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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for Digital Nomads

Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia in general is one of the post popular destinations for digital nomads, but usually as a short layover for a visa run and hardly ever for anything else. In the past 10 years of living off and on in Thailand, I've flown through KUL Airport a dozen times and have stayed a few nights here and there in the city in transit. The longest I've ever stayed, and most people ever stay is two nights as to get a new Thai visa you need to arrive at  the Thai Embassy between 9:30-11:30am and pick it up the afternoon of the next day from 2:30-4:30pm. But to be honest, a lot of people I know don't even leave the airport as the city center is so far away. They simply fly into KUL, go through immigration, hang out for a few hours, then fly back to Thailand.

I've always thought these people were crazy and wasting their lives sitting on a plane just to go from one country and straight back the same day. It's slightly better than doing it in a minivan or a bus, but it's a waste of fuel, and hard on your body for no reason. One of the best things about being location independent is having the time and flexibility to travel longer, take our time and explore the world slowly. We shouldn't be in a rush, and it's our privilege to be able to check out new cities, cultures, foods, and places while still earning enough money online to be able to sustain ourselves financially. So this trip, I'm staying in KL for two weeks to check out the city, culture, food, coworking spaces and meetup with some local expats to see if Kuala Lumpur could potentially be a good place to live long term. On paper it's perfect, a modern city with great infrastructure, fast internet, low costs of living, tons of short term apartments, and an airport that connects everywhere. Keep reading for how KL actually lives up .




Getting to Kuala Lumpur



Quite possibly the best thing about KL is the fact that the KUL Airport, although massive and quite busy, is an amazing hub for cheap flights around the world. It's AirAsia's main hub which means you can get cheap direct flights to most places in Asia including Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and even as far as China. Personally I'm flying direct from KL to Sri Lanka after this and scored a flight for $99 which is a steal for a 4.5 hour international flight. But if you look the chart below, you'll find even cheaper flights if you look around. The only issue is that the airport is an hour outside the city and the airport is so large and crowded, you'll usually need to leave your hotel 4-5 hours before your flight to go on any international flights outside of Malaysia.

To get to KL this trip I flew direct from Chiang Mai (CNX) but since I booked my flight last minute it was $107, which still isn't bad, but was twice as much as it normally would be. However you arrive, to get from the KLIA Airport (KUL) to the city center, you have two main options. The first is simply to take a Taxi as it's only 73RM which is around $18usd, the only issue would be that if there's traffic you'll have a long ride since the city center is 60km/40miles away and takes around an hour even without traffic. You can use the official taxi stands at the airport which have fixed prices, or you can download the Grab App which is the Uber of Asia, use my link for a discount on your first ride. For whatever reason Grab is priced super low here in KL so I end up using it all of the time, there's even a shared Grab option that's usually a few ringit cheaper.

If you're on a tight budget but have plenty of time, you can take the Airport Bus for around 10myr ($2.50us) that goes from the KLIA Airport to the city center (KL Sentral) in around 1 hour and 15 minutes without traffic. The faster option is to take the KLIA Ekspres train. It's super convenient as they leave every 15 minutes directly from the airport, and only take 33-39 minutes (depending if you do the express or one with stops, just get on the first one you see as the time difference isn't big) from KLIA2 (the AirAsia terminal) to the city center (KL Sentral). The only issue is that a few months ago they randomly raised the price from a very reasonable 35myr to an overpriced 55myr ($13.50usd) for no apparent reason. Either way, the entire journey from landing to getting to my airbnb took almost 3 hours because of how big the airport is to walk through, taking the train to the city center, then another train/grab to my actual hotel.



Nationalities in red get 90 days on arrival!


Some of the cheap direct flights from KUL Airport!


Getting Around KL 



One confusing thing about Kuala Lumpur is that even though it's nice that everything is written in English letters so you can read it, things often sound similar. For example, on the train from the airport to my hotel I passed through the stops, "Sentral" "Kuala Lumpur" and "KL Sentral." Luckily I got off at the right place. But from there, it was confusing as the Komuter train from KL Sentral to my airbnb although only 2rm (50cents) and a 2 minute walk away, only came every 50 minutes for whatever reason and other trains used the same line so it was easy to get on the wrong one.

Instead I forfeited my token to go take a Grab as that would have only been a $2.50 ride. But after 25 minutes of trying to find my driver, I gave up and went back in to take the train. Overall, transportation so far in KL is both fantastic but confusing. It's super cheap, and well laid out, but it's also a big, complex city with a lot of cars. I think it'll be something I can get used to, especially if I plan around train schedules instead of just showing up, but it's not quite as easy as other big cities like Bangkok. There are metered taxi's in KL but a lot of them will haggle with on you pricing and where you want to go, so it's much easier just to take the train or use Grab which is what I ended up using all of the time as rides are usually between 9-13 myr ($2-$3usd) anywhere in the city.

On the plus side, there doesn't seem to be nearly as much traffic in KL than other big cities. My Airbnb overlooks the highway and it's free flowing at 1pm on a Tuesday, you'd never see that in LA or NY, or even Bangkok. Ask a local and they'll complain about traffic during rush hour, but trust me, it's nowhere as bad as other big cities in the world. On a side note, even though some parts of the city look like they would be walkable, you'll almost never see anyone actually doing it. The city is massive, hot and humid, so try it out for yourself, but you probably won't be walking very much outside of indoor air conditioned malls.


Lack of midday traffic in Kuala Lumpur



Where to Stay in KL




The nicest thing about KL and one of the main reasons I decided to come here and stay for 2 weeks is because of how nice the Airbnb's are and how cheap luxury units in the city center are. There are a ton of options for around $30 a night in the city center inside high rise, resort style buildings with pools and gyms. I wanted a comfortable stay to just chill, get some work done, watch netflix and relax for a few weeks and this was perfect. I would have rathered stayed in Chiang Mai as I had a similar condo and since there's a lot more to do there, but because Thailand is starting to frown on people who stay for 6 or more months on tourist visas, I decided to come here for 2 weeks instead of getting an extension. March also starts Chiang Mai's burning season so it was nice to get out before it really got bad.

As far as where in KL to stay, the nice thing is, pretty much anywhere in the KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Center) is fine as Grab taxi's and the trains are so cheap and convenient. It's a bit too hot, humid and spread out to be a walkable city or to bicycle, but everything seems to be within a 20 minute drive. I randomly chose a place called Regalia Residence in Chow Kit as it was super cheap at $25 a night and has an infinity pool overlooking the Petronas Towers. But if you want to be closer to the bars and nightlife, you should stay in the Bukit Bintang area. It's been fine living out there at the edge of the city as it's only a 9-13myr ($2-$3) grab ride from here to anywhere in the city, but can be more during rush hour and in general it prevents us from going into the city as often as we normally would if we were within walking distance.

If you somehow haven't used Airbnb yet, you can use my link to get $40 off Airbnb on your first booking. Below are some photos of the place we stayed at for 12 nights here in KL, it was around $25 a night in a building called Regalia Suites and is representative of some of the great places you can find in the city center for less than $30 a night. If you're staying for a month or longer you can find some really nice apartments for between $400-$1,000 a month.



Our $25 a night Airbnb in KL

The Rooftop Pool at our Airbnb

The view of the Petronas Towers from our Infinity Pool



Things to do in KL



One of the biggest problems with tourism in KL or Malaysia in general is the fact that even there there is plenty of amazing things to do most of it isn't very well known. If you ask any local, expat or tourist what there is to do, most will say to go to the Petronas Towers or maybe visit the Batu Caves, but that's about it which might lead you to think there's nothing to do here. But in reality there are some really beautiful temples, mosques as well as both Little India and Chinatown to walk around in and explore, plus on top of that there are a ton of fun local things to do like escape rooms, aquariums, parks, malls, movie theaters, cafes, restaurants and outdoor activities.

So for expats and people living here long term, there is plenty to do if you take the time to look around instead of just having a drink near the Petronas towers and calling it a trip.

It's kind of strange that a city as big as Kuala Lumpur with as much culture and diversity wouldn't be better known for things to do. If you speak to most people who have visited KL for just a few days, most will say it was boring or even that it felt soulless, which is strange for being such a large, multi-cultural city, but somehow I tend to agree as it sure feels that way, at least before you dig in deeper and get to know it better. One benefit is that if you like western style malls, there are world class ones here in KL with western grocery stores like Cold Storage to satisfy your expat needs. It's also one of the few countries in the world that has both Anchor and Kerrygold Grass Fed butter in unsalted. However, randomly things like Ibuprofen was impossible to buy on a weekend, even after visiting 5 different pharmacies as for whatever silly reason they don't sell it over the counter and pharmacists don't work on weekends.

But even with the little annoyances, instead of boring, I try think of KL as a great place to live and work with enough to do if you go searching for it. It'd be a great place to have a comfortable life where you can go out and eat great food, have a comfortable apartment when a nice gym and pool, and easy access to international flights when you do want some more of a wow factor. But even within KL there is plenty to do, check out these two videos below for some really cool, unique things to do in Kuala Lumpur that aren't in most top 10 lists or known by most travelers.










Must Eats in KL




The best thing in Kuala Lumpur is the food, and the variety of it. From street food and local vendors to Michelin star restaurants, this city has it all. The country itself is super diverse with Chinese, Malay and Indian populations which means three distinct types of food right now. On top of that you have Korean food, Japanese food, Taiwanese food, Thai food and Western food all being popular as well. Walking through any mall and instead of just seeing the one standard food court, you'll realize that there is usually food on every floor and usually a minimum of 4 or 5 distinct eating areas.

At first it's strange to go to a mall to eat, but it's a huge part of KL culture and the locals do it regularly. Although from my experience, eating outside of the mall at normal restaurants or street stalls is still always a bit cheaper and tastier. But that being said, there is a ton of choice in the malls, it's super convenient, the prices are still low, and it's nice to escape the midday sun and heat by being indoors. My advice is to stay away from the big American chains you've heard of, and go wherever you see a lot of locals eating.

Some really good restaurants and places to eat worth checking out include Alor Street Food Night Market, the food trucks at Tapak Urban Street Dining, Indian Roti Stalls such as Mansion Tea Stall, the chinese place Ah Heng Food Corner, and really wherever you pass by that has a lot of locals hanging out. For unique places to eat, there is the famous Din Tai Fung or the super unique Dining in the Dark KL. Also on my last day I ate at a middle eastern restaurant called Habal KL that has incredible food and a masala like adeni tea all of a great value.


A couple must try dishes while in KL include the following:


  1. Nasi Lemak - A Malay rice dish cooked in coconut milk with dried dish and peanuts on the side. 
  2. Chicken Rice - Also known as Hainanese chicken rice, the best ones are simple but ultra flavorful. 
  3. Assam Laksa - Sweet, sour, tamarind and fish flavored noodle soup, this is truly unique. 
  4. Chinese Noodles - There are a ton of different noodle soups and stir fries, all uniquely delicious. 
  5. Banana Leaf Rice - Steamed rice with a ton of side dishes and vegetables served on a banana leaf!
  6. Roti Canai - The Indian food in KL is incredible and so the handmade flat breads served with dahl.
  7. Tropical Fruits - Enjoy it all from mangos and mangosteen, durian, to rambutan's cousin the pulasan! 
  8. Everything Else - The nice thing about KL is there is fantastic Chinese, Malay and Indian food, and it's super cheap, so go out, explore and just eat a bit of everything! 




Walking around Alor Street Food Night Market

Giant steamed chicken buns and dim sum

Lunch at Halab KL with some Nomad Friends



Hidden Kuala Lumpur



One of the coolest things about KL and a reason why the city has the potential of becoming a new hotspot for the digital age is that new trendy bars and restaurants are opening up all of the time. KL is becoming more hip and going away from loud sports bars and fluorescent lit restaurants, and more towards hipster coffee shops, cafes, and speakeasy bars. We literally stumbled upon one last night on our way to dinner, just a blog away from the Chinatown market. I had no sign and was disguised as an old toy store, but the guy was dressed way too nice for what it was so I asked straight away if it was a hidden bar, and it was!

For dinner we went to a trendy Asian-Fusion restaurant called Chocha Foodstore where we had some incredible food including fried calamari, duck fat barley rice, and some of the best roast potatoes we've had anywhere. Then just two doors down we managed to score a table at P150 Bar and had some really amazing cocktails like the Lychee No. 3 made with London Dry Gin, Whole Lychee, Torch Ginger Flower, and Lime. Both bar and restaurant require reservations, especially on weekends, and are closer to western prices than what you'd normally get in KL, but for a great night out, it was well worth it. Dinner was 400myr ($98usd) for the 4 of us including a bottle of prosecco, and cocktails at the bar averaged 40myr ($10usd) each.

Other speakeasies and cocktail bars in KL that might be worth checking out include Omakase Appreciate, P&C Cocktail Bar, or maybe the rooftop Attic Bar. There are a ton more, just ask around to some local friends or do a search for hidden bars in KL or speakeasies. Or you can do what we did and wander around the streets of Chinatown at night looking for out of place doors and shopfronts. Just don't expect the nightlife to be easy to find as it's not a huge drinking culture or party culture here in KL like in other big cities, but trust me, they exist, you just need to know where to look.



Dinner at Choca Foodstore

Cocktails at P150 bar afterwards



Travel in Malaysia



Aside from Kuala Lumpur, many travelers also go to Penang as it's just a 4 hour drive or bus ride from each other and the only other well known city in Malaysia. Unfortunately Penang suffers from the same fate as KL, even though it's also a nice city, aside from walking around Georgetown for a cup of white coffee, there isn't a ton of other highlights. That causes people to see KL and Penang, check off a box saying they've seen Malaysia, only to never return again. 

However, I promise there are some really amazing places in Malaysia starting with the Perhentian Islands. From either KL or Penang, you can take an 8 hour bus for around $11 or fly to Kota Bahru before taking a ferry. It's a beautiful set of islands in the north east of Malaysia and not over visited. 

If you really want an adventure, go to the island of Malaysian Borneo. Sure you'll need to fly, but flights are cheap and the island is incredible if you like nature. It's one of the few places left on earth you can trek through jungles and see wild elephants, orangutans, and proboscis monkeys. In the south you can also find some of the best scuba diving in the world at the Sipadan Islands, as well as some incredible macro life on Mabul.

Here's a video from one of my trips to Borneo a few years ago where I saw some incredible wildlife up close and personal, followed by one of the best scuba dives of my life.









Coworking in KL



A lot of people are wondering how the digital nomad and entrepreneurial scene in Kuala Lumpur is like. On paper, it would be the perfect digital nomad hub of Asia as we get 90 days on arrival whenever we land, just for entering, and since there are cheap flights everywhere, visa runs are easy. You can stay for 3 months, go on vacation somewhere for 1 week, then come straight back for another 90 days. The costs of living, food, and accomidation are relatively low. SIM cards, data, and internet are both fast and cheap and available everywhere. And on top of all of that, Malaysia actually welcomes tech, innovation and startups.

With startup/coworking hubs such as the government sponsored MaGic (Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre) or the 50+ Coworking spaces near the city center, there just seems to be a lot going on for online workers. Some of the cooler spaces worth checking out include Common Ground, Sandbox and Colony. However, most of the spaces fall for the flaws of design and aesthetics first before function. Just remember to go through my perfect coworking space checklist before signing up for a membership somewhere. The strange thing about KL is that even though speed tests would show 40-100mbps up/down speeds or higher, the internet both at home, coffee shops and even coworking spaces would often be laggy, choppy or drop out, which makes me feel like the internet and infrastructure on paper is fantastic, that in reality it's a bit less so. Even Netflix and Youtube would often have trouble buffering in HD while on supposedly super fast wifi.

The biggest downside for digital nomads however is that similar to other big cities such as Bangkok, Berlin, San Francisco, LA, or New York, the coworking spaces here and tech scene in general seem to be more geared towards startups, programmers, and companies than they are for individual entrepreneurs. There are tons of events and meetups, but most are aimed at things like career development, start ups or tech and is geared mostly towards locals and long term expats over traveling entrepreneurs. The good news is that if you did you want try and integrate into the local culture, unlike other countries such as Thailand where it's difficult to communicate and be accepted, since KL is so diverse and English is widely spoken as the main business language, it's actually pretty easy here.


Coworking at CommonGround Bukit Bintang


Two weeks in KL, the Big Rambutan of Asia


Overall Thoughts on KL



On paper KL should be an amazing place to live, as it has it all at a very affordable price. Super easy visa runs, a great central international airport, fantastic apartments, and cheap transportation. The city is safe, has good infrastructure, great food, a ton of coworking spaces, and an expat community. However, this is why you can't just look at lists of best places for digital nomads to live on paper, as there's something missing from every nomad list, and it's the overall feeling of a city.

There's something you can only experience after physically visiting a city for a few weeks at minimum, going out, getting to know the locals, expats, and the area to be able to determine if it's actually for you or not. And at least for now, KL is fantastic on paper and I wouldn't blame anyone for wanting to live here longer term, but it's not for me, and it's probably not going to be a digital nomad hotspot anytime soon.

If I had to pinpoint what it is about KL that is missing, I'd say it's similar to the feeling I had in Brussels, Belgium. Both are cities with a bunch of things to do and a lot of cultural diversity, yet there's nothing that makes me want to live there, or even stay for more than a few days during a stop over. I'm sure you can think of a better example, maybe Sacramento, Houston, Ottawa, Canberra, or Birmingham might be closer to home. But either way, Kuala Lumpur is nice, it's just not soul inspiring, wake up everyday excited to explore-nice that cities like Chiang Mai, Lisbon, Ubud, or Saigon gives you.

The nice thing about Malaysian culture is that it is a mix between Chinese, Indian and Muslim (Malay or Indonesian) people which brings certain things like really diverse food. But unlike places like Thailand Mexico where you get a really strong and district local culture, language, and sense of being in a distinct country, here in Malaysia it almost feels like being in an international airport terminal where people are polite to each other but kind of just do their own thing. Being in a mall in KL makes it feel like you could be anywhere in the world which has it's pros and cons.


See where I'm off to next after Kuala Lumpur 


Living in KL can be great for families, long term expats, couples, international career minded people, and for those looking to settle down somewhere a bit longer term. It's really easy to find nice places on Airbnb or affordable hotel rooms to rent daily, weekly or even up to a month, but the next step would be renting a place with a 1 year contract as month to month or 3-5 month rentals aren't possible. There's enough to do if you're working 9-5 and going out for nice dinners or drinks after work, and going out on weekends, but if you have a ton of free time to explore and find adventures, KL isn't the soul inspiring place of wander like Chiang Mai or Bali would be.

After spending two weeks here in KL I can say that it's not yet an ideal place for digital nomads who are looking to connect with many other location independent entrepreneurs and live short to mid term, at least for now. But we'll explore it again in the future as Kuala Lumpur is great on paper and has potential. Let me know in the comments if you've been here and what you think about KL as potentially a hub for digital nomads to live, work and travel.


Warm Regards,


Johnny FD


Been to KL? Leave a comment below or ask a question!








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  1. Have you been to Kuala Lumpur? What are you thoughts about it here?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am currently in KL and find that CommonGround in Menera Worldwide is awesome. Amazing views of KL as its top three floors of building. Situated near to Pavillion for some great food and drinks.
    With the price of airbnb and hotels being very reasonable, KL is a great place to base yourself for few weeks or months for a change of scenery.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've heard great things about CommonGround Menera. I'd check it out if I was staying longer, and might do a day pass tomorrow before I leave at one of the CommonGrounds.

      Glad you like it in KL!

      Delete
  3. Hey Johnny, this is a great post man. I've been pondering possibly stopping Teaching for the next two years to get my masters degree here in Bangkok but the visa situation would be a little tricky. KL might just be the way to go for getting out of the red zone for visa rotations.

    I saw you mention it on your Facebook post but I didn't see it in the article. KL is sort of like Thailand where you can get an apartment (not air BnB) for say a month, or two months at a time?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yup KL would be great to get out of Thailand for a while, you can still work online or teach English online while you're here. There are a ton of serviced apartments here than you can rent out monthly for between $400-$1,000 a month and they're super nice. I'm sure if you look around you can get some great deals.

      Delete
  4. Ah KL Johnny; funky, melting pot, fab food, super malls, Air Asia hub. We swing thru for 1-3 days before heading off. I dig the place. In 2012, we watched awesome theater movies for $2.50. Low prices to fight movie piracy, 7 years ago.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Was in KL a few years back for a few days. The food was definitely a highlight... but yeah, there wasn't a ton of spice to the city. It felt... bland. Anonymous, even. Glad to see 'trendy' places are there today, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah I agree 100%...it's weird that such a big city with so much culture can feel so bland, but that's kinda how it feels and what many others say as well.

      Delete
  6. Hi!
    burning season starts in March? Long time ago. The last few years it started in February - this winter more in January. Looking at the data...
    I took a picture from above Chiang Mai from my plane to Bali on Feb 1st - you would not believe it!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was in Chiang Mai this year until Feb 18th. With the exception of a few days the sky was clear and you could see the mountain fine. Updates here: https://www.johnnyfd.com/2015/02/burning-season-has-started-in-chiang-mai.html

      Delete
  7. Nice article. We left 2 weeks ago from CM for the same reason - the burn!! If you are still in KL check out the Heli - bar. A roof top bar that used to be a active helicopter landing pad.....minimal safety railings too!! OHAS? The view is amazing too!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a good month to leave Chiang Mai, March is a terrible time to be there. I'm glad you enjoyed Malaysia. I heard great things about the Heli bar. We actually had a great view of the towers from our rooftop so we didn't go, but it'd be something worth checking out for sure.

      Delete
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  9. The article you have shared here very awesome. I really like and appreciated your post. I read deeply your article, the points you have mentioned in this article are useful.

    ReplyDelete

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