Malaysia truly is a multidimensional destination. First of all, it comprises West Malaysia and East Malaysia, also known as Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo. Both parts are really different in look and feel. Secondly, the same difference in look and feel actually also goes for the West coast and East coast of Peninsular Malaysia.
The third dimension is the enormous variety in the landscape. Luscious rainforest is alternated with dense hi-tech urban sprawls. Rugged karst rock formations on one side and gentle rolling hills covered in green tea plantations on the other. One day you’re lounging on a tropical white beach and the next you’re trekking through the mountains.
Whatever you are looking for on your trip to South East Asia, chances are that you’re going to find it in Malaysia.
Malaysia is easy to reach with Air Asia offering insanely cheap flights from practically all major South East Asian airports to Kuala Lumpur. On the other hand, if you’re traveling the South of Thailand anyway, don’t stop and just keep trekking over the border. Or better yet, Island hop your way from Koh Lipe in Thailand to Langkawi in Malaysia. So you see, there’s no need to interrupt your streak of tropical paradise Islands.
Take at least 3 weeks for Peninsular Malaysia, or maybe 2 weeks if your willing to shorten your beach time. Another month at least if you include Malaysian Borneo (and you really should).
How to get to Malaysia
On Peninsular Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is the designated airport for intercontinental flights, with Penang, Langkawi and Malakka mainly receiving international flights from within the Asian region. On Malaysian Borneo the two major airports are at Kuching in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. I recommend using the Skyscanner website to find the full schedule and prices of incoming and outgoing flights.
For finding international busses to Malaysia it’s best to use 12Go.com to book your tickets online. Skip the lines at the bus station!
Malaysia uses the Malaysian Ringgit (MYR of RM) for currency. US$1 will get you RM4. Funny enough the Malay speak of Malaysian dollars instead of ringgit.
To travel in Malaysia is not as cheap as Thailand or Vietnam, but still cheaper than for instance Myanmar. It’s perfectly possible to get by on $25 per day if you are willing to stay in dorms and live of street food alone. If you are anything like me and need at least a private (bath)room, occasional restaurant dinners and comfortable transport then $35-$40 per day is probably more what you should expect.
Accommodation in Malaysia
On peninsular Malaysia a basic bed in a dorm can be found for as low as RM25, maybe RM35 in cities. To upgrade to a guesthouse with more privacy will raise the price to around RM60. Wifi and breakfast are normally included at most hostels and guesthouses, although don’t expect too much of the breakfast. Of course the price will go up for hotels that offer more luxury.
Prices on Malaysian Borneo are slightly higher and for the Perhentian Islands and Tioman Island you should expect at least 30% higher room rates. To compare prices and read reviews check out Agoda.com.
Airbnb has found it’s way to the cities and bigger towns of Malaysia and is an interesting option with prices at RM160 for a whole apartment.
Food in Malaysia
Malaysia is not like Thailand where you will find food at every street corner, except maybe in the city. Then again, it’s impossible to go hungry, because food is still abundant and also very cheap.
A meal at the street food stands is about RM5-RM8, while RM10-RM15 will get you a full meal at an inexpensive restaurant and RM20-RM30 at a mid-range restaurant. Due to the high tax rate on alcohol, beer is relatively expensive. On Malaysian Borneo meals go for about 20% less than the Peninsula, while beer is almost half the Peninsular price. Again, for the Perhentians and Tioman you will have to calculate 30% on top of the Peninsular prices.
Transportation in Malaysia
Transport in Malaysia is affordable and usually well organized. Long distance transport from let’s say Penang to Kuala Lumpur can be done for as low as RM65 by plane or RM45 by bus or train. Air tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching in Sarawak start at RM80 and RM150 will get you as far as Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.
Malaysia also has a good bus and train network, but especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). For bus/ferry/train schedules and tickets within Malaysia I always use the transport planning tool below from 12Go.com to book online. It’s incredibly easy to use, just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.
Getting Around in Malaysia
Prices for transport within cities is different on the Peninsula compared to Malaysian Borneo. On the Peninsula a local bus ticket costs RM3 for short trips, taxi flag fall RM3 and RM1.5 per kilometer. In Kuching (Sarawak) a local bus ticket costs RM3, taxi flag fall RM4 and RM3.5 per kilometer. In Sandakan (Sabah) a local bus ticket is between RM2-RM5, while taxi’s are flag fall RM6, and RM1.52 per kilometer. By regulation, metered fares increase by 50% from midnight to 6am. Meters are programmed to display the higher fee automatically.
All taxi’s in Malaysia should be metered and haggling is forbidden. Still, there are many taxi’s that will refuse to use the meter. If you decide to go along with a taxi without the meter make sure you agree on the price beforehand. Also make sure that the agreed price concerns your whole party. Taxi drivers have been known to claim on arrival that the agreed price was meant to be per person.
If you have a data plan on your phone it’s a good idea to use a taxi app. Grab is the main taxi app in Malaysia and works really well. It’s a lot cheaper than regular taxi’s too.
Kuala Lumpur has a fast and efficient metro system, except for some minor capacity problems during rush hour. Fare is reasonable with RM1.5 for short trips.
Some independent travelers might be horrified by the idea of booking a tour. I understand, where is the adventure in that? However, if you don’t have a lot of time a tour isn’t such a bad idea. It allows you see all the highlights in a condensed time frame. Also, for jungle and/or mountain treks it’s always wise to at least hire an experienced local guide.
Prices for tours will differ greatly depending on the area and the activity. Keep in mind that often the bigger your group the lower the price per person. In the Things to do chapter I have listed a selection of activities, many of them with prices mentioned.
When to go to Malaysia
Malaysia is hot and humid throughout the year and heavy rain is possible at any time of year. Doesn’t sound any good, does it? Don’t worry, it’s actually not that bad at all.
The East coast of Peninsular Malaysia sees the rainy season from October to February. Rain can be very heavy and seas are rough. Some of the resorts on the Islands even close up shop from November, only to re-open in March. Travel to this area is best to be avoided during this period. Dry season takes off from April and runs through September. Hot and humid weather with lot’s of sunshine and still a lot of rain possible, but usually in the form of short afternoon downpours.
The seasons on the West coast of the peninsula are completely the other way around. Rainy season from April to October with heavy rain. Not as much as the East coast, but still a lot. Dry season from November until February with sunshine, high temperatures, high humidity and afternoon showers possible.
Malaysian Borneo is even wetter than Peninsular Malaysia. Again we can distinguish two area’s here. Sarawak (West) and Sabah (East), with Sarawak being the wettest.
Sarawak is very, very rainy from October to March with very little sunshine. Come January it can rain almost every day. In Sabah heavy rain starts May and continues throughout December.
Malaysia has an enormous amount of public holidays, but many of them are just regional. For instance, the birthday of the Sultan of Kelantan is only celebrated in the Kelantan region. Of all the national holidays Aidilfitri and Chinese New year are probably the most important. Aidilfitri marks the end of Ramadan and brings about a great migration as city workers want to celebrate with their families in the countryside. Hence my advice to avoid traveling within Malaysia as much as possible during Aidilfitri.
So, when to go?
Except for rainy season on the peninsular East coast and Borneo West coast I would say any time is good to go. Malaysia receives a lot of rain so there’s no avoiding it, you will get wet at some point. Don’t let a bit of rain put you off though. You will be missing out on some wonderful experiences in this very special country. And again, apart from rainy season the precipitation usually comes in afternoon showers which actually bring a welcome relief from the heat.
Where to go in Malaysia
In the know
So much to do, so little time. Yep, life is all about choices. Down here I have listed some of my favorite activities. Maybe this helps to make up your mind on what to do when in Malaysia. Have fun!
Visit foodie heaven at Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur.
Does the street name Jalan Alor ring a bell? Maybe not yet, but once you’ve had a taste of KL’s most famous food street I assure you that you will never forget. The variety of food available is amazing with barbecued meats, noodles and desserts recognized as some of the best (and cheapest) in the city.
Climb Gunung Kinabalu Via Ferrata style.
If climbing Malaysia’s highest mountain sounds like a dream to you, but you are not the experienced superhuman mountain climber, then might be for you.
Learn about Malaysia’s colonial past in Malakka.
Part of this town is an Unesco world heritage site. The remnants of the multiple colonists are still visible in some of the well preserved buildings.
Explore the world’s oldest rainforest.
Home to elephants, tigers, leopards and rhino’s, this pre-historic rainforest is the perfect setting for an epic jungle trek. Taman Negara has been waiting 130million years for your visit.
Discover marine life at Sipadan.
Just about 40km of the coast South of Semporna, Sabah lies one of the world’s richest marine life habitats boasting more than 3000 classified species of fish. Right smack in the middle of it all is Sipadan Island.
Meet the orangutans of Borneo.
The Kinabatangan River in Sabah is one of the best wildlife watching destinations in South East Asia. A three or four day river tour almost guarantees orangutan sightings plus a whole range of other endangered wildlife.
The cuisine in South East Asian countries is often heavily influenced by its neighbors and Malaysia is no exception. Malay cuisine reflects the mix of cultures that have flocked to its shores over the centuries. In some cases the authenticity of the flavors has prevailed. Meaning, real Indian curries, original Indonesian stews and untouched Chinese Hokkien dishes. On the other hand, the fusion cuisine that developed is out of this world. Oh boy, did it work out well with the so-called Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine and the Mamak stalls.
Malay food is extremely tasty and it might just be my most favorite food in the world.
Health in Malaysia
Healthcare in Kuala Lumpur is almost ok. It’s nowhere near the level in Singapore, it’s just ok. Out in the rural areas the quality quickly deteriorates. So if you need serious medical attention out in the countryside you might need to be evacuated to the Kuala Lumpur or even to Singapore.
Pharmacies are abundant in cities and larger towns while even smaller towns often feature at least one pharmacy.
Always make sure to travel with the right travel insurance. One that covers your medical care abroad and includes evacuations and repatriation. I use World Nomads, because they are the true specialist in travel insurance and their price for the service is unbeatable. They cover a range of adventure sports and activities like scuba diving and your motor bike rental adventures (if you follow the rules). You can buy cover online, even if you’re already in the middle of traveling.
Knowing they had my back has always given me great piece of mind. Fortunately I never had to claim anything, but fellow travelers I met on the road told me that the online claims process went very smooth.
Safety in Malaysia
Like most South East Asian countries Malaysia is very safe. That doesn’t mean however that crime is non-existent. The ever so general advice to “be aware” of your surroundings applies like in any other major city. The same goes for not showing off your valuables and don’t wander into dark alleys late at night when you’re alone and intoxicated.
Next to pick pocketing, bag snatchings are the common crime in the major cities. Moto’s will drive up next to you and wthin a split second they grab your purse, backpack, camera, phone or whatever valuable item that you did not secure. Always wear your bag across your chest and be aware that someone could snatch your phone while you are completely pre-occupied with making that cool snapshot.
The police in Malaysia often try to supplement their income with ‘donations’ from people that would like to avoid an official (and higher) fine. The difference with most other South East Asian countries is that there is a growing resistance against these practices amongst the public. The Malay population doesn’t regard these kind of transactions as “just another fact of life” anymore. Consequently more and more Malay (specially in the major cities) refuse to “settle”. Instead, they pay the full fine and threaten to report the officer at fault. There’s still a long way to go to fix this, but the wheels are set in motion.
On the other hand, the Malaysian police can be a lot more helpful and useful than their (for instance) Cambodian counterparts. In particular the Tourist Police unit with officers specially trained to deal with tourists. Tourist police dispersion is not nation wide yet, but they have a good presence in tourist hubs like Langkawi, Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
Traffic congestion can be horrific in Malaysia. Somewhere I read that Malaysia ranks third in the world for car ownership and yes, there are many cars. Cities like Kuala Lumpur have hours long traffic jams every morning and every evening. Proper road infrastructure is lacking, because the city just can’t keep up with the growth of traffic.
Beware of road rage, 18% of Malaysian drivers were classified as “high-anger drivers”, thats a whopping 2.4million drivers! I swear I didn’t make this up. It’s according to a study by the Malaysian Institute for Road Safety (MIROS). Furthermore, Malaysia is ranked 17th (out of 193) most dangerous country for drivers.