Back in May this year, Shaun and I went off on our very first international vacation together. During the adventure, we overlapped with Sophie in Thailand.and !
So, we went on your classic 15 day vacay, after 8 months of living in Timor. We traveled on the cheap (#PeaceCorpsVacations anyone?), and will tell you how you can do the same while in SE Asia. Let’s go!
Days 1-2: Kuala Lumpur + Batu Caves, Malaysia
Malaysia offered up some of my favorite adventures while on this vacation, and its lower-key tourism made for a lot less hassling from locals. It boasts modern cities, and quiet countryside, and even small college-like towns that reminded me of areas from around Rhode Island. They have phenomenal public transportation (we did trains, ferries, and buses) and staying on the ground not only saved money but gave us a chance to see more rural areas of Peninsular Malaysia.
We flew in on an AirAsia flight to Kuala Lumpur, the big city on the peninsula. AirAsia offers budget flights all over Asia, but you gotta pack light since they ‘getcha’ on the baggage fees. However, we are light packers and had no problems with this! The Kuala Lumpur airport is really far from the city, and we decided on taking the airport taxi since we were arriving quite late at night. The ride was about 45 minutes, and we had a nice taxi driver to make conversation with!
We booked two nights in one of the private rooms at Irsia Guesthouse, which felt like a sweet getaway in a quieter part of town. It was clean, with a shared bathroom (western and squat), and had hot showers available too! For us, it was heaven.
After a good night’s sleep, we spent the morning going to the Batu Caves, an incredible attraction just outside the city. We quickly fell in love with the metro train system of KL, as it took us all the way to Batu Caves for a fraction of the price of other transportation. Public transportation in this city was incredibly easy to navigate, and highly recommend making use of it when you visit!
The Batu Caves are actually Hindu temples built into a series of caves. It had less architecture than I was expecting, but the towering cave walls sure made it feel like a holy place. There are a lot of steps, but since Shaun and I live in Timor, which is mountainous everywhere, climbing was not hard and it was a lot colder around the caves than where we live in Timor. If you want a more cold-blooded account of climbing and exploring the Batu Caves,.
There were many Indian Hindus going to make offerings and prayers, but everyone else was some sort of tourist. Malaysia is really amazing when it comes to their religious and ethnic diversity. And everyone is super chill with each other??? America, take some notes. There were lots of monkeys which I did not like, and on top of that, Shaun kept trying to take close up pictures with my phone, which monkeys will steal in the area. I recommend bringing as little with you as possible, and always be aware of monkeys all around you.
While climbing, we got incredible views of KL from above. 10/10 would recommend if you find yourself in KL!
Days 3-5: Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
We checked out of the guesthouse in KL, and made our way to the KL Sentral train station, where I had booked two tickets to Penang. We got there very early, but it was nice because they had KFC (P.S. Malaysian KFC is waaaaay better than in the USA). I felt a little bit like I was in the clean version of Penn Station in NYC. Honestly, the big city with all its modernity and luxuries was overwhelming and we were ready to get out to smaller cities.
The train was very clean, and quite cold. This was the only time Shaun and I whipped out our rain jackets during the whole trip. For the next four hours, we sped up north toward Penang. We saw fields of banana trees and coconut trees, mountains and hills in the distance, temples and small villages. It reminded us a little bit of our home in Timor. For the ride, we had a fully charged laptop full of TV shows and movies, and I had my Kindle to read when I wasn’t staring out the window.
The Penang train station doesn’t actually go all the way to the island of Georgetown (though I hear that the buses do). Upon arrival, we found that there were free shuttle buses to the Penang ferry that would take us to Georgetown, and hopped on one. The ferry itself cost a couple of US dollars, and the ride was about 15 minutes across the channel dividing Penang the city, and Georgetown. On the way, we saw big jellyfish in the waters!
We got lost trying to get to our hostel (there are only a fair few, we stayed at House of Journey). But thankfully some kind tourists and shopkeepers helped us out! We booked a private room, and we did this throughout Malaysia as it was actually the same price or cheaper to have a private room than to have separate dorm beds. Also, most places that said they included breakfast offered something smaller, such as toast and jam/butter, along with tea. We didn’t mind this, as we hadn’t had toast for almost a year. Also, our stomachs are quite a bit smaller, so small meals were just fine with us.
While in Penang, some of our highlights include accidentally wandering into floating villages at night, tandem bicycling around the town, and climbing Penang Hill (also by accident). In Peace Corps, we hardly ever go out at night, mostly because it is frowned upon but also because there isn’t anything to do at night. Once in Georgetown, we got a little wild, and by wild I mean that we stayed up until 10PM just walking around Little India (YES GIRL, THIS LITTLE INDIA IS HEAVEN). We got lost again, trying to find the hostel and ended up on the coast near the Floating Villages, which are really just small communities living on long docks in houses on stilts. At night, it was both eerie and charming, and I felt like I was walking through the opening scene of At World’s End, the third Pirates of the Caribbean film. We stumbled into small prayer areas and I got to practice reading some Chinese characters.
For a day or two, we rented a tandem bike, for about $4-$8—really inexpensive and fun! However, the tandem bike will test your friendship/relationship, especially if both riders are as stubborn as Shaun and me. By the end of the day on we had gotten the hang of it, but it was certainly hard at first. We biked all over the main areas of Georgetown, hung out in a small park, napped at the hostel, and went out again looking for food. During our stay in Georgetown, we ate half the time at hawker food courts that offered hot, good food for $1-$3 per meal, and occasionally treated ourselves to western food. Food is available pretty much everywhere here—you can’t go hungry in Georgetown.
Finally, our big and sweaty adventure was climbing Penang Hill. We arrived at the funicular station thinking that it only cost about $5 to go up and down per person, but it turned out to be double that or more for foreigners. That was far too expensive, so we decided we would take the funicular up and climb the hill down, which for some reason the ticket lady thought we were nuts for deciding on. Many people climb up and down the hill, so it really wasn’t that crazy of an idea.
Not gonna lie, Penang Hill felt too touristy for us at the top, and there wasn’t much to do. We did get some incredible ice cream bowls that served as our lunch. They were giant, covered in fresh fruits, and neither of us could finish our bowls. We paid for our dairy and sugar consumption later in excessive fatigue post-hike, but it was so worth it. The best part of Penang Hill for us was the hike down. We weren’t planning to go down just yet, but somehow ended up on the trail, and kept going. It was beautiful and jungle-y and the trail was well marked. There were quite a lot of mosquitos and I definitely sweated off my repellent so I wish I had brought more. It took about one or two hours to get down, and halfway down we were literally racing a tropical rain coming up from the hill behind us. I’m pretty sure I overworked my muscles, because for almost 5 days after the climb down, my calves were killing me. But for the beauty and the difficulty of it, it was so worth climbing down Penang Hill that day. And we ended up wandering into an old Chinese temple on the way down, too!
Be sure to read. Shaun and I would go again, but only for a short time.
Days 6-7: Langkawi Island, Malaysia
This was the highlight of the trip for the both of us. Maybe it was because we were finally relaxing into vacation mode, or maybe it really was the island itself, but Langkawi definitely stole our wandering souls for the two nights we stayed there. In terms of hostel-like accommodations, Two Peace House was recommended to us, and again, we booked a private room. It had a funky hippie feel that I really enjoyed. Langkawi looked and felt exactly like Timor-Leste, except that it was more developed. We loved how familiar it felt, combining our recent home with our US creature comforts like running water and going out to eat. We flew in since the flight took a quarter of the time and cost the same.
We arrived and checked in on a Thursday. There is no public transportation on Langkawi so the only option to get to your accommodations is to walk (too far) or take a taxi (yes, please). Lucky for us, we arrived on the one day a week that there is a giant night market! It was incredible, and only a 10 minute walk from our hostel. I was a kid in a candy shop—everything being sold was delicious and cost mere cents. There were Indian samosas, Indonesian chicken kabobs, shwarma, all kinds of fresh fruit juices, and classic Malaysian Nasi Ayam. I bought so much food that I thought we overspent, but turned out we got 4 peoples worth of food for about $6! It was incredible! It is too bad that the market is only once a week, otherwise, I would have gained about 10 pounds for sure.
Thankfully, we found another spot that served as a breakfast and dinner and snack and breaktime place. I don’t remember the name, and I can’t find it on the Google Maps either, but it was some sort of corner café. They did local food and fruit juices, and I can’t count how many cheesy rotis I had while there.
We spent most of the our time on the island not lounging on beaches, as Langkawi is known for, but exploring the entire island. A fellow hostel guest rented a scooter to go with speed and ease, and it cost them about $15, including gas and helmet, for 2 days of motorcycle rental. It was dirt cheap, and a wonderful way to see the island for them.
Alright, this post is already quite long, so I am going to follow in Sophie’s blogsteps and give y’all the rest of our SE Asia adventures in a separate post!