Malaysia is the odd man out of the South East Asia countries! From almost all the angles Malaysia doesn’t seem to fit with their neighbors. Malaysia is hugely diverse and any generalization is probably even more dangerous than in most of the other places. However, we will take the risk and present to you 50 “travel things” you need to know before going to Malaysia. From the religion and local culture to tourists and food, passing through transportation and money this is one of the most complete travel lists about traveling in Malaysia!
Malaysia is formed by Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo Malaysia! However, this post is mostly about Peninsular Malaysia, where we traveled for 21 days. As it’s easier to write and read we will always say “Malaysia” and not “Peninsular Malaysia”!
Malaysia and the locals
#1 Malaysia is a tropical country, which means it’s hot and humid. At times it’s just impossible to walk around or do some of the hikes! Tip: always bring water with you!
#2 Although this also means that green is the prevailing color! Either because of the rainforest, the palm trees, or the grass… But almost everything is covered in green…
#3 There’s a huge variety of races and people. Malays, Indians, and Chinese mostly… And then expats and tourists!
#4 Malay and Malaysian are two different things. Whereas Malay is an ethnic group in Malaysia (and neighboring countries), Malaysian is an inhabitant of Malaysia. Note that only about half of the Malaysians are Malay.
#5 English is one of the official languages so it’s widely spoken, which is great for us travelers. However, Bahasa Malaysia is the most widely spoken language.
#6 In general people aren’t the most likable… they aren’t arrogant or anything, but don’t give you that Thai smile or have the unique way of being of the Lao.
#7 Malays are very passive and usually very slow paced! The very opposite of what we said about the Thais!
#8 Malaysia is an Islamic country, probably one of the most open and free Islamic countries but it still follows the Islamic laws.
Travel in Malaysia and tourists
#9 There’s way fewer backpackers than any other South East Asian country we have been to! Though we are pretty sure it’s related to the price and the difficulty in buying alcohol… unfortunately it became obvious to us that some (many) people only travel to get wasted!
#10 Penang national Park is smallest in the world, but these things aren’t measured by size! The Park has one of the best trails we have ever done!
#11 Penang’s beaches are average at best. They have little sand and aren’t very clean, both water and sand. Furthermore, to make things even worse, most of the times you can’t even swim because it’s full of jellyfish.
#12 The big exception is turtle beach in Penang National Park! It has beautiful sand and clear turquoise water, but you aren’t allowed to swim…
13. 3D Street art in Georgetown is cool! However, that was everything we liked about it… The Note that other Malaysian towns also have nice 3D street art!
14. If you have to choose between Georgetown and Malaka, go to Malaka. Although they are both UNESCO world heritage sites, Malaka is much more interesting with old ruins, buildings and a very pleasant riverside. Furthermore, historically Malaka is also much more relevant than Georgetown.
15. Penang Hill felt like a touristic trap. We waited 2 hours to get up there… It has a nice view but that’s about it… We suppose that if you don’t have to wait it’s worth it, but after 2 hours we weren’t really in the mood anymore.
16. Langkawi’s beaches are better than Penang’s, but they aren’t the paradise you may believe. We would rate them on the level with the Thais we have been to. Though they aren’t even close to Koh ta Kiev in Cambodia, or the ones in the Perhentian Islands referred below.
17. However, Langkawi’s best attractions aren’t the beaches. That title belongs to the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park which is famous for mangrove swamps, and vertical karstic hills jutting out towards the Andaman Sea.
18. Malaysians really know how to make parks! Every single national park and city park we have been in Malaysia was amazing! So, if you are going to Malaysia do yourself a favor and visit as many parks as you can!
20. Buy the tickets to the Petronas towers beforehand because they sell out very quickly. Also, It’s one of the most expensive things to do but it’s worth it! It’s an amazing building with an amazing view.
21. If you are looking for paradisiac beaches go to Perhentian Islands Resort and Turtle Beach in the big Perhentian island!
22. Additionally, the Perhentian islands are also a great place for snorkeling and diving. We snorkeled quite a bit and it was wonderful. Malaysia is a great place for snorkeling, check this post on snorkeling in Borneo!
23. The oldest tropical rainforest in the world is in Malaysia, in the Taman Negara National Park. This park is an obvious choice for nature lovers. It’s great for those wanting to do multi-day trekkings or those doing smaller pleasant hikes through the forest.
If you only have a week to spend in Malaysia have a look at this itinerary, it includes some of the best sights!
Eating and drinking in Malaysia
24. There’s a huge variety of food… Malay, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Arabian and Western.
25. Malay food is very influenced by Indian cuisine. Thus, many of the delicious Malay dishes like nasi lemak, roti canai, chapati or biryani are all influenced or variations of Indian dishes.
26. It’s usual for a restaurant not to allow alcoholic drinks inside! Instead, they serve tea and coffee as staple drink.
27. We discovered something called Ipoh white coffee, which is made by roasting coffee beans with margarine, brewed and served with sweetened condensed milk in a creamy form. It’s tastes amazing!
28. They have some wild deserts, but not in a crazy sweet way as in Thailand. Just crazy as “Why are you putting corn, beans and green peas in my ice cream” kind of way…? Seriously, check cendol or ABC…
29. It was great having a normal “Portuguese breakfast” in Malaysia (with a Malay touch). Coffee and toast with butter and kaya. Kaya is a Jam made of coconut, eggs and caramel. It’s delicious, you must try it!
30. However, the real staple breakfast is the Nasi Lemak, a Malay fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf. This is the true Malaysia National dish and can also be eaten through the day. It’s usually served with a spice paste and beef or fish flavor. A Nasi Lemak bought from a hawker can cost less than 50 cents!
31. In Malaysia, street food is mostly sold in hawker food centers. These are open-air complexes of permanent stalls that sell a variety of inexpensive food. Instead of mobile food hawker carts, this is a more sanitary option. In short, it’s very cheap and usually very good!
Money and costs of traveling in Malaysia
32. During the last 2 years, the Ringgit devalued very much and this made everything in Malaysia cheaper for foreign currency owners! In these two years, one USD went from 3.6 to 4.4 Ringgit, which means everything is 20 to 25% cheaper.
33. This made Malaysia an even cheaper country to travel! We have spent 1064 Euros in 21 days, or 50 Euros per day (25 per person)… Besides, this included everything, from food, accommodation, and transportation to banking costs, visas and even gifts!
34. Alcohol is expensive, which made absolutely no difference for us, but it can be a weighting reason for you!
35. Food is very cheap! Even using South East Asia standards… We ate several full meals for 1 Euro.
36. There are no ATM fees when withdrawing money with foreign cards. Although paying with card directly can be tricky! Some places don’t charge anything, others charge 3% and in others “the machine isn’t working…”
37. Also, many destinations don’t have ATMs… even some very touristic ones like Taman Negara and Perhentian Islands… Be aware of this and always have money with you.
38. Be aware of service charge in Malaysian restaurants. Usually in the more upscale, not in fast food chains.
39. Furthermore, sometimes prices include a GST 6% tax, sometimes don’t… It doesn’t seem to have a rule which makes it very annoying…
Transportation in Malaysia
40. Roads are generally good which helps you travel faster and more comfortably.
41. Public transportation has quality and works well! Better than any other South East Asian country! And they are very cheap. Although, they are much better in Kuala Lumpur than in the rest of Malaysia.
42. Also, transports are fairly well organized and located close to each other. It’s very different from the other South East Asian countries where they drop you outside of the city and ready to be hunted by tuk-tuk and taxi drivers!
43. But, not in Langkawi! In Langkawi, there is no public collective transportation! Just taxis… why? It’s a mystery and honestly ruins the experience of traveling on the island! As a traveler, you depend on taxi and rentals. There are no other options…
44. There are no tuk-tuks in Malaysia, but then there are these… bright, colorful, insane rickshaws in Malaka. After 3 months on the road, you don’t get stunned easily, but these blew our minds! 🙂
Other useful info about travel in Malaysia
45. Malaysian markets are great places to buy electronics or sports jerseys.
46. Things close very early and open very late…
47. Although Malaysia is clearly the richest of the countries we visited, it also has much more people living in the streets, or at least they are much more visible.
48. Kuala Lumpur is a very developed and organized city, but don’t be fooled the rest of the country isn’t even close to the capital’s standards. Sometimes looks like they spent all the money in Kuala Lumpur and forget about the rest of the country.
49. Be aware that if you are going to Malaysia during school holidays you will need to plan ahead because big attractions get really crowded!
50. Langkawi is a duty-free area, which means that most of its shops look like airport stores selling chocolates, bags, perfumes, and naturally alcohol.
Bonus tip: Malaysia is pretty safe! Though, you don’t want to risk having a problem and not being insured! So, always Remember to Buy Travel Insurance Before Your Trip!
Our Recommended Travel Guide Books For Malaysia
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Malaysia & Singapore – if you are only traveling to Malaysia and Singapore!
Alternatively, Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a shoestring (Travel Guide) – in case you are planning to travel to more than one country in South East Asia.
All in all, Malaysia is an incredibly diverse country, both in culture and natural beauty. Besides, these peculiarities make it even more interesting and a great option for your next trip!
Jorge is an economist who loves to travel. He has worked in Portugal and in Angola as the Head Financial Controller of an international transports and logistics company. He is always planning new trips and discovering new places he wants to go. He explores his ability in finance and planning to help you plan your trips, take the most of your dollars and travel more, smarter and better.