At first glance Malaysia just doesn’t seem as exotic or interesting as other countries in the region, but take a closer look and you’ll find everything you need for a rewarding backpacking experience. You won’t get hassled by touts and you’ll be treated to the best food in the region, so if you’re looking for a more relaxing alternative to Thailand, Malaysia could be a great choice. While backpacking in Malaysia you’ll see a huge variety of landscapes, from the jungles of Borneo to the white sand beaches of Pulau Tioman, via the very British Cameron Highlands hill station, where you can stroll through tea fields and search for the largest flower on Earth.
Here’s a breakdown of the cities/regions of Malaysia (that I’ve been to).
Kuala Lumpur is a bit of a poor man’s Singapore – it’s very similar but just not quite as interesting or nice to be in. If you’re staying in Kuala Lumpur you’ll most likely stay in Chinatown, which is home to some great food and shopping. It’s also walking distance from Little India and the colonial area of the city. There are a couple of train stations close to Chinatown where you’ll find connections to most areas of town, including Batu caves, which is my favourite part of Kuala Lumpur.
If you’re looking for a historical city which is also pretty laid back, head to Malacca, just a few hours from Kuala Lumpur. It’s the most unique historical town in the country due to its colonial Portuguese past and the Straits Chinese culture (Chinese men married Malay women and created an interesting mix of the two cultures).
Read more about Malacca backpacking guides here
EAST COAST ISLANDS
The best beaches are found on the East Coast islands, my favourite being Pulau Tioman. I hated the Perhentian Islands (although I didn’t give it much of a chance) and didn’t have time to visit the rest of the islands; I hear Pulau Kapas is worth checking out though.
WEST COAST ISLANDS
Penang is a popular spot on the tourist trail and it’s easy to see why. Georgetown is full of impressive colonial architecture and old temples, and the food is some of the best in Malaysia (and therefore the world!). Pulau Pangkor is a laidback backpacker spot although the beaches aren’t quite your white sand paradise variety. Langkawi is geared more towards package tourists but Pantai Cenang is a popular spot for people backpacking in Malaysia
If you’ve been to India or Sri Lanka you might be a little disappointed by the Cameron Highlands, but the flowing tea fields and cool mountain air will please most backpackers in Southeast Asia. There are lots of walks you can do in the area – I’d recommend doing a trek to see the rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. Tanah Ratah makes for a comfortable base and you can get strawberry flavoured Magnum ice-creams, something I haven’t seen in many other places!
Ipoh, and the area surrounding it, doesn’t seem to be as popular as other parts of Malaysia, but there is definitely enough there to keep you occupied. I visited a huge cave, a hill with a temple and tried some of the local food. I stayed with a local friend for a few days in Ayer Tawar and it was interesting to see the day to day lives of small town Chinese Malaysians – they love their food and I put on quite a bit of weight in those few days.
Borneo has a far different feel to mainland Malaysia, and if you skip it you’ll be missing the best of what the country has to offer. Kuching, the biggest city in the province of Sarawak, is one of the nicest, cleanest and most interesting cities in Southeast Asia. Bako National Park is just a few hours from the city and is worth at least a night – you’ll see proboscis monkeys and plenty of other wildlife, along with some great beaches. You can also see semi-wild orangutans just outside the city and explore colonial architecture, Malay kampongs and a cat museum within it. Miri is worth stopping at to see the Niah Caves, and if you have time and money (I had neither) I’ve heard it’s worth flying into Gunung Mulu National Park (if you’ve been there please leave a comment and let me know how it was).
I didn’t spend as long in Sabah, Malaysia’s other slice of Borneo, but I enjoyed it and I’ve heard there is so much more to explore. Apparently there are some amazing islands which are home to some of the best diving in the world. Climbing Mt Kinabalu is pretty challenging and expensive but it’s worth visiting even if you don’t climb it. You can stay out in the jungle for a taste of the traditional life – I did it near Poring hot springs and it was great, apart from all the leaches.
Johor Bahru isn’t a typical stop while backpacking in Malaysia, but you’ll pass through it if you’re travelling to Singapore overland. There’s really no reason to stop, but if you’re living in Singapore it’s a great place to shop as everything is cheaper – I’ve even heard of people driving across the border to fill their cars up with petrol.
*I haven’t been to Taman Negara, so I roped in Margherita from thecrowdedplanet.com to tell you about it.
Taman Negara means National Park in the Malay language. It is one of the oldest rainforests on Earth and an area of incredible biodiversity. The rainforest is in much better condition than in Borneo, making wildlife viewing a lot more difficult, even though Taman Negara is home to several species including elephants, tigers and several types of monkeys. The gateway to the park is the village of Kuala Tahan, from there you can organize activities such as guided treks and night walks. You can also wander around the park without a guide; there are several trails to choose from, including a canopy walk. Another interesting activity in Taman Negara is spending the night in a hide, called bumbum. Hides are built near water holes increasing the chance of viewing wildlife, especially at sunset. Read a full post here.
Kuala Lumpur is the hub for Air Asia, in my opinion the best budget airline in the region. You can get to pretty much everywhere in Southeast Asia cheaply, but you can also take the train or bus from Singapore and Thailand, and you can take a ferry to Indonesia. If you’re travelling through Borneo it’s worth stopping off in Brunei, a tiny country (which I thought was in the Middle East for most of my life) which got rich from oil.
BACKPACKING IN MALAYSIA: ACCOMMODATION
Accommodation in Malaysia is slightly more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia (apart from Singapore of course) but it’s not too noticeable. You’ll find somewhere for RM40 ($13 USD) or under most places, and dorms in the more popular places can be found at decent prices. I found I didn’t quite get the same value for money as in most Southeast Asian countries though – for RM30-40 you’re lucky if you get your own bathroom.
BUKIT BINTANG – BEST PLACE TO STAY IN KUALA LUMPUR FOR SHOPPING
The Bukit Bintang area is in the centre of Kuala Lumpur and well connected with the different areas of the city. It’s also known as the shopping destination in Kuala Lumpur. This area offers High-end shopping malls, restaurants, pumping nightclubs, night markets and more located in Changkat Bukit Bintang. Pavilion KL is an iconic shopping mall where you will find different designer stores that sell dresses, jewellery, bags, shoes, watches etc as well as the normal clothing or fashion shops. Open roof bars and live music nightclubs are the ultimate way to relax in Kuala Lumpur. It’s the best place to stay in Kuala Lumpur for tourist as well as the best place to stay in Kuala Lumpur for nightlife. Jalan Alor is also the best area for street food.
WHERE TO STAY IN BUKIT BINTANG
Affordable Luxury Hotels in Bukit Bintang
Pullman Kuala Lumpur City Centre Hotel and Residences
Traders Hotel Kuala Lumpur
The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur
Shangri-La Hotel Kuala Lumpur
KUALA LUMPUR CITY CENTRER – BEST PLACE TO STAY IN KUALA LUMPUR FOR TOURIST
Kuala Lumpur’s high-rise City Center is known for upscale fashion malls, luxury hotels and extensive views from the famous Petronas Twin Towers. The very green Kuala Lumpur City Centre Park offers walking paths and magical fountains, lovely for an even walk with your partner. Dining options range from stylish bistros offering Asian and European cuisine, to elegant rooftop bars serving innovative cocktails. The Petronas Towers area is also where to stay in Kuala Lumpur with family.
WHERE TO STAY IN KUALA LUMPUR CITY CENTRE (KLCC)
CHINATOWN IN KUALA LUMPUR – BEST PLACE TO STAY IN KUALA LUMPUR ON A BUDGET
Chinatown is located on Petaling Street. Chinatown is known for its large market that sells produce, clothes and accessories. Local artists also sell their paintings and crafts at nearby Central Market, where stalls dish up noodles and curry to hungry travellers and locals alike. At night, Petaling Street transforms into a vibrant and vigorous night market with hundreds of stalls. Buddhist temples in the area include the Taoist Guan Di Temple and the 19th-century Sri Mahamariamman Temple, with a facade of carved Hindu deities. Chinatown is the cheapest place to stay in Kuala Lumpur and the best area to stay in Kuala Lumpur for backpackers.
WHERE TO STAY IN CHINATOWN
Malaysia is an incredibly easy place to get around, but again, it’s not the cheapest. You can take tourist mini buses or public buses, and there often isn’t a huge price difference between the 2.
FOOD AND DRINK
The amazing variety of food is one of the best things about backpacking in Malaysia. Even at the smallest, cheapest looking places you’ll find great food and it’s usually pretty cheap. Drinking is a different story, as alcohol is heavily taxed. If you’re an alcoholic head to Langkawi or Tioman and stay there (they are duty free ports), but for mild drinkers the prices are bearable.