Malaysia itinerary: mainland sites and Gunung Mulu National Park
The itinerary start in KL for 2 days (1), then goes on to Cameron highlands(2), continues to Penang (3). From Penang you fly to Kota Bahru to enjoy some rest by the beach on Besar island in the Perenthians(4). After a few days, off to Melacca(5) via KL and then from KL flying to Miri(6) for just one night in order to catch the next day early morning of only 2 flights daily to Gunung Mulu national park (7). After being amazed at the size of these UNESCO listed gigantic cave systems, it's time to go back via miri and the Niah Caves to KL and a final day of shopping before flying back home.
This Malaysia itinerary was done during my parent's summer visit in 2013. It's a 2,5 weeks of travelling where we drove them around on week-ends and took some holiday with them too. During the week days, when we were working, they went to Penang that they could do easily by themselves.
Since 2013, with the implementation of the GST and the removal of many subventions, costs have drastically increased in Malaysia - by at least 30%. I would strongly recommend to update, exchange rates in the excel file as well as the cost of attractions and transport tickets.
As the flights from Europe often arrive in the very early hours, planning for a good half day of rest and light activities is quite good. Which is why starting with an evening stroll around the petronas tower park and watching the evening water fountains lights ( around 8pm ) is good, plus there are plenty of options for diner around and if you feel good, you can walk via pavilion mall & further to Jalan Alor in Bukit Bintang via the network of pedestrian bridges and underpath for some street food.
Another good evening activities just at sundown is the Menara KL ( the TV tower ) which stands higher than the bridge of the Petronas Tower, so if you are looking for a view, I would recommend to get up that one and skip the pricey twin towers !
Among expat a popular venue for sunset watching is the Heli lounge bar right off Raja Chulan Monorail station which is on an helipad. Get there at least 1 hour before sunset, order your drink at the bar and take the stairs up to the helipad to secure a chair and watch the sunset over the city building.
The second day in KL could be used for numerous visits - but don't miss the Batu caves, plus it's so easy to get there with the train from KL Sentral ! The place in itself is a little tacky but it's a very popular place ( and the Indian unpretentious food stalls inside the complex there are quite good too if you hang around there for lunch) but beware of the monkeys !
You can combine it with a visit from the city center, walking through Pasar Seni souvenir (touristic) market and to Chinatown. Chinatown is cheap/copy market center - the old china café in this area has been a safe and tasty establishment for local and tourist alike. it's a proper restaurant ( not street food !) in an simply traditionally decorated house. You can also just pick a hawker center - they are mostly good in this area.
In the evening pick of the first day option you didn't have to try or just rest as the next days will start to be more intense. In the itinerary I shared the details about how to visit the cameron highlands with tours, however we had our own car and I would advise to rent your car and do all by yourself. The road is very easily and the sites accessible and well marked. Cameron highlands has deteriorated since the first time we visited as students in 2009. The jungle we used to hike has been chopped off to be replaced with fruit farms. The beautiful streams and river we bathed during of the door all these years back are now very much polluted and changed color: most guided tour don't even plan for a waterfall swim after their raflesia tour anymore. It's a cool place, but it starts to be more a Chinese bus tour place than an authentic one, if you are after real jungle but accessible from Kuala Lumpur, rent a car and drive your way to Tanam Negara and Kuala Lipis instead, it takes about the same time when you self drive.
As me and my husband had to go back to KL to work, my parents took a bus to continue their journey to Penang. The buses in Malaysia are super comfortable and as the mainland itself is not really big the bus journeys are quite smooth and not very tiring.
Visiting the city center of Penang is easily done on foot - watch out for the famous street art paintings ! The guesthouse I chose for my parents was very confortable BUT it's right behind the main mosque... and it was Ramadan time, which means night prayers as well. Needless to say it was not the best sleep they ever had, beware !
One of my favorite visit in Penang is the Blue Mansion and if you can, stay a little longer after the guided tour for the tea & traditional dessert to enjoy the place after everyone is gone. The conservation work done is astonishing and the guided tour well done. My parents also visited the "green mansion" however I haven't, they mentioned that it was also interesting as there was in this one more furnitures and less people.
Walking around Penang street and feeling the relaxed vibes is most of the charm of this city. And don't forget to eat at hawkers and street food ! Penang is ranked among the best in the world and for good reasons ! Best advice, get lost and try as much snacks and food as you can find !
Renting a car in Penang is also a good thing to do to get around. Some sights are easier (and faster) to reach that way, although the bus system is a worthy substitutes. The kek lok si temple, batu feringhi beaches and the butterfly farm can be done in one day ONLY if you have your own transport. The butterfly farm is one of the best I have visited to date and is unreachable with public transport.
There was at that time flight direct from Penang to Kota Bahru which bypass a need for transit via KL. I am not sure this is still the case, but it arrived early morning and we coordinated with my parents to meet there to get some holiday in the Perenthians islands. These islands are composed of 2, the small (Kecil) and the big (Besar) island.
The small one is mainly crowded with dive center and backpacker accommodation, whereas the larger island has more upscale offerings. Transfer between the island can easily be done with water taxi costing about 40-45 RM per way per boat. In front of the Perenthians island resort is a nice beach which is also a famous snorkeling point for tours as it has a layer of seagrass where turtles come to graze ! No need for a tour to get there, just walk there (if you stay on Besar) or take a water taxi & then stay for the beach / take a drink at the hotel !
Years later (2018) I went back for diving only and did island hoping with a friend. I did enjoy Coral Bay the most, it's a small creek that has a few nice accommodations and all the diving centers that you need to enjoy yourself. It's quite quiet in the evening.
We flew back to KL, and I think most people forget that there is a bus station at the airport or also if you take the KLIA Express TRANSIT then you can stop at the big bandar tasik selatan bus station. This way you can jump on your next destination without wasting the time to go downtown KL. (The airport is 40/45 min drive away ! )
Best way to get directly to Malacca for a one day visit of the UNESCO city center. It's just 2 hours from the airport.
In my honest opinion and for the number of times I have visited Malacca, I felt that 1 day was always more than enough. Spending an evening there when it's market day is however very fun (it's along Jonker walk) . You must try the Nyonya food ! It's a mix of Chinese and Portuguese cuisine - the eggplant dishes are one of my favorite - there are many restaurant in the city and I have never been disappointed by any of them. You can also find in the market a lot of pineapple tarts and Portuguese egg tarts, on the very local treat side there are the small glutinous rice cakes. The rest of the fares of display are your usual market knick knacks and souvenirs.
In the evening you can catch a bus from the station is is slightly outside of town and make your way to KL sentral bus station in Chinatown, this way you can move to your hotels and rest.
The following day is to rest and enjoy some more of KL sights. I would recommend a visit to the Bird park - it's not just for kids ! It's a giant dome with birds flying freely in a beautifully laid out garden. Everything is shaded and it makes a few hours of outside time fly by...
Not too far from the bird park is the Museum of Islamic art - which is also a surprisingly good museum. it hosts a lot of Asian Islamic arts, these objects are quite unique as they are a blend of Arabic inspired traditional with real Asia designs & usage. These pieces are not what you would see in European museums. The museum also has a very high quality array of miniature reproductions of the most significant mosques in the world. These miniatures are done in exquisite details !
After this day of rest and visit in the city - most travelers head out to Sabah state in Borneo to see the most popular Mount Kinabalu, the orang outang sanctuary and the Kinabatangan river. For the one with more time ending it with some diving in Sipadan / Mabul island is a perfect alternative.
We set our course to the Unesco listed national park: Gunung Mulu National park. This park is famous for the gigantic cave systems ! You could do some speleology there and heaps of activities with the rangers. Getting there is done by flying, the park HQ is not connected by road to any city. The flights are operated my MAS Wings (Borneo subsidiaries of Malaysian Airlines ) and depart from Miri.
One word of advice: The water at the park cost a small fortune ( like 3 to 4 times the standard price - outrageous ) - we checked-in water from Miri to save on our second trip. The guesthouse in Miri we used was helpful as they help us purchase it for us before we came - it seems it was not such an unusual request ...
To stay at this park, you have 3 options. You book independently at the Park HQ few accommodations ( do It WELL in advance ) as there aren't many dorms and rooms available. The park HQ has a small restaurant and you can book guided tours with very good guides directly from the HQ.
You can use a tour - the cheaper ones will let you stay in their own private lodge, which are quite good. Or you can take the expensive tour that book you at the ONLY international hotel (now) Marriott Mulu. We stayed at both accommodations ( we went twice there ) they are both good. All depends of the level of comfort and quality of food you are expecting: as for sure you get what you pay for.
Most people stay at the park for 2 days which is enough if you just plan on doing the easily accessible caves and see the thousands of bats flying off them at sunset ! The ballet of swirling bats is something very interesting to see and the park rangers sure know they stuff - you will learn a lot of interesting facts and if you are lucky could see some of them upclose when you visit the caves. The caves are massive and some of them even have rivers and water systems inside them - it's very impressive.
For the more fit, you can climb up the Pinacles which are unique pointy and edgy rock formations - unfortunately both times I was not in proper shape so we have never done it. There are also trails that last 3 days with 2 nights in the jungle combining, walking, kayaking that will bring you to the edge of the park and with a transfer via boat to Miri. If you have the time, it sounded like an amazing experience !
The last day, I wanted to visit the Niah Caves which are not too far from Miri - when you take the early flight from Mulu and IF you book a private tour to get there, you can combine this before taking the evening flight back to KL. The Niah cave is famous for the collection of bird nest and prehistoric site. The scaffolding hanging by a thread used to collect the bird nest are impressive and you can also see prehistoric paintings - a guide is advised to have additional explanations.
Following days in KL were used for final shopping before the last flight back to Europe !