A backpackers guide to Malaysia

Malaysia was one of the best surprises of my Asia trip due to its sheer variety.

It’s home to urban cities, sweet and sleepy villages, paradise islands, remote rainforest, cloudy tea plantations and lush countryside. It’s rare to find somewhere where your surroundings can change so drastically – one day I was sipping mojitos in the concrete jungle and the next I was treading canopy walkways in the actual jungle. These are the stops I’d recommend any traveller to take:

Kuala Lumpur

A city characterised by culture. Indian temples, Chinese pagodas, and impressive mosques peacefully coexist while urban, cosmopolitan pastimes and architecture make KL a global hub. If you’re after an afternoon tea at Harrods, the chance to design your own magnum or a dining in the dark dinner experience, you’ll find it in Malaysia’s capital.

Do: The Petronas Towers, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the Batu Caves.

Sleep: Explorer’s Guesthouse. This friendly hostel has clean, air conned rooms, a social area with a TV, computers and sofas, a free breakfast (toast and peanut butter – all you need!) and free tea and coffee 24/7. It’s right in the city centre and just a two-minute walk from Little India and Chinatown. Dorm beds are around £5 a night.

Eat: Little India for tandoori chicken and roti; Chinatown indoor market for authentic clay pot dishes; and the street buffets running down Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock for all sorts of goodies like my £1 squid curry/quail egg/aubergine/greens mismatch below.

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Getting there/away: Flights operate to KL from all over the world. A taxi from the airport to the city takes around an hour and a half but if split between two is cheaper than the 30-minute express train. Buses run daily to Melaka, Penang and the Cameron Highlands.

Melaka

There’s nothing not to love about this sweet and sleepy UNESCO Heritage town. Just like KL, it’s a melting pot – you’ll see plenty of Chinese, Hindi and Muslim influences but anything urban or glamourous will be replaced by crumbling European buildings dating back to days of Dutch rule.

Do: Cheng Hoon Teng Chinese temple, the old Dutch Square (complete with windmills) Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum for culture and Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum for an insight into women’s lifestyles throughout history.

Sleep: Jalan-Jalan. There are no bunks so you always get the bottom bed (backpacking win) and you’re just a short walk from everything in town. Prices from £3.

Eat: Little India for authentic curries, tandoori meat, rotis and dhal; Jonker Street Night Market (Fri-Sat) for funky desserts and sweet treats. Try the town’s signature dish, seasoned stingray, for a couple of pounds at a number of venues.

Getting there/away: A local bus from Kuala Lumpur bus station takes around three hours and costs about £2.

Taman Negara National Park

The weird and wonderful jungle is ripe for adventure – I loved my few days in Taman Negara National Park. I spent my time there with no Wi-Fi and a lot of creepy nighttime animal noises for company but it was well worth it. You can do the trip yourself but without local transport on offer and many of the activities requiring a guide, the tour I took from Kuala Lumpur was definitely worth the £80 I paid (it was all inclusive for three days – I didn’t spend another penny).

Do: Visit a local tribal village, head into the jungle for a nighttime nature walk, take a boat down the choppy waters (they call this ‘rapid shooting’ but it wasn’t too intensive) and walk a set of swinging canopy walkways.

Sleep and eat: A basic hostel or guesthouse is provided based on the package you choose, as are simple local meals.

Getting there/away: Tours depart from Kuala Lumpur. Let your tour company know your end plans and mini buses will be arranged back to KL or the Cameron Highlands. It’s possible to get to Penang in a day but it’s a long one and changing buses will be required.

The Cameron Highlands

The first time in Asia I felt slightly nostalgic for home was in the hilly Cameron Highlands where the climate was cooler and the activities were mainly countryside walks. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to a different continent, bringing me back to just how varied Malaysia is.

Unlike home, however, rolling tea plantations set across misty mountains characterise the Cameron Highands. It’s really a beautiful spot to spend a couple of days and it’s high on relaxation factor.

Do: A countryside tour will take you to the tea plantations, as well as butterfly farms and various other filler activities. As a day two activity (or you might be able to squeeze it into an afternoon after a tour), a hike around one of the many countryside trails will take you to fields, woodlands and viewpoints and probably get you nicely lost.

Sleep: Father’s Gueshouse and Eight Mentigi Guesthouse in Tanah Rata (the main town in the area) have private and dorm rooms. Both do the job nicely.

Eat: The Indian restaurants on Tanah Rata’s main street are first-class and you’ll get mains and sides for £2-3. I also had some great servings of nasi lemak here, a local dish made from rice, peanuts, chilli paste, cucumber and anchovies.

Getting there/away: Catch a local bus from Kuala Lumpur or Penang. If en route from Taman Negara, let your tour guide know and mini buses will be arranged.

George Town, Penang

Street art, a world-class eating scene and plenty of culture. The historic centre of Penang is George Town – it’s a charming, pedestrianised area with a feel not dissimilar to Melaka.

Do: The Kek Lok Si Temple and the views from Penang Hill are worth checking out, but factor most of your time for enjoying the city centre’s street art and food markets.

Sleep: Roommates Penang. A decent hostel in the city centre (dorms from £6) where we met a nice group of people to explore with. For more of a party hostel stay at Tipsy Tiger.

Eat: As much as possible. Favourite Penang dishes include laksa (a coconut-infused soup), fried oyster omelette and Hae Mee (prawn noodles). Outdoor evening food markets to experience are Red Garden and Gurney Drive Hawker Centre.

Getting there/away: Local buses run to and from Kuala Lumpur and the Cameron Highlands, and daily boats travel between Penang and Langkawi.

The Kek Lok Si Temple lit up for February’s Chinese New Year

Langkawi island

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The one ingredient missing thus far in the perfect holiday – some beach time! Langkawi is a lush, green island with a town and set of beaches that’ll provide all the unwinding time you need…

Do: Relax on the beach or head out on a boat tour to feed tropical fish, hop between islands, explore the caves and watch the resident eagles swoop for food (Langkawi actually translates as ‘red eagle’). If it’s a clear day you can also catch great views of the island from the cable car.

Getting there/away: Daily boats run to and from Penang. If going straight on to the Cameron Highlands or Kuala Lumpur, you can catch a boat from Langkawi to Kuala Perlis on the mainland, travel by bus to Butterworth and change vehicles to reach your end destination.

The Perhentian Islands

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These east coast beauties were suffering their monsoon season (November to February) during my trip to Malaysia so transport wasn’t available. They’re meant to be great for diving and spotting turtles – so take tips from someone who knows.

How long do you need in Malaysia?

Well how long is a piece of string! I love this diverse country and spent five weeks making the suggested stops (with lots of blogging and relaxing en route) but you don’t have to spend that long. Below I’ve written you a two-week essential itinerary of the highlights as well as a more detailed itinerary lasting 24 days which includes time spent everywhere I think you’ll love.

Suggested itineraries

The essential 2-week itinerary

Days 1-2 – explore Kuala Lumpur

Day 3 – depart on a three-day, two-night trip to Taman Negara

Day 5 – end trip with a transfer to the Cameron Highlands

Day 6 – explore the Cameron Highlands

Day 7 – travel to Penang

Days 8-9 – explore Penang

Day 10 – ferry to Langawi

Days 11-12 – relax in Langkawi

Day 13 – travel back to Kuala Lumpur

Day 14 – fly away!

The ‘if you have time’ (aka my suggested) itinerary

Days 1-3 – explore Kuala Lumpur

Day 3 – morning bus to Melaka and afternoon exploring

Days 4-5 – explore Melaka

Day 6 – travel back to KL and book on a Taman Negara tour

Day 7 – depart on a three-day, two-night trip to Taman Negara

Day 9 – end trip with a transfer to the Cameron Highlands

Days 10-11 – explore the Cameron Highlands. I’d suggest one day trekking and one on a day tour.

Day 12 – travel to Penang

Days 13-15 – explore Penang

Day 16 – ferry to Langawi

Days 17-18 – relax and explore Langkawi

Day 19 – ferry back to Penang and travel on to the Perenthian islands

Days 20-22 – relax in beach bliss!

Day 23 – travel back to Kuala Lumpur

Day 24 – fly away!

Including Singapore?

If so, why not fly into Singapore and out of Kuala Lumpur? That way you can travel up the island from Singapore to Melaka by bus (5 hours) then to further up to Kuala Lumpur. This means you don’t need to pass through KL an extra time or go down to Melaka and back up.

You can then pick up the above itineraries on day 1 of the two-week and day 7 of the longer one.

Thanks for reading!

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See you next time for more adventures,

Rose x

2 Replies to “A backpackers guide to Malaysia”

  1. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Hi, thank you very much for this info!

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