MALAYSIA TRAVEL GUIDE
With its rich and diversified cultural history, counting influences from Malay, Chinese, Indian and European heritage, complemented by its natural attractions of beaches and rainforests, Malaysia is a unique mix of the modern- and developing worlds. Presenting a happy mix of high-tech infrastructure and -systems combined with reasonable prices, Malaysia is a great destination for travellers. The capital, Kuala Lumpur houses the tallest twin towers in the world, while its islands are home to some of the most beautiful dive areas you will find. With offerings from trekking to sunbathing, from diving to dining, from bars to beaches, Malaysia is certainly worth a visit! During 2014 we made our way from Koh Lipe (Thailand) by boat to Langkawi and on to Penang. We flew to Kuala Lumpur and travelled overland to Melacca from there. During 2019 we've spent a LOT of time in Malaysia with at least a month in each of Penang, Langkawi, and Borneo.
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MALAYSIA QUICK FACTS
Currency: Malaysian Ringgit
Current conversion rate here
Electricity: 240V AC electricity. Power outlets are three-prong sockets (type G). Be sure to carry a universal travel adaptor so you can still use all your electronic devices. If you are from a country with 110V as a standard be aware that you will need a voltage converter.
Visa: Traveling to Malaysia is easy; for citizens of most countries you won’t need to apply for a visa beforehand. Although a few Asian countries will need visas to enter Malaysia, most will not. Most European countries and North America can receive a 90-day visa entry stamp on arrival; certain other countries will only receive an entry visa valid for 30 days on arrival. Just make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months after your entry. The latest entry requirements are available here.
Safety: With the exception of the Eastern Sabah region, Malaysia is generally very safe to travel in. The coastal areas of Eastern Sabah, on the island of Borneo, have seen an increase in kidnappings, and caution is advised. For the vast remainder of the country, you should have a safe and enjoyable stay. As with most large cities, pick-pocketing and petty theft can be a problem in big cities like Kuala Lumpur - remain aware and vigilant, and keep your belongings close. Whatever you do, don’t travel without travel insurance! We would suggest checking out World Nomads, for travel insurance as they have the best coverage for active travellers.
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MALAYSIA PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
1 May, Labour Day
1st Saturday of June, Birthday of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong
31 August, National Day
16 September, Malaysia Day
Also, Chinese New Year, Good Friday, Wesak Day (Visakaha Day), Deepavali (Diwali), Muharram, Maulid an-Nabi, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha.
FESTIVALS IN MALAYSIA
Although Malaysia and Singapore share many of the same festivals and traditions, Malaysia has its own distinguishing flair with brightly coloured street festivals and sobering religious observances highlighting its own unique cultural heritage.
Hari Raya Aidilfitri: The "Festival of Breaking the Fast" is celebrated at the end of each Ramadan. After a month of fasting and devoting much of this time to worship, charitable deeds, and acts of compassion, Malaysia’s Muslim population is ready to celebrate! The festival of Eid is marked by family feasts, return journeys from big cities back to small towns, and welcoming guests and friends into homes. If you're lucky enough to be invited to a Hari Raya meal, you'll find a wide variety of special dishes on offer.
Chinese New Year: With its large Chinese population there's no forgetting Chinese traditions and heritage on this exciting holiday throughout Malaysia. Happening in January or February, this event turns every city red. You’ll see everything from parades and festivals to street vendors, and performances in all the major cities.
Vesak Day: Known as The Day of the Full Moon, Vesak Day is the most sacred day to millions of Buddhists around the world and an important holiday for the Buddhist community in Malaysia. Vesak Day occurs in May and celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Gautama Buddha. While a more solemn holiday than the New Year, it's a time for joy peace and reflection, and temples and shrines will be brightly adorned, with other events like vegetarian food fairs and talks abound. The day will be spent on worthy causes such as donating blood, as devotees believe that performing good deeds on Vesak Day will multiply merit many times over.
Deepavali: Deepavali, or the Festival of Lights, celebrates the triumph of light over dark and good over evil in the Hindu tradition. During this celebration (usually in October or November), the Indian community in Malaysia makes the cities come alive with bright lights, vibrant colours, and high-energy festivities.
BEST TIME TO VISIT MALAYSIA
Temperatures vary little in Malaysia throughout the year and hover around a fairly constant 30°C by day, while humidity is high all year-round. Showers can be expected year-round too, mostly during afternoons, although these downpours are usually short and can clear up as quickly as they arrive. The major distinction between the seasons, and worth considering when you decide to visit Malaysia, is the arrival of the northeast monsoon - ushering in what is locally called the rainy season.
The east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, as well as the western end of Sarawak, is particularly affected during this time, with late November through mid-February seeing the heaviest rainfall.
The west coast of Peninsular Malaysia as well as Sabah, experience its wettest months during September and October. Monsoonal downpours during this time can be heavy and prolonged and can prohibit more or less all activity for its duration. Boats and ferries plying the routes to most islands in affected areas won’t attempt the sea swell at the height of the rainy season and service will be limited. In mountainous areas like the Cameron Highlands, the Kelabit Highlands, and in the hill stations and upland national parks, you may experience more frequent rain as the high peaks gather clouds more or less permanently.
The best time to visit most of Malaysia is generally between March and early October when you will avoid the worst of the rains and there’s less humidity, though air pollution, usually caused by forest fires in Indonesia, can cause hazy conditions and even cancel flights. Despite the risk of more rain, the months of January and February can be particularly rewarding, and you will find a number of significant festivals, notably Chinese New Year and the Hindu celebration of Thaipusam.
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN MALAYSIA
If you're desperate for some snow sports, you can visit one of these indoor snow arenas in Malaysia: Snowland at Megamall Penang, Mines Wonderland in Kuala Lumpur or the Four Season Environment Controlled Chamber in Shah Alam.
HIKING & CYCLING IN MALAYSIA
The climate in Malaysia depends on where in the country you are. The rainy season on the West coast of Malaysia is from May to September and is less severe except for the West coast of the Peninsula which receives thunderstorms in April, May and October. The rainy season on the East coast is roughly reversed and lasts from October to March.
BEACH OPTIONS IN MALAYSIA
Malaysia has plenty of stunning beaches and no matter the time of the year, the weather should be good somewhere. The best time to visit the beaches on the East coast is from March to September. The best time to visit the beaches on the west coast is from November to August as September and October can be very rainy.
SURFING IN MALAYSIA
You can enjoy excellent surf somewhere in Malaysia all year round. The best time for consistent swell on the East Coast is during the Northeast monsoon season from October to March. The best time on the West Coast, at places like Langkawi, is from April to October when the rainfall is less.
KITESURF IN MALAYSIA
The North East monsoon season from November to March brings the most consistent winds for kitesurfing from December to February. The South West Monsoon season from June until September brings lighter but also consistent winds.
For more details on kite surfing in Malaysia expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN MALAYSIA
Be aware of possible health risks in
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
MALAYSIA TRAVEL COSTS
Travel in Malaysia is pretty affordable. A little pricier than some other areas in Southeast Asia, but still far less than most western countries. If you’re happy sleeping in a hostel and eating street food, you can easily get by on $30 a day. If you want to splurge on a nicer hotel or a few gourmet meals, you might want to budget up to $40 or $50 (or more if you’re used to a more western lifestyle). If you want to get an idea of how much we spent around Malaysia see our Budget Report section.
MALAYSIA TRAVEL TIPS
Transport from one place to the next is fairly easy in Malaysia and is quite efficient. In larger cities, there are well established public transport systems. We advise checking bus, boat and train schedules ahead of time using BookAway or 12Go website. Skyscanner.com or Kiwi.com are handy tools for finding great flight deals.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF MALAYSIA
Admire the Petronas Towers
One of the most recognizable spots in Malaysia, the Petronas Towers are the tallest twin towers in the world - also once the world’s tallest building - from their completion in 1998 to 2004 when they were surpassed by Taipei 101. You can of course just enjoy the beauty of the towers for free from the surrounding KLCC Park but it's an incredible experience to walk across the connecting sky bridge to see the amazing views of the city or go even higher to the viewing deck from the 86th floor.
Insider Travel Tip: The lines to the Petrona Towers can get busy which is why we recommend booking your tickets online. The tickets get sent straight to your hotel making is super convenient.
Attend a Cooking Class or a Foodie Tour
Next to Thailand, Malaysia has some of the best cuisines in Asia with a diverse cultural mix of ingredients. Seize the opportunity to get to know more of the incredible flavours of Malaysian cuisine by taking cooking classes in Malaysia which will equip you all the knowledge you need on how to make a great laksa or rendang. Another incredible way to experience the best is to join a foodie tour where you can taste the real Malaysia on a tour of Kuala Lumpur street food stalls with an expert guide.
Go to the Taman Negara National Park
The natural wonder of Taman Negara is estimated to be around 130 million years old and whether you’re looking to set out on a 100km trek, or just take an afternoon stroll, this is the perfect spot to explore. A day trip can be a great way to experience one of the oldest rainforests in the world where you can enjoy panoramic views from Teresek Hill, and ride the river rapids by longtail boat. If you are pretty fit and up for a great day of adventure and exploring we recommend this full-day tour. If you don't have a lot of time but want to see the best of Malaysia, we can recommend this private tour of the Cameron Highlands which includes transfers and a guide.
Visit the Batu Caves
The Batu cave is not only one of the most popular Tamil shrines outside of India but it remains an active place of worship. It is a popular site for tourist near Kuala Lumpur and often bundled in with other day tours although it's easy to do it by yourself in half a day. If you are in Malaysia during the Thaipusam festival (January / February), you can witness thousands of devotees carrying their offerings to the temple. The temple formation consisting of three huge limestone caves is truly spectacular and a special place to experience. There is no entry fee to access the temples grounds and both the outside and inside of the cave make for some great photos. You can watch a video we made recently of our visit there by train from Kuala Lumpur. If you want to get the absolute best photos, we would recommend going really early in the morning before it gets too crowded - and too hot! If you’re looking for a unique combo experience, consider this tour which takes you to the Batu Caves as well as firefly watching in nearby Kuala Selangor.
Relax in Langkawi Island
The district of Langkawi actually consists of an archipelago of 99 islands - and another 5 small islands which are only visible at low tide! The largest of these islands is Langkawi Island (Pulau Langkawi) and what most people refer to as simply Langkawi - or also affectionately named “The Jewel of Kedah”. Langkawi offers the traveller from hostels to extravagant resorts and everything in between. Take a couple of days and enjoy some of the incredible seaside beauty of this relaxing island. During 2019 we spent 4 weeks on Langkawi, taking our time to explore every nook and cranny looking for the best beaches (You will have to watch our YouTube videos to find out which one it is!). There is no shortage of activities to keep you busy on Langkawi! From a Mangrove Safari Boat Tour to the famous Langkawi Cable Car and Skybridge to a jetski island tour!
See the Street Art in Penang
Another must-do while in Malaysia is to see the famous street art in George Town. Everywhere you go, you will find countless street murals often depicting children in various poses. The art is beautifully creative and unusual, making George Town a fun city to explore and walk around in. During 2019 we spent 4 weeks in Penang and found plenty to do and see in this fascinating part of Malaysia. There is much more to Penang than just street art! To learn more of what to see and do see our Penang guide here.
See Orangutans in Borneo
Borneo, the 3rd largest island in the world and the largest in Asia, is shared by the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the tiny nation of Brunei. It’s known for its ancient, biodiverse rainforest, home and is home to some incredible wildlife including orangutans, probosci's monkeys and clouded leopards. At 4095m Mount Kinabalu is the island’s highest peak and a popular destination for adventure travellers. In the north, you will find deserted, white sand beaches and at the famed Sipadan Island, some of the best diving in the world.
WHAT TO PACK FOR MALAYSIA
When packing for Malaysia keep in mind that is that it is going to be hot, humid, and often wet. Bring lightweight, comfortable walking shoes, breathable clothes, and pack a travel umbrella! Not only will you use it when it rains but it comes in handy to shield yourself from the sun.
While the cities are used to foreigners and are more relaxed, if you’ll be traveling in more rural areas outside the major metropolitan areas, it’s best to wear modest attire as Malaysia is a primarily Muslim country. Dress a little more conservatively if you want to be accepted and feel welcome.
A lightweight jacket or sweater is always a good idea, especially when the freezing cold air-conditioning in restaurants and shops feels like winter compared to the heat outside!
WHAT TO EAT IN MALAYSIA
Malaysia largely consists of the Malay, Chinese and Indian – and each has their own types of food. This is an over-generalisation, but we found that Malays are fond of using coconut milk in their food, the Chinese deep fry as many things as possible, whilst the Indians love ghee. Jokes aside, there is obviously much more to each cuisine and you will be hard-pressed to not find an amazing meal on every street corner. All you have to do is find the nearest hawker food centre and you will be in heaven no matter what your preferences.
Keep an eye out for the following must-try foods:
Simply put, this is just rice soaked in coconut milk and steamed. But it’s always served with a mountain of sides, from hard-boiled eggs and peanuts to vegetables and meats. It’s a simple dish that’s got the perfect combination of spicy, sweet, and delicious.
Basically a rice flour pancake, this dish is filled with sugar, peanuts, corn, or all three. The ingredients are spooned onto a doughy centre while the outside cooks to crispy perfection, then it’s served up, often folded in half like a taco. This is easy to find at street stalls and is a cheap and satisfying snack on the go.
You’ve probably had satay before and if you have, you know how delicious it is. Skewers of chicken, beef, or pork are painted with peanut sauce and grilled to perfection. You can find similar skewers in other countries, but they just don’t compare to the authentic thing in Malaysia.
Popular breakfast food in Malaysia, Nasi Danang features rice cooked in coconut milk with fish curry and a spread of added ingredients like hard-boiled eggs, shaved coconut, and pickled vegetables.
Char Koay Teow
Roughly translating into “fried rice noodle strips” cooked in a steaming hot wok. There is one main characteristic of this dish – it is cooked with pork fat, and has little crunchy squares of pork lard. So for obvious reasons, this is not the world’s healthiest dish. But you know what, it tastes so good that it’s fine to make an exception, once in a while that is.
This Malay dish consists of a noodle base combined with a gravy or sauce, meat, and vegetables. The exact recipe will vary depending on where you go. Some have coconut milk bases, while others feature thinner broths. I’d recommend trying it at a few different spots to see which you like the best!
A dessert commonly served in hawker stalls. It essentially consists of shaved ice (which is made with a special machine) and red beans and topped with various (bright coloured) syrups. Nowadays, vendors make the ais kacang more interesting by using using a mix of red beans, cendol, agar-agar cubes, grass jelly and sweet corn to form the base of this dish. This is then topped with the shaved ice, syrups, and in this case – ice cream!
A dish that consists of a variety of snack-like foods – prawn fritters, bean curd wrapped sausages, fried tofu, century eggs, cucumbers… anything goes really. This is served with two sauces: the lor bak black sauce (a starchy and mildly sweet sauce with streaks of beaten egg whites) and a chilli sauce. You basically dip it in the black sauce, followed by the chilli sauce, and then eat. Strange, but all sorts of wonderful.
WHERE TO STAY IN MALAYSIA
From $5 hostels to $100 hotels, Malaysia has a huge variety of accommodation options. Larger cities like Kuala Lumpur and Penang will have a greater variety, but will also be more expensive relative to smaller locations. Luckily, competition can be fierce and spending a few extra dollars can get you significantly nicer accommodation especially if your dates are flexible. There are plenty of bargains for longer stays - for example during July 2019 we spent 4 weeks in Penang and our AirBnB apartment came to $20 per night including every amenity you can think of! In the more rural areas, you’re most likely to find simpler accommodations like basic homestays or guesthouses. If you plan on travelling during peak season or holidays, it is best to book your accommodations well in advance. We recommend checking sites like Booking.com or Agoda.
Airbnb Travel Tip: Airbnb is recommended for an apartment- or villa-style accommodation. Check out our full article on how to get $65 coupon code for your booking or simply click here to get our coupon code to apply on your next booking.