A GUIDE FOR TRAVELLING MALAYSIA ON A BUDGETJimmy and I travelled overland from Singapore to Thailand, through Malaysia using public transport. Being fresh on the backpacking scene, we made a few rookie errors (including booking a bus on the wrong day!) but learnt a few tricks along the way. Firstly, we have the Lonely Planet ‘South East Asia on a shoestring’ guide. Easily one of the most valuable things we have with us. The simplified maps make understanding and navigating a new town easier, we usually carry it with us at all times and it has bailed us out of a few sticky situations.
OUR JOURNEYWe flew into Singapore and acclimatised for a few days before heading to Malaysia. We travelled the following route (see the ‘Transport’ section for how we travelled):
- Bus to Malacca (3-4hours depending on how long it takes to pass through immigration at the boarder) for 2 nights;
- Bus to Kuala Lumpur (3-4hours) for 3 nights;
- Bus to the Cameron Highlands (3hours) for 3 nights;
- Bus to Penang (4-5hours) for 5 nights (we stayed longer here to organise a Thai visa);
- Mini-van to Thailand.
We were a bit disappointed to miss Pulau Perhentian on the northeast coast of Malaysia. The island looks amazing and is rated one of the best places to go diving in South East Asia. Unfortunately for us, the island relatively shuts down over the Monsoon season (from November through to March). From what I can understand, this is because the accommodation is so close to the water it is prone to flooding when the sea levels rise with the extra rain. It does seem the bigger resorts remain open but the cost to stay there was well out of our backpacker’s budget (you might also struggle getting to the island if you take this option as most bus/ferry services cease over monsoon season).
We chose to skip Taman Negara, the main National Park in Malaysia. This was largely due to the haze that blanketed the country. Every year in September/October Malaysia suffers from a smokey haze after Indonesia burns off the old plantations to make way for the new crops. The locals informed us this year it was the worst to date and was hanging around much longer than usual. It was awful! We didn’t see blue sky at all while we were in Malaysia. Consequently, we travelled north through the country much quicker than anticipated and skipped a few things such as Taman Negara.
ENTERING THE COUNTRYWe crossed the causeway from Singapore into Malaysia. This was simple, easy and painless. After hopping on a bus in central Singapore, we arrived at the boarder, disembarked the bus, got stamped out of the country and hurried back onto the bus. After a short jaunt over the causeway, we jumped off again, got a free 90day visa-on-arrival for Malaysia, cleared customs and continued our trip to Malacca.
BUDGETPrior to leaving, I developed a massive spreadsheet with a relatively detailed budget. I did a wee bit of research through travel blogs, Lonely Planet guides and trip advisor. What I came up with was what I thought to be a reasonable, but tight, budget. At our time of travel, the exchange rate was $1 AUD = RM3 (approximately). Our daily budget was as follows:
- RM40 for food,
- RM30 for activities,
- RM50 for accommodation,
- RM40 for transport;
This is a total of RM160 per day (between us). This was a bit of a stretch for us and we spent on average around RM200 per day. After a bit of discussion when we got to KL, we re-adjusted our daily budget to the more realistic RM200. This basically made us more comfortable, allowed us to enjoy the local food (which is amazing) and at the end of the day was an extra $6 AUD each. We did make a few costly errors that we have since learnt from (which will become evident). I think this can be expected when you have never backpacked before.
ACCOMMODATIONSo the debate has been raging with travellers we have met along the way… Do you book your accommodation prior or wing it and hope for the best? Truth is, most people wing it and we haven’t heard too many negative stories from people who do this. We prefer to book something (at least for one night) for a few reasons;
- It gives you some direction of where to go when you arrive. This was a major positive for us. Carrying packs in the heat and humidity can be pretty testing. If you have a definite destination your time suffering is limited. I have heard of people who wander around for over an hour trying to find somewhere to stay. I can almost guarantee Jimmy and I would be at blows after an hour walking in the heat with our packs searching for somewhere to stay.
- The good places are usually taken early. Father’s Guesthouse in the Cameron Highlands was a great example of this. Rated highly on TripAdvisor and the Lonely Planet, we saw at least 15 groups turned away in the first night alone.
- You can check out the online reviews before you get there. This gives you a pretty good insight into what your in for!
- You know what it will cost before you get there.
The negatives for booking ahead…
- The price is fixed and sometimes hasn’t been reduced from the high season.
- There can be hidden costs (such as service tax, usually 10%) which you don’t find out until you get there.
- If you have never been to the area before, you can’t be certain you are staying in the best location. We haven’t found this to be an issue, using the maps in the Lonely Planet as our guide.
- There can be an online booking fee, making it more expensive than if you were to walk into the hostel without a booking.
We found RM50 to be a reasonable amount for a private double room in a guesthouse. It does take a fair amount of time to find the decent guesthouses at this price though. I would usually spend at least an hour online, using the Lonely Planet book and website (which has more in-depth and up-to-date information) plus TripAdvisor as my guide. If you are happy to increase your budget to RM70-80, you could easily make this process much quicker and easier. We have found the guesthouses suit us best. Usually a more mature crowd of travellers with a similar agenda to us. The people working there are also really helpful, often helping to book our ongoing transport and happy to give some local knowledge on the area.
KL blew our budget. We expect to pay more in capital cities but got stung here with the goods and services tax which was an extra 16%, and ended up paying RM100 per night (we thought it was going to be around RM85). While we were happy to pay more to stay in the city centre, this was really frustrating. But a lesson learnt, to read the fine print and avoid booking things late at night.
TRANSPORTOnce we arrived in a city we found walking was the easiest (and most enjoyable) way for us to get around. It is nice if you have time to be able to wander the streets and take it all in. We found the inter-city bus network really good throughout Malaysia. The following are some handy tips:
- We booked buses online to guarantee seats together and at the time we wanted to leave.
- easybook.com is a site that allows you to compare bus companies and all departure times. When you see the seat configuration, if it is 2 seats, an aisle, then another seat, the seats are significantly bigger than the usual 2, 2 configuration.
- The tickets cost between RM10 and RM35 depending on bus class and departure time.
- If departing from Singapore ($27 SGD Singapore to Malacca, 3+ hours), check where the bus leaves from. They are all depart from different (and somewhat random) locations, I think it is where the bus company office is. We got tripped up here and went to the wrong Holiday Inn. I also booked the bus for the wrong day (which the lady at the office was able to correct free of charge). Be careful booking things late at night when you are tired!
- When taking the bus to and from Malacca (RM13.60 Malacca to KL 3 hours), the bus station is a fair way from the UNESCO Heritage area (which is the best place to stay). It should be about RM20 for a taxi between the bus station and the Heritage area.
- We arrived at Terminal Bersepadu Selatan (I think this means ‘bus station’ and was referred to as TBS by the driver) in KL which is a fair way out of the city centre. You can easily jump onto a train (there is a bridge linking the bus and train station), and then transfer onto the monorail that will take you to the city centre. The information desks were really helpful. Take a photo of the network map so you can map the stops and prepare to get off at the right station. This also helps you figure out if you are getting on the right train! We found the train network in KL quite confusing. Make sure you have plenty of time and know what route you need to take.
- We departed KL from a different bus station, much closer to the city centre, called Pudu Sentral. If you depart from here, the ticket counters are on the 4th floor. Even if you buy your ticket online you have to go upstairs to get a physical ticket.
- Taxi drivers here will do their best to rip you off. Have the correct change (or smaller bills) and know how far it is you’re going; it helps when you are bartering the price.
- The road to Cameron Highlands (KL to Cameron Highlands RM35, 3 hours) is extremely windy and the bus drivers take corners very fast. They also overtake other buses and trucks around blind corners. If there is traffic coming the other way it seems to move to the side. If you suffer from motion sickness make sure you book seats close to the front and have some medication or something to help you.
- Cameron Highlands to Penang (RM40, 4-5 hours) is another windy road. The bus stops at Butterworth, which is on mainland Malaysia, before heading across the causeway to Penang. We chose to hop off the bus at Butterworth to catch a ferry (RM1.60 per person) to Penang. The benefit of doing this is the ferry docks in Georgetown and it is only a short walk to most guesthouses and accommodation (whereas the bus station is much further away).
ACTIVITIESWe have quite detailed accounts of what activities we did in each town in the blog section (with plenty of photos), however, our favourites were:
- Malacca: take the time to wander through the UNESCO listed heritage area, both during the day and at night. In the evenings over the weekend the Jonker Walk Markets come to life. Well worth a visit.
- Kuala Lumpur: check out the Petronus Towers, from around 7.30pm there is a light show at the water fountain. The Batu Caves are an amazing display of Hinduism. It is pretty easy to catch the train there too.
- Cameron Highlands: this was our favourite part of Malaysia. Our accommodation (Father’s Guesthouse) was the best we have stayed in. We booked a really great tour into the mossy forest through Father’s (RM53 per person for a half day tour) and did a few trek’s there too.
- Penang: be sure to check out the walking tour of Georgetown to see the murals. You can get really good maps from the information centre. Be wary of the beaches in Penang, they are quite polluted and Batu Ferringhi (the main beach area) is relatively expensive.
FOODThe food was my favourite overall part of Malaysia. I dragged Jimmy to different food stalls and asked all the guesthouse owners for the best place to eat. My favourite’s were:
- Malacca: Capitol Satay (for the best satay ever!), Selvam (an Indian banana leaf restaurant. On Fridays from 12-2pm they do a vegetarian special which I’m really disappointed we missed), and the Nonya Laksa (spicy noodle soup found mainly in Malacca).
- Kuala Lumpur: Jalan Alor is the main street in KL for food. The street is crawling with people and there is a multitude of cuisine to choose from. Be prepared to get hassled by everyone working there and for prices to be higher than what you would expect for street food.
- Cameron Highlands: Just down the road from Father’s guesthouse is a strip of markets with predominantly Malay food. We ate at most of the stalls there and they were all awesome.
- Penang: The Laksa Asam is another spicy noodle soup but completely different to Nonya Laksa. Well worth trying. The Red Garden is a very popular almost food court (except it is outdoors and has about 20 hawker stalls). While the food here is nice, it is a bit overpriced and you will mainly see tourists here. We preferred The Esplanade, another hawker-style food court. You’ll take a bit more of a gamble with what you order here as there aren’t pictures and the menu’s are written in Bahasa.
I know there is a fair amount of anxiety surrounding food when travelling through South East Asia. Some of the places mentioned above (among others) have the most incredible food but aren’t exactly the cleanest looking places. Having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), I have a super sensitive stomach and managed through Malaysia without getting sick. Jimmy also had no problems. I have a few simple rules which I think help:
- If the locals eat there it must be good.
- If it is busy there will be a high turnover of food, meaning the food will be really fresh.
- Order food that is hot (temperature wise), the chances of bacteria surviving the high temperature used to cook the food is minimal.
- Order food commonly found in the area. That way, the cooks know what they are doing and how to do it best. From what I have heard, travellers mainly get sick eating Western food (ironically).
- From what I have heard (I’m not sure if there is any scientific evidence behind this), bacteria cannot grow in spicy food, so ordering spicy food might help.
- The further from the ocean you are, the further the seafood has to travel to reach you. We haven’t avoided seafood anywhere but it isn’t something we ate regularly while travelling (usually because it stretched the budget!).
- We always drank bottled water (RM2 for a 1.5L) to be cautious. We did have ice in our drinks in restaurants though. The other thing to be wary of; canned drink is often kept in dirty places, try and use a straw if this bothers you (I always did, Jimmy often didn’t).
A few translations that are handy when ordering:
- Nasi = rice.
- Mee = noodles.
- Goreng = fried (so nasi goreng = fried rice).
- Ayam = chicken.
- Ikan = fish.
- Char Kuey Teow = fried rice noodles (this was a favourite dish).
- Roti Canai = a flat bread served with curry dipping sauces, usually eaten for breakfast but served all day.
Breakfast can be a bit difficult in Malaysia. A lot of Guesthouses supply a simple breakfast (usually toast, fruit and tea or coffee), which Jimmy really enjoyed. I struggle with intolerance to gluten, so I stuck to fruit. There are very few places that serve a western breakfast, something important to consider if you are a big breakfast person.
OTHER IMPORTANT CONSIDERATIONS• Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country. I felt much more respectful and comfortable dressing conservatively (knees and shoulders covered) in most places.
- Try and avoid wandering the streets in the heat of the day. We found it was just too hot.
- Malay men prefer interacting with men if possible in most situations (especially when money is involved).
- Crossing the road can be tricky. If you are at a crossing, wait for a decent gap and then start crossing (carefully and with caution) and traffic usually slows enough for you to get across. Watch out for the scooters coming along the inside.
- Beer is relatively expensive, a large Tiger will cost about RM23. While that’s cheaper than what you pay at home (once you do the conversion), when you compare it to food (where you get a meal from RM4 per person) its pretty costly.
- The public toilets are usually pretty dismal, cost around RM0.50 and don’t have toilet paper. The toilets themselves are usually squat toilets. I would recommend carry a pocket pack of tissues for emergencies.
- In September/October Indonesia does a big back burn of palm oil trees. This causes a massive haze that covers Malaysia over September. This year it was particularly bad and we both noticed a decline in our general health.
If you are after more specific information, have a look at our travel blog that has more detailed descriptions of each city with plenty of photos (with more in the gallery). We are also happy to answer any questions, if you comment below or send an email to email@example.com we will do our best to answer as best we can.