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Sea Gypsy kids on a canoes in Bodgaya Island, Sabah Borneo, Malaysia
Sea Gypsy kids on a canoes in Bodgaya Island, Sabah Borneo, Malaysia | © Yusnizam Yusof/Shutterstock
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The Ultimate Backpacking Guide to Malaysia

Picture of Sam Bedford
Updated: 26 April 2018
Malaysia rates as one of the hottest destinations in Southeast Asia for budget travellers. With rock bottom prices, exotic travel destinations, biodiversity, jungles and a thriving coffee shop culture, there’s something to suit every taste and interest. Culture Trip rounds up the essentials about backpacking in Malaysia.

The backpacker scene

Malaysia attracts backpackers for the affordable cost of travel, wide selection of delicious food, multiculturalism, biodiversity, beaches and a vibrant rural scene. In short, Malaysia has it all. Walk through Kuala Lumpur or Penang’s streets and see endless streams of backpackers from around the world. A flexible visa policy means several nationalities get a 90-day free visa on arrival. English is widely spoken and reliable WiFi in Kuala Lumpur makes Malaysia a backpacker hotspot.

Accommodation, food and transport cost very little. It would be easy to survive, if not thrive, on less than $30 per day. However, alcohol prices outside of duty-free Langkawi are high. And those looking to hit the country’s must-visit tourist attractions will be faced with steep admission prices, often three times higher than locals, with the ubiquitous ‘non-Malaysian prices’.

Perhentian Islands, Mira beach, Malaysia
Malaysia’s islands and beaches are one of the major attractions for backpackers | © DarwelShots/Shutterstock

Making the most of it

Get away from the tourist trail

All backpackers should visit the country’s top destinations, which include Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Langkawi and Malacca. But at the same time, there’s an impressive list of other less visited spots such as Perak’s Taiping, Ipoh and Pangkor Island, along with Kedah’s Alor Setar and Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah and Sarawak.

Make the most of ecotourism

Malaysia is one of Earth’s most biodiverse regions. From Borneo’s untouched primary rainforests to the jungle surrounding Kuala Lumpur, it’s easy to indulge in nature. Backpackers can see monkeys, hornbills and other exotic creatures. Hiking trails are within a stone’s throw of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and other cities.

danum valley
You can enjoy pristine views in the rainforests of Borneo | © Kim Briers / Shutterstock

Embrace the food

Ask any Malaysian what they’re proud of and almost all will mention food. Multiculturalism creates culinary diversity. Expect traditional, Indian self-service mamak restaurants, Chinese food courts, Malay restaurants and street food and cravings will always be satisfied. Food is cheap, available 24/7 and unbelievably delicious.

Malaysian home cooked dishes sold at street market stall in Kota Kinabalu Sabah
No matter where you go it’s easy to find a variety of cheap Malaysian food | © Lano Lan/Shutterstock

Safety

The safety situation in Malaysia is complicated. On the one hand, violent crime rarely affects tourists. But on the other, some cities have a dark underbelly. Backpackers in Malaysia with common sense who don’t stray from touristy areas late at night will find their only concerns are petty theft, pickpocketing and groups of roaming beggars. Because of Malaysia’s 24/7 lifestyle, it’s generally safe to be out after dark. Restaurants tend to burst until the early hours. But night owls should also be aware that Malaysia isn’t as safe as the likes of Vietnam and Singapore. Grab and Uber are reliable and safer ways to travel around late at night.

Pedestrians and motorcyclists beware

Road safety is probably the biggest safety concern. Speeding cars who don’t slow for pedestrians combined with a lack of pavement outside of Kuala Lumpur are a dangerous combination. Vehicles in the capital might not stop at pedestrian crossings. Red lights don’t seem to apply to motorbikes either, whether someone is crossing the road or not. Those renting a motorbike in Langkawi or Pulau Pangkor should be aware of ‘mat rempit’. Mat rempit are a group of young men who race motorcycles along the highway, perform dangerous stunts and pose huge risks towards other motorists.

Solo female travellers need to be extra vigilant

Female travellers need to be careful when backpacking in Malaysia. Catcalling, stares and unwanted attention are all too frequent outside of the big cities. In Kuala Lumpur, men have been known (and caught) inappropriately touching women on public transport. Always use the ‘female-only’ carriage whenever possible. Sadly, gender discrimination and homophobic behaviour are significant issues in Malaysia too.

Petronas Twins Tower in Kuala-Lumpur
Avoid being out alone at night and always be alert when you’re out and about | © kudla/Shutterstock

Should backpackers be worried?

In short, anyone who plans to go backpacking in Malaysia probably won’t face any problems if they exercise common sense. But a little caution goes a long way, especially when out late at night.

Food and accommodation

Finding food is easy

Malaysia has a reputation for serving some of the world’s best food. Multiculturalism means budget-friendly restaurants with either Indian, Chinese or Malay food found in most areas. Street food, Western-style restaurants and fine dining are also widely available. Vegetarian and vegans who are backpacking in Malaysia can dine at the Hindu or Buddhist-friendly restaurants where meat is strictly off the menu.

Backpackers love Malaysia’s affordable accommodation

Hostels, hotels, guesthouses and Airbnbs are in abundance. From the $10 (RM40) to $15 (RM60) a night for a bed in Bukit Bintang or George Town, to a guesthouse a minute or two from the beach on Pangkor Island, it’s fast and affordable to find a place to stay in Malaysia. Expect a comfortable room with a private bathroom and air-conditioning for around $20 (RM78) per night.

Making friends

Outside tourist areas, eating in a restaurant or relaxing at a coffee shop often attracts attention. Most Malaysians understand and speak some English and it’s never too difficult to strike up a conversation. Learn a few phrases of Bahasa Malaysia and watch the locals’ eyes widen after saying a few more words than ‘thank you’. Grab drivers can also be a good source of information and recommendations. Meetup.com, where people post groups and speciality activities such as hiking or a book club, is an excellent way to meet locals with similar interests. Backpackers tend to hang around in the street-side food courts in Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Bintang.

Bandar Hilir, Melaka, Malaysia
Most people can speak English and it’s quite easy to strike up a conversation | © Izlan Somai/Shutterstock

Money, money, money

Currency

Malaysia’s currency is called the ringgit and currently sits at just under RM 4 to $1USD. Denominations include RM1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 notes along with 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents in coins. Almost everywhere accepts cash, while debit/credit cards can be used in larger shops and shopping malls.

Changing money in Malaysia

Those wanting to change money in Malaysia will find reasonable rates that are often better than back at home. Different rates apply for different denominations, such as $100 and $10. Most exchange offices won’t accept smaller notes or coins.

Costs in USD

1 meal ($2 to $10)

1 beer ($4 to $15 outside of Happy Hour, special promotions and duty-free Langkawi)

1 night at a backpacker hostel ($8 to $15)

1 cheap mode of transport for inner-city travel ($0.30 to $10, including the metro, bus, taxis and Grab)

1 hygiene/medical essential at a local shop ($2 to $10)

1 affordable experience – e.g. average entry to visit a Temple ($4 to 20). Foreigners often have to pay three times more than locals.

Malaysia currency
Malaysia’s currency is Ringgit | © Patricia Soon/Shutterstock

Where to go

Langkawi: Langkawi is the ‘Jewel of Kedah’. With pristine beaches and a duty-free status, the island is a top spot for anyone backpacking in Malaysia. Head to one of Pantai Cenang’s beach-side bungalows and enjoy a cocktail on the beach overlooking the sea for a few dollars. Spend at least 48 hours in Langkawi.

Penang: George Town, Penang Island’s capital, consistently rates as a backpacker haven. The colonial core, elegant architecture, cheap and delicious street food, and a less crowded feel compared to Kuala Lumpur are just a few reasons for its popularity. Enjoy the street art, visit both Buddhist and Hindu temples and hike Penang Hill.

Sabah: Sabah grows in popularity among those backpacking in Malaysia for ecotourism. Boasting vast areas of untouched primary rainforest, world-class diving spots and Malaysia’s tallest mountain, Gunung Kinabalu, the state in Malaysian Borneo won’t disappoint. Take river cruises to see Proboscis Monkeys and head into the jungle to find orangutans.

Pulau Pangkor: Perak’s Pangkor Island has a population of 30,000 along the Straits of Malacca. Secluded beaches, a laid-back atmosphere and few tourists give it an off-the-beaten-path feel in a beautiful location. But visit soon before it becomes another hotspot for backpackers in Malaysia.

Ipoh: Ipoh, the capital of Perak, is just a couple of hours north of Kuala Lumpur. The city has traditional shophouses, colonial architecture and several Buddhist temples carved into the surrounding limestone hills. The supposedly haunted Kellies Castle, a former mansion commissioned by an eccentric Scotsman, is nearby too.

Kellie's_Castle_Sideview
Visit Kellie’s Castle located in Batu Gajah, Perak | © Bio syahmi

Bucket list experiences

Visit the jungle: Primary rainforest cover large areas of both Peninsular and Malaysian Borneo. From hiking in the hills surrounding Kuala Lumpur to spending a week in Sabah’s Danum Valley Conservation Reserve, having the chance to get hot and sticky in the rainforest is a must.

Climb Mount Kinabalu: Sabah’s Mount Kinabalu is the tallest in Malaysia at 4095 metres (13,435 feet). A sacred place for indigenous Kadazan-Dusun and a challenge for hiking and mountaineering enthusiasts, this two-day trek is a favourite bucket list experience in Malaysia. Arrange several months in advance as limited spots fill quickly.

Taste famous Malaysian dishes: And the easiest bucket list experience in Malaysia is to sample as many of the nation’s famous dishes. From nasi lemak, laksa and teh tarik with roti canai to Chinese noodle soup, rojak and satay, tasting the widely available and delicious food is a must.

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Try Penang’s fruit rojak | © Basil Strahm
Street food in Kota Kinabalu Sabah, Malaysia
Cheap snacks are easily available from vendors or from the night market | © Lano Lan/Shutterstock