Malaysia is a unique travel experience that is much different from its neighbors. From the dense urban jungle of Kuala Lumpur to the pristine beaches of the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia is a beautiful and often underrated country. Spend the day with a traditional tribe or in a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands or trek through the huge national parks of Gunung Mulu and Taman Negara, encountering incredible wildlife including tigers and orangutans. Make sure to head to Borneo and explore the jungle, and dive at Spidan, one of the best dive locations in the world. Malaysia has a ton of stuff to offer travelers and is often quickly visited by travelers who breathe through on their way to or from Thailand. Take this country slowly, enjoy all the great Indian food and curries, and get off the beaten path to get the country to yourself.
Accommodation – Dorms cost between 25-50 MYR per night, with larger cities being on the high end of that spectrum. A private room will cost around 75 MYR per night. Free WiFi and free breakfast are quite common though most hostels do not have kitchens if you wanted to cook your own food. Camping is available for those who are traveling with a tent, but only in the nature parks and on public land. Budget hotels with free WiFi, A/C, and free breakfast start at around 75 MYR per night for a double. For a brand-name hotel, expect to pay closer to 200 MYR per night. Airbnb is also available throughout the country, with shared accommodation starting around 50 MYR per night. For an entire home or apartment, expect to pay around 250 MYR per night.
Food – A street meal will start under 5 MYR and rarely cost more than 15 MYR. Fast food (think McDonald’s) will cost around 14 MYR for a combo meal. Expect to pay 10-20 MYR in restaurants, however western meals will always cost more. For a meal at a mid-range restaurant expect to pay around 25 MYR per person. Beer will be under 15 MYR, and a week’s worth of groceries will cost between 90-150 MYR. Stick to local food items, as western specialties like wine and cheese will destroy your grocery budget!
Transportation – Expect to pay around 5-15 MYR per hour on a bus trip. Taxis can be expensive as the fare is charged per person and you’ll be charged four fares if you can’t find anyone to share with! Within Kuala Lumpur, many taxis do not have working meters. In this case, agree on a price up-front! A bus from Penang to Kuala Lumpur will cost around 50 MYR, while flights can be found for as little as 100 MYR. A train from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok will cost around 175 MYR, while a flight can be found for around 300 MYR.
Activities – Most attractions in Malaysia are quite cheap. Trekking costs 35-75 MYR per day. Diving costs 245-300 MYR for two-day dives or 830-1,325 MYR for a full PADI course. White-water rafting will cost around 200 MYR, and entry into most of the national parks will cost less than 20 MYR.
Suggested daily budget – 130-180 MYR / $30-40 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out the street, and using local transportation. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eating out at nicer restaurants, expect this number to be higher end (or more)!)
Money Saving Tips
- Taxis – Taxis aren’t usually metered in Malaysia, so make sure to agree on the fare before you set off.
- Camp – It’s possible to camp in Taman Negara to save on accommodation costs — expect to pay around 5 MYR per night.
- Local street food – Street stalls are the place to go for hawker food which is delicious and costs just a few bucks. In my opinion, it’s the best food in the country — and the cheapest!
- Don’t drink – As Malaysia is a Muslim country, drinking is frowned upon but it does happen. However, to restrict it the authorities have made drinking very, very expensive. Save your drinking for countries like Thailand, where the alcohol flows more freely and is better on the budget.
- Take a free walking tour – A free walking tour with Airotour is a great way to explore Kuala Lumpur. You’ll not only get to see the sights but you’ll learn about the history and culture, too. Win-win!
Top Things to See and Do in Malaysia
- Visit Kuala Lumpur – Chances are you’ll be spending at least a few nights in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. The Petronas Twin Towers are a must-see, and if you don’t mind heights, you should walk across the bridge connecting the two. They stand an awesome 1,500 feet tall! There is a decent bird zoo and a few parks also worth seeing.
- Dive at the Perhentian Islands – These islands are hugely popular with snorkelers and divers as the reefs and crystalline waters surrounding them are host to a wide variety of coral, sea-turtles, small sharks, and reef-fish. They are getting more popular every year but are a beautiful respite from the party heavy and tourist packed island in Thailand.
- Hike Mount Kinabalu National Park – Kota Kinabalu National Park was designated as Malaysia’s first World Heritage in 2000 for its ‘outstanding universal values’. You’ll be expecting something pretty special on your visit and this National Park doesn’t disappoint. Mount Kota Kinabula is Malaysia’s tallest mountain and the fourth tallest in Southeast Asia. Hiking through the huge (around 1,000 square kilometers!) park is fantastic. Admission is 15 MYR for foreign adults. A Climbing permit is 200 MYR, and insurance (which is mandatory) is 7 MYR per person.
- Experience diversity at Sarawak Cultural Village – This living museum showcases the heritage of all of the racial groups in Sarawak – Malays, Chinese, and Indians have been living here peacefully for hundreds of years. Aside from the cultural experience, there are loads of bizarre, yet fun activities, like coconut bowling, blowpipe shooting, and traditional dance lessons. Admission is 50 MYR for adults and 25 MYR for children, not including lunch.
- Spot wildlife – Malaysia is rich in wildlife both on land and in its surrounding waters. Some of the world’s most rare and endangered animals can be found here. Orangutans, Malaysian tigers, Monitor Lizards, and Sumatran Rhinos are all indigenous to the country and can be seen on one of the many wildlife tours. Day tours will cost under 500 MYR, while a multi-day tour will cost upwards of 10,000 MYR.
- Dive at Sipadan Island – Sipadan Island is arguably one of the world’s best dive sites. Its crystal clear waters are filled with barracudas, manta rays, hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, and greenback and hawksbill turtles. To give you an idea of the beauty of this place, Jacques Cousteau once declared the island an “untouched piece of art.” Three dives in the area will cost around 350 MYR per person while a snorkel trip will cost 150 MYR.
- Tour the tea plantations – The Cameron Highlands are covered in lush tea plantations and are a popular place to go on a tour. Visit the factories to learn about the production process or just relax with a cup of tea and obligatory cake or scone. This area is great to spend a few days, cool off from the heat of the rest of the country, and hike the trails that dot the area. Many tours are free, since they assume you will purchase something afterward.
- Visit Georgetown – Georgetown is often thought to be Malaysia’s most fascinating city, with its crisscrossing streets teeming with bustling shops, historic buildings, and excellent nightlife. The city was listed as a World Heritage site in 2008 and is now surging in popularity.
- Be adventurous in Taman Negara National Park – At an estimated 130 million years old, Taman Negara is the oldest rainforest in the world and the largest in Malaysia. This place is packed with activities, such as canopy walks, 4×4 safaris, cave exploration, and trekking. Admission is 1 MYR, and 5 MYR if you want to take photos.
- Ride a trishaw – This is a unique form of transportation, found all over Melaka. These simple bike taxis are amped to the max with wild decorations — and some even play techno music. The drivers are essentially in an unspoken contest, which makes for lots of colorful, creative taxis to look at.
- Discover Kota Bharu – Also known as ‘The Islamic City,’ this is a great city to check out royal palaces, an array of museums, and some crazy back-alley markets. This is also a great place to spend the night before heading south or into Thailand.
- Relax at Pulau Langkawi – When most people picture Malaysia, this is the island that comes to mind. Depicted in thousands of different magazines, websites, articles, and more, this island is a picturesque retreat with beautiful beaches and plenty of sun. There are plenty of great restaurants to choose from and interesting sights and villages to explore so be sure to spend some time here!
- Visit Ipoh – This is one of the largest cities in Malaysia and is host to plenty of great restaurants and interesting sights to visit. There are several museums, and historical buildings, including the Birch Memorial Clock Tower and various temples.
- Go whitewater rafting – Outside of diving, Malaysia is also known for its great whitewater rafting conditions. You can find all grades of rafting on the rivers here, and prices start around 200 MYR.
- Understand Malaysia’s Colonial roots – Malaysia has undergone a diverse colonial history, falling into Portuguese, Dutch, and British hands before finally gaining independence. For a good understanding of this colonial influence, consider a visit to Malacca (or Melaka). The city center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, and the city is full of interesting museums, buildings, and temples to visit.