When I was in Phong Nha, I met a French girl who had been travelling in Malaysia before making her way to Vietnam. I was excited to ask her what she thought of it -- I had heard great things about it and hadn't met a lot of travellers on the backpacker circuit who'd been there.
"It was horrible," she said. "I was travelling with some of my girlfriends there and we felt so uncomfortable. Everyone stared at us like we were whores."
I wondered what she and her friends were wearing, but she insisted they were dressed fine. Her remark made me nervous, so before boarding my bus from Singapore to Malacca, I pulled out the long, ankle-length black skirt and loose white tunic blouse from my backpack and hoped for the best.
It turns out I had nothing to worry about, because although I did opt to wear clothes that cover a little bit more during my time in Malaysia during certain parts of my travels, I found the country to be exceptionally welcoming and the people incredibly nice and hospitable. No one looked at me like I was a whore (even in shorts and a tank top) but I also don't go around making eye contact with people (especially men) anywhere to know how they're looking at me. I remember being in Budapest back in 2001 on my first backpacking adventure around Eastern Europe and wandering down some random street in search of an Internet café. After a few lecherous looks from men as I made my way down the street, I thought, hmmm, this is different than being in Santa Barbara or San Francisco. Maybe I shouldn't make eye contact with the men here? Later, after travelling in India, I read Holy Cow (a great read on the India experience, btw) and the author wrote that in India, prostitutes and non-prostitute women dress the same (in traditional saris), so men identify prostitutes because they're the women who look them in the eye. Point taken.
Anyway, since I was neither dressed in skimpy clothes revealing lacy bras or my actual butt cheeks, nor was I going around intentionally trying to look people in the eye to see how they were looking at me (I mean, you wouldn't walk around NYC or SF or anywhere like that, right?), I found no trouble at all. In fact, when I did make eye contact with people -- and usually it was with women, often Muslim women -- they smiled at me! I'd be smiling at their adorable kid, look up and we'd smile at each other. So, I don't know whether the French girl happened to go to far more conservative places in Malaysia (which is completely possible; there are some very Muslim-majority places where you really do have to be covered and might be stared at for being a non-married woman-of-a-certain-age and/or a white woman) but for the few places I travelled to, I found no issues whatsoever, and in many ways, felt it to be the most welcoming country I'd been to thus far.
If you are a women travelling solo, I would actually like to encourage you to travel to Malaysia because I found nothing but helpfulness, respect, and kindness from the Malaysian men and women, at guesthouses, restaurants, bus stations, while wandering the streets lost in Kuala Lumpur. And one thing I do find useful as a woman travelling solo, especially in certain cultures that maybe do have a bit of an inherent chauvinism/misogyny to them, is to ask women (usually ones working in a shop) for help first, such as where is the ATM or where can I find the bus ticketing counters or what street are we on because I am hopelessly lost and have been wandering around for 30 minutes in a circle?
Anyway, Malaysia is a wonderful place and a little off everyone's radars I think. Which is maybe a good thing because it means I can come back and have it all to myself again, and just share it with the few other awesome travellers I met during this segment of my journey.
Where I went
Lonely Planet didn't have a strong opinion or a strong sell on Malacca, so I was tempted to skip it. But after googling things like "Top Places To Go in Malaysia," the town kept appearing on lists. I'm so glad I went because I was instantly smitten with this little riverside town. About two hours between both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, it's a popular weekend getaway for those city residents, and filled with a great mix of European-esque cafés, local dining and cute boutiques, as well as tons of history for me to nerd out on. The cost of entry to the Stadthuys complex was not too expensive (one ticket permits entry into several small museums), I think it was around $1.50. Same for the entry to the old Sultan palace.
Bus from Singapore to Malacca: $19 (I can't remember which bus company I used, I just went to the bus station near my hostel and picked one)
Bus from Malacca to Kuala Lumpur: $3 (even the woman at my guesthouse was shocked at how cheap this was, but the bus creaked like it was going to fall apart the entire ride, so maybe that's why?)
I wish I had had more time here, because there were some places I didn't get to go to, such as the Islamic Arts Museum and the street filled with the local food vendors. There was also this special hamburger an entire issue of Time Out KL was devoted to called a Ramly Burger, and had I had more time, I would have ventured out to procure one. I enjoyed fleeing from the monkeys at Batu Caves, indulging in the icy cold air at the enormous shopping malls, eating some delicious food, and checking out the Textile Museum. Entry to the main temple at the Batu Caves and the Textile Museum were my favorite price -- free! Getting around on the subway and commuter train was between 1.20-3RM per ride (so less than $1.50).
Bus from Kuala Lumpur to Tanah Rata: $8
Tanah Rata/Cameron Highlands
The best part about this destination: it's cold! Not like really cold. Just about 10 degrees colder than anywhere else in SE Asia, and lacking the humidity, too. So cold that at night you might want, like, an extra layer! The worst part about this destination: the reason you've come here -- it's cold! -- is the reason everyone else in Malaysia comes here. As a result, the area has sadly been over-developed; massive high-rise apartment complexes rise up out of the hills, serving as vacation rooms and apartments for literally the entire population of the country. I mean, I can't blame them wanting to go somewhere out of the relentless humidity. It's just a shame that the area has been developed kind of quickly and without a lot of regard for the impact on the environment it has (aesthetically speaking, to some extent). Anyway, despite this, you can visit the tea plantations where all of Malaysia's tea is grown (95% is consumed in the country, 5% is exported to Singapore), various farms growing things like strawberries and lettuce, and do some nice trekking, all of which I enjoyed. My day tour was about $12, everything else was freeeeee.
Bus from Tanah Rata to Georgetown: $10
I had mixed feelings about Georgetown, mostly because my hopes were set so high. I think I was also so charmed by Malacca and then kind of let down by Georgetown, which was much bigger and busier. The tourist-y parts feel kind of run down and gritty, which is maybe part of the allure? That it's a big funky and rough around the edges? There's loads of street art, all of which was commissioned by the city to attract visitors, which was fun to seek out and observe tourists posing with the various pieces, some of which are quite cool. Obviously the food was excellent, and I had great Malay, Chinese, and Indian food while I was there (as well as some good Western-style breakfasts at a couple of cafés). Entrance to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion (and Chinese Straits Jewelry Museum) was 10RM; entrance to the Choeng Fatt Tze Mansion was 12RM.
Ferry to Pulau Langkawi: $20
I was expecting Langkawi to be a let down, since a Malaysian woman I talked to in Hanoi had described it as "filled with resorts." But instead I was quite pleasantly surprised to find a tropical island that was just built-up enough to be comfortable but not so crowded or chaotic that it lost its island charms. It was more laidback than the mainland (which was already really easy-going) and just had a pleasant feel to it. I rented a motorbike for $8 and spent about $5 filling it with petrol to cruise the island for much of the day.
Ferry to Satun, Thailand: $8
Where I stayed
Malacca: Home in the Garden I loved this little guesthouse, although it might not be for everyone. It was seemingly brand new, and decked out to feel like you were in a minimalist, modern garden! There was green astroturf carpeting and a little white picket fence running along the hallway with Christmas lights on it. My room was an interior one with a huge window looking out at the hallway, fortunately with a blind covering it. The bed was on a platform made of wooden slats so if you had tiny feet or walked weird, you might have possibly twisted your foot going through the slats (nor would you have wanted to drop anything down as it might have been a challenge to get it!). But there were lights underneath the bed, giving the room a funky feel for sure. The woman at the front desk was incredibly nice and helpful, showed me where to get laksa, arrange my bus to Kuala Lumpur, and basically give me advice about anything and everything. Like the other guesthouses I stayed at in Malaysia (which I kind of had to on my budget), it had a shared bathroom, but these were kept extremely clean and tidy. Also there was a water dispenser for refilling water bottles, which I appreciated. ($25/night)
Kuala Lumpur: Back Home KL This hostel has rave reviews everywhere, with people declaring it the nicest hostel they've ever stayed in the entire world. It is definitely one of the nicer hostels in the world, that's for sure. It's big and modern, and was designed to be a hostel (as opposed to some of the places I stayed at in Vietnam where the idea was to cram as many bunk beds as could possibly fit in a room the size of a walk-in closet). This mean that each bed had a locker large enough to hold everyone's things, each bed had an electrical outlet and reading lamp, and the beds were built into the walls so that climbing up a ladder did not mean shaking the bed. There was some stuff not considered though, like having the rooms face down at the social courtyard, where drinking/socializing was allowed until 1 am, and the narrow courtyard surrounded by metal and cement meant the conversations reverberated loudly into the rooms. Also, there was a weird old Chinese guy with the bed above mine. He didn't seem to sleep in the room, just kept a bunch of newspapers on the bed, and he'd come in and out of the room about twice an hour starting around 4 am, getting one newspaper and leaving another behind. Sooooo it was a nicer hostel than the ones in Vietnam, but after two nights, I was glad I was moving on. ($15/night)
Tanah Rata: Father's Guesthouse The tried-and-true traveller choice in Tanah Rata. Pros: tons of information and advice about hikes and tours. Met lots of other cool people here. Had a comfortable room. Cons: my room was right about the social courtyard where people smoked and drank into the wee hours of the night (there was supposedly quiet hours after 10pm but it wasn't enforced). You had to remove your shoes at the front of the building (totally the norm throughout Malaysia) but for the second-floor bathroom, there were no plastic shoes provided for showering (also the norm/custom at other guesthouses where they make you leave your flip flops behind). It was also expensive for a room with a shared bathroom, but that's unfortunately normal for this desirable destination. Overall, I loved the Cameron Highlands and would still recommend this place to anyone travelling there just because it is a good spot to meet fellow travellers/hikers and the center of activity. ($23/night)
Georgetown: Malabar Inn I was disappointed with Malabar Inn, at first because the room was but a tiny closet with a little single bed, and secondly because it seeemed just a little too far away from the tourist center and I had to walk a busy, congested, sidewalk-less road that didn't feel particularly safe, especially at night. (Unsafe from the traffic, although I spooked myself by reading stuff about crime/bag snatchings in Penang after I arrived.) However, the people running the place were incredibly nice, wanted to tell me all sorts of great places to go eat and circle them on a map for me, and the guy at the front even gave me a ride to catch my ferry when I left. Therefore, I feel bad being mean about this place, because I felt like the family running it genuinely want to be kind to the people staying there. It's just a pity it felt a little run down and untidy overall (but it wasn't horrible, some of the stuff in Vietnam was worse). And the location would probably not be as unideal for a couple or duo travelling; it was being a solo female walking back here at night that made me feel like it was a little less-than-desirable (walking along Lebuh Chulia back to the guesthouse I saw something I hadn't yet seen in SE Asia -- prostitutes. Specifically of the "dude looks like a lady" variety.) ($15/night)
Pulau Langkawi: Zackry Guesthouse Why I picked this place is beyond me, and why I was resorting to Lonely Planet's suggestions is another mystery, given their not-so-glowing track record with advice of any kind. I find when I look at choices for too long, my mind starts to get overloaded and I stop caring and make stupid decisions. Anyway, this place was not great, but I survived. The bar was set kinda low anyway after being not-so-thrilled with everything from Malacca onward as far as accomodation was concerned. This place felt like once upon a time it was a backpacker haven, with the funky art painted on the walls of the common area and the general tropical shantytown vibe of the place. I had a room with a fan (no a/c) and the room being pretty "meh" made me motivated to be out of the room for the full day that I was in Langkawi. ($8/night)
Noteworthy Restaurants & Cafés:
Malacca: Kaya-Kaya Cafe
Malacca: Ola Lavenderia Cafe
Malacca: Jonker 88
Kuala Lumpur: Madame Kwan's
Kuala Lumpur: Lokl
Georgetown: Sri Ananda Bahwan Restaurant
Pulau Langkawi: Restoran Mangga