The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

October 9, 2016

Malaysia quickly became one of my favorite countries in Southeast Asia. Malaysia is lesser traveled when compared to other countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Because of this, traveling here feels more rugged and off the beaten path, and it feels like you’re getting a more authentic experience.

Malays are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. The food in Malaysia is a combination of Malay, Indian, and Chinese traditional dishes and spices. Each meal is different from the next, and is so flavorful I nearly cry from happiness every time I eat.

Malaysia is home to the oldest rainforest in the world, numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, pristine beaches and surreal diving locations. It’s on its way to becoming a developed country, and I found traveling in Malaysia to be easier and more organized than many other Southeast Asian countries. English is widely spoken in Malaysia as well.

It’s quite common for those traveling in Malaysia to only stick to peninsular Malaysia. If you have the budget and the time, make sure you visit Borneo and Brunei as well. 

Brunei is a small country along the coast of Borneo. Malaysian Borneo is split into two states, Sabah and Sarawak. I personally loved Sarawak more than Sabah, mostly because I found it to be less touristy, cheaper, and full of inexpensive treks and hikes. If you don’t have a limited budget, Sabah has some of the greatest treks in the world, like Mount Kinabalu (which costs around 1,500 Malaysian Ringgit).

I organized this article by the route I took for the purpose of showing you one of the possible routes you can take.

Here is my Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, and Brunei.

Remember to check out How to Prepare for Your First Solo Backpacking Tripwhere I share advice, packing tips, and guides!

If you’re into trekking and hiking, Malaysia has some of the greatest treks in the word. Check out my trekking guides page for various packing tips and guides to make your trek as enjoyable as possible!

Malaysia

Malaysia is split into two parts; peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. I started in peninsular Malaysia and worked my way north, then flew to Borneo.

map

Map of Malaysia by FreeVectorMaps.com

Peninsular Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur

I’m going to be honest; I wasn’t too fond of Kuala Lumpur. I didn’t find anything remarkably special about it, and realized this the more north I went. However, it’s definitely a place that shouldn’t be missed, and will most likely be the starting point of your adventure in Malaysia.

What to Do

Visit the Petronas Twin Towers

These towers are spectacular. They’re massive and are Kuala Lumpur’s landmark. They’re of Islamic design and are 88 stories high. You can go up the towers for 85 Malaysian Ringgit, but I found looking at them from the bottom is just as spectacular (and free!).

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

Visit the Batu Caves

This limestone hill has caves and cave temples, and is a very popular Hindu shrine. The caves are said to be 400 million years old. They’re a quick ride away from KL, and cost about 10 Malaysian Ringgit to get to. You can go for a quick visit, or join one of the cave tours that last about one hour.

Visit KLCC Park at Night

The towers at night are even more spectacular than during the day. You’ll find people exercising, relaxing, and walking around at night. There’s even a nightly light show.

Where to Stay

Sunshine Bedz

I loved this hostel! It’s about $9 USD a night (one of the most expensive I’ve stayed in Asia, but all accommodation is quite pricey here). Guests get free breakfast of toast and condiments, and free coffee and tea throughout the day. The beds are comfortable and the rooms are air-conditioned. The owner is really nice too! The hostel is secure and guests have access to lockers.

Kuala Lumpur to Taman Negara: Around 80 Malaysian Ringgit, which includes a 4 hour mini van ride and a 3 hour boat ride.

Taman Negara

Don’t miss your chance to camp out in the oldest rainforest in the world! Read my complete guide to Trekking in Taman Negara.

  • A 2D1N four person trek costs 230 Malaysian Ringgit

Where to Stay

Hana Guesthouse

The owner of this guesthouse has the greatest laugh! A three person room costs 40 Malaysian Ringgit per night, the cheapest we found.

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

Taman Negara to Cameron Highlands: Costs around 60 Malaysian Ringgit and takes a few hours.

Cameron Highlands

I fell in love with Cameron Highlands during the short period of time I was there. The weather was comfortable and chilly, the people friendly, and the air fresh and clean.

What to Do

Trek 1

This trek is 3.5 kilometers of intense hiking. You’ll start the trek at an easy incline that quickly turns into a vertical climb with ropes and twigs (I’m not joking). The trek takes between 1 and 2 hours, and the views from the top are supposed to be spectacular, but I only saw clouds- you end up over 2,000 meters above sea level!

Getting to Trek 1

Hitchhike! It’s very common in the Cameron Highlands to go hitchhiking. Don’t stick out your thumb like you normally would, hitchhikers here face their hand downward and close it up and down. Remember to always listen to your gut, stay safe, and take a friend with you if possible. My two friends and I successfully hitchhiked three times in one day.

Mossy Forest

The movie Avatar was shot here. The hike is easy with beautiful views of the highlands and entry is free. I did a bit of the mossy forest after trekking Trek 1.

Strawberry Fields

The Cameron Highlands are known for their strawberry fields, and you can’t visit without picking and eating your own strawberries. I went to a random field and spent around 8 ringgit on a basket of fresh strawberries, probably the most delicious I’ve ever had. I also had a strawberry milkshake.

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

Boh Tea Plantation

Here you’ll find fresh tea with a phenomenal view.

Where to Stay

D’Native Hostel

I loved this hostel! At 30 ringgit a night, you sleep in bungalows and spend your evenings around a campfire with a beer in one hand and… a beer in the other.

Cameron Highlands to Penang: The bus costs around 30 Malaysian Ringgit and is around 4 hours.

Penang

Penang is one of my top favorite cities in the world. I stayed in Georgetown, which is full of vibrant street art, mouthwatering food, and friendly locals.

What to Do

Trek Pulau Pinang National Park

When the beach is your final destination on a trek, it makes it that much more enjoyable. I trekked to Turtle Beach, which I highly recommend. You can also trek to Monkey Beach.

My friends and I had the entire beach to ourselves. While the water was not suitable for swimming, we still enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the surrounding nature.

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

Penang Hill

I didn’t make it to this hill, but the views of Georgetown are supposed to be spectacular from the top. The round trip train ticket to the top is 30 ringgit for adults. You can also choose to hike the 5 kilometers to the top.

Where to Stay

Casablanca Hostel

The owners at this hostel are very nice and accommodating. They even let my friends and I join them for a staff breakfast of eggs, eggplant, and rice one morning.

Guests receive free breakfast of bread, cakes, and fruit, and free water, tea, and coffee throughout the day. The fan room is 20 ringgit per night, the A/C room is 25 ringgit a night. I stayed in the fan room, which I don’t recommend (it gets VERY hot).

Tipsy Tiger

If you’re looking to party, Tipsy Tiger is for you. Rooms are 40 ringgit a night, and guests receive free breakfast of cereal, toast, fruit, and condiments, free tea, coffee, and water, and 2 free cocktails. Guests of the hostel also receive drink discounts at the bar.

I stayed here a couple nights. While I loved the hostel and party atmosphere, I switched to Casablanca because it was cheaper (but still partied at Tipsy Tiger a few more times during my stay).

Perhentian Islands

I didn’t visit these islands, but I heard they are extremely beautiful. They’re on the eastern side of Malaysia, and full of beautiful, clean beaches, secluded campsites, and incredible SCUBA dives. Nomadic Matt has a great guide to the Perhentian Islands.

Borneo—Sabah

Borneo is even lesser traveled than Peninsular Malaysia. It’s split into two states, Sabah in the north, and Sarawak in the south.

Borneo has such a rustic, natural beauty, that any traveler will find themselves observing the abundant wildlife, venturing through the lush jungle, and exploring caves, mountains, and beaches.

Kota Kinabalu

Fly to Kota Kinabalu

Flights to Kota Kinabalu can be as little as $20 USD. This is a good starting point for your trip in Borneo, as it’s central and easily accessible.

Where to Stay

Akinabalu Hostel

This hostel is 20 ringgit a night with air conditioned rooms and free breakfast of toast, coffee, tea, water, eggs, and sausage. It’s in a great location and close to the ferry terminal.

What to Do

Visit the Islands

I visited Gaya Island. I wish I could say it was full of pristine beaches and clear blue water. The island was a complete dump. My friends and I trekked to basecamp, and saw a tremendous amount of litter along the trek, in the ocean, and scattered throughout the beach. We were literally swimming in trash.

We also got scared off by growling monkeys at one point.

Sipa island is supposed to be beautiful, but only if you hike 45 minutes to the other side.

Kota Kinabalu to Kudat: The bus is 25 ringgit. Buses leave every day at 8 am and 1 pm, and takes around 4 hours.

Kudat & The Tip of Borneo

Once you’re in Kudat, take a 50 ringgit taxi to Secret Place Café near the tip of Borneo. I spent three days camping at this family’s home. Robby, the owner, is so lovely, and his kids are adorable. They’re helpful and speak English really well, and love getting to know you.

We had iffy weather the first day, so we spent the day relaxing in the hammocks in sweaters and drinking 10 ringgit bottles of rice wine. One of the guests we met had been there for two months!

I slept in a stuffy tent with two of my friends for 36 ringgit each the first night, and then less than 20 ringgit each the second night.

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

Kudat to Sandakan: 7 hour bus ride for 60 ringgit. This was one of the worst, if not the worst, bus rides I have ever been on. It took us 9 hours instead of 7 because it kept stopping every 20 minutes. The bus smelled like urine and sewage the entire ride, and I had three kids sitting behind me pushing and shoving my seat for the duration of the trip. One of my friends met a local on the bus who invited us for dinner that night and to spend the night at his house (which made the bus ride worth it).

Sandakan

This coastal town is a good base for visiting Sepilok, the Orangutan Sanctuary, and the limestone Gomantong Caves.

Where to Stay

Sandakan Backpackers Hostel

The owners of this hostel, Zu & Za, are two of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They started the hostel this past February 2016 and go above and beyond to make sure guests are happy and comfortable.

They offer free breakfast of fruit, toast, coffee, and self-service eggs. The rooms have air conditioning and there is a lovely rooftop with speakers to play your own music and a view of the ocean.

Harbour Bistro Café

For some of the cheapest beer in Sandakan (which is hard to find), eat at this café. Their portions are huge and they serve sets of Tiger beer for 33 ringgit.

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

Sepilok

One of the reasons people come to Sandakan is to visit Sepilok, the Orangutan sanctuary. Take a bus from the bus terminal in town for several ringgit. Entry to Sepilok is 30 ringgit.

Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu: From Sandakan, take a local bus to the bus station just outside of town. Make sure you have more than an hour to get to the bus station, because the local bus doesn’t leave until it’s full, and doesn’t move faster than 1 km/hour. My friends and I made the bus to Kota Kinabalu by 2 minutes. The bus is 43 ringgit, leaves almost every hour until 2 pm (6 am, 7 am, 8 am, 9 am, 10 am, 11 am, 12 pm, 2 pm) and takes about 7 hours.

Brunei

Brunei is a country many people probably skip out on, but it would be a shame to miss this country since it’s so close! Brunei is known for its rainforest and beautiful beaches. There are less than 500,000 people in the entire country!

How to Get to Brunei from Kota Kinabalu

Take a ferry from Kota Kinabalu for 63 ringgit. It leaves Jesselton at 8 am and 2 pm, and takes around 4 hours to a Duty-free island called Labuan. Make sure you purchase alcohol here, it’s extremely cheap- you can’t buy alcohol once you’re in Brunei! Change your money here as well.

It’s about an hour or two layover on Labuan, and then another hour boat ride to the ferry terminal in Brunei.

Where to Stay

Go Couchsurfing

My friends and I went Couchsurfing in Brunei, and saved a lot of money doing so. There are a ton of Couchsurfers in Brunei, so make sure you sign up today! Read my Traveler Newbies Guide to Couchsurfing.

If you’re not into Couchsurfing, there is one hostel I heard about in Brunei called Pusat Belia.

I didn’t personally stay here, but read several reviews that it’s the cheapest accommodation in Brunei and a decent option for those on a budget.

How to get to Pusat Belia

  • Exit the main bus terminal
  • Turn Left
  • Follow the river, pass a large concrete building, cross the traffic lights and walk 300 m to the hostel
  • Surrounded by large red gates with a colorful children logo on the front
  • Address: Jalan Kampong Berangan, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
  • It’s around B$10 a night
  • For females, make sure you’re dressed respectfully, as I’ve read online they can turn you down if you’re not wearing long pants and a shirt, or look unkempt (which goes for males as well).
  • You can also get to this hostel from the ferry terminal by taking the local bus. The bus drives right past the hostel, which will be on your left side. Ask the bus driver to stop here for you.

Free Things to do in Brunei

Visit the Mosques

These mosques are spread throughout the entire country, and are easily accessible by foot once you’re in the city. Gaze at the wonderful architecture and vibrant colors.

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

Visit the Water Village (Kampong Ayer)

It costs $1 per person to take the boat to the water village, but once you’re there, it’s free to walk around. The houses are on wooden stilts over the Brunei River, and house 39,000 people. It’s the world’s largest water village.

Visit Meragang Beach

Though there’s known to be jellyfish in the water, I still went swimming! It’s very secluded and not many people come relax at this beach (warning: there are a ton of sand fleas, which is probably why many people don’t come here!).

I watched the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen in my entire life on this beach.

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

Visit Angel Beach

Buy some food to BBQ and spend the day on this serene beach where fresh water meets salt water. It’s beautiful, clean, and a nice day trip out of the city.

Brunei – Miri

  • Bus from Brunei to Miri: $20 per person
  • Hitchhike from Brunei to Miri: Free!

My friend’s and I hitchhiked to Miri, Malaysia. We were picked up by a group of football players on their way to play a match against the Miri football team, which we ended up attending later on! They even treated us to lunch.

Borneo- Sarawak

Miri

I really enjoyed Miri. There are a ton of restaurants, cafes, and bars in this small, charming city.

What to Do

Lambir National Park

This national park is about 30 kilometers away from Miri and a great day trip. The park offers a ton of different hiking trails, ranging from 20 minute hikes to full day 6 hour hikes.

Entrance to the park is 20 ringgit.

Take a public bus or a taxi to the main bus terminal. At the ticket counter, ask which bus takes you to the national park (the bus labeled “Lambir” does not take you there!), the ticket should be 10-12 ringgit. The ride is around 30-40 minutes and the bus drops you off across the street from the park.

My friends and I hitchhiked back to Miri, since there isn’t necessarily a bus or mini van stop in front of the national park. You can also flag down a bus or mini van, or arrange a taxi pick up.

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

Niah Caves

These are limestone caves known for its birds’ nest industry. I didn’t go to these caves, but they’re easily accessible via bus, which takes about 2 hours. There are a few hiking trails around the caves that offer beautiful views of nature.

Where to Stay

Dillenia Guesthouse

The owner, Mrs. Lee, is really lovely. The hostel has air conditioned rooms, free breakfast of toast and fruits, and free coffee, tea, and water throughout the day. I highly recommend this hostel!

Flight from Miri to Mulu: It depends when you fly, but it can be as cheap as $25

Mulu

The only way to get to Mulu (other than a 4 day trek) is via propeller plane!

One of the main things to do in Mulu is climb to the pinnacles. The cost is roughly 400 ringgit, or, $100. This does not include food (you have to bring it yourself from Miri). If you plan on doing the pinnacles, make sure you book accommodation at the Campsite prior to arrival, it tends to get booked out relatively quickly.

You do not need to book accommodation in Mulu. There are a ton of guesthouses just outside the national park, in walking distance from the airport.

The pinnacles weren’t in my budget, so I decided to do a solo 8 kilometer trek and a guided tour of two of the caves while I was there.

Paku Waterfall Loop

This trek is 8 kilometers and relatively flat and easy. Paku waterfall is halfway through the loop, which is quite beautiful and a great place to relax.

Deer Cave/ Lang Cave

While Lang Cave is full of impressive stalactites, Deer Cave has the largest cave passage in the world. What makes this cave special is the nightly bat show visitors have a chance to watch. Around 5-6 p.m., almost every night, bats fly out of the cave in odd formations.

The tour took us inside the massive cave. It cost 30 ringgit (less than $10). There are other adventure tours you can participate in, which cost anywhere from 130-250 ringgit.

Food is a bit pricier than other places in Malaysia, since it has to be flown in.

Kuching 

I loved Kuching! There’s a lot to do and it’s relatively cheap. It’s the capital of Sarawak. One interesting thing about Kuching is the amount of cat statues, cat souvenirs, and cat attractions spread throughout the city. The Malay word for cat is kucing, one of the reasons there is such an abundance of cats in this city.

What to Do

Mount Santubong

The trek to the summit is quite strenuous. There are ropes and ladders to the top, and the trek takes around 3-4 hours one way (leave early!).

If you’re looking for something a bit easier, there is a beautiful waterfall along the trek which take about 20 minutes to reach.

Take a 12 ringgit minivan to Mount Santubong that leaves outside of the Riverside Majestic hotel in the center of the city. The van runs throughout the day. The last van from Mount Santubong back to the Riverside Majestic leaves at 5:15 pm.

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

Kubah National Park

This is a really easy day trip from Kuching. Bus K21 near Saujana car park leaves at 8 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 5 p.m. and costs 3.50 ringgit one way. There are waterfalls and easy hiking trails at this national park. There are three mountain peaks, and the national park is full of abundant wildlife, waterfalls, and forested slopes.

Cultural Village

This is a great way to get a feel for Sarawak’s culture and traditions. There are replica buildings throughout the mock village that represents every major ethnic group in Sarawak. There are also longhouses, a tall-house, and a pagoda. You can get to the Cultural Village the same way you get to Mount Santubong, a mini van from the Riverside Majestic.

Orangutan Sanctuary

Take the public bus Number 6 to the Orangutan sanctuary from the city center bus station. It costs 4 ringgit one way, and leaves around 8 am and 1 pm. The ride is about 1 hour.

Once you’re at the entrance, pay 10 ringgit entrance fee and walk a little over a kilometer to the actual sanctuary, where you have the chance to see orangutans! The feeding times are at 9 am and 3 pm, where you are more than likely to see orangutans.

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

Where to Stay 

Borneo Seahare Guesthouse

I loved this hostel. The owners are really nice, the beds are comfortable, and it’s relatively cheap (20 ringgit per night for a dorm room). The showers are also awesome! They serve a simple, free breakfast of coffee, tea, and toast. They also have a full kitchen guests can use to prepare their own meals.

Bako National Park

I recommend spending one night at Bako National Park. There are quite a few treks you can do, and they are easily done in two days.

Tajor Waterfall Trek

This trek is 8 kilometers long and passes over beaches, jungles, boulders, and other interesting terrain. It’s quite strenuous, but ends at a waterfall.

I recommend walking 300 meters past the waterfall and to the beach. It’s a steep, downhill walk to the beach (and a very strenuous walk back up) but it’s so worth the view. The beach is gorgeous, with cliffs, clear blue water (don’t go swimming, there are jellyfish and crocodiles!), and interesting rock formations.

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

Seastacks Trek

This is the iconic viewpoint in Bako. The seastacks are formed by iron and are colorful sea arches in the middle of the ocean.

Tanjung Sapi Trek 

While this trek is only 400 meters one way, it’s basically vertical the entire time! At the top, you get a wonderful view of headquarters and the ocean.

Telok Delima Trek

This trek is known for the proboscis monkeys that swing from tree to tree and hang out in the area. The trail ends on a beautiful, small beach surrounded by cliffs.

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Malaysia, Borneo, & Brunei

What to Eat

There is one cafeteria in Bako, which serves mediocre food. It’s relatively inexpensive. One of the most expensive things about Bako is the beer (8-12 ringgit per can) and water (4 ringgit per 1.5 liter bottle).

How to Get There 

Take a public bus from Kuching to Bako National Park. The ride is around 45 minutes and costs 3.50 ringgit. From the entrance, you pay a 20 ringgit National Park entrance fee, and then you take a 20 ringgit boat (one way, 40 round trip) to the actual national park.

Everything in the national park is within walking distance

Where to Stay

Bako National Park Hostel

Make sure you book accommodation beforehand. Use this website to book the hostel, which is 15 ringgit per night in the dorm. They also have private accommodation available.

Flight from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur: Again, it depends on when you fly, but flights can be as little as $19.

Have you ever been to Malaysia, Borneo, or Brunei? Have any tips to add?

Follow me on Snapchat to see more of my journey! ‘globetrottica’


Make sure to always purchase travel insurance before traveling in case of any medical emergencies, lost or stolen items, or sudden trip delays or cancellations. I use World Nomads and can’t recommend them enough. Get a quote below today!

 

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