Backpacking Malaysia: A Guide for Easy Asia Travel

Backpacking Malaysia is great for easy Asia travel.  Easier than South America, easier than Thailand.  We traveled the length of the Malaysian peninsula from Malacca to Penang, Kuala Lumpur (KL) to the Perhentian Islands through the Cameron Highlands.  The people are friendly, welcoming, and excited to have you in their country.  The buses are clean with organized stations and the roads are smooth with minimal traffic, especially in the countryside.  The highlight of backpacking Malaysia was the food.  From Malay to Chinese to Indian, the cuisine is an amazing fusion of different cultures, living together in relative harmony.  Low food costs are easy for every budget traveler and in Malaysia you can get a full meal starting at $1.50 for a vegetarian banana leaf lunch.  Even though the government just added a tourist tax to all hotel rooms, Malaysia still has good deals for travelers on a budget.  We stayed in some of the nicest and most fun hostels of our lives, and our 15 days in the peninsula didn’t scratch the surface of what the country has to offer.

Pick a Route:backpacking malaysia easy asia travel

Picking a backpacking route though Malaysia is easy.  For a two week trip we would recommend starting in Singapore and working your way north from Malacca to KL, Cameron Highlands, Perhentian Islands, then back across to Georgetown, Penang.  If you have three weeks we would suggest adding Taman Negara National Park and Langkawi Island.  These are both trips along the standard backpacker trail, great for your first time in Malaysia.  Since Malaysia has much fewer tourists than Thailand, you will run into the same friendly faces as you go.  There was one lady on our trip that we ran into in at three different places on our adventure.  Of course there are many other parts of Malaysia worth exploring, mainly the jungles of Borneo where things are more wild.  On a four week trip we would suggest spending a week there getting off the tourist path.

Enjoy the Food:

backpacking malaysia easy asia travel

The food in Malaysia is easy and good for any backpacker’s budget. The most we “cooked” for ourselves in Malaysia was to peel a banana, maybe once.  The local markets are great places to pig out economically.  Check out the laksa, poh piah, mee koring, and nasi kandar.  Western style restaurants are there, but they are the most expensive and generally not as exciting as the local flavors.  Every city has a Chinese neighborhood and an Indian neighborhood.  Little India was always our favorite spot to eat, great for vegetarians and meat eaters alike!  For one meal I had seven different curries and spent a total of less than $3. For these reasons, Malaysia was my all time favorite country to eat in!

Stay in a Hostel:

Frame Guesthouse backpacking malaysia easy asia travel
The Frame lobby — a minimalist hostel in an old framemaker’s shop. Frame is a very zen/minimalist place with cedar ceilings and antique stairways. We really liked our private room here and stayed for three nights enjoying the AC and waterfall showers.

Backpackers will love Malaysia for the hostels which are cheap and easy to book online.  Sometimes they do fill up, especially in the busy season, so we suggest booking in advance.  They range in price and quality and there is a new 10 Ringgit tourist tax for every room.  Our favorites were the Lemongrass on Long Beach in the Perhentians, and Frame Guesthouse in Georgetown, Penang.  Prices range from $10 per night for a dorm bed, $15 for a beach bungalow, or $18 for private room with A/C.

Speak With the Locals:

Backpacking Malaysia is easier than other parts of Asia because most people can speak or at least understand English.  A majority of the signs are also in English and Malay, so you will never have a hard time finding your way around.  Malay also using the English characters so it’s easy to pick up a little bit along the way which always makes the locals appreciate you more.   Knowing few words like terima kasih (thank you) can get you a lot of respect points and make you look a little better than the average traveler.

 

When looking for easier Asia travel, backpacking Malaysia should be at the top of your list.  With top notch people, food, nature and adventure, and hostels, never ending aventuras await you in this tropical paradise!

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Street Food Heaven – Penang, Malaysia

georgetown
Shophouses in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Buddhist ceremony in Georgetown

Penang, Malaysia had been on our bucket list since before we even knew what country it was in (😳embarrassing)!  One sleepy afternoon years ago, we were watching Anthony Bourdain on “Parts Unknown” stuff his face at Line Clear in Georgetown and decided then and there that any trip to Asia would have to include Penang.  After all, it was street food heaven right? We had five nights planned!  We decided to stay at the Tipsy Tiger Party Hostel because everyone on the backpacker trail was talking about it.  The price was kind of high at 40 Ringgit for a dorm bed but included was free breakfast, all-day coffee and water, and two strong drinks at the bar.  The bar area closes at 11 after the nightly beer pong tournament then everyone goes on a pub crawl down the street to Love Lane where you can continue the party as late as your heart desires.

most popular new hostel in malaysia
Tipsy Tiger Party Hostel
Tipsy Tiger Hostel Party
The Bar At Tipsy Tiger
love lane party street
Love Lane – Party Street Penang

The Tispy Tiger was a good time but after two nights of craziness we were ready for something more chill.  Our second accommodation, The Frame Guesthouse, a very zen/minimalist place with cedar ceilings and antique stairways.  We really liked our private room here and stayed for three nights enjoying the AC and waterfall showers.

Malaysia-139
The Frame lobby — a minimalist hostel in an old framemaker’s shop

The highlight of Penang for us was the street food.  Every corner had different stuff and you could really experience the fusion of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cuisines.  We tried to eat as much as possible, always opting for fourth and sometimes fifth meal.  It was a hard life.  Most of the food vendors have a few tables where you can sit and eat, and most require you to buy a bevarage- beer, soda or fresh-squeezed juice- if you use the table.  It really was a street food heaven.  Here are our favorites!

street food heaven
Laksa noodles- get in my belly
street food heaven
Pohpiah – like a large spring roll stuffed with tofu, veggies, and chili sauce!
street food heaven
Biggest Indian Meal Ever!
street food heaven
Obama Vegetarian Spring Rolls from Red Garden Food Paradise
street food heaven
Fermented pork belly noodles
street food heaven
Cendol – Icy Bean Dessert
street food heaven
More laksa bowls, yum!
penang food
Banana Leaf Indian
vegan food malaysia
In a healthy turn of events, we got vegan food from Wholey Wonder.  Yum!  The unicorn “cheesecake” is naturally-colored from the different superfruits in the layers.  So awesome!

One of the best places to eat is the famous Red Garden Food Paradise.  They usually have some singers and dancers in the center stage and around the edges there are so many different food vendors selling dishes from all over the world.  It has a very classic feel with red plastic chairs and happy families sharing tables stacked with food.  It’s always busy and opens at 6pm nightly.

red garden food stalls
Red Garden

My favorite late night spot was the 24-hour joint Line Clear.  Always a line and barely a menu, they kind of yell “What do you want?” when you get to the front then they slop it on a plate with rice and you get a scoop of sauce from each of the curries.  The food they sell is called nasi kandar, which pretty much means “country rice.”  It’s simple and everything you ever wanted after having a few beers on Love Lane.  Street Food Heaven indeed!

line clear nasi kandar
Line Clean 24hr Nasi Kandar.  Surprisingly they even had some vegetarian options for Carrie!

24 hour nasi kandar

Georgetown is unique in Asia because it largely avoided the bombings of World War II and the following wars.  Only a few bombs were dropped there so the old architecture has remained, giving the city a whole lot of character.   The only negative is the lack of sidewalks; you basically just walk along the side of the road and hope you don’t get clobbered by a drunk, texting motorbiker.  There was a lot of unique street art, most memorable of which were the cartoon wire sculptures depicting life in Penang throughout the years.

Georgetown Street Art
Georgetown Street Art
Georgetown Street Art
Georgetown Street Art
Georgetown Street Art
Georgetown Street Art
Georgetown Street Art
Georgetown Street Art

Georgetown Street Art

Georgetown Street Art

Georgetown Street Art

Georgetown Street Art

As in the rest of Malaysia, the mishmash of cultures and religious blends peacefully and beautifully in Penang.  So, I’ll leave you with a sunset over the downtown mosque and Hindu temple.

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Masjid Kapitan Keling Mosque in Georgetown

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple in Georgetown
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

 

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