Backpacking Malaysia: Top experiences
- Jungle trekking through Taman Negara National Park
- Chilling on the world’s most beautiful beaches on the Perhentian Islands
- Learning from local Indian, Chinese, and Malay craftsmen and women in George Town
- Warming up with tea and scones in the Cameron Highlands
- Soaking up 21st-century Southeast Asia in Kuala Lumpur
Jump to the list of posts from Malaysia, or read on for my comprehensive Malaysia travel guide.
Malaysia itinerary ideas
My Malaysia itinerary options are centered around the peninsula — I didn’t travel in Borneo. Three weeks is the ideal time to see nearly everything on the peninsula.
Start in ultra-modern Kuala Lumpur (or KL) and spend a day wandering the central business district, hip galleries, and colorful markets. Jump on a bus south to Melaka for the legendary night market and the country’s best nyonya food. Then, bus it up to Jerantut — the gateway to Taman Negara National Park.
Two days is the minimum in the park — if you’re not a serious hiker, this will give you time to do some easy day hiking around the main village. But more adventurous travelers should book a night at a “salt lick” for the best chance of seeing wildlife. You can hike anywhere from just a couple kilometers to 12+ km in each direction.
By now you’ll be ready for some beach, so take the “jungle railway” to Kota Bharu for a night before catching a ferry to Pulau Perhentian Kecil. This is one of the region’s most magical islands, with a truly far-flung feel and dirt-cheap beach bungalows. Stay for 2-3 nights.
Next, travel through Malaysia’s tea-growing heartland for cooler temperatures and iconic views. Transit through Kuala Terengganu, a great stop for one night to get a feel for more traditional eastern Malaysia. Next, spend a couple days checking out the many things to do in Ipoh before picking up a connecting bus to the Cameron Highlands. Spend a couple days hiking to viewpoints, eating everything strawberry, and of course, visiting a tea plantation.
Finally, catch a bus to Butterworth to hop on the ferry to Penang. George Town — with its colorful street art and Chinese clan houses — is the best base, but you can squeeze in another beach day or two in the surrounding area. From here, Thailand is a short hop away, or head back to KL for your flight home.
Less time? Consider cutting out Kuala Terengganu or Melaka — they’re not essential. Many other travel bloggers would disagree, but I’d consider skipping the touristy Cameron Highlands. If you have to, you could visit more-accessible Langkawi instead of the Perhentians for your beach fix, but you’d really be missing out.
Malaysia weather and when to visit Malaysia
Planning a trip backpacking Malaysia is a little complicated weather-wise, especially if you want to visit both the peninsula and Borneo. Malaysia weather includes two different monsoon seasons for different parts of the country.
The best time to plan a peninsular Malaysia holiday is the same as elsewhere in Southeast Asia — December through February. You’ll get little rain, heat or humidity. However, the east coast (including the Perhentians, which are completely off-limits) and Borneo will be in the midst of monsoons at this time.
On the flip side, July and August are monsoon season for the peninsula, but the best time to visit Borneo.
If you want to visit both regions on your Malaysia trip, the very end of February and beginning of March is ideal. You may be able to get out to the Perhentians at this time — although build in a couple buffer days in case of bad weather, and expect all but a handful of guesthouses to be closed. Meanwhile, peninsular Malaysia will be at its best, with cloudless days and few crowds. You’ll just have a bit more heat and humidity to contend with.
Language in Malaysia
The main language spoken in Malaysia is Bahasa Malaysia, also simply called Malay.
Bahasa Malaysia uses the Latin alphabet, is pronounced exactly as it’s written, and is not tonal. In other words, as Southeast Asian languages go, it’s very easy to learn — most travelers pick up on the basics within a couple of weeks of starting their Malaysia trip. Locals speak English very well and often another language — Chinese, Hindi, Tamil, etc. — too.
Budget for backpacking Malaysia
Backpacking Malaysia is a little more expensive than backpacking in the rest of Southeast Asia. Borneo is much pricier than the peninsula. You could do pretty bare-bones budget travel in Malaysia starting at around $15 a day. $30 a day would be pretty comfortable, and $50+ a day would allow you to have a luxurious Malaysia holiday.
Private room in a hostel or simple guesthouse: 60 ringgits
Street-stall meal of roti canai: 1-3 ringgits
Beer from a 7-11: 12 ringgits
Museum or historical site admission: 5-10 ringgits
Bus/ferry combo ticket from Kuala Lumpur to Penang: 80 ringgits
Speedboat into Taman Negara National Park: 35 ringgits
Two-tank dive from the Perhentian Islands: $30 (yes, seriously! It’s some of the cheapest diving in the world!)
Malaysia visa requirements
Most travelers receive a free 30- or 60-day visa on arrival when entering Malaysia by land or by air. If the border official offers you a 30-day, you can ask for 60 and will almost surely get it. You can extend up to three months, or just do a visa run to Thailand or Singapore. The visa is just a stamp in your passport.
Israeli citizens are more restricted from traveling to Malaysia — but having an Israeli stamp in your passport is not a problem.
Accommodation in Malaysia
You’ll find impressively high standards of accommodation for great prices when backpacking Malaysia, especially if you travel in shoulder season. Options range from backpacker hostels to family-run guesthouses and beach huts.
The cheapest accommodation tends to be dorms in family-run hostels. These will typically be clean, characterful and full of others backpacking Malaysia, but they may be in old buildings and short-staffed. Still, with prices starting at $3 a night, they’re a great deal.
The next rung up are the more modern hostels. These typically have A/C, a huge variety of activities on offer, and plenty of common space. The downside is they’re pricier and less personal.
If you prefer private rooms but are still on a budget trip in Malaysia, you’re in luck — the country has plenty of cheap guesthouses. In fact, it’s often cheaper to stay in a clean but simple private room than a dorm in a fancy hostel. Many of the best places don’t have an online presence.
Private rooms in beach huts are the norm on the islands and start at bargain-basement prices ($5 or less), but be prepared to rough it a bit more. Cold-water showers, questionable locking mechanisms, and no WiFi are typical, and you can forget about A/C.
In the cities, you can always just turn up and find a place to stay. The one exception is Melaka — reservations are essential on weekends. But on the islands and in the Cameron Highlands, you should book in advance, especially if you’re backpacking Malaysia in high season.
Food in Malaysia
Malaysia is not Southeast Asia’s most famous foodie destination, but it’s one of the best. The country’s position as a cultural crossroads means you’ll find Indian and Chinese food in abundance alongside traditional Malaysian cuisine.
The most famous, and some of the most delicious, food in Malaysia is known as “nyonya” cuisine. It was developed through Chinese traders interacting with the residents of Malaysia’s west coast. Fantastic dishes include laksa (otherwise known as “the noodle soup that one-ups pho”), ayam pongteh (stewed chicken), and cendol (a sweet coconut-y dessert). Sample this cuisine in Melaka and Penang.
You don’t have to look hard for great Chinese and Indian food either. Check out KL’s Chinatown for an endless variety of Chinese street food. Note that the Chinese influence here tends to be southern-Chinese, rather than the more-popular-abroad Sichuan food, so it’s not super spicy. For Indian food, Georgetown has one of the world’s best tandoori restaurants (Kapitan’s).
You never have to spend more than $1-$2 per meal while backpacking Malaysia. During the day, you’ll find street food every couple of steps. The cheapest options are the roti stands — you can get a sweet or savory Indian pancake for about $0.33. At night, look for the night markets (Kota Bharu has the country’s best). The one exception to cheap food is the Perhentian Islands, since it all has to be brought over from the mainland. Budget $5+ a day here — but even if you’re on a budget trip in Malaysia, it’s worth it.
The markets offer all varieties of tropical fruits. Rambutans — the small red spiky things — make popular bus snacks when backpacking Malaysia. You’ll also see durian vendors everywhere.
Drinks in Malaysia
Malaysia is a major tea-growing country. The Cameron Highlands are the best place to explore tea culture (which has a visible British colonial legacy). You can also get Indian-style chai at Indian-owned restaurants and street stalls around the country.
Coffee is also popular among Malaysians. Go to a traditional Chinese kedai kopi (coffee shop) to try “white coffee” — spiked with palm sugar — for 1 ringgit. Most markets sell iced coffee, often in plastic bags, for about the same price. A growing number of cities have great third-wave coffee shops, with Georgetown leading the pack, although you probably can’t afford them on a budget trip to Malaysia. Expect to pay U.S. prices for a fancy cappuccino.
Alcohol is a big barrier to budget travel in Malaysia. Beer is the most common booze — typically Singaporean and Thai brands like Singha and Tiger. Buy it at 7-11 to keep costs down to about 10 ringgits a bottle. If you prefer to go out, prepare to run up a bar tab comparable to all of your other daily travel costs.
Activities you can do while backpacking Malaysia
Backpacking Malaysia is an opportunity to explore three countries — India, China, and Malaysia itself — wrapped into one. In the cities, activities are focused on learning about the different cultures. George Town and Melaka offer the best insights, with great museums and self-guided walking tours. Admission is usually under $1, and you’ll never pay more than $5.
Malaysia has Southeast Asia’s most impressive national park — Taman Negara. You can jungle trek on your own and stay in elevated huts for $3 a night, miles away from civilization. This is a great way to get out into nature on a budget vacation in Malaysia. You can also book a guided trek if you prefer not to trek alone. The Cameron Highlands are a popular day-hiking destination.
The beaches of Pulau Perhentian are the stuff of legends, and not to be missed on a Malaysia holiday. Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil is still the beach I measure every other beach against. The diving is great too. Pulau Langkawi also has gorgeous beaches and is much more accessible.
Transportation in Malaysia
You’ll mainly use buses to get around when backpacking Malaysia. Standards are very high — coaches are modern and air-conditioned (sometimes too much so). You’ll get even nicer buses with reclining seats for the odd overnight journey. Prices are about $3 an hour, but most trips aren’t longer than a couple hours. You can buy tickets the day you travel. Getting to remote rural destinations by bus is rarely a problem, although buses may not be as nice.
You’ll need to use boats to reach the islands. Penang and Langkawi are reachable by ferries for just a couple dollars. Pulau Perhentian is only accessible by tiny, maniacally driven speedboats. For all boat trips except to Penang, book your return trip when you arrive (and expect to pay a little more for it — you don’t have much bargaining power when you’re on the island!).
Malaysia’s train system has improved greatly in the last five years. It’s now a reasonable way to get to the north of the country (and into Thailand) from KL, and to get between the two peninsular coasts. Prices for the express trains are comparable to buses. If you’re willing to travel on a (much slower) economy train in 3rd class, you can save a few ringgits — it’s about 20% cheaper than buses. This really helps with budget travel in Malaysia, especially for longer journeys. The best train journey you can do while backpacking Malaysia is the “Jungle Railway” from Jerantut to Kota Bharu.
Many backpackers hitchhike around the Cameron Highlands, but walking distances are short enough that it’s not worth the risk. Women alone should be especially cautious. If you decide to chance it, offer to pay the driver the comparable bus fare, but don’t push it if they refuse.
The only way to get between Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo is to fly. Air Asia has the cheapest tickets. If you’re on a budget vacation in Malaysia and can be flexible with dates, you’ll save a lot of money if you buy tickets after you arrive in the country.
Safety when backpacking Malaysia
Backpacking Malaysia is very safe. Even Kuala Lumpur is so relaxed that it barely feels like a capital city. Pickpocketing and bag snatching happens occasionally, so consider a cross-body bag or a backpack when you’re out and about. Don’t leave valuables in barely-secured beach huts.
The biggest risk to life and limb on a Malaysia trip is boat transport. The speedboats going to the Perhentians are particularly bad. Best-case scenario, the seas are rough and you get a bumpy and wet ride. Worst-case scenario, the captain is a drunk daredevil with no regard for your safety (or the preservation of your belongings). Think twice before attempting this trip in bad weather, and make sure your captain is sober.
Malaysia travel advice for women alone
Backpacking Malaysia presents no problems for women alone. In fact, it made my list of best places for solo female travel.
You will see women wearing headscarves, but you don’t have to wear one yourself (and you may get more stares if you do). Since Malaysia is at a cultural crossroads and has huge Indian and Chinese populations, the locals are accustomed to diversity and won’t judge your clothing choices.
That being said, you’ll blend in better if you cover to your knees and shoulders. The east coast is more conservative, while in KL and Georgetown you’ll see local women wearing miniskirts and sleeveless tops. On the islands, wearing shorts, swimsuits, and tank tops is fine.
You may encounter the occasional flirtatious man or a little bit of street harassment. It’s typically non-threatening. If you smile or make eye contact, some local men may interpret it as “she’s interested in me.” One of the best Malaysia travel tips I can offer is that a polite acknowledgement of a compliment with a straight face is the best way to avoid being misinterpreted.
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