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.
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 opened out in front of me 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.
1. Georgetown, Penang
After deciding (very reluctantly) that it was time to leave the paradise beaches of Thailand behind, 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 definitely noticed an increase in temperature and humidity compared with 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 to network with other travellers – I met some GREAT people staying here. A lot of backpackers there are keen to gather groups together to tour around the town. We extended our stay and enjoyed every minute of it.
2. 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 the 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.
Definitely worth the trek… (Although you can ask for a boat ride to the beach if you need to!)
3. Cameron Highlands
When the boys of our group left to check out the beaches and parties of picture-perfect Langkawi, us girls decided to take a local 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).
Tip: 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 Cameron Highlands. Therefore, don’t allocate too much time here!
4. 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.
5. 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 perfect 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.
Would you sleep in the rainforest with the bugs and rats? Who would you take with you to protect you ?!