How to travel Malaysia on $50 a day

When our budget-conscious trio set out to explore Malaysia’s less-travelled East Coast, we had no idea we could travel Malaysia on AUD$50 a day. Live well and spend so little: here’s how we did it.

Admittedly, we kept transportation costs in check by bringing our own bicycles, a decision which won’t be everyone’s idea of a good time.

For us, it turned out to be the best way to get fit, travel slowly and enjoy the company of locals at every coffee stop, lunch break and noodle shop from Desaru to Kota Bharu.

While we found prices to be cheaper than Singapore but a little more expensive than neighbouring Thailand, Malaysia offers remarkably good value for day-to-day expenses. Hotel rooms are affordable, meals and drinks are a bargain, and by indulging in the best natural attractions the East Coast has to offer, we managed to spend a pittance, and you can too.


Hotels & Guesthouse

Surprisingly, we managed to find good, clean budget hotel rooms every night – with air-con – for around AUD$20-27 a night. These always came with an attached bathroom and hot water shower, free WiFi, a TV (not that there’s very much on), and extras such as fresh towels and a kettle. We usually got a triple room in this bracket (double and 1 or 2 single beds).

The most we paid for a double, air-conditioned room was RM89 (about AUD$32) in mega-touristy Kuala Besut (the launching pad for snorkeling trips to the Perhentian Islands). Our cheapest (and favourite) find was a roomy beachfront bungalow at gorgeous Merang, shaded by casuarinas a few steps from a lovely white sand beach, that set us back just AUD$12 a night. We stayed two nights, but should have lingered for a week.


Eating & Drinking

Eating locally saved us a packet! Most days began with the Malaysian breakfast of champions: fresh rounds of crisp, flaky roti served with a spicy curry dipping sauce or tangy dhal (35 cents) and a mug of thick Malay coffee (50-80 cents).

At lunchtime we’d fill our bellies at any Nasi Campur on our route. These simple open-air, roadside cafes offer a tantalising buffet of meat and seafood curries, stir fries, noodles, vegetables, fried fish, omelettes and more, served on a bed of rice for around RM4-8 (AUD$1.40 – $3), depending on what and how much food you choose to pile on your plate. Teamed with tall glasses of iced tea (50 cents), we rarely spent more than AUD$6 to feed the three of us.

After a long day on the bikes we sometimes craved a cold beer, but in Malaysia’s strictly Muslim towns and communities, alcohol consumption is frowned upon (and outlawed for local Muslims). It was never a huge concern for us and to be honest, we all maxed out on Malaysia’s mega-sweet drinks. Fueled by copious mugs of iced coffees and teas laced with generous dollops of sweet, condensed milk supported our daily sugar buzz. However, in a few towns with a blended Malay/Chinese culture, we chanced upon Chinese restaurants that openly served icy beer (usually Carlsberg). When we could indulge, we usually paid AUD$5 for a large bottle to share.

While water from the tap is not safe to drink in Malaysia, you can buy mineral water cheaply and osmosis treated water is available at refilling stations located just about everywhere. These are the most environmentally friendly way to quench your thirst and cheap too – just a few Aussie cents for 500ml. When you sit down to eat, don’t be afraid of the iced jugs of water often provided on tables, which are quite safe.


Cheap thrills & Things to do

Our half-day cycling routine usually left us with plenty of time to explore once we pulled into a town, beach or village. If there was a beach in sight, we’d spend each afternoon swimming, beachcombing and building sandcastles. Other times we’d meander down to a riverbank to watch the daily catch being unloaded, or find a playground, chat with locals over icy drinks at a coffee shop or wander around the central markets in search of fresh fruits and nibbles.

Marang, south of Terengganu, has a great tradition of beachside picnicking and we joined in too, buying up freshly steamed cobs of corn and sticks of barbecued seafood to eat within sight of the sea. There was a huge choice of ways to explore bigger towns such as Kota Bharu, with a dozen free museums, cultural shows, festivals and terrific markets that don’t cost a cent. Make time to wander through Terengganu’s Chinatown and explore Pekan’s Museum Sultan Abu Bakar.

Generous Locals

Perhaps it was because of the beaming little blonde-haired child perched on the back of my bike. Maybe the mainly Muslim locals on this stretch of coastline are just totally awesome people, because wherever we went we attracted the kindness of strangers.

Café goers would strike up easy conversations with us, sometimes they even paid for our meals, and invariably they offered all kinds of advice about top things to see close by. They went out of their way to welcome us and inquire about our travels and always had smiles (and plenty of treats and small bills) for our daughter. If there’s a more friendly part of the world to travel through, I haven’t been there yet!

Top Budget Saver

Three of the nights on our three-week East Coast tour were spent with Warm Showers’ hosts (that’s Couch Surfing for cycle tourers). While the idea of saving on hotel bills is certainly appealing when you’re travelling on a budget, it’s not the reason we choose to sign up to Warm Showers.

This online community connects people travelling by bicycle with local hosts who might offer a bed, a camping spot in their yard, and anything from use of the kitchen and laundry, to a shared meal and a tour of the area. For me, the opportunity to stay with locals and glean a little about their way of living was one of the best experiences of the trip, and those we spent time with were very generous to us.


Best Splurge

The highlight of any East Coast adventure must surely be an escape to the coral-fringed Perhentian Islands off Malaysia’s far northeast coast. Head to Pulau Kecil for beachfront bungalows fringed by jungle, straight-off-the-sand snorkelling and a slice of the simple life. The views from laidback Coral Bay’s hilly bungalows are heavenly and when you’ve explored the reefs that begin mere metres from your room, you can follow the seaside walking path north or south to explore other underwater scenes. Keep an eye out as you go for green crested lizards, tokay geckos, red tailed squirrels and pit vipers.

At Shark Point, blacktip reef sharks cruising along the sand spit provide thrilling encounters for those floating daringly above them. Snorkelling boat trips visit Kecil’s more remote coves and coral gardens, and head further afield to pristine dive spots off neighbouring Pulau Lang Tengah and Pulau Redang.

Coral Bay’s cluster of family-run restaurants provides authentic, home-style cuisine and popular nightly seafood barbecues, served as the sun goes down over the sea at candlelit tables by the water’s edge. Alcohol is absent from menus here, which seems to suit the quieter crowd, but you can easily access Long Beach’s livelier backpacker scene, a 10-minute walk across the island’s jungly interior.

Prices on Pulau Perhentian Kecil are ultra affordable – a budget double bungalow costs around AUD$20. WiFi speeds demand patience and while electricity at the island’s more upmarket digs runs 24 hours, you should expect limited hours at budget bungalows (upside: the fans switching off at 7am is the perfect wake-up call to get you tumbling into the sea).

The 30-minute speedboat ride to Pulau Perhentian Kecil costs RM50 return. Water visibility is best during the dry season (March to October). There are no ATMs or banks on the island so bring cash and alcohol if sundowners are your thing. Check or other travel ideas.

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