Although there are many nations in the world which appear almost more than one country, nowhere is this truer than with Malaysia. Half of the country is found on the mainland which extends down from Thailand right on through to Singapore while its other half is way across the South China Sea on the island of Borneo which is also shared by Indonesia and Brunei.
Malaysia is crammed with a heady mix of seeming contradictions which sees the ultra-modern rubbing shoulders with the distinctly traditionally Asian and giving the visitor surprises at every turn – from space age skyscrapers to ancient temples. This is a land of jungles where orang-utans live, colonial leftovers, soaring mountains, world-class diving sites, tea plantations extending off as far as the eye can see into mist-cloaked valleys and islands which are fringed by some of the loveliest beaches you are likely to find anywhere on the planet.
Culturally, Malaysia is an incredible fusion of races, religions and foods – all living in perfect harmony and presenting the visitor with endless opportunities for travel memories of the indelible kind.
Malaysia is all too often overlooked on the South-east Asian circuit which is a great pity. Prices are low, nature at its most pristine and its people kind, welcoming and warm. Whether you class yourself as beach bunny, culture vulture, nature lover, adventure activity seeker or a food passionate traveller Malaysia has plenty to offer you.
As far as visa-free entries go Malaysia offers one of the most open policies around. Nationals of more than 60 countries can enter Malaysia without a visa and stay for anything up to 90 days while a further even larger number can stay in the country for 30 days or 2 weeks.
Weather & Seasons of Malaysia
Sitting almost on the Equator, Malaysia’s climate is a tropical one and as is true of all such climates seasons are confined to just the wet season and the dry season (although quite when these occur will depend on where you are). Typically, the north-east monsoon which lasts from October to February empties the majority of its rains over Borneo and the more eastern coast leaving islands such as Langkawi and Penang on the west mostly dry. Another monsoon season falls from April to October and is generally milder in nature and sees the opposite weather pattern. Anywhere in the south of the country is affected by both monsoons. ‘Wet’ and ‘dry’ are sometimes misleading words though when applied to Malaysia’s weather. Wet seasons are not one big period of unceasing rains – more often than not the downpours tend to be sharp but short – and the dry season sees rain too.
Although sunshine and warmth are a guaranteed part of Malaysia’s weather it also has some more elevated areas which give respite from the lowland temperatures and humidity and can actually get downright chilly at night.
Safety Issues in Malaysia
Where crime is concerned and certainly those of a more violent nature Malaysia offers few concerns for the sensible traveller. As always, strolling around poorly-lit areas in large cities after dark brings a higher risk of encountering a problem. There have also been a few incidents of drive-past grabs on cameras, phones and handbags from thieves on motorbikes so when you are in more built-up places it pays to keep valuables out of sight and – as is always the case – exercise a little extra awareness.
One of the biggest problems for travellers – and something which seems to be on the rise – is credit card fraud or cloning of cards. Try and restrict use of such cards to larger establishments or businesses to keep the risks to a minimum.
Another possible and highly hazardous trip-up for travellers surrounds the use of drugs. This is not a country which has any kind of tolerance for drug offences. Consumption can see you spending anything up to 10 years in jail or having to pay out enormous fines while trafficking and selling of certain quantities carries the death penalty.
The pesky mosquito is as always one of the tropical traveller’s biggest concerns. While malaria is not a risk in much of the country this is not true of Borneo especially if you decide to venture into the more rural areas. Dengue Fever is present everywhere and transmitted by a mosquito which gets most busy at dusk and dawn.
From a natural disasters point of view Malaysia is also of comparatively low risk. Earthquakes are limited to small tremors which radiate from Indonesia while typhoons are mostly unknown. Flash flooding during the rainy season is however always a risk which carries with it a possibility of landslides.
There is also some level of hazard revolving around Malaysia’s wildlife. Although people tend to get all jittery on the subject of poisonous snakes and crocodiles statistically you are far more likely to have a problem with an aggressive macaque or street dog and as rabies is present in the country these are greater problems.
Accommodation Options in Malaysia
Malaysia offers a fairly standard range of accommodation options which run from the low budget to high luxury end. As always, one of the most popular and cheapest choices for travellers is hostels and these are plentiful in Malaysia – even in the more out of the way places. Guest houses are also worth considering. They sometimes work out cheaper than hostels as often there is at least one meal thrown into the price.
Malaysia’s Food & Drink
Malaysia is something of a foodie heaven. The country is such a marvellous melting pot of cultures that pretty much anything you fancy is on the menu. The main influences are those of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisine with all kinds of fusions between these three found practically countrywide but the story doesn’t end there. Thai food is also common as is all kinds of European-influenced fare thanks to a history which includes colonisation and invasion by the Portuguese, the British and the Japanese. Adding even greater diversity to this wonderful food option wonderland is the regional specialities – sometimes varying even from town to town – which are so plentiful you could spend several years here and not eat the same dish twice.
Malaysia has only one official language – Malay. However, if you happen to be a little rusty on the Malay language front you will have little problem finding English speakers in large towns and cities and in tourist areas. English is a compulsory subject in schools here and many Malaysians consider it an essential life skill to master.
Money Matters in Malaysia
The currency of Malaysia is the Ringgit produced in both notes and coins. Automated cash machines are found practically everywhere outside of the smallest islands or deeper jungle but don’t expect them to always work or have any cash in them. Generally speaking this is a cash society. Paying for goods and services with credit cards is possible in the higher end retail outlets, restaurants and hotels but otherwise cash is king.
Malaysian Cultural Issues
If ever a country could be said to be multicultural Malaysia surely represents the highest level of such; Malaysians account for only around half of the population. Such a wonderful mix is partly due to Malaysia’s story through history which has seen Portuguese, Dutch and British colonisation. However, Malaysia has also managed to draw together people who trace their ancestry from all over the Asian continent including India, China, Thailand, Indonesia and many more. Such a bringing together of cultures means a plethora of religions which include Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Hinduism and Sikhism and quite a few more besides. So many cultures, such a diversity of ancestry and such a varied set of practised religions accounts for a prominent feature of Malaysian culture which is so significant it is impossible to miss – its festivals.
Pick any day in the calendar and the chances are something is being celebrated by someone somewhere in the country. The solemn and sacred are plentiful as regards festivals and events but so too are the vividly coloured, the culturally exciting and the vibrantly celebrated. Many such occasions are total free for alls and very public so you’ll have no problem experiencing them for yourselves.
Where appropriate dress is concerned there really is no one-size-fits-all rule here. While some of the beaches and islands and large metropolitan areas are liberal as regards dress there are a lot of places – especially those of a more rural nature – where you will cause serious offence if you have not covered your shoulders and knees. The best thing to do to avoid cultural faux-pas here is to ask advice and also be guided by what you see around you. If you are the only one garbed in hot-pants and seem to be attracting some odd looks the chances are you need to dress a little more modestly.
With such a vast range of practised faiths and cultural influences it would take a book to cover in depth all the dos and don’ts which apply in this country. For example, there are certain observances you will need to make when immersed in a Buddhist community which will not apply once you move to an area more heavily populated by those of Muslim faith and vice versa. Your best bet is to ask if in doubt, listen to fellow travellers and hostel staff and keep a keen awareness of your surroundings and what seem to be the patterns. It is inevitable you will make some cultural gaffs in such a situation but generally Malaysians understand foreigners aren’t familiar with all the cultural nuances and are very tolerant.
One thing which is worth a mention and which might cause some misunderstandings and confusion among travelling Westerners is the presence of swastikas in religious places, homes and even restaurants and hostels. If you have a bit of historical knowledge you will be aware that the swastika was a religious symbol used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jainists thousands of years before it became the Nazi logo. If you look a little closer you will also see that these swastikas are usually reversed.
Transport Options in Malaysia
Getting around Malaysia is relatively easy thanks to a wide range of options.
Plane – Although flying is not typically the cheapest option and often discounted by thrifty backpackers Malaysia makes such a choice possible for all. The whole of the country – including the islands – is served by a range of budget carriers (new ones are sprouting up all the time) with fares often less than the price of a bus ticket especially if you book well in advance. With the exception of the major city airports don’t expect jets though. Most of the destinations are served by small planes which are thrilling for some but decidedly nerve-wracking for the nervous flyer.
Of course if you want to travel between the Malaysian mainland peninsula and Borneo flying is really your only practical choice.
Train – Where mainland Malaysia is concerned, trains are a common way of getting around for travellers offering reliable and comparatively cheap options. There are two principal lines – the Eastern Line which runs from near the border with Thailand at Kota Bharu, through Taman Negara National Park and on to Gua Musang and the Western Line which connects Butterworth to Singapore. Also on the train option menu are sleeper trains, some super-modern high speed options and a third-class only Jungle Railway which takes forever because it stops at every single station it encounters, sometimes stopping for long, long periods to allow other trains priority on this single line route.
Taxis – These are present in hordes in all of the larger towns and cities and often the same applies in the most unlikely of outposts too. Generally speaking Malaysia has a good roadway system – certainly when compared to elsewhere in South East Asia so taxis for longer distance travel is also possible. There are even different classes of taxis such as those in Kuala Lumpur for example which include budget choices as well as slightly more expensive larger and more comfortable rides.
Bus – Just about everywhere in Malaysia is linked somehow by bus and in the majority of cases this will usually be your cheapest option. Anything beyond a very small settlement typically has a bus terminal and what is on offer ranges from bone-rattler vehicles to luxury long-distance options. As is true in almost all of South-East Asia, air-con on buses typically has one setting – Arctic! So come prepared to put on the layers unless you want a very uncomfortable journey.
Boats and ferries – All of the islands are served by ferries – sometimes by several different companies – which come in a range of prices and travel times.
Essential Highlights of Malaysia
Orang-utans in the wild – If there could said to be one thing over all others which draws travellers to these shores it is the opportunity of seeing orang-utan in the wild. These beautiful and highly endangered primates are found in only two places in the entire world – Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra which runs along peninsula Malaysia’s western edge.
Both Sabah and Sarawak offer wild orang-utan experiences. For those who like their wildlife adventures rather more intrepid by far and away the best option is the Danum Valley Conservation Area in Sabah. This option is often overlooked by the traveller on a budget as the cheaper places to stay involve camping and are not well advertised. Expect pristine environments, a high chance of wild orang-utan spottings and a wealth of other Borneo wildlife watching opportunities.
If you want an easier orang-utan adventure a good bet is the Sabah located Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary which offers viewings from boats and includes the chance of watching other animals – most notably monkeys, crocs and elephants – going about their daily life too.
The Cameron Highlands – Representing Malaysia’s highest point which you can reach by road, the lovely Cameron Highlands has several attractions and things to do which include trekking and a fascinating ‘Time Tunnel’ museum. However, most people come here to visit the vast tea plantations which cover the slopes, dips and rises of the valleys and include mountain scenery in sweeping vistas which at times appear distinctly Tolkien Shire-like. Wander where you will watching plant tenders and pickers going about their work and then try out one of a hundred different tea varieties in the cafe which gives you a bird’s eye view over the land.
Another huge attraction of this region is the presence of the rare Rafflesia arnoldi flower – the world’s largest flower species which is located in only a handful of jungle places on the planet. If you want to get a glimpse of this blood-red, 1 metre across giant though you can only do so by guided jungle trek and 4WD tours which are seasonal.
The Islands – Each of Malaysia’s islands offer scenes of the tropically lovely although they come in varieties which range from the picturesquely pretty to the blow-your-mind off-the-scale stunning. Among your choices are Tioman which once was nominated for the title of world’s most beautiful island and the little visited Perhentian Islands which sit like a string of jewels in the South China Sea which could see your days full of diving, snorkelling and swimming. Also on the list of islands is Langkawi which sits in an archipelago of almost 100 islands and is full of beaches, mountain peaks, lush jungle and incredible nature.
Taman Negara National Park – Spanning three states, this large 130 million-year old rainforest is often touted as the planet’s oldest deciduous example; in reality that honour goes to an Australian rainforest which has another 50 million years on Taman Negara but who’s counting. The total area is home to many creatures including elephants, tigers and monkeys as well as countless species of vibrantly coloured birds. Jungle treks are popular here but there are a few other attractions which pull in the visitors too such as a canopy walkway and a cave system.
Malacca – Malacca – also spelled Melaka – is almost impossible to describe but oozes a charm and magic which is impossibloe to ignore. Malacca was taken over by the Portuguese in 1511, handed over to the Dutch for 150 years from 1641 and later in 1826 the British moved into town to take their turn at control. As a result World Heritage listed Malacca is a wonderful fusion of colonial leftovers including forts, cannons and architecture and a definite European-feel riverside; the whole intertwines with Asian themes creating a destination which at times will leave you wondering quite where you are.
One striking feature of Malacca is likley to stay in your bank of mental images long after you’ve departed – the bicycle rickshaws, of which there is a mega-fleet here. Each appears more impossibly laden with flowers than the last while the on-board sound systems pump out a cacophony of sounds ranging from Western pap-pop to Asian love songs. Sometimes there is even room for a passenger to squeeze on board too!
Diving – Malaysia has some world class diving spots and has become super-popular with both experienced divers and those wanting to learn. Sites – which are far too numerous to list – include the east coast peninsula islands such as Tioman, Redang and Perhentian while the most lauded is Sipadan which sits off the tip of Malaysian Borneo.
White-water rafting – Along with diving, Malaysia has earned itself something of a reputation as an excellent white-water rafting destination. This might be partly due to the fact that options here range from the Grade 1 kind which are more akin to a scenic river jaunt with a few bumby bits right on through to hard-core Grade 5, reserved for kamikazes and have-a-go adrenalin junkies. Typically such opportunities can be found within the country’s national parks.
Kuala Lumpur – Love it or hate it you simply can’t come to Malaysia without experiencing the chaotic craziness which is Kuala Lumpur. A heady mix of ultra-modern such as can be seen at the famous Petronas Twin Towers combines with any number of places, features and markets which give you a full taste of the quintessentially Asian. Arrive here during Chinese New Year and find yourself caught up in a riot of festivals, parades, exhibitions and karaoke.
Paintball – Nowhere is Malaysia’s strange mix of ancient and uber-modern/Asian and Western made more evident than through its paintball obsession. Places are literally everywhere and although you might not be aware that this pastime has its very own world cup you might be interested to know that the World Cup Asia finals are staged on the island of Langkawi every year, attracting combatants from around the globe.