Why Kuala Lumpur might be my favourite transit city

Kuala Lumpur is not an instant charmer. Dirty, smelly, hot and (sometimes) smoggy, for many people it falls into the category of just a transit hub to other destinations. I’ve visited KL many times, whether it be on a holiday, or as part of a layover, and I’ve grown more and more in love with this lively Asian city.

You’ll discover the food, and the friendly people, and the night markets. Now, I think it’s one of the most fun, magnetic cities in South East Asia. Let’s find out why!

Sketch of a colorful kuala lumpur public phone
A phone booth in Kuala Lumpur

1. It’s a concrete jungle where cultures meet

There are many nearby cities which are arguably more attractive to visit – KL has to compete with Ho Chi Minh City’s alluring hustle and bustle, Bangkok’s food and nightlife, and modern Singapore for shopping and street eats. KL is more of an acquired taste. A fusion of cultures and some amazing food come meet in a concrete jungle of pollution and noise, and of course, there’s the heat and humidity of an equatorial country.

Drawing of the petronas towers with a night sky

2. The smells of the city

KL is a full-on sensory assault. One minute you smell well-marinated chicken billowing smoke and spitting on the barbeque, fragrant curries and roti coming from the mamaks.

Then you’ll walk through a cloying, nose-wrinkling cloud of durian, a hint of incense, washes of icy fresh air conditioning, exhaust fumes and piles of garbage, and the inevitable big city smog. You don’t realise until you come back again, that this kaleidoscope is the endearing smell of Malaysia.

Sketch of a malaysian durian street market stand
Durians for sale!

3. Getting around (pretty) easily

There’s a sense of movement and hurry, despite the jarring traffic jams, when you notice the black-and-white checkered gutter blocks, so reminiscent of the nearby Formula 1 track, and a smooth-as-silk monorail slices overhead to take pole position over the motorists.

The monorail and LRT are well-maintained and well air conditioned, and a pleasure to ride. I still love the old-fashioned blue plastic token in lieu of a real train ticket. The urban decay is everywhere, with sidewalks cracked to reveal portals to the sewers below, and rusted steel mesh grids sprouting from concrete walls.

4. Juxtaposition between city and the natural world

There are places where the natural world is rebelling, where lifting pavements are warped by a mighty, twisted tree bursting out from the concrete. The shopping mega-mall paradises offer a stark juxtaposition between rich and poor, as suddenly tiny food carts are gone and all you see are Starbucks and art galleries.

The entrance to a slick shopping centre is like a gateway between worlds, as the dirty outside world seems almost forgotten as the monstrous air conditioning units send a wave of goosebumps down your back.

Sketch of a malaysian street with a huge tree growing from the sidewalk
Giant tree, Kuala Lumpur

5. Food, of course!

No matter how short the layover is, at the very least there is time for a (wonderful) meal! You’ll never run out of great things to eat in Malaysia – a rich and saucy char kway teow whipped together on a roadside food cart, freshly chopped pineapple sprinkled with salt and chilli, a hot cup of pulled teh tarik, or my personal favourite, the rice and chicken of a nasi lemak (with the added crunch of peanuts and those crispy little fish!).

This time, we tried something new with our Malaysian friends – locally famous Nirvana restaurant, where a big pile of rice and various curries were served to us on a banana leaf. At meal’s end, we folded the leaf towards us – a sign that the meal was a good one.

Drawing of Malaysian curry served on a banana leaf
Banana leaf dining in KL

Although KL is typically not a city full of activities, it is a city for exploration and there is absolutely more to be found, if you take the time. Hipster cafes, manicured gardens and street markets are all there to discover if you get to know the neighbourhoods.