Backpacking in Malaysia and Borneo
Worst hostel ever in Kuala Lumpur: Like a prison
My first day in Malaysia: It was the start of a nine month-long budget backpacking trip around Southeast Asia in March 2012 – after two years of working holidays in Australia and New Zealand. Together with a female travel mate, I spent a month just in Malaysia and Borneo. During that time, we traveled around Pulau Perhentian, Taman Negara, George Town on Pulau Penang and Kota Kinabalu and Sukau on Borneo. In total, it was an amazing backpacking tour. And probably, Malaysia is one of the easiest countries to start backpacking around Asia. The contrast to whatever western travelers are used to, is relatively small. You understand that as soon as you travel further around Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur feels like a mixture of both worlds with a good living standard, big shopping malls, good infrastructure and many people speaking English very well. At the same time, you get great cheap food and have a lot of budget options to sleep surrounded by temples, mosques, new sounds, smells, tastes and visual impressions.
But on my first day in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, I still wasn’t quite sure, what to expect. When I sat down on my bed in a hostel dorm in Kuala Lumpur without any windows in the middle of Chinatown, I felt like being in a prison. The bunk beds reminded me of what I had seen of prisons on TV. They were old and rattled with every movement. Lying in the bunk bed at night felt like being in an earthquake simulator. 16 people were sharing the room. Another 8 people had to pass the room to get to their dormitory. Maybe, I had underestimated my own braveness. I felt like laughing and crying at the same time. It was a bit of a nightmare. I hoped to be able to have enough oxygen at night. But I was too tired to leave. The room was almost clean at least. It was late already. I didn’t feel, that I had much of a choice. I got the hostel bed for three Euros per night. A good deal, because Malaysia is not the cheapest country in Southeast Asia. Probably, I tried to safe too much. But there were still other adventures to pay for…
Find airport transport and hostels in Malaysia
- Find better hostels in Malaysia with Hostelbookers, Hostelworld and get more information about airport transportation here
Malaysia: Great country for backpacking
In general, Malaysia is a great country for backpacking, also for solo female travelers. Malaysia is also a perfect country for a first backpacking trip, being cosmopolitan, modern, traditional and mystic at the same time. The public transport is reliable, the food fantastic. English is spoken by the majority of the population as one official language. It’s cheap to get around and to stay in hostels and hotels.
With interesting architecture, exotic landscapes, rainforests, history, peaceful living together of people of several religions, cheap street food, paradise hippie beaches and hip bars and clubs, Malaysia offers a few good reasons for backpackers to spend some time there. Not to forget Borneo. But be aware: There are some scams waiting for travelers…
Kuala Lumpur: Ecstasy for all senses
Kuala Lumpur was a colorful mix of smells, buildings, noises, tastes and sounds. All my senses were switched on on the highest level to soak in the new impressions between temples, mosques, glamorous shopping malls, the high Petrona towers and great street food stalls full of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian food in front of markets and run down buildings.
The food in Malaysia was incredibly cheap and in my opinion the best food in all Asia. Me and my travel mate loved the great fresh fruit juices and were just amazed by everything, that Asia had to offer. I hadn’t expected it to me so impressive.
Malay, Chinese and Indian people together
It was very interesting to see Malay, Chinese and Indian people living together, the colorful scarfs of the Muslim ladies and the modern dresses of the Chinese. The ones praying at Mosques, the others visiting Hindu temples. It felt peaceful.
Some friends from Malaysia told me much later, that although most people mingle and have friends of other religion and cultural backgrounds, there are also tensions between the different groups within the society. The Malay people are the majority in Malaysia and have therefore more political power. But some interests between the two groups differ. That is what some Chinese Malaysian friends told me.
Batu Caves: Gangster monkeys in the garbage
It was almost unbearably hot in Malaysia in March. While backpacking around Malaysia, it took me more than two weeks to adjust to the climate at least a little. Whoever was looking at me saw a white sweaty woman with a red face and wet hair. I hated the heat so much.
The end of March was the end of the wet season in many parts of Malaysia. It was not the best time for traveling around Malaysia. But sometimes, you cannot pick the date for your travels. The only big advantage of that time of the year was, that we didn’t have any problems finding accommodation, no matter where we went on our backpacking trip around Malaysia.
But what I hated even more than the heat were the monkeys rummaging though the smelling garbage at the famous Batu Caves. I hated the monkeys. They were unpredictable. They were gangsters without any moral. They were pickpocketers and grabbed every eatable thing out of the tourists’ hands and pockets. I was seriously a little afraid of them. I didn’t have any rabies vaccination and really didn’t want to be close to them. So I wasn’t really able to enjoy the Batu caves. But I was impressed by the height. The Batu Caves are clearly one of the sights on everyone’s list while visiting Kuala Lumpur. It was the first really impressive Asian piece of historical architecture, that I ever saw. I didn’t know, that there were more and much more monuments, statues and temples following during my travels.
First Couchsurfing experience in Kuala Lumpur
The plan was to do couchsurfing in Kuala Lumpur with some locals on our backpacking trip around Malaysia. The problem was, that we didn’t find any local hosts, just Expats. But we still had some outstanding experiences. The first couchsurfing event took us to the Changkat Bukit Bintang, a popular upmarket night life area.
In Changkat Bukit Bintang, we were staying in the apartment of a British Expat high in the sky on the 24th floor with a pool in the garden – all surrounded by gates and a security guard, that we had to pass every day to get into the lift. He was lazy as hell and most of the times, he didn’t feel like moving fast to get the lift down for us.
Kuala Lumpur: Couchsurfing with Expats
We stayed two days in that couchsurfing place in Changkat Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur. We met more and more Expats in a pub like sports bar and a nightclub with Latin sounds, where our couchsurfing host wastaking us to. The guys were obviously working hard in tough jobs, but got drunk as hell in the evenings. Me and my travel mate took part. Smoking, drinking, dancing, talking to some expat strangers, that all seem to live a pretty dull city life with too much alcohol in always the same places.
Me and my travel mate both enjoyed it for one night, but I knew, that I would get bored with that lifestyle after a few weeks. Some of the expats were living like that for years. Many of their flats didn’t show any personal touch. They were minimalist and empty. Ridiculous luxury around. Creativity was missing. I understood much later during my travels how easy it is to lose oneself in such an expat life.
Couchsurfing in a gated community
The second couchsurfing experience in Kuala Lumpur took us to a flat of soccer players from Togo playing for some Malaysian team. They lived in a gated community outside of the town center. And they were as nice and open-minded and friendly as the British expats. But they also lived in a totally different world from what I knew. When we went to a club in the evening, they ordered champagne, that I sipped while staring stunned at some baby shark, that was swimming in an aquarium on top of the bar. It was crazy. And I got the feeling, that no one except from me and my travel mate seemed to bother.
Nonetheless, it was super interesting to understand how life in Kuala Lumpur felt for them as foreigners and how it felt to me swimming in a pool in a gated community.
Great public transport in Malaysia
It was easy to get by bus to the Cameron Highlands. In general, I experienced the public transport in Malaysia being comfortable, cheap and reliable. Well, you always have the option to pay a little more for more comfort. The first time at the bus station, we just didn’t know, that people had sold us the most expensive tickets on a VIP bus. We were simply lying like little princesses in our seats.
It is easy for backpackers to get around without too much planing. Traveling in low season, we just went to the bus station one day in advance to get information about ticket prices and times. There were a few different bus companies selling tickets at the station.
- Get an overview about public transport in Malaysia
Tanah Ratah: Freezing in the Cameron Highlands
The Cameron Highlands are a popular tourist destination. It’s one of these places, that travelers try not to miss while backpacking in Malaysia. The lush green scenery full of tea plantations set on little hills is beautiful. And the temperatures are much lower than in hot and sticky Kuala Lumpur. During the day, the temperature seldom rises above 25°C; at night, it can drop to as low as 12°C. I was just happy to be able to breathe properly again.
Camaron Highlands: Sleeping in Daniel’s Lodge
In the Cameron Highlands, I stayed in Daniel’s Lodge in Tanah Ratah. In 2016, it didn’t get the best reviews on hostel booking sites. To be honest, it had been rated bad for being dirty and having unfriendly staff. But it is a cheap solution for backpackers on a tight budget traveling for a few months, who are happy about a cheap place to sleep.
I had a really good time in Daniel’s Lodge meeting interesting travelers of all ages. Much more experienced people than I had met traveling in Australia and New Zealand. I was happy not to have to deal with some stupid ignorant especially German teenagers anymore in their gap years between school and studying something like business at university. And I was also happy to carry my own sleeping bag as temperatures dropped during the night.
Visiting the tea plantations: Tours or independent hike?
Everywhere, agencies offered tours around tea plantations and the area. It’s strange: You can easily spend ridiculous amounts of money on package sightseeing tours in a country with an average household income outside of Kuala Lumpur of 5000 Ringit per month.
- Read details about the average income in Malaysia.
But if you are on a tight budget, it is easy enough to take a public bus or even taxi to get closer to the tea plantations and hiking paths across the tea plantations. There is no need to pay for a tour to get a feeling for the area. We had a wonderful time walking for a few hours through the jungle and watching the employees of the plantation harvesting tea.
In the café of Boh Tea Plantation, the biggest tea producer in Malaysia, it was all set up in a very modern way for the tour groups arriving in buses. I found the teas and cakes not so cheap, but the tour around the factory was for free. In the evening, we just took the bus back to Tanah Ratah. Taxis are available as well.
More things to see in the Cameron Highlands
What else is to see in the Cameron Highlands:
- Gunung (Mount) Brinchang. At 6,666 feet above sea level, this is the highest point in Malaysia which is accessible by car. Parit Waterfall, which you can reach by foot from Tanah Rata.
- Another attraction is the butterfly garden, which is located 3 kilometers northwards of Brinchang and costs a small entrance fee.
Discover history in modern George Town (Penang)
George Town is really worth a stopover. It is the biggest city on the island Penang. Rich history, colorful old houses, temples, mosques and the sea are attracting quite a few tourists. There is a mystic flair around. Moreover, George Town is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Sight. Always a reason for more tourists to show up.
Sightseeing stops, that I recommend:
- The Clan Jetties as traces of the Chinese history in George Town. But be careful: Many people call it nowadays just a big tourist market with lot’s of souvenir stalls around. It wasn’t my impression, when I was there. But things can change …
- Temples and Mosques: Kuan Yin Teng, Kaptian Kelling Mosque and Kheo Kongsi and the largest Buddhist Temple in Southeast Asia Kek Lok Si
- Get more ideas about things to see on Penang on Malaysia’s official tourism website.
Perhentian Island: Entering backpacker’s paradise
It could have been travelers’ paradise. The Perhentian Islands consists of Perhentian Kecil and Perhentian Besar. Especially the smaller one Perhentian Kecil is well-known for being a backpackers heaven. White sand, Bamboo huts at the beach, palm trees offering shade, sun beds in exchange for drinks, backpackers drinking Thai beers in the sunset and smoking shishas. And in the nights, we were making new international friends and dancing together around a bomb fire right at the ocean.
Generators were droning for a few hours every day to produce electricity for the fans and lamps at night. Restaurants served their meals at tables right at the beach. The jungle attracts with colors and sounds.
Perhentian Islands: Baby sharks on snorkeling trips
And to the ones, who are not there for diving with one of the dive schools on the Perhentian Islands, snorkeling tours offer chances to watch turtles and 1,5 meter long sharks swimming just next to you above colorful corals in turquoise water. At first; I was very afraid to jump into the water. But when I saw, that the sharks didn’t bite the Malaysian snorkeling guides, I jumped in and felt super brave.
The Perhentian Islands: No beauty forever
It all could have been great on the Perhentian Islands. But no overcrowded popular paradise can keep its beauty forever. Inside the jungle, there were machines working on more and more concrete buildings for more and more travelers coming to the Perhentian Islands to pay much more than a simple bamboo hut costs. I was happy to have seen it in 2012 as I can imagine, that things have changed for the worse. It had already not been the cheapest place on earth back then.
On the Perhentian Islands, there were no cheap street food stalls. Restaurant prices were higher than for example in Kuala Lumpur. Beers did cost almost the same as in European bars. And next to the cheap huts, a few upmarket hotels had already opened their doors. I still really enjoyed my time on Pulau Perhentian. I loved to stay in the simple bamboo hut. I loved the atmosphere. And I didn’t mind spending a bit more money on drinks and food for a few days. And me and my travel mate stayed much longer than we thought.
How to get to Perhentian Kecil:
Scammed by a bus driver on the way
We went from Gorgetown/Penang directly to the Jetty Kuala Besut by night bus, from where a fast boat should take us to the islands at sunrise. The fare for the boat is 70 Ringit. With our backpacks, it was just an additional 15 minute walk across the island to the backpacker beach called Long Beach.
It all could have been very easy. But beware of scams on the way! We had bad luck: Malaysia’s most greedy bus driver took us from Georgetown to the Jetty Kuala Besut. We had bought a ticket directly to the Jetty of Kuala Besut. But the bus driver then stopped 17 kilometers away from Kuala Besut. It was early morning and still dark outside. The bus driver woke up all the backpackers and made them leave the bus. Of course, we all didn’t know, where we were. We were four people in total. The bus driver refused to answer any questions about where we were. But there was already a taxi waiting for stupid tourists…
The taxi was already waiting for the stupid tourists
The bus driver just pointed to a taxi. Obviously his friend. He explained to us, that we had to continue our trip to Kuala Besut by taxi for an additional amount of money. The other travelers were tired and already on the way to carry their luggage to the taxi. I refused. I understood relatively quickly, that this was not right. I asked the other passengers in the bus about what was going on. Silence. No one helped us.
I became a bit louder talking to the bus driver and pointing at my ticket, which clearly said “Jetty Kuala Besut”. The louder I became, the less English he understood. It took another five minutes until he put back our luggage into the bus and told us to take our seats again. Without any further problems or discussions, he drove the bus to the Jetty of Kuala Besut. He and his friend clearly wanted to earn some extra money with some “stupid tourists”.
To be honest, I experienced stuff like that a few times in Malaysia. For example on Borneo, where a bus driver of a local bus tried to charge us double the price than any other passenger. But that time, the other passengers gave us support, when we refused to pay.
“Jungle train” from Kota Bharu to Jerantut
After a few days, we left the Perhentian Islands. We wanted to go to Jerantut to explore the jungle of Taman Negara, the world’s oldest rain forest. From Kuala Besut Jetty, we first had to go to Kota Bharu to catch Jungle train to Jerantut. Recommended as a scenic train ride, it shows you the destruction of the Jungle to its utmost: 8 hours of passing palm oil plantations. From Jerantut, we went by bus closer to the rain forest Taman Negara.
The train to Jerantut drove terribly slow, but like that, you could observe the market stalls, the children walking home I their school uniforms and the landscape. The train windows were terribly dirty. But we were able to see enough not to fall asleep.
Jerantut: All eyes on us
When we arrived in Jerantut, everyone was watching us. Obviously, there were not enough tourists around to lose interest in each western traveler. We were able to get cheap spicy food and to buy some toilet paper before a minibus was taking us to Kuala Tahan, the touristy head quarter of Taman Negara. Two hours later, we saw the river with its swimming restaurants in Kuala Tahan. It was authentic, interesting and far from being threatened by mass tourism. I really liked it. Unluckily, we didn’t have a lot of time to fully enjoy the scenery. We had spent too much time on Pulau Perhentian.
So we just went on really small hikes in Taman Negara, enjoyed the Canopy walk high above the ground on hanging bridges. Well, on the half-paved tourists walks, we obviously didn’t see any great wild life. But it was better than nothing. And I was happy to have caught the atmosphere of the oldest still existing rain forest I this world.
Borneo: Totally sick in Kota Kinabalu
It is said, that everyone traveling Asia will get terribly sick sooner or later. I had this experience in Kota Kinabalu on Borneo. It was probably food poisoning, although my travel mate, who ate in the same restaurant with me, was feeling perfectly fine. We had checked in into this cheap anonymous Gaya hostel right in the boring city center of Kota Kinabalu. It is probably one of the most boring towns in whole Asia. There is no reason to stay there for long. Well, as long as you are fit enough to move.
We had dinner at a really nice restaurant. Just a few hours later, I was sure not to be able to survive the night. I was basically lying on the ground of the bathroom on our hotel floor for the whole night. It was a bathroom, that all hotel guests should share. That night, it was just mine. I was too weak to move. Terribly sick. I had never ever experienced a feeling like that before.
At the doctor in Kota Kinabalu: Nurses in pink dresses
The next day, I could hardly stand upright, but had to go to the doctor. I felt as if there was no millilitre of liquid left in my body. On one ear, I was almost deaf. I found an English-speaking medical practice. They put me on the drip immediately. The nurses were wearing short pink dresses. It all looked clean and modern. And the bill was as exclusive as the whole practice. I was happy, that my travel insurance would cover the costs. After having broken my leg in Australia, this was the second time, when I was happy to have a health insurance on my trip. It took around three days until I was fit enough to leave Kota Kinabalu.
Trip to the longhouses: Nerve wracking adventure
My guidebook had described it as a nice day trip: The longhouses of Kudat, formerly home to the Rungus people, Malaysia’s natives. But traveling to Kudat was totally stupid. We tried to get there by public transport. That was almost impossible. It totally got on our nerves to go three hours by bus on bad roads. In Kudat, no one seemed to speak English. No one could or wanted to explain to us, how to get to the longhouses. People were looking at us as we were aliens.
Obviously, most other people go the longhouses of Kudat with tour groups. For a reason. While we were eating very spicy food, a taxi driver offered us a deal to get to the longhouses. We went with him. But we were just disappointed about what we saw. It was not a lot more than a museum house. A leftover of the past preserved and well marketed. Nice, but probably not worth spending 6 hours on the bus and even paying a taxi. It would have been better just to have watched some pictures. You can obviously also sleep in some longhouses and get to see some folk dance shows. No thanks. I had enough.
Borneo: Better rent a car!
During our whole time on Borneo, we realized, that we should have rented our own car. The public transport on Borneo is not as great as on Malaysia’s mainland. We had to accept a lot of compromises to get from A to B. Often, we also had to hitchhike, which often didn’t work without paying the driver or to ask local people to give us a ride. Sometimes, we had to take taxis.
Of course, it was all fun, we were not in a rush and we were traveling. But the next time on Borneo, I’ll probably get my own car to be more independent.
Sukau: Most special place on Borneo
Sukau is a cool place to visit on Borneo. But as soon as we stepped out of the bus at the “Sukau Junction” after a 6 hours ride from Kota Kinabalu, the clouds were bursting. It started to rain heavily. We and our luggage were wet within seconds. At the at the “Sukau Junction”, we had to wait for a local bus taking us the last kilometers to Sukau. And there really was a bus coming after a few minutes. We got in there completely wet. Even if I was wet and not very amused about the rain, Sukau was for me the most special place on Borneo.
In Sukau, I loved the views on the river Sugai Kinabatangan, the houses on stalks, the walks across the jungle, the boat trip on the river to watch monkeys jumping from tree to tree. It was raining pretty much all the time during our stay there, although it was warm and we were not wearing more than t-shirt and shorts.
Monkeys jumping from tree to tree
In Sukau, not everything was just great. Me and my travel mate cried at least once a day, whenever a blood sucking worm got stuck at an arm or leg. The jungle was full of insects. Most of them, we didn’t like a lot. Especially those, who were hanging at our body after a walk through the nature.
There were not many tourists around. The whole town consisted of a few unpaved roads and wooden houses, restaurants, guesthouses and a grocery store. In Sukau, time seems to stand still. The living standard seemed pretty low in comparison to the glamorous city life of Kuala Lumpur. It was a big contrast even to Kota Kinabalu. But it seemed as real and beautiful as not many things in tourist places.
We had pretty much the free choice in which guesthouse to stay. We picked a low-budget one with all meals included and being served on the porch. It was very nice, clean and a perfect place to chill a few days. Unfortunately, we hadn’t seen any Orang-Utans on the river cruise, which is for many people the main reason to visit Sukau. And instead of elephants, we just saw elephant poo.
Kota Kinabalu: Scammed in the tourist information
There were cheap guesthouses and backpackers places everywhere in Sukau. But when we had asked for information about accomodation there in the tourist information in Kota Kinabalu, the staff of the tourist information seriously tried to scam us. They seriously tried to make us believe, that all cheap hostels in Sukau had burned down and that we needed to book with them an extremely expensive hotel for around 100 Euros per night and to travel to Sukau with an expensive tour bus.
They said, that all accommodations listed in the lonely planet guidebook didn’t exist anymore. They seriously lied into our faces and told us bullshit like that. We found that extremely strange and wondered how much the expensive hotel was paying them to try to bring foreign backpackers. Luckily, we didn’t believe them for a minute and just left that stupid place. Of course, they didn’t tell us anything about public bus timetables, either. We had to ask at the local bus station to get any transport information.
Hitchhiking to Mount Kinabalu
Leaving Sukau again was not as easy as getting there. A friend of the hostel owner was driving us from Sukau back to the main road, from where we should have been able to catch a bus to Kota Kinabalu National Park. Me, my travel mate and some other travelers were waiting and waiting. After a couple of hours, we understood, that there was obviously no bus coming.
We started to hitch hike. That is not a very popular concept in Malaysia. And whoever gave us a ride during our stay in Borneo expected to get paid for that – even if having offered the ride for free in the beginning. That happened to us a few times. We got used to that and just tried to take it easy as it was sometimes the only way to get transport.
- Get information about Mount Kinabalu National Park.
Great time in Malaysia: Ready to see Southeast Asia
I spend almost a month in Malaysia and Borneo. It was totally worth traveling there. I left Malaysia with a lot of new impressions, had felt new flavors, seen new colors and had learnt to tell unfair bus drivers to fuck off. I learned, that there are some good doctors in Malaysia and that you can survive food poisoning. But I also understood, that you cannot trust everyone and that there are some scams waiting. Trust yourself and your instincts! But there will still be a lot of strange things happen. I made at least some steps into the right direction. I was ready to see the rest of Southeast Asia.