Ultimate Malaysia Backpacking Guide | Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, Ipoh + more

ULTIMATE MALAYSIA BACKPACKING GUIDE

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW

KUALA LUMPUR – PENANG – IPOH – MELAKA + MORE

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Malaysia was like a little treat I didn’t even know I needed. A corner of the world bursting at the seams with goodness that for years I heard almost nothing about – then out of nowhere every person and their mum was catching the next flight to the South East Asia gem of Malaysia. After hearing countless stories, reading a whole lotta travel blogs, and seeing millions of Instagram shots of the rainbow coloured Batu Caves and playful street art in Georgetown, it quickly shot near the top of my must see list. Plus, it is a steal to fly to from little old New Zealand (it costs us a fortune to get anywhere), so I thought what better place to kick start my new set of solo travel adventures from!

From compact concrete jungles, vast, green as can be real jungles, postcard perfect islands, idyllic beaches, serene tea plantations, vibrantly quirky colonial towns, a mouth watering mixture of cuisines, and a land seeped in culture – Malaysia has it all. I mean, what more could you ask for? 

2 weeks, give or take, is a good amount of time to get a true taste for the country – depending what tickles your fancy. If you’re a first time traveller I highly recommend Malaysia as a great stepping stone destination to ease yourself into backpacking. It has enough to keep you excited and yearning for more, but isn’t too much of a culture shock to frighten the living daylights out of you. 

Malaysia is an undeniably underrated and over seen country in South East Asia, and me oh my, I’m so glad I went – and you should too!

As always, I travelled Malaysia on a backpacker’s budget. So if you’re looking for the Ultimate Malaysia Backpacking Guide – how I got there, what to do, which route to take, how long to stay, what I did, ate, spent, etc – then keep on reading. 

Quick overview

Download or pin to Pinterest to keep handy!

Ultimate Malaysia Backpacking Guide

HOW TO GET THERE

You’ll no doubt fly into Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), the largest and most popular airport in Malaysia – So start your route here.

The cheapest way to get yourself into the city is by taking the clean, air conditioned Star Shuttle Bus. After coming through the baggage claim area from your flight, find the travelator that takes you downstairs to the ‘transport’ area where you will find trains and buses. Buy a ticket which costs 10 MYR (3.70 NZD) from the counter and they will inform you of your platform number. The journey takes one hour and leaves every 20 – 30 minutes. You’ll be dropped off at Pudu Sentral Station in the heart of the city.

If you’re coming from elsewhere in Malaysia, Thailand, or Singapore, there are well connected and affordable bus services that run multiple times a day. 12.Go is a great website that scans all the best bus journeys for your particular time and date. 

I highly recommend getting a mobile travel sim card at the airport while you’re at it. Digi is great – costing 40 MYR (15 NZD) for 15 days. A good wee package with 25gb of internet, plus calls and texts – and I didn’t run into any problems. Pop the sim in and you’re away laughing!

WHERE TO GO

I’ve pinned the places where I travelled to throughout my two weeks in Malaysia below, including –

KUALA LUMPUR, PENANG, IPOH AND MELAKA.

Additional places you may like to add to your itinerary include – 

PERHENTIAN ISLANDS

Chill island vibes

CAMERON HIGHLANDS

Tea plantations, nature and hikes 

LANGKAWI

Island hopping and boozy beaches

I chose not to visit those listed above, but I have no doubt in my mind they are great places to look into as well!

Itinerary

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Below is an in depth look into the places I roamed –

KUALA LUMPUR

The capital of Malaysia, this melting pot of a city has a chaotic beauty about it that I can’t quite put my finger on — It could be the mumble jumble of religions on display showcasing their cultures loud and proud, or the abstract street art vibrantly lining odd alleyways. Maybe the fact it has some of the tallest skyscrapers I ever did see towering overhead, a gorgeous array of temples, an eco forest plonked right in the middle of the concrete jungle, and hectic souvenir markets that I love to hate. OR, perhaps the insanely good street food selection, as per Asia.

I have done a whole entire post on the ins and outs of spending three full days in Kuala Lumpur – so if you want a FULL run down of the city and each hot spot listed below – click HERE for tonnes more tips and tricks!

Must do

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Batu Caves Temple

KL Eco Forest Park

Little India

Street Art Spotting

Petronas Towers

Thean Hou Temple

Masjid Jamek Mosque + Sultan Abdul Building

Central Market

Petaling Street Market

China Town

KL Tower

Jalan Alor Night Market

Beers on Changkat Street

Merdeka Square

Tips

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HOW LONG TO STAY –

3 days

HOW TO GET AROUND –

The metro in Kuala Lumpur is well connected and super affordable! It’s easy to use with an ‘English’ option on the ticket purchase machines at each station. I paid between 1.60 – 1.90 MYR (.60 – .70c NZD) to scoot around the city.

Grab (Malaysia’s version of Uber) is another great option. Download the app, put in your destination, accept a driver, and you’re away. Piece of cake.

Always have a map downloaded on your phone to help you navigate your way around – Google Maps (I’ve been recently converted) works a treat. This goes for any of the destinations below too.

WHERE TO STAY –

There are a heap of hostels in the backpacker hub of Bukit Bintang – the best place to base yourself.

Kuala Lumpur to Penang - MAP

NEXT STOP – 

KUALA LUMPUR – PENANG ISLAND

From Kuala Lumpur I headed straight to the North West island of Penang.

The buses are a cheap and highly convenient way to backpack through Malaysia – use 12.go or Easybook to pre book.

Between KL and Penang you have two options –

  • Catch the bus directly to Sungai Nibong Station, which is situated on the island. Once arrived you can catch a local bus, or Grab for 15 MYR (5.60 NZD) – which will drop you in the backpacking hub of Georgetown.
  • Get dropped off at Butterworth Station on the mainland of Malaysia and catch a separate ferry over to Penang Island. The ferry ticket costs 1.20 MYR (.45c NZD) from Butterworth to the Island, however is free on the way back. The ferry journey takes 15 minutes and departs every 20-30 minutes.

TIME5 hours roughly

COST35 – 45 MYR (13 – 16 NZD) 

PENANG

As the sun starts to set on the island of Penang, the gripping sound of the humbling prayer calls echo throughout the character riddled streets. Little road side stalls fire up their woks, as delicious smells and spices linger throughout the air. Boutique stores slowly start shutting up shop for the night, as tricycle men laze about for a much deserved rest – before the next round of passengers. Night lights flicker on illuminating the hawker centres, ready for bands to entertain. Times like these I love to mindlessly wander the streets, watching the atmosphere of the town change and come to life. A sense of calm before the chaos of the night — Plus, there’s less people around and it’s not so stinkin’ hot! 

Penang is an absolute paradise, and quite honestly – everything I could ask for encapsulated into one destination. Fun street art, intricate Chinese temples, nightlife that is an absolute hoot, gorgeous lanterns adorning the streets, and photogenic old strait settlements at every corner. 

I booked an extra night on this lively little island before I had even got off the bus – I was that confident I would love it… and I was not mistaken!

Must do

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STREET ART 

Being the super visual person I am, I’m always drawn to anything creative, and easily one of the best things about Georgetown, Penang is the street art. I’ve seen some street art in my time, but hands down my most favourite is here – hidden down enchanting little nooks where you’d least expect them. So quirky, so aesthetically pleasing, and to Ernest Zacharevic and whichever other humans created them, you’re so damn talented. 

I struggled to find a map that was actually useful to see where I could find each work of art – so check out my map below to hopefully save you the hassle I went through! 

KEK LOK SI TEMPLE 

I felt like I had stepped right into China upon entering the gigantic and gorgeous Buddhist temple of Kek Lok Si, situated amongst the mountains of Air Itam. The charming pastel colours, finest of details, wee turtle ponds amongst the quaint gardens, ribbon trees to make wishes upon, and some serious views over Penang – make for one charming temple that I fell in love with. 

To get here from town catch the number 201 or 204 bus, which takes roughly 30 minutes. Inform the bus driver of where you want to go so they can whistle out where to hop off! The journey costs 2 MYR (.75c NZD) each way.

The temple is free to enter and is open from 8.30am – 5.30pm daily.

SIDE NOTE – I was satisfied with the view from Kek Lok Si, but if you’re after an even wider view over the island from up high, head to nearby Penang Hill. Pay 30 MYR (11 NZD) return to take the funicular ride up the hill, or sweat it out by foot for 2 – 3 hours each way. 

CHULIA STREET AND LOVE LANE 

What I bid as the most atmospheric place in Penang, Chulia Street and Love Lane are where to be if you want to get your lips around a cheeky beverage, sing along with the street performers, or devour in some of the most divine and bloomin’ cheap street food you will find in Malaysia. An atmosphere that is so contagious I guarantee you’ll want to head here every night!

Chulia Street has nightly food markets that kick off every night from 6pm, and end at 12am (perfect for those boozy nights out!) I recommend getting there from 7pm onwards when the street truly starts to come to life.

MUST TRY FOOD 

NASI LEMAK

CHAR KOAY KAK

CURRY LAKSA

ASSAM LAKSA

WANTAN MEE

APOM BALIK

LOK LOK

HAINANESE CHICKEN + RICE

SATAY SKEWERS

Coconut Rice + spicy sambal, egg, optional meat, etc

Fried Rice Cake

Creamy Curry Noodle Soup

Rice Noodles in Fishy Soup

Wonton Noodle Soup

Rice Flour Pancake

Skewer Hot Pot

Self explanatory..

Yum! 

By day, wander along the surrounding streets and enchanting lanes lined with strait settlements and Chinese shop houses – all showcasing gorgeous patterned tiles, rustic paint jobs, and artsy vibes. Full of so much history and pretty as heck!

These two streets are the beating heart of Penang, and whatever you do – don’t miss them.

CLAN JETTIES

A long rickety boardwalk leads you through a little village of weathered red stilt houses on the water, all built in the late 1800’s – the character is real!

As you wander the jetties you’ll stumble upon souvenir shacks, fragrant street food, delectable coconut ice cream stalls to beat the heat, docked fishing boats, and even more wacky street art plastered on the sides of weatherboards.

My absolute favourite time to visit was at sunset, where I parked up for an hour or so to gaze out at the orange glow offset by the contrasting blue sky and water. So captivating!

Chew Jetty is the most famous of the six and is open 9am – 9pm (families actually live here, so be respectful.)

Slight tangent, but a hot tip – jot in ‘E&O Hotel’ into Google Maps. Make your way there and wander the charming grounds of the stunning white colonial hotel, before sitting on the waterfront overlooking the dazzling city lights across the sea (see photo below). A real hidden gem!

ARMENIAN STREET

Floral decorated trishaws overflowing with a questionable assortment of bakery goods and candy, performers boogying the day away on the street corners, boutique gift shops selling the most tasteful homeware (I literally wanted to buy everything), local art galleries showing off their talents, and fresh fruit smoothie stalls raking in the tourists (give durian fruit a go, the stinky – but not really that stinky Malaysian specialty!) Armenian Street has it all.

Go on a treasure hunt along the main street, down narrow alleyways, and around hidden corners to find a bunch of the street art murals I pinned on the map earlier.

This quirky, vibrant stretch is perfect for an afternoon walkabout – but beware, it does get crazy busy with tourists!

Tips

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How LONG TO STAY –

4 days

HOW TO GET AROUND –

Georgetown is easily walkable, but there are public buses if you want to get further afield on the island – costing roughly 2 MYR (.75c NZD) per ride. There is also a free shuttle service called ‘CAT‘ that scoots around the streets of Georgetown – however I chose to walk to see more!

WHERE TO STAY –

Anywhere in Georgetown is a good location. I stayed at a hostel just off Armenian Street called ‘Cookobird Hostel.’ Super friendly staff, comfy beds, air con, and great showers – I highly recommend! 

Penang to Ipoh - MAP

NEXT STOP – 

PENANG ISLAND – IPOH

From Penang I caught the ferry over to Butterworth Station (like I mentioned earlier), then boarded a bus which I pre booked through 12.Go. It is possible to book on the day at the station, just be aware that the tickets may sell out in advance.

You’ll arrive at the main bus station of Aman Jaya in Ipoh. From here head upstairs to find a ‘myBAS’ sign, the local bus to take you to Medan Kidd Station towards the city. Take bus number t30b which will set you back 1.79 MYR (.67 c NZD). 

From here you have to take yet another bus into Ipoh Old Town centre, number t37, which is .90 MYR (.34 c NZD). The bus route is well sign posted and easy to navigate.

The two local bus trips combined took 30 minutes.

TIME4.5 hours roughly from Penang – Ipoh Old Town centre

COST26 MYR (5 NZD) + local buses

IPOH

Many backpackers overlook Ipoh, simply using the city as a gateway to the Cameron Highlands instead. But let me tell you, Ipoh is actually buzzing with some incredible little gems that are hidden away from the masses – making them even more magic!

From the collection of ram shackled colonial buildings draped with pretty greenery, historic cave temples that are as peaceful as can be, and a maze of lanes spruced up with bursts of colour via the street art murals and crafty decorative hangings – it’s an intriguing wee place filled with so much personality!

Known for it’s white coffee and biccies, egg tarts, and nga choi kai (bean sprout chicken rice) – you’re bound to have a field day eating your way through Ipoh. Nam Heong Cafe is your best bet for a good white coffee, and the Ipoh Walk Night Bazaar for all things ricey and noodley!

Must do

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SAM POH TONG TEMPLE 

My absolute favourite temple in Malaysia. That is all.

No, but really, this serene Chinese Buddhist Temple set in the side of a limestone hill was so tranquil and non touristy (or maybe I just got a good day), that I managed to escape to the back gardens where the main temple stands and sit in silence without another soul in sight, for a good hour straight. The only sound heard was the little pitter patters from the tortoise pond. Bliss! 

Back out the front you’ll spot gardeners pottering away in amongst the ornamental grounds, worn out wooden row boats floating in the pond, and locals lighting incense and praying to the Buddha – the smoke said to link the soul between him and the worshipper.

The pastel hues offset by vibrant red trim creates a shabby chic exterior that is oh so enchanting – especially when paired with the flowers in full bloom!

The temple is free to enter and open 9.30am – 2.30pm daily.

To get to Sam Poh Tong I was advised by hostel staff to not bother with the local bus as the route isn’t good and the journey takes for ever! Instead, I splashed out and used a Grab from the Old Town which cost 8 MYR (3.50NZD) and took 15 minutes. 

CONCUBINE LANE

Colourful umbrellas hanging overhead, Chinese lanterns zig zagging there way down the lane, interactive street art lining the walls, and a selection of market stalls and snack vendors  reeling you in. 

A wander along Concubine Lane is a must while in Ipoh, and from here you can explore the adjacent streets to discover the best cafes and boutique stores in town!

STREET ART + MASJID PANGLIMA MOSQUE

Mural Arts Lane is the place to be if you want to gawk in awe at the street art of Ipoh. An entire lane dedicated to some of the most vibrant blocks of colour splashed on walls, and clever, yet a little tattered, mural art – the weathered look all adding to the vibe!

Roam the streets near Concubine Lane and you’re bound to stumble upon car parks featuring some of the works of art below – as well as the stairwell inside the Wisma Chye Hin building. 

Just a hop, skip and a jump tucked away around the corner, is the 19th century Masjid Panglima Mosque. A powerful white and blue domed Mosque, worth a gander if you’re in the neighbourhood.

Tips

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How LONG TO STAY –

2 days

HOW TO GET AROUND –

The Old Town centre is easily walkable (most of the attractions mentioned above are situated here – minus the temple). The local ‘myBAS‘ and the Grab app are also options – the bus being the cheapest.

WHERE TO STAY –

The Old Town centre is where you want to base yourself. Mari Hostel is a great option for a good location, comfy beds, fast wifi, friendly staff, and free breaky!

Ipoh - Melaka - map

NEXT STOP – 

IPOH – MELAKA

Catch the bus from the Aman Jaya Station to Melaka Sentral Station.

From here follow the signs in the station to the ‘domestic bus’ area outside. Take the number 17 local bus which costs 1.50 MYR (.55c NZD) and will drop you at Jonker Street – the heart of Melaka. The bus journey takes 10 – 15 minutes and leaves every 30 minutes. You buy your tickets on board, so be sure to have small change at the ready.

TIME5 – 6 hours

COST35 MYR (13 NZD) roughly

MELAKA

I think I said the word cute about 6,037,684 times while wandering the UNESCO town of Melaka. It oozes charm, has an eclectic mix of Portugese, Dutch and Malay cultures, colonial salmon pink architecture, funky antique shops, and hectic, weird as hell tricycles. 

This port city has a character like no other!

Must do

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WANDER THE OLD TOWN – JONKER STREET + RIVERFRONT

Most backpackers come here for the famous Jonker Street Night Market, so if you want to get in on the action time your visit to land on the weekend. Featuring all the sights, smells and street food that a good night market should have! Open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 6pm – 12am. Jonker Street is situated right in the heart of the old town and a stroll along Jonker Street Walk, and nearby streets, is just as magical in the day too!  In true Malaysia style there’s fun street art, vintage fashion, and dusty antique shops at every corner – one of those places that feels super homely.

If you’re up for a relaxing beer on the Straits of Melaka, a buzzing waterway, then chilled out Reggae on the River Bar is where it’s at!

HISTORICAL BUILDINGS – DUTCH SQUARE, A FAMOSA, ST PAULS + MARITIME MUSEUM 

Melaka has some of the most intriguing architecture in Malaysia, reeking of tantalising colonial history! The cluster includes – Dutch Square – home to Malaysia’s oldest Protestant Church – Christ Church, and the oldest surviving Dutch building in Asia – Stadthuys. Both showing off a pretty pinky red number! 

Just across the road, the Maritime Museum is a replica of the Portuguese ship which sank off the coast of Melaka, many moons ago. Pretty impressive from the outside, and only 3 MYR (1.10 NZD) if you want to enter and learn a few more fun facts from the inside.

St Paul’s crumbling ruins sit high up on the hill overlooking Melaka, and the remains of the Portuguese fortress, A Famosa, are at the bottom of the hill – which you’ll spot as you clamber back down the stairs.

All free to wander.

Tips

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how LONG TO STAY-

2 days

HOW TO GET AROUND –

Melaka is only small, so it’s best seen by foot! All the main attractions are in close walking distance. 

WHERE TO STAY –

As close to Jonker Street as possible, there are a bunch of affordable hostels nearby.

Melaka to Kuala Lumpur - MAP

NEXT STOP – 

MELAKA – KUALA LUMPUR INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

After a whirlwind couple of weeks backpacking around Malaysia, it’s now time to head to Melaka Sentral Station and catch a bus back to Kuala Lumpur for your flight elsewhere!

TIME2 hours roughly

COST21 MYR (8 NZD) roughly

Now to the logistics

VISA

First things first, visas – or lack of should I say. For my fellow New Zealanders we can stay up to 90 days in Malaysia without the need for a visa.  62 other countries are in the same boat – 30-90 days visa free. One less thing to worry about it! 

BEST TIME TO GO

Like the rest of South East Asia, Malaysia is hot and sticky all year round. Downpours of rain are common in the afternoons, so I highly recommend doing your sightseeing earlier rather than later in the day. May – July and December – February are known as the best weather wise for Malaysia as a whole.

More specifically December – February on the West Coast, and June – August on the East Coast.

SAFETY

Is Malaysia safe? In my personal experience, yes. As a solo female traveller I never felt unsafe, once. The people of Malaysia are super friendly and always deliver a smile and helping hand if needed. 

If you’re still a bit weary about travelling in Asia, especially as a solo traveller – check out my solo travel tips post where I give tonnes of handy tips!

LANGUAGE

Bahasa Malaysia – Most Malaysians can speak or understand at least a little English, so I had no problem conversing with the locals.

MONEY

Malaysian Ringgit1 MYR = 0.37 NZD. Download the XE Currency App to have a quick and accurate way on hand to work out how fast you’re whipping through that backpacker budget.

At most I spent 30 NZD (80 MYR) per day – this includes accommodation, transport, food, drinks, spending money – EVERYTHING! 

AVERAGE COSTS 

HOSTEL DORM BED

STREET MEAL

CHEAP RESTAURANT

1L BEER

9 – 25 MYR (3.50 – 9 NZD)

4 – 8 MYR (1.50 – 3 NZD)

10 MYR + (3.70 + NZD) 

15 MYR (5.50 NZD) – cheaper at the supermarket

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Ultimate Malaysia Backpacking Guide – this country sure is a goodie! If you’re heading anywhere in Malaysia then let me know – I’d love to hear what you get up to! 

Thanks for reading,

Briar

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