MasterCard, Amex etc) on it. Maybank’s bright yellow machines certainly work, but there are others.

From the main terminal, the quickest and easiest way to get to town is on the KLIA Ekspres, a 160km/h shuttle train which takes just under half an hour to get to the KL Sentral railway station. As of September 2008, single tickets were RM35.00 for an adult and RM15.00 for a child (2-12 years old); return tickets are simply twice the price of the single fare. You can get the tickets from machines or at the counter. Alternatively, there’s the Airport Coach for RM10, which takes an hour or so.

Or you can get an Airport Limo – the basic ones start from about RM70 as of December 2008. Beware of touts, though – not only may they rip you off by overcharging, but they’re not allowed to operate from the airport and thus are uninsured. Go to the Airport Limo desk if you’re planning to use a car with driver for the journey from the airport.

If you’re arriving at the LCCT, things are a bit more chaotic. There are several buses into town, all charging just under RM10 for a one-way ticket to KL Sentral – the journey takes up to about 75-80 minutes. Or you can get the free airport shuttle bus to the main terminal and get on the train there, but that adds a 15-minute bus ride to the journey (it’s a BIG airport!), plus the waiting time (the shuttle isn’t that frequent), plus the hassle of getting your bags on and off…

Once you’re at KL Sentral, though, things get a little less easy. KL has three metro/light rail systems, a monorail and two suburban railways, and trying to change from one to another can involve a bit of a trek – even where the stations are marked on the route map as being linked!

You may find it easier to get into a taxi. They’re reasonably priced, so long as you make sure they have the meter running. If the driver refuses to turn the meter on or makes an excuse, tell them you’ll find another taxi – there’s every chance the meter will suddenly come on.

If you’re anything like us you’ll probably want to find a hotel and dump your bags before doing anything else. The good news is that hotels in KL are markedly cheaper than in most international cities – you can get a comfortable double room in a five-star international hotel for less than £70 a night, and a perfectly acceptable one for much less if you’re prepared to make a few compromises. On our last few visits we’ve booked online through Agoda and have been happy with the standard of room we’ve had.

Like most large cities, KL has several distinct areas that have many of the features you’d associate with a city centre:

  • Bukit Bintang (Star Hill) – good for shops, nightlife and mid-range hotels
  • Golden Triangle – to the north of Bukit Bintang, a business area with several international hotels and the KLCC shopping and conference centre with the famous Petronas Towers
  • Chinatown – away to the south-west of the city, a bustling area with loads of street markets, restaurants and cheaper hotels

We stayed in Chinatown in 1995. Our first night was in a room without a window – we checked out the following day! These days we tend to stay close to Bukit Bintang; it’s more comfortable, there are enough bars around and the shopping’s better. It’s also not a bad place to book a first night if you’re not sure where you might want to stay and fancy having a look round before committing yourself for the rest of your stay in KL.

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