Last Update: August 2020
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Malaysia truly is a multidimensional destination.
First of all, it comprises of two landmasses that are separated by 600km of South China sea. The Western part is a peninsula, also known as Peninsular Malaysia. The Eastern part is the Northern half of Borneo Island, also known as Malaysian Borneo. Both parts are really different in look and feel.
Second, the same difference in look and feel actually also goes for the West and East coast of both respective landmasses.
Third dimension is the enormous variety of landscape. Luscious rainforests are alternated with dense hi-tech urban sprawls. Rugged limestone rock formations gradually transition into gentle rolling hills covered in green tea bushes. In the morning you could be trekking through jungle or over mountains and still be in time for afternoon lounging on a tropical white beach.
Whatever it is you are looking for on your trip to South East Asia, chances are that you’ll find it in Malaysia.
Do right by Malaysia and take your time when you visit. I would say 3-4 weeks for a complete tour around Peninsular Malaysia. Ok, maybe 3 weeks if your willing to shorten your beach time (but you shouldn’t). Another month at least if you also plan to travel around Malaysian Borneo (and you really should).
Reasons (not) to visit Malaysia
Reasons to visit Malaysia
Malaysia is home to some of the oldest rain forests in the world with abundant rare fauna and flora;
With influences from all over Asia, Malaysia has one of the best cuisines in the world to offer. George Town, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Kota Kinabalu all have fantastic local food scenes;
Beautiful tropical Islands await you, like the Perhentians, Tioman, Redang, Langkawi, the Mantananis, Sipadan and many more;
Malaysia literally has many faces. The multicultural mix is what truly makes the country interesting and unique.
Read: “The Banana Pancake Trail”, South East Asia travel route.
Reasons not to visit Malaysia
Except for the mountainous areas, there is no escape from the extreme heat and humidity in Malaysia;
Although travel is certainly more affordable than in Western countries, don’t expect price levels to be as low as in Thailand and India;
Distances between the highlights are significant and you will spend a lot of time in transit. Of course, air travel is possible, but you will miss out on a lot;
The locals also like to travel within their country and this can cause some of the tourism highlights to overcrowd during weekends and public holidays.
Check the visa and covid-19 health certificate requirements for Malaysia
Peace of mind
How to get to Malaysia
On Peninsular Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is the designated airport for intercontinental flights. Penang, Langkawi and Malakka also have airports and are mainly receiving domestic and international flights from within the Asian region.
Furthermore, there a two major airports on Malaysian Borneo. One at Kuching in Sarawak and the other one at Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. For flights to/from and within Malaysia I recommend consulting the Skyscanner website to find the full schedule.
For international travel by bus to and from Malaysia it’s very convenient to use an online transportation portal to book your tickets online. Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). Skip the lines at the bus station! There are several portals, but usually 12Go.asia and Bookaway come back with the best results.
Malaysia uses the Malaysian Ringgit (MYR of RM) for currency. US$1 will get you RM4. Funny enough the Malay themselves often speak of Malaysian dollars instead of Ringgit.
To travel in Malaysia is not as inexpensive as in Thailand or Vietnam, but still less expensive 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. However, 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.
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. Needless to say that adding more luxury will also add to the room rate and basically, the sky is the limit.
The price level on Malaysian Borneo is slightly higher, but not as high as on some of the more popular Islands. Accommodation on the Perhentians and Tioman for instance is a lot more expensive. Of course the type of accommodation is completely different as well, i.e. resorts and bungalows, instead of hotel rooms and studios.
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Airbnb has a decent selection in the cities and larger towns, so that might be an interesting option with rates that average RM160 for a whole apartment.
Except maybe for George Town, you won’t find food at every street corner in Malaysia. Then again, it’s impossible to go hungry, because food is still abundant and also very affordable.
A meal at a street food stand is about RM3-RM6, while RM4-RM12 will get you a full meal at an inexpensive eatery. Regular restaurants typically charge RM18-RM30 for a full meal. Due to the high tax rate on alcohol, beer is expensive. On average RM15 for 0,5 liter in a bar and RM10 in the shops.
On Malaysian Borneo meals go for 20% less than the Peninsula, while beer is almost half the Peninsular price. Again, for the popular Islands, calculate ~30% on top of the Peninsular prices.
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 RM100 by plane or RM35-78 by bus or train. Air tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching in Sarawak starts at under RM200 and RM250 will get you as far as Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.
Malaysia also has an excellent bus and train network, Ticket prices are easy to check online with transport planning portals like 12Go.asia and Bookaway. They are 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.
Prices for public transport and taxis within cities are different on the Peninsula compared to Malaysian Borneo.
|Bus, short trip||Taxi, flag fall||Taxi, per km|
By regulation, taxi metered fares increase by 50% from midnight to 6am. Meters are programmed to display the higher fee automatically.
Although all taxis in Malaysia should be metered and haggling is officially forbidden, many drivers refuse to use the meter. Should you decide to go along without the meter, at least agree on a 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. Moreover, it’s a lot cheaper than regular taxis with way better service.
Furthermore, Kuala Lumpur has a fast and efficient metro system, except for some minor capacity problems during rush hour. Fare is reasonable at RM1.20 between connecting stations.
Some independent travelers might be horrified by the idea of booking a tour. I get it, I do, 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 few great activities.
When to go to Malaysia
Malaysia is hot and humid throughout the year and heavy rain is possible at any time. 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 again from mid March and runs through September. Hot and humid weather with lot’s of sunshine and still a lot of rain possible, but it usually comes in short and refreshing afternoon downpours.
The seasons on the West coast of the peninsula are completely the other way around. Rainy season starts by end of March and runs through October with heavy rain. Not as much as the East coast, but still a lot. Dry season from November and throughout February with sunshine, high temperatures, high humidity and afternoon showers possible.
Malaysian Borneo is even wetter than Peninsular Malaysia. Also here, we can distinguish two areas, Sarawak (West) and Sabah (East), with Sarawak being the wettest.
Sarawak is very, very wet 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 travel within Malaysia as much as possible during Aidilfitri.
So, when to go?
Except for rainy season on the peninsular East coast and the Borneo West coast I would say that 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
Malaysia is packed with beautiful and interesting sites, many of them still unknown to the greater public. I have compiled a neat selection for you from highlights to some real hidden gems to help you create your ultimate itinerary. < Click on any of the highlighted destinations to find out more >
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!
Explore one of the world’s oldest tropical rainforest. Home to elephants, tigers, leopards and rhino’s, this prehistoric rainforest is the perfect setting for an epic jungle trek. Taman Negara has been waiting 130 million years for your visit.
Discover marine life at Sipadan. A divers dream, just 40km off the coast of Semporna in the Northeast of Sabah. A unique and rich marine life habitat, boasting more than 3000 classified species of fish with gorgeous Sipadan Island right smack in the middle of it.
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 practically guarantees orangutan sightings plus a whole range of other endangered wildlife.
Climb Gunung Kinabalu. If climbing Malaysia’s highest mountain sounds like a dream, but you are not the experienced superhuman mountain climber, then this might be for you. Trek up the sacred mountain in a controlled manner and feast your eyes on the incredible views.
Some people always need more adventure. Well, since you’re there, why not also take on “Borneo highest peak, Via Ferrata“. Hang on to cables and cling to the steep mountainside amidst the fluffy clouds.
Behold the holy Batu Caves just outside Kuala Lumpur. Escape the KL hustle and bustle for this must-see Hindu shrine. Caves, cave temples, a huge 42m statue, 272 colorful steps and mischievous monkeys make for an interesting excursion.
Learn about Malaysia’s colonial past in Malacca. The remnants of the former colonial powers are still very visible in some of the well preserved buildings. Part of this town is an Unesco world heritage site.
A visit to the historical coastal town is do-able as a day trip from Kuala Lumpur. There’s enough time to see everything, including shopping in the famous Jonker Street without being rushed.
Visit foodie heaven in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur. Does the street name Jalan Alor ring a bell? If not, then you should hurry on over instantly! Right in the heart of the KL entertainment district. Luxurious shopping malls, bars, great restaurants and street food galore!
The variety of food available here is amazing with barbecued meats, noodles and exotic desserts recognized as some of the best (and cheapest) in the city. If you feel overwhelmed by so much choice, try the street food tour at the Hutong food court. A local host will get you up to speed on the best food stalls and the most delicious foods.
Create your own food crawl in George Town, Penang. This one is an easy diy since George Town eateries are literally shoulder to shoulder fighting for your attention to try their cuisine.
If you need more context on history, culture and the origins of the local cuisine, there’s always the The Penang local street food tour Learn more about Mamak stalls and the unique Peranakan culture, while at the same time indulging on wonderful food.
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.
Read up on Malay food in the articles below and feel confident when ordering in a restaurant next time you visit Malaysia.
Health in Malaysia
Healthcare in Kuala Lumpur is almost ok….almost. It’s nowhere near the level in Singapore, it’s just ok. Outside of Kuala Lumpur in the rural areas the quality rapidly deteriorates. Any serious ailment or injury out in the countryside will almost certainly involve medical transport to Kuala Lumpur or even Singapore.
Pharmacies are abundant in cities and larger towns while even smaller towns often feature at least one pharmacy.
No, no, no, don’t you dare to skip this part, even if you think that travel insurance is boring. If you do get sick or involved in an accident, let’s hope you didn’t skimp on travel insurance.
Make sure that medical care abroad, evacuation and repatriation are included. Also check if adventurous activities are covered if you plan to trek or hike on your travels.
Read more about travel insurance, or at least get a non-committal instant quote in under 30 seconds!
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.
Traffic congestion can be horrific in Malaysia. Somewhere I read that Malaysia ranks third in the world for car ownership and there are many cars indeed. Cities like Kuala Lumpur have hours long traffic jams every morning and every evening. This is due to the lack of sufficient proper road infrastructure, 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”, that’s 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.
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 among 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 are doing an excellent job. Tourist police dispersion is not nation wide yet, but they have a good presence in tourist hubs like Langkawi, Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
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