Malaysia travel tips | Good to know before you go
The thing about the weather – When is the best time to visit Malaysia?
Once you leave Kuala Lumpur’s airport you get confronted by heavily humid and hot air. Welcome to the climate of the rainforest!
The weather in Malaysia can be extremely hot all day and you have to get used to its extreme air humidity. Usually, temperatures are above 30 degrees Celcius and there’s a constant humidity of more than 90%.
And when it rains, it’s raining buckets. Take the usual heavy rain you know and double its intensity. This happens a lot during late afternoon / early evening.
You can visit Malaysia all year round, as it’s always hot and humid.
Before you start your Malaysia itinerary, check out which parts of the country are in monsoon season while you’ll be there. There are different monsoon seasons on the west and the east coast: From May to October it’s southwest monsoon (so it rains heavily on the west coast) and from November to March is northeast monsoon season (so it rains a lot on the east coast).
During this time you can expect days full of rain. All. Day. Long. Yet, there have also been times when I went to parts of Malaysia during the rainy season and it only rained once a day. So you can also be lucky. But be aware that you should always be prepared for rain, as it’s never really predictable.
Sunny & rainy days in Malaysia
Language & currency
The traditional Malaysian language is Bahasa Melayu (or simply: Malay). However, English has also been an official language since colonial times. Therefore, the majority of the people speak English, which makes traveling and communication in Malaysia quite easy.
Bahasa is written in the classic Latin alphabet, so it’s not even hard to read (and it’s pretty much pronounced the way you write it).
And locals will give you a huge smile if you know a few words of Bahasa. So here’s a small list you should try to remember:
“Welcome” – Selamat datang
“Good morning” – Selamat pagi
“Good afternoon/evening” – Selamat petang
“Hello” – helo
“Thank you” – Tarima kasih
“You’re welcome” – Sama sama
“Goodbye” – Selamat tinggal
The country’s currency is Malaysian Ringgit (RM). Around 5 Ringgit exchange to a bit more than 1 Dollar (for which you can already get a meal in some places). 10 Ringgit are around $ 2 – 2.50.
So you get the idea – Malaysia is quite cheap to travel around, especially when you’re backpacking in Malaysia. At the same time, the country has changed a lot during the last 20 years and the economy has boomed a lot. This also means, it’s becoming more and more expensive, and ins some places more westernized. You can feel this, especially in the city of KL where you experience the richest and the poorest side of Malaysia.
Food is such a huge part of a country’s culture. Food is love. The amazing thing about Malaysian cuisine is its many influences – Chinese, Indian, Malay. The best of all comes together over here.
Eating is a very social thing in Malaysia. Hardly ever someone orders a dish only for himself or herself. When you have dinner, lunch or breakfast with family or friends, usually we order many different dishes and share them. So you can try everything. That’s the way I grew up and I still love sharing food.
By the way, locals love to go out for food. Why bother cooking if you can get all that yummy stuff for a few Ringitt around the corner?
Locals usually eat at a kopi shop (coffee shop) or a food court, where you find lots of food stalls and can get any type of dishes you want. It’s heaven!
Also, you get tropical fruits and fresh fruit juice everywhere (my fav is Mango juice – just order it without sugar, otherwise they’ll add a lot)! Besides, with the hot weather, you won’t say no to a fresh young coconut, especially by the beach. It’s just so refreshing and yummy!
Here are some typical Malaysian dishes and a short explanation (as the Bahasa names may sound very strange when you first hear them):
Kuey Teow – fried rice noodles with egg, seafood, and chilies
Nasi Lemak – a dish traditionally wrapped in a banana leaf: coconut rice served with sambal (a chili sauce) and crispy ikan bilis (fried anchovies). In Malaysia, you usually eat it for breakfast but trust me it’s awesome any time of the day.
Roti Canai – Roti in Malay basically means “bread” but is usually used for a dish with a savory kind of pancake served with curry to dip into. It’s so good, believe me!
Popiah – The Malaysian version of a fresh, fully packed, yummy spring roll
Penang Prawn Mee (or called Hokkien Mee in Penang) – one of my favorite dishes on earth. It’s a noodle soup with yummy broth, prawns, eggs, and veggies.
Nasi goreng – which basically means “fried rice” in Malay (there are different kinds – with veggies, with meat, or seafood).
Banana Leaf Rice – a southern Indian dish with rice and curries served on a banana leaf which you traditionally eat with your hands. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved banana leaf rice. For an authentic experience, try to eat it with your hand (your right hand only and only with the tip of your fingers, to be precise in terms of tradition!). Initially, it may feel kind of strange, but it’s a completely different experience. They say you truly ‘feel’ the food when you eat it with your hand which makes it taste even better. In my opinion, it’s true!
Murtabak – kind of a generous wrap filled with curry (often with meat) and eggs, folded and fried.
Kuih – a dessert made from sticky rice, combined with either a filling or topping of coconut and brown sugar. Usually, you see it in different colors as the rice is naturally colored. It doesn’t taste as artificial as it looks.
Durian is part of the true Malaysian experience. It’s also called stinky fruit, as it really has a very unique smell that many people don’t find pleasant. The taste and creamy texture are unique and hard to compare to anything else. Give it a try, even if just once.
Teh Tarik – a sweet tea with condensed milk (“tarik” means pull – as it’s the traditional way the tea is prepared, originally to mix and cool the tea)
Nasi Lemak | Kuey Teow | Banana Leaf Rice
Customs & religion
Here’s one more thing I really want to share with you. Be aware that Malaysia is a strict, conservative Muslim country. You’ll notice it very soon after your arrival when you first hear the sound of the prayers from the mosque’s speakers resound throughout the streets in the early morning or before sunset.
At the same time, due to the mix of cultures, there’s also a large variety of religions (around 60 % Islam, 20 % Buddhism, 10 % Christianity, and 6 % Hinduism). In my eyes, this mix is beautiful. But it can also lead to conflicts.
With its many religions, you will come across numerous religious sites across the country. The Mosques, Buddhist temples, and Hindu temples are among the most fascinating things to see on your Malaysia itinerary. However, keep in mind that those are not sites made for tourists but sacred places to the religious locals.
So don’t visit those places if you’re not prepared! Prepared means: Know the customs, such as: Take off your shoes when you enter a temple! And always bring something to cover your shoulders and knees! These are the Malaysia travel tips that you have to know!
Buddhist & Hindu temples in Malaysia
Sustainable travel in Malaysia
Being home to some of the world’s oldest rainforests, deforestation is one of the most severe threats to Malaysian nature. The reasons are palm oil production and urbanization. You realize this already when landing in Kuala Lumpur – palm oil plantations everywhere you look.
If you’re unlucky, the time on your Malaysia itinerary will be super cloudy due to haze from Indonesian forest fires. These illegal fires not only harm the rainforest ruining the habitat of thousands of animals. At the same time, the fires cause a dangerous haze all over Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
I’ve been to Malaysia in times when people weren’t allowed to leave their houses because the unhealthy haze had gotten so dense.
Further threats, especially for the underwater world are global warming and the growing dive tourism. With extraordinary dive sites especially in Sipadan and Sabah, it’s no wonder that these are becoming more and more popular. However, it’s super important to be respectful and considerate divers. That’s the only way that the underwater world will still be untouched in the future.
However, eco-tourism initiatives try to preserve Malaysia’s hidden gems in nature.
Already over 20 years ago, the Malaysian government introduced the National Eco-Tourism Plan
. It provides an ecotourism strategy that was intended to protect the country’s untouched places, and conserve the environment but also ensure the well-being of the locals.
In accordance with this framework, many Malaysian tourism destinations have been designated protected areas (such as forest or wildlife reserves or marine parks). The ancient rainforest of Taman Negara on Malaysia’s mainland and Bako Nationalpark in Borneo are just two examples. That’s the reason Malaysian nature is still as beautiful as it is.
Malaysia’s beautiful wildlife and nature
Besides, there are many programs, such as the ROAR (Restore Our Amazing Rainforest)
program in Borneo. As a traveler, you can reduce your carbon footprint, contribute to the restoration of the rainforest and benefit local communities as well as animals when you participate in this program.
There’s also The Malaysian Homestay program which supports rural ecotourism and local communities to gain an income. With this program, you as a traveler can stay with a local family and dive deep into their culture (and taste their home-cooked food – the best part of it).
Besides supporting these programs and initiatives, as a sustainable traveler, make sure to:
book local guides on your Malaysia itinerary
support the national parks and rehabilitation centers with a donation, so Malaysia’s rare species can be protected
stay and eat at locals places in order to support the local economy
join a beach clean-up or pick up trash yourself when you see some plastic bottles or other trash on the beach
interact with locals to learn about their cultures
Volunteer to support local environmental organizations, such as Ecoteer
for turtle conservation, marine reef research, and educational/teaching projects
The perfect Malaysia itinerary
Now that you’re aware of most of the basics that help you to travel through Malaysia, let’s take a look at which Malaysia itinerary is best for you.
I recommend spending at least three weeks in Malaysia. During this time, you can have a mix of cities and towns, experiencing the landscape and relaxing by some beaches. You could also include some days in Singapore, as it’s only a few hours bus ride from Malacca or Kuala Lumpur.
For the choice of your beach stay check the monsoon season: from May to October choose an island on the east coast & from November to April choose an island on the west coast.
Two weeks in Malaysia itinerary
If you’ve only got two weeks in Malaysia (which is super short!), you can cover some highlights of the Malaysian peninsula, and add one island for some nice beach time in the end:
Kuala Lumpur (3 days) with a day trip to Cameron highlands
Malacca (2-3 days)
Penang (4 days)
One island for a beach stay (3-4 days, e.g. Langkawi, Perhentian islands, or Tioman – depending on the monsoon season)
back to Kuala Lumpur for your flight back
Malaysia itinerary 2 weeks (click for more details)
Three weeks in Malaysia itinerary
With three weeks in Malaysia, there’s enough time to explore peninsular Malaysia more deeply (which covers many places to visit). Here’s a suggestion:
Kuala Lumpur (2-3 days)
Malacca (2-3 days)
possible add-on: Singapore (4 days – it’s just a 3-hour bus ride from Malacca)
Cameron highlands (2-3 days)
Penang (4 days)
One island for a beach stay (3-4 days, e.g. Langkawi, Perhentian islands, or Tioman – depending on the monsoon season)
back to Kuala Lumpur for your flight back
Malaysia itinerary 3 weeks (click for more details)
More than three weeks in Malaysia itinerary
With more than three weeks in Malaysia, you can take it easy, fall in love with slow travel
and dive deeper into Malaysian culture. So take the three weeks in Malaysia itinerary and stay as long in any of those destinations as you like.
Also, there’s another highlight waiting for you: With a Malaysia itinerary of more than 3 weeks, you can also explore the jungle of the huge island of Borneo! Plan at least one more week, if you’d like to see one part of Borneo (Sarawak or Sabah) and at least two more weeks, to visit both states.
Malaysia itinerary more than 3 weeks (click for more details)
How to get around Malaysia?
The transportation network in Malaysia is awesome, so I highly recommend using public transport.
After landing at KLIA (the international airport), you can either take the fast train or a bus into the city. Both options are convenient and inexpensive.
In KL you can get around by LRT or MRT (the metro system) or use Grab (which is the Asian version of Uber, and it’s super cheap!). For the budget travelers who are backpacking in Malaysia: There’s even a free bus service in Kuala Lumpur
, called Go KL (check the lines here
)! They cruise five circular routes covering many of the main places to see in the heart of the city (even with free Wi-Fi).
Between different towns and islands, there are numerous bus companies that bring you from one place to the next. And the buses are great and super comfortable! Even to Penang island, you can get by bus, as there’s a large bridge. And the other islands can be reached by ferry which runs regularly during the dry season.
One thing to note here: Malaysians love aircon! So no matter which mode of transport you choose, bring a sweater! Chances are that you’re carried around in a freezer.
Another option for your Malaysia itinerary is getting a rental car, as the roads are mostly quite good. But be aware that you have to be comfortable with driving on the left side of the road!
But, well, looking at the map of Malaysia, you quickly realize that there’s one large part of Malaysia that you won’t reach by land. The two main parts of Malaysia – its peninsula and the island of Borneo – are divided by more than 500 km of Ocean. So, in order to visit the oldest rainforest in the world in Borneo, there’s no other option than flying.
In Borneo itself, there is a good bus network as well.
Getting around Malaysia walking, on the road and by boat
Getting around Malaysia on the road & by boat
Places to see on your Malaysia itinerary
I’ve known KL since I was a little kid. Ever since I’ve loved it for its street food and mix of cultures. While the city has changed a lot during the last 20 years due to increasing tourism and economic growth, and it seems to change every time I’m back, in its heart KL is still the same.
You’re still surrounded by street food vendors, haggling people, traffic jams, and hectic business people. Well, and a few more skyscrapers.
Despite the heat, it’s worth exploring the city on foot. During the last few years, they’ve built more and more pavements to make Kuala Lumpur easier to be explored by walking.
To Do in KL
Petronas Towers – Called “Twin Towers” by the locals, they used to be the world’s highest building until 2004. They’re still the tallest twin skyscrapers at almost 500 meters. Visit the towers’ gardens just before sunset (before 7 p.m.) for the best view.
Thean Hou Temple – An impressive Buddhist Temple a bit outside of the center. From here, you also get a great view of the KL skyline in the distance. Remember to bring something to cover your shoulders and knees or wear long sleeves.
The Central area around China Town, Merdaka Square, the Old Railway Station & Central Market – This historic part is easy to walk and covers many highlights in KL
China Town / Petaling Street – There’s so much more to explore in China Town than the bustling market stalls selling all kinds of stuff (nowadays mostly counterfeit products) in Jalan Petaling. In Jalan Thun H S Lee, you can dig into Malaysian culture as there is a Buddhist temple as well as a Hindu Temple.
Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) – Walk along the stream and cross the bridge in order to reach the historic square and the beautiful Sultan Abdul Samad building.
Kuala Lumpur’s Old Railway Station – The Old Railway Station is quite a beautiful building and is just a short walk from China Town.
Pasar Seni (Central Market) – This used to be KL’s place to go when you were looking for authentic souvenirs and household stuff. However, in my opinion, it has lost its charm due to the growing number of touristy stalls.
Lake Gardens – KL’s beautiful botanical gardens are the lung of the city. Perfect for a stroll and to see many tropical plants of the rainforest, listen to exotic singing birds and maybe meet a monkey or an iguana. When you walk all the way up to the top of Lake Gardens, you get a nice view over KL.
Batu Caves – Malaysia’s highest statue of the Hindu god watches in front of the entrance to the 272 steps that lead up to the temple within the limestone caves. Refresh yourself with a cold coconut afterward that are sold everywhere on the square. Mhhh those are childhood memories for me!
Pasar Malam (night markets) – Well, actually night markets are popular all over Malaysia (when the sun has set it finally gets bearable to do some shopping). In KL, the location differs every night. Here you can buy tropical vegetables and fruits, and find lots of yummy street food stalls and all kinds of stuff (from household to clothing you can find everything here).
Forest Research Institute Malaysia & Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve – Just 30 minutes outside of KL, this is the perfect place to escape the city and get some jungle feeling. Here you can go camping, visit their canopy walk or try bird watching.
Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Mosque – The country’s largest mosque (and also the second-largest mosque in Southeast Asia) inspired by the architecture of the Taj Mahal and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
Menara Kuala Lumpur (KL Tower) – From up here, you can enjoy a view all over KL since it is located on a hill and therefore is almost as high as the Petronas Towers.
Bukit Bintang – If you fancy some shopping, there are more shopping malls than you can count in KL – such as those high-class malls around Bukit Bintang
Merdaka square | Petaling Street (China Town) | Petronas Twin Towers
Food in KL
Stays in KL
Most hotels in KL are located in huge skyscrapers, such as EQ Kuala Lumpur
. However, you may know that I’m a fan of smaller hotels. So here’s a small selection:
Tiang Jin Hotel
– a beautiful small hotel for a more authentic, traditional stay in the heart of Kuala Lumpur
– A stylish, but affordable hotel right in the central area around Bukit Bintang.
– A small, minimalist design hotel for budget travelers.
If you’re backpacking in Malaysia, check out these awesome hostels in KL:
Batu Cave | The old train station | Street food markets
While you barely saw any tourists here 20 years ago, the town’s center is full of visitors from any part of the world nowadays.
Malacca (spelled Melaka in Bahasa) is probably the most historic town in Malaysia. It used to be the country’s most important harbor and hence the place, where all colonial history started. You can feel the mix of cultures all over town, as the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the English have left many traces in Malacca. This makes it a true historic highlight on any Malaysia itinerary.
Besides, it’s the town where my Granny used to live and where my dad grew up. So it’s a very special place for me. Listening to his stories from playing by the beach as a kid in that old little fishers’ town, it seems stunning how Malacca has evolved into such a busy place.
To Do in Malacca
A’Famosa – Malaysia has a historical past as it used to be a Portuguese, Dutch, and eventually British colony. Among the leftovers from colonial times is A’Famosa, a Portuguese fortress. The only part still standing is the Porta de Santiago, a small gatehouse of the fortress.
St. Paul’s Hill – A’Famosa is located at the foot of St Paul’s Hill on top of which lie the remains of St Paul’s Church. A church in the strictly Muslim country Malaysia? Right, the Dutch and the Portuguese also brought Christianity to Malaysia during its colonial past.
Enter ‘The Ship’ – Malacca’s Maritime Museum is quite a landmark, as it’s a replica of Flora De Lamar, a Portuguese ship that sank at the coast of Malacca. The small museum inside is fascinating, as it shows Portuguese history and its impacts on Malaysia. I still remember me and my brother playing in front of it as small children.
Jonker Street – This street springs to life with its weekend night market that takes place from Friday to Sunday after the sun has set. Due to its proximity to the equator, sunset is at around 7 p.m. in Malaysia.
The riverfront bars and cafes – The perfect place for a drink are the many bars and cafes along the channel.
Food markets – Don’t leave Malacca before strolling across the food markets (see below).
Christ Church | Malacca river | The town by night
Food in Malacca
Street food on Jalan Kee An – When the day comes to an end in Malacca, you should indulge yourself with some street food in one of the many street food stalls. Here you’ll get the typical local fare and a large range of different traditional Malay, Nonya, and Chinese-influenced dishes.
Wild Coriander – a beautiful restaurant by the riverfront that looks like a garden on the inside.
Stays in Malacca
You’ll find lots of locally run guesthouses in town – many of them right by the river.
– A stylish budget hotel in a traditional house, typical for Malacca.
The Rucksack Caratel
– A charming little and affordable hotel where you can even sleep in a caravan. What a cool concept with a nice pool (which you’ll love in the Malaysian heat)!
Liu Men Melaka
– Malaysian high class at its best! This lovely hotel combines traditional architecture and modern style.
– A super clean and cozy hostel right in the heart of Malacca.
– A welcoming hostel that makes you feel like you just arrived at a friend’s place with a lovely rooftop space to hang out.
Did you know that from Malacca it’s only 3-4 hours by bus to Singapore? The buses in Malaysia are extremely comfortable and almost feel like luxury buses. So the trip to Singapore is well worth it!
Singapore is like the superlative of Malaysia’s most adorable sides – from the amazing local food to the mix of cultures and their hospitality. Additionally, it’s amazingly clean and super safe. But Singapore is worth a separate article. Here, I’m focusing on Malaysia. I just wanted to let you know that you can easily include a trip to Singapore in your Malaysia itinerary.
Do you feel like escaping the boiling heat? Totally understandable, especially if you’re not used to the tropical, humid heat. Its cooler climate is exactly why locals love a trip to Cameron Highlands. Over here, you’re welcomed by mild 20–25 degrees Celsius. Even strawberries grow in the climate up here! But most of all the highlands are known for the green, lush hills where the famous Malaysian tea grows.
After an adventurous bus ride through the jungle, you can take a few days on your Malaysia itinerary to relax up here. Awww, I love the mystic mornings in Cameron Highlands with the view of the tea plants covered in fog.
To Do in Cameron Highlands:
BOH tea plantations – To see where the tea plants grow and how the traditional tea is produced – a stunning view of green hills everywhere
Visit the top of the hill (among Mossy Forest) – From here, you can see all over the jungle across two states: Pahang & Perak
Go hiking – There are many hiking trails in Cameron highlands where you can inhale the clear, fresh air and get mesmerized by the green landscape
Stays in Cameron Highlands:
Tea plantations and mossy forest in Cameron Highlands
The island Penang is often called Malaysia’s food heaven. And I totally agree. So don’t miss it on your Malaysia itinerary!
Since I was a child, I remember coming here every time we were in Malaysia – not because of the beaches, but because of the food. And honestly, you can find much more beautiful beaches elsewhere in Malaysia. But the food in Penang is unbeatable.
Besides, there’s a lovely vibe in Georgetown, Penang’s capital, with a mix of old streets, traditional temples, as well as modern street art, and funky cafés. Also, there are a bunch of opportunities for day trips.
Many fellow travelers I’ve met in Malaysia said that Penang was one of their highlights. So I’m sure, you’ll love it too.
One thing to note: Even though there’s a large bridge connecting Penang to the mainland, most bus companies will drop you off in Butterworth (which is the closest town on the mainland). But there’s a ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown (the capital of Penang) for literally only a few cents.
To Do in Penang:
The Clan Jetties / Penang Chew Jetty – This is one of six wooden waterfront settlements built on stilts (so-called “Kampong houses”). It’s like a village in front of Georgetown’s coast at Weld Quay. It was built decades ago by Chinese clans trying to save taxes (as technically speaking they weren’t living on the island).
Street art (Georgetown Heritage walk) – What started off with a street art project in 2012 completely transformed the image of George Town. If you search for street art in Georgetown on Google Maps, it shows you many of the spots. But it’s also nice to just stroll through the town and get surprised by some amazing art around many corners.
Taman Negara Pulau Penang – “Taman Negara” means national park – so it’s the perfect place to dive deep into Malaysia’s stunning nature. Jungle trekking is always fun and full of surprises. There are many trekking routes that you can explore by yourself. You probably end up at a beautiful, natural beach – the most beautiful hidden gems in Malaysia.
Kek Lok Si temple – Already as a small child, I loved coming to this huge site with several Buddhist temples on top of Penang hill. But I have to be honest, it used to be in better shape. However, you can see more and more restorations, e.g. at its huge Pagoda that watches across the island.
Batu Ferringhi & Pasar Malam – Do you feel like beach time? While Batu Ferringhi is another place full of childhood memories for me, I want to underline once more, that Penang doesn’t have the most beautiful beaches. There are more stunning islands when it comes to beaches. But a quick swim at Batu Ferringhi is always fun. After sunset, there’s a large night market (“pasar malam”) along the main road of Batu Ferringhi.
Try all the food – Although you’re about to read all insider tips for the best street food places in Penang, I have to emphasize that you’re in a melting pot of cultures, spices, and mouth-watering influences. So you have to try it all! Food over here is very unique due to Penang’s culture mix and the major influences of Hainanese communities.
Street art and Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang
Food in Penang:
Simply put, Penang is all about street food. You can get amazing food on almost every corner. But it’s always best to know where to head to. So definitely check out these places for the most authentic street food:
Chulia Street Hawker (starting at 7 p.m.) – A popular food hunting place in George Town. Here you’ll find all the popular dishes such as Curry Mee, Wantan Mee, Satay, and fresh fruit juice for cheap prices. My highlight was the Apom lady (“Apom” are Malaysian mini pancakes). It’s so much fun to watch how she prepares Apom in her many tiny pans.
Sri Weld – One of the most famous food courts in Penang. You can stop by to grab a banana leaf-wrapped Nasi Lemak or try one of the many other food stalls.
Cecil Street market – A food court loved by locals with a great choice of authentic, local dishes.
888 Hokkien Mee – For a very local, authentic street food experience you have to try Hokkien Mee (also called Prawn Mee) at Lebuh Presgrave. There are also some other street food stalls, but the Hokkien Mee is a must-try.
CY Choy Road Hokkien Mee – Once recommended by CNN Travel and is located in one of Penang’s heritage houses along Beach street. They’ve been selling Hokkien mee for over 50 years.
Laska Bisu – Laksa is Penang’s signature dish. You can find really good at Laksa Bisu, served by a mute owner.
Air Itam Laksa – Right next to Laksa Bisu there’s another authentic place. You can perfectly combine a lunch break there if you visit Kek Lok Si temple or Penang Hill.
Sister Curry Mee – Directly nearby you also get to Air Itam Sister Curry Mee where you find true Penang street food with historical charm, as they’ve been selling Curry Mee (one of my favorite Malaysian dishes) for over 70 years.
Stays in Penang:
It’s a good choice to stay in Georgetown. This way you’ll be surrounded by all the amazing places to eat.
– For budget travelers. We had a great stay in this beautiful hotel, with its small but stylish rooms. What else do you need? You’ll spend most of your time outdoors anyway.
– This is the perfect option if you’d like a modern hotel with a pool where you can cool down from the heat
The Frame Guesthouse
– You couldn’t get a better location than on Chulia Street! This means you’re only one step away from all the yummy food!
House of Journey
– Of course, I love the name. But it’s also a cozy hostel run with love – perfect to meet fellow globetrotters.
Penang Prawn Mee | Dim Sum | Veggies on a market
Loved by both tourists and locals, Langkawi offers everything you want from a beach holiday: Stunning beaches with clear water and fine sand (of course!), amazing natural surroundings, and a great selection of attractions for the whole family.
My top recommendation is to rent a scooter in order to cruise across the large island, stop by fruit stalls along the way and enjoy the nice breeze. This is the easiest and most fun way to reach the secluded beaches (such as Tanjung Rhu) and the different locations of the daily night markets.
Remember to check the monsoon times before you go. Definitely don’t go to Langkawi if you’re planning your Malaysia itinerary for September or October. These are the worst months of the monsoon up here. I made that mistake once and it poured all day every day, so we were barely able to enjoy the beautiful beaches.
To Do in Langkawi:
Unesco Global Geopark (Mangroves & Kilim river)
– Admire the exotic life and do a boat trip
or a kayak trip
through the spectacular mangroves and Kilim river
Beach beach beach
– Many of Langkawi’s beaches look like you arrived in the heart of paradise! So get some fresh fruits from a fruit stall and spend a day by the beach where you can watch tiny crabs and sip a fresh coconut (just remember to bring your own straw
). Here’s a selection of Langkawi’s stunning beaches:
Seven wells waterfalls – An easy hike starting close to the Skybridge parking brings you to these beautiful waterfalls.
Night market (“pasar malam”) – Every night, Langkawi’s night market (or “pasar malam” in Malay) is held in another village on the island. Vendors sell a wide range of local food and many other items, such as clothes and souvenirs. Even though it’s a meeting place for locals, expats, and tourists, there’s a local atmosphere and the prices are cheap.
Cable car up to the Sky Bridge – This is a very touristy thing to do in Langkawi, and the prices have gone up like crazy during the last few years. However, on a clear day, the view from the top is amazing. But you shouldn’t be scared of heights, as the cable car is the world’s steepest, and the bridge is made out of glass.
A beach in Langkawi | Cable car | Seven Wells Waterfalls
Food in Langkawi
Even though Langkawi and Penang are so close, the food culture differs completely. This is due to the people that make up the majority of the islands’ inhabitants. In Penang, the majority of people have Chinese roots and are Buddhists. Langkawi, on the other hand, is dominated by Muslim Malay locals. This influence becomes also very clear in the food.
You can find the best food at the pasar malam (night market) which changes location every night. Try the freshly prepared Kuey Teow (fried noodles) which is served piping hot or the Murtabak.
Besides, you can find many small local restaurants along the street of Pantai Chenang.
Stays in Langkawi
The most popular area to stay is around Pantai Chenang (Chenang bay). Many accommodations can be found here, and you’re close to many small, local restaurants. However, you can also stay deeper in the jungle. But in that case, you definitely need a car or a scooter to explore the island.
– With a cozy common area just a few minutes from the main road with many food options
– A relatively new hostel with capsules in the lively area around Pantai Cenang
Street food market in Langkawi | Fruit stalls | Watermelon by the beach
Two tiny islands in front of Malaysia’s east coast make up the paradisiacal Perhentian Islands. The perfect place to find tranquility and undisturbed relaxation on your Malaysia itinerary. In the evenings there is not much going on. Over here, it’s all about hanging out on the beach and diving. But what else do you need?
There are two Perhentian Islands where you can stay – Perhentian Kecil (Malay for “the small Perhentian island”) and Perhentian Besar (“the big Perhentian Island”).
You can reach them by boat from Kuala Besut, which is a small coastal town near Kota Bahru Airport. You can get to Kuala Besut jetty from many places in Malaysia, as the country has a great bus network. Be aware that the last boat to the Perhentian islands leaves at 4 p.m. from Kuala Besut jetty.
We stayed on Kecil and had an amazing time. That’s why my recommendations focus on Perhentian Kecil.
To Do in the Perhentian Islands
Beaches – There are two main beaches, on each side of the island
Coral Bay on the western side and Long Beach on the eastern side. But besides, you’ll find several beautiful small, remote beaches with crystal clear water. You can easily walk from one bay to another through some small jungle treks. It’s also quite fast to cross the island, but there’s just one path connecting Coral Bay and Long Beach.
Mira beach is one of the empty beaches and my favorite. It feels just like paradise: An untouched beach where you can lean back and dig your feet into the white sand. There is only one small local cafe where you can have lunch or a cold fresh fruit juice.
Diving – A few diving schools have settled down on the Perhentian islands. It’s super cheap to do your diving license over here and there’s a high chance of spotting sea turtles.
Snorkeling – You can find offers for snorkeling tours everywhere on the island. We tried it but I have to admit it was not very satisfying. Sadly, you’ll see quite a lot of dead corals. Besides, all those snorkeling tours include a stop at “shark bay”. But be aware that those sharks don’t come here naturally. They regularly feed the sharks to attract them. So you won’t see the sharks in their natural habitat. That’s why I recommend renting snorkeling gear and exploring the water by yourself.
The paradiasical beaches in Perhentian Kecil
Food in the Perhentian Islands
Food is usually a bit more expensive on the islands than on the mainland. Here are some good options though:
Keranji Beach Cafe
on Mira beach – directly on one of my favorite beaches on the island with super nice owners. They also have nice, authentic beachfront huts where you can stay
Sunset Cafe on Coral Bay – for a cheap, yummy breakfast with Roti (Malaysian pancake)
Crocodile Rock Bistrot – for a jungle experience with a super nice wooden terrace, a short jungle walk from Coral Bay (a bit more expensive – is dinner around 30 – 40 RM)
Ewan’s – for affordable authentic food between Coral Bay and Long Beach
Ombak Cafe – a pretty place but with very touristy prices – on some evenings they have an Open air cinema where you can enjoy your dinner and drinks while watching a movie
Stays in the Perhentian Islands
– My recommendation! They offer a handful of cute, basic beach huts right by the seafront. And the staff is incredibly lovely. What else do you need when you’re already in paradise?
Crocodile Rock Villas
– Hidden in the jungle, like a secret spot on Perhentian Kecil, but a true gem with their cute bungalows.
– if you feel like getting really pampered and enjoying some luxury at the end of your trip.
Keranji & other beach view bungalows on the Perhentian Islands
Malaysia is home to numerous paradisiacal islands. Many of them are along Malaysia’s east coast and are not even well-known. So it’s worth checking them out for your Malaysia itinerary. Here are some more islands that I can highly recommend:
Tioman – You can reach it by taking a boat from Mersing (further south than Kuala Besut). I visited once with a friend and we shared a basic wooden bungalow right by the beach. Waking up in this empty paradise in the morning felt like heaven.
Rawa – A secluded, tiny island in front of the coast of Mersing with only a few paths and white beaches. The perfect place to escape the everyday hassle and to truly calm down (and only 20 minutes by boat from Mersing).
Redang– Crystal clear water and white sandy beaches are waiting for you in Redang. It’s a more upscale beach destination with a handful of really nice resorts and a marine park that can be explored diving or snorkeling.
Malaysia without Borneo is like curry without rice. No no!
Nevertheless, many Malaysia itinerary guides you can find out there leave out this part.
But as my dad once said: “You haven’t really seen Malaysia, if you didn’t go to Borneo!”
Well, it feels like a different country because there’s no way to reach Borneo other than flying. It’s just too far from the peninsular mainland. Also, this huge island is split into the Malaysian part and the Indonesian part, and the tiny country Brunei.
Borneo is home to our planet’s oldest lung: The world’s oldest rainforest. And this is what makes Borneo worth visiting: Its nature, its biodiversity, and its national parks. Hiking up mountains, trekking deep into the jungle, spotting wild animals, and diving that is not of this world.
The Malaysian part of Borneo is split into two states: Sarawak and Sabah in the north which almost touches the Philippines.
Places to visit in Borneo
Here’s a selection of places to visit in Borneo that I’ve been to and can highly recommend:
The town Kuching is nothing special except that its name means “cat” and there are cat statues all over town but I haven’t seen a single real cat while I was there. And it’s the gate to the insanely beautiful Bako National Park. There’s also a nice local Sunday market, if you’re there on a weekend – full of local vegetables and fruits such as okras, dragon fruits, mangosteens, Malay apples (guyanas or cashews), and of course durian.
As Kuching is divided by a large river and there are no bridges near the center, locals cross the river by water taxi in order to get to the other side of town. The view of the many small, old boats getting from one bank to the other is nice to watch.
Bako National Park
You have to book a boat trip to Bako National Park, one of my favorite hidden gems in Malaysia. It’s only 20 minutes by boat from Kuching and you can even stay overnight in a simple hut.
There are many amazing trekking routes that you can do by yourself, during which you can spot a variety of plants and animals. I only took a day trip but would recommend spending the night over there in order to see more of its beauty.
You can view Proboscis monkeys (the ones with the long nose) and trek until you reach remote, untouched beaches. The beauty of nature at its best! But be aware that you’re in the rainforest – so don’t be surprised if it rains (and when it does, it rains buckets).
Bako National Park in Borneo
If Bako has increased the desire in you to see more of the jungle, you’re in the right place. Why not spend a few days in the jungle in a wildlife camp during your Malaysia itinerary?
I did this a few years ago with 3 days in the jungle along Kinabatangan river (in Borneo’s northeast). The place to fly to is Kota Kinabalu, and then it’s a crazy 7-hour bus ride to Sandakan.
No electricity, no running water, or a proper bathroom. But a full jungle experience with river safaris and treks during which you can spot wild crocodiles, wild cats, many kinds of monkeys, flying foxes, colorful exotic birds, insects (such as scorpions and giant tarantulas), and so many more wild animals.
Even though I only slept on a basic mattress on the floor covered with a (lifesaving) mosquito net, listening to the sounds of the jungle during the night is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, believe me!
If you’re really lucky (and I can’t believe that I was) you can spot a wild orangutan in the distance. But sadly, this has become almost impossible, as they lose more and more of their natural habitat due to deforestation.
I was even able to hear a chainsaw in the distance. A heartbreaking sound in the middle of the rainforest!
Spotting wildlife in Borneo
With the growing threats and the shockingly shrinking number of orangutans, there are sanctuaries that care for orphaned or injured animals
. Always inform yourself properly if the sanctuary is working ethically. This means as little contact with humans as possible, especially no contact with visitors. This way, they don’t get used to humans (which would make it impossible for them to survive once they’re set free again)! I can recommend a large Orangutan sanctuary in Sepilok
– a large fenced area in the rainforest through which visitors can walk on some wooden paths.
Twice a day is feeding time (which simply means some fruits are placed on a wooden platform) at which the chance of seeing an orangutan is higher but still not guaranteed. Since they have a huge area of several hectares to hide, they can avoid being seen. They’re not even dependent on the feeding times since there are enough trees to naturally provide food for them. This prepares them for returning to the wild once they’re strong and healthy enough.
Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary
Kota Kinabalu & Mount Kinabalu
Not as clean and as green as Kuching, Kota Kinabalu (often referred to as “KK” by locals) is a completely different experience. What’s worth seeing here are the Kampong villages (houses on stilts) located off KK’s coast. They are the traditional homes of ethnic groups, such as Suluk, Ubian, Iranun, and Bajau.
Travelers love to come to Kota Kinabalu to climb mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s tallest mountain at 4095 meters. Be aware that this is a steep and hard hike, and the rain and fog can make it even tougher. The climb takes a minimum of two days with a night in a base camp.
I didn’t do the hike, as I wasn’t carrying the right equipment and the temperatures drop to freezing zero degrees Celcius. Not what I need during a trip to Malaysia! But I’ve met travelers who loved this adventure.
Malaysia – a wrap-up
Malaysia in three words: Rainforest | food heaven | humidity
Did you know? The word “orangutan” stems from the Malay language, meaning “human of the forest”
Favorite photo spot: Street art in Georgetown, Penang
Favorite food: Hokkien Mee in Penang
Can’t miss: Trying aaaall the street food!
Are you excited about your Malaysia adventure? Is there something missing in this Malaysia itinerary that you highly recommend? Let me know and leave a comment below.