Malaysia exceeded my expectations. The country has a diverse population, a wide range of sights, and great food. I arrived in Malaysia on June 25 and left on July 26. Below is a summary of the locations, accommodations, transport, and tours from my time in Malaysia.
Kuala Lumpur (June 25 to 29, July 9 to 12, and 24 to 26)
- Sunshine Bedz (June 25 to 29). The staff was friendly and tried to get as many people as possible involved in nights out. I love trivia, so I was a big fan of the pub quiz night on Mondays. Ladies’ night on Wednesdays is the biggest event hosted by the hostel since women get free drinks all night, and men get happy hour specials. Security was great, as reception had to buzz in anyone who entered the hostel. The dorm, bathrooms, and free breakfast were fine. The hostel was located in a neighborhood called Bukit Bintang and was close to a lot of malls, restaurants, and bars.
- Sarang Vacation Homes (July 9 to 12). I wanted to stay in KL for a couple of days to get reliable wifi to plan for my trip to Borneo. Sarang Vacation Homes fit the bill. I stayed in a studio apartment for a reasonable price (about $31 per night) and had access to the building’s pool and gym. The apartment was on the 25th floor and had a great view of Bukit Bintang. Thin walls were the only downside. I could hear the family next door when they arrived at 2:00 AM, and the two children clearly struggled with jet lag.
- BackHome Kuala Lumpur (July 24 to 26). The staff was friendly, and my dorm was clean and spacious. The room had a lot of hangers (surprisingly hard to find in many hostels), each bed had shelves and storage areas, and the lockers were large. The hostel had a common room with a ton of movies and TV shows; I finally watched the first episode of Game of Thrones here. Wifi was fast, and I could stream episodes of Master of None without issue. The free breakfast was standard (toast, a local spread/jam, cereal, and fruit). The hostel attracted everyone from backpacking students to families. I was in more of a social mood, and the hostel was quieter than I preferred. The hostel was close to Chinatown, and a lot of tasty, cheap restaurants were nearby.
- Transport to KL:
- I took a 2.5-hour flight from Phuket for my first stay in KL.
- For my second stay in KL, I took a six-hour bus ride from Kuala Besut, the closest mainland port to the Perhentian Islands.
- For my final stay in KL, I took a two-hour bus ride from Melaka.
- Transport within KL:
- I mostly walked in KL. If you stick to the more touristy areas like the Petronas Towers and Bukit Bintang, you can seek shelter in underground and partially covered walkways.
- To get to the airport, I used public transportation, including the monorail, LRT, and KLIA Ekspres. The monorail didn’t seem to run as frequently as advertised, but I was otherwise satisfied with the public transportation system.
- One-day jungle and waterfalls trek with Open Sky Unlimited
- Blog post:
Cameron Highlands (June 29 to July 1)
- Accommodation: David’s Apartment at Greenhill Resort
- I only needed the basics for my short two-night stay in the Cameron Highlands. While it wasn’t fancy, my room was clean and even had a TV. The room didn’t have air conditioning, but it was unnecessary in the Cameron Highlands. The walls were thin, so I could hear the families next door, but they kept their voices down late at night.
- Transport to the Cameron Highlands:
- Four-hour winding bus ride from KL. A couple of people got sick on the ride.
- Transport within the Cameron Highlands:
- I walked down the main street of Tanah Rata, the town where I stayed. The walk took no more than 15 minutes one-way.
- I went on a tour with Discover Camerons to get to attractions outside of Tanah Rata.
- Full-day tour with Discover Camerons
- Blog post:
Georgetown (July 1 to 4)
- Accommodation: House of Journey
- The staff was helpful and led free street art tours. Free coffee and tea were available all day. There was no real common area, but a lot of guests hung around reception or on stools in front of the building. I stayed in a six-bed dorm, which was clean but dark. I was in an upper bunk next to the air conditioner, so I was freezing at night. The hostel was located a block away from Chulia Street (lots of restaurants and bars) and less than a five-minute walk from Love Lane (the main nightlife area). My roommates were awesome, so I have fond memories of this hostel.
- Transport to Georgetown:
- 4.5-hour bus ride from Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands.
- Transport within Georgetown:
- Georgetown is large, but I was able to walk to many of the main attractions. My farthest walk was about 40 minutes from my hostel. I took a public bus to the Tropical Spice Garden, which took about an hour one-way. I took a Grab car to and from Kek Lok Si Temple.
- Blog post:
Kuala Besut (July 4 to 5)
- Accommodation: IZ Budget 2
- I spent about 14 hours in Kuala Besut before heading to the Perhentian Islands, and IZ Budget 2 suited my needs for the night. My hostess was very nice and helped book a boat transfer to the Perhentian Islands. She also drove me to the port the next morning and made sure I got on the right boat. The room was clean and had air conditioning.
- Transport to Kuala Besut:
- Six-hour bus ride to a city called Kota Bharu, then a one-hour Grab ride to Kuala Besut. My hostess told me direct buses from Penang to Kuala Besut were available, but I was unaware of this before arriving.
- Transport within Kuala Besut:
- I ventured out of my room only for dinner and a mini-mart stop, both of which were a five-minute walk away.
- Blog post:
Perhentian Kecil (July 5 to 9)
- Accommodation: Maya Chalet
- The Perhentian Islands are small, so choice of accommodation is limited. I stayed in a private room with a fan (no air conditioning), which cost 40 MYR (less than $9.50) a night. The price seemed reasonable for a private room. My bed had a mosquito net with some holes, but I don’t think I got bitten in my room. [NB: bring mosquito repellent to the Perhentians, and wear long sleeves when you’re outdoors at night. The mosquitoes are vicious.] The electricity was turned off from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM, but I was out for most of this time anyway. The bathroom was…functional. The toilet didn’t flush well, and the shower only had cold water (no big deal since it was so hot). My favorite place was a little gazebo in the center of the complex, where a few hammocks were located. If it weren’t for the mosquitoes, I could have easily slept in a hammock.
- Transport to Perhentian Kecil:
- Hour-long boat ride from Kuala Besut
- Transport within Perhentian Kecil:
- Walking the length of Coral Bay, where I stayed, took less than 15 minutes. Long Beach, on the other side of the island, was about a 15-minute walk away.
- Three-day PADI open water course with Anti Gravity Divers
- Blog post:
Kota Kinabalu (July 12 to 16, July 22 to 23)
- B&B@21. The staff made my stay here. They were so friendly and hung out with guests after hours. My dorm and the bathrooms were clean. Lockers weren’t in the rooms. Instead, they were by reception, which was a little annoying but manageable. Free breakfast (toast) was fine. The hostel had an outdoor area, which was nice, but not many people hung out there. The hostel was pretty quiet, but some people hung around reception, so it was easy to meet other travelers. I liked the location, which was close to a lot of restaurants.
- Faloe Hostel. OK, I’ve already gushed about the free laundry, so I’ll try to keep this briefer. Free use of the washing machine and dryer was amazing. The hostel was spotless, and the dorm was modern. The wifi was fast and reliable. Free breakfast was made available to me, even though I left the hostel at 3:30 AM. I stayed at the hostel for less than 12 hours, so I’m not sure if it would have been easy to meet people; it seemed quiet. Nonetheless, fantastic stay for the short time I was there.
- Transport to KK:
- For my first stay in KK, I took a 2.5-hour flight from KL.
- For my second stay in KK, I took a six-hour bus ride from around the Kinabatangan River.
- Transport within KK:
- KK is large, but I stuck to walking. Grab and Uber are readily available.
- Blog post:
Sandakan (July 16 to 18)
- Accommodation: Harbourside Backpackers
- Perfectly fine stay: the staff was nice, my room was clean, and free breakfast (toast and eggs) was offered. I stayed in a six-bed dorm, but I was the only person in the room for the two nights I was in Sandakan. Wifi was OK. I used the hostel’s computers to book flights and do travel research. There isn’t much to see in Sandakan, but the hostel was about as centrally located as it could be.
- Transport to Sandakan:
- Six-hour bus ride from Kota Kinabalu
- Transport within Sandakan:
- Although the Sandakan “city center” is small, the sights are spread out. I had to take a Grab to get to sights like the war memorial and Puu Jih Shih. It’s possible to take a 45-minute Grab or taxi ride to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and the Sun Bear Conservation Center, but it’s probably better to stay in Sepilok.
- Blog post:
Selingan/Turtle Island (July 18 to 19)
- Chalets on the island can house roughly 30 to 40 guests. Each room has two twin beds. The rooms are basic but clean and even have air conditioning.
- Transport to Turtle Island:
- 45-minute boat ride from Sandakan
- Transport within Turtle Island:
- Walking. No other choice, and the island is tiny.
- One-night stay booked through Crystal Quest. I couldn’t find reliable contact information for Crystal Quest online, but its office is about a 10-minute walk from the Sandakan city center. Third-party tour companies also arrange one-night trips to Turtle Island, but they can be a lot pricier. Ultimately, all tours are booked through Crystal Quest.
- Blog post:
Sepilok (July 19 to 21)
- Accommodation: Sepilok Forest Edge Resort
- I stayed in a ten-bed dorm, which had a fan but no air conditioning. It didn’t get that hot in the room, so it was fine. All dorm guests are free to use the resort’s facilities, which include a small pool. The free breakfast was a buffet that included eggs, sausage, toast, cereal, and fruit. Service in the restaurant was very slow, but the food was good. The resort was about a 15-minute walk from the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and the Sun Bear Conservation Center.
- Transport to Sepilok:
- 45-minute Grab ride from Sandakan
- Transport within Sepilok:
- I walked to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, the Sun Bear Conservation Center, and the Rainforest Discovery Center. I took a shuttle bus from my accommodation to Labuk Bay Sanctuary, which I don’t recommend visiting.
- Blog post:
Kinabatangan River (July 21 to 22)
- Accommodation: Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort
- I wasn’t expecting much from a resort in the jungle, but I was pleasantly surprised. The staff was friendly, and my six-bed dorm was clean and modern. I do have to note that the rooms are somewhat open to the elements: one of my roommates awoke to find bat droppings on her bed since a bat had snuck into our room. The food was excellent. As a snack, we were treated to banana fritters and fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. Dinner and breakfast were served buffet-style and contained both local and western options. I also loved the resident, pregnant dog, who was named Yap-Yap.
- Transport to the Kinabatangan River:
- Two-hour van ride from Sepilok
- Transport by the Kinabatangan River:
- I remained at the resort, which operated the evening and morning river cruises.
- Two-day, one-night tour with Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort
- Blog post:
Melaka (July 23 to 24)
- Accommodation: Nomaps
- The staff was nice, and everything was clean. I stayed in a six-bed dorm, which was clean but small. There wasn’t enough floor space for everyone’s bags. Free breakfast (cereal) and snacks were available. The hostel had a movie room, but no one used it during my stay. It was a quiet hostel, so it wasn’t easy to meet people.
- Transport to Melaka:
- Two-hour bus ride from KL
- Transport within Melaka:
- I walked to sights, all of which were within a 30-minute walk.
- Blog post:
During my 32 days in Malaysia, I spent about $2,192.17, or $68.51 a day. This total includes my flight from Thailand to Kuala Lumpur ($102).
My expenses were categorized as follows:
- Entertainment: $940.88
- This category includes tours, activities, entrance fees, and massages/spa treatments (I needed a pedicure, aight?). The most expensive activity was my three-day PADI open water course, which cost 1,050 MYR (about $245). The next most expensive activities were a one-night stay on Turtle Island (504.60 MYR or about $118), two fun dives in Kota Kinabalu (412 MYR or about $96), and a two-day, one-night Kinabatangan River cruise (384 MYR or about $90, which covered two cruises, accommodation, food, and transport).
- Food: $423.68
- This total is equivalent to about $13.25 per day, which seems reasonable but still surprises me. I guess I ate a lot in Malaysia. Food in KL was generally more expensive, but I spent more than necessary since I went to a couple of chain restaurants and hipster eateries. I really miss the Indian food in KL: I could stuff myself on butter chicken, naan, and a mango lassi for less than $6.
- This category also includes alcoholic beverages, although I didn’t drink often in Malaysia. When I did have a night out, I didn’t spend much (thanks, KL Ladies’ Night!).
- Accommodation: $387.83
- I stayed in private rooms in KL (a studio apartment with access to a pool and gym for about 135 MYR or about $31 per night), the Cameron Highlands (262 MYR or about $30 per night), Kuala Besut (80 MYR or about $19 per night), and the Perhentian Islands (40 MYR or $9.50 per night). Otherwise, I stayed in dorm rooms, which ranged from 33 MYR/$8 per night (eight-bed dorm in KK) to 55 MYR/$13 per night (six-bed dorm in Melaka).
- Transport: $349.52
- This includes my flight from Phuket to KL, a round-trip flight between KL and KK (334.32 MYR or about $78), buses, taxis, boats, and monorails. The flights were my biggest expenses. Transport was inexpensive and reasonably reliable in Malaysia. Buses were fine (e.g., 43 MYR or about $10 for a six-hour bus ride from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan), and Grab rides were cheap (18 MYR or about $4.20 for a 30-minute ride from Sandakan to the war memorial).
- Miscellaneous: $90.26
- This category includes a Celcom SIM card (about $7) with 8 GB of data for a month. Service was reliable.
- I restocked on a lot of toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, body wash, and eye cream) in KL. Since razors are difficult to find in more rural areas where women dress more conservatively, I jumped on the chance to buy them in KL. I got a bunch of Venus cartridges, but I found out later that they weren’t compatible with the razor handle I bought. Life is hard, man (that’s sarcasm, in case that was unclear).
- The zipper for one of my custom-made rompers from Vietnam broke. I’m useless at sewing, so I got it mended at a tailor in KL (15 MYR/$3.50).
I skipped a couple of areas in Malaysia that many travelers visit:
- Langkawi is an island to the northwest of the Malaysian peninsula. It’s supposed to have nice beaches, but I decided to skip it in favor of the Perhentian Islands. I don’t regret this decision.
- Sipadan, an island in northeastern Borneo, is supposed to be one of the best dive sites in the world. Travelers must plan in advance to dive there since admission is limited to 120 visitors per day. I considered Sipadan, but I didn’t think I would be able to fully enjoy it since I was such a novice diver. A traveler with more diving experience raved about Sipadan but recommended that I visit it another time; all future dive sites would pale in comparison if Sipadan was one of my early diving experiences. That reasoning made sense to me.
Finally, a few general observations about Malaysia:
- I was so impressed by Malaysians’ language abilities, especially in KL. So many people spoke at least three languages: Malay, English, and a language reflecting their ethnic background (e.g., Cantonese, Tamil). As someone who can only speak English, I was jealous.
- I like to say “thank you” in the local language as a small gesture of appreciation. It’s not much, but it can earn a smile or giggle from the recipient. However, so many Malaysians spoke English that it took me a long time to learn how to say thank you in Malay. These are some Malay phrases I picked up before I learned how to say “thank you”:
- Dibuka 24 jam: open 24 hours (seen at 7-Elevens and McDonald’s everywhere)
- Keluar: exit
- Tandas: restroom/toilet
- Selamat datang: welcome (seen on mall displays and in storefronts)
- Restoran: take a wild guess
- Teksi: take another wild guess
- I ran out of my beloved Icebreakers wintergreen mints in Malaysia. I’m surprised I was able to ration them this long. I bought packs of Mentos Pure Fresh mints as a poor substitute. (For some reason, I can’t find photos of these online.) They’re better than nothing, but I can’t wait to restock on Icebreakers.
- Malaysians love durian. I haven’t been brave enough to try the fruit since the scent makes me gag. Everyone – including locals – admits that durian smells like rotting garbage. I’m also wary of the texture since it looks custard-like; it’s nothing like any fruit I enjoy. But, no matter where I went in Malaysia, I saw durian-flavored sweets, like pastries and McFlurries.
- In KK, I met a Swiss-Indonesian traveler who lived in Zurich. To my delight, he had visited the club Alice Choo. He was the second person I’d met during my travels who was familiar with the club. I met a couple of other Zurcher students during my Kinabatangan River cruise, but they sadly hadn’t heard of Alice Choo.