When I was researching Southeast Asia itineraries for 2-3 months, I found several that recommended leaving off Malaysia completely. Honestly, I think that would be a huge mistake. Here’s our guide on how to get Malaysia on your itinerary, why you should, and what to do.
Note: We only visited mainland Malaysia, as it’s far more convenient to the rest of mainland Southeast Asia. Sarawak and Sabah, the states located on the island of Borneo (shared with Brunei and Indonesia), are much more rural. They make an amazing destination for seeing wildlife and jungles, and could be super-convenient if you’re traveling around Indonesia or the Philippines. Having not visited that region, though, this post is sticking to mainland Malaysia.
Traveling to Malaysia? Check out our top Malaysia posts:
- The practical guide to the Cameron Highlands
- What we spent on 9 days in Malaysia: A Malaysia budget for couples
- The guide to eating in Malaysia
- Why Malacca is the perfect vacation from your vacation
- What to do in Kuala Lumpur: A 2-day itinerary for KL
Why you should visit Malaysia
- It’s so easy to get from city to city by bus, and Kuala Lumpur is a major plane travel hub as well.
- English is very, very widely spoken. Compared to Bangkok, I found communication to be easier in Malaysia.
- It’s probably not as expensive as you think (see how we spent about $50/day for two people here). We had heard upwards of twice the cost of Thailand. So far, Bangkok has cost about the same, though I know other areas of Thailand are likely to be cheaper.
- Beautiful natural scenery; beaches, mountains, and forests — Malaysia has it all.
- There aren’t a ton of tourists and few Americans. If, like us, you travel to see other cultures rather than party with other Westerners, Malaysia is ideal.
- It’s safe and relatively clean.
- There are things to see, certainly, but you don’t feel overwhelmed by the impossible number of world-famous sights that someone somewhere has told you you absolutely have to see. It’s a much more laid-back sort of sightseeing with one or two major attractions in every city, delicious food, and beautiful architecture and scenery to soak in.
Getting to and from Malaysia
Whether you’re visiting Malaysia during a longer Southeast Asia itinerary or just heading here and then home, there are several ways to get around here.
- Flying in and out: The airports in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are both major hubs, with Singapore offering more long-haul international flights (in my experience), and Kuala Lumpur having the upper hand when it comes to discount airlines. I recommend checking both airports and adding a few days in Singapore if it’s the cheaper airport. (Head here for an explanation of why you should visit Singapore and here for our Singapore itinerary.)
- Bus in from Singapore: The bus from Singapore is pricey compared to buses in the rest of Malaysia (about US$15 per person), though still a steal compared to flying. The bus is comfortable, border control is easy, and it’s just a few hours from Singapore to Malacca or Kuala Lumpur.
- Take the train from Thailand: If you’re up for an overnight train ride, you can go direct from Bangkok to Butterworth (Penang) or vice versa on an overnight train via Padang Besar. (We found that sleeper class tickets cost about the same as a discount airline flight, though, so we flew.) The same route also offers stops in Southern Thailand if you’re visiting the islands.
What to see in Malaysia
Obviously we’re biased, but we felt that we spent just long enough in each destination, without spending too long. I also loved that this itinerary offered a ton of variety in climate and culture. (While we went from South to North, you could absolutely do the reverse itinerary, depending on where you’re arriving and departing.)
- Day 1: Malacca. Take the bus from Singapore to Malacca, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed historic city. It’s a very laidback, Hemingway sort of town where you could easily spend a day or while away years soaking in the tropical sunshine and ocean spray. We spent just a day, which was long enough to get a taste of the town and see a few sights. Try to visit on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday to catch the Jonker Street Night Market. Read more about Malacca here.
- Day 2-4 or 5: Kuala Lumpur. Depart Malacca for the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. KL on the whole wasn’t really for us (you can read why here), but with a better plan than we had, you could spend a few pleasant days eating delicious food and gaining an understanding of Malaysia’s history and what makes it tick. If you only spend two full days, I highly recommend using this itinerary; it’s what I’d do if I could redo our visit to Kuala Lumpur. If you arrive late in the day on day 2, relax for your first evening (choose an “afternoon activity of your choice” from the KL itinerary above or just chill out), spend two days sightseeing, and leave either late on day 4 or early on day 5.
- Day 5-8: Cameron Highlands. The Cameron Highlands are a world away from the rest of Southeast Asia. This former colonial retreat is delightfully temperate in climate, and offers amazing scenery. We spent and recommend three nights in the Cameron Highlands, if only to make the winding, nauseating bus ride worth it. On the day you arrive, just relax and get acclimated, then do a day tour on the next day to get a complete overview of the forests and tea plantations. On your last day full day, play a round of golf, go hiking, or explore any of the handful of other sights that tickle your fancy. Depart early on day 8 for Penang.
- Day 8-10: George Town. George Town, Penang is the yin to Malacca’s yang. Though often spoken of in the same breath, I found the two to be very different. Penang is hip and trendy — filled with street art, live music venues, and coffee shops — while Malacca is beautifully decaying and relaxed (think: open-air bars and lazy river cruises). Architecturally, Penang looks like a warm-weather version of London or Paris, while Malacca feels thoroughly Mediterranean. It’s a bit of a hike to Penang, so I recommend giving it two nights, though the only sight of real note in George Town is the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, which you can easily cover in a morning. Spend the rest of the time spotting street art, cruising the bar scene, or drinking coffee in hipster cafes.
How to cut down this Malaysia itinerary
If you don’t have as long to spend in Malaysia, here’s where you can cut things down.
- Choose either Malacca or George Town: It breaks my heart to think of skipping either, but if you had to, you could limit your travels to just the northern or southern Malaysian peninsula and cut out either Malacca or George Town. If you’re traveling to or from Singapore, Malacca makes more sense, whereas connecting overland to Thailand makes George Town the smarter option. If you’re traveling in and out of Kuala Lumpur, though, you can really take your pick between the two towns.
- Spend one less day in the Cameron Highlands: We spent a fair amount of time in the Highlands just sitting around sipping tea or working. It’s also the priciest place we visited in Malaysia, so I do think you could do one fewer day. Do note that you lose a half day traveling both arriving and departing, so it could feel a bit rushed to spend only two nights (aka only one non-travel day).
Adding time to this Malaysia itinerary
If you’ve got more than 10 days to see mainland Malaysia, here’s where I’d add additional days:
- Malacca: I felt like we got a good feel for Malacca in just one night, but we did skip one of the major sights, the Baba and Nyonya Museum. Alex is a big proponent of adding another night in Malacca to see and do more.
- Beaches: We never made it to the beach while in Malaysia, though there are a few excellent ones just a hop, skip, and a jump from Penang. Stop in Langkawi if you’ve got a few spare days to spend soaking in the sun on white sand beaches.
- Jungles: Taman Negara (Malaysia’s national forest) is an ancient jungle that’s absolutely worth a visit, from what we’ve heard. Take a trek and try to spot the elephants, tigers, and leopards that live there.