Two Weeks in Malaysia
It took me a long time to “get” Malaysia, or to even want to. I’d made a half-assed visit to the country back in 2010, shortly after going nomadic, but found myself deliberately avoiding a return trip. Malaysia seemed vestigial, both physically (the peninsula sort of looks like the appendix of Southeast Asia, doesn’t it?) and in terms of the experiences it offered. What could I do there that I couldn’t do elsewhere?
Seven years later and with two weeks in Malaysia under my belt, I realize that was the wrong question to be asking. Indeed, while much of Malaysia might seem redundant or even leftover from the countries around it, it is only after appreciating the extraneous parts that make up Malaysia that one can appreciate the magnificence of their sum inside its borders.
When to Visit Malaysia
Like much of the rest of Southeast Asia, Malaysia has a wet season and a dry season. Unfortunately, since Malaysia is more geographically spread out than, say, Thailand, demarcating each of these seasons (they’re different on the peninsula, for example, than they are on Borneo) isn’t an easy matter. For example, while June is the best month to explore the jungles of Sarawak, it’s the wettest month in Kuala Lumpur. No matter when you end up visiting Malaysia, count on some rain.
Where to Stay in Malaysia
Malaysia is one of the cheapest places in the world to stay in nice hotels, be they five-star properties such as the Majestic in Kuala Lumpur, or boutique properties such as Noordin Mews in Penang and the Ranee Boutique Suites in Kuching. On the other hand, if you happen to be traveling on a budget, hostels and budget hotels throughout Malaysia are dirt cheap, even compared to many neighboring countries.
How to Get Around Malaysia
Malaysia has probably the second-best infrastructure in Southeast Asia, after Singapore, which means that getting around is easy. For long distances, flights on Malaysia Airlines or AirAsia are fast and relatively economical, although buses are sometimes the only option, such as to the Cameron Highlands, which doesn’t have its own airport. Within cities (and I do mean almost every large Malaysian city, as of March 2017), Uber is the way to go. You can even use Uber as transport for day trips, such as to Penang National Park outside of George Town.
Money, Costs and Communication
Malaysia uses the Malaysian ringgit (MYR), whose value has been low the past several years against major currencies, including the USD, EUR and GBP. As a result, travel in Malaysia is cheap—budget travelers should easily be able to stay under 50 USD per person, per day, while a relatively luxurious standard is accessible at around 100 USD per person, per day, for food, lodging and transport.
Wi-Fi is prevalent in Malaysia but, I’m sad to report, is among the slowest I’ve experienced anywhere. Thankfully, mobile internet is much faster and is very cheap, not to mention easy to get. In fact, you can buy a Malaysian SIM kit at any 7-11 in the country!
Prior to a few weeks ago, Kuala Lumpur was the only place I’d seen in Malaysia, and I hadn’t even really seen it if I’m being honest. In fact, it was the amazing time I had in KL (as it’s known) in early 2017 that motivated me to stay in Malaysia for two weeks, instead of continuing to China’s Yunnan province as I’d originally intended.
My favorite thing about Kuala Lumpur is how eclectic it is, whether you explore ethnic neighborhoods like Petaling Street (Chinatown) or Little India, make exotic day trips to stunning Batu Caves, colonial Malacca or regal Putrajaya, revel at the base of the Petronas Twin Towers or look onto them from the greenery of the KL Bird Park or majestic Merdeka Square.
Spend 2-3 days of your two weeks in Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia’s tea-producing region, the Cameron Highlands, sits roughly halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Penang as you make your way north up the Malaysian peninsula. The tea plantations here are beautiful and idyllic, and among the most scenic photo spots in all of Malaysia.
On the other hand, the two principal cities of this region are rather busy and grey, which makes spending more than a couple of days here a frustrating experience, if you’re looking for relaxation that is. To be sure, while there are some non-tea activities here—namely visiting strawberry farms and rose gardens—tea is the beginning and end of why you’re likely to come here.
Spend 1-2 days of your two weeks in Malaysia in the Cameron Highlands
When most tourists say “Penang” what they actually mean is George Town, the historical and beautiful capital city of Penang, a massive island (and a good-sized chunk of the mainland!) that is Malaysia’s only Chinese-majority state. George Town embodies the same sort of eclecticism as KL, and while there are a few skyscrapers, its claim to fame is less about tall buildings and more about old ones.
But George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, which includes dozens of religious monuments, the Clan Jetties and the Cheong Fatt Tze “Blue Mansion,” is only the beginning of its charm. It’s famous for street food (oyster omelettes, for example, and spicy laksa soup) and street art, although I wasn’t too enamored by the latter. While Penang’s beaches aren’t great, jungle trekking in nearby Penang National Park is enjoyable. Meanwhile, enjoy a stunning panorama of George Town from Penang Hill.
Spend 2-3 days of your two weeks in Malaysia in Penang and George Town.
Terengganu and the East Coast
When I arrived to the city of Kuala Terengganu, on peninsular Malaysia’s east coast, both my taxi driver and the owner of the apartment I stayed in were shocked. “You’re not diving?” they asked, dumbfoundedly, referring to the crystalline waters of the nearby Perhentian Islands.
You see, while I’d come to Terengganu solely to see the Crystal Mosque, most people come to enjoy diving and snorkeling. I probably would’ve budgeted time for that, too, were climate change not a thing. Unfortunately, I was under the impression it would still be the rainy season when I was there, which was actually not the case.
Spend 1 day in Kuala Terengganu if you just plan to visit the Crystal Mosque; budget an extra day or two to dive in the Perhentian Islands.
The furthest east portion of Malaysian Borneo, Sabah consists of the city of Kota Kinabalu, Mount Kinabalu and a number of jungle and beach destinations of dazzling beauty. In spite of this seeming tourism treasure trove, on paper, Sabah was by far my least favorite part of Malaysia, for reasons I will explain in future posts (I’ll link them here when complete).
To be sure, while the group of islands near the town of Semporna are absolutely stunning, the mechanics of traveling there are chaotic, a fact compounded by the incompetence of the governmental authority that controls permitting for the region. Likewise, while Kota Kinabalu has some charms, it’s grey and industrial in a way that almost cancels out the natural majesty around it.
Spend 2-4 days of your two weeks in Malaysia in Sabah, depending on how deeply you plan to explore the state.
On the other hand, Sarawak was probably my single favorite destination in Malaysia. This began and ended with the awesomeness of Kuching, a charming, clean and green city nestled along the banks of the Sarawak River, but also had a great deal to do with the other attractions of the state, not to mention the proximity to Kuching.
For example, while the day trips I took in Sabah required expensive taxi rides and even flights, I was able to take Uber to visit Semenggoh Nature Reserve, home to a population of wild orangutans that are being rehabilitated, and to Bako National Park, where you can take half- and full-day hikes that feel way farther from the city than they are. For these reasons, Sarawak is not only a great place to visit, but the perfect destination to end your two weeks in Malaysia.
Spend 2-4 days of your two weeks in Malaysia in Sarawak.
The Bottom Line
If you’re coming to Malaysia for two weeks, this itinerary is comprehensive, covering a breadth of Malaysia destinations, and exploring them in great depth, relative to its brevity. Keep in mind that Malaysia is an eclectic country, made up of influences from Southeast Asia and the Far East (especially China) at large. While exploring these regions prior to Malaysia is helpful, it is not necessary.