While I didn't know much about Malaysia before visiting, I quickly came to love it.
I journeyed to Malaysia overland from Thailand, and instantly the landscape changed: better, cleaner roads, no billboards, women in colorful headdresses, verdant rice paddies and wild, red-earthed jungle.
Second only to Singapore, Malaysia is the richest country in Southeast Asia, making public transit a breeze and the level of English impressively high. The high level of English made meeting locals much easier than in other parts of Southeast Asia, save Singapore.*
Malaysia is also extremely diverse, but I soon found that Malaysia is less of a melting pot and more of a stew. Malaysia is composed of three main ethnic groups that rarely intermarry: Malay (60%), Chinese (23%) and Indian (7%). Interestingly enough, these ethnic groups grow up speaking different languages, practicing different religions and eating different food.
For example, when I referred to a group of Chinese-Malay girls I had met as Malay, they retorted, “We're not Malay! We're Chinese.”
Malaysia isn't a typical fixture on the Southeast Asian backpacking trail. It's fairly expensive for Southeast Asia and the alcohol isn't cheap.
That being said there are pockets of the backpacking scene- Reggae Mansion in Kuala Lumpur, for example, as well as the Perhentian Islands.
If all you want to do is party, Malaysia is not the place. But if you're interested in fascinating culture, hundreds of years of history and some of the best meals of your life, I'd whole-heartedly recommend Malaysia.
Here are my recommendations for a two week Malaysia itinerary if you have limited time. I've also noted a few things that weren't worth the hype (in my humble opinion) so you won't waste your time.
Note- the recommended accommodation is geared towards budget-conscious travelers like myself, so if you're not interested in hostels or guesthouses then skip that part!
Penang – 5 nights
It's no secret that I loved Penang– between the beautiful Peranakan mansions and the splashes of street art all over the city, I fell hard for this little colonial city. I would highly recommend between 2-4 days there.
Where to stay:
I really liked Roommates Penang, the self-titled “coziest guesthouse in Penang” for its central location, glacial AC, historic Chinese shophouse facade and reasonable price. It could use a common room though.
What to do:
While in Penang visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, an opulent mansion that will teach you about Peranakan history, the Clan Jetties, the historical docklands where Chinese-Malay clans have lived for more than a century and see all of the street art around Georgetown– I loved Ernest Zacharevic's work in particular.
Where to eat:
Make sure to try Penang's most famous local dish, Char Kuey Teow, saucy, stir-fried noodles with shrimp, bean sprouts, eggs and Chinese chives.
Also if you're craving Indian head to Little India for dinner- I ate very well there!
Cameron Highlands – 2 nights
While I personally didn't really get The Cameron Highlands (truthfully I found them a bit boring), a lot of people love them. I will admit that they are a good place to escape the heat and take pictures of verdant tea fields, so head there if you're dying to cool-down (totally reasonable in Malaysia.)
Kuala Lumpur – 3 nights
KL decidedly doesn't have the best reputation- it's not a beautiful city by any means, and is terrible for pedestrians, with lots of highways and shoddy sidewalks. That being said I loved my time there and found the contrast of colorful colonial architecture and 70s skyscrapers kind of charming. Plus, the food is AMAZING.
Where to stay:
Backpackers, get theeselves to Reggae Mansion.
I've stayed at 60-70+ hostels in my travels and NO JOKE, Reggae Mansion is my favorite hostel in the world. It has three storeys, spotless cubby bunks (a must for privacy), great AC, a movie room, a hilarious owner and a rooftop bar where you can party, try karaoke and smoke shisha. My travel buddy and I stayed an entire week.
As a lover of Islamic art and architecture I enjoyed the Islamic Arts Museum. The Museum was very peaceful with few tourist and had centuries-old qur'ans, traditional clothing and tiles on display- well worth a visit.
If you've never been to India you might enjoy the Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Murugan that was built in 2006. Personally I found it a bit crowded, dirty and crawling with macaques. But if you're interested in Hindu deities it might be worth a stop.
Note- ladies should cover up with a shawl and long skirt or you'll have to rent a sarong at the gate.
All of the street food. I spent a week there eating solely from dirt-cheap hole-in-the-wall restaurants and couldn't have been happier. I'd particularly recommend trying curry laksa, chicken rice (of course) and fish head bihun.
Malacca – 3 nights
While I didn't adore Melaka quite as much as Penang, I still enjoyed the beautiful riverside city. Melaka was colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch AND British, so naturally has lots of history.
What to do:
Despite my interest in colonial history I wasn't a huge fan of A Famosa, the only remains of a Portuguese fort, or the Dutch graveyard, where most of the graves are actually English.
Where to stay:
No recommendations here- I ended up staying in a charmless guesthouse as I wasn't able to find an appealing hostel. Check out hotels in Melaka here.
Where to eat:
The Jonker Walk Night Market is a bustling market with tons of great eats- I had really good turnip cakes and pork buns there.
The best food I tried in Melaka was satay celup, which I had at Ban Li Xiang. If the idea of dipping food-on-a-stick into a vat of bubbling peanut sauce appeals to you, head there.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Obviously, this itinerary is just a suggestion and I haven't been everywhere in Malaysia by any means. If I could go back I would visit the Perhentian Islands or Langkawi for beaches, Borneo for jungle and orangutans and Sipadan for some of the best scuba-diving in the world.
*(And while I'm all for speaking foreign languages, I speak three fluently after all, the level of English in a foreign country DOES matter if you care about meeting locals. You can't speak every language unfortunately!)
Malaysia is overall a very easy country to travel in; the level of English is high and the public transit is great. I traveled solo for part of my trip and always felt safe.
Although Malaysia is a Muslim country, I wore tank tops and shorts every day. The only place where I covered up was the Batu Caves.
In Penang, I stayed at Roommates and really enjoyed it. It costs 28 ringgit ($6 USD) for a dorm bed.
In Kuala Lumpur, I stayed at Reggae Mansion, my favorite hostel in Asia.
I didn’t find any good accommodation in Malacca – see hotels in Malacca here.
Make sure to purchase travel insurance before your trip to Malaysia. I've used World Nomads for years and highly recommend it.
Have you ever been to Malaysia? Where would you recommending going?
Roommates Penang and Reggae Mansion generously hosted my stay for two nights each. As always, all opinions are completely my own.