Kuala Lumpur was my last stop on a two-month backpacking trip through Asia and, upon arrival, there were two things that I was deeply in need of: rest and food. I’d been working my way through multiple countries, traveling mostly by bus and train. Thus, I was relieved to arrive in a place that, according to my guidebook, boasted modern but affordable amenities. (And, on that note, notoriously amazing cuisine and nightlife.) Luckily, it was immediately clear that my guidebook’s description was accurate: The city that greeted me was an unexpected pivot from the rural towns of southern Malaysia I’d just come from—towns where I’d struggled to find an internet cafe or a restaurant open past 8 p.m.
As soon as I deboarded the bus downtown, my eyes raised upward, following the glistening lines of the Petronas Twin Towers. People in designer sunglasses carrying briefcases and leather purses strolled past me, as well as a few other grinning fellow backpackers, and I sensed that I was going to find a hot shower here. Furthermore, from the smell of coconut and curry wafting through the air, I knew I’d also be rewarded with an amazing dinner.
Kuala Lumpur wasn’t my first or last international solo stop and thus people frequently ask me why I travel alone. “Isn’t it lonely?” they wonder. “Don’t you get tired of eating by yourself all the time?” For me, the experience is the opposite. Visiting new places on your own—as long as you take the right precautions for safety—is exhilarating in a way that trekking around with a friend or family members can never be. While, of course, it’s fun to share unique experiences, there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with taking the leap into a solo adventure. There’s also a greater opportunity to learn more about yourself.
I, for instance, never knew that I was assertive enough to really haggle like a local until I arrived in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown district and remembered that it was time for me to buy all those souvenirs for people back home that I’d been putting off due to limited space in my backpack. I strolled past all the shops, stalls and food carts on Chinatown’s main avenue—Petaling Street—visually picking out items for my friends and family. Then I promptly politely negotiated each gift down to an affordable, fair price. I carried my abundance of statues, boxes of tea, hats, dresses and scarves back to my hostel, elated.
And later, when I treated myself to a heaping plate of yellow daal (Indian spiced lentils), basmati rice and leavened bread still hot from a tandoori oven, I was overjoyed not to have to make small-talk: I watched TV for the first time in eight weeks instead.
Thus, from my experience, Kuala Lumpur is an excellent place for both experienced solo travellers and novices to visit. It’s one of the world’s biggest business hubs, meaning there’s an abundance of Western luxuries, centrally located hotels with all the amenities such as The Boulevard St Giles Hotel Kuala Lumpur and The Gardens – A St Giles Signature Hotel And Residences Kuala Lumpur, award-winning Italian and French restaurants, and clean, reliable public transportation.
Yet, Kuala Lumpur is also notable for its long history of diversity and ornate architecture, its outdoor markets and sizzling street food, it’s vibrant bar scene and quiet, religious temples. It’s a place to challenge yourself with new experiences…or a place to tuck into a crisp croissant and a stiff latte while reading a book by the edge of a lake in the city’s botanical gardens. (Or to do both in one afternoon—preferably.) With its Chinese, Indian and Malay heritage, Kuala Lumpur is a city that fully takes advantage of its cross-cultural nature. In fact, it’s the only place outside of New York City that I’ve visited where you can easily visit a Hindu temple, a Szechuan restaurant, a Mosque, an Indian buffet, a Buddhist shrine, and a McDonald’s all in the course of a day.
As soon as you step foot in Kuala Lumpur’s lively downtown, you’re sure to find popular sites where you can gather amongst other people. Meaning, no, you will likely not get lonely as long as you’re willing to be gregarious. Talk to them, make new acquaintances from around the world—or, if you’re not in the mood, just zone out listening to the eclectic sounds of the city.
For a little extra help, here are a few places that travellers (literally) flying solo should add to their itineraries.
The Batu Caves
The Batu Caves are a place that all visitors to Kuala Lumpur should check out if time allows. Yet for lone travellers, this is a great choice as it’s a safe and social destination that is easily reached by frequent shuttle buses that depart from the city center.
These caves feature a temple that was built within the ancient limestone rock formations. You’ll be awed by the enormous gold statues of Hindu gods, where people gather around to both pray and snap selfies. Just watch out for the very confident monkeys hanging about—they’ve been known to snatch food, purses and even phones. Overall, this is not only a striking wonder of Malaysia; it’s also a good place to connect with other travelers around the world. Ask someone trustworthy-looking to take your picture and they’ll likely strike up a conversation and ask you where you’re from.
You also don’t have to worry about packing a lunch as the Caves are surrounded by several Indian restaurants, most of which serve excellent vegetarian food.
The Chinatown District
If you want to go to where the people are, go to Chinatown. Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown district is one of the best places in the world to find authentic Chinese food and other goods outside of, well, China. Seeing as Kuala Lumpur was first founded by Chinese tin miners in the mid-1800s, this city has a long history of serving up delicious East Asian food, whether you procure it from a cart, a hawker stall or a restaurant. You’ll find an array of fast-cooked, savory eats here, including char siew (roasted sweet pork), shrimp and pork dumplings and endless choices of spicy noodles dishes and soups. There’s also no need to seek company while perusing for souvenirs in the outdoor market or visiting one of the many temples and shrines; the people-watching alone is enough to keep anyone entertained for hours.
The Sultan Abdul Samad Building
While Kuala Lumpur boasts a few surprisingly fun tourist traps, like one of the world’s largest water parks, you might find that splashing around in a wave pool by yourself gets awkward—and fast. So use that time instead to visit one another unique historical sites within the city, like the Sultan Abdul Samad Building.
It’s a stunning Moorish-style building circa the late 1800s that spans a whole block and is landscaped with palm trees—making you feel as if you’ve arrived somewhere in the Middle East, not Malaysia. Although this building and all its copper cupolas and arches no longer serve a government function today—as it used to during the colonial era—it’s now a proud landmark of the city and an impressive place to spend an afternoon strolling through. Plus, it’s only one quick light rail ride away.
Who needs traveling companions when there are so many fun, safe and easy things to do on your own time?
For more tips on what to see in Kuala Lumpur, check out our feature on the Most Instagram Worthy Spots in Kuala Lumpur.
Paige Towers is a writer living in Milwaukee with her husband and a pack of rescue dogs. Her writing has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Baltimore Review, McSweeney’s, Midwestern Gothic, Prime Number, and many other publications. You can read more of her work on www.paigetowers.com.