Southeast Asia is a backpacker’s and luxury traveler’s paradise all at once. The region is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world due to its affordability, delicious eats, and boasts of options for all types of travelers. When making plans to visit Southeast Asia, most travelers head to the popular hotspots of Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and maybe even Cambodia. But it’s a missed opportunity to head all the way to these parts of the world and not visit a true hidden gem of Southeast Asia: Malaysia.
To get to Malaysia, it’s likely that you’ll fly to the capital of Kuala Lumpur. Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL) is a major hub with connecting flights to all over the globe, so finding a flight convenient for your needs should pose no issue.
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Once you exit the airport, you’ll have to head into the city which can be done either via bus or taxi. If you plan to take a taxi, download the app Grab, which is an Uber-like app in Southeast Asia (Grab works in Vietnam as well). Despite Malaysia being an affordable destination similar to other nations in the region, one sure-fire way to get ripped off is by taking an airport taxi instead of Grab. For context, I made this mistake, and my airport taxi cost 255 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) or $58 and a Grab would have been 75 MYR OR $17.
Now, where to stay? Kuala Lumpur is a luxurious city that has the ritzy feels of Dubai, but at a fraction of the cost. You can opt for a sky-rise hotel or Airbnb in the city center with a rooftop pool overlooking the Petronas Towers, often for as low as $40 per night. If you’ve always wanted a private butler but don’t have enough points or funds to pay for one, The Ritz-Carlton in Kuala Lumpur might just be the fast track to your dreams, with rooms starting at $106 per night or 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for a 2-night stay.
Make sure to hit the Batu Caves, just a short ride outside of the city. This is the temple with the infamous rainbow steps plastered all over Instagram, but don’t only go for getting the perfect shot. At the top of the 272 steps is a Hindu temple in an actual cave, hence the name. Expect to see monkeys along the way and even a small waterfall. Before you head back into the city center, make sure to grab a masala dosa from one of the many Indian restaurants in the area. Batu Caves gets extremely packed due to its popularity, so it’s recommended to get there as early as possible to avoid the crowds.
Kuala Lumpur also has a bustling Chinatown. Here, you’ll find several street food carts serving up bowls of spicy noodles, such as chili pan mee or curry mee, for less than $1 a pop. If you’re looking for a treat unique to the region, go for the gold and try durian, the stinky fruit that’s been banned on several forms of transportation around the globe. You’ll even see restaurants that have signs that say “No Durians” due to its smell resembling that of dirty gym socks.
In many parts of Kuala Lumpur, but particularly Chinatown, you can score some cheap souvenirs for yourself including sunglasses, clothes, makeup and more. Don’t go too far out of your way looking for alcohol though. Malaysia’s official religion is Islam, and though alcohol is not banned, it’s not as readily available as it is in other countries in the region. Finding a good cocktail or glass of vino near the Petronas Towers isn’t the most difficult task, but in Chinatown and other popular neighborhoods, options to grab a cold one will be fewer and farther between and might make a dent in your wallet.
Why stop at only Kuala Lumpur? Malaysia has some of the best beaches in Southeast Asia without the crowds of those in Thailand. The climate year-round is humid and hot, so adding a beach to your Malaysian itinerary only makes sense. Head to Langkawi and stay at an all-inclusive resort in Pantai Tengah. Borneo, though divided by three countries (Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia) has some of the best diving in the region. Sipadan Island off the coast of Sabah, Borneo, was once voted the top diving spot in the entire world by Scuba Diving Magazine’s Gold List. Expect to see manta rays, turtles and even some sharks.
No trip to Malaysia would be complete without a visit to the northern region of Penang. Penang has the best of both worlds: white sand, crystal-clear water beaches, and a buzzing city, George Town, with cheap eats, temples galore and rich history. Head to Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the entire country. Do some bargain-shopping and late-night eats at Batu Ferringhi Night Market. Learn about indigenous Malay flora and fauna, and take a cooking class using local ingredients at the Tropical Spice Garden. When you’ve had enough of the city, head out to an overwater bungalow at Lexis Hibiscus Port Dickson, starting at $194/night, a mere fraction of what a similar experience would cost you in the Maldives. Make sure while in Penang to grab a bite of Nasi Lemak, a fragrant coconut rice dish served with fried anchovies, peanuts and sambal, said to be the national dish of Malaysia.
So, who should consider a trip to Malaysia? Everyone! Solo travelers, families, foodies, backpackers, thrill-seekers and couples. Malaysia has something for everyone.
Related: Why you should take your family on a vacation to Malaysia
Overall, Malaysia is an affordable, colorful destination with some of the best food and beaches in the region. It’s easily accessible from other nearby nations, so what’s stopping you from adding it to your Southeast Asian bucket list?
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