Pros: Cheap, ethnic diversity, great shopping and hotels, architecture.
Cons: Not many sights, alcohol is spendy, traffic, westernization, sprawl.
Phew. I'm going to try and hit the 1000 reviews mark with this one. This review is based upon my experience in KL in 1/03. I have a friend that is Chinese Malaysian who met me in KL and showed me around. Again, my reviews are not anecdotal, but more a listing of practical information.
It's a snap. I took Malaysian Airlines (will review soon) direct from HKG. A word on flights landing in KL: the government mandates that all international flights be "disinfected" prior to landing. This means that the attendants walk down the aisles and fog the entire cabin with Lysol (or something like it). As an M.D. I can tell you this is pointless, but it is relevant for those with allergies or asthma. From HKG it's only 3 hours.
KL's airport is brand new and absolutely beautiful. It's on par with Chek Lap Kok (in HKG) and Inchon (in Korea). You will have to take a train from the international arrival terminal to the main terminal. Signs are multilingual, but you will have to go downstairs to passport control and baggage claim. Save your reciepts. If you buy something over 500 ringgit in KL you can enter one of the many giveaways at the airport. They were giving away a Jaguar and an MG Td when I was there.
Transport into KL is a snap. You can take a cab and risk getting stuck in the grueling traffic or better yet, take the KLIA train. A one-way ticket is 37 ringgits. The trip takes about 28 minutes and you'll get to see the countryside. The train is safe and clean, and will deposit you at the central station in KL. From there you can get a taxi to your hotel.
Malay is the official language, but just about everybody speaks a bit of everything, from English to Mandarin Chinese, Hokkien, etc. Just about all the signs are in English, so you won't have a problem.
Absolute murder. KL is falling into the same trap as L.A. Endless sprawl and a shortage of roads. Traffic gets started at about 6am and stops at about 930am. Then it starts up again at about 330pm and can last until late at night if it's a weekend. A lot of offices, particularly the government, close at 4pm, hence the early start. Plan your inter-city transfers in advance. If you need to go from the hotel to the train station, discuss it with the concierge or taxi driver. Many will agree to pick you up at a pre-arranged time and take you to the station.
When to go:
Avoid the monsoon season. Duh. Actually, rainfall is fairly common at all parts of the year, but lowest in February and July. It can spontaneously rain for an hour or so and then clear. Be aware that getting a taxi during a downpour is impossible, so wait it out. I was there at the start of Chinese New Year 2003, and found this to be an excellent time to visit. True, a lot of stores and restaurants were shut, but traffic was low, and the sights were not crowded. Malaysia's Federal Territory Day is 2/1 which is also a high Hindi holiday called Thaipusam. This is relevant b/c I went to the Batu Caves (see below).
Where to stay:
Hotel deals are plentiful. The Mandarin is a good choice, since it's by the KLCC Suria mall and next to Petronas. I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton which I reviewed. The Ritz is the only "all-butler" hotel in KL. Because of it's off street location and surrounding construction, I paid 71USD/night. You should check out expedia.com. There are also plenty of budget hotels, but some of these have brothels in them (see below). If you can afford it, go five-star.
Use the KLIA train to get to and from the airport, period, unless you love sweltering in traffic. Cabs are very cheap and you should be able to make short trips (2-5km) for just a few ringgit. At night some cabs will just tell you how much a fare is, rather than activate the meter. KL is like L.A. Sprawl has forced many of the sights away from a concentrated core. It's not practical to see the city on foot. The heat and lack of a grid system are to blame.
Local phone cards will get you IDD rates that are ridiculously cheap. a 30 ringgit (7.50USD) phone card will buy you an hour of talk time to the U.S. Plus, your tri-band cel phone will work here. Most hotels throw in free local and toll-free calls, so using a phone card makes total sense, in terms of economics.
Great infrastructure. Just like HKG the ATMs are plentiful and there is a MayBank ATM in the Arrivals Hall of the airport. If your ATM card uses Star, Interlink, etc, you shouldn't have much trouble getting money out. I didn't.
Tipping is not generally necessary, but if you do tip, then don't go more than a few ringgits. Five at the most. Cabs don't require tips. I genearlly tipped my butler five ringgits for each service. You can see my review on the Ritz-Carlton KL.
At the time I went to KL the exchange rate was about 3.8 to 1USD. Everything is extremely cheap in KL. A meal for three hungry guys at a mall restaurant was only 12USD. Even at Planet Hollywood the tab was cheap. Using my 7USD burger from room service as a gauge, I'd say that food is about 1/3rd as the US. You won't starve here.
Speaking of food...KL's strong point is the multitude of cuisines, due to the country's ethnic diversity. There are plenty of western restaurants here, but try the local fare. On a side note, my "bacon" with the hotel breakfast was beef--this is a Muslim country, but you can find pork here. Just be aware of this fact if you don't quite get what you expect.
Make a point to go to Chinatown to one of the hawker stalls. You can get clay pot rice (delicous) for about 1.50USD or less. However I also recommend trying the satay sticks. We got thirty sticks for ten bucks.
Malaysian food is also fantastic. Chili paste is a universal condiment. There are many dishes based on the small crabs, shellfish, and various fish that are native to the penninsula. Salted ground fish are commonly put on fried rice. Noodles are also popular and you may want to try "mee goreng" which is a yellow wheat noodle dish. I really could go on and on about the cuisine, but it would take too much space. A good source for information is the Konemann "Culinaria" series. There is a "SE Asian Specialties" book that has a great section on Malaysian food.
Of course you will also have access to all of the great fruits of Asia. Rambuthans, passion fruits, pineapples, and the unholy durien. You may want to watch a durien connosieur purchase one of these. Quite entertaining to note how they shake, smell, and tap on these stinky things.
Great architecture, but much of the focus of KL is towards the future, so a sense of history is not well preserved here. Have a cab driver take you around. Depending on where you stay, getting around won't cost you more than a couple dollars each way.
Show up early to get in. You must show up in person to get a free pass for ten minutes of time on the skybridge. There are only 800 free passes given out per day. They start giving them out at 8am (Tower 1) and are usually out by 10am. Get there at 8am and try to go on an "off" day. Luckily, I went during a national holiday and got right in at 9am. You will be scanned and all bags x-rayed. No gum allowed. You get ten minutes on the bridge, so get your photos quickly.
There is a KLCC Suria development (basically a huge mall) behind Petronas which has some excellent shopping, but if you want the deals, read on. Yes, there is a Starbucks in the KLCC Suria.
The best view of KL. You get up higher than the Petronas skybridge (which is only 40 stories up...yawn), and you also get a 360 degree view of the city. I highly recommend taking the audio tour.
Again, go in the morning, but the lines are not as oppressive as Petronas.
I went there. Nice grounds, but if you want to go inside you'll have to be appropriately dressed. Unless you're Muslim you may want to skip this one.
Batu Caves (for the physically fit, only):
These are about 15km out of KL. Any taxi can take you there, but you can also take the bus or go on a guided tour. I opted for a taxi and was happy I did so since I went on 2/1, not knowing it was Thaipusam. The cost was only 25USD roundtrip. Thaipusam is a Hindi holiday and the place was jammed with worshippers. The Batu caves are 400 million years old and are home to intricate shrines and carvings in the limestone. Be warned that accessing the caves requires a 272 step ascent. The steps can be slippery in parts and are somewhat narrow. Add to this the oppressive heat and puffing Hindi women in dangerously trailing robes and you have a recipe for disaster. On the way up you will also have a chance to see the dozens of monkeys that infest the site. Many Hindi will hand-feed these guys, but I strongly advise not to do so. Disease notwithstanding, a three-foot monkey can seriously injure you if so inclined. Strong eye contact and smiling (baring teeth) are threats to monkeys. Do this to the alpha-male and you may need to be hospitalized when he's through thrashing you. For the most part they're harmless and tame, however. The place stinks of monkey and bird poop, but is quite awe-inspiring, and you'll get to see one of Malaysia's religious minority groups engaged in an interesting cultural tradition. You may see people carrying babies up in linen or men with body paint smeared on them, also ascending alongside you.
I didn't go there, but my native friend said it was only mildly interesting. Nice collections of Malaysian artifacts and art.
The Lake Gardens:
Very nice (and huge) park inside the city with a net enclosed aviary.
You must definitely go to the Night Market on Jalan Petaling. Great hawker stalls, but also home to all the bootlegs your heart desires. I mainly bought DVDs there. Make sure you have them test the quality and don't let it out of your sight as they bag it up b/c they can pull a switcheroo. Fake Rolexes, Louis Vuitton, etc abound. The quality all stinks. Software bootlegs abound too, but get these at Imbi Plaza. The place is crowded and navigating through them is slow. Very smoky at times (due to the satay stands) and very hot. Don't wear your best clothes.
Jalan Bukit Bentang:
The main shopping area and best place to stay. The Ritz-Carlton and Marriott are on this street (see my review). Diverse shopping opportunities from the high-end Starhill, to the low-end Lot 10. The malls are cavernous and the crowds are reminiscient of Soylent Green. You'll find your best deals on electronics in Lot 10 and the mall behind it (which is attached). I got my Sony digital camera here, for about 100USD less than the US. See my review. Plaza Imbi (the main computer trading center) is behind Lot 10. Great computer deals abound since Intel has fab plants in Malaysia, just like every other major electronics company. My friend bought a wireless USB optical mouse for 20USD. What you'll mostly be interested in, however, are the acres and acres of bootleg software.
Digital piracy is a serious crime, but it doesn't stop anybody from getting a few goodies in KL. I'll admit that I picked up "The Two Towers" and a couple of computer games. Just don't be stupid about it. Bringing a case full of DVDs or even CD's (the bootleg CDs are not labelled like the DVDs...they just look like CD-Rs) will get you into trouble. Be discreet and for god's sake, throw away the bootleg labels.
Alcohol is surprisingly expensive, compared to the food. Having a Malaysian friend certainly helps, but if you're gregarious and get to know the bartender, you can usually get a stronger drink. Most nightlife is over near Petronas at a club called "The Beach." This place is loaded with Malaysians, but also with the requisite bloated ex-pats and their escorts and grubby backpackers. I found it to be prohibitively full of desperate males. There is a club called Nouvo across the street which is quite good on Thursday (ladies night). The bartender named "Skid" is quite good and in my conversation with him, learned he had worked in NYC.
There was a club called "Manchester United" (after David Beckam's soccer team) down the street from "The Beach." It was mainly an ex-pat hangout. After the Bali bombing nobody went there and it changed hands. It's now called "Poison" and is an Indian club.
Otherwise nightlife is pretty blase in KL. For a Muslim country you will see a surprising number of scantilly clad hoochies, and the same brand of desperate male-oglers that seem to be the common denominator in nightlife around the world.
I have a girlfriend so these outings were purely done as moral support for my single travelling buddies.
The seedy side of KL:
I suppose I should mention that KL has a seedy underbelly that I got to experience first-hand. I have a Malaysian friend, remember? Well, he's also kind of a playboy. He decided he'd take me to see a brothel. Fun stuff, right? Just like in Seoul there are second-echelon hotels that have a "spa floor." There are a lot of mainland Chinese prostitutes, Indian prostitutes, Malaysian prostitutes, and a few Russian prostitutes. The Russians cost more (about 120USD) and are kept in a separate hotel (due to the demand). The local fare is only 70USD.
Again, I have to say that I did not partake and was trying to get out of that place asap. Only after drinking eight cans of beer at 10 ringgit each (2.50USD) did I finally get the nerve up to just get up and leave. By then my friend was in stitches, laughing at my distress.
Anyway, a lot of this stuff goes on in KL. Don't be stupid.
Unless you are going out of KL you needn't worry about the myriad tropical diseases. I was actually bitten by mosquitos at the hotel pool, but there is minimal malaria risk in KL. KL medical facilities are excellent due to the fact that the government invests heavily in infrastructure and actively recruits western physicians.
This is a Muslim country so be sensitive to that fact. It's not harcore, but some people will pray 5 times/day, you may find some places don't serve pork, etc. Malaysia is home to Malays, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, and westerners. They all manage to get along very nicely and it is a tolerant society. However, drunken boobery and misbehavior will get you into trouble. Don't even think about doing drugs. It's a capital offense.
A lot of Arabs (Saudis, Kuwaitis, etc) are vacationing here now, rather than the U.S. and Europe due to the poltical climate. If you see an Arab person with a small white hat on, it usually means he's made a "hajj" or pilgrimage to Mecca. You can call him "haji" for extra points as a sign of respect. My cabbie to the Batu caves was a haji.
The dollar goes a long way in KL. You can get luxury accomodations and cheap food. My 5-star hotel was 71USD/night and food didn't cost more than 15USD on top of it. Bargains and bootlegs abound, but the sights and nightlife are limited.