WORKING ABROAD / AUG. 18, 2015
version 29, draft 29

The Lowdown on Living in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers
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This is not going to be the usual tourist-oriented travel article. I am writing this more for those who are seriously considering moving to Malaysia for work or study.

One of the key indicators that this is not a tourist article is that it is going to be brutally honest. There are a few good things about living in KL, but, in general, there is not much I can say to gloss over the more disgusting aspects of the place.

For the first clue we can get to just how the quality of living compares to other parts of Asia, we need only consider a very simple indicator.

When the British deserted Hong Kong and Singapore, large contingents of British residents remained behind. That certainly did not happen when the British pulled out of Malaysia.  

Even before the ink was dry on Malaysia’s version of the Declaration of Independence, there wasn’t a sun-burned face in sight!

Apart from massive tollway constructions, Malaysia’s forward progress seems to have stopped at that point. Very little improvement has taken place in the past few decades, and many once glorious projects are now mold-covered ruins.

If all that doesn’t put you off and moving here still seems like a good idea to you, then I will step you through the essential information you will need to know.

See Also: 5 Reasons why Travel Writing Sucks

1. Orientation

Kuala Lumpur is quite a compact city, and it is not too difficult to get around. In the suburbs, once you get off the main streets, however, it is possible to get lost and wander forever in the maze of little "lorongs".

  • The heart of the city is quite helpfully labeled as Sentral, and this is also the name of the main railway station.
  • The northern limits of the city include the suburbs of Gombak, Batu Caves, and Rawang (though metro trains will take you as far north as Tanjung Malim, at least 40km beyond Rawang).
  • To the east are Ampang, Cheras, and Kajang.
  • To the south, the city almost collides with Putrajaya, which is supposed to be another city, but in practice has just been absorbed as a suburb.
  • Finally to the west, which is the longest suburban sprawl of the city, we find Port Klang, Subang (a better airport to arrive at than KLIA, but few airlines go there), and Sungai Buloh.

All this fits in a space known as the Klang Valley, which is a bit bigger than the city. Not surprisingly, since it is an industrial city with a lot of road traffic, being situated in a valley means air pollution is very hardcore. Your body will be constantly struggling to pull in oxygen. I’m not joking!

2. Accommodation

Unless you have a Malaysian identity card, you’ll find it really difficult to rent a place. Renting an apartment will save you a fortune if you can manage it. If you are staying less than 180 days, then you will most likely be staying in hotels, which is what most foreigners do.

Where you stay is going to play a big role in how well you can live and how much you will have to spend. In general, the northern suburbs are much less expensive, but it is still possible to find some accommodation gems in other areas if you put in some effort.

Hotel standards in Malaysia are very poor. In terms of quality, both Indonesia and Thailand give you a lot more value for money. Unless you are spending big money for a room (which is unlikely if you’re staying long term), expect the room to be run down, and in many cases even lacking windows.

Key criteria you should look for include:

  • Comfortable bed
  • Reasonable standard of sanitation
  • Shower with working water heater
  • Good water pressure
  • Free WiFi that works
  • Sufficient power outlets

If you’ll mainly be working from internet shops or other similar venues, WiFi may not be as much of a priority for you. Most hotels do have WiFi, but the quality can vary considerably. It is very unlikely that you will find any hotel that meets all the criteria which is also affordable for a long term stay, but they do exist. I’m writing this report from one now.

Do not go for a place with a shared bathroom, no matter how desperate you are to save cash. These places are for backpackers, not working professionals who need to ensure they never have to skip a shower.

Cost by area for a room meeting the minimum standards listed above:

Batu Caves, Gombak, Rawang RM40
Seri Kembangan, Ampang RM45
Chinatown, Kajang, Sungai Besi, Sungai Buloh RM50
Chow Kit, Puchong, Bandar Sunway RM55
Bukit Bintang, One Utama, Kepong, Cheras RM60
KLCC, Sepang, Pudu RM65
Petaling Jaya, Kota Damansara, Sentral RM70
Subang, Golden Triangle, Sri Hartamas RM75
Mid Valley, Putrajaya, Setapak, Bangsar RM80
Bukit Jalil, Sentul, Berjaya Hills RM100

3. Food

Few hotels have cooking facilities or even hot water. This means you’ll have to eat in restaurants. This can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be.

Throughout the city, there are many restaurants selling high-priced western fast food. Don’t make the mistake that many foreigners do upon arrival of comparing local prices to the prices in your home country and deciding that everything is cheap. You will definitely over-spend if you do this, and if your income is not assured, over-spending is risky while you’re still getting established.

If you are on a budget, then you will mostly be eating street food and low cost meals from nasi kandar restaurants.

To give you an idea of the costs, my expenses for last week were:

  • Accommodation: RM300 (US $75)
  • Meals & Drinks: RM120 (US $30)
  • Transport: RM20 (US $5)
  • Laundry: RM5 (US $1)

So in total, I’m spending around $120 per week. This is possible because I live quite modestly, and indeed I need to! By comparison to my life in Thailand, I’m spending about $70 more per week. Compared with living in Penang, however, I’m spending about $145 less per week for a similar standard of food and accommodation.

Typical "nasi kandar" meals:

  • Roti Chanai (RM 1): Thin flat bread served with curry sauce
  • Roti Telur (RM 2): Flat bread with fried eggs
  • Murtabak (RM 6): Equivalent to a pie, filled with meat or vegetables
  • Nasi Lemak (RM 2): Rice with chili sauce, peanuts, dried anchovies, and cucumber
  • Nasi Goreng (RM 4): Fried rice. Extra RM2 if you want meat added
  • Mee Goreng (RM 4) Fried noodles. Extra RM2 if you want meat
  • Udang / Daging / Ayam Sambal (RM 6): Prawn / Beef / Chicken with chili sauce

Typical street foods:

  • Ayam Goreng (RM 4): Fried chicken
  • Ayam Bakar (RM 4): BBQ chicken
  • Satay (RM 4): Skewered meat (usually chicken, but sometimes beef) with peanut sauce
  • Tandoori (RM 4): Chicken that has been specially spiced and baked
  • Fish ball noodles (RM 5): Noodles with balls made from fish, not what you were thinking!
  • Samosas (RM 1): Fried pastry filled with chicken or vegetables (set of 2)
  • Popia (RM 1): Thai-style spring rolls, but usually filled with chicken (set of 4)
  • Pau (RM 2): Big Chinese steamed buns filled with meat, sweet red bean paste, or kaya.
  • Mystery Meat on a Stick (RM 3): Exactly as described!
  • Hamburger (RM 3): Beef or chicken patty served in a bun with lots of sauce and MSG
  • Chendol (RM 1): Pandan flavored rice noodles served in chilled coconut milk with red beans
  • Ais Kachang (RM 4): Shaved ice with sweet syrup and a weird mix of vegetables and noodles
  • Rojak (RM 3): Fruit salad with spicy fish sauce
  • Laksa (RM 4): Seafood noodle soup with coconut milk and firm sliced tofu

There are all sorts of other foods to try as well. As you can see, most of these foods are under US $1 per serving (exchange rate is currently 4 to 1, in Aug 2015). By contrast, a meal at McDonald’s will typically set you back about US $4.50, and a pizza from Dominoes will cost you US $6.25.

While those American choices may seem inexpensive, just 2 pizzas are equivalent in cost to 50 servings of Roti Chanai. Yes, I know I am spelling words like Canai and Cendol incorrectly. I am doing that so that foreigners will know how to say the words correctly.

4. Getting Around

Kuala Lumpur has an excellent network of public transport. The metro train network is really impressive, and it is easy to get between any two points inexpensively.

One flaw is that during rush times, the trains are over-crowded, and safety is sometimes questionable, especially if you have luggage. This problem is compounded on the KTM Komuter service due to their use of "ladies only" coaches. It seems like a sensible policy, except that most ladies don’t ride in them!

No matter what time of day it is, the train services never add extra coaches to the trains. It’s best to avoid public transport during rush hours.

There are two main bus services. These are RapidKL and GoKL. Both are good, but the latter provides circular routes, which is good if you have a tendency to miss your stop and get lost. Bus journeys can be a tiny bit more expensive than train journeys, especially if you don’t speak Malay.

Taxis are generally inexpensive but far more expensive than other forms of transport. Other than this, you can buy a beat up old car for RM 2500, and it may be adequate to get you around for a month or three.

Of all the options, rail is by far the safest way to travel.

See Also: 10 Best Jobs for People Who Love to Travel

There is no getting away from the fact that Kuala Lumpur is a horrible place to live, no matter how you look at things. It’s dirty, crowded, smelly, polluted, noisy, and obscene!

You will be shocked by the horrible smells, the abundance of rats, the bad driving, the unsafe sidewalks, and the general neglect people have for keeping up appearances. There is trash everywhere, and it smells like vomit. Around the Masjid Jamek area, and along the riverfront, you will see copious deposits of human feces.

If you can live in another Malaysian city, I’d recommend doing that. If the restrictive immigration policies of Thailand and Indonesia won’t be a problem for you, I’d recommend them also as better choices.

What Malaysia does offer is 90 days of visa-free stay for nationals of most countries, and a lower cost of living compared to living in Western nations, although whether you save money depends on your lifestyle.

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