While I didn’t know much about Malaysia before visiting, I quickly came to love it.
I journeyed to Malaysia overland from Thailand, and instantly the landscape changed: better, cleaner roads, no billboards, women in colorful headdresses, verdant rice paddies and wild, red-earthed jungle.
Second only to Singapore, Malaysia is the richest country in Southeast Asia, making public transit a breeze and the level of English impressively high. The high level of English made meeting locals much easier than in other parts of Southeast Asia, save Singapore.*
Malaysia is also extremely diverse, but I soon found that Malaysia is less of a melting pot and more of a stew. Malaysia is composed of three main ethnic groups that rarely intermarry: Malay (60%), Chinese (23%) and Indian (7%). Interestingly enough, these ethnic groups grow up speaking different languages, practicing different religions and eating different food.
For example, when I referred to a group of Chinese-Malay girls I had met as Malay, they retorted, “We’re not Malay! We’re Chinese.”
Malaysia isn’t a typical fixture on the Southeast Asian backpacking trail. It’s fairly expensive for Southeast Asia and the alcohol isn’t cheap.
If all you want to do is party, Malaysia is not the place. But if you’re interested in fascinating culture, hundreds of years of history and some of the best meals of your life, I’d whole-heartedly recommend Malaysia.
That being said there are pockets of the backpacking scene- Reggae Mansion in Kuala Lumpur, for example, as well as the Perhentian Islands.
Two Weeks in Malaysia Itinerary: The Highlights
Here are my recommendations for a two week Malaysia itinerary if you have limited time. I’ve also noted a few things that weren’t worth the hype (in my humble opinion) so you won’t waste your time.
Note- the recommended accommodation is geared towards budget-conscious travelers like myself, so if you’re not interested in hostels or guesthouses then skip that part!
Penang – 3-4 nights
It’s no secret that I loved Penang– between the beautiful Peranakan mansions and the splashes of street art all over the city, I fell hard for this little colonial city.
Where to stay:
I really liked Roommates Penang, the self-titled “coziest guesthouse in Penang” for its central location, glacial AC, historic Chinese shophouse facade and reasonable price. It could use a common room though.
What to do:
While in Penang visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, an opulent mansion that will teach you about Peranakan history, the Clan Jetties, the historical docklands where Chinese-Malay clans have lived for more than a century and see all of the street art around Georgetown– I loved Ernest Zacharevic’s work in particular.
Where to eat:
Eat at hawker centres such as CF Hawker Centre and Red Garden Food Paradise for a wide variety of food and a mostly local experience.
Make sure to try Penang’s most famous local dish, Char Kuey Teow (pictured below), saucy, stir-fried noodles with shrimp, bean sprouts, eggs and Chinese chives.
Also if you’re craving Indian head to Little India for dinner- I ate very well there!
Cameron Highlands – 2 nights
While I personally didn’t really get The Cameron Highlands (truthfully I found them a bit boring), a lot of people love them. I will admit that they are a good place to escape the heat and take pictures of verdant tea fields, so head there if you’re dying to cool-down (totally reasonable in Malaysia.)
Kuala Lumpur – 3 nights
KL decidedly doesn’t have the best reputation- it’s not a beautiful city by any means, and is terrible for pedestrians, with lots of highways and shoddy sidewalks. That being said I loved my time there and found the contrast of colorful colonial architecture and 70s skyscrapers kind of charming. Plus, the food is AMAZING.
Where to stay:
Backpackers, get theeselves to Reggae Mansion.
I’ve stayed at 60-70+ hostels in my travels and NO JOKE, Reggae Mansion is my favorite hostel in the world. It has three storeys, spotless cubby bunks (a must for privacy), great AC, a movie room, a hilarious owner and a rooftop bar where you can party, try karaoke and smoke shisha. My travel buddy and I stayed an entire week.
What to do:
As a lover of Islamic art and architecture I enjoyed the Islamic Arts Museum. The Museum was very peaceful with few tourist and had centuries-old qur’ans, traditional clothing and tiles on display- well worth a visit.
If you’ve never been to India you might enjoy the Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Murugan that was built in 2006. Personally I found it a bit crowded, dirty and crawling with macaques. But if you’re interested in Hindu deities it might be worth a stop.
Tip – ladies should cover up with a shawl and long skirt or you’ll have to rent a sarong at the gate.
Where to eat:
On the street! I spent a week there eating solely from dirt-cheap hole-in-the-wall restaurants and couldn’t have been happier. I’d particularly recommend trying curry laksa (pictured below), chicken rice, and fish head bihun.
Malacca – 3 nights
While I didn’t adore Malacca quite as much as Penang, I still enjoyed the beautiful riverside city. Malacca was colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch AND British, so naturally has lots of history.
Where to stay:
No recommendations here- I ended up staying in a charmless guesthouse as I wasn’t able to find an appealing hostel. Check out hotels in Malacca here.
What to do:
Walk the riverfront at sunset, visit historic St. Paul’s Church and stop by Cheng Hoon Teng, a beautiful Chinese temple where I worshipped with my hosts.
Despite my interest in colonial history I wasn’t a huge fan of A Famosa, the only remains of a Portuguese fort, or the Dutch graveyard, where most of the graves are actually English.
Where to eat:
The Jonker Walk Night Market is a bustling market with tons of great eats- I had really good turnip cakes and pork buns there.
The best food I tried in Malacca was satay celup, which I had at Ban Li Xiang. If the idea of dipping food-on-a-stick into a vat of bubbling peanut sauce appeals to you, head there.
Finally, I really like The Daily Fix, an adorable hipster coffee shop. I especially loved the vintage decor and free wifi.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Obviously, this itinerary is just a suggestion and I haven’t been everywhere in Malaysia by any means. If I could go back I would visit the Perhentian Islands or Langkawi for beaches, Borneo for jungle and orangutans and Sipadan for some of the best scuba diving in the world.
*(And while I’m all for speaking foreign languages, I speak three fluently, after all, the level of English in a foreign country DOES matter if you care about meeting locals. You can’t speak every language, unfortunately!)
P.S.! You may also like:
What to Eat in Malaysia: The Best Dishes I Tried (And The Worst!)
Penang is for Street Art and Hawker Centre Lovers
Solo Travel in Melaka, Malaysia: My Favorite Experiences
Essential travel info:
Malaysia is overall a very easy country to travel in; the level of English is high and the public transit is great. I traveled solo for part of my trip and always felt safe.
Although Malaysia is a Muslim country, I wore tank tops and shorts every day. The only place where I covered up was the Batu Caves.
In Penang, I stayed at Roommates and really enjoyed it. It costs 28 ringgit ($6 USD) for a dorm bed.
In Kuala Lumpur, I stayed at Reggae Mansion, my favorite hostel in Asia.
I didn’t find any good accommodation in Malacca – see hotels in Malacca here.
Make sure to purchase travel insurance before your trip to Malaysia. I’ve used World Nomads for years and highly recommend it.
Have you ever been to Malaysia? What would you put in your two-week Malaysia itinerary?
Roommates Penang and Reggae Mansion generously hosted my stay for two nights each. As always, all opinions are completely my own.
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31 thoughts on “The Perfect Two-Week Itinerary for Malaysia”
Ashley, this post could not have come at a better time! Today I crossed into Malaysia, and immediately flew to Kota Kinabalu to climb the mountain. I just logged onto my laptop on to decide my next stop after Borneo when your email came though! You have sold Penang to me on numerous occasions and it looks like the next stop as there they have an airport with cheap cheap cheap flights. Thanks again for your help Ashley!
First of all, I’m super jealous you’re going to Kota Kinabalu. and secondly I’m so glad I could be of help!
Many names that I cannot pronounce and food that I have not tasted,
But I love hearing and seeing all. You take us on an informative and
Interesting tour. Love, Gamma
Hi Gamma, I’m glad you enjoyed reading about it! I’m almost done with my Asia coverage and then will move on to Jordan… hopefully you find that interesting as well! Love, Ashley
Thanks for the detailed advice! I love that you gave specifics on what foods to eat in each place! I just pinned it for future reference during my Asia travels. Do you remember where you crossed the border into Malaysia from Thailand? I hadn’t thought about doing it overland, but if I happened to be coming from the Thai beaches, that might be a good idea.
Hey Rachel! So I left from Koh Tao, and the journey was horrendous. The slow-boat to the shore took all night, and from there we caught an early morning bus to Malaysia. I think all together it was like 24 hours or something?
Granted you can definitely get from Koh Tao to the mainland much faster but I was being cheap. All I can say is definitely take the fast boat!
Wow, very cool! I went to Malaysia as a child but we were just there to see friends, so I don’t remember doing much touring. I’d love to go back– it seems really affordable too!
It was definitely affordable! Not as inexpensive as Thailand or Cambodia by any means, but totally reasonable in my opinion :)
Malaysia is on the top of my list. Hopefully I can make the visit a reality after the move abroad. The photos you captured in Melaka are beautiful! I’m a big lover or street food and curry so I’m really excited to get abroad and adventure a lot of other pallets.
You’re going to love Malaysia then- the food is fantastic!
Thanks for going into detail about Malaysia! It’s a country that keeps getting recommended to me but I had no idea where to start besides KL! Great to have a small guide of places to see. I recently skipped it over and now I can’t wait to be back in that neck of the woods!
That’s how I feel! I really want to go to Sipadan especially :)
Penang is one of my FAVORITE places in Southeast Asia. So delicious and beautiful :)
I totally agree- would visit again in a heartbeat :)
Like you, I knew next to nothing about Malaysia when I visited. The only reason I tacked it on to my SE Asia itinerary was because of an AirAsia promo. But I fell in love with it! I spent three weeks there and could have stayed much longer. Anyway, this is a great guide. I agree that KL is an amazing city and, honestly, I didn’t get the Cameron Highlands either. I felt a bit weird that I wasn’t into it (at all). Glad to know I’m not alone!
I almost liked that I knew nothing- everything was a surprise! And it’s always nice to find someone who holds the same opinion- personally I didn’t get it AT ALL.
I hope to make my way down there one day!
What languages do you speak? :)
Definitely do make it down! I know Spanish fluently and French almost-fluently :)
I’m so looking forward to going back to Malaysia (hopefully soon) with my husband, especially to the Cameroon Highlands, as I had to skip that region on my last visit. I also like your disclaimer about languages, Ashley. Very sensible!
Glad you agree, Sam! I know some travelers and travel bloggers get touchy when you mention the level of English, but it matters a ton if you’re interested in meeting locals as I’m sure you know :)
that first picture of the cameron highlands looks like the tea fields in munnar! also, i love your note about not being able to speak every language in the world — so true, and something i feel people forget sometimes.
Agreed! Despite how much I’d love to, it’s just not possible :)
Curry laksa? Duly noted. I’m escaping Saigon’s heat with a trip to Malaysia verrrry soon. 4 years ago I did the same 4-stop trip as you, over 3 weeks. Sadly I only have a week this time so my plan is KL for eating and Cameron Highlands for the cool weather and hiking. I’m dreaming of taking less than 3 showers a day!
I haven’t been to Malaysia yet but I quite fancy it, and I probably wouldn’t even mind Kuala Lumpur as I hear that they have a lot of background history, art, culture and independent music going on. Just the type of thing that I like LOL!
A very nice guide indeed. :)
I’ve been following your posts quite often.
I quite like how you’ve written about the different cities in Malaysia.
Surprising not to find Langkawi in this post though.
But still, nice work!! :)
H Tamz, I wish I would’ve had time for Langkawi- I’ve heard so many wonderful things!
Great! This can be one of the most helpful blogs I have ever come across on this subject.I think it’s just very good.
Thank you for all the great tips. I am currently on a 2-week trip in Malaysia and am using your recommendations as my guide through the country.
I was trying to book a room at Reggae Mansion in KL, when I read this on their page on hostelworld – “Due to the limited capacity at our hostel, We do not accept online bookings from local residents, India and middle east countries. Bookings made and paid online by these countries shall not be refundable. We accept walk in check in only for these countries and it is subjected to the room availability.”
I am a Indian citizen and a US resident backpacking through SE Asia. This was very disappointing for me to read. Kindly consider removing your recommendation for a hostel that has such discriminatory policies.
Try the Durian (King of the fruit) in Balik Palau, Penang. Stay at the beautiful Karuna Hill resort!
This is basically the same itinerary I’ve come up with for my up coming fortnight in Malaysia. I was thinking of swapping out Malacca for Langkawi though. What do you think?
Hi Isabel, I think that would be great! I’ve heard the beaches are amazing.
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