Kuala Lumpur expat review: live there, don’t holiday

I’ll never forget the first time we went to see an apartment in KL and asked the guard if the dirt road through the jungle was a good shortcut. ‘Sure’, he said.. ‘But there are snakes!’

Being a Kuala Lumpur expat brought its stories with it. Having never lived in a country with wild snakes or dangerous animals before, I almost didn’t believe it.

Many articles out there look at the pros and cons, and what it’s worth knowing before moving to KL as an expat. You don’t need more of the same stuff, so I’ll do things a little differently here. 

I’ll give you a quick overview of my experience there and how KL stacks up as an expat destination for brand new expats looking for their first experience abroad, compared to more experienced expats who have a better idea of what they are looking for and other similar destinations we might consider.

A brief overview of a Kuala Lumpur expat’s experience

I lived in KL for about two years and my first experience there was at university. It felt a bit outdated at the time but the schools overall are decent.

KL is located on the malaysian peninsula below Thailand and above Singapore, and is lucky in terms of natural disasters. The region is volatile and many neighbouring countries have a lot of crazy weather disasters going on but KL is mostly off the hook except for flooding. I’ve never experienced anything bad that would make me consider not living there just because of the weather though.

I’ve found that English was spoken way more than I had expected day to day, which makes it handy compared to the neighboring countries.

Malaysia attracts muslims from all over the Middle East due to potentially better schooling and work opportunities while being Islam-based. My understanding is that some nationalities mainly only consider Turkey and Malaysia as viable options because of their religion, if they want to go abroad. 

I found that exciting and I was surprised to learn that they tend to behave differently than you’d expect from the Middle East – or at least from what we hear about in the media. Perhaps it’s because of the heavy Chinese and Indian influence. There are prayer calls five times a day which sounds a bit odd coming from the west but soon after moving, I didn’t even notice it and that part of the experience is FAR from what we tend to hear in the media about Islam.

Lots of the advice we get about KL is difficult to understand before going there like ‘it’s a melting pot of different cultures’. It’s hard to grasp just how unique it is before visiting. It’s one of those places where you might not visit for holidays because the region has such a high standard for beaches, jungles and beautiful destinations but I’ve found that it’s a good place to live as an expat.

While food isn’t everything, Malaysia food is good (but spicy) and because everyone seems to be a foodie, the international food scene is among the best I’ve ever experienced. 

Asians are obsessed with food and I find Kuala Lumpur to be particularly great because there are many different cuisines and at different price ranges. I’ve found that in other cities, the local cuisine is the main option and much cheaper than international restaurants but KL has it all covered.

It’s a small city compared to many other capitals in Asia with just one or two million people depending on which areas we count, but the city itself is surprisingly large and there are a ton of malls.

Kuala Lumpur as a first expat experience

It’s an easy city as a starting point or introduction to Asia because of the English level. Except for Singapore, it’s easier to take care of day to day stuff than any other neighboring city like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Phnom Penh, etc. Perhaps Manila might be similar.

I hear from friends that it can be a good choice as a location for software engineers from the Middle East with higher salaries and a similar culture. The city feels more international than many others because of the different races and you’ll constantly see a mix of Chinese, Indians and Malays as you walk around.

There aren’t that many foreign companies compared to Singapore and that can be both good and bad. If you are looking to leverage going somewhere where most others aren’t looking to go, it can be a good choice. On the other hand, it means that it is more challenging to specialize and switch companies within the same industry as the market isn’t that mature for foreigners just yet. 

Another nice detail is that the airport is a great hub for flying around as the country is centrally located and you can reach most of Southeast Asia within a few hours, although the airport is located about an hour outside of the city. 

kuala lumpur expat

For experienced expats

If you’ve been living in a more typical Asian country like Vietnam or Thailand, Kuala Lumpur can feel easier day to day with less frustrations because of the lack of language barrier. My impression is that there are less top management positions than in for example Singapore but in the right industry, there are surely options.

There are family friendly neighborhoods for foreigners with decent international schools and if you are looking for more western options in terms of amenities without going to Singapore, you might find it in KL. The city feels wealthier than most other countries in the region but the rest of the country feels very different from Kuala Lumpur with less English spoken and fewer developments (except holiday destinations and Penang).

The networking options are decent but I wouldn’t there to be as many expats as in for example Singapore (I looked for the numbers but couldn’t find a viable source for you). So if you have a lot of experience as an expat and that is one of the most important things for you, you might be better off considering another city simply because of KL’s lower population size compared to for example Singapore or Bangkok. It wasn’t a problem for me and networking is among the key points on my own list, so I guess it’s all relative.

Considering that it’s a lot more affordable to have a good lifestyle in Kuala Lumpur compared to Singapore, it’s a pretty good option for some. It can definitely be a good starting point before a move to Singapore later in life.

In terms of transportation, the taxis are nuts and among the worst I’ve experienced. Similar to what you might know from Bangkok. On the other hand, Grab is terrific, cheap and overall a great choice day to day except during rush hour. Trains/metros have limited stops but can be a decent option during rush hour and although I know many locals complain about it, I never had any problems with it.

In terms of living, there are lots of condominiums with swimming pools, squash courts, etc. Both in slightly older but spacious buildings if you are looking to save money, but also new ones that are modern. I believe we rented an older one from around 2500-3000 MYR/month and that is probably a minimum for a centrally located 2 bedroom, but it could have changed as the markets change over time. I suggest double checking on Numbeo.

I’ve been sharing a general sense of how things are like in Kuala Lumpur as an expat but you’ll want to get an updated view to see if it is right for you as things change over time. 

I suggest reaching out to your embassy to get an understanding of which companies from your country work there and what kind of opportunities your fellow countrymen have been pursuing there.

The challenge with asking in Facebook groups is that everyone has their own view of what is good, bad, expensive and cheap, and it might not match yours.

Finally, everything can be summed up as this: Kuala Lumpur is a great place to live as an expat, not necessarily a place to go for a holiday.

By Expat A

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