Somehow, Malaysia was not originally on my list to visit on my trip in Southeast Asia, but after hearing so many positive things about it, I decided to see for myself. I am SO glad I did! You can check out my GoPro video of my adventure in Malaysia here :).
For some background, Malaysia is known for its agriculture, beaches, nature, snorkeling/diving spots, and mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Javanese, and Sumatran cultures. I had some of the best food in Southeast Asia here and had a fantastic time. This guide is based on my experience with two and a half weeks and I hope you find it informative and learn a bit more about this incredible country!
Two weeks: Georgetown (3 nights) –> Langkawi (2-3 nights) –> Cameron Highlands (2-3 nights) –> Perhentian Islands (4 nights, depending on whether you dive) –> Kuala Lumpur (2-3 nights)
If you have more time, you could add a visit to Taman Negara National Park and Melaka, which I have heard good things about.
Keep in mind that the Perhentian Islands are closed from November to March because of monsoon season, so plan accordingly if you’d like to visit. If you don’t go to the Perhentians, I would spend any extra time you have in Georgetown!
Georgetown is one of my favorite cities I have visited in Southeast Asia and it has a unique blend of Malay, Indian, and Chinese cultures with a major British influence. I will clear up any confusion now and say that Georgetown is a city on the island of Penang, which is off the west coast of mainland Malaysia. Many people say they are visiting Penang, but will spend the majority or all of their time in Georgetown. There are other places to visit on Penang, but Georgetown is the most popular for tourists and I would recommend staying there!
Things to do:
- Peranakan Museum and Blue Mansion tours (I enjoyed both of them, but they are both similar, so if you are tight on time, I would go to the Peranakan Museum because there are more exhibits in the other buildings on the property)
- Check out all of the street art! Many are even listed on maps.me and Google Maps, but it is very easy to stumble upon the famous paintings, sculptures, and metalwork of Georgetown while walking around.
- Walk around and get lost in the little streets. I took this photo when I was just wandering around:
- Armenian Street at night for unique desserts, cute shops, and temples lit up at night
- Go to at least one of the 3D museums. I went to the 3D Time Tunnel museum, which was informative and also had some hilarious photo ops:
- Visit the Kek Lok Si temple, cable car for views of Penang, and botanical gardens, which can all be done within a couple of hours
- Try all of the incredible food! Recommended restaurants: Mugshot Café, Sushi Kitchen (vegan sushi), The Black Kettle (splurge meal), The Saferoom (liquid nitrogen desserts and Dragon’s Breath kettle corn!), street food in Little India, or just head to one of the many trendy bistros/cafes in Georgetown that you are bound to stumble upon.
- United Buddy Bears at the Esplanade was one of my favorite places in the city, with 143 bears representing most countries in the UN, each uniquely decorated to represent their country.
- Batu Ferringhi Beach is good to visit but nothing too special. There are lots of resorts and it’s a bit out of the way, but if the weather is good and you have time, it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon. Tip: take an Uber there for only a few dollars!
Where to stay:
I stayed with a Couchsurfing host in Georgetown, but I was able to check out a few of the popular hostels while I was there. The Frame, 80s Guesthouse, and Tipsy Tiger Party Hostel are all good options for budget travelers, but there are plenty of others in the main hostel area, so you shouldn’t have to worry much about location.
Pro tip: Make sure to get a cheap SIM card so you can use Uber. It is way cheaper than using taxis if you need to go somewhere and it’s super convenient! Most places you can walk or take the bus, but I saved tons of money using Uber instead of the double decker tour bus or taxis for activities that weren’t within walking distance.
Best parts: Walkable, lots to do, amazing food, unique blend of cultures, architecture
Langkawi, which means brown eagle in Malay, is home to the steepest cable car in the world, beautiful waterfalls and beaches, and is a popular vacation spot for both Malay and foreign tourists. Langkawi is known for being a duty-free island, so alcohol and cigarettes in particular are cheaper than the rest of Malaysia. I don’t smoke, but I was shocked to see that cigarettes were only 2rm ($0.50 US)!
How to get there: The two hour ferry ride from Penang (~$18 USD) is very easy to book. If you are coming from the mainland, you can also take a ferry from Kuala Perlis.
Things to do:
- Cable Car: I actually would not recommend going here because it is expensive (45rm or $11 USD) and the views are frequently covered by the clouds at the top. It seemed like a touristy thing to do to check off your list, and I wouldn’t do it again. The Seven Wells waterfall nearby, however, was amazing, and I would definitely check it out if you’re in the area. Plus, it’s free! Cable car “views”:
- There is an awesome night market on Thursday nights in Pantai Cenang, which had incredible food!
- Enjoy the beautiful beaches with plenty of restaurants/bars, watersports, and places to chill out, either near where you stay or on one of the popular island hopping trips. I went island hopping, which was fun and very cheap (only 30rm or $7 USD), but I’ve heard the Mangrove tour is supposed to be even better!
Where to stay:
I stayed at Gecko Guesthouse, which I would highly recommend. It is inexpensive, has a fun and social vibe, and the perfect location right next to the strip of restaurants, shops and bars. Zackry Guest House is another popular hostel, but the location is not as good.
Best parts: Beaches, resort/beach town feel, great place to relax, easy to access via Penang
The Cameron Highlands, located in the center of the mainland of Malaysia, is known best for its trekking/nature walks and for being the home to the biggest flower in the world. The cooler climate and lush soil makes for an excellent place to grow strawberries, tea, and many other crops. The highest point in the Cameron Highlands is Gunung Brinchang at 6,666 feet, and if you go to the top, you can see breathtaking views of the area while standing in two states at once!
Pretty much everyone does at least one tour in the Cameron Highlands, which range from a couple hours to all day, depending on what you want to see. If you don’t rent a car or motorbike, this is the best way to see a lot in one day and meet other visitors. With that being said, they are the definition of a tourist trap (gift shops, short stops with lots of driving, etc.), so just be warned in advance. I did the half day tour to Gunung Brinchang, mossy forest, a butterfly garden, BOH tea plantation, and a strawberry farm, which was plenty for me and was a fair price of 50rm or $12 USD. There are tons of walks/treks you can do on your own, so don’t be afraid to venture from a tour.
Where to stay:
I stayed at TJ Lodge for 16rm ($4 USD), and it was fantastic! The owner, Won, is extremely friendly and helpful, and the hostel is clean with good WiFi and a perfect location. I would highly recommend it for budget travelers, but there are tons of great hotels and hostels in the area, and even some luxury hotels.
Best parts: Nature, cooler climate, easy to book tours or explore on your own
Perhentian Kecil (small) and Perhentian Besar (big) are the two islands off the east coast of mainland Malaysia known best for snorkeling/diving, incredible beaches, and being a (somewhat) untouched paradise. I would absolutely go on my honeymoon here! But until I find a husband, I’m fine with going solo to dive with sharks :).
The marine life is unreal at the Perhentians. I swam with turtles, reef sharks, blue-spotted rays, a humphead parrot fish (HUGE!), and even an octopus, on top of millions of other fish. Check out some of the photos:
How to get there:
Depending on where you are coming from, it can be a bit of a pain to get to the Perhentians, but once you arrive, you will be SO glad you did it! The night bus from Penang to Kuala Besut (closest port to Perhentians) is about 11 hours, and you will need to take another hour boat ride from there. Luckily, you can arrange a package with all transportation included from pretty much anywhere in Malaysia, so though it can be time-consuming, it is not difficult to figure out. I booked my transportation directly from my hostel in Langkawi for 170rm ($40 USD), which included a van from the hostel to the port, the ferry to Kuala Perlis (on mainland), the night bus from Kuala Perlis to Kuala Besut, the boat ride to Perhentian Kecil, and a return open boat ticket back to Kuala Besut. It was a bit pricey, but again, SO worth it.
The nearest airport is Kota Bharu, which is about an hour away from Kuala Besut, so if you have the chance to take a bus to either place, definitely go directly to Kuala Besut.
Recommended dive shops:
Matahari Divers was absolutely amazing (staff, price, location, boats, gear, etc.), so I would definitely recommend them. There are plenty of dive shops on Long Beach, which is the best access point for diving and snorkeling, so I would check out the different shops to see who you like the best and what prices they offer (all similar). But you should just go to Matahari to make it easy :).
Things to do:
- This should be self-explanatory, but enjoy being in absolute paradise! Chill out on a hammock with a book, relax on the beach, go swimming, and enjoy the restaurants on the sand.
- Go on at least one snorkeling or diving trip. I have NEVER seen Scuba diving this cheap. $20 USD seemed too good to be true! This would also be an excellent place to get your Open Water Certification (PADI), because it was only 990rm (~$230 USD), which is the cheapest I have ever seen it.
- Ombok Hotel/Restaurant at Coral Bay has a movie night every night at 7:30 on their outdoor projector, which is an awesome way to relax with some popcorn or dinner.
- Watch the sunset at Coral Bay. Exhibit A:
- Walk around the island! There are several beaches and viewpoints you can walk to, so if you want to take a break from snorkeling or diving, spend a morning doing some exploring before the heat gets to you.
Where to stay:
- Perhentian Kecil is the smaller island, which is recommended for budget travelers, whereas the big island is mostly high-end resorts and not as suited for backpackers.
- I would recommend staying on Long Beach, which is where most of the action is. Coral Bay is a nice, quieter alternative on other side of the island (10 minute walk), but there are plenty of places to explore and you can walk to other beaches as well, so you aren’t limited to where you sleep.
- Maya Bungalows at Coral Bay: 50rm ($12 USD) for a bungalow with a queen bed and private bathroom right on the beach! There are hammocks, a common area, and lots of palm trees if you want some shade. I wouldn’t stay here the entire time you are in the Perhentians (smaller and less action than Long Beach), but I loved it for two nights!
- Sunrise Hostel on Long Beach: Do not recommend. This was the worst hostel I have ever stayed in, and that’s saying a LOT. I won’t go into detail, but it is not worth saving the couple dollars to stay here. All I will say is that the staff is useless and don’t care if people steal from other guests, there is no security whatsoever (no lockers, one key left at reception for dorm room with 10 people), it’s dirty, there is no WiFi, and there is only power at night (though this is common on the island), and there is no warm water, etc. Point blank: sleep on the beach before you stay here. J
- Oh La La is 30rm ($7 USD) for a dorm room, and I have heard good things about it. It’s right next to Sunrise and I wish I stayed here instead!
One thing I did not know about the Perhentians before visiting is that robberies are extremely common, especially toward the end of the season. I know from first-hand experience (I’m fine, just lost quite a bit of money) how easy it is to be robbed on the island and even in hostels/hotels, so be very careful with your belongings and make sure to keep your valuables locked up or with you at all times. Generally, I felt safe on the island, but my hostel was not secure and I should’ve been more careful. This should not deter you from visiting the Perhentians whatsoever, but just a heads up!
Best parts: diving/snorkeling, island lifestyle, place to relax
KL is what Bangkok should be, in me and my friend Sessalli’s opinion. It’s a bustling city, but less intimidating and cleaner than Bangkok. One interesting thing to note about KL is that there is a heavy Muslim influence, and I actually felt like a minority here because I wasn’t wearing a headscarf or burka. It was so refreshing to see a place where Muslim people are accepted and would never be judged for their religion or culture, unlike many parts of the world. I thought it was really cool! Overall, Malaysia is very tolerant of different religions because of the cultural diversity, so you will often see mosques, temples, and churches all close to each other.
Where to stay:
I highly recommend Sunshine Bedz. It has everything you could want in a hostel: helpful and friendly staff, perfect location, air con, strong WiFi, free breakfast, and easy to meet people. It’s a little pricy for my standards at $8 USD/night for a dorm, but I have no regrets whatsoever about staying here. Patrick, the owner, is an absolute LEGEND. This guy literally saved my life in an almost crisis by driving me an hour to pick up an important package that was held up at customs. He is a super fun and genuine, and I’d stay there just on that premise alone!
Things to do:
- Don’t miss visiting the Petronas Towers/KLCC fountain show at night, Chinatown, Central Market, and at least one rooftop bar.
- Helibar, a converted helicopter pad turned into a rooftop bar, which happened to be walking distance from my hostel, was a great place to watch the sunset and see the KL skyline from above. Entrance is free, but you do need to purchase a very pricy (30-40rm or $8-10 USD) drink to get to the roof. This is a nice alternative to Skybar, but both have a great view of the KL skyline.
- Batu Caves: I didn’t have time to go here, but I’ve heard good things and you can get there by public transit. I’d look online or ask your hostel/hotel for more information.
- Malls on malls on malls. Everywhere. I am from one of the shopping capitals of the world and I have never seen anything like it! Singapore is the only place I’ve seen that compares to the level of shopping there is in KL. If I wasn’t a poor backpacker, I would definitely buy all kinds of stuff in KL because designer items are much less in Malaysia than in the U.S. and many other places in the world. Is it necessary to have three H&Ms within a few blocks of each other? No, but it’s pretty dang cool.
Best parts: Easy to navigate public transport, shopping, food, nightlife
- One U.S. dollar is worth approximately 4 Malaysian ringgit
- Kuala Lumpur airport is a huge hub for several major airlines, including Air Asia, so flights will most likely be cheapest in and out of here. Many people choose to do a loop in Malaysia, starting and ending in KL.
- Singapore is only a four hour bus ride from KL and is very cheap and easy to take, so I highly recommend taking a trip there if you have time! I chose to book my flight out of Singapore to make a short 24 hour visit and I am so glad I did :).
- Indian food is extremely popular throughout Malaysia, so make sure to try all of the traditional dishes!
I hope you found this guide helpful and that you choose to visit Malaysia in the future! Though it may not be on everyone’s bucket list for Southeast Asia, it definitely should be. Did I miss something? Have any questions or feedback? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section!
As always, thanks for reading :).