When I went backpacking, Malaysia was by far the biggest surprise. Of the four countries on my itinerary, Malaysia was the one I was only visiting because it happened to be close by. Other backpackers I spoke to had mixed opinions about this country; no one seemed to be very excited about it. All in all, I thought Malaysia would be the least interesting stop on my route.
I was absolutely wrong. Malaysia was one of the best parts of my trip; I enjoyed it even more than either Vietnam or Thailand.
Thanks to both the schedule I’d initially planned, and the fact that I got sick in Thailand and had to extend my stay there, I ended up only having about eight days in Malaysia. Five of those I spent in Penang, and just two and a half in Kuala Lumpur. (Note: if I could do it again, I’d spend only 3-4 days in Penang and stay in KL a little longer).
Most tourists in Penang hang out in George Town. A remnant of colonial times, founded by the British, George Town’s architecture is distinctly European, but the culture is very much Malaysian – which means there’s a blend of Indian, Muslim, and Chinese influence.
It’s known for its street art, and many hostels will give you maps showing you where all the most popular murals are located, so you can search them out during a self-guided walking or bike tour.
I loved the vibe of this place, and I loved the food. I spent days just wandering, visiting some of the key historical sites and museums. The heat made it a little difficult to explore, but it was so dramatically different from the other places I’d been so far that I was totally absorbed by the experience.
If you’re a backpacker, stay on Love Lane – that’s where most of the hostels are – but go further afield for the best and most authentic food. (Be warned: very spicy!) I loved nasi kandar, and as for street food – I gorged myself on samosas and I have zero regrets. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to be more adventurous than I was, of course. One thing to try is Penang white coffee. I was a huge fan. You don’t find it in Western-style cafes, but rather in the small, open-air cafe/restaurants run by locals, the ones with no menu & equipped with simple plastic tables and chairs. The coffee is sweet, has a very light taste, and is pretty strong (though not as strong as the Vietnamese stuff).
Reasons why other travelers may have had lukewarm reactions to this place: first of all, backpacker culture isn’t so huge around here, not like it is in Vietnam and Thailand. Maybe it was because I went during low season, but there were not many backpackers in Penang at all. It was quiet.
Also, accommodation is more expensive here. Not by a lot, though, and it’s offset by the fact that food and most other things are cheaper.
However, if you’re more into history and culture than partying, Malaysia has a lot to offer even outside of Kuala Lumpur. But that brings me to my next point: KL and the meager two days I spent there.
I don’t normally like visiting cities when I’m traveling – I like to live in cities, but prefer to be surrounded by natural beauty during vacations. Kuala Lumpur, though? I kind of fell in love. I ended up kicking myself for not scheduling more time there.
My number one recommendation, based on the things I did, is to visit the Islamic Art Museum. It’s one of those museums that is put together amazingly well, and is both educational & aesthetically pleasing. It covers a big variety of art: textiles (my favorite room), jewelry, weapons, architecture, photography, books, ceramics, metalwork…. The museum is gorgeous and so is everything in it. The entry fee is only 15RM, less than $4.
There are beautiful temples and mosques to check out, as well as parks, a Chinatown, and extensive street markets. Also, KL is food heaven, with Indian and Chinese being the most common cuisine. I gave cendol a try: a popular dessert made from shaved ice, coconut milk, palm sugar, rice flour jelly noodles, and sometimes other toppings, like red bean. (It looks weird, but it’s sweet, lighter than ice cream, and full of fun textures).
I had a great time in this country – and have learned my lesson about judging places in advance. Malaysia had the best food and some of the nicest people, and I would love to come back here someday.