I actually found Kuala Lumpur (dearingly referred to as “KL” by just about everyone who is familiar with or too tongue tied to say “Kuala Lumpur”) rather fantastic. I’m personally not a huge night-life fanatic (boots and cats gets pretty old pretty quick), but I am a creature of the night, so it puts a smile on my face when a city’s people breathe so much life into its late night culture. Maybe I was lucky to stay in the right part of town, near Bukit Bintang, for the nightly street festivities, but still some cities don’t have that part of town whatsoever. It is unique. Comparable late night cities that I’ve experienced: Barcelona and New Orleans.

So yes, KL is cool. I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t just another big city like SG even though it is a reasonably sized city. It had flavor. But the most curious thing (to me) about the city was it’s public train system. Maybe the current state is simply a work-in-progress, and the end state will be beautifully designed and well thought out. But at the moment, it is hands down the most confusing city rail system I’ve ever had to learn.

And it’s not as if just a piece of the puzzle was tough to crack. From the wayfinding in KL Sentral to the ticketing options, the rail system in KL seemed like a half-baked hodgepodge of train options that are slowly being stitched together over time. Construction was everywhere, and supposedly most of it is for MORE tubes. I heard by 2020 KL is supposed to be “transformed”.

My first challenge upon arrival in KL Sentral: there were no maps that overlayed the train system with the road system. Really?? I looked everywhere to no avail. Not only could I not scavenge said map in the central train station, but I never found such a map during my 2 days in KL. My hotel couldn’t offer one. None of the other stops had one. This seems obvious, but it made using the train system to get to landmarks very difficult. Good thing people were nice and spoke English. Most ticketing agents were able to tell me where to stop.

So about the trains. To begin, there are 5 different train systems in KL. Not 5 different train lines… 5 different rail systems that comprise 8 unique lines.

KL train closeup

The KTM, LRT, KLIA Express, KLIA, and monorail all require that you buy tickets from different locations. While at a stop where only 1 train system exists, it isn’t trouble since there’s only one option (usually both human tellers and ticketing machines were available). But when you get spit out at KL Sentral where all train systems and lines converge, it’s a nightmare. There was no explanation of what the difference is that I could find. And you have to purchase tickets for each at a different ticketing counter depending on which train system gets you to your destination.

KL wayfinding sign

Crystal clear.

I later discovered that the KTM is a commuter train, so it stops at both local and more distant destinations and runs on a schedule (so if you’re in a hurry, forget it). The LRT is what other cities call “the El”, “the Metro”, “the Tube”, etc. This underground train system runs with some regular frequency.

The other main system that runs with frequency is the monorail. I’m guessing this is a newer addition. Why they didn’t just also make this LRT baffles me, but it’s called the monorail. It runs with frequency, albeit above ground and in a completely different location than the LRT, even if they share a stop (meaning if you have a transfer, you have to exit the LRT station and go through a separate turnstyle to enter the monorail platform. I found there were several stops that offered a transfer where I had to exit the platform, and in one case had to walk about .5km to the other platform. To me, this isn’t a “transfer”. This is another stop.

The last 2 options are both service to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA, which is a whole other quandary since there are 2 KLIA terminals, KLIA1 and KLIA2… it took quite a bit of research to figure out that Terminal M was in KLIA1). One service has stops, and I assume is less expensive. The KLIA express is nonstop to the airport, costs about US$15, and only takes 28 minutes from KL Sentral. Still cheaper, and much faster than a taxi, but if you have time, a bus will do for about half the cost. The KLIA and Express leave from different platforms. I walked around KL Sentral twice before I found the express platform; the signage sends you in circles if you miss it the first time.

So once you sort which train system will get you to the landmark you desire, you’ll need to get through the turnstyle. Once again, you have options. If you go to a machine, you can pick your destination or purchase fixed fare. If you select your destination, the machine will spit out a token with the exact fare, even if you have to exit LRT to switch to monorail. Pretty sweet! You wave the token at the turnstyle RFID going in, then deposit the token in an arcade style coin slot upon departure.

KL transit token

If you visit a ticketing agent and tell them your destination, they will render a printed ticket. The difference with this option is the turnstyle to get in only offers an RFID or barcode reader. The printed ticket is neither, so I simply bypassed the turnstyle for this one upon a local’s nod.  Maybe I was in a special station, but I probably looked pretty silly to everyone trying to get the RFID to read the paper ticket and the barcode scanner to scan a not barcode. (But in my defense, in Singapore, the machine issued a printed paper ticket that was actually RFID enabled, so it is possible.) Printed tickets may also only apply to KTM, but I think you can use MyRapid on KTM as well (see below).

KL transit ticket

The third option that I found was to get a MyRapid card. To be issued one of these, you have to specifically request it from a ticketing agent. The card itself costs RM10 (so US$2.50). But then you can load a balance and just “top up” whenever you run low. The ticketing machines have card readers, so you can “top up” automatically, and if you top up with enough ringgit, you can even use a credit card. The turnstyles then deduct funds upon exiting a station; it knows which route you took based upon your entry scan and charges fare accordingly. I ended up purchasing a MyRapid card later in my trip, but I wish I had done so sooner.

KL Metro card

The last option that I experienced was for the KLIA Express. I was issued a card similar to the MyRapid card with the exact fare for one trip to KLIA. You RFID in, then surrender the card (like you do with the tokens) on the way out.

All in all, this isn’t a criticism of KL’s train systems, so apologies if it sounds like one. I’m a huge fan of any city that has some semblance of a pubic transportation system for the masses. KL’s system is confusing, but not overly complex. My intention is to be informative if anyone else prefers public trains over buses or taxis. Forget using a taxi in KL, traffic is horrendous and construction is everywhere. (I took a cab to Batu Caves, which is slightly north of town, in order to save time. Not only did it cost nearly 5x as much as the train ride back, but because of traffic it took almost the same amount of time.)

If I had an overlay map from the beginning, I would have been in much better shape. A brief description of the differences between train systems in KL Sentral, since that’s the main train/bus station, would seal the deal. The system is confusing at first… I can usually pickup a train system within the first few rides, but it took me a day and then some to catch on to this one. And I did speak with other first time KL commuters that shared my confusion, so I feel it was somewhat validated.