Backpacking Malaysia is a rewarding experience with this tropical Southeast Asian country home to some amazing beaches and nature, as well as some historic towns and cities. Our Malaysia backpacking route takes in the best the country has to offer from its modern capital Kuala Lumpur to stunning remote island destinations that are often shunned by backpackers in favour of neighbouring Thailand.
Backpacking Malaysia – Route Info
TIME NEEDED – 3 WEEKS
This Malaysia itinerary is for 3 weeks which should be sufficient time to get a good all-round experience in the 8 destinations that are outlined below. It covers the best Peninsular Malaysia has to offer. However if you also want to travel to the considerably more rural and remote East Malaysia (Borneo), you’ll need to take a flight and allow for much more time.
POSSIBLE SHOESTRING BUDGET – £520 | €600 | $600 | 2800 RINGGIT
Malaysia is a really affordable country to visit and a good destination for shoestring travellers. While everyone’s style of travel is different, budget backpackers might look at around $30/day as a reasonable benchmark figure to have in mind. If you’re looking for a bit more luxury or like to drink (alcohol is slightly more expensive in Muslim majority Malaysia when compared to most Southeast Asian countries), then you may want to budget for a bit more.
Malaysia has one of the most relaxed visa policies in the world. As of November 2022, visitors from the EU, UK, USA, Canada, Australia and a large number of other countries can enter for 90 days visa-free. In addition, citizens of 95 other countries and territories including all ASEAN countries (except Myanmar) can enter for 30 days without a visa. Both should be more than sufficient if you’re following our Malaysia backpacking route. However some nationals (including Indian and Chinese) must apply for an eVisa to enter Malaysia.
TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR BACKPACKERS IN MALAYSIA
The cost of travel insurance isn’t included in the budget figures above. If you require travel insurance for backpacking Malaysia, check out SafetyWing’s travel medical insurance which starts at just $42 per 4 week period for 18-39 year olds (it’s more if you’re 40+) covering all of Southeast Asia.
Note that this price level does not cover some “high risk” adventure activities. If you think you may require more extensive coverage, this rundown of the best travel insurance companies for backpackers may help.
MALAYSIA BACKPACKING JOBS & WORK EXCHANGES
You can save money whilst travelling in Malaysia by looking for work exchanges or short-term jobs. Sign up to Worldpackers to get access to 18 work exchanges in Malaysia (at time of writing). You can get $10 off the annual membership fee by using the Worldpackers discount code “MYFUNKYTRAVELWP”.
Backpacking Malaysia – A 3 Week Itinerary
For anyone looking to spend 3 weeks in Malaysia, flying into Kuala Lumpur International Airport is the obvious first step. However, given the airport is a distant 55 km from the centre of the Malaysian capital, you don’t necessarily have to start your Malaysian adventure in Kuala Lumpur itself and for this route, we’d suggest heading to nearby Malacca first and then working your way north.
Malacca is a good introduction to the cultural diversity that exists in this country. Located in the very heart of the city, Chinatown is a good starting point with the famous Jonker Street night market (open Friday, Saturday & Sunday) a great place for food, shopping and evening entertainment. The city is also home to a number of temples and quirky museums including the Malaysia Prison Museum and the Cheng Ho Cultural Museum.
2. Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur is an essential stop on any Malaysia travel route and also features in our main Southeast Asia itinerary. One of the largest and fastest growing cities in the region, Kuala Lumpur isn’t quite as wild as Bangkok, but it has a bit more personality and character than Singapore which some visitors find quite sterile.
The city’s most recognisable landmark, the twin Petronas Towers point to its serious business side, but away from the financial districts, KL is a city with plenty to see and do. Highlights include the Petaling Street flea market and the Batu Caves, said to be around 400 million years old.
3. Cameron Highlands
At between 1100 and 1800 metres above sea level, the Cameron Highlands is a sizable region of Malaysia that offers a pleasant escape from the heat of the cities and other low-lying areas in a country that is situated very close to the equator.
The region is known for its rolling green hills, tea plantations, forests and waterfalls. Locals tend to flock here at the weekends but you can often find the many trails and routes nearly deserted during the week.
The island of Penang is situated to the northwest of the Malaysian mainland, to which it is connected by a couple of long bridges. At its heart is George Town, one of the main cultural centres in Malaysia that is known for its diverse and colourful history.
Today, British, Chinese, Malay and Indian influences are all very evident. Its old town is a curious mix of colonial era buildings, Chinese stores, curry houses and mosques. It’s a busy place with over 200,000 people living in the city itself and more than 2 million in the wider area, but you can get a bird’s eye view of it all by taking the tram up to Penang Hill which also offers trails into the surrounding rainforest.
The second half of this Malaysia itinerary is the more relaxing section with the archipelago of Langkawi a great place to unwind on one of its many beaches or resorts if your budget stretches to slightly higher-end accommodation, most of which offer pools.
Consisting of 99 islands, Langkawi is a duty free area which has massively contributed to the rise of tourism in recent decades and there are many shopping malls where you can find bargain goods. There are also many tour companies here offering everything from island cruises and yacht voyages to jungle treks and mangrove tours.
6. Kota Bharu
It’s a long old journey from Langkawi to Kota Bharu and you’ll first need to make your way back to the mainland with ferry services to Kuala Kedah and Kuala Perlis. Depending on transport schedules, you may need or want to stay an extra night somewhere en-route as Kota Bharu is located on the opposite Eastern Coast of Malaysia (South China Sea).
The riverside town of Kota Bharu is perhaps only worth visiting for a day but there are plenty of small museums and interesting places where you can learn about the local Kelantanese culture. The best of which is perhaps Istana Jahar, a former royal residence converted into a museum.
7. Perhentian Islands
The Perhentian Islands is one of Malaysia’s best beach destinations with much clearer and nicer waters than you find in Langkawi. Their relative remoteness and lack of an airport ensures they don’t receive huge numbers of visitors so you will be very much rewarded for making the effort to get here with the kind of small island paradise that is harder to find in Southeast Asia these days.
There are two main islands – Pulau Perhentian Besar and Pulau Perhentian Kecil. The latter is smaller and more popular with backpackers in Malaysia thanks to its greater range of budget accommodation whereas Besar is slightly pricier and tends to cater more to families.
This is very much a seasonal destination though with Perhentian popular between February and October but severely affected by the monsoon season from November to January when much of the island shuts down and the choppy seas can make swimming dangerous.
8. Taman Negara
Unless you are heading north to Thailand (see our Thai backpacking route for a bit of inspiration), you will most likely need to head back to Kuala Lumpur for any onward travel and Taman Negara is a worthy stop along the way.
This is a vast national park which features rainforests and some amazing canopy walkways. From those, you can get a glimpse of the wildlife in the area which includes everything from water buffalos, sun bears and monkeys to the distinctive Malayan tapirs which are native to the region.
Malaysia Map & Itinerary Overview
Malaysia is good for backpacking in the sense that you can fairly easily design a loop around the peninsular part of the country. You could start and end at any point but Kuala Lumpur or nearby Malacca is the obvious choice given their proximity to the country’s main airport.
Our suggested Malaysia itinerary starts in Malacca before heading to Kuala Lumpur which is not a backpacking mecca to the extent of Bangkok for example, but it is a large city where you can buy anything you need for your onward travels. It then heads north until you reach Langkawi before crossing to the other side of the Peninsular and then heading back towards KL which may be convenient for anyone with a return flight. You may want to consider adding in another destination or two to break up the journey between Langkawi and Kota Bharu, or after Taman Negara on your way back to the capital.
Another option would be to first fly to Singapore, spend a few days there and then head north to Malacca which is only around 240 km north of the city state before continuing your travels in Malaysia.
Malaysia Backpacking Route – How long to spend in each place?
|2||Kuala Lumpur||3 Days|
|3||Cameron Highlands||2-3 Days|
|6||Kota Bharu||1 Day|
|7||Perhentian Islands||3-5 Days|
|8||Taman Negara||1-2 Days|
This route would be relatively easy to tailor to your time restrictions. 10 days isn’t enough to see all of Malaysia but it would be sufficient to travel from Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi whilst taking in the Cameron Highlands and Penang, two of the country’s travel highlights. At a push, you could even squeeze that into a one week Malaysia itinerary but it might be wise to skip one of those places in that case.
A one month Malaysia itinerary would give you a lot more flexibility and would also allow you time to head over to Borneo. After completing the route above or something similar, you will need to take a flight with direct services between Kuala Lumpur and Borneo airports such as Kota Kinabalu (Sabah), Kuching (Sarawak) and or Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of the tiny nation of Brunei.
From any of those places, you can start a Malaysia Borneo backpacking route which may also include stops in the likes of Kudat, Ranau, Kundasang and Kinabatangan. Those looking for a real adventure would be wise to consider Borneo but travel can be slow and frustrating in what is a considerably less developed region. Visiting would also allow you to combine backpacking Malaysia and Indonesia given the two countries share what is the largest island in Asia and third largest in the world.
Check out all our Asia backpacking routes!
southeast asia | thailand | myanmar | vietnam | laos | indonesia | cambodia | philippines | india | taiwan | sri lanka | japan | malaysia
This Malaysia backpacking route was published in November 2022.