Malaysia is one of my favourite countries in the world; it seriously has it all. You can immerse yourself in lively, bustling cities, or chill out in sleepy, laid-back towns. You can wander through the dense Taman Negara rainforest, explore some of the longest and largest caves in the world, sunbathe along Malaysia’s extensive coastline and hike through tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands. Whatever kind of holiday you’re looking for, Malaysia has it.
My boyfriend and I fell in love with Malaysia after spending almost a month there. It simply wasn’t enough time; I could have happily spent a year there! During that time, we visited Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh, Melaka (also known as Malacca), and the Cameron Highlands. In this post, I’m going to share 15 tips and facts about Malaysia that you should know before you go.
1) The food is amazing. Malaysian food is one of the most delicious cuisines in the world. Many dishes have southern Chinese and pan-Indian influences, thanks to the immigrant communities living there. There are also similarities with Indonesian food and Singaporean food due to the countries’ proximity, and shared history. Check out this blog post to learn about the best dishes to try in Malaysia.
You can find amazing food all over Malaysia, but foodies should make a beeline for Penang. The island of Penang (and in particular its state capital Georgetown) is considered one of the best destinations for street food in Asia, if not the world.
2) Malaysia is extremely multicultural. Around 70% of the country are Malay Muslims, with the other 30% composed of Chinese people, Tamil Indian, and Aboriginal groups. The main religions are Islam, Chinese Taoism and Hinduism. This diversity is reflected in the thousands of magnificent mosques, shrines, and temples found across the country. It’s quite a sight to see Islamic minarets, gilded Chinese shrines and Hindu gopurams (temple gates) standing side-by-side, and it adds so much colour and vitality.
Malaysia is a secular country where Islam is the official religion and others are free to practise their own religion. You don’t have to cover your heads or wear long-sleeved clothes if you’re walking around the cities and towns. However religious sites have strict dress codes. You should make sure your shoulders, knees and chest are covered. Malaysians are quite modest dressers, so you are likely to see them wear one-piece bathing suits and knee-length swimming trunks at the beaches, rather than bikinis and speedos.
3) It is a fascinating mix of modern and traditional. Kuala Lumpur is one of the world’s most futuristic cities, with skyscrapers, a monorail system and an ever-expanding network of highways. It is the ideal place for remote workers or digital nomads as there’s excellent 4G mobile network coverage and fast Wi-Fi. However you can still find traditional neighbourhoods outside the city centre, such as KL’s Chinatown district. By contrast, smaller cities like Melaka and Ipoh have maintained their historic architecture and style, with buildings dating back hundreds of years.
If you’re a fan of architecture and design, you’ll love Malaysia. I couldn’t stop photographing the beautiful buildings; an eclectic mix of styles and influences, resulting from the country’s history with China, England and India.
4) Many Malaysians don’t drink alcohol. As a result, outside of the major tourist hubs, it is uncommon for restaurants to serve or allow alcoholic drinks. Instead, they serve tea and coffee as staple drinks. If you’re in the city of Ipoh, try the white coffee. It’s made by roasting coffee beans in margarine, brewing them then serving with sweetened condensed milk.
Alcoholic drinks in the larger cities can be expensive due to heavy taxes. A cheaper alternative is to buy beer from Chinese-run businesses, or visit the tax-free Malaysian islands of Langkawi and Tioman. Or drink less alcohol and put the money you’ve saved towards more amazing street food and fun experiences!
5) You won’t run out of sightseeing options. There are so many fun, interesting and exciting things to do in Malaysia. Some of the most popular include:
- Exploring the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur (an incredible cave network set into limestone cliffs, which can only be accessed by climbing a staircase of 272 steps)
- Sip tea fresh from plantations in the Cameron Highlands (established by British colonialists who set up hill stations where they could retreat from the heat and have a refreshing cup of tea)
- Going to a rooftop bar or observation tower to admire the futuristic KL skyline. The best views are from the Petronas towers. There is a double-decker Skybridge connecting the two towers on the 41st and 42nd floors.
- Go diving or snorkelling off Borneo or the pristine Perhentian Islands. Both would be ideal locations for island junkies and those who love hiking and being close to nature.
- Take a ride in a gaudy trishaw around historic Melaka. You can find trishaws across Malaysia, but the ones in Melaka are quite something! They are covered in bright neon lights, tinsels and flowers, emit booming disco beats and are adorned with pictures of cartoon characters over them like Hello Kitty or Elsa from Frozen.
6) It is extremely good value for money. We did a mix of Airbnbs, hostels and hotels while in Malaysia, and were impressed by the quality of the accommodation compared to the low prices. Prices ranged from €17 a night in Ipoh to €23 per night in Kuala Lumpur. During the last 2 years, Malaysia’s currency (the Ringgit) has decreased in value which has made Malaysia much cheaper for tourists.
7) There’s balmy, humid, tropical weather all year round. The temperature in Malaysia is consistently warm, around 27-30 degrees Celsius. It is a humid, tropical country, so bring a raincoat or umbrella with you. When we visited the Cameron Highlands for hiking, we had one cloudy day with a short rain shower, followed by a day of glorious sunshine and warm temperatures. Luckily, being British, we are used to changeable weather!
8) Public transport is extremely efficient. My boyfriend and I don’t drive so good public transport is essential for us and we were very impressed with the infrastructure across Malaysia. We took trains, buses, coaches, ferries, and the metro and didn’t have any problems getting from A to B. The most expansive network is in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur (KL). Not only is the KL network very reliable and clean, train and bus tickets are also extremely cheap. We took a train across the Thailand-Malaysian border, and a night bus from Malaysia to Singapore, so it’s a great way to save money on flights (and help the environment!). It is really easy to travel between cities; you can book your tickets online in advance via Red Bus Malaysia, 12Go Asia and Easy Book.
Did you know that Kuala Lumpur and Penang have free bus routes that locals and tourists can use? I was really impressed by these bus routes which zigzag around the cities. You can hop on and off without tickets. More cities should have these!
9) English is widely spoken. The official language of Malaysia is Malay, also known as Bahasa Malaysia. However, as Malaysia is such a multicultural society it is not uncommon to hear other languages such as Tamil, Mandarin and English. If you want to try and learn some phrases in Bahasa Malaysia, it’s apparently one of the easiest Asian languages to learn as it uses the Roman alphabet and isn’t as tonal as other Asian languages.
We didn’t have any problems communicating in English and everyone we spoke to was helpful and friendly. You will notice that signs, information stands, ticket machines and food menus are normally available in English, so you don’t have to second-guess if you have ordered the right food or bought a ticket to the right destination.
10) Malaysia has more than 25 national parks. The country is an obvious choice for nature lovers, thanks to its astonishing variety of landscapes. Along with its national parks, Malaysia has an enormous cave network, mountain ranges, stunning inner-city parks, great hiking routes and the oldest tropical rainforest in the world in Taman Negara National Park. You can find Gunung Kinabalu, the country’s highest mountain (a staggering 4095m/13435ft) on the island of Borneo. With its rainforests and reefs bursting with wildlife, it’s no surprise that Malaysia has been classified as a megadiverse country, home to a huge variety of animals including some endangered creatures.
11) The number #1 app you’ll need is Grab. It’s the Asian equivalent to Uber or Lyft and works in the same way. You can select your current location and where you want to go and see the price of the journey before ordering a taxi. You can pay with cash or also link a bank card to the app. It is a cheaper alternative to local taxis and means you don’t need to negotiate prices with the driver. Grab also has a food delivery service (GrabFood) in collaboration with local eateries. You can order food via the app to be delivered to your accommodation, and one of the Grab taxi or motorbike drivers will pick it up for you.
12) Carry cash with you. It can be tricky paying with card in Malaysia, as some places charge a 3% fee, others don’t, and some vendors will just tell you “the machine isn’t working…”. It’s best to always carry cash with you. Some areas of Malaysia don’t have many ATMs (like Taman Negara and Perhentian Islands) so you need to bring cash to these areas.
The good news is there are no ATM fees when withdrawing money with foreign cards. It’s best to have smaller notes with you when paying for food (especially at street food hawker centres) and for tipping. Although tipping is not required or expected, it will be appreciated. If you eat in a sit-down restaurant, it’s common to see a 10% service charge added to the bill.
13) You shouldn’t drink the tap water. Unfortunately tap water in Malaysia is not safe to drink unless it has been boiled or filtered. Bottled water can be easily bought on every street corner but the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly option to bring your own reusable water bottle. Most hotels and hostels allow guests to refill their water bottles. Carrying a water filtration system or purifying tablets comes in handy when embarking on on multi-day hikes.
14) There are strict laws and rules which might not apply in your home country. Malaysia is a safe experience for travellers, but you should exercise the same common sense you do at home. Keep an eye on your bag and phone as there have been cases of thieves on motorbikes snatching things out of pedestrian’s hands.
Stay away from drugs in Malaysia because the country has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to them. Having drugs on you can mean a death sentence, and you can be jailed for carrying even small amounts on you.
Public displays of affection are frowned upon in Malaysia, whatever kind of relationship you’re in. Furthermore, same-sex relationships are both taboo and banned by federal law in Malaysia, so if you’re part of an LGBTQIA couple, don’t publicize your relationship.
15) Some travel vaccinations are required. You should talk to your doctor or a travel clinic about which vaccinations you need before travelling to Malaysia. I was advised to have the Hepatitis A, Tetanus and Typhoid vaccines. Malaria isn’t a high risk, but you should use heavy duty insect repellent to avoid being bitten by pesky mosquitos. .
I hope this post has given you some useful insight into this wonderful country and what you need to know before you visit. If you have any questions about travelling to or around Malaysia, please write them in the comments box below.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow