What I Did: 3 nights in Kuala Lumpur, 2 nights in the Cameron Highlands, 5 nights on Perhentian Kecil, 1 night in Penang
Overall: Malaysia was one of the best trips of my life. It was part of a larger, two month trip through Southeast Asia, but taken on its own we found was a fantastic mix of urban excitement, jungle adventure, and beach bliss. I was charmed by each and every stop on our itinerary and think we got a great sampler of peninsular Malaysia.
Kuala Lumpur is a must for the majority of those traveling in and out of the country. We came here for a visa and while it wasn’t my favorite city of all time, we had fun times at the Menara Tower, the aquarium, and braving public transit and dodgy accommodation.
The Cameron Highlands were a breath of clean, cool air. We only stayed one full day but it was jam packed with waterfall swimming, tea plantation crashing and finding the largest flower on earth.
The Perhentians were a dream. Fantastic diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and all the other oddities and surprises of a set of small islands in the gulf of Thailand.
Getting around: Malaysia gave me more transportation terror than any country I have ever visited, yet somehow we arrived everywhere we were meant to, more or less on time. I recommend checking and rechecking whatever ticket you have, as many cities have many bus stations and the buses make multiple stops that are not always clearly announced. In Kuala Lumpur public transportation is a challenge but a welcome one to the alternative to expensive cab rides.
Food and Drink: Western and European cuisine is much harder to come by in Malaysia than in neighboring Thailand, with the exception of the ubiquitous Mcdonalds in major cities. So spicy Malaysian food it was, with the exception of the ubiquitous beach barbecue in the Perhentians. At one roadside restaurant we were surprised to see that we were not offered utensils until we looked around and saw everyone was eating with their hands! Alcohol is available but a bit harder to come by, considering this is a Muslim country.
I had less encounters with locals in Malaysia that in any other country on my trip. I’m not sure why, though I would guess that the language and religion barrier had a hand in it. One exception was our amazing tour guide in the Cameron Highlands who filled us in on the history of the country, and clued us in to the fact that the numerous burka wearing women in Kuala Lumpur were likely not Malaysian but tourists from the Middle East who prefer to vacation in other Muslim countries.
Money: Travelers coming from other Southeast Asian countries will be surprised at the expense of Malaysia. In my opinion most things were worth the extra ringitts- the attractions were spectacular and the activities, like hiking and diving, were also fantastic. However in terms of food, drink, and accommodation you will be surprised how little you get for your money. The conditions we stayed in were pretty laughable at times. Just pad the budget a bit!
Safety: We had one incident on Palau Perhentian where someone tried to open our door at night while we were sleeping. Luckily, I travel with an ex marine bodyguard at all times. Unluckily, the room were staying in had a bent rusty nail as a locking device. I didn’t think much of it at the time but upon arriving home read some disturbing tales of break ins from single female travelers. I honestly felt safe my entire trip through Malaysia but I wonder if I would have felt differently traveling along.
Good to know: As I’ve mentioned a few times, Malaysia is officially a Muslim country. I knew this before arrival and moved my short shorts to the back of the backpack but I did not realize that bare shoulders were a no-no as well. Saying that now I feel a bit silly, but I plead ignorance and I smartened up quickly, finding myself much more comfortable dressed as modestly as possible. Obviously the islands are an exception, but if you are heading to Kuala Lumpur or the deeply religious East Coast I would pack accordingly. I think its always better to air on the side of caution when it comes to being respectful to local culture.