Why you should take your family on a vacation to Malaysia

Oct 16, 2019

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Kuala Lumpur might not be as popular as neighboring Bangkok or as glamorous as Singapore, but the Malaysian capital is one of Southeast Asia’s busiest air hubs. There are lots of fun and interesting things to do there that both kids and adults will enjoy, and although it’s a hot, busy city, there are many natural areas to retreat to. Travelers seeking a slightly under-the-radar stopover destination on the way to Malaysia’s beaches, or other destinations in the region will appreciate a couple of days in KL.

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Getting there and around

KL has two international airports: Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL) and KLIA2 (KUL 2), the latter of which operates flights from regional budget carriers. Both terminals are quite near each other, but they’re 36 miles south of central KL, about an hour by car or a half-hour by train.

Related: The Best Credit Cards for Family Travel

If coming on a long-haul flight from North America or Europe, you’ll likely arrive into KLIA. This is served by major international airlines including Malaysian Airlines, Emirates, British Airways, Etihad, Singapore Airlines, Turkish Airlines and many more.

You can use miles from  many programs to get to KUL. Here’s a random sampling of availability in May using Delta SkyMiles: 79,000 miles plus $106.25 per person in economy. That flight includes travel on Delta and Korean Air aircraft but other options include flights with China Southern and KLM.

American Airlines charges 37,500 AAdvantage miles one-way for travel from LAX to KUL and availability in economy is wide open in May. The most direct routing from LAX–HKG–KUL includes just two flights aboard American and Dragonair. A round-trip ticket is 75k AAdvantage miles plus $86.95.

It’s easy to get from the airport to the city, even though it’s quite far away. Taxis are the most expensive option and take around an hour, but have the benefit of dropping you right at your hotel, which you might want if it’s late or your kids are tired. Buses are less comfortable but cheaper and also take around an hour. The KLIA Express train combines affordability and relative comfort, so unless you really just need to get your kids to the hotel pronto, this is a good option. It takes around 30 minutes to reach KL Sentral, from where you can get a taxi to your hotel. The train is well sign-posted in the airport.

Traffic in KL can be heavy, but taxis are easily available if you want to go slightly further afield. They use meters, and are quite affordable. Otherwise, six rail lines operate throughout the city. They’re clean, efficient, cheap and will get you to most places of interest, or within a short walk from them. They also run along elevated tracks, so are a good way to get a view of the city.

The KL Hop-On Hop-Off Bus is an easy way for families to get around while sightseeing at the same time. The top deck is open air. Tickets are valid for 24 or 48 hours, so are ideal if you’re on a quick stopover in the city. They stop at many of the fun attractions discussed below, as well as other highlights like the National Museum, the Hard Rock Cafe, and various malls.

Where to stay

KL is a major business hub, so although many hotels cater to business travelers, there are still some good features for families.

Rooms and suites at Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur are spacious, if rather impersonal, and there’s a beautiful outdoor pool surrounded by palm trees that kids will love. The business-like atmosphere is made up for by the convenient location near the Sentral railway station, where all train lines and buses converge, which will help family travelers get around the city easily. This hotel is a Category 3 in the Marriott Bonvoy program and goes for 15,000 points per night.

La Meridien Kuala Lampur. (Photo courtesy of La Meridien)
La Meridien Kuala Lampur. (Photo courtesy of La Meridien)

The Hilton Kuala Lumpur is also handy to Sentral. It’s an especially good pick for families as they offer special family packages, plus they have children’s menus and a lovely pool with a special section for kids. Connecting rooms are available for families. Depending on when you visit, award nights range from 21,000 to 40,000 Hilton Honors points.

The Westin Kuala Lumpur (also a Marriott Category 3 for 15k points per night) is in a different part of town, Bukit Bintang, which is near a number of good shopping malls. It too has a great swimming pool, and a kids club.

The Westin Kuala Lampur. (Photo courtesy of Westin)
The Westin Kuala Lampur. (Photo courtesy of Westin)

If you have World of Hyatt points, you have three options. The Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur in the Golden Triangle, near the convention center, goes for 12k point per night. The Hyatt House Kuala Lumpur, Mont Kiara has kitchen suites and a free buffet breakfast for 8k points per night or try the Alila Bangsar Kuala Lumpur for just 5k points per night. All three have pools, laundry service and are close to restaurants and shops.

Remember that you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to both Marriott Bonvoy and World of Hyatt on a 1:1 basis. Earn Ultimate Rewards points with cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card.

For Marriott points, there are many cobranded cards that can help boost your Bonvoy balance, including:

Or, if you’re going the Hilton route, pick the best credit card for your family. I like the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card since it confers automatic Diamond elite status. The welcome bonus is 150,000 points after spending $4,000 on eligible purchases in the first three months.

What to see

KL is a big, busy city and the traffic and dense concentration of buildings in the central areas mean it’s not a great place to just wander aimlessly around, with or without children in tow. But, there are many cultural and natural attractions right in, or very near, the city. It’s easy to get out of the urban jungle and into more peaceful, kid-friendly spaces.

Perdana Botanical Gardens

The Perdana Botanical Gardens are a huge natural area just west of the central city. As well as the landscaped gardens that are a nice place to walk (or, for little legs to run), there are other free attractions within the gardens, such as the Hibiscus and Orchid Gardens, the Deer Park and the Herb and Spice Garden.

Kuala Lumpur Bird Park
Kuala Lumpur Bird Park. (Photo by Elen Turner)

Within the Perdana Botanical Gardens there are also some stand-out attractions that you must pay to enter. These include the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, and the Kuala Lumpur Butterfly Park. The huge bird park is especially fun for kids (and adults!) because there are areas where the birds fly freely within the same space as human visitors—this isn’t just a place where you look at birds confined within cages. The more than 3000 birds belonging to 200 species are kept safely inside the park with huge nets above the treetops.

You could easily spend several hours here, or combine a visit to other attractions within the Perdana Botanical Gardens for a full day of natural fun. Just remember that KL’s climate is pretty hot and humid, and these attractions are outdoors.

Another natural attraction that kids will love is the KL Forest Eco Park, with a fun canopy walk.

Batu Caves

The Batu Caves are an absolute must-visit in KL. Located just 10 miles north of the central city and easily reached by train (or taxi), these limestone caves are sacred to Malaysia’s Tamil Indian population. There are three main caves and some smaller ones, and to get there you have to climb a steep staircase of 272 steps (a great way for little ones to work off steam!) Guarding the entrance to the caves is an enormous gold statue of Lord Murugan, who the caves are dedicated to. The caves are full of Hindu statues, temples, paintings, and other features, as well as bats (you’ll probably smell them before you see them!) and monkeys (do warn your kids not to feed them!)

These caves aren’t much like cave complexes you’ll find in other parts of the world, with underground boardwalks through chambers of stalagmites and stalactites, as there’s a much stronger cultural component at the Batu Caves. It’s free to explore unless you hire a guide or gear like a flashlight and helmet.

The steps up to the Batu Caves
The steps up to the Batu Caves. (Photo by Elen Turner)

Petronas Towers or the Menara KL Tower

The Petronas Twin Towers are possibly KL’s most famous attraction: the two 1482-foot towers, joined by a walkway, were the tallest buildings in the world between 1998 and 2004. They’re visible from practically everywhere in the city, and visiting the observation deck is a fun way to get a view across the whole city.

However, due to the towers’ popularity, you’ll have to book a time slot to go up them. You can’t just turn up and get a ticket to the observation deck right away. If you’re short on time in KL, or didn’t plan ahead, you might not be able to visit. Tickets are about $19 for adults and $8 for kids 3–12. Children 2 and under are free.

A great alternative is to go to the viewing deck of the Menara KL Tower nearby. Although not as high as the Petronas Towers, the Menara Tower has the benefit of views of the Petronas Towers, plus tickets are cheaper. A family combo ticket for two adults and one child costs about $21. There are amusement arcade games on lower levels that kids will also enjoy.

The KL Tower. (Photo by Alexaner Spatari/Getty Images)
The KL Tower. (Photo by Alexaner Spatari/Getty Images)

Central Market

The beautiful pastel blue Art Deco Central Market is a short walk from KL’s Chinatown, which is a fun destination itself but kids might find the heat and crowds uncomfortable. The Central Market is wonderfully air conditioned, so is a great place to retreat to for some shopping and eating.

If you’re looking for Malaysian crafts and souvenirs, this is an easy one-stop-shop, as you can buy everything from high-quality hand-painted batik fabrics to kitschy key rings. The stalls are on the first two floors, and the upper floor is a large food court.

The Central Market is a convenient place to try the Malaysian and other Southeast Asian ‘street’ food that you’ll find everywhere in KL but without concerns over hygiene. Although much street food outside is perfectly safe to eat, it’s understandable that parents would be wary of their kids eating food that’s been sitting around in the sun. At the food court in the Central Market you can try tropical fruit juices, curries, noodles, and fun Malaysian desserts without much concern. Malaysian food can be quite spicy, but chili is often added afterwards in a paste or sauce, so this can be avoided if your kids don’t like spice.

Central Market, Kuala Lumpur
Central Market, Kuala Lumpur. (Photo by Elen Turner)

Bottom line

KL is one of Southeast Asia’s most manageable capitals for family travelers: It’s smaller than Bangkok, cheaper than Singapore and better developed than Phnom Penh. Although it’s not a strong contender for a family vacation destination in its own right, it’s a fun place to stop over for a day or two on your way through.

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