If you are thinking about backpacking in South East Asia, chances are that you will eventually pass by Malaysia. This country is definitely one of my favorites in the region; I fell in love with its wonderful landscapes and the kindness of its people. Less touristy than its neighbor Thailand and more affordable than close-by Singapore, Malaysia is the perfect option for a great adventure. I only got to stay two weeks there, but it was enough to discover the beauty of the country, starting by… Kuala Lumpur.

Touch down in Kuala Lumpur (3 Days)

Kuala Lumpur is sometimes pictured as unsafe, dirty or not worthy of interest but I personally think that this reputation couldn’t be more wrong. From the first day I set foot in the capital, I was overwhelmed by all the things I could do there and by the diversity I witnessed  around me. Kuala Lumpur is divided into different neighborhoods: Indian, Chinese, Malay, which gives you the opportunity to feel like you’re discovering different countries within a same city. I mean, who wouldn’t like to try on Saris during the day and hit the Chinese market by night?

Amongst the other things to do in Kuala Lumpur, I can only recommend paying a visit to the Museum of Islamic Arts and the neighboring National Mosque. More than 60% of the country’s population is Muslim and going to these two places is a great way to learn a bit more about Islam. Close to the National Mosque, you’ll find the National Memorial and the Royal Palace, which are also worthy of a visit. If the first one will help you learn more about Malaysia, the second will be the occasion to witness the seriousness of the soldiers guarding the Palace. Your challenge, if you accept it? Try to make them smile, just for a minute!

And what do you do in Kuala Lumpur once the sun has set? Well, the first option is to go see the Petronas Towers, the symbol of the city. I personally prefer to see them by night, when they are lit up. But the thing you absolutely shouldn’t miss is the Heli Lounge, one of the craziest bars/cafés I’ve been to in my life. During the day, this place is an actual heliport, located on the roof of one of Kuala Lumpur’s tallest buildings. But at the end of the day, as the sun starts to set, the roof is transformed into a café. If you want to enjoy the end of the day with a nice drink in your hand and a 360° view of the city before your eyes, then definitely give the Heli Lounge a try.

Last but not least, if you still have some time to spend in Kuala Lumpur and don’t really know what to do, visit the neighboring town of Putrajaya, where you’ll discover two of the most famous mosques of Malaysia. While the beauty of the Pink Mosque (Putra Mosque) will take your breath away, the Iron Mosque (Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin Mosque) will surprise you by its originality.

Discover the north in Kuala Terengganu (5 days)

After Kuala Lumpur, I decided to head towards Kuala Terengganu and it was a great surprise. Tourists tend to stay on the Malaysian West Coast when they decide to visit the country but they don’t know what they miss out on. I remember walking on the beach of Kuala Terengganu on the day of my arrival, as the sun was slowly rising in the horizon. Everything was quiet and the colors of the sky were surreal.  And just in a few minutes, I knew that deciding to visit this region had been a great decision. Close to the beach, I came across a floating mosque, another architectural masterpiece that was, for me, as unexpected as it was beautiful.

Another place of interest in Kuala Terengganu is the Cristal Mosque and that’s probably one of the landmarks of the city. Close by is the museum of the most famous mosques of the world, also worth a visit. The state of Kuala Terengganu is much more conservative than the capital of Malaysia, which gives you another image of Islam. A great way to finish your first day in the city is to go try some Kerepok Likor (fried fish dough) and Pisan Goreng (fried mini bananas), two of the region’s specialties in one of the small food stalls located on the beach.

On your second day, hit China Town, a colorful neighborhood that will certainly represent one of the highlights of your visit. With its street art everywhere, this place was by far one of my favorites. Then, head to the close-by covered market, where you’ll be able to refill your stock of dry fruits and manioc. Another place you should visit is the State Museum, which opened its doors more than twenty years ago. There, you’ll learn tons of things about the Malay culture, the Royal family, religion or the surrounding nature. Plan to spend most of your day there, as the place is huge (75 000 square meters) and worth a visit of a few hours.

For the rest of your stay in the North East, I can only advise you to go visit the Perenthian Islands for a few days. You will first need to drive to Kuala Besut and then take a boat from there but even though the trip might look a bit of a hassle, you’ll understand why it’s totally worth it, at your arrival. I mean, who would say no to crystal clear water and deserted beaches for a few days? Definitely not me!

Experience culture and tranquility in Sungai Petani (3 days)

After a few days in the East, it will be time to head towards the West again. Close by the Thai border is Sungai Petani, a small town in which you should settle down in order to visit the North-Western region.   The state of Kedah is full of charming villages and towns, such as Kuala Ketil, Gurun or Geniang. On the road, you will also pass by various Hevea forests, the production of rubber being one of the first economic resources in the region. And don’t even get me started on the palm tree jungles: let’s just say coconut was my main source of alimentation.

While in Kedah, you should hike mount Gunung Jerai, the highest point in the state (1247m above sea level). From the top, you’ll get a breath-taking view of the sea, a few Malaysian islands, and dozens of rice fields. Not too far from the mountain is the fishermen village of Tanjung Dawai, where locals usually go to buy dry fishes called Ikan Bilis, used a lot for the confection of Malaysian dishes. Your next stop should be the Bujang Valley, where you’ll be able to visit the museum of archeology. There, you’ll find remains of Hindu and Buddhist temples from the pre-Islamic period.

That’s probably another main interest of the state of Kedah: you’ll really feel that you’re just a few hours away from Thailand. You’ll get to see as many mosques as you’ll discover temples, Buddhism being almost as practiced as Islam in the region. If you head a bit more south, don’t miss the beautiful Royal Ubudiah Mosque. With its golden dome and marble details, it was by far one of my favorites on this trip.

Enjoy the beach life in Langkawi (3 days)

Back in Sungai Petani, you should then drive to Kuala Perlis, where you’ll take a boat to reach beautiful Langkawi. The best place to stay in the island is definitely Pantai Cenang. There, you’ll find plenty of hostels to stay in, for almost nothing.  As for the easiest way to go from one place to another in Langkawi, I would advise you to rent a scooter, just like in most places in South East Asia. Know that you can also rent bikes or cars and that the prices are quite affordable overall.

While in Langkawi, there are a good amount of places you can visit if you don’t want to spend your entire time tanning on the beach. You can, for instance, head towards the Telaga Tujuh or Durian Perangin waterfalls, where you’ll be able to experience the « jungle » side of the island. Another option is to try the Langkawi cable-car, if you are looking for a great viewpoint. You can also hike the Gunung Raya Mountain, for breathtaking views of the surroundings.

On your way to this part of the island, have a break on the beach of Tanjung Ruh, way quieter and prettier than Pentai Cenang’s. Once back in town, hit the night market to enjoy both delicious and affordable food. And speaking of food, Malaysia is definitely a culinary paradise, in my opinion. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of specialties you should definitely try while visiting the country:  Nasi Goreng, Nasi Lemak, Roti Chenai, Gulai Sembilang, Rojak, Cendol, and Koay Teow… Oh, Malaysian food, how I miss you!

Before you know it, your vacation in Malaysia will already be over. You’ll drink your last The Tarek, enjoy your last walk on the beach, have a last sip of coconut water and it will be time to head home. In the space of just fourteen days, you will have enjoyed the best of what Malaysia has to offer, in terms of landscapes, food, diversity and adventure. And you’ll already be thinking about coming back, as a first trip to Malaysia is usually not the last!

Practical Travel Tips

Before heading to Malaysia, here are some basics you should know about:

– Regarding the visa, you probably won’t need one if you stay for less than a month in Malaysia. Find more info here about the visa-free countries.

– It is extremely easy to travel throughout the country as there is an extensive bus network connecting most cities. You generally don’t need to book you ticket in advance. The train is another option, though it usually takes longer than buses and tends to be a bit more expensive.

– Even if housing is cheap in Malaysia, I recommend using CouchSurfing as much as possible. I had some of my best Couchsurfing experiences there and I am sure you will too, if you give it a try!

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The Travelettes Itinerary for Malaysia

Photo credits: Elisa Fourt, except for the Perenthian Islands.


This post was written by Elisa Fourt.
Elisa Fourt was part of the Travelettes team from 2015 to 2017.  Elisa usually describes herself as a world citizen. She has lived, studied, worked and travelled in more than 60 countries throughout her life and she loves to share her passion for the world with others. When she is not planning her next trip or writing about the last one, Elisa likes to help people in need and get involved in various not-for-profit projects. She currently works for a NGO in the Middle-East. Follow her on Instagram @lisou.me