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I view myself as an introvert, but not quite a homebody. I would be a liar if I said I didn’t consult r/solotravel on Reddit everyday for 3 months desperate for insight on what the experience could be like. Before I left to go solo travel Malaysia, I had so many questions, the most pertinent of which included:
- Where should I go and what should I do?
- How do I get around?
- What is the hostel experience like?
- How do I make fast friends while I travel? But also stay safe doing so?
The reality of the situation was that I suffered more in imagination than I did in reality. I managed to travel through Malaysia for 3 weeks. COVID-19 lock-downs then struck and I diverted back home to Auckland. I never realised before going how developed Malaysia has become. In my head, I was expecting it to be similar to Thailand in terms of the tourism and transport infrastructure. I was glad I was wrong on that.
Itinerary and Highlight Attractions
Day 1-4: Penang
Penang was where I had the most fun on the trip. There are so many varied attractions on the island that I would highly recommend. Top of the list is going for a hike in Penang National Park. It was beautiful, and fairly empty when I was there.
There are two popular routes, one to Turtle beach, and another to Monkey beach. The route I took, and the one I would recommend is doing the 90 min trek to Turtle beach, spending 2 hours there to rest and recuperate, then taking a jet boat to Monkey beach and chilling for 3-4 hours, then taking a jet boat back to the entrance of the National Park.
The trek itself was not too challenging, but picturesque. On Turtle beach, the beach was pristine, and there was a turtle sanctuary located there for you to visit. Monkey beach was great for a swim and monkey-watching if you’re into that. It was an entire day experience but definitely the standout for my on my entire trip.
I spent one day just walking around Georgetown, sampling the cuisine, and when I needed to taking refuge in quirky cafes that were dotted around the area. It was a nice and chill way to spend a down. There are so many sights, and Georgetown is home to many famous Penang dishes. You can easily spend a day strolling around. Then at night, Love Lane is the place to be and probably backpacker central for Penang. It’s right in the heart of Georgetown and I spent every night there and had such a blast.
The other memorable experience from Penang was going up to Penang Hill and visiting the treelike they built. It’s the newer development on Penang Hill, and if you follow the signs you’ll find it. They basically built a walkway through the treetops in a circuit, which takes around 1 hour to complete. The day I went, there weren’t many people, and the experience was breathtaking. You really do feeling like you’re in the rainforest.
It’s sensory overload with the luscious green from the diverse array of plants along the walk flooding your vision. Birds are chirping, monkeys are howling, and if butterflies fly alongside your as try to take it all in. If you’re lucky you might be able to spot some snakes, and other smaller creatures that call the treetops home. My favourite part of the experience were these massive swings they had that could fit 3 people easily. I found myself alone with one and just sat there swinging to the melody of the rainforest for what seemed like forever. The heat of the sun was masked by the canopy, so it made the activity that much more pleasurable. I probably stayed swinging for 1 hour, and if I would’ve have stayed on for hours more if I I hadn’t gone so late in the day, they close reasonably early.
Day 4-7: Langkawi
Langkawi is to Penang like Lombok is to Bali. It’s much quieter in comparison, but is an amazing place to relax and unwind. Long days at the beach are a much. The centre for backpackers is in Pantai Cenang, and while it’s a nice beach, the world-class beaches are up north and require a car. Thankfully, I was able to visit some as a part of a tour visiting the mangroves, beaches, and seeing the eagles. The tour is the most cost-effective and time-effective option. It was also the most exciting thing I did while in Langkawi. I would recommend going on the half or full day mangrove tour. Being on the back of a jet boat cruising around the inlets in the north part of an island is such a thrill and a nice change of pace from getting a tan on the beach (which I also appreciated)
Day 8-11: Ipoh
Ipoh is a drastic change in scenery compared to the islands. I spent the 3 days I had essentially wandering around for food in the old town area, and beyond. It has more of a working-city vibe, than Langkawi and Penang, and that is reflected in the travellers I met in my hostel. The younger crowd I met before did skipped over Ipoh, and I was met with a more mature group. I had good food here, but I’m not a foodie so it wasn’t quite as memorable for me.
Day 12-15: Malacca
The old town of Malacca is an absolute dream. The atmosphere on the small streets which snaked around Malacca river was bursting with energy. The most memorable experience from there was just walking through the old town. I found many quirky little cafes that offered shelter from the heat, and views up and down their famous river. The old town is dotted with attractions from Malacca’s proud trading past so it added variety to my strolls. There were a great number of museums in that area as well, and I found myself learning about their proud history. The three days I spent here went by so quickly, but I remember having such a good time just exploring their old town.
Day 16-21: Kuala Lumpur
KL has all that you’d expect from the big city. My reasons for staying 5 days was so that I could spend time catching up with an old friend. When I realised my trip had been cut-short, I did go shopping and it was a wonderful experience but not too dissimilar to my experiences shopping in Indonesia or Singapore.
My friend took me to have dinner with his family on the west-side of the Kuala Lumpur. We went to the place we did because of the sunset, and I must say it was picture perfect. They had booked a table which had an unobstructed view of the beach and the sunset.
The beach itself was a marvel to look at, teeming with wildlife, from crabs, to shellfish, to frogs, to storks with their lanky legs crowding the horizon. I vividly remember the sunset being an intense shade of orange, and storks flying in the distance on the beach during low tide. Their silhouette against the intense orange made them seem like mystical creatures, like in Pokemon how they would show a black silhouette on the Pokedex if you had never seen that Pokemon before. It was a different flavour of sunset that I had seen in other parts of Malaysia and one I’d recommend if you get the opportunity.
In that same area, we visited the fireflies at night. This involved getting on a boat after dark and navigating the river in order to find them shining on the riverbank. It was a surreal experience similar to seeing the glow-worms in NZ.
Getting around Malaysia
The bus and train systems were reliable, and were in English. They had an integrated app for transportation as well; I dare say their transportation network is leagues ahead of New Zealand and on par with the likes of Singapore and Sydney. It eliminated the friction of getting from A to B.
It was so good in fact that I went out of my way to taking public transport despite Grab begin much faster and similarly priced. The buses and trains were clean, and on time. With the app, I found it easier to navigate than the bus network in Auckland. It was a nice way to see the city and countryside, I could just stare out the window and people-watch to my heart’s content. It became an activity in its own right. The buses were air-conditioned so after visiting some distant attraction, I would relish the bus rides back into town given the 35 degree days that were common in the weeks I was there. For destinations where there wasn’t a convenient bus route, I reluctantly took a Grab which served as a wonderful plan B.
I was somewhat anxious about getting from city to city, but when I discovered the EasyBook app, all my fears were allayed. I could buy a ticket before hand, and just go to the bus terminal. The buses were super clean, and on-time. I could not have asked for anymore.
What was the hostel experience like?
I found the quality of the hostels to be quite high. At least the ones I stayed in. I must note that I did have a hard time choosing hostels for each place I went to because there were so many that were highly-rated. How I ended up differentiating amongst the shortlist at each place was through the reviews to get a sense of what the atmosphere was like. I was not looking for party hostels, only ones that had a curfew, good ratings for cleanliness, and proximity to transport or the main town. I don’t think you would think differently in choosing a hostel in Malaysia versus any other country.
Finding fast friends
This was probably the thing I fretted over most, and in hindsight, I overthought it. In terms of finding fast friends, I found it easier after realising that, at least amongst solo travellers, everyone is in the same position as you. They would probably want to find some people to hang out with too. That and the fact you’d likely never see anyone you met every again diminished the anxiety I had over starting conversations with people in my room or in the common areas in hostels.
The place I found it the most natural, surprisingly, was at the tourist attractions themselves. For example, when waiting in line to buy a ticket or when I was on an organised tour. The backpackers, for better or for worse, stick out so it was easy enough to pick my targets. The closest friends I made were the ones I met through being in the same room at our hostels. Starting with 2 or 3 of us, we would invite others we met during our stay for food at night and it made for a memorable experience.
I also had memorable interactions with Malaysian natives. The most memorable being the overnight security guard at my hostel in Penang. He got to know me and my roommate because we would go return to the hostel after the curfew so he would have to open the gates. I saw him often in the morning and got to know him a little bit. He gave me some great advice about travelling Malaysia and some wisdom along the way. I never got his name, but I am thankful for his kindness.
As I met people, I did have a voice in the back of my head preaching caution. I didn’t know these people, and while it’s easy to go-with-the-flow, common sense comes a long way. This includes when walking back at night, try not to be alone, not drinking too much, and securing all your valuables at all times. Even with people you’re comfortable with, cos you never know. It felt a bit weird doing this but I knew that it was probably the smart thing to do.
I am not sure that I would call myself a traveler. I would not be opposed to a month-or-two-long backpacking escapade, but I don’t think the three plus month adventures are for me. Even though this Malaysia trip was cut-short to 3 weeks, I found myself more exhausted and chilling out for 2 weeks after I got back to Auckland. Granted it was a mandatory chilling out period because of the self-quarantine requirements to safeguard against Covid-19. I didn’t realise how much I needed it.