50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

We’ve gone through many rounds of trial and error while traveling, especially during the time we spent in SE Asia. If you’re headed to this part of the world, check out our top 50 take aways from five months in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

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Navigating Kuala Lumpur

Of all of the countries we’ve visited in Asia so far, Malaysia has been my favorite, second only to Vietnam. It’s hard to explain exactly why that is, there’s no concrete reason, but between KL, the Cameron Highlands and Penang I absolutely fell in love with this country.

We started our adventure in Kuala Lumpur (KL), which is as easy and obvious a place to start as it gets. The biggest city in Malaysia, KL is known for food, incredible shopping, and fantastic city tours. If you’re spending some time in this metropolis, here are a few ideas to kick off your stay.

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The Food

This is just a reoccurring theme with our posts from Asia so far but we can’t help it - the food here is such a huge part of their culture and it’s so. damn. good. 

The classic hunting around until you find a restaurant you like will serve you well here - you’ve got endless options. But if you’re looking for cheap eats in KL, you’re going to want to check out one of two places: the street markets or the malls.

Sounds weird to say, but the malls in the major cities throughout Asia have absolutely bomb ass food. The food courts are enormous, relatively inexpensive, and you can find almost anything you want and chances are it’ll be delicious. If you’re like us and have a hard time with the daytime heat in Asia (shit is intense) then the mall is the perfect place to cool off, maybe swap a few items out of your backpack, and grab a delicious meal.

 

The mall we haunted was called Pavilion, but there’s also The Gardens Mall, Fahrenheit88, Suria KLCC and more. If you do take my rec and head over to Pavilion, you’ve got to go to Grandmama’s - Flavours of Malaysia. Order the hot pot, order the curry, order whatever you want and thank me later. It was SO good.

The other obvious choice for cheap, good eats is one of KL’s markets. Night market, morning market, daytime market if your brave and can handle the heat better than us. You can’t go wrong. Grab some fresh fruit off the street and wander until you’re tempted into one of the many stalls and restaurants lining the streets. 

At night, there’s the Connaught Night Market or the Alor Street Food Night Market (where we went). During the day, there’s Central Market, where you can shop for not only for food but for souvenirs too, or Lot 10 Hutong, which features 34 food stalls in the packed food court. Streets like Jalan Imbi, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Jalan Raja Chulan or Jalan Alor are all great places to start!

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The best part? Anywhere you could want to eat in KL is also where you can shop for those last minute souvenirs you promised everyone that you’ve forgotten about until now. 

One last thing. We are the queens of brunch, so I can't leave out our favorite brunch place that we found in KL - Merchant's Lane. You may have to wait but it is WORTH it. 

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Exploring the “7 Wonders of Kuala Lumpur”

This famous backpacker tour takes you on a whirlwind day tour of the most famous highlights of KL and can be booked through any hostel you’ll find yourself staying in.

On your tour, you’ll visit the following seven wonders:

  1. Thean Hou Temple: one of the oldest and largest temples in Southeast Asia to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu

  2. Little India Brickfields: a wide street with Indian stores and restaurants run by the country's Indian community

  3. Batu Caves: a limestone hill that has a stunning series of caves and cave temples

  4. National Palace: official residence of the monarch of Malaysia

  5. National Monument: a sculpture that commemorates those who died in Malaysia's struggle for freedom

  6. City Gallery: information hub with souvenirs & art for sale, maps, cultural exhibits & a gift-making workshop

  7. Selangor Pewter: the Royal Selangor pewter museum

The tour costs a grand total of RM85, roughly 21USD. The same company that offers this tour, Backpacking Malaysia, also offers tours to Taman Negara, Malaysia’s oldest rainforest, the cultural gem of Malacca, and boat trips on the Selangor River. 

Whatever kind of adventure you’re interested in, KL’s got something for you!

PS: They may or may not be a part of your tour, but you can’t miss (literally you can’t miss them, they’re enormous) the famous Petronas Twin Towers. Day or night, these two massive architectural masterpieces tower of Kuala Lumpur and are absolutely worth a visit, up close and personal.

 

Going Out

All right. Before we even got to Malaysia, we met a couple of travelers who told us that we would have a really hard time going out in KL. That there wasn’t much to do at night and that we were probably going to be disappointed. In fact, they told us that the best place for us to go out in all of KL was going to be Reggae Mansion, the hostel we were staying at that does have a kickass rooftop. 

WRONG.

Granted, in those travelers defense, it’s definitely not obvious where to go out. We had an inside source (one of my best friends from college is from KL) who pointed us in the right direction and that direction was to…

Changkat! This street is lined with lively bars, restaurants, and small clubs that bump great music, offer terraced views of the street, and more happy hour deals than you have time for. You can’t go wrong, just duck in where the music sounds best and hop from one to the other. 

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Still looking for something more after that (we weren’t…)? Head down to TREC, where you’ll find Zouk, the biggest club in KL. This club goes from 5PM to 5AM Friday and Saturday nights and will stay open for you during the week until at least 3AM. 

So grab your pals, or just take your lovely self, order a hookah, hit a happy hour, and dance the night away.

If you’re still looking for a party at 5AM…I can’t help you. Go to Bangkok.

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Best of Malaysia

A breakdown of our favorites

Best Experiences to Do for Free

  • See the towers in Kuala Lumpur

  • Mossy Forest in Cameron Highlands

  • Hiking paths in Cameron Highlands

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  • Wandering around the Unesco Heritage Site of Georgetown on Penang

  • Visit the tea plantations in Cameron Highlands

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Best Experiences to Splurge On

  • Slowboat to monkey beach and turtle beach in Penang National Park

  • Shopping in KL malls

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  • A weekend on Langkawi

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Best Instagram-Worthy Spots

  • Tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands

  • Towers of KL

  • Batu Caves in KL

  • Street art of Georgetown

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  • Piers and jetties of Georgetown at sunset

  • SkyBridge on Langkawi

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Best Restaurants & Bars

  • Changkat Street in KL - great area for going out

  • Zouk - biggest club in KL

  • Grandmama’s in KL mall

  • Night market in KL

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  • Geographer Kuala Lumpur

  • Merchant's Lane Cafe in KL

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  • Cameron Curry House in Tanah Rata - we went three times

  • Food stalls in Tanah Rata

  • Travellers Bistro & Pub in Tanah Rata

  • Jungle Bar in Tanah Rata

  • Teksen Restaurant in Penang

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  • Mr Shwarma in Penang

  • Tipsy Tiger Bar in Penang - great for their cheap liquor, bar crawls, and free body shots;)

  • China House in Penang

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  • Scarsdale’s Fish Restaurant on Langkawi

  • The Kasbah on Langkawi - amazing burgers, outdoor lounge seating, and all around chill vibes

 

Best Places to Stay on a Budget

  • Reggae Mansion in KL

  • Map Travelodge in Tanah Rata

  • The Frame Guesthouse in Penang - for a quieter, more minimalist stay in Georgetown

  • Honey Badger Hut Hostel on Langkawi - they have cool huts for private rooms and resident cows to keep you company on the patio at night

  • Vila Thai - huge hostel with big dorms, and they have scooter rentals and massages available even if you’re not staying there

  • Tipsy Tiger in Penang - if you wanna parttyyyy, otherwise you’ll be up all night anyway

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Things We Didn’t Get To, but Wish We Did

  • All of the east coast beaches!

  • Sabah region of Borneo, but more specifically:

    • Orangutan Conservation Centre

    • Sun Bear Conservation Centre

    • Rainforest Discovery Centre

    • Mount Kinabalu in Kota Kinabalu

    • Pom Pom Island off the East Coast

Laid Back Langkawi

Getting to Langkawi

If you’re in Penang already, Langkawi is just a boat ride away, albeit, a long, uncomfortable boat ride away. The boat only leaves from the Swettenham Pier twice a day, so be sure to book ahead of time.

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The boat is almost always full. It seats all 80-100 passengers below deck in tightly packed, 4-seater rows. There is barely any airflow and the windows are small, making for a rough 3-hour ride. Definitely take some dramamine if you get sea sick. The boat brings you to the Kuah ferry port. Most accommodation is on the west part of the islands, only a 20-minute Uber/taxi ride.

We stayed at the Honey Badger Hut Hostel. It’s a bit out of the main downtown area, but it’s quieter, supremely relaxing, and has beautiful lighting in the afternoon.

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Private rooms are uniquely built a-frame huts scattered around the property, making for a boutique resort vibe.Except for the resident cows that hang out with you around the patio at night, who are very friendly nonetheless.

Things to Do in Langkawi

Whether you’re here to cross the famous SkyBridge or just kick back on the beach for a few days, Langkawi is perfect to slow down for a little bit. The easiest way to get around is on a scooter, which can be rented anywhere on the island. We rented ours from Vila Thai, the big green hostel on Jalan Bohor Tempoyak. 

BE AWARE THAT SCOOTERS ARE DANGEROUS. This doesn’t mean you can’t use them, but BE FKN CAREFUL. We ended up at the local Langkawi hospital at 2 in the morning. Everyone’s fine, but just be careful on scooters.

SkyBridge

The SkyBridge is certainly the most popular attraction on Langkawi, so expect crowds and long queues. It’s on the north part of the island, about 25 minutes from downtown via scooter. BE AWARE that Wednesdays are scheduled maintenance days, so the the skycar doesn’t open until noon - which we didn’t realize until we got there at 10:30 in the morning.

First, buy a ticket for the skycar which will take you up to the top of the mountain. The ride up is beautiful and will make your fingers tingle at the shear height of the cabs. You can opt for a glass bottom car for a few extra bucks, but the regular ones give you spectacular views anyway. 

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Then at the top, you can buy a second ticket to take another cab across to the bridge for $10, or you can just walk for $5. The walk includes a LOT of stairs, which is fine getting to the bridge. But the walk back will be a sweaty one.

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The bridge is stunning. Predictably amazing views of the island and surrounding water, but stunning nonetheless. There are some areas of the bridge built with clear panes of glass so you can see through to the forest below. It’s a bit exhilarating to trick your body into stepping out onto the glass, but makes for cool pictures if you can brave it. The far end of the bridge has more beautiful views, so make sure to go all the way to the end.

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There are a bunch of shops and food options in the base village as well. You’ll have plenty other attractions to fill your day with if you so desire. Otherwise, if you’re just there for the sweeping blue skies and gondola rides, head to the Seven Wells for the afternoon instead.

Seven Wells

The Seven Wells are equally frequented by locals and tourists alike. They’re right nearby the SkyBridge on the north part of the island, so it’s the great stop for an afternoon dip. The place is like a naturally occurring waterpark. The slippery orange rocks create a network of smooth waterslides, complete with pockets of deep pools to float around and relax in - a perfect hotspot to cool off on any day.

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Scarsdale’s Fish Restaurant

If you’re already on the North side of the island, do NOT miss the opportunity to get fish and chips at Scarsdale’s. It’s right on the beach, and they make some awesome fried Dory.

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Great spot for a sunset dinner. Or show up for lunch, grab a beer and spend the afternoon soaking in the sun out front.

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Beach

This is where you’ll want to head to for some adrenaline-based activities. They have banana boats, parasailing, jet skiing, or plain old sunbathing for the slower-paced beachgoers. There are a bunch of dive shops and snack shacks along the beach, too.

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Head here for a stunning sunset, and stick around for the late-night fire dancers. Bars along the beach will set out mats and little tables around the main performance area for audience enjoyment. Feel free to order some snacks, fruity drinks, or even a hookah for the show.

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Digs on Langkawi

  • Scarsdale’s Fish Restaurant - reference above.
  • The Kasbah on Langkawi - amazing burgers, outdoor lounge seating, and all around chill vibes.
  • Thirstday Bar and Restaurant - modern vibes with outdoor seating on the beach, plenty of cocktails and legitimate pizza options
  • Yellow Beach Cafe - A yellow restaurant on the beach, surprised?
  • Honey Badger Hut Hostel on Langkawi - they have cool huts for private rooms and friendly bovine pets.
  • Vila Thai - huge hostel with big dorms, and they have scooter rentals and massages available even if you’re not staying there.

More Pictures!

Cameron Highlands

The Cameron highlands are best known for hidden hiking trails, expansive tea plantations, and abundant strawberry farms. The little mountain neighborhood is packed with shops and shacks serving cheap, authentic Malaysian food.

Getting to the Cameron Highlands

Kuala Lumpur has multiple buses per day heading in all directions - it’s easy to grab a taxi to the main bus terminal and book a ticket day of. The ride is a windy two hour journey through the mountains in a big comfy bus seat. Try to get a window seat to gaze out at the passing landscapes, they’re captivating. 

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You’ll arrive at the Tanah Rata bus station, which is where you can find the local bus or any onward travel. After our adventure in the highlands, we booked a comfortable van that brought us straight to our hostel up north in Georgetown, Penang.

There’s one main road that runs through the Cameron Highlands, connecting Tanah Rata, Brinchang, and Kampung Raja. The local bus runs between Tanah Rata and Kampung everyday - but since there’s only one bus, the times are pretty infrequent. 

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The bus doesn’t run on a rigid schedule, so make sure to be at the stop a bit early.

Hiking the Highlands

Just by coming to the highlands, you’re obligated to take at least one hike. There are tons of options, whether it be heading down to a waterfall for an hour or up to the top of a mountain for the afternoon. 

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Hiking in the Cameron Highlands is done by “paths” with numbers. Not all of the paths are well maintained, so it would be wise to check with your hosts as to whether your choice path is in good enough condition.

Path 10

The most popular option is Path 10 up Gunung Jasar. The beginning of the Path is straight through someone’s driveway, but they’ve curated a little garden for passing hikers to enjoy. 

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It takes about an hour to get to the power lines at the top, and the view is quite breathtaking. We opted to just return back down Path 10 since we only had the afternoon, but if you’ve got time, you can continue along Path 12 to Gunung Perdah. It takes another hour and a half to circle back around.

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Robinson Falls

An easier option, and very close to downtown Tanah Rata, is Path 9 to Robinson Waterfall. To get to the path, you walk through the town park and along the river. There are signs to guide you towards the path. You’ll pass right by some local homes before heading into the forest. It’s only about 10 minutes until you see the waterfall. 

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After that, you can either continue down the EXTREMELY STEEP path to the Robinson Power Station (which may or may not be trespassing?). At that point, you won’t want to backtrack back up the cliff you’ve descended, so just continue along the road you empty out on. It’s another half an hour to the main road. The walk is a great way to see what the “real” Cameron Highland farms look like.

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Once you get to the main road, you can either hike back for 10 kilometers, hitchhike with a friendly-looking passerby, or hail a taxi for a buck or two. We stumbled upon a taxi before we reached the main road, so we all just piled in.

Path 2

Path 2 is only for the true adventurers. We sort of stumbled into it without realizing what we signed up for, but apparently it’s the least maintained, most-wild trek of them all. 

It begins at the Sam Poh Temple, which is most easily reached by taking the local bus up to Brinchang in the morning. The walk from downtown to the temple is really enjoyable if you go for an early morning stroll. The neighborhoods are just waking up, and it’s a fun way to explore the less busy areas of the highlands. 

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The Temple is not crowded at all. It’s a nice way to start the day before trekking through the jungle. From Sam Poh, you go back down the main drive and make the first right. Follow that road until there’s a dirt driveway on your left, and a pinkish apartment building on your right. It’ll seem really strange, but the trailhead is up through the lower level of the apartment building on the right.

The beginning is a crazy scramble up a steep hillside until you get to the first trail sign. Fellow hikers have written warnings of steepness, and they’re not wrong. The rest of the trail is a series of ups and downs through some pretty authentic jungle highlands. Expect to cross over riverbeds, duck under fallen trees, and wonder for a few moments which way the path goes. 

That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Path 2 the most. It’s not so much of a hike up a mountain as it is a wander through the woods. There were so many moments that we stopped to sit and listen to the jungle around us. The sounds of water trickling through the rocks, or birds calling in the canopy. It really is a peaceful way to experience how alive Malaysia is.

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Near the end of Path 2, you can empty out near the golf course, or fork back into the jungle for a shot at Path 3. Both will take you south towards Tanah Rata, but the path will take much longer. We headed out towards the road and walked along the golf course and through the outskirts of town. Again, a fun way to see the area! 

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Mossy Forest

The Mossy Forest was by far my favorite activity. At the very top of a rolling, tea-covered hill, an elevated boardwalk wanders through native highland forest. The dripping wet leaves, glossy palms, moss-coated trees, and drenched brown boardwalk planks will make you feel like you’re in the middle of one big raindrop. 

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It’s like you can hear the moisture among the silence of the forest. This is what the very highest of the Cameron Highlands were like before the tea plantations.

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For a surreal experience, go in the morning before the clouds lift and the crowds arrive. Catch the 8:30 bus and let the driver know you want to get off at the Cameron Square Shopping Centre. He’ll drop you off at the bottom of the very long hill. We originally planned to walk up, but decided it would be way easier and faster to hitchhike up. The couple that picked us up were visiting the Highlands on their honeymoon! Less romantically, there are a number of tour companies in town that offer trips to the Forest as part of a larger package.

There are some areas at the back of the forest that are not a part of the main boardwalk. They are usually muddy, slippery, and dangerous. We chose to stick to the in-bounds boardwalk, but if you choose to go rogue, remember that the rangers will not be able to help you. And if they find you, you might get in trouble. That being said, we bumped into a girl who wandered back there and said it was cool - pretty much the same as the regular forest area, but muddier. 

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Head up to the top of the lookout tower to really get your head in the clouds. It’s beyond peaceful to be surrounded by the grey, windy, morning forest air up there. Apparently if it’s a clear day, the views of the surrounding plantations are incredible.

But if the wispy clouds are all you get up there, just take a slow meander back down to the bottom of the hill to really appreciate the plantations. It’s a two-hour descent back to the bus stop without stopping. But of course, we stopped at each of the roadside viewpoints to snap pics and get the drone in the air.

Only after landing did an officer scoot up to inform us that it is indeed against the rules to fly drones above the plantations. Oops.

Boh Tea Plantation

If you have the time to pitstop at the Boh Sungai Palas Tea Centre. You walk past the fields on your way up or down. It’s a bit of a ways of the road, but if you opt to go into the plantation, there’s a restaurant/tea house overlooking fields. 

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Sit for a quick snack or tea. If you can snag a seat outside, there’s a great view off the balcony. We got the blackberry iced tea - worth the walk!

Strawberry Farms

There are a couple of options around Brinchang. We didn’t have time to get to any of them, but it’s a fun activity for an afternoon if you’re already up there! Check out one of the butterfly farms while you’re at it!

Digs in Cameron Highlands

  • Map Travelodge - Awesome travel-themed hostel with amazing photos lining the entrance stairwell. Plus an entire wall of postcards for sale, all taken by the owner of the hostel! We seized this opportunity to write some hellos to friends back home - reception will even postage and send them out for you!

  • Cameron Curry House - uh-mazing Indian food on the corner of the main street. Went there 3 times.

  • Jungle Bar - at the very far end of a small street off the main road. Chill vibes, good old pool table, cheap liquor and even an outdoor fire pit!

  • Travellers Bistro & Pub - near our hostel, sells Tiger beer towers. And fries.

More Pictures!

The Best of Penang, Malaysia

To date I have yet to find another city in Asia that I love as much as Penang, Malaysia. This island state is just off the northwest corner of the country and accessible by bus, ferry, or plane. 

 

George Town

The highlight of Penang is George Town, the capital of Penang and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is city is unbelievably colorful and has a fascinating mix of British colonial buildings, vibrant street art, as well as Chinese and Islamic influences. We spent whole days doing nothing but wandering the streets and taking in the views, it is absolutely stunning. 

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One of the first things you can do is take a coach (or a hike, if you’re into that) up to Penang Hill to get an amazing overview of the city. We didn’t get a chance to do this, but from what we heard it’s well worth the trek up, no matter how you make it!

If you’re interested in a self-guided tour of the city, here are a couple of suggestions. The street art in Penang is famous, and for a good reason. The city-commissioned art is painted all over the city’s walls and is definitely worth seeking out. A good place to start is the Upside Down Museum and then walk in towards Little India (a conveniently great place to stop for lunch). 

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After visiting the street art, walk yourself towards The Blue Mansion, an amazing building that you can either take in from the street or catch a tour around the inside at either 11:00am, 2:00pm and 3:30pm. After touring this area, catch the sunset on the water down by the old town jetties (this wouldn’t be a bad time for a sundowner).

Looking to try some delicious & traditional Malaysian food while you’re here? Check out Tek Sen, a low key, family-owned place that’s well worth the seeking out. Absolutely try the homemade tofu and the pork belly - it’s unbelievable!

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Looking to go out? If you’re looking to stay and play at the same place, look no further than Tipsy Tiger Party Hostel. This is where we stayed and it was an absolute blast. This is NOT your place if you’re looking for a good night sleep. But if you’re looking to meet people over some cheap drinks and to play a couple of bar games, this is the place to start your night. Plus, the hostel staff will take you on a bar crawl after the place shuts down between 11:30pm and midnight.

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PS: late night kebabs or noodles are always a good idea

PPS: at Tipsy Tiger, body shots are free ;) just watch out for their photographer…

 

Taman Negara AKA Penang National Park

Pack up your sunblock and a swimsuit and don’t miss out on Taman Negara Pulau Pinang. This national park stretches along 3,100-acres of the northwest corner of Penang and is easy to get to from George Town either by bus or cab. 

Hire a longtail boat to take you to Turtle Beach and Monkey Beach, where you can laze on the sand or in the water and order an ice cold coconut from one of the colorful beachside shacks. The boat one-way costs roughly 40 ringgit per person, but you can negotiate for a return trip if you don’t feel like taking the 2ish mile hike back.

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Penang is sensational. Enjoy George Town, eat until you hate yourself, hit the bars at night, and take a day to enjoy the picturesque national park. While you’re there, don’t forget to catch a ferry to Langkawi, an adventure in and of itself.