From There to Here: The Top 5 Differences between Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur

By: Melany Zwartjes

It seems, as expats, we are perpetually comparing and contrasting the places we’ve been with the places we find ourselves.  After living in Jakarta, Indonesia for 3 years our family of five recently moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  When we shared the news about where we’d be headed to next, the consensus among our friends was that Kuala Lumpur would most definitely be an upgrade to the frenetic landscape that is Jakarta.  Now that I’ve been in KL for 6 months, and comfortably refer to it as home, I have comprised a list of the standout differences between the two cities.

1.  Traffic. You cannot describe Jakarta without including the mind numbing, slow-as-molasses traffic that ambushes you daily.  Indeed, in Jakarta, “traffic” is a four letter word.  Friends who had experienced navigating both cities assured us that while KL was far from ideal, it was definitely better than Jakarta.  What they neglected to mention was that while virtually everyone in Jakarta has a driver, in KL having a driver is a luxury.

Jakarta’s roadways occur out of necessity, not city planning.  Narrow alleyways become heavily used roads and neighborhood streets frequently turn into bottlenecks because everyone is just trying to get around as best they can.  Plus there are street food vendors with their two wheeled carts, and three-wheeled bajajs occupying the road and further slowing things down.  The sanity saver is that you are in the backseat reading, texting, chatting and generally distracting yourself from the all-too-familiar situation.

In KL you are in the driver’s seat along with most everyone else.  As it turns out, professional drivers are not nearly as aggressive as regular folks.  So while the roads are wide and the highways plenty, in KL tailgating, texting while driving, unbuckled children in the front seat, and hostile maneuvering are rampant.  As both situations are far from ideal, I wouldn’t call KL’s traffic condition an outright upgrade; it’s more like an imperfect tie.

2.   The Landscape.  Jakarta’s sprawling cityscape, like the unruly roadways, is not concerned with long term planning.  The city is like a hurried game of Tetris, where things are stacked up and torn down on an ever-changing urban backdrop.  Construction is usually undertaken by barefoot workers digging up thick, distinctively red earth in a manpowered move to erect something new.  A similar story is unfolding in KL, but on a much larger scale.  Here the construction is unbridled and the end-product huge.  It seems that there can’t be enough high-rise luxury apartments, or sleek office buildings.  While it’s hard to get an unobstructed view of the sky in both of these cities, what’s on the horizon for each remains even more unclear.

3.   Food.  One thing I love about Malaysians is the twinkle they get in their eyes when they talk about food.  Kuala Lumpur is a true melting pot of cuisines and this beloved facet of the country’s legacy is ubiquitous.  Everywhere you look in KL there are food hawkers, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and high end dining options permeating the landscape.  Jakarta definitely holds food in high regard, with no meal being complete without a dollop (or dousing) of sambal--the essential chili sauce--but the passion for food in KL boarders on obsession.  Both cities relish the heat of a spicy dish, but in Malaysia you can choose from a veritable United Nations of culinary fare.  But take note, while Malaysia may be heaven for foodies, few escape without a couple of KL kilos in tow.

4.  People.  Large cities tend to cultivate a certain aloofness within their populations.  The sheer volume of strangers you encounter necessitates a less sociable frame of mind, and that general detached demeanor is palpable here in KL.  That’s not to say that people aren't friendly and engaging once you get to know them, but there is some extra effort involved when it comes to making new friends.  Jakarta is a large city too, but one thing I really loved about living there was how instantly friendly people were.  Whether I was in a wet market or in line at a store, I was frequently surprised by how congenial people could be.  Even as we said goodbye to Jakarta and boarded our plane, three storekeepers helped us with our luggage and gave our kids each a candy for the road.

5.  Diversity.  Diversity plays an interesting role in the personality of each city. Kuala Lumpur maintains an extremely diverse population.  There are Chinese Malaysians, Indian Malaysians, Malay Malaysians (to name the most prominent ethnicities) each with their own culturally relative practices and beliefs and all wanting to preserve their unique respective heritages.  Simply put, this incredible diversity makes things complicated and layered when it comes to who gets to make the rules and how things get divvied up.

Jakarta too has fostered a diverse population, but the key difference is that the majority are from Indonesia—just the far away bits.  I met very few people who were actually born and raised in Jakarta.  People come to “The Big Durian” as it’s affectionately called, to get educated, find work, make money, and generally have more options in life.  So there’s this, “we’re all in the same boat” mentality that percolates daily life.  Even as an American expat, common ground was effortless to find with Jakartans as they were interested in/could relate to this notion that my home is elsewhere, but I live here.  I think this shared experience helps explain why people are generally friendlier: everyone is, was, or is related to, the new kid in town.

I found Jakarta to be a city that is nearly impossible to fall in love with at first sight.  It’s most lovable traits slowly unfurl to those patient enough to scratch the surface and genuinely invest in getting to know the place.  Kuala Lumpur is easier on the eyes and more forthcoming with its charms.  Juxtaposing the two, what becomes most evident is that spending time in either city is an enriching and worthwhile endeavor.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingMelany Zwartjes is an American expat living in Malaysia. Blog description: Adventures and observations in art, culture, travel, & life. : )
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Contest Comments » There are 33 comments

Tamar wrote 5 years ago:

Having lived in Jakarta, and about to move to KL myself, I LOVED this article. Very useful and insightful. Great writing!

James Nowlin wrote 5 years ago:

Great story, Mel! These make me want to travel. I never even thought about Jakarta or KL on places I'd want to go before reading your posts, now they are high on the list.

Krystyna wrote 5 years ago:

Very well written! I can especially agree with everything you said about Jakarta. Looking forward to read more. Good luck in KL! Keep writing!

Cindy Duffy wrote 5 years ago:

Nice comparison between the two cities. The writing left me with a feeling of what it would be like to be in both cities. Nicely written.

Melissa Padilla Wegner wrote 5 years ago:

Melanie, it is so great to get your experiences with living in Jakarta and KL. I always hear Aussie and Brit inputs but I have enjoyed an old classmate and American's perspective. Good Luck and I look forward to more photos of your life abroad.

PamelaJe wrote 5 years ago:

Really enjoyed this comparison of two cities. Was an interesting selection of key elements drawing the reader to look deeper than a travel guide to find what makes these cities tick.

Donna Carlucci wrote 5 years ago:

This article gives a great look into two countries that most likely I'll never travel to. Informative and very interesting to read.

Jolanta wrote 5 years ago:

Not having been to either city, you painted a very nice and exciting overview. Thanks!

GML wrote 5 years ago:

Delightful contrasts. Your obvious love of KL cuisine made my hungry just reading it. And sorry to hear tidak ada supir.

Ruli wrote 5 years ago:

I love this article for how it reveals the differences between these two cities to be very subtle and complex, and not simply black and white. As an Indonesian who has lived in Jakarta most his life, but was actually born and raised near KL (Petaling Jaya, to be precise), I can truly identify with the points raised above. I think Melany deftly and diplomatically talks about the issue of diversity in Malaysia (complicated and layered, indeed!), and I get the impression that for all its horrible traffic jams and ghastly environment, Jakarta is a place one can call more of a home -- warts and all.

Omar Hashwi wrote 5 years ago:

I lived in Jakarta for a year but I've never been to Kuala Lampur. I've actually wondered how similar the two cities would be. It was interesting to learn about some of the differences between them. Thanks for helping me fill that gap!

Esmay wrote 5 years ago:

Reading about the differences between Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur was really interesting because the two cities are close together and yet so different. Good job, it was unique and interesting!

James Nowlin wrote 5 years ago:

Great story, Mel! These make me want to travel. I never thought of going to Jakarta or KL before reading your posts, now they are high on the list.

Ex-Jakartan wrote 5 years ago:

You have caught the pain of Jakarta traffic perfectly! And I hadn't thought about the differences in ethnicity until they were mentioned. VERY perceptive writing that.

Sarah! wrote 5 years ago:

This post reminds of the time I first moved into KL, it was so different compared to the U.S. and I truthfully wasn't that happy to move. I was afraid of catching strange disease, having to eat durian, and learning Bahasa. Now, I have to move again, and I look at KL in a different lens then I did when I move, and I am proud to call Malaysia home. Reading the second to last paragraph really relates to my life, and how I move often, and this post just touched my heart.

Alysha wrote 5 years ago:

I really like how you compared the two cities, both cities are really unique and special in there own way.

Arend wrote 5 years ago:

I always enjoy reading Melany's take on the atmospherics of a country or city. This one really helps translate the ineffibles of living in Jakarta and KL, while also reminding you that we live in a big wide world.

Vance Stacy wrote 5 years ago:

What an amazing and insightful comparison!!! I never got to Jakarta while my daughter and her family lived there, but now I KNOW I gotta make it to KL!!!!! Mel, you make it so descriptive I feel like I'm there already!!! Great job!!

Lucy wrote 5 years ago:

Mel, as always your words glide across the page. I loved this article. :)

Jeanette Zwartjes wrote 5 years ago:

Never having been to these cities, I was given the essential of each one in the descriptions of the elements that make one city different from the other. I could feel and imagine the cultural diversities. How would I compare San Antonio, TX to neighboring Austin, TX? In the same State, and 70 miles from each other, they are worlds apart in their own "culture".

Kristy D wrote 5 years ago:

Interesting, to read different perspectives! I've found nothing but friendliness and helpfulness in KL. I've received nothing but gifts and supports. i enjoyed Jakarta but I never lived there, I liked the places you could walk in the streets like here, and feel the diversity of life. You're right on the construction, but what about the crazy road system, those inter-town highways always get me lost. One thing though I thought of is the commuter link, as so many people from Jakarta work here and fly home at the weekend, I wondered if it happened as well the other way around.

Sara wrote 5 years ago:

I love your description of the lovable traits of Jakarta slowly unfurling. I have felt this way about a few places I've been to, and it describes the feeling perfectly!

Krystal wrote 5 years ago:

It's always interesting to read a comparison of two ,on the surface, similar places from a personal viewpoint. thanks for sharing

Ernie Batista wrote 5 years ago:

Although I've had limited travel to SE Asia I plan to visit both places in the future. The closest I came to Jakarta was. Bali. Your description of both cities gives the reader excellent insight based on your personal experiences.

Sarah Maller wrote 5 years ago:

Amazing! The use of literary techniques and especially simile in the "Traffic" one really add to the overall quality of the piece.

Corina wrote 5 years ago:

I have never been outside the U.S.A's borders, but parts of my heart are thousands of miles away. I selfishly enjoy a female, American-born observation of life where my heart's desires abide, and where we all occupy the same space in time. Thanks for the relatable pictures you create in my mind's eye, Melany Zwartjes.

Mp wrote 5 years ago:

I love that the description of Jakarta reminds me a bit of New York City !

Reni wrote 5 years ago:

I was wondering how you would you give comments living in both cities. This is a very nice article, Bu. Nodding my head several times :)

Matina wrote 5 years ago:

Great article Melany! Makes me want to book a ticket to both cities and come explore them for myself (and see you of course). Well done!

Kaho wrote 5 years ago:

You have a way with words and I wish I could write like you! It sounds like KL is a foodie heaven!

Scarlet>Fire wrote 5 years ago:

Never made it to KL, but have years of JKT experience. Someone once told me that in terms of comfort, convenience, functionality, etc, KL beats Jakarta. BUT, once you get out of either city, Indonesia generally offers more than Malaysia. Maybe not entirely fair because Indonesia is so much bigger, but it makes sense to me….

Harvey wrote 5 years ago:

I really enjoyed this post. Very interesting comparison of two places that have some similarity but in other ways are worlds apart.

Monica wrote 5 years ago:

Hi Melany, I know what you're talking about with locals getting that twinkle in their eye when talking about food. It could be the sole topic of conversation for an entire evening! Welcome to KL. Wishing you a wonderful post here. Cheers, Monica :-)

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