After touring Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, it made sense to continue my journey South. I was excited to visit Singapore as it had been on my bucket list for a while, so I shamefully viewed Malaysia as the space that I had to quickly pass through to get from A to B!
How wrong I was.
By this point in my backpacking trip, I had found a female travel soulmate. She was also from England, had the same destinations mapped out in her travel plans and was killer at henna – Winning!
I had also met a certain Canadian boy several times throughout the Thai islands and was hoping with all my heart that he would head to Malaysia after me. (Spoiler alert: He totally did)…
Malaysia turned out to be the country where I became truly comfortable as a traveller.
I was a carefree wanderer; packing my huge backpack in 5 minutes like a pro, ordering street food without a second thought and throwing myself into experiences that I never expected I would ever do. Backpacking was now a second nature to me and Malaysia was laid out open like a wonderful unread book.
So if you are heading to Malaysia, here are my Top 5 Places to Visit that I found unexpectedly, spontaneously and would recommend again and again.
- Georgetown, Penang
After deciding (very reluctantly) that it was time to leave the paradise beaches of Thailand, we headed across the southern border to Malaysia and got a bus to the coastal town of Butterworth. From there, we jumped on a boat across to the colourful capital of Penang, George Town.
I could definitely notice an increase in temperature and humidity compared to Thailand – The air was thick in my lungs and sweat was quickly accepted as a permanent feature on our bodies!
Despite this, I absolutely loved the artistic style of the town. Colourful, crumbling buildings were everywhere to be seen and our hostel gave us a treasure map to seek out all the awesome interactive street art by Ernest Zacharevic.
George Town has large sections dedicated to different cultures. My favourite was definitely ‘Little India’ where Indian music blares out from Saree and Jewellery stores and the greatest Indian food I’ve ever tasted is served in restaurants and street carts. If I didn’t want to go to India before visiting, I definitely do now…
: Old Penang Guesthouse
There are cheaper hostels in George Town available but we tried one and received a shockingly hostile reception! This place is amazing for barely an extra buck. Clean dorms, friendly owners and most importantly busy open communal areas – I met some GREAT people staying here. A lot of solo travellers are keen to network and gather groups together to tour around. We extended our stay and enjoyed every minute of it.
- Penang National Park
Ask your hostel in George Town for more information on public transport – It is extremely cheap and easy to navigate. We left George Town for an impulsive day trip to Penang National Park after travellers in our hostel recommended it to us.
After an hour’s local bus ride, we arrived, registered our names with the Park Office and trekked an hour through rainforest, up and over the hill you see in the photograph below.
As a reward for our efforts, we found ourselves on an entirely private, secluded beach and spent the rest of the afternoon laying in the clear ocean waves and burning our feet on the absolutely sweltering sand!
As if the day couldn’t get any more perfect, we spotted a turtle hatchery along the shoreline and got to see tiny 2 day old turtles being nurtured and protected before being released back into the wild.
The Canadian boys opted out of the 1 hour trek and took a long tail boat around to meet us instead – So if you’re not feeling the humid trek this is an alternative option to bear in mind!
- Cameron Highlands
When the Canadian boys left to check out the beaches and parties of picture-perfect LangKawi, us girls decided to take a bus south to the Cameron Highlands (approx. 3.5 hour drive). The famous Malaysian tea plantations didn’t disappoint! The large curving fields produce 600 tonnes of black tea per year and each tree can continuously produce tea leaves for 150 years… Every British person’s dream?
We booked a package tour with a local guide who took us to see the plantation fields, led us on a walk through the eery and magical Mossy Forest (Jabatan Perhutanan) and drove us up to a 6,666ft viewpoint above the clouds (Gunung Brinchang). Definitely a stress-free and information-filled way to see the area!
All of these activities can be completed in a day or two and we found that there wasn’t much of an atmosphere or many travellers around the vicinity of the Highlands. We were happy to leave once we checked off our tourist list.
- Taman Negara Rainforest
Wow. I always dreamt of sleeping in a rainforest and what a powerful experience it was.
There are various trek options that you can choose from once you arrive in the Taman Negara National Park area. The size of the rainforest has been shockingly reduced to make way for palm oil plantations, however there is still a large preserved area that you can trek through and experience the wonders of tropical nature.
Our Canadian friends chose a guided tour that included kayaking and sleeping in caves.
We decided that having an Australian with us who could protect us from the spiders and other scary creatures would be enough… So we went alone!
OK so it’s not as scary as it sounds. The majority of the rainforest available to travellers has colour-coded boarded walkways and staircases which clearly mark out your chosen trek. We took plenty of water, sturdy shoes and yoga mats and walked/climbed for 6 hours until the only sounds we could hear were the hums of millions of insects and the rustles of thousand-year-old trees. We arrived at one of the free wooden huts built inside the forest and soaked up the deep sense of wonder as we sat in silence together with flashlights hoping to catch a glimpse of wild elephants or tigers.
I was one human being in amongst 4,000km ² of a 130 million year old rainforest. Home to tigers, elephants, birds of paradise and the largest flower in the world, the Rafflesia plant. I bathed in a natural rainforest river. I slept, exhausted, under the brightest stars accompanied by the most intense noise of nature that night – and I will never forget it.
- Kuala Lumpur
After recovering (and most importantly showering) after our rainforest trek, we headed further south to the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. To go from a 130 million year old rainforest to a busy concrete city was definitely a shock to the system!
While you’re there, check out some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world: the impressive Petronas Towers. I don’t know a lot about architecture but I could appreciate the mirror of the two buildings and how beautiful they looked as they lit up the night. We didn’t purchase tickets to the Sky Deck/Observation Platform but I can imagine it is a breathtaking view.
Instead, we sat at the base of the towers and enjoyed the huge rainbow-coloured water show that takes place regularly in the fountains below.
If you have some extra time, venture outside of the city and visit the famous Batu Caves.
We were confident enough to tackle the huge staircase, feeling the burn on our legs, and it absolutely poured down on us as we were stuck half-way up! Luckily, we took shelter in one of the many caves inside the limestone hill. Bright cartoons depict different legends and stories on the cave walls and it was great to experience Malaysian culture, religion and history after all of our nature-based adventures.
Malaysia provides such an exciting variety of experiences; from plantations to temples, rainforest to sky-scraping cities.
We mostly used the HostelWorld.com app to find last-minute accommodation and filled our itineraries with activities recommended by other travellers we met in our dorm rooms. Malaysia turned out to be the best ‘space between A and B’ I could have hoped for. We truly embraced what it meant to be free and live for each day and we left Malaysia enlightened with a new appreciation of Mother Nature and how precious the world we live in is.
Do you have any questions about Malaysia? Let me know and I’ll be happy to share my advice. Please share your experiences below, I’d love to hear from you!