Do you ever miss the good old days when Asian hostels weren’t all perfectly decked out in identical Ikea decor with the same Instagrammable cafe’s serving crap instant coffee to digital nomads? The days when staying in hostels felt a bit more adventurous?
I recently discovered Angmoh Hostel in George Town, Penang, and my stay there felt like a little bit of a throwback, but in a good way! Angmoh Hostel is in an old antique shophouse right near the main downtown area of George Town, and while the facilities aren’t brand new and sparkling, the hostel makes up for it with character and heart. I met good people and had good talks with the staff and guests! There’s also tons of awesome hippie murals all over the inside walls! What more could you want from a budget bed in Penang?
Check out this quick little video tour of Angmoh!
Games and books
Beers and waters for sale
Double-bed bunks in dorms for couples
Address: 20 Jalan Pintal Tali, 10100, Georgetown, Penang
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:
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:
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:
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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On our last day on the island we took the bus to Penang National Park, about an hour ride from central Georgetown. There were several possible hikes but the Canopy Walkway was under renovation so we settled on the hike to Monkey Beach.
Here is a short video of our adventure. Make sure to check out 1:25 for some angry monkeys.
We spent over an hour walking the jungle path until we came to the beach. We sipped coconuts and had the usual arguments with the monkeys.
They never like me very much and it never fails that we end up screeching at each other. There were a lot of the little buggers and they had big teeth so we let them win this time. We didn’t eat enough breakfast for such a long hike and were super hungry by the end (having only eaten like twice before leaving). So we got some roti (fried folded delicious bread) while waiting for the bus back.
We were upset with the amount of trash in Penang National Park and saw quite a few Malaysian hikers throw their empty bottles right onto the beach. Several people on Monkey Beach were selling a variety of drinks, all in small plastic bottles but there were no trash bins and it was obviously too much work for people to just carry it out. A group of 20-30 middle school students passed us, each with their own small plastic bottle of water. We talked while hiking out about how they could clean up all the trash in a few days with just a few people. Near the entrance we came upon five park employees sweeping leaves off the path. Yes that’s right, FIVE PEOPLE. SWEEPING. LEAVES. OFF. A. PATH. IN. THE. JUNGLE. I was really frustrated by the whole system and I tried to calmly explain this to the Park Ranger at the front gate on our way out.
Me: “Why do so many people throw trash on the beach?”
His response, waving his hands as if it’s hopeless: “They are local people.”
Me: “Do you tell them not to do it?”
He smiled and said, “Have a nice day!”
Well, that was that. Non-confrontational Malaysian culture for the win! Reflecting upon it, I don’t blame the people anymore. Yes, we all need to be more conscious of the products we buy and the waste we produce but I blame the governments for not educating their people better and most of all the companies that produce the bottles. If I were Supreme Dictator of The World, the Coca-Cola company would no longer exist.
Want to read more about Penang? Check it out here!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
From the Cameron Highlands we left early in a van headed east, our destination was the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia’s diving paradise. Down the hill we drove super fast through heavy rain. We passed some amazing rock walls that I hoped to come back to climb someday. The culture became more and more Islamic with most signs written in Arabic and few women without hijab. In Kuala Besut we were left at the jetty where the boats to the islands leave. Our boat was included in the transportation price but we had to pay 30 Ringgit each to enter the islands, a conservation fee. We loaded our stuff onto a boat after about an hour of waiting then moved everyone’s stuff around again a couple more times because no one took charge of telling us where on the boat to put the luggage. (Culture=no one likes to show authority.). The boat ride was overloaded and a little sketchy but we made it just fine. There are two islands, one with the resorts and an older crowd (Pulau Besar) and one a little smaller with the backpacker/diver folks (Pulau Kecil). We chose Long Beach on Kecil Island, a paradise with white sands and blue blue water. We stayed in a bungalow seconds from the water at the Lemongrass Guesthouse. The friendly owner explained the snorkeling options and we were excited to see some sea life. The area was a mecca for divers with amazing coral and sharks and sea turtles but we haven’t gotten into that whole scene yet – we are still stoked about snorkeling (for now).
From Long Beach you can hike to many other beaches on the island, the closest of which being Coral Beach, not as nice but having some cheaper (better?) food options. When we find decent food we usually will go there a bunch of times over a few days. Our spot was Ewan’s Cafe, midway on the trail from Long Beach to Coral Beach. They had a large menu of cheap Malaysian food and western favorites. We ate there maybe 6-7 times and it was all pretty good. Our absolute favorite spot though was at the end of the trail just onto Coral Beach, a guy with a sign Fatimah’s “Best Roti Canai” and it really was the best. Roti canai is a folded flat bread with bananas or egg or tuna inside and is served with curry sauce for dipping. You had to get there at the right time though because they would sell out rather quickly when the bread was ready.
The island was pretty relaxed during the day but at night several beach bars would open up and after 11 there was always a DJ playing electronic music that turned pretty clubby. The highlight was the fire spinners who would post up in front of each of the popular places. They were really talented, rivaling the best spinners we’ve scene at Burning Man. We watched them for hours and I talked to them about how they built their sticks, looking forward to making one myself. The beach was the only spot to be at night besides in bed under your mosquito net as the bugs got bad the further you strayed from the sea breeze.
Snorkeling was definitely the best thing we did on the Perhentian Islands. We payed for a tour through the Lemongrass where we were staying and left a little after 11am on a boat with another American, one French girl, and a group of Malaysians. They took us to several spots around the island – Shark Point, Turtle Bay, and a few others. I saw a two foot shark at Shark Point, small but cool, and at every spot there was amazing coral of all sorts. We saw beautiful schools of parrot fish, a green and blue sting ray, and the star of the show was a giant sea turtle. The turtle was so impressive and I was able to swim underneath it when it surfaced for air.
We took a pit stop for lunch at a local village near the Silver Mosque which was in the middle of the call to prayer when we arrived. The scene seemed surreal with the beautiful shining building and the village and the perfect blue sky reflecting in the water.
The sad part about snorkeling in the Perhentian Islands was the lack of education that the guides gave the tourists. Many of the local people couldn’t swim and would stand on top of the coral, breaking it with their fins. It was heartbreaking to watch, mainly because of how avoidable it was. With coral dying all over the world, it is more important than ever to take care of what remains. Elsewhere in Malaysia, we had started yelling at people when they threw trash on the ground because it ruins my world and your world and everyone’s world. I think just having the fear that some white dude is going to come yelling at them might keep them from doing it again. However, I didn’t feel right trying to tell the snorkeling guides that they needed to instruct these coral standers, and I don’t think it would have changed anything. Like I said before, in Malaysian culture no one likes to give directions or show authority over anyone else. But if I see a western person standing on coral I’m going to show you my scary side and it best be the last time you do it.
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Another interesting thing on the island was the giant monitor lizards. They would eat your kittens if you let them stray and our guesthouse host spent most of his day making sure his little kitties didn’t wander around the wrong corner.
We spent four lovely days in the Perhenthian Islands and it was a little sad to leave. But we were headed to Penang and we were so excited for the food. We carried our backpacks all the way across Long Beach to the pier, passing all the silly kids who had shown up with rolling suitcases. Seriously, why do so many people bring those things to the beach? We waiting around the pier watching a young Malaysian couple snorkeling in the water below. They were so different from us bare-it-all westerners, trying to swim while holding hands, the girl covered in hijab and a head-to-toe conservative swimming outfit. Even the men were nervous about taking their shirts off, always replacing them for pictures. Eventually we were shuffled onto a boat and made the rounds collecting people from other beaches before heading back to the main land.
We took a taxi from the pier to the bus station where we got a local bus to Kota Bharu. We stayed at Zech’s Guesthouse, owned by a super friendly older couple. Zech, a faithful Muslim, was excited to share a name with me. As I remembered from Morocco, when people hear my name it brings about many questions. I feel like there are more Muslim Zecks than Christian Zachs and the name seems to gain me instant respect. We talked a little bit after being shown all the room options and they told us about a great night food market where we got the blue rice which is colored with a flower and famous in the region. In the morning after his pre-sunrise prayers, Papa Zech drove us to the airport because it was too early for taxis. He told us of his recent trip to Mecca, a pilgrimage that he was proud to have finally completed. We arrived early like good travelers but most people didn’t get to the airport until 40 minutes before their flight. There were only six other passengers and our “private” jet was the easiest flight we have ever taken. At least it wasn’t Malaysian Airlines, which has a nasty reputation for disappearing into thin air. Next up… Georgetown, Penang!!!!