Bangkok was the first city I ever visited in Southeast Asia—I’ll always be slightly biased toward it. I’ll never forget the exhilaration that coursed through my veins as I sped into town from the long-distance bus station on the back of a motorbike, unaware of how profoundly my life was about to change.
I also like Kuala Lumpur a great deal, though it wasn’t exactly what you would call love at first sight. And while I’ve been back to the city multiple times, I haven’t felt compelled to spend years of my life there, as I’ve done up the road in Thailand’s “City of Angels.”
Certainly, there are few people on the internet more equipped than me to offer a comparison of Bangkok vs KL, let alone one with almost two decades of experience to back it up. You’re in the right place.
How I Came to Know Both Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok
When discussing Bangkok and KL, it’s impossible for me not to think back on my personal history in both cities. After my first time in Bangkok, for example, I felt so smitten that I retuned twice within that year. By the time two years had passed I was living there; now, more than a decade after that, I’ve spent several years of my life in the city (I lived there on two more occasions), both as a standalone destination and as a base for exploring Thailand.
I actually visited Kuala Lumpur for the first time that same year (2010), but didn’t end up having much love for it. It would take seven more years before I spent a meaningful amount of time in KL—and I did end up loving it in a deep way; it was the right place at the right time. On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said any of my return trips to the city affected me in quite the same way, though I do still like the city a lot.
Ways to Compare Bangkok With KL
To me, there is just no comparison between the number and quality of attractions in Bangkok against those in KL. Within the old city of Rattanakosin alone there are at least a dozen, from Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, to the Giant Swing and the Golden Mount. KL has one thing Bangkok doesn’t—a single, world-famous landmark, in the form of Petronas Twin Towers—but the city center is otherwise somewhat light on must-visit destinations.
This is an area where Bangkok and KL compete pretty well. KL probably has the edge on pricing, especially when it comes to higher end accommodation like The Majestic and Banyan Tree Kuala Lumpur. On the other hand, while you’ll pay more for a stay at Bangkok’s opulent Rosewood Bangkok or Sindhorn Kempinski than you will anywhere in KL, the experience of both is also unmatched.
Ease of getting around
Bangkok is in the midst of an unprecedented rail expansion, which has seen its BTS SkyTrain and MRT rail systems (which, let’s face it, were already more useful than KL’s skeletal KTM system 10 years ago) expanded to include stations in the old city, over the river in Thonburi and throughout the city’s suburbs. While taking a taxi can still be a nightmare (and tuk-tuks are overpriced death traps), Bangkok is a lot easier to navigate than KL.
This is one area where I equally love KL and Bangkok. In Bangkok, street food is quite a bit more ubiquitous, even if you don’t made purposeful visits to hubs like Yaowarat (Chinatown), Suan Phlu or Victory Monument. KL has its street food hubs too—my favorite is probably Petaling Street, the city’s own Chinatown—though in my opinion street eats are slightly less easy to find if you’re exploring on foot and via public transit.
Day trips and onward excursions
I feel like it’s kind of a toss-up when it comes to day trips from Bangkok and KL. From floating markets in Damnoen Saduak and Amphawa, to ancient Ayutthaya, to sacred sites like the chedi of Nakhon Pathom and the Buddha of Ang Thong, there are plenty of reason to get out of Bangkok. Likewise, Malacca‘s Jonker Street, dramatic Batu Caves and the fresh air of Genting Highlands can motivate you to leave KL behind for a day.
How Many Days Do You Need in Bangkok? What About KL?
You could spend a year in Bangkok and still not see everything—I know this because I’ve spent several years of my life in Bangkok, cumulatively speaking. However, given that most tourists have only a few days, I of course want to make a more realistic recommendation. Namely, I think between 3-5 days in Bangkok is sufficient for your first time, with more days a better idea if you happen to embark on any number of day trips from Bangkok.
For KL, I’d say you can afford to spend fewer days in the city on a comparative basis. While there are some destinations you can see as day trips from KL—historical Malacca and the scenic Genting Highlands come to mind—the reality is that Malaysia’s most exciting destinations are outside the capital. Indeed, while certain parts of KL city are enjoyable to explore, the reality is that much of the city is inhospitable to those looking to “get lost.”
Other FAQ About Visiting Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur
Is Kuala Lumpur nicer thank Bangkok?
Kuala Lumpur certainly has its charms, but it’s difficult to argue that it is “nicer” than Bangkok, let alone that it is more interesting than Bangkok or more of a pleasure to explore. The only situation in which I’d say KL is objectively “better” than Bangkok, in fact, is probably for Muslim travelers, who will prefer more numerous halal food options, and the comparatively modest urban culture.
Is Bangkok cheaper than Malaysia?
Bangkok has become steadily more expensive over the years, particularly in the wake of covid-19. At the same time, the Thai Baht has maintained a relatively stable value, which has offered foreigners minimal relief from this. Malaysia, whether in KL, Penang or on the island of Borneo, is generally a bit more affordable than Bangkok, in my experience.
Which is better, Thailand or Malaysia?
It’s difficult to say whether Thailand or Malaysia is objectively better. In a superficial sense, Thailand is much easier to explore; you get more of an immediate pay off with, say, two weeks in Thailand compared to two weeks in Malaysia. On the other hand, Malaysia tends to have fewer tourists, and getting off the beaten path is easier since infrastructure is better and Malaysians speak much better English than Thais.
The Bottom Line
For some travelers, comparing Bangkok vs KL seems unnecessary: They already have plans to visit both during their trips to Southeast Asia. Even if this is you, however, I think it’s a good idea to set expectations before your trip. For me, while I greatly enjoy both cities, Bangkok simply has a more unique identity than KL, and is also a more layered destination with infinitely more opportunity for discovery. I’ve quite literally spent 15 years digging into Bangkok—I’ve lived there three times—and still find something new every day I’m in the city! No matter which of these cities you end up preferring, of course, I hope you’ll hire me to plan your trip to Southeast Asia for you.