Diversity. This is the first thing that hits you when you start reading about Malaysia. Mixed cultures, languages and religions, vibrant cities and remote jungles, modern skyscrapers and UNESCO historical sites, beautiful beaches and wildlife-packed rainforests…Not to mention the variety of delectable food. Sounds like Malaysia in fact has it all.
Having not been to any other Asian country before, I can’t really vouch for a very popular Malaysian slogan: “Malaysia truly Asia”, but choosing it as my first Asian country to visit was definitely the best decision. Being one of the most developed countries in South East Asia and keeping its rich tradition and culture at the same time, Malaysia delivers a wealth of unique experiences.
No matter if you’re an Asia first-timer or 50-timer this blog post will reveal all the Malaysian secrets. So keep reading to find out stuff you should know before travelling to Malaysia: best time to visit Malaysia, how to get there, what to eat and even how to dress.
Ok, but where is Malaysia?
Malaysia is a country in Southeast Asia and consists of 2 parts separated by the South China Sea. There is Peninsular Malaysia, which shares a border with Thailand and East Malaysia which is the Malaysian part of the Borneo Island. When researching travelling in Malaysia, you will mainly find recommendations for places in the Peninsular (western) Malaysia. That’s why it’s worth remembering, that this country also has another – less touristy part.
The capital of Malaysia is Kuala Lumpur. Being also the biggest city, KL is the cultural, financial and economic centre of Malaysia and one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in Southeast Asia. Founded as a settlement for the tin-industry, KL grew rapidly, becoming the perfect mixture of tradition and modernity it is today. Historic colonial buildings, buzzing markets and botanical gardens synchronise perfectly with tall skyscrapers, impressive Petronas Towers, and luxurious shopping malls, which you’ll find very useful when escaping the heat or rain.
Malaysia has more than 800 islands along the coastline. Pulau (Malaysian word for “island”) Langkawi is the biggest and most visited island of the country, but you will also come across names like: Perhentian Islands (for divers, snorkelers and backpackers) Penang Island (colonial and metropolitan), Tioman Island (once voted the most beautiful beach in the world) or Pangkor Island (empty beaches and clear waters).
How do I get there?
– Wow, really?
All major intercontinental airlines offer flights to Kuala Lumpur, which is the main airport of Malaysia. So if you’re travelling from Europe, take a plane. If you’re travelling from America, take a plane. If you’re travelling from Australia, take a plane. If you’re travelling from different Asian countries, you have more options, but plane is the surely the fastest and most convenient one. If you decide to visit Singapore first (travellers usually combine those 2 countries, due to their proximity), you can take a plane (yes, again), a train or a bus. The same if you’re travelling from Thailand.
Will they let me in?
Travellers from most of the countries in the world do not need a visa to enter Malaysia. You will normally be given permission to stay either for 90 or 30 days (depending on the country) on arrival. The customs officer might get your fingerprints and ask you a few questions regarding your stay in Malaysia. Visas for longer stays or for non-tourist purposes must be obtained from the nearest Malaysian diplomatic mission before you travel. Check your country’s government website to make sure you’re free to go.
Do I need a shot?
No specific vaccinations are not required for tourists travelling to Malaysia. In general it’s good to be vaccinated against Tetanus, Hepatitis A and Typhoid. There are no particular sanitary and epidemiological threats in Malaysia, but it’s also better to check properly before your trip. If some unfortunate event happens and you’re forced to go to the hospital, don’t worry, medical care is generally available and inexpensive. For all the minor conditions, I suggest asking a pharmacist first.
Plane, train…? How do I get around?
If you successfully make it to Malaysia, you have plenty of options to travel within the country. Public transport in Malaysia is reliable, inexpensive and easy to use.
Much of your travelling, particularly in Peninsular Malaysia, will be by bus. Most popular routes are running several times a day with frequent connections for very reasonable prices. Coaches are usually spacious, comfortable (only 3 seats in one row…wooo), air-conditioned (don’t forget to take a hoodie on board) and have WiFi. There is one thing they are not equipped with though – toilets. On the longer routes the bus driver will simply stop once or twice for a rest and bathroom break. So drink freely. Buying the tickets is also easy. Most of the time you can show up at a bus station and get a ticket for the next coach, but I recommend buying them online. Easybook.com is a website where you can choose the best connection and book the tickets in a few simple steps. My favourite bus operator was: Unititi Express.
Travelling by train is also a great option for getting around Malaysia. There are two main classes of train: express services – modern, fully air-conditioned and well maintained, and local trains – often not air-conditioned and of variable quality. Travelling by train is good if you want to commute between major locations or if you want to travel internationally. The route Singapore – Kuala Lumpur – Thailand offers sleeping services, which can save you a few bucks on accommodation. Train connections are however more limited than bus connections, the journeys usually take longer and the prices are a little bit higher.
Thanks to low-cost airlines flying in Malaysia is fast and inexpensive. Malaysian domestic flights are operated by Malaysia Airlines (MAS) and the budget carriers AirAsia and Firefly. Planes fly between most of the state capitals, as well as Langkawi Island and Singapore.
To get to some islands though, like Perhentian, Tioman and Pangkor you can only go by a boat or a ferry. You generally buy your ticket in advance from booths at the jetty, sometimes you can simply just pay on the boat.
Roads, expressways and highways in Malaysia are good and well maintained, making travelling by car an alternative option. You have to remember that there is left-hand traffic in Malaysia and driving in the cities can be very…challenging. Like one of our Grab drivers said: “in Malaysia when you wanna go, you just go”.
Oh yes, Grab (Malaysian Uber) is also a very popular, convenient and cheap mode of transportation. They operate in most Malaysian tourist destinations and grabbing a Grab is a great and sometimes much needed way of cooling down in the air-con.
Malay or Malaysian? How do I not offend anyone?
Malaysia is a very multicultural nation, but it doesn’t just mean that there are people of many different races living there. Malaysia is made up of 3 main ethnicities: Malays (first inhabitants of Malaysia, that now make more than a half of population), Chinese and Indian. It doesn’t seem so different from other countries, does it? However, in Malaysia the multicultural and multiethnic background of the nation is celebrated by all Malaysians. For example, there are bank holidays for different nations’ and religions’ celebrations, like Chinese New Year, Diwali or Christmas and you can see the shops and streets being decorated honouring all different holidays throughout the year.
It’d be also nice, if before going to Malaysia you understood the difference between Malays and Malaysians. ‘Malaysian’ refers to nationality. ‘Malay’ refers to the ethnicity. So for example, a Chinese person who was born and is currently living in Malaysia is called “Malaysian”, NOT “Malay”. The same with an Indian person born and raised in Malaysia. So all the Chinese, Indian and Malay people born and living in Malaysia are called “Malaysians”. But only Malay ethnicity people are called “Malays”.
Do I need to learn another language?
The national language of Malaysia is…again – Malay (Bahasa Melayu – to be more specific). All lessons are taught in Malay at school. However, because of the different racial backgrounds, especially in the bigger cities, you will hear Malaysian ethnicities speaking with each other in English. English is commonly spoken in Malaysia and almost every Malaysian citizen can communicate in this language.
And what’s the religion?
Islam is the official religion of Malaysia. So bear in mind, that 5 times a days, including one around 5 am, you will hear calls to prayer coming from multiple mosques in the area. Perfect wakeup call to watch the sun rise. The rest of the population practices either Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity. Thanks to the religious diversity you will find beautiful and fascinating Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian temples all over the country. Just remember to wear a proper outfit when visiting the temples. You can’t march into a mosque or Hindu temple wearing shorts and a T-shirt. It applies to both, men and women. In most of the mosques you will be given the chance to borrow robes for your visit. Taking your shoes off is also a must when entering the most sacred “chambers” in the temples. The most “chilled”, regarding outfits, are Buddhist temples, although you also might be asked to cover your shoulders with a scarf.
Apart from religious and historic places, there is no specific dress code for visitors in Malaysia. Wearing shorts, T-shirts and dresses is totally fine. Just in general, be respectful of the people and the culture.
Will I be sweaty?
Hot, hot, hot! And humid! All year round. This is how you can describe the weather in Malaysia. If you’re coming from a cold country like England, Norway or Canada the amount of times you will say: “It’s so hot”, “I’m melting” or “Let’s take those stupid Instagram pictures and go some place cool” is countless. Even if you’re you travelling from hot and sunny Italy, Spain or Egypt…it’s the humidity that will destroy you. So happy travelling! Kidding, the heat and humidity are definitely a part of the Malaysian experience.
Malaysia is a tropical country located close to the equator, therefore warm weather is guaranteed. Temperatures generally range from 32°C/89.6ºF at noon to about 26°C/78.8ºF at midnight. But like most Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia’s sunny days are interrupted by Monsoon season. But it’s not only one Monsoon season. Different parts of Malaysia are touched by heavy rains at different times. So pay attention!
The east coast monsoon begins in mid October and lasts until the end of March. The weather is usually very rough then, sometimes it can rain for days and some of the islands, like Perhentian or Tioman are even “closed” for tourists.
The west coast monsoon begins in April/May and lasts until end of October. West coast monsoon is much milder, you won’t usually even notice that it’s there.
Besides the monsoon seasons it can always rain in Malaysia. Rain falls usually happen between 4 and 6 pm and are intense but brief.
So “when in the best time to visit Malaysia?” you might ask.
If you’re planning to stay on the east side, the best time would be between April and September.
But, if you, like most tourists, want to travel on the west coast, go between November and March.
I, despite what I just wrote here, went to the western part of Malaysia at the turn of June and July and didn’t experience much rain. It literally rained 3 times when I was there, for max of 1 hour each time, so the rain fall was indeed short, but intense and actually very refreshing. The temperatures tend to be cooler in Cameron Highlands or in certain parts of Borneo, like Mount Kinabalu. If you include those places in your itinerary, make sure to take at least one hoodie.
One more thing, don’t trust Google weather and any other weather app. They will always show you rain when it’s not actually there.
Let’s talk about money
The currency of Malaysia is called Ringgit (MYR), which is made up of sen: 1 RM=100 sen.
Most of the hotels, stores, bars and restaurants accept Visa and MasterCard. ATMs are also widely available (they only might be limited on the islands) and you will definitely need cash when going to the popular night markets and food markets. Practice your haggling skills – a certain amount of bargaining is required when buying stuff at night markets. Just don’t be too aggressive, that’s not a part of Malaysian shopping culture.
Currency exchange “places” are also quite popular and usually offer better exchange rate than the banks.
Travelling in Malaysia is generally not expensive. It’s suitable for both backpackers and travellers who seek luxurious facilities. It obviously all depends on your accommodation and the entertainment you provide for yourself, but it’s calculated that on average you’ll need 300 Ringgit per day in Malaysia. Food will definitely be the smallest part of your expenses.
Ok, now I’m hungry
If food is also your favourite “F” word, you couldn’t find a better country to travel to. Malaysians are obsessed with food! Food courts, food street markets and food hawkers are very popular in Malaysia, due to the fact that Malaysians very rarely cook and eat at home. Eating out is a part of Malaysian culture. And the choice is endless. Thanks to the cultural diversity, you will be able to try traditional Malaysian food, aromatic Chinese food and flavourful Indian food. And there is something for everyone. Most dishes in Malaysia are based on either rice or mee (noodles), but: Malay dishes often contain beef, chicken, mutton or fish (never pork as Malay food needs to be halal), Chinese dishes are often with pork, and Indian dishes are usually vegetarian (never with beef). But the most important thing: food is cheap!
So what do you necessarily have to try?
Nasi Lemak – is the national Malaysian dish, often eaten for breakfast. It consists of coconut rice, sambal, fried anchovies, peanuts, cucumber slices. There can be variations of Nasi Lemak, such as vegetarian, even vegan option, but the rice, cucumber, and peanuts are pretty much staple.
Laksa – is a spicy rice noodle soup, served with chicken, prawn or fish. You can also find a curry laksa served with coconut milk. The most famous one is the Penang Asam Laksa.
Roti canai – is a light flatbread served usually with 3 dipping sauces of varying levels of spiciness.
Mee Goreng – is yellow noodles mixed with beef or chicken, shrimp, soy sauce, local vegetables and egg. Topped with chilies and chili sauce.
Char Kuey Teow – is flat rice noodles, fried with pork, soy sauce, bean sprouts, chili and most importantly cockles (a kind of shellfish). Sometimes egg and prawns are added too.
Murtabak – is a pan fried bread mixture, filled with minced meat, onions and dipped in a spicy/sour sauce.
Rendang – is similar to a curry. It’s a mix of coconut milk, spices and meat, normally beef, chicken or lamb. Slow cooked so the sauce is thick and rich.
If you’re a vegetarian (like me) or a vegan (getting there), you’re probably thinking: “What on Earth will I be eating there?”. The answer is: Indian food. The choice of vegetarian and vegan options in Indian food corners is huge. But even within traditional Malaysian or Chinese cuisine you will find dishes without meat. If they are not on the menu, you can always ask for a recommendation.
If after all this food you suddenly feel thirsty, don’t forget to try Teh Tarik. It’s the national drink of Malaysia. And no, it’s not an alcoholic cocktail, it’s a hot milk tea.
You also can’t pass by the fruit stands and not try pineapples, coconuts and…durians! If you can smell garbage from afar, you know they sell durian there. This fruit, native to Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo is super healthy, but incredibly stinky and will give you an experience you will never forget.
Is there anything else I should know before travelling to Malaysia?
Yes! A few things:
– even though drinking tap water in Malaysia is safe, you might not want to risk it. Purchase a water bottle with built in filter (like I did) and you’re good to go. I was drinking filtered tap water throughout the whole trip and never had any problems.
– and those infamous ice cubes? I had many beverages with ice cubes and again – didn’t experience any stomach problems.
– as well as mosques and temples, you might be asked to remove your shoes before entering the hotel lobby, hotel room or your Airbnb.
– even though WiFi is widely available, you should get a Sim Card. Every mobile network provider offers a Tourist Sim Card. Just remember that you have to show your passport to sign up.
– beware of bringing durians indoors. All of the hotels, Airbnbs or even public transport will have signs “no durian”. And as trying this stinky pleasure is a must when visiting Malaysia, never take it inside.
Phew, that was long! But you made it.
Hope you found the information included here useful and I have nothing else to say, but wish you happy travelling to Malaysia.