Surprisingly (to us, at least), many travelers have overlooked Malaysia. Island hoppers skip to Indonesia, city slickers gravitate toward Singapore, foodies chew their way through Thailand, and those who travel off-the-beaten-path choose lesser known destinations like Cambodia or Myanmar. The surprising part is that Malaysia encompasses all of these desires, while also proving to be a premiere location for adventure travel. In no other country can you trek through indigenous rainforests in search of the world's largest flower (the awful-smelling Rafflesia), clamber through the largest caverns on Earth (the Mulu Caves), dive through insanely diverse marine environments, and spend days traversing the wilderness of Malaysian Borneo just to see the sun come up over the 13,000-foot turret of Kinabalu. That's right. This country has it all.
Located in the southernmost portion of Southeast Asia, Malaysia is known for its balmy weather, wildly inexpensive travel options, and a varied cultural history. Liberated from British rule in 1957, Malaysia is still in development as an industrializing nation, with the majority of its growth coming in the last few decades. This is especially true in the Klang Valley, which is home to the only three cities of over one million in population in Malaysia, including the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Remnants of British imperialism can be found throughout Malaysia, particularly in the architecture of some of its most famous buildings, although you need to only see the Petronas Towers (the largest twin towers in the world) to realize that Malaysia isn't content to just ruminate on its past; not when they can forge forward as a modern symbol of economic growth and progress.Although the majority of travelers tend to come from Southeast Asia (particularly neighboring Singapore), Malaysia's incredibly inexpensive array of food and accommodation, breadth of activities, and varied cultural influences make it a must for anyone looking for a novel experience. If you're willing to budget accommodations outside of tourist centers and eat at hawker centers or Mamak stalls, then you'll be blown away by how cheaply Malaysia can be done. Then there are the amazing adventure activities that await. There's the swimming, snorkeling, and diving of world-class destinations like the Perhentian Islands, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, Langkawi, Pulau Sipadan, Pulau Tioman, and more (although be aware of monsoon season stirring things up on the east coast). There's also the hiking through rainforests like Belum-Temengor and Taman Negara and up mountains like the aforementioned Kinabalu; you know, in case blue skies and pacifying seas aren't your thing.
The various cultures that make up Malaysia also make up much of the country's intrigue. Although the majority of Malaysians practice Islam, it is a truly multicultural country that borrows from Chinese, Malay, Indian, and even indigenous (known as orang asli) origins in its food, customs, and more. For further details on the people, nightlife, cuisine, and exciting activities of Malaysia's various cities and regions, browse our related pages. You may be amazed how varied your experience can be between cities like Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Georgetown, Kota Kinabalu, Johor Bahru, and beyond.
Long story short: don't overlook Malaysia! If you're looking to mix stellar adventure options with budget travel in a unique world in the heart of Southeast Asia, then there are no better choices. Do yourself one better and include neighboring destinations like Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand on your itinerary; just try to remain flexible. You might actually want to stay a bit longer than you've intended.
Visitors from the United States and the large majority of first-world countries do not need a visa upon entering Malaysia as long as they have a valid passport as long the stay is for under 90 days. If you need further visa information, you will find it here.
Malaysia's main form of currency is the Malaysian Ringgit. Up-to-date exchange rates can be found here.
The Malaysian government is, at its core, a representative democracy and constitutional monarchy. The head of state is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, a monarch elected by the governors of the nine Malay states who has a largely ceremonial role beyond the task of choosing the head of the government, the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister leads the cabinet, also chosen by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who together comprise the executive branch of government. The bicameral legislature consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, while the highest court of the separate judiciary is the Federal Court. Despite the appearance of a multi-party system, by far the most dominant party in national politics since the country's independence has been the United Malays National Organisation. The Barisan Nasional (of which the UMNO is a part) owned an overwhelming share of power in the federal government until 2013 elections instituted a greater balance with the insurgence of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition. The government has a strong control of the country's media and print, while political talking points often center around the debate between Malaysian nationalism and the promotion of ethnic diversity, as well as the influence of Islamic law in contemporary legislature and the preservation of rain forests versus the extraction of palm oil. Also, according to this report, levels of corruption in business and government in Malaysia are considered quite high as related to other Southeast Asian nations.
For English-speaking travelers, there are few impediments to communicating when in Malaysia due to the country's history as a British colony. Although the official language is Malay, you'll find that English is the language of business transactions and is taught as a secondary language in schools, making it pretty widely spoken in at least conversational form. Many business and road signs are in both Malay and English, while some are even in Chinese due to the hefty Chinese minority. As you may suspect, metropolitan areas will be more accommodating to English speakers, while rural areas will most likely have fewer people that understand the language. We suggest at least learning some basic Malay phrases, even if your fortunate to find people willing to speak English; a little effort can go a long way. On a somewhat related aside, because of the Islamic roots of many of Malaysia's citizens, you'll find that more conservative behavior and dress (in women especially) will go a long way in avoiding negative attention, particularly in more rural areas.
Crime and Safety:
When traveling to Malaysia, you should be prepared to exercise a combination of caution and common sense when dealing with security of self and possessions. Violent crime is next to nonexistent when it comes to foreigners, but petty crimes like pickpocketing are a very real concern, especially in big city atmospheres like Kuala Lumpur. KL does combat this by placing a number of "Tourist Police" stations in popular sight-seeing areas like Bukit Bintang and Petaling Street, but your own precautionary measures should be first and foremost. Make sure to only use credit cards at reputable locations, since fraud is a frequent crime, and be wary when entering a taxi: make sure you check the driver's taxi license and make sure that the picture matches your driver. If not, get out, for you may be brazenly overcharged or worse. Taxi companies in Kuala Lumpur like Innovasi Timur Orange Taxi Cab and Sunlight Radio Cab have positive reputations. Also, despite a prevalence of drug and sex trafficking within the country, drug laws are much more punitive than the United States, leading to lengthy prison sentences (even for foreigners) and even the death penalty for drug traffickers.
Modes of Transportation:
The network of roads on peninsular Malaysia are extensive and well-kept; those of Malaysian Borneo are less so, a reflection of the lack of populace in inland areas. There are six major airports, although the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (actually an hour south of KL) is where you'll arrive and depart if you're traveling internationally. If you'll be moving frequently between cities (or even Thailand and Singapore), it would benefit you to rent a car or purchase an unlimited rail pass that will allow you to take any city-wide train transport (including light-rail) during your stay. Further information on traveling by train can be found here, although prices may be slightly higher at this point. Public transport options also include buses, although in more rural areas the possibility of older vehicles without operating AC is pretty high. No matter what you choose, the good news is that it will be incredibly cheaper than the same alternatives in Europe or the United States.
Malaysia's climate is considered equatorial, which means you'll be seeing hot and humid weather all year long (average temps from 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit) unless you're at higher elevations. Rainfall is often dictated by the two monsoon seasons (May to September on the west coast and November to March on the east coast), although in some areas is more year round. The resort culture is huge along the east coast, but it actually closes down during monsoon season, so it's not worth traveling there during that time. Malaysian Borneo is harder to pin down and plan for good weather, although you'll find that the wet season generally runs from September to January and that humidity also stays quite high throughout the region.
Eating and Tipping:
When dining out in Malaysia, be aware that food and drink are often more expensive because both a service charge and a government tax may be added, which can amount to 15% or more being tacked on to your bill. It is often much cheaper to purchase hawker food or to shop at bazaars if you want to avoid these surcharges. Tipping is not necessary in most service jobs (wait-staff, taxis, hotels, etc.) unless you feel you've received quality service. Then again, small tips for baggage carriers and hotel maids are an excellent way to ensure future good service. As far as eating is concerned, take a look through our city-related pages for an in-depth look at the Indian, Chinese, and Malay dishes that make the cuisine so varied and delicious.
Malaysia is largely an Islamic nation, meaning that consumption of alcohol by Muslims is forbidden except in certain forms or on certain occasions (called the Shariah law). Therefore, it's no surprise that some states do not sell alcohol commercially, Kelentan and Tereengganu the most notable among them. Then again, younger generations in metropolitan areas are more apt to enjoy a more western mentality when it comes to alcohol consumption, especially in Kuala Lumpur, where pubs and bars are very popular. Chang, Tiger, and Asahi are all big Asian beers that are popular with Malaysians, while Guinness, Heineken, and more are western-style beers that are sold in high volume. Malaysia does not notably produce any liquor or wine, but you will find imports quite easily available if you are at the supermarket or nightlife establishment.
Interesting Cultural Fact:
Malaysia is home to both the world's largest flower, the Rafflesia, which can grow to be nearly 40 inches wide and the world's largest cave, the Sarawak Chamber in Malaysian Borneo's Mulu National Park.
Language:Malay, although English is frequently used.
This Hindu cultural festival is practiced in a number of Malay states, most popularly at the site of the Batu Caves (near Kuala Lumpur) at the end of January/beginning of February. There are many rituals that are observed, including the selling of food, crafts, and fortunes, as well as the carrying of the kavadi, a ritual of penance that involves metal (often hooks) being pushed through the skin of the limbs or face. If you think that's not flagellatory enough, bear in mind that this all follows 48 days of strict, vegetarian fasting. If you'd like more information on this unique cultural event, then visit the accompanying site.
Hari Raya Puasa
Known by many names depending largely on the country in which it is celebrated, Hari Raya Puasa usually falls somewhere around the end of August on the first sighting of the new moon. This particular occasion follows the month-long fasting of Ramadan and is a Muslim festivity of prayer, food, and gifts. Islamic families will open their homes to family and friends to commemorate the occasion, while shopping malls and bazaars can become quite hectic and stressful places to spend your time due to the mad shopping rushes (think Black Friday in the U.S.).
Chinese New Year
Since nearly a quarter of Malaysia's overall population is Chinese (a figure that is much higher in cities like Johor Bahru), the Chinese New Year is a popular and widely celebrated occasion. Falling somewhere in the middle-to-end of January, the festivities are marked by a vigorously festive atmosphere, particularly in Chinatown districts, with street bazaars, colorful parades (the Chingay Parade), and a variety of performances that include music and dance.