When I spent three months in Japan, I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to sleep every night. I had a home base at Chris’ western Tokyo apartment, and so all I needed to do was figure out what I’d get up to each day.
Being on the road means finding different places to crash in each city I visit. It’s one the things I research the most when I decide that I’m heading off to a new destination.
There is no shortage of choices of places to stay in Southeast Asia. While you can rely on review websites, travel guide books and word of mouth, you never really know what you’re getting yourself in to until you drop your bags and check out your bunk.
So far, I’ve been fortunate to have very good stays through this first month on the road. In an effort to help build the base of online reviews of hostels and hotels, I’ll try to recap some of the places I’ve stayed each month here on the blog.
Here are the places I crashed in January 2016.
It had been years since I’ve stayed in a hostel, and so I thought I’d dive feet first in to the experience with one of the KL hostels which gets a lot of buzz. Reggae Mansion Kuala Lumpur bills itself as a party hostel, and that’s a fair statement. The rooftop bar is rather popular and has cheap(er) drinks that keep revellers up and dancing in to the wee hours of the morning. You can hear the thumping of the bass in the room, but as a city dweller for most of my adult life it doesn’t bother me.
The price of partying in KL isn’t cheap because of rather exorbitant taxes on liquor in Malaysia, and so I wasn’t willing to part with my travel money up on the rooftop. Instead, I was looking for a good night’s sleep. The pods in Reggae Mansion’s 24-bed mixed dorm are comfortable enough, and have a light and power outlet in each one (so you can charge your phone while you sleep). Wifi exists, but quality of service can suffer from having so many devices connected to it at once.
One of the benefits of staying at Reggae Mansion is its proximity to public transit. The Mased Jamek LRT station is a major interchange point in KL’s transit infrastructure, servicing three of the rail lines. The station is less than a five minute walk away from the hostel.
Reggae Mansion gets a lot of knocks in its Hostelworld reviews for a staff that is somewhat terse, and that criticism is not without merit. While many of my interactions were fairly trivial with the staff, there was one circumstance which left a negative impression. The hostel has a rule requiring guests to use the hostel’s own plug adaptors for the power sockets (Malaysia uses the British standard of power plugs), but didn’t have any to give out at the front desk. It was a policy which seemed a little asinine, and a message delivered at the front desk without much empathy or information on how or when any adaptors would be available. Honestly, it didn’t feel like the staff cared much about the shortage of adaptors.
The biggest criticism I have of Reggae Mansion is the cleanliness of their showers (at least the ones on the third floor where I was staying). Bathroom cleanliness isn’t that hard to achieve with a little elbow grease and a bottle of bleach. Even my gym back in Canada was able to maintain a really good level of freshness in their showers with a fairly strict cleaning regimen. This was lacking for my own personal standards.
At RM50 a night (C$16 / US$11), it’s not the most expensive hostel on the trail, but it’s not the cheapest. Even if it intends to market itself as a “party hostel,” everyone knows a good party host should try to but its best face forward, and Reggae Mansion comes up just shy of this. It’s not a bad place, and it’s even a place I’d recommend to a 20-something looking for a fun time. But they could be giving their guests a much better experience with some effort.
My other stay while in Kuala Lumpur was during my layover returning from Kota Kinabalu en route to Langkawi. For this, I chose to stay at the airport and spend the night at CAPSULE by Container Hotel.
CAPSULE is a modern capsule style hotel which is more industrial than its Japanese counterparts. Its unique story twist is that the facility is built out of shipping containers. The hotel is aimed at short term travellers, with the maximum stay topping out at 12 hours for a total of RM99 (C$32 / US$23).
I’ve had the best shower of my stay in Malaysia at CAPSULE. The rainfall shower heads are worth every sen – not to mention the comfy beds and chill lounge area.
There could be more done to soundproof the area for the sleeping pods from outside noise as there is a bus pickup point right outside the windows of the hotel. Light sleepers might find themselves needing to use the supplied earplugs.
Overall, CAPSULE delivers on its promise – the opportunity to get some shut-eye inbetween flights, and to refresh with a great shower. It’s a little pricier than a hostel, but it doesn’t require you to leave the airport if you need to crash for the night, meaning not needing to deal with cabbies or transit.
In choosing a place to stay in Melaka, price was a consideration, but location was also important. See, unlike in Kuala Lumpur, Melaka’s bus terminal is located in the suburbs. Because I wanted to explore not only Melaka but also to take the bus to nearby Muar (and take the bus to Johor Bahru once I was done visiting) being close to the bus terminal made a lot of sense.
In doing my research, I discovered the Ramarama Designer Boutique Hotel. Not only does it have private hotel rooms, but it also has a dorm complex for backpackers. The price for a night in the dorms runs RM42 (C$14 / US$10) – a price which also includes Melaka’s mandatory RM2 per night tourism tax.
For me, Ramarama was like an oasis after staying in the chaos of central Kuala Lumpur. The beds were fantastic with great sheets and pillows, the air con was ice cold in the dorm, and the common room had a fantastic setup with a place to lounge and watch TV, as well as an area to get some work done. Plus – the cleanliness of this place was fantastic.
By contrast to Reggae Mansion in KL, the staff at Ramarama were some of the nicest people I’ve met so far on the trip. I had a few good conversations with them about life in Melaka as I hung out at night working on the blog.
While there is no kitchen or food preparation space, there are a wealth of restaurants nearby Ramarama, and the AEON Shopping Mall across the street has a supermarket with all the stuff you could possibly want for snacks and such (at low prices).
The only criticism I’ve read of Ramarama is about its proximity to central Melaka. It’s not in the city centre – and from my experience, that’s fine. City bus service from Melaka Sentral run frequently, and if you’re planning to leave Melaka by bus, staying close to the terminal makes more sense (to me) than being in the centre of the action.
I went to Melaka intending to stay for one or two nights, and ended up spending four nights in total. It was simply a great city – and a fantastic accommodation.
One thing I learned not long after getting to JB was that the city really serves a couple of purposes. For families, it’s the Orlando of Malaysia – a place to stay while going to visit the Legoland Amusement Park. For backpackers, it’s a stopping point en route to or from Singapore – and likely onward to other world destinations, or as a place to begin their travel adventure.
For locals, JB is a sprawling city – not unlike some in North America. It just kinda goes on… and on… and on… with no real central part of the city. There are a number of different focus points around the city, and as a result, there are a multitude of city “centres.”
I bring all this up before mentioning my accommodations because what this effectively means is that why you are in JB will affect your decision on where you stay. Coming for Legoland? Stay close to Legoland. Coming to or from Singapore? Stay somewhere close to a bus that’ll get you to the JB Sentral.
I went to JB to explore – despite it not being a real “exploring” kind of city. So, it didn’t really matter which part of the city I stayed in. Which brings me to where I ended up staying – the Roof Talk Theme Hostel located in Nusajaya – a somewhat suburban area, not far from the AEON Bukit Indah shopping mall.
Roof Talk’s “theme” is a nautical one, which is appropriate given how important the causeway is to life in JB. The entire facility is decked out in cool blue hues and gentle white touches. Much thought has been given to the look and feel.
Much like Ramarama, the dorm room at Roof Talk was comfy with ice cold air con which helped considering how hot JB can be. There is a nice sized kitchen and good shower facilities as well.
For me, the hostel’s real shining jewel is its common space. It’s comprised of two large rooms – one with an awesome comfy couch plus a fantastic hightop table workspace, the other a massive living room with a TV, beanbag chairs, and lots of great areas to cozy up with a book. I spent many nights up until 1 am in the living room with my headphones in and Netflix fired up on my laptop. It’s a great place to relax and unwind.
The neighbourhood around Roof Talk has dozens of restaurants, including an amazing Korean BBQ which served me so much food I thought I was at home for Thanksgiving dinner!
The biggest challenge at Roof Talk is its location in proximity to the central part of Johor Bahru if you want to go check it out. For those not wanting to hire a taxi, I found JB’s public transit system to be – frankly – a nightmare. City buses don’t really run on much of a schedule, and there is no real central repository of information online to find out how to get where you’re going. This isn’t the hostel’s problem, but just part of the bigger issue with JB.
Overall, Roof Talk was a comfy option at a good price (RM35 / C$11 / U$8).
If a skateboard shop and hostel decided to mate, Refarer would be its love child.
Relatively new – not yet 6 months old – Refarer feels like a fresh new take on the youth hostel experience. Using the shell of a gutted-and-renovated budget hotel in the district which hosts many of KK’s youth hostels and cheap rooms, the space has been reimagined as something that wouldn’t feel out of place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s particular about its appearance – just like the young men and women who run it.
The common room is a shining star here – a big space where an impromptu guitar jam session is as likely to break out as conversation between guests. After hours, the night staff crank chill house music which is great for those late evenings where you’re working on a blog post (cough cough) or just don’t feel ready for bed.
The dorm rooms are good – comfortable beds, nice linens. The toilet and shower in my particular dorm could have stood an upgrade, although the Koehler-style fixtures in the bathroom down the hall lead me to believe it’s likely a matter of time before the flesh-coloured sink and toilet we had will get the heave-ho. Air con works well, too.
There really isn’t a bad location in KK when it comes to accessing various points of interest, and so Refarer doesn’t score or lose any points in that regard.
The breakfast at Refarer IS impressive. Nasi Lemak (what equates to Malaysia’s national dish for breakfast) is served proudly with white coffee, and is delicious.
Older guests might not care much for the street noise or late night crooning from an adjoining karaoke bar which can be heard three stories up in the dorms, but it’s not something in the hostel’s control. Unless they take over the entire block. Which I kinda wish they would. With so much glass and steel and concrete going up – even in places like KK – seeing a little gentrification like what they’ve done at Refarer is a pleasant thing to experience.
A bunk at Refarer will cost you RM40 (C$13.50 / US$9.60) on weekdays, RM45 (C$15 / US$10) on weekends – and is worth every penny.
There’s something strikingly comfortable when you first step foot in to Langkawi Dormitorio. Maybe it has to do with the way hostel owner Richard greets you as you step across the threshold and in to the air conditioned common room. Maybe it’s the beanbag chairs in the comfy living space. Or maybe it’s the notion that you’re just steps away from the beach, and all the calming effects that come with being waterfront.
Regardless, Langkawi Dormitorio is a unique find along a beach town road which evokes memories for me of growing up and going to Clear Lake in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park, or even visits to Banff up in the Rocky Mountains. Langkawi is a resort town, and many of the accommodation options in the busy area around Pantai Centang are not backpacker-budget friendly. But Dormitorio bucks that trend, with a reasonable nightly rate (RM50 / C$16 / US$12 on weekdays, RM55 / C$18 / US$13 on weekends).
Perfectly situated next to an access road to the beach, and in the thick of a myriad of dining options, Dormitorio offers amazing its guests an amazing location. The cleanliness of the hostel is among the highest I’ve experienced, with a spotless bathroom and dorm.
Word is spreading about the quality of Dormitorio, so you’re best to make reservations in advance of landing in Langkawi if you want to stay here.
* * *
I can’t believe that my first month on the road has come to a close. And despite what many people might think about hostels or guesthouses, the reality is that there are many great places to lay your head at night along the backpacker trail for not a lot of money. I can’t wait to see what the next month has in store.
Want to share your experiences and favourite hostels? Drop me a note in the comments below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.