Backpacking Malaysia anytime soon? Because you should! I made the decision to hit Malaysia from Thailand, and (like most of my decisions) it was made out of curiosity.
I’d often heard about it, but nothing beyond the city limits of Kuala Lumpur and the luxury resorts off the coast of Penang. I knew there had to be more to be discovered.
Curiosity killed the cat, right? Well, maybe the cat was onto something! I spent a couple of weeks backpacking around Malaysia and the country totally blew me away. Backpackers rejoice!
Visa entry to Malaysia is super easy – combine that with a rich local culture, stunning religious sites, backpacker-friendly prices, and plenty of adventure antics, and you’re onto an absolute winner!
I spent a few weeks backpacking Malaysia, eating a lot of weird and wonderful foods, exploring steaming jungles, and peaceful tea plantations. I met with many amazing people, hiked to one of the largest flowers in the world, and got to grips with Malaysian history.
And now, amigos, I am proud to unveil the broke backpacker guide to backpacking Malaysia on a budget…
Why Go Backpacking in Malaysia?
Malaysia is a country full of variation and surprises, and after a couple of weeks travelling around the numerous regions and areas of Malaysia, it truly left me wanting more. You can explore beautiful beaches, jungle, eat amazing street food, and, of course, check out some beautiful temples (this is Asia after all).
Whether you want to get off the beaten path in Malaysian Borneo, view orangutans and trek through remote jungles, or you just want to chill on a beach all day, there is a destination in Malaysia for you.
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- Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking Malaysia
- Places to Visit in Malaysia
- Top Things to Do in Malaysia
- Backpacker Accommodation in Malaysia
- Malaysia Backpacking Costs
- Best Time to Travel to Malaysia
- Staying Safe in Malaysia
- How to Get Into Malaysia
- How to Get Around Malaysia
- Working in Malaysia
- What to Eat in Malaysia
- Malaysian Culture
- Some Unique Experiences in Malaysia
- Final Advice Before Visiting Malaysia
Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking Malaysia
Below are a few of my favourite spots that I recommend checking out on your own adventure backpacking across Malaysia.
Backpacking Malaysia 2-Week Itinerary: Malaysia’s Highlights
This itinerary is perfect if you have 2-3 weeks to backpack Malaysia. With three weeks you could take your time, and spend more time on the islands.
Start your trip staying in Kuala Lumpur, also known as KL. Take a side trip to visit the Batu Caves, full of Hindu shrines. Climbers, you can hang out here for a couple days since there are over 160 rock climbing routes!
Next, we head to the Cameron Highlands, a “highlight” of your trip. These hill stations grow tea, coffee, and fresh fruit. Make sure to go on a local tour. One of the world’s oldest rainforests, Taman Negara, isn’t far. Adventurers can go on jungle treks lasting a week or more.
Afterwards, head to Penang and get lost in the beautiful colonial streets, venture through vibrant Little India and follow the street art around the city. Afterwards, find a chill place to stay in Langkawi for some quality beach time.
If you have an extra week, head to the Perhentian islands on the other side of Malaysia for some epic diving!
Backpacking Malaysia 3-Week Itinerary: Jungles and National Parks
I haven’t been to this part of Malaysia, but I created this itinerary for your inspiration. This is the perfect itinerary for outdoor lovers and adventurers who want to get far off the beaten path in Malaysia’s most undeveloped region: Borneo, an island Malaysia that shares borders with Indonesia, and one of the last places on earth you can see endangered orangutans.
Start by staying in Kuching, Sarawak’s small capital, as a base. Don’t miss the Semenggoh orang-utan sanctuary to see endangered orangutans. This is a rewarding day-trip. Next head to Bako, Sarawak’s oldest national park. Here you will come across monkeys, fauna, and waterfalls!
Afterward, take a boat through the rivers and forests of Batang Ai. Gunung Mulu National Park offers wonderful jungle scenery and a three-day trek through a network of limestone karsts and caverns.
Next head to Miri and Niah National Park. If you like to hike, get to Bario for some multi-trekking through remote longhouses and up mountains. End your trip staying in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital. Visit the district with traditional over-water houses and spend your evenings at the markets.
If you have the time (and money), you can summit Malaysia’s toughest climb, Mount Kinabalu. Last I heard a permit was over $100 and you have to hire a guide.
Places to Visit in Malaysia
Malaysia is a fantastically varied country with so much to explore! Here are my top picks of the coolest places to visit on a backpacking trip to Malaysia.
Backpacking Kuala Lumpur
This is the capital of Malaysia and arguably the most westernised place you’ll visit while in Malaysia. This is often where most backpackers in Malaysia will start, as it is the main hub for international flights. I only spent a short time in Kuala Lumpur, as it was a lot more expensive than the other areas I visited.
The Batu Caves are a short and cheap KTM metro ride from central Kuala Lumpur. The incredible Tamil temple and shrine attracts both worshippers and visitors alike. It isn’t one for the unfit; to get inside the temple you have a great stair workout ahead of you and the humidity will make sure even the fittest person ends with beautiful sweat stains.
At the top, explore the inside of the cave and meet the locals… monkeys! In 2016, major renovation work was done inside the cave, but now things are quiet again with everything looking in tip-top shape.
On the way down from the Batu Caves stop at the Bat Cave and take the 45-minute tour inside, wandering into complete darkness, to meet the animals that live down here. You may see spiders, bats, snakes, scorpions, and plenty of cave-dwelling bugs. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and it’s an experience that a lot of travellers miss on the way down!
If you haven’t spent all your money before you leave KUL, head up the KUL tower. It’s around $25 for both decks. Here you will get a pretty awesome view of the city, even better in the evening! Make sure you take a good cheesy picture with the Petronas Towers!
When entering Malaysia from Thailand, you will most likely pass through the beautiful state of Kedah. While most travellers will just pass through, Kedah has plenty to offer and it’s worth stopping to explore. Explore some of the first European Colonial Streets and experience the beauty of Gunung Jerai (Mount Jerai).
The ancient Malays proclaimed Gunung Jerai sacred and some stunning temples were built throughout the mountain; many of them are still standing today. If you want to know more, the cheeky Malays have placed a great information board at the top of the mountain – all you have to do is climb 1175 meters to reach it!
Both a popular spot for visa-runs for Thailand and a great place to chill out for a few days, the peaceful island of Langkawi sits upon an ancient limestone shelf and is home to one of Southeast Asia’s largest eagle populations. This is a great place to head off on an adventure and if you head away from the party beaches you will find some great treks, snorkelling, and scuba diving.
Cenang Beach is where most of the action is. There’s plenty of jet skiing and other watersports, but the beach itself is not that great and is usually pretty crowded. To see the real Langkawi hire a motorbike and take to the open road for a day of exploring.
Whilst in Langkawi, I took to the trees with Skytrex Adventure for an action-packed afternoon of high ropes (don’t look down!) and zip-lining through the Forest Canopy. I’ve done a few high ropes and zip-lining courses around the world and this was one of the more challenging ones. It’s definitely worth a go if you want to kick-start your day.
There are a lot of great accommodation options in Langkawi. There are some awesome homestays in Langkawi as well as everything from chilled backpacker dorms and quiet Airbnbs to super posh resorts if you plan on splashing out.
However, if you want to stay somewhere really decent that is also affordable, I recommend the Yacht Club Hotel. This hotel has a cool bar offering a great view over the attached Marina where you can boat-watch as people bring their yachts (lucky bastards) in for the night. This hotel also has some of the best WiFi I found on Langkawi so if you need to work, it’s a good place to stay. Otherwise, I’d recommend checking out this breakdown on the best places to stay in Langkawi from my mate Bren.
Being one of the first major areas in Malaysia occupied by the Europeans as well as an ex-trading hub for ships around the world, Penang’s beautiful neighbourhoods keeps much of its colonial heritage intact. It’s an incredible place to chill for a couple of days.
‘Old Penang’ is one of the best places to go for a stroll and is filled with UNESCO sites. It’s a bit like stepping back in time…
Hire a bike for cheap – only around $5 for the day – and explore George Town and its legendary street art. Get lost in the beautiful colonial streets, venture through vibrant Little India, and follow the street art around the city. There are so many things to do in Penang; it’s a beautiful city!
You can’t go to Penang and not visit Kek Lok Si Temple or ‘Temple of Ultimate Happiness’. This Buddhist temple faces the sea and overlooks the ever-growing city of new and old Penang. You can hire a guide at the car park relatively cheap, which I highly recommend. The guide will immerse you in the incredibly beautiful and sometimes, gory history behind each of the 10,000 carved symbols.
If this doesn’t convince you, this temple also has one of the biggest statues you will ever see – standing at 99ft (seven stories) Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy is pretty awe-inspiring. Get to this temple around Chinese New Year. Why? Well for 30 days the temple is decorated with thousands of lanterns. This sight is so beautiful that it will give you goosebumps.
Ever wondered what a Burmese Temple looked like?
Dharmikarma Temple is a favourite of mine due to its quirkiness! Explore the gardens of the temple and you will come across a Giant Globe. It is said if you focus on your hearts desires, close your eyes, and point, you will be directed to where you need to go – while also taking a cheesy picture of yourself.
You’ll also find a wishing well of fortune? Throw a coin and land it in one of the moving, engraved cups; each with a different future trait – I got Bon Voyage; I think it was pretty accurate.
Backpacking Cameron Highlands
A relatively new backpacker area, the Cameron Highlands are breathtakingly beautiful and should not be missed when travelling in Malaysia. Moving away from the cities and hitting the dirt roads, you will see some truly gorgeous mountainous scenery, cascading tea plantations, and mysterious cloud forest, making it one of the best places to stay in Malaysia.
Hire a car (or a man with a van) and navigate the dirt track roads leading you into the incredible tea plantations. Learn about the tea making process – which is actually a lot more interesting than I first thought it would be – sample the leaves, take a walk through the plantations, and even befriend the pickers who will laugh at your attempt at picking the correct leaves at a quick pace… It’s harder then it looks!
I hired a local guide and we went into the cloud forest in search for the rare and beautiful Rafflesia (one of the world’s largest flowers). It kind of looks like a giant upside down mushroom, but more red, and, according to my guide depending on the time of year, it smells like a dead elephant – thankfully it did not when we found it.
Hacking my way through the cloud forest was incredible. The trails are not well trodden, the views are incredible (when the trees break) and the knowledge the locals have on the plants and conservation in the area is extraordinary. If you’re after a real adventure whilst backpacking Malaysia, this is it.
A three-hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur, this beautiful small town has an incredibly strange obsession with Hello Kitty, and the city itself resembles a small town in Europe. Once the ‘must-see’ place in Malaysia before Kuala Lumpur developed, it is now a much sleepier backpacker city with mass tourism having moved to the other ever-growing cities within Malaysia. Melaka is a cheap place to hang out, making it a perfect rest stop for broke backpackers travelling in Malaysia.
UNESCO protected, Melaka is filled with an incredible history and many of the old colonial buildings are still in great condition. Melaka is easy to navigate by bicycle or foot. Wander the streets and enjoy the bright colours, colonial buildings, and reflective water canals.
Head down Jonker Street where the city’s heritage meets some crazy museums, awesome market shopping, and some epic food. It’s a little quirky and a great place to find things you will never need but want anyway. Melaka is definitely a stop you shouldn’t miss when backpacking Malaysia.
Getting Off the Beaten Path in Malaysia
Borneo is without a doubt the way to go. Borneo is Asia’s biggest island and a rather intriguing oddity of Malaysia’s backpacking trail.
More than half of Borneo is Indonesian territory with the remaining being Malaysia EXCEPT for two small sections which comprise the country of Brunei. Brunei is also very off the Southeast Asia backpacking trail, however, that’s for good reason: we don’t speak of Brunei.
Borneo is a nature lover’s paradise. You can head to Kuching as a base – or stay in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah – however, once you head outside of these semi-touristed areas, you’re just looking at pure jungle wilderness.
Borneo is world-famous for its population of endangered orangutans, however, there’s heaps more to the island too! All manner of rare and exotic wildlife can be seen on Borneo, and there’s heaps of world-class diving and trekking too.
The culture of Borneo is very different from mainland Malaysia with a whole host of different ethnic groups and intricacies. You’re heading pretty far out into the sticks, so exploring takes effort and time, but isn’t that the whole point of getting off the beaten path?
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Top Things to Do in Malaysia
Jungles, temples, caves, ruins, bustling metropolises, backpacker bubbles, and a whole host of exquisite beaches dotted around Malaysia… There’s so much stuff to do in Malaysia, but here are my personal picks!
1. Climb around the Batu Caves
Head outside of Kuala Lumpur to explore these limestone cliffs and caves, which represent Hindu shrines and a site for pilgimage. Climbers rejoice! There are over 160 routes in the area.
2. Hit the Beach in Langkawi
Langkawi is an inhabited island in an archipelago of over a hundred islands in the Andaman Sea. Langkawi Island is popular with both backpackers and honeymooners and has something to suit all budgets.
3. Visit Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
This park is a collection of five islands found off the coast of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, East Malaysia. This is a popular place to hike, trek, swim, and dive.
4. Eat the Street Food
Try the authentic food, which in my opinion is not as spicy as Thai food and is, in fact, more flavorful. You will get a HUGE portion for such a tiny price – Malaysia seriously has some of the best street food in the world!
5. Get your Culture on in Malacca
Malacca or Melaka has interesting architecture and a high concentration of museums, galleries, and historical sites to explore.
6. Island Hop the Perhentian Islands
Blissful and balmy tropical islands? Malaysia has those too! Come here for fresh seafood and scuba diving. The islands can be visited by ferry and water taxis operate between the various islands giving visitors the chance to island-hop at their leisure.
7. Hang Out in the Cameron Highlands
These hill stations provide visitors with cool water and fun tea and coffee plantation tours! You can also fruit pick at one of the many fruit farms.
8. Hang Out With Endangered Orangutans
Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre is one of the biggest and most well-known orangutan sanctuaries in Malaysia. The sanctuary is located nearby Sandakan.
9. Haggle for Souvenirs
This is super common in Malaysia and also great fun. The only way to get a good deal is to bargain. Make sure you read up on how to haggle before you go so you’re ready to negotiate like a pro!
10. Explore Gunung Mulu National Park
Located in East Malaysia, this park is known for its caves and karst formations. There are ample hiking opportunities around the caves and rainforest!
Backpacker Accommodation in Malaysia
Hostels are only just beginning to pop up throughout Malaysia. During my time there, I chose to stay at guesthouses rather than the hostels, as they were cheaper! These days, however, there’s an increasing number of hostels and eco-friendly accommodation in Malaysia.
Throughout Malaysia, guesthouses, hotels, Airbnb, or being hosted with CouchSurfing will be your main options for accommodation. Guesthouses are fantastically priced for us broke backpackers and you can score a bed for as little as $5-$15 a night!
If you are backpacking Malaysia in peak season use Airbnb as an alternative. Often just as cheap, the added bonus is you may get a whole apartment! If not, you’ll at least make some awesome local friends.
Or pack your camping hammock instead and sleep for free! Some hostels will charge you for amenities and some restaurants won’t even charge you a dime.
Unmarried couples generally won’t have a problem travelling and staying together when in Malaysia. You may have to request a double bed in some places (if necessary) but otherwise, you will be met with friendliness and the beautiful hospitality that Malaysian people are famous for.
The Best Places to Stay in Malaysia
|Location||Accommodation||Why Stay Here?!|
|Kuala Lumpur||Paper Plane Hostel||One of the top hostels in Kuala Lumpur. Chill out in the glasshouse lobby or on the rooftop garden overlooking the city.|
|Penang||House of Journey||A super cool designed chic hostel right in Georgetown. The deco is awesome, the vibes are even better, and there’s a free brekky!|
|Langkawi||Sweet Monkey Backpackers||I can never go past free breakfast when i’m travelling. The social atmosphere is great & the location is literally a 30 second walk to the beach.|
|Melaka||Tony’s Guesthouse||Cosy guesthouse, full of colour & fun artwork. I loved the backpacker scene here & friendly staff|
|Cameron Highlands||Orchid Haven||They offer an awesome cooking class & free breakfast, tea and coffee. I loved the garden here!|
Malaysia Backpacking Costs
You can backpack Malaysia for as little as $15 a day. Sometimes it’ll be more if you want a fancy cocktail rather than a beer for a change.
However, with a few basic travel tips for Malaysia, you’re budget will be easy to keep in check. Stick to cheap guesthouses, good street food, and buses rather than flights and trains and you shouldn’t spend more than forty dollars a day.
A Daily Budget in Malaysia
|Expense||Broke Backpacker||Frugal Traveller||Creature of Comfort|
|Total per day||$13-$44||$47-$81||$95+|
Money in Malaysia
DO NOT buy Malaysian Ringgit before travelling to Malaysia. Why? You will get a crappy exchange rate. Money is easily exchanged upon arrival in Malaysia, and you’ll get a much better exchange rate in the country.
Malaysia accepts the majority of international cards so long as they are Visa or MasterCard, but many of these charge pretty insane withdrawal fees. It’s advisable to avoid small ATM transactions and get out a bunch of cash at once – just make sure you hide it well (pack a travel money belt for this).
When travelling to rural areas, cash is always best because ATMs will become scarce fast. If arriving by land, exchange only what you absolutely need before entering Malaysia. Some drivers will accept US dollars as payment if you have nothing else, but don’t count on it.
Once you head into the rural areas don’t expect ATMs anywhere. Carry cash with you, just enough for what you will be doing and a hidden backup stash in case of delays.
Travel Tips – Malaysia on a Budget
Sometimes things are country specific, sometimes they’re just the golden rules of budget backpacking. Either way, if you’re backpacking Malaysia on a shoestring budget, here are some tips to stretch your money further.
- Eat the Street Food: Put your stomach to the test! Nah, just kidding. The street food in Malaysia is awesome and I didn’t encounter any stomach or bathroom problems while here.
The trick, as with anywhere serving street food, is to go for the one that already has a queue. No one queues for bad food. This will be the cheapest way to eat, but if you’re not convinced, then head to the food courts (which are basically the same thing).
- Haggle: It is commonplace while market shopping to haggle for your goods. Even if you think it is cheap for you without haggling, you are not getting the local price or a good deal. It’s heaps of fun as well, so get your game face on and snag some random goodies!
- Guesthouses: Cheaper than most hostels and way cheaper than hotels, this is the best way to save money while travelling through Malaysia. They’re often family-run too, so you will meet some awesome locals. If you want to book something online, Hostelworld offers some of the best deals in Asia.
- Couchsurfing: A fantastic way to travel without spending money! You’ll make local friends and see a whole other side to the tourist part of town. Just be sure to cook your host a meal to say thank you for putting you up!
- Hitchhike: Hitchhiking is a great way to meet the locals, and it may even score you a free bed for the night as well – two for one is always good right? If you’re not comfortable hitchhiking, take the bus: it’s super cheap and relatively comfortable.
Why Should You Travel to Malaysia With a Water Bottle?
Whilst there’s a lot that we can do when it comes to traveling responsibly, reducing your plastic consumption is one of the easiest and most impactful things you can do. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, don’t take plastic shopping bags, and forget straws. All of this just ends up in landfill or in the ocean.
If you’d like some more tips on how to save the world, be sure to watch the video below.
Best Time to Travel to Malaysia
Malaysian seasons range from wet, comfortable, hot and humid. The West and East Coast can experience completely different weather from one another so it really depends on where you want to go in Malaysia.
Overall, the west coast is best between October to March, and the East coast is best from March to October.
The east coast gets quite a bit more rain than the west, and if travelling to Malaysia in the wet season, you may find a lot of stores, hotels and guesthouses closed. I travelled around Malaysia from December to the end of January and the weather was spot on.
Festivals in Malaysia
Given the massive cultural and ethnic spread in Malaysia, there’s a huge range of festivals to go wild at too. Religious shebangers, cultural shindigs, and musical shemozzles – it’s a blast.
- Thaipusam (January/February) – If you’ve ever wanted to watch men stick spikes through there cheeks and shake what their mumma gave them, this is your chance! One of the most important festivals for Tamil people, things really kick off in Kuala Lumpur and the Batu Caves around this time of year.
- Malaysia Water Festival (April) – The concept is pretty similar to the Thailand Water Festival: everyone gets out in the streets with super soakers and water balloons. There are other activities too, but really, this one’s all about H2-whOa.
- Gawai Harvest Festival (June) – If you’re looking for something a little more esoteric, than get yourself Sarawak (in Borneo) at the start of June. It’s a harvest festval – similar to Pagan festivals in concept – hugely important to a number of indigenous peoples of the Sarawak area. Expect to be fed… a lot.
- Rainforest World Music Festival (July) – Also held in Sarawak, this world-famous international music festival sees a lot of ecclectic artists grace its stage. You get quite a variety of music, however, traditional music, world fusion, and other contemporary international styles tend to be the main affair.
What to Pack for Malaysia
Malaysia has to be one of my favourite places in Asia for shopping and you will find that most people – especially in the busier areas – take a lot of pride in what they wear. The more modern areas of Malaysia such as Kuala Lumpur will be a lot more westernised in their dress sense; you can pretty much wear what you would at home on a day-to-day basis with only a few exceptions.
In the more rural areas it is a wise to be respectful and dress a little more conservatively, especially if you are a woman. Although Malaysia is a melting pot with a mixture of religions, the most prominent practice is that of Islam (and the Islamic dress sense).
Showing a lot of flesh for men or women will attract a lot of attention or, worst-case scenario, cause offence. Jeans and a t-shirt, covering shoulders and cleavage is perfectly fine. Try to keep shorts/skirts/dresses at or just below the knee. Tight and fitted clothing will attract attention such as harmless stares.
You also shouldn’t forget your backpacking essentials! Here are the pieces of gear that I never go travelling without. For even more packing ideas, check out my list gear to take backpacking!
Active Roots Money Belt
This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off.
GRAYL Geopress Filtered Bottle
Having a filtered water bottle means you can drink from just about any source. The GRAYL Geopress is hands-down the most effective one we’ve ever used as well!
Active Roots Microfiber Towel
Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight, and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
Petzl Actik Core Headlamp
A decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples, or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must.
Active Roots Camping Hammock
Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks), and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere.
Hanging Toiletry Bag
I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super-efficient way to organize your bathroom stuff. Well worth having as it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
Staying Safe in Malaysia
Malaysia is completely safe for travel. The majority of people you will meet when travelling in Malaysia are incredibly friendly and genuine people.
Malaysia is a peaceful country and incredibly accepting and respectful of other cultures; be respectful back and don’t break the rules. If you do, you may find yourself in a bit of a tough spot.
As long as you stick to the basic tips for travelling safe, you’ll be totally gravy.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Malaysia
Malaysia is one of the worlds toughest countries when it comes to drugs. If you get caught with drugs you’ll most likely get a mandatory prison sentence or even worse, the death penalty. I’d recommend avoiding drugs altogether when travelling Malaysia, but if you’re going to dabble in these illicit substances, then at least be sure that you’re keyed in on taking drugs on the road.
Alcohol in Malaysia is pretty pricey because it is forbidden for Muslims to drink. However, those who are not Muslim are free to drink if they wish. Many restaurants won’t serve alcohol but will turn a blind eye to those bringing in their own to have with their meal.
House parties are pretty common in Malaysia and are heaps of fun! You’ll find modern clubs in the main cities such as Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Be prepared to pay a pretty penny to get in!
Travel Insurance for Malaysia
Travelling without insurance would be risky, so do consider getting good backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure. It’s definitely a smart idea to have travel insurance for Malaysia.
I have been using World Nomads for some time now and made a few claims over the years. They’re easy to use, professional, and relatively affordable. They may also let you buy or extend a policy once you’ve started your trip and are already abroad which is super handy.
If there’s one insurance company I trust, it’s World Nomads. To find out why I use World Nomads, check out the World Nomads Insurance review.
A Message from Will – The OG Broke Backpacker
“Once upon a time, I almost lost my leg in a sweltering jungle…
I battled a seriously nasty infection that snaked up past my knee and by the time I made it to a local hospital they wanted to amputate. I was delirious, unable to walk, and in a lot of pain but I managed to call my insurance provider – they moved me to a much better private hospital where the doctors were able to save my leg.
I wracked up $15,000 in hospital bills, but these were completely covered by my travel insurance. Luckily, I still have my leg today, and whilst it is permanently damaged, I’m grateful every day it’s still attached!
Moral of the story: consider getting travel insurance before you head out into the wilds, people!“
If you’re still not sure if World Nomads is right for you, then read our comprehensive roundup of the top travel insurance providers on the market!
How to Get Into Malaysia
I arrived in Malaysia by travelling from Thailand across the Thai/Malay border. We hired a local man and his van to drive us to the border in Thailand and then walked through and caught another man in a van on the other side.
There are long-distance bus services that will take you from Thailand to Malaysia as well, but this costs a little more and takes a little longer as well. If you’re short on time or simply a baller, flights from Thailand to Kuala Lumpur are very cheap.
If you’re coming from outside of Asia, the International flight’s hub is Kuala Lumpur, and you can get great deals with an array of different airlines. I have found Malaysian Airlines and Emirates (via Dubai) to offer some of the best prices into Malaysia.
Flying to other airports in Malaysia is easily done but will often cost more and you will stopover in Kuala Lumpur anyway, so you may as well hop off and explore!
Entry Requirements for Malaysia
As of 2016, the majority of nationalities will be able to get a visa on arrival for Malaysia for no cost at all, which is fantastic! For the UK and a number of other nations, you will be permitted to stay for a maximum of 3 months on arrival, but be careful not to overstay this. Malaysia, unlike many other Asian countries, is having a big crackdown on illegal immigration and overstaying your visa may be a tricky (and expensive) situation to get out of.
If you know you will be staying longer than 3 months in Malaysia, it is recommended you visit the Malaysian Diplomatic Mission in your own country to obtain the correct visa. If you are in the country, head to your local embassy or otherwise just hop out of the country and come back in again.
Once through immigration, Malaysia is a relatively safe and welcoming place to travel. A couple of months is heaps of time to explore this beautiful country. Entering overland into the country you will have your fingerprints taken, passport scanned, and you may be asked about your exit plans, especially if you don’t have a flight out of the country booked.
Malaysian immigration is not new to backpackers so as long as you have an idea of how you will leave, you should be fine. It’s a good idea to have a rough idea of when/how you will be leaving and someone you can call who will vouch for you, just in case. If you need help organising your visa, try using iVisa.
Travelling to Malaysia During COVID Times
Currently, Malaysia remains closed except to medical tourism and some essential travel. They are looking to hopefully reopen some leisure tourism in early 2021.
While they will potentially be reopening in early 2021, it is expected that Malaysia will take its time. Currently, there are discussions of opening green travel corridors with bordering ASEAN nations first (including Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, and Indonesia). From there, they’ll begin to branch out further.
While Malaysia remains closed, there are many other countries open to travel. You can check out our handy list of countries that are open, and watch this space in the meantime. We’ll be updating the guide when things change.
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How to Get Around Malaysia
Malaysian roads are top-notch in tourist areas but will quickly turn to gravel and dirt tracks as you venture further away from backpacker hubs and out of the cities. All the same, your options for public transport in Malaysia are plentiful! It’s easy to get around Malaysia.
One of the best ways to get around when backpacking in Malaysia is by bus. Buses are a comfortable and affordable way to travel around Malaysia, however, they’re not the fastest option. Most buses have English translations and super helpful drivers.
It may take longer than flying but buses tend to be air-conditioned and the scenery is pretty beautiful. I wouldn’t recommend using buses in the cities though; they are slow, more expensive and due to congestion are not able to stop exactly where you need to be.
Malaysia is revamping its train service and if you are looking to get from the top to the bottom pretty quickly, it’s a comfortable ride. I didn’t use the long-distance train service whilst backpacking Malaysia, but it is perfect for those short on time.
It is pricier than the bus service and most train services run on a one-line system that will restrict the stopping options you have on the way through the country.
I did not take any domestic flights within Asia but you can pick these up relatively cheap in-country through the likes of Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia for as little as $10 – $30, one-way, to most destinations in Malaysia. If you only have a short time in Malaysia, this is a great way to travel.
Driving in Malaysia, once out of major cities, is relatively straightforward, and I would dare to say, one of the safest places to drive in Southeast Asia. With good road infrastructure in the cities, traffic lights and well-marked signs your biggest pest will be tailgating and the lack of signal use.
Venture into the countryside expect gravel and dirt roads but beautiful and plentiful view stops. If you are exploring by car in monsoon season, I would recommend hiring a 4×4 car if possible. Getting stuck in the mud is never too much fun!
Kuala Lumpur’s metro is the best, if not, then the only way to travel inner city. The metro will connect to all the must-see places in town as well as the shopping district, nightlife, and areas such as Little India. They even have air-con!
Running every few minutes, why waste your time and money hailing a taxi when the metro will beat the traffic and even take you as far out as the Batu Caves?! Ladies, there is even female-only carriages if you are travelling alone and/or feeling slightly anxious about mixed carriages and local customs.
In Malaysia, you’ll get the best deal on a metered taxi. Don’t jump in a non-metered taxi without agreeing on the price first. You will definitely pay A LOT more than you need to.
Always haggle the price with a non-metered taxi. If they won’t budge, move on, and always check if there’s someone with a much better deal.
To travel around Malaysia quickly would involve a lot of flights, but you’d be missing out on some epic overland scenery and road-trips. Travelling in Malaysia is, after all, a part of the appeal. There is so much to be seen from the road…
Rather than just rocking up at the bus stop in the hope they will have space to fit you on, you can now book tickets in advance for most of Southeast Asia using 12Go! I love 12Go and used it myself pretty often when backpacking around Malaysia.
Hitchhiking in Malaysia
Hitchhiking in Malaysia is uncommon but not at all difficult. For broke backpackers on a tight budget, hitchhiking offers one of the most cost-effective ways to get around whilst backpacking Malaysia.
The busier roads in Malaysia are often highways, which can make scoring a ride a little tricky. The best tip I was given was to put yourself in a spot that if you score a ride and they come in at speed, you can get out the way. Malaysians are curious and ridiculously friendly, so on a good day, it shouldn’t take you longer than 5 minutes to hitch a ride.
Expect short distance riding, especially in rural areas where not many people are driving by. It’s far more likely you will catch lots of short rides rather than one long one. Make friends with other tourists at gas stations and café stops. You never know who has a spare seat in their car.
Before hopping in the car it’s a good idea to clear the air and make sure the driver is aware you are hitchhiking, not hailing a taxi. That would make for an awkward exit…
Top Tips for Hitchhiking in Malaysia
- Take a road map of Malaysia: It isn’t exactly necessary, but it may help you out in a pinch. Plus, doing it old-school is just a blast!
- Look like a tourist: People know what hitchhiking is and they are interested in foreign visitors, so make sure you look like a tourist. On busy roads, sometimes the wait time is less than 5 minutes.
- Don’t hitch right on the motorway: Unlike in other countries in Asia, it’s not advisable to hitchhike right on the motorway. Police won’t bother, but cars are much less likely to stop if they are too fast or there is no safe place to stop.
- Have a sign with ‘Tumpang’ written on it: This can help, especially if you choose to walk on the Expressway.
- Learn some useful phrases: Drivers usually speak English, so a few local phrases like the ones below will help!
- Read our Hitchhiking 101 Guide: It helps!
- Where are you going? – Di Mana anda akan pergi?
- I am going to… – Saya mahu pergi ke…
- Please stop here. – Sila berhenti di sini.
- I have no money. – Saya tidak ada duit.
- Thank You – Terima Kasih (Treema-Kahseh)
- I am hitchhiking. – Saya sedang hitchhiking.
Onwards Travel from Malaysia
The main peninsula of Malaysia shares borders with Singapore and Thailand, both of which are relatively easy to cross. To cross the overland route from Malaysia and travel to Singapore requires A LOT of time and patience though. Malaysia also borders with Indonesia if you are over in Borneo.
Thinking about backpacking in The Philippines or Indonesia after Malaysia? Why not follow in the footsteps of the explorers of old and hop on a boat? With some journeys taking just eight hours to reach the Philippines, and ferry prices being relatively cheap, catching a boat out of Malaysia can be an adventurous alternative to flying…
Onwards travel to Indonesia via ferry is not as common as it once was and these days it can be hard to find a boat heading in the right direction. Melaka is the best place to find a ferry onwards to Malaysia. From here, it is likely your arrival port will be Padang (Sumatra) in Indonesia.
Onwards travel to the Philippines via ferry is recommended from Sandakan using either Aleson Lines or SRN Fastcraft. Neither of these companies offer comprehensive websites, so check the latest information when in country and haggle for the best price. Aleson Lines takes around 16hrs while SRN Fastcraft is only 8hrs to reach the Philippines.
For a more adventurous and unique way to sail to Indonesia or the Philippines (or really anywhere else) check out findacrew.net. Basically, this is Couchsurfing for sailors. You will find locals, travellers, and expats with their own boats looking for crew to help them adventure oversea to their next destination.
It’s perfect if you have a lot of time on your hands and a limited (or non-existent) budget. Many captains don’t require you to have any previous experience and you may even get paid a little for helping out!
Personally, I can’t think of a better way to begin a new adventure after backpacking Malaysia. I will definitely be trying this on my next trip to Malaysia.
Working in Malaysia
Malaysia is a primo spot for working travellers and one that a lot of long-term backpackers and nomads end up in. While rural and off-track areas of Malaysia can still be pretty crazy, cities and touristed areas are very modern and, at times, Westernised. Kuala Lumpur alone is a hugely crucial international business and trade hub with plenty of foreigners expatting there.
While there’s no shortage of choices available for working in Malaysia, teaching English is one of the most common forms of employment for backpackers. You will need a work permit for Malaysia, however.
A Temporary Employment Pass is the standard work visa in Malaysia unless certain extenuating circumstances apply (like you work in a highly-technical and highly-payed field). These passes last up to two years and are pretty easy to obtain provided you jump through the require bureaucratical hoops.
Lastly, volunteering in Malaysia is definitely an option too! It’s fun, it’s wholesome, it’s a much more authentic way to travel, and you’ll save some dollaridoos in the process.
Volunteering through Workaway is really common. You’ll find heaps of choices around the country from eco-farm work to hostels, animal sanctuaries, and even regular businesses just needing some outside help.
There’s also Worldpackers. While you don’t have strictly as many raw choices of volunteering programs in Malaysia through Worldpackers, the choices they do have are pretty damn good! AND, if you enter the code BROKEBACKPACKER when you join the Worldpackers community, you’ll get $10 off your subscription!
Keen to live the digital nomad dream while traveling the world? Who the hell isn’t?
Teaching English online is a great way to earn a consistent income on the road. Depending on your qualifications, you can work remotely from your laptop and make a positive impact on the world! It’s a win-win!
Check out this detailed article for everything you need to know to start teaching English online.
Teaching English in Malaysia
While Southeast Asia as a whole is a prime English teaching destination, Malaysia is one of the hottest candidates among those. Many travellers stop for a contract’s period working as an English teacher in Malaysia.
Given Malaysia’s familiarity with both tourists and expats, as well as their stronger economy and tighter infrastructure, it’s a perfect destination for those with TEFL degrees looking to teach English abroad. You can pitch yourself up in a nice pad for 6-12 months, enjoy the local cuisine, and have a completely refreshed bank account by the time you’re ready to hit the road again!
Now, you will need the aforementioned work permit for this alongside a potential sponsorship/employer. The last thing you’ll need is a TEFL certificate.
TEFL certificates open up a lot of doors for travellers. With one under your belt, you’ll find opportunities to work on the road (and, thus, extend your travels) most places in the world!
There are a lot of choices for acquiring a TEFL degree, however, I recommend running the course through MyTEFL. Not only are they a highly reputable and effective company, but Broke Backpacker readers (using the code BACKPKR) get a 35% discount! Not a bad deal at all considering that the payoff is a life of indefinite travel.
What to Eat in Malaysia
There are some amazing options for street food in Malaysia. Here are some must try foods in Malaysia:
- Banana Leaf Rice: This is white rice served on a banana leaf with an assortment of vegetables, curried meat or fish, pickles, and the super addictive papadum (look like giant, round, flat crisps)!
- Nasi Dagang: Rice steamed in coconut milk, fish curry and extra ingredients such as fried shaved coconut, solok lada, hard-boiled eggs, and vegetable pickles.
- Hokkien mee: Thick yellow noodles braised in thick dark soy sauce with pork, squid, fish-cake and cabbage as the main ingredients.
- Satay: Meats on sticks over a BBQ – simple, scrumptious!
If you’re interested in learning the cuisine, then check out this site for awesome deals on Malaysian cooking classes!
Malaysians are incredibly friendly people; they have grown up in one of the biggest melting pots of cultures I have come across. They are so interested in your story and will often ask you a lot of questions. They love to take pictures with the people they meet. This even happened to me at the border crossing.
If you don’t want your picture taken, just politely decline, though they may take a sneaky one anyway. It is not uncommon for Malaysians to invite you for tea or for dinner. It is up to you if you want to accept this offer, but I mean, why wouldn’t you?
I have yet to meet an unfriendly Malaysian and found everyone to be extremely respectful. If nothing else, you will not be without friends when backpacking in Malaysia.
Useful Travel Phrases for Malaysia
It always helps to learn new languages and pieces of the local language when you travel to a foreign country! Below are my favourite Malaysia travel phrases:
- Hi Friend! – Hi!
- Kwan apa khabar? – How are you?
- Sangat bagus. – Very good.
- Siapa nama anda? – What’s your name?
- Nama saya … – My name is….
- Selamat malam – Goodnight
- Selamat tinggal – Goodbye
- Berapa harganya ini? – How much is this?
- Di mana tandas? – Where’s the toilet?
- No plastic bag – Tiada beg plastik
- No straw please – Tidak ada jerami sila
- No plastic cutlery please – Tidak plastik alat makan sila
- Terima kasih – Thank you
- Tolong – Please
- Saya dari … – I’m from ….
- Makan! Makan! – Eat! Eat!
- Saya tidak faham – I don’t understand
Books to Read About Malaysia
Backpacking Malaysia will be made even more incredible with background knowledge. To truly get an idea of the incredible range of cultures, religions, and traditions in Malaysia, I highly recommend reading some of these books set in Malaysia before your travels.
- Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore – A great insight into how Malaysian culture developed and grew after splitting with Singapore and how different the two places are.
- A Town Like Alice – The story of Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman who becomes romantically interested in a fellow prisoner of World War II in Malaya, and after liberation emigrates to Australia to be with him, where she attempts to generate economic prosperity in a small community – to turn it into “a town like Alice”.
- Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo – If this doesn’t convince you to go and explore the wild side of Borneo, I don’t know what will.
- Malaysia – Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture – I don’t normally take guide books with me, but this was a good read before I left.
- The Harmony Silk Factory – A fantastic read comparing different cultures and how they lived and worked together. One of my favourites!
I love reading before taking my next trip. Actually, I just love to read in general. Check out more of my favourite books to read on the road for some lazy hammock day inspiration!
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A Brief History of Malaysia
For many centuries, the British colonized Malaysia.
On December 8, 1941, the Japanese invaded the Malay Peninsula and they quickly overran it, but after WWII the Japanese were overrun.
As they were gaining independence, there was tension between Malays and non-Malays. It culminated in violence after an election in May 1969. The two sides came to violence and the government declared a state of emergency and parliament was suspended.
The Malaysian government then adopted a new, successful economic policy. It was remarkably successful.
From the 1970s on, Malaysia changed from being a poor, agricultural country to a rich, industrial one. The standard of living of the Malaysian people rose dramatically and Malaysia remains more prosperous than most Southeast Asian countries today.
Some Unique Experiences in Malaysia
There are a lot of incredible reasons to travel Malaysia. It’s a beautiful country filled with many beautiful people. Enjoy it!
Scuba Diving in Malaysia
Malaysia has plenty of great scuba diving options. The most famous sites, however, are located on Sipadan Island and Mabul Island.
Sipadan is by far the best place to enjoy scuba diving; it is also not that easy to actually dive at because of the restricting rules that are in place (i.e., daily permits). Mabul is known worldwide for its amazing muck diving conditions.
Scuba Dive Malaysia on a Liveaboard Trip
So you have some diving experience under your belt and you want to get to know some of Malaysia’s best dive sites intimately?
Then consider joining a liveaboard scuba diving trip in Malaysia!
There is no better way to experience remote, super interesting dive sites than on a liveaboard trip. You get what you pay for: excellent food, days of diving, and comfortable accommodation.
If you have the burning desire to do heaps of scuba diving in awesome locations, then a liveaboard diving trip somewhere amazing may be just the thing for you.
Trekking in Malaysia
Adventurists and avid trekkers will want to head to Borneo. There are several beautiful national parks, and ample opportunities to hike through jungles, over mountains, and through remote villages. If you’re a fan of the trail, be sure to plan a hiking adventure in Malaysia.
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Final Advice Before Visiting Malaysia
Just be good to Malaysia.
Writing your name in black marker on temples, chugging beer while shirtless, swearing loudly, and visiting unethical animal attractions? You, Sir, are a twat.
Luckily, most backpackers don’t fall into this category but, when you’re out and about and have had a few too many drinks, it can be easy to embarrass yourself. It’s easy to get carried away in Southeast Asia: everything is so damn cheap and so much fun.
Look up ethical animal sanctuaries, and learn more about the Palm Oil Plantation/deforestation crisis.
If you’re not into seeing the temples, no worries, but don’t be disrespectful, inappropriate, or deface them – certainly, do not try to wander in shirtless. Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, so dress conservatively when you are not on a beach.
Wear a helmet when you hop on a motorbike in Asia. Despite being an experienced driver, I’ve had a total of three crashes in South East Asia over the last ten years. On the one occasion, when I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I split my head open and had to go to the hospital. It was an expensive mistake.
The local people are sick of scraping foreigners off the road and, trust me, you don’t look cool for not wearing a helmet.
Humans are humans; treat people you meet along the way with the same respect you would show your friends and family back home. You are not superior to anyone including the girls/guys walking the streets.
Go to Asia and have the time of your life, do the things you’ve dreamed of, but be respectful along the way. Travelling the world makes you an ambassador for your country, which is awesome. We can make a positive impact on people when we travel and get rid of any ugly stereotypes that may be associated with your country…
All in all, just be cool, homie. Malaysia is a beautiful place filled with a lot of beautiful people. And now, you have everything you need to know to hit the road and begin backpacking Malaysia. So get out there already!
Got more to add to the guide? Let me know in the comments below! We’re always on the hunt for the tastiest new updates on our favourite countries.
And above all, have a blast, amigos. Eat ’til you drop, then eat some more!
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