Bangkok vs Kuala Lumpur: Which City Should You See First?

Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur: Which Southeast Asian Capital Should You See First?

Find out which city is the better fit for you.

Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are bustling metropolises perfect for an adventure. Whether you’re interested in food, shopping, nightlife, nature, or cultural attractions, these cities have plenty to offer. 

The capitals of Thailand and Malaysia are both top bucket-list destinations among travellers, making the choice between them a tough dilemma. If you haven’t been to either of these cities yet, it’s even more difficult to weigh the pros and cons of Bangkok vs Kuala Lumpur. Fret not, because we’re here to help you decide. 

Read on to find out which city in Southeast Asia you should explore first! 

1. Must-see attractions

Being the capitals of their respective countries, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are vibrant cities with a wealth of attractions. Bangkok’s population is almost six times that of Kuala Lumpur’s, so it’s great for travellers who prefer places with more frenetic energy. For those who want a city with a more relaxed vibe, Kuala Lumpur is the place to be. That said, let’s dive into the top attractions of both cities. 


wat phra kaew

Wat Phra Kaew | Image credit: via Canva Pro

Bangkok attractions are ideal for travellers who prefer temples over skyscrapers and mosques. The city is home to over 400 breathtaking wat (temples), which are richly decorated with coloured glass and gold. 

If you only have time to see one of these beauties, head to Wat Phra Kaew, known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Other than the famous 26-inch-tall Emerald Buddha carved from jade, the temple holds sprawling murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana. There is also a golden chedi (Buddhist stupa) of Phra Sri Rattana, the same one featured on the ฿1 coin. 


Wat Arun | Image credit: pavlovakhrushev via Canva Pro

To take amazing photos, visit Wat Arun. This majestic temple is known for its towering Khmer-style prang (main tower) and gorgeous sunset views of the Chao Phraya River.

Other Bangkok attractions include the Grand Palace, Chatuchak Weekend Market, and the Great Swing. The Grand Palace is the ceremonial residence of the Thai royal family and has housed the Kings of Thailand since 1782. Chatuchak Weekend Market is the largest in the world, with over 15,000 stalls selling food, art, clothes, and more. 

Built in 1784, the  21-metre-tall Great Swing was used for a Brahman ceremony where men would swing themselves up to reach a bag of gold coins. The ceremony was discontinued in 1955 after several fatal accidents, but the swing remains an iconic photo-taking spot. 

Also read: 10 Gorgeous Yet Budget-Friendly Bangkok Airbnbs & Vacation Rentals

Kuala Lumpur

kuala lumpur

Petronas Twin Towers | Image credit: enginakyurt via Canva Pro

In contrast to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur has fewer traditional and historical attractions. However, the city boasts the Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest twin skyscrapers in the world. Zoom up to the observation deck on the 82nd floor to enjoy panoramic views of the city. You can also conquer your fear of heights by crossing the SkyBridge, which connects the two towers. 

merdeka square

Sultan Abdul Samad Building | Image credit: f11photo via Canva Pro

A number of Kuala Lumpur attractions can be found in Merdeka Square, which holds the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. This sprawling complex is an exemplary blend of Islamic and British architecture, and the former seat of the colonial administration. 

In the centre of Merdeka Square is a 95-metre-tall flagpole displaying the national flag. This flagpole is where the Malaysian flag was first hoisted up on Independence Day on 31 Aug 1957. 

national mosque

Image credit: Guwashi999

Visitors should also stop by the National Mosque, which was built to celebrate Malaysia’s independence. The mosque boasts a 73-metre-high minaret and a 16-pointed star concrete main roof. Non-Muslims may visit outside prayer time.  

Also read: 5 Gorgeous Airbnbs & Vacation Rentals in Kuala Lumpur You’ll Want to Live In

2. Food and dining

Choosing between Bangkok vs Kuala Lumpur will be especially tough for foodies, since both cities are known for affordable and tantalising eats. Below is a glimpse of the culinary delights these food capitals offer. 



Image credit: oneclearvision via Canva Pro

Even when compared to Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok’s food scene does not disappoint. Thai food is known for its unique balance of herbs and spices, and there’s no better place to taste the best of it than Bangkok’s street food stalls and markets.  

Head to the city’s only Michelin-starred street food stall, Raan Jay Fai’s Crab Omelette, to find out for yourself why customers wait for this incredible dish. Their signature Crab Omelette is fried over a coal fire to give it a smoky taste. It is also stuffed with fresh crab and is absolutely crisp on the outside. 

Another street food stall worth queuing up for is Pad Thai Fai Ta Lu along Dinso Road. Once you try the smoky-sweet pad thai made by Michelin-starred chef, Andy Yang, you’ll never want any other. 


Yaowarat Road | Image credit: justhavealook via Canva Pro

You can also check out Yaowarat Road, the main artery of Bangkok Chinatown and a must-go foodie destination. Chinese street eateries roll out to the roadside at night, serving up peppery kway chap in mixed organ soup, Hong Kong-style egg noodles, and traditional sticky rice tao suan

Also read: 15 Best Cafes in Bangkok for Coffee, Brunch, and Dessert

Kuala Lumpur

kuala lumpur

Image credit: IQRemix

Compared to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur has fewer street food stalls. Nonetheless, affordable eats can still be found at its food courts, hawker centres, and kopitiam (coffee shops). The city has a great mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indian food, being a melting pot of cultures. It’s a dream destination for foodies who don’t want to stick to just one kind of cuisine. 

Some must-try dishes in Kuala Lumpur are nasi lemak, satay, clay-pot chicken rice, curry mee, and chili pan mee. 

kuala lumpur

Image credit: Andrew Lawson

To get a taste of Chinese Malaysian cuisine, head to Petaling Street Market, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur Chinatown. The market is home to famous stalls such as Sze Ngan Chye Salted Roast Duck, Madam Tang Mua Chi Stall, Hon Kee Porridge, and Koon Kee Wantan Mee.  

You can also check out Jalan Alor Food Street, a night market with open-air tables and casual vibe. The brightly lit stalls here serve up mouth-watering Penang char kway teow, dry chilli chicken, satay, and barbecued chicken wings. 

Also read: A Foodie’s Guide to Malaysia: Where and What to Eat in Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, and Melaka

3. Public transport



Bangkok sky train (BTS) | Image credit: potowizard via Canva Pro

Both Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are well-connected by public transport, being big, thriving cities. 

In Bangkok, you can get around on the skytrain (BTS), subway (MRT), buses, taxis, tuktuks, grab, and river taxi boats. A one-day pass for the BTS costs ฿140, and single-journey ticket prices range from ฿16 to ฿59. Remember to keep your ticket as you’ll need it to exit the station. 

A one-day pass for the MRT costs ฿120, and the blue line can be used to reach destinations like the Grand Palace, the Chao Phraya River, and Chinatown. The ticketing machines have English menus, so English-speaking travellers will not have to worry. 

Kuala Lumpur

train malaysia

Image credit: Rolling Okie

Kuala Lumpur’s public transport system consists of the following: Rapid KL Buses, monorail, taxis, Light Rail Transit (LRT), and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The city is easy to navigate with the MyCity 1-Day pass (RM 10) or 3-Day pass (RM 35) which can be used on the MRT, LRT, Monorail, or BRT. The passes can be purchased at any MRT, LRT, Monorail, or BRT station. 

4. Nightlife

When it comes to nightlife, the question of Bangkok vs Kuala Lumpur is a hard one. Both cities have exciting spots that draw huge crowds of party-goers and merry-makers when night falls. Here are the top nightlife spots in these lively Southeast Asian capitals. 


Looking to let your hair down and party? Bangkok’s buzzing nightlife will definitely satisfy you with rowdy areas like Patpong, Soi Cowboy, and Khao San Road


Soi Cowboy | Image credit: justhavealook via Canva Pro

When night falls, Khao San Road comes alive with music, neon signs, shopping, and bars where you can buy the local Sang Som whiskey by the bucket. Soi Cowboy may be smaller than Khao San but makes up for it with its 40 go-go bars that some foreigners would be interested in. The locale has also appeared in films like Bangkok Dangerous and The Hangover Part II

Other than the red-light districts, Bangkok offers family-friendly entertainment at its bustling night markets, where you can find souvenirs, clothes, and authentic local food. 

Also read: 10 Most Popular Bars & Nightclubs in Bangkok to Experience the Local Nightlife

Kuala Lumpur

rooftop bar

Vertigo @ Banyan Tree | Image credit: Banyan Tree Official Website

Compared to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur’s nightlife may not be as electrifying. However, the city has many rooftop restaurants and bars that serve up stunning bird’s eye views with creative drinks and delectable menus. Check out Vertigo @ Banyan Tree for awesome sunset panoramas and top-notch cocktails, and SkyBar Kuala Lumpur for Malaysian-style tapas and pizza. If you’re not into red-light districts and you prefer a chill night out with family and friends, this city’s nightlife would be perfect for you. 

Of course, Kuala Lumpur has its own party spots as well. You’ll find many of these in the Bukit Bintang: a chic metropolitan area packed with dance clubs, lounges, and bars. Head over here if you want to enjoy live music and mingle with fun-loving locals. 

Also read: 8 Crowd Favourite Wine Bars Around Kuala Lumpur

5. Day trips


maeklong railway market

Maeklong Railway Market | Image credit: Fokke Baarssen via Canva Pro

Bangkok has so many day trip locations around it that it’s hard to choose just a few. These places are only a couple hours’ train ride at most, so it would be a shame to only stay in the city. In this one aspect, Bangkok has a clear advantage over Kuala Lumpur. 

Those who want a shopping experience like no other should go to the Maeklong Railway Market, which is famous for the train that runs through it. Whenever the train passes through the market, the vendors will have to pack up their goods and get off the tracks. Once it has passed, the vendors will place their goods back as though the train never existed. It’s a way of life that you’ll have to see to believe. 

bangkok kuala lumpur

Ayutthaya Historical Park | Image credit: 41330 via Canva Pro

Travellers interested in history can visit Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam. The city can be reached by train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Railway Station. The journey will take two hours in second-class and 80 minutes in first-class. Spend your day exploring 14th-century ruins at the UNESCO-listed Ayutthaya Historical Park, and the Bang Pa-In Palace, which used to be the summer retreat of Siamese royals. 

Also read: 10 Best Destinations in Thailand for Culture and History

Kuala Lumpur

batu caves

Batu Caves | Image credit: Thiago Rocha Barbosa via Canva Pro

From KL Sentral Station, you can take a train to the Batu Caves, a stunning Hindu temple complex housed in a series of limestone caves. The 127 rainbow-coloured steps leading up to the caves are an Instagram-worthy dream! 

Before climbing up these gorgeous steps, remember to take pictures with the 42.7-metre-tall Lord Murugan statue that stands at the foot of the caves. This is the third-tallest statue of a Hindu deity in the world, and draws thousands of devotees every year during Thaipusam.  

cameron highlands

Cameron Highlands | Image credit: WinsonLee88 via Canva Pro

Another popular day trip from Kuala Lumpur is the Cameron Highlands. This “Little England” in Malaysia is a tranquil mountainous escape where one can pick strawberries and catch butterflies amid lush, mist-shrouded fields. 

Also read: Where to Travel in Malaysia: Top Destinations From Every State in the Country

6. Shopping

Last but not least, those considering Bangkok vs Kuala Lumpur would want to know which city has the best shopping. Here’s a comparison of the two shopping havens in Southeast Asia. 


Shoppers who prefer markets over malls would prefer Bangkok over Kuala Lumpur. The Thai capital is home to a wide variety of night markets, floating markets, and even train markets. In these spots, travellers can find great deals on clothing, souvenirs, and more.  

Apart from the iconic Chatuchak Market, visitors should drop by the Damneoen Saduak floating market. Here, you can buy fresh coconut juice, authentic Thai food cooked on the boat, as well as portraits painted by local artists. 

bangkok kuala lumpur

Srinakarin Train Night Market | Image credit: KreangchaiRungfamai via Canva Pro

The Srinakarin Train Night Market is also worth visiting on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays when the outdoor market is open. This market is distinctive for its strong retro vibe. Vintage furniture, toys, clothes, shoes, and bags are some of the goods on offer. Head to the market’s garage to check out vintage vehicles like Chevy cars and Volkswagen vans on display. 

bangkok kuala lumpur

Image credit: Thailand Tourism

Located along the Chao Phraya River, Asiatique the Riverfront is a combination of a night market and mall. The complex houses over 1,500 boutiques and 40 restaurants. When night falls, visitors can watch an adrenaline-packed Muay Thai fight or cabaret show with parade costumes and classic tunes. Other Bangkok malls worth a visit include: Siam Paragon, which houses Asia’s largest aquarium; and Icon Siam, an eight-storey complex with a recreation of a floating market. 

Also read: 17 Things to Buy in Bangkok You Won’t Regret Hunting Down

Kuala Lumpur 

On the other hand, Kuala Lumpur is a shopper’s paradise with plenty of glitzy malls showcasing high-end international brands. For travellers who love massive malls and designer goods, Kuala Lumpur is probably the best city in Southeast Asia to splurge in. 

bangkok kuala lumpur

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Starhill Gallery is a mecca for designer brands, holding outlets for Louis Vuitton, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet, among others. After shopping to your heart’s content, you can sit down for a drool-worthy meal at the mall’s upmarket Asian, Western, and fusion restaurants. 

For those looking for more mid-range brands, Pavilion and Suria KCC are laid-back places to shop and hang out with friends. Of course, luxury goods are not all the city has to offer. Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market is a handicrafts centre where you can find more than 350 shops selling batik goods, custom-made souvenirs, jewellery, and antiques made by local artisans. 

Also read: 9 Best Kuala Lumpur Shopping Malls for Avid Shopaholics

The TZ Verdict on Bangkok vs Kuala Lumpur

In the end, there is no right answer for which city in Southeast Asia (that is, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur), is better for first-timers. It really depends on what you want out of your trip. 

Bangkok is ideal for travellers who love Thai food, temples, and a good party. However, it is more touristy than Kuala Lumpur and may be slightly more expensive in terms of hotels and flight prices. 

Kuala Lumpur is a smaller city than Bangkok, and therefore, is easier to explore on a short trip. It’s great for those who want to try food from Malay, Indian, and Chinese cultures, and admire beautiful Islamic architecture. There may not be as many day trip destinations nearby, but the stunning Batu Caves are more than enough for all your photo-taking needs. 

In summary: Bangkok is for travellers who want to explore as much as they can, while Kuala Lumpur is for those who want to take it slow on vacation. 

Also read: Seoul or Tokyo: Which East Asian Capital Should You See First?

So, if you haven’t been to either city, have you decided yet? Or if you’ve been to both of these, why not share your thoughts on our Facebook page

Featured image credit (right): SeanPavonePhoto via Canva Pro

About Author

Joyce Lee
Joyce Lee

Joyce is an aspiring writer who lives on black coffee and Netflix. In her free time, she reads, goes for long walks at sunset, and dreams of faraway places.