So you want to visit Malaysia, but where to start? There are so many areas, and the two monsoon seasons could really put a damper on a poorly timed trip. The Northeast Monsoon can affect Malaysia east of the peninsula from October to March, while the Southwest Monsoon affects Peninsular Malaysia from April to September. If you are planning a visit during the Northeast time frame, we have the perfect itinerary for your trip.
We spent the month of January between seven areas in Singapore and Western Malaysia, and explored the top highlights on the peninsula. This trip is flexible, and could easily be done given less or more time. And who wouldn’t want to spend more time here with the super low cost of travel? Our $58 USD two person daily average always included private rooms with en suite bathroom and no hold backs on food.
Singapore is a melting pot of cultures. Strong Chinese, Indian and Malay influences create a tasty and vibrant place for a visit. Despite having modern skyscrapers and expansive public transport, environmental preservation and cleanliness are at the core of its identity. The country is well connected internationally by air and also overland with Malaysia, making this a great place to begin a trip through the peninsula.
We found Singapore very easy to navigate, but certainly on the pricier side for Asia. Surprisingly, cash was required for payment more often that expected, including for the metro and many restaurants. During your trip, be sure and save time to wander the famous Gardens By the Bay, and sample a steamed bun at the Michelin recognized Din Tai Fung. This is a small country, and does not require much time to explore.
Time allotment: Two to three days is sufficient to adequately experience this area.
- Gardens By the Bay – Impressive botanical gardens located near downtown and the waterfront, which is home of the world renown Supertree Grove. The park is free to enter, but there are optional paid add ons including the Flower and Cloud Forest Domes and the Skyway, which are worth a visit. As of 2018, the combined entrance to both Domes was $28 SGD ($21 USD) and the Skyway cost $8 SGD ($6 USD). Make sure to also visit the Gardens at night during the free Supertree Grove Rhapsody Light Show, which comes on daily at 7:45 and 8:45 pm.
- Night View From Singapore Flyer – The city lights up at night, creating a beautiful spectacle. One of the best nighttime city views can be found at the ferris wheel across Marina Bay where Supertree Grove and the Domes can be seen, along with the city skyline and Sands hotel.
As the capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (referred to as KL by locals) has a lot to offer. The city is home of the world’s tallest Petronas twin towers, loads of amazing food, numerous temples and caves. Many people choose to visit KL for the less expensive shopping and dining options than those found in Singapore, or to relax in some of the worlds cheapest 5-star hotels.
We found the city to be great on a budget, with many affordable and comfortable accommodations. There are plenty of shops and malls offering anything a traveler could need, and even more restaurants and hawker stalls around every turn. The locals are some of the nicest and most honest in the world, always making sure that you feel welcomed.
Getting there from Singapore: Numerous coaches go direct from Singapore to KL daily, leaving from the Golden Mile Complex. Tickets can be purchased from any of the several operators at the complex or online through BusOnlineTicket.com and EasyBook.com for around $20 SGD (roughly $15 USD). The bus crosses the border and then continues on after all passengers are through. You will be required to get your passport exit stamped from Singapore, which is electronic and very quick, before heading a few minutes to the Malaysian border for entry. This crossing is also friendly and efficient, but you will be required to bring all luggage for scanning upon entry. The total trip time is around five hours, and drop off locations vary depending on coach operator.
Time allotment: Two to three days is sufficient to experience the temples and markets. We feel that excess time would be best allocated towards other cities on this route.
- Alor Street Food Night Market – This market comes alive each evening with stalls and restaurants lining the street. This is no secret, so it tends to get packed with diners around dark. There are seemingly infinite food and drink options to sample on the cheap, so be prepared for a daily visit.
- Islamic Arts Museum – A beautiful collection of more than 10,000 Asian Islamic artifacts, filling a 30,000 square meter building. The museum can take a couple hours to explore, and costs just 14 MYR ($3.5 USD) entrance.
Taman Negara National Park
In contrast to the city experience, Malaysia has an expansive area of rainforest jungle to visit in search of wildlife. Taman Negara National Park is located in the center of mainland, and consists of over 4,000 square kilometers of undeveloped land. Kuala Tehan is the kickoff point for jungle exploration, where several low key guesthouses and hotels are dotted around the small local village. The park is directly across the river where boats take passengers back and forth on request for a mere 1 MYR ($0.25) per way.
As expected for a deep jungle destination, it can get quite steamy at times. It is open to visitors 24 hours so visit outside the heat of the day, and be sure to bring plenty of bug spray. Entry and camera permits are required which cost 1 MYR and 5 MYR ($1.25 USD), respectively. These can be purchased at the Kuala Tembling Jetty or upon entry to the park. Fines are significant if caught without a permit.
While some larger species are found within the park including Malay tigers and sun bears, a lot of the experience comes from patience and careful listening. We had some of the most rewarding while slowly walking through the trees, spending long times in an animal hide and listening amidst the buzzing chorus on a self guided night safari.
Getting there from Kuala Lumpur: There are two options for getting to Taman Negara. The most common involves a bus/van and boat combination. The bus from KL drops you at the Kuala Tembeling Jetty where you will then take a 2.5-3 hour scenic but uncomfortable boat ride up river to Kuala Tehan. A less exciting option links two bus/vans. One leaves from KL and goes to either Jerantut or Kuala Tembling where a vehicle transfer is required to reach Kuala Tehan. These trips can be booked online through BusOnlineTicket.com and EasyBook.com, or through a local travel agent. Most online bookings include the boat so talk to an agent if you prefer to stay dry. We had good luck using Han Travel.
Time allotment: Two full days, but two nights and one day could suffice in a pinch. The town of Kuala Tehan is small and has limited dining options, most of which are floating restaurants. The easily accessible park can be seen in a day or two, but longer time would be required to do a multi-day jungle trek.
- Jungle Walk – There are several raised paths through the jungle. Walking is easy on your own via these paths, or with one of the many guided tours available in Kuala Tehan. Buy tours on arrival, you’ll have more options and better negotiation power. There are several points of interest on the park maps, including raised hides for animal viewing. Ask the park rangers for recommended hikes. If you decide to go beyond the length of the pathways, the trails can get extremely muddy and covered with leeches. Hiking boots and leech socks are highly recommended.
- Canopy Walkway – One of the longest tree canopy swinging walkways in the world, located less than 2km inside the park. The fee is a mere 5 MYR ($1.25 USD) to scramble some 650 meters between the treetops. Get there early to avoid long queues.
- Night Safari – You can do a standalone safari or choose a multiple activity package which can be arranged by one of the many tour companies. These can also easily be done self guided by sticking to the main trails and using a torch or headlamp. The nighttime in the jungle is filled with sounds and stars, and is a must add to any visit.
Just when you have had enough of the heat, you can move on to a hill station located in the Cameron Highlands. The area is located in the mountains of central mainland, and boasts as the largest tea, strawberry and vegetable growing region in Malaysia. With the higher altitude comes drastically cooler temperatures and it can even get a little chilly at night. Spend some time enjoying the green mountain scenery and exploring the many plantations and cloud forests. We took an enjoyable half day tour with EcoCameron but alternatively a hired car, if available, would be cheap and convenient.
The area is also a great spot for hiking, although local maps tend to be outdated as trails are often changed or closed without notice. The best source which we found for trail info is the Cameron Highlands hiking guide by Woolyventures. After a day exploring the mountains, come back to town for a famous steamboat dinner, where a pot of boiling broth is used to cook any number of meats, veggies and noodles at the table.
Getting there from Taman Negara: Any of the travel agencies in Kuala Tehan can set up a transfer to Cameron Highlands, which is a common next destination for visitors. The trip involves a boat or van or back to Kuala Tembeling Jetty, followed by a bus to Tana Rata in the Highlands. The cost varies by company but is typically between 80-95 MYR ($20-25 USD), and takes 5-7 hours depending on connection timing.
Time allotment: Two full days to not feel rushed, but two nights and one day could suffice. Tea plantations and cloud forests can be visited in a day on a guided tour, but additional time could be spent hiking the surrounding trails.
- Tea Plantations – There are several plantations located in the highlands. These can be visited alone or as part of a half or full day guided tour package. Most are pretty far from Tana Rata, so a visit without transport would be difficult.
- Cloud Forests – Many of the cloud forested peaks which were easily accessible have been closed due to environmental degradation. While it would be possible to visit some on foot, it may be difficult to get to or find one without a guide. A visit is included in most of the tours available, and the guide will be knowledgable of the flora and fauna in the area.
Despite this being a wonderful city to visit, Ipoh is often left off of the tourist route. The city is best known for its diverse selection of foods, incredible cave temples and fun street art. Located en route to Penang from the Highlands, this area makes a perfect stopover for some non-touristed food culture. For the adventurous type, the huge Tempurung Cave network is also located nearby and offers various levels of spelunking.
With strong Chinese influences, dim sum restaurants can be found throughout the city. If you are in search of one of these fun dining experiences, make sure to stop by Foh San and enjoy tea with the locals. Later, take a walk to Concubine Lane and wander the restored historical district in search of street art, or try foot reflexology for 40 MYR ($10 USD).
Getting there from Cameron Highlands: There are numerous coach operators which go directly between Tana Rata and Ipoh. The 2-2.5 hour trip can be booked online through BusOnlineTicket.com and EasyBook.com or at the bus station in Tana Rata for around 20 MYR ($5 USD). The route is direct to the Amanjaya Bus Terminal on the outskirts of Ipoh, where a taxi, Uber or hourly public bus is then required to get into town.
Time allotment: Two to three full days. One day to visit cave temples with additional time to explore the street art around Concubine Lane and sample the endless amounts of delicious food.
- Cave Temples – There are several cave temples built into the surrounding limestone cliffs to explore. Most notably, Kek Lok Tong, which is built fully inside a large cavern, and Nam Thean Tong, Ling Sen Tong and Sam Poh Tong, which are all in a row and a short drive from Kek Lok Tong. Despite mixed online reviews, we found all of these temples to be beautiful and in good repair.
- Street Art – There are a dozen or so pieces dotted around old town near Concubine Lane. This is a great area to wander and sample various foods and a famous white coffee.
The most visited part of Penang Island is Georgetown, located just across the water from Butterworth. This is the old town area and alive with street vendors, temples and culture. Famous for the street art located throughout the alleyways, the city has much to offer visitors in search of a well rounded Malaysian experience. Days can be spent by exploring Penang hill or visiting Buddhist temples and nights filled by sampling delicious street foods.
We found this area to be both relaxing and fun, and decided to build in extra days to enjoy the culture. Even after exploring highlights including Kek Lok Si Temple and sampling foods to our hearts delight, we still wanted more. There is a Thai consulate here so many obtain a visa while in town if continuing on to Thailand.
Getting there from Ipoh: Buses go from Amanjaya Bus Terminal in Ipoh to Sungai Nibong Terminal on Penang Island, where a bus, taxi or Uber will be needed to go the last few miles to Georgetown. Alternately, a coach can be arranged to the Butterworth bus station by the Pangkalan Sultan Abdul Halim Ferry Terminal where a public ferry will cross direct to old town Georgetown for 1.20 MYR. The bus trips can be booked online through BusOnlineTicket.com and EasyBook.com and the ferry ticket can be bought in person at the terminal. Total cost is less than 20 MYR ($5 USD) and takes roughly 2.5-3 hours.
Time allotment: Three full days or longer. There is plenty to do around Penang to fill a couple of days, but this is a nice place to enjoy at a slow pace with adequate time.
- Kek Lok Si Temple – An expansive and well maintained Buddhist temple complex to the east of Georgetown. There are many buildings and statues, including a gigantic Buddha atop the hill overlooking the town. The complex is free to visit, but there is a small 2 MYR ($0.50 USD) fee to climb the pagoda for an impressive view of the temple and city. If you are fortunate enough to visit during the two weeks after Chinese New Years, the temples will be lit with millions of lights after dark.
- Street Art – Located throughout old town Georgetown, well over a dozen pieces are hidden on streets and in alleyways. Some are shown on tourist maps but many need to be discovered on your own. The more famous ones can get a little busy on holidays and weekends.
To end a trip through mainland Malaysia, a stop in Langkawi for some tropical relaxation is a must. Filled with fruits, beaches and ocean sunsets, any amount of time here is well spent. This is a duty free island, so those looking to compliment their stay with a tropical drink are in luck. The island is located just south of the Thailand border, and has many options for transport to this country for those continuing their journey.
As with everywhere in Malaysia, the residents on the island are amazing. We stayed with the incredible hosts of Tokman Inn in Cenang, who showed us the best hidden local restaurants and took us around the island on bike.
Getting there from Penang: There are two main options for this trip. Direct ferries are available from Georgetown to Kuah, Langkawi which take less than 3 hours. Tickets can be purchased from merchants around the jetty or for 70 MYR ($18 USD) at Langkawi Online. Alternatively, the trip can be done in three sections. First, take a ferry from Georgetown back to Butterworth, where a coach can be arranged to Kuala Kedah or Kuala Perlis (which is preferable due to proximity of the bus and ferry terminals). A ferry is then taken to Kuah, Langkawi. This route is a little longer but still straight forward, and the cost is half that of the direct route. The ferry ticket from Georgetown is available on arrival (1.2 MYR or free, depending on time of day), buses from Butterworth to Perlis can be purchased from BusOnlineTicket.com and EasyBook.com for around 15 MYR ($4 USD), and the ferry ticket from Perlis to Kuah can be bought on arrival at the jetty or from Langkawi Ferry Line for 18 MYR ($4.5 USD).
Time allotment: Two or more days depending on the purpose of your visit. Langkawi sites can be seen in a day or two, but this island would typically be a place for extended beach time and relaxation.
- Sky Cab – This is a chair lift style cable car which takes you to the an sweeping overlook in the mountains. The ticket is expensive by Malaysian standards at 55 MYR ($13 USD), and includes entrance to a few other less desirable attractions in the village. Visit the Sky Bridge for an additional fee, which spans a couple of the hilltops. There is also an option to hike to the highest peak on the island (a different mountain) and skip the Cab for a cheaper and more active adventure.
- Tanjung Rhu Beach – This beach is located at the northernmost tip of the island and has breathtaking views of limestone rocks in the ocean. There are several shady spots along the beach to relax or string up a hammock, and sunset over the bay is stunning.
Are you ready for your trip to Malaysia yet? We never wanted to leave! If you are hungry for some more Malaysian inspiration, take a look at our previous post, 6 Reasons to Visit Malaysia. Also check out other posts from our adventures including our trek through Nepal, camper van-cation around Tasmania, stop in Indonesian paradise and misadventures in India. They are sure to inspire your lust for travel!
Feeling like long term travel needs to be in your future? Stop by our Planning Page where you can learn how to prepare for a lengthy trip, see how to never check your bags on planes, find out about travel security and make sense of travel insurance, amongst others.