Malaysia Travel Guide: Accommodations & Transportation

Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

This guide is part of a series of country-by-country focused resources for Southeast Asia addressing accommodations and transportation. You’ll find some overlap with the posts for other countries within the region. We’ve separated them by country because that’s what our readers are looking for. Feel free to skim past the parts that don’t suit you or seem redundant. Let us know if you’ve got insider knowledge to add!

Malaysia is one of the easiest countries to travel in, in Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur is a famous landing spot for travelers coming from abroad. An economical place to fly into, it’s centrally located for destinations both north and south. The capital city is a popular destinations for longer term travelers and expats to do visa runs, visit embassies, do some shopping, or just enjoy and urban weekend.

Malaysia is also home to some of the digital nomad and expat hot spots in the region: Penang and Georgetown are obvious ones, but Kota Kinabalu (Malaysian Borneo) gets a better rating by Nomad List than any other option in Malaysia, even Kuala Lumpur. Having been there, that doesn’t surprise me.

Finding accommodation and transportation in Malaysia is not difficult. The trick is not to pre-book everything. Resist the urge to organize every aspect of your on the ground journey before you leave home unless you are on the very tightest of schedules. Not only will your flexibility be increased, you’ll save money as well.

Malaysia Travel Guide Table of Contents

Luxury & Resorts

There’s no shortage of luxury resorts in Malaysia. In Kuala Lumpur you’ll find all of the big names that you’re used to. If you stay in them, expect to pay the same rates as a luxury hotel chain in Europe, or North America. If you’re looking for something truly luxurious in Malaysa, give up the idea of staying in a chain hotel, and go for something more unique. In outlying areas you’ll find the beach resorts and colonial era luxury of your dreams.

Pangkor Laut : This absolutely stunning resort is on a private island three miles off the West Coast of Malaysia. Sea villas stand on stilts in the bay, with other accommodation including beach, garden, and hillside villas.

Novotel: A go-to for hotels in general. Novotel has a long list of hotels to suit most price ranges. Keep in mind that Novotel hotels are generally found only in big cities, in this case: Kuala Lumpur and Melaka

The Club Saujana Resort: Described as the “ultimate urban retreat” this is the place to go if you want luxury combined with peace and quiet in Kuala Lumpur (and peace and quiet is at a premium in this city). The two, championship golf courses as well as a multi-ammenity spa make this place a perfect compromise.

Gaya Island Resort: This is a truly special place. A resort set in within a marine park, they work hard to reduce their carbon footprint (it’s a walking resort) and to participate in conservation. Visit the Marine Center, actively engaged in sea turtle rescue and coral reef restoration. Get up close and personal with proboscis monkeys (they only exist in Borneo!) and experience the unique plant and animal life of this part of the world.

Cameron Highlands Resort: This one’s not a beach resort, located, as the name suggests, in the Cameron highlands, about two and a half hours from KL. A throwback to the English colonial history of the area, you’ll find a spa, afternoon tea, and “a little piece of England in Asia.”

The Banjaran: Looking for a place to relax and recover from the stress in your life? This is it. A place designed with “therapeutic value in mind” the hot springs, natural setting, meditation cave and spa are sure to help rejuvenate you.

The Four Seasons: World renowned as the epitome of luxury, the Four Seasons has one hotel in Malaysia, on Langkawi. With a mile long beach located in a UNESCO Geo-Park, this place is amazing. Take a walk with the onsite naturalist to learn about the environment, borrow a kayak or a catamaran, do some yoga, or just walk the beach.

Five Star Alliance: This site lists their 27 best luxury hotels in Malaysia. Lots of inspiration here!

Hotels Under $150

Hotels in Malaysia under $150 are plentiful.  It is also perfectly doable to find a room upon arrival without much prior planning in most places. Plan according to where you’re headed, and when. For example, finding a room is simple during the off-season, or when traveling off the beaten track.

Tips for saving money on a hotel in Malaysia:

  • Contact the local tourist board before you arrive to check for the best local budget hotels – some may not be listed online.
  • Trust that there will be available rooms. Unless you’re traveling in a popular area during tourist season, there WILL be something available. If you’re willing to wing it, you may save on booking fees and find special deals.
  • Stay away from Western hotels. Look for locally run businesses, and you’ll find local prices to match.
  • Choose accommodation further away from festivals or big events.
  • Adjust your expectations. What do you really need from a hotel? You’ll save money by doing without fine dining and a pool.

Keep an eye out for hotel deals on the following sites:

Travelfish: One of the single most useful websites for finding Southeast Asian (SEA) accommodation, Travelfish is an independent travel guide that focuses specifically on SEA, including Malaysia. Use it to find hotels, restaurants, tours, and top destinations. Great for finding off-the-beaten-path adventures.

Agoda: Plug in your destination and dates here for a comprehensive list of available hotels and the sorts of rooms they have available. The ratings and recommendations feature of this site is specific to various types of travelers, so you’ll find ratings based on business travel, family travel, romantic travel and more. This is super helpful in choosing a hotel that will be a good fit. Agoda is also good for last minute planning, as well as reservations in advance. I’ve been known to sit in the lobby of a hotel, after being quoted one price at the desk, and find a better deal at the same hotel through Agoda, book it online, and check in with a smile.

Expedia: Reliable service when looking for the comfort you’re used to, but won’t always give you the best deal. Check your prices against another booking agent, if getting the lowest price is important to you.

Travelocity: A personal favorite no matter where I’m traveling. Travelocity brings up over 200 hotels in Thailand alone, and is one of the only travel sites to bring up hotel options for Burma and Brunei.

Malaysia Hotels: Run by Hotels.com, this site is specific to Malaysia and lists tons of options, even in many of the lesser known destinations.

Booking.com: This is a go-to resource for me when I’m looking for mid-range hotels. Particularly when I need something last minute.

Wotif.com: Say it like “What if…” with an English accent. This is another mid range hotel aggregate site that has hundreds of listings for all over Malaysia. You’ll find your place here, if you haven’t already.

Boutique Hotels

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A boutique hotel is any small hotel with under 100 rooms. By that definition, you’re going to be able to find a “boutique” hotel in nearly any town in Malaysia. Personally, I believe that a boutique hotel needs to have a certain measure of style and uniqueness before it’s earned its title.

Unlike in most other destinations around the world, SEA boutique hotels generally cost a good deal more than an average hotel stay, some even bordering on outright luxury prices. If you find the hotel of your dreams, it may be worth it.

iescape: The best site out there for finding the perfect boutique hotel, in my opinion. There are nine hotels listed for Malaysia, from beach resorts to historic colonial hideaways.

Mr & Mrs Smith: A boutique hotel finder built for honeymooning couples, but perfectly usable for the average traveler. Stunning boutique hotels in Malaysia. Pricing on this site is often very high.

Sekeping Hotel, Serendah, Malaysia: Not far from Kuala Lumpur, this minimalist boutique hotel is a simple, but beautiful, forest retreat.

Great Small Hotels: This is a really fun site, with 19 listings in Malaysia, but many more for inspiration around the world. Each of the places they list is unique and small.

MBoutique: A pair of boutique hotels specifically in Malaysia. These are really cool.

Chic Retreats: Lists three unique properties in Malaysia, two on Langkawi, one on Borneo.

Taipan Boutique Hotel: In Melaka, this hotel stands out for two types of travelers that aren’t often well served by the same type of hotel: business travelers and family travelers. With full business amenities and a downtown location, as well as family rooms and family suites, this place seems to bridge the gap.

Gem Island Resort: On a private island, electricity provided by a generator, water from a well, and a pool filled with water from the sea, and very basic wifi. This is truly an eco retreat.

Vacation Rentals

If you plan to stay in Malaysia for a more than a few weeks, a vacation rental may be the way to go.

Not only are vacation rentals far more comfortable and private, they may save you money in the long run. Vacation rentals are my first choice nearly everywhere I travel. Living in a fully furnished home and being able to cook all my own meals is far more sustainable for a stay of a week or more. In Malaysia, I rented a classic and very local style house on stilts, in Miri, on Borneo, for Christmas, a lovely apartment overlooking the sea in Penang (with a lovely pool in the complex) and a high rise apartment right downtown, with a sea view in Kota Kinabalu for the New Year celebrations.

Vacation rentals offer a very uniquely immersive travel experience, and are fairly easy to find.

Booking through any of the online agencies is, absolutely, possible; however, booking on the ground is often the better way to go. A bit of bravery and some flexibility are required. Just turn up, book a couple of nights in a hotel where you want to spend more time, and pound the pavement. All of our best home rentals have been located through locals on the ground.

How do you do it? Find a local real-estate agency and ask for a referral to a rental agent, or, rent a motorbike and ride around writing down the phone numbers from signs on the gates of rentals. They are out there, by the hundreds, trust me.

Wimdu: Hundreds of properties in Malaysia alone, with more spread out across SEA. One of the most popular vacation rental websites out there.

Vacation Rentals: Affiliated with Homeaway and VRBO, provides a comprehensive list of all the rentals in the area you’re searching in.

Airbnb: Possibly the most well-known vacation rental and B&B locator on the web. With thousands of properties in 150+ countries around the world, it’s a go-to for house-hunting.

VRBO and Homeaway: HomeAway is the mastermind of vacation rentals, and owns both VRBO and VacationRentals.com. All homes must pass inspection, so you know you’re getting value.

Roomorama: An easy to use vacation rental booking site that allows you to narrow your search from thousands of homes to the perfect stay for you.

Camping

Camping is a little easier to do in Malaysia than it is in some of the other countries in Southeast Asia. It’s still less common and more difficult to do than in other places in the world, and may be more trouble than it’s worth, for a few reasons. According to travelers who have tried it, these include:

  • High population density
  • Wildlife – jungle = insects
  • Campground fees are often higher than cheap hotel prices
  • Also: gear

TravelPod: Lists 9 campsites in Malaysia.

Malaysia-TrulyAsia.com: Lists 13 campgrounds across Malaysia with instructions on how to get there.

Malaysia Car Camping: Lists some basic information and options for car camping in Malaysia.

Canopy Tribes: If you’d rather do some glamping, this tiny community of bell tents overlooking Singapore, in Johor, might be a comfortable yet rustic option.

Unusual Accommodations

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Malaysia is chock-full of unusual accommodations, but most of them you won’t find online. The most unusual accommodations are the ones you tend to stumble across accidentally along the way.

Some things can’t be planned. That said, there are a few unique accommodations that you can check out in advance. Varying in price, some may be the height of luxury, while others are very affordable and simple.

Permai Rainforest Resort, Kuching, Malaysian Borneo: An incredible eco-lodge in the rainforests of Borneo with a “back to nature” theme. Swim in a jungle pool, sleep in a treehouse, and enjoy a BBQ.

The Secret Sanctuary, Kuching, Malaysian Borneo: This place is a treasure and truly a secret find. It looks like nothing from the outside. Inside, it’s the private hideaway of my friend Cyril. He’s created a private paradise that he shares with a few lucky guests at a time. He’s also a master chef, so make sure you ask him to cook for you. Jellyfish salad never tasted so good. And when he makes a recommendation for an outing with a friend of his, take it.

Time Capsule Retreat, Pahang, Malaysia: Stay in a “time capsule” tube in Pahang, Malaysia. With a back to the basics feel, the Time Capsule Retreat is a family-run business.

Jampala Resort: Tucked away on Tioman Island these individual eco-cabins are a world away with luxury service, from breakfast, afternoon snacks, aromatic turn down, drinks in the evening, all with air conditioning and wifi access. Some even have individual plunge pools.

Floating Surf House: Owned and operated by surfers, for surfers this place is definitely unique. Choose either the stilt house or the floating house with a full compliment of surf-centric options, including surfboard storage, of course.

Overwater Bungalows: There are quite a number of these sorts of places in Malaysia, some near the best dive sites, others that are budget options for families, and a few that are priced for the truly exclusive luxury traveler. This site provides and exhaustive list.

Borneo Rainforest Lodge: If you’re in Malaysian Borneo, you’re there to see the orang utans and the proboscis monkeys. This lodge is situated right in the rainforest, offers a treetop canopy walk as well as orang utan conservation.

Hostels

Rarely, is it necessary to stay at a hostel in Malaysia; simply because you can generally find hotels for low prices, and it’s often worth the extra buck not to hear the guy in the next room snoring loudly.

Miserable, describes the night I spent, in Biri, on Borneo, wrapped in an incredibly thin (read: useless) sheet, having opted out of the community shower, which was suspended directly above a particularly dirty pit toilet, wondering who had left the bed smelling of armpit. The quality of hostels in Malaysia varies widely.

Find a cheap hotel instead and you’ll generally be better off. That said, if you’re a serious hostel fan and want to give it a go, these sites will help you to find what you’re looking for.

HostelWorld: Relied upon by backpackers around the globe, HostelWorld has a decent selection of SEA hostels to check out.

Southeast Asia Backpacker: If you’re hosteling SEA, treat this site like your golden handbook. With information on all the best (and worst) hostels, as well as everything you need to know to backpack SEA, this site is a must-read.

Agoda: Easily book hostel rooms as well as hotel rooms.

Hostel Bookers: Similar to HostelWorld, works on an international level and showcases a large collection of SEA hostels.

Local & International Airlines

The Airlines in this region of the world will quickly become your best friends. They’re easily the cheapest and most convenient way to get both to, and around, Southeast Asia, especially if you’re on a tight schedule. International carriers service multiple routes into the region, while domestic carriers will get you where you need to go within most of Malaysia for under $70USD.

Keep in mind that flights are not restricted to capital cities, and may be cheaper if you’re willing to be flexible with your destination and dates of arrival/departure. For example, try checking flights to Penang, Langkawi, Kuching, or Kota Kinabalu instead of directly to Kuala Lumpur.

International Carriers Servicing Malaysia

Carriers Within Malaysia

Most of these carriers are international within Southeast Asia as well the most affordable domestic option within their respective countries. The difference between these and the airlines listed above is that, with a few exceptions, these airlines stay within the region of Southeast Asia.

Finally, here’s a comprehensive list of all Southeast Asian airlines.

Where to Fly In:

Malaysia

Malaysia has a total of 62 airports, 8 of which are international. Your best bet here is usually to fly into:

  • Kuala Lumpur
  • Kota Kinabalu
  • Kuching
  • Penang (Georgetown)

Trains

thai train
Train travel in Malaysia is very doable, service is limited and can be more expensive than travel by bus. You’ll find train options between Kuala Lumpur, Penang and then north into Thailand toward Bangkok.

Below are some of the options, both practical and exotic.

Thailand to Singapore: A multi-day train journey which stops at Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Penang, and Kuala Lumpur along the way for under $100.

Eastern & Oriental Express: Luxury trains traveling to most main cities and sights in Southeast Asia.

Trans-Siberian Railway: A famous route for overland adventurers, many travelers don’t realize that there is a southern option that passes through Southeast Asia and can be used to get from Singapore through Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Bangkok, Saigon, and Hanoi.

Seat61: The most comprehensive listing of rail options and in Malaysia.

Malaysia Railways: The official website for Malaysian rail travel.

City Metro Trains

Metro Kuala Lumpur: Metro maps and information for Malaysia’s capital city.

Buses

Most backpackers and vacationers to Malaysia travel by bus, taking advantage of the low cost and ease of booking. With the bus, it’s possible to play your trip by ear instead of planning your flights weeks in advance. Bus tickets cost between $5-10 for a 5-6 hour journey, with overnight buses generally costing twice that, depending on the distance.

Booking can happen days in advance, the day before, or even the day of. As with all Southeast Asian transport, there’s no standard bus and it’s difficult to tell what you’ll end up traveling in. Most often these are decent buses with Pullman style seats and air conditioning.

Booking bus tickets is usually done on the ground at the bus station. It can be hectic, with multiple companies vying for your attention and dozens of sales representatives trying to sell you their ticket. When you can, it’s best to check prices online, or with other travelers, to avoid paying more than you should. Recently, a travel website called 12GO.Asia has made it much easier to book tickets online and avoid running into a scam at the station.

Before traveling internationally by bus, be sure to check visa requirements for each country you plan to cross into, as you may need to pre-arrange visas for land crossings.

Best tip for traveling by bus in Southeast Asia:
Keep your expectations realistic. Traveling by bus can be an adventure, and it’s important that you know how to be flexible with your plans. Buses can arrive late, or take longer on the road than you planned for. Breakdowns are quite common, and speed limits are suggestions. Drivers can be expected to blast loud music videos, or soap operas, through the bus at all hours. If you keep a sense of humour and go with the flow, the buses are an excellent way to get around, but you should expect it to be a culturally broadening experience.

STA Travel, Stray Asia: Bus Southeast Asia in a small guided group with other like-minded adventurers.

12GO.Asia: Our go-to website for booking passage via train, plane, or automobile in Southeast Asia.

EasyBook: Largest land sea travel and tours booking website in SE Asia, including Malaysia.

Bamba Experience: Hop on hop off independent bus travel servicing Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries.

Alternative Transport

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Local transport in Malaysia varies widely, and offers the chance to hobnob with locals, check out scenery up close, and visit towns you wouldn’t normally have access to.

Boats

Boats are a fantastic way to travel in Malaysia. Whether you’re taking a day trip from Penang to Monkey Beach and the islands, or diving along the coast of Borneo, or taking the ferries to the islands, boats will provide a perspective that you won’t get by staying on land. If you can travel by boat, don’t miss it!

Ferries to Malaysia: General information about the ferry options to and around Malaysia.

Langkawi Ferry Services: Dates and times for sailings to and from Langkawi.

Penang Port Ferry Services: All the information you need about ferries arriving to and departing from Penang.

Langkawi Boat Tours: A range of boating options from Langkawi, mostly day trips.

Direct Ferries: This site lets you compare routes and prices for ferries in and around Malaysia.

Charter Malaysia: Go all out and charter a yacht in Malaysia!

Rent Your Own Wheels

In Malaysia it’s possible to hire a motorbike, car, or bicycle. Most locals rely on mopeds or motorbikes to get around, so renting one is easy to do.

If you go this route, be sure you read up on the local rules of the road, and don’t assume they’re always followed by locals. Licensing is often not required so safety is a concern. Wear a helmet, and don’t overestimate your motorbiking abilities.

Whether you’re renting a car or a bike, be sure you understand the liability situation in the country you are in, and that you have the experience necessary to cope with the many differences. Especially if you’re in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road from what you’re accustomed; Malaysia is left hand drive.

You can expect animals (everything from dogs, to water buffalo, to elephants) in the roadways in addition to highly unpredictable human traffic. Unless you are a very alert and adaptable driver, you may want to hire a driver along with your vehicle.

Renting a car is easily done. You can reserve ahead of time through the airport you fly into. Or, you can rent from one of the numerous mom and pop style car hire places that dot the tourist districts of most towns. If you are in a place long enough, it’s also often a possibility to secure a private rental agreement through a local person or a tour company.

Use good judgement and understand that these places are “buyer beware.” They may, or may not, be properly insured, the car maintenance is not guaranteed, and it’s entirely possible that there is no back up for you if something goes wrong. They are, however, by far the most affordable option.

Renting motorbikes is almost dangerously easy. As a result, there are a lot of accidents. Keep that in mind and check several places before renting. Look not only at price, but also vehicle maintenance, terms of agreement, and the quality of the safety equipment that is provided with the bike. (Is there a helmet? No, not that one, a REAL one!)

Places Car Hire: Car rental company found in most central Southeast Asian cities.

What to know before driving Southeast Asia: A useful guide to rules of the road and choosing a vehicle.

Sixt: A top vehicle rental company.

DriveAway: Drive from one location, drop off the vehicle in another.

Scooter/Motorbike Rental: Go for two wheels instead of four.

Ride Malaysia: A motorcycle tour company specializing in Malaysia.

Bombastic Borneo: A listing of locations and contact info for car and motorbike rental on Borneo. This is trickier than you might expect, and if you are planning to travel through Indonesia or Brunei with your vehicle (you cannot drive end to end of Borneo without going through Brunei or Indonesia) you’ll need to work out the logistics of this with your rental company. We rented a car in Kuching and dropped it off in Miri (airport to airport, not as straight forward as you think it’s going to be) then worked our way through Brunei to Kota Kinabalu on the other side by bus. For information on how to do that, see this post.)

City Travel & Haggling

City transportation in this part of the world is extremely diverse. Mopeds speed around en masse, and it’s possible to hop on the back of a local guide’s moped for a tour of the city. Tuk-tuks are ubiquitous – tiny three-wheeled, open-air vehicles that act as cheap taxis and can miraculously always hold “just one more” person. Pickup trucks with seats built into the backs act as local buses in many areas.

The cost of local transport generally depends on the haggling abilities of the traveler. In most cases, you will be asked for fully twice what is fair. Offer a little less than your final price, and work your way up from there. Never immediately offer the price you actually intend to pay.

Understand that there is almost always tiered pricing and you’re very unlikely to pay what locals do. Consider this your luxury tax for being there and remember that paying a buck for what locals are paying .75 for is okay, because the same ride in NYC would cost you twenty five dollars, and the story wouldn’t be nearly as good.

The trick to successful city transport without getting taken for more rides than you’re hoping for, is in upfront negotiation of price and a cheerful attitude. Never get into a cab or tuk tuk without knowing that the driver understands where you and having agreed upon the price. Always have correct change to pay with (because if you don’t… they won’t either!) Finally, don’t be afraid to walk away. If you have a bad feeling about a particular driver, thank him with a smile and keep looking, there will be dozens of other drivers vying for your business.

TL;DR

Malaysia is an incredibly diverse place, from the urban powerhouse of Kuala Lumpur, to the laid back expat hub of Penang, to the wild jungles of Malaysian Borneo, there are adventures to be had.

  • Stay somewhere unique
  • Stay somewhere remote
  • Stay somewhere historic
  • Flying is the best way to get around quickly, especially between the peninsula and Borneo
  • Singapore is right next door and yet a world away
  • Take a ferry
  • Remember to haggle hard

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