Malaysia is one of the most diverse countries in Southeast Asia, both in its citizens and its landscape. Many people call Malaysia home, but their cultural diversity shines with people from different countries and religions settling within its borders.
Communities of Muslims, Hindus, Chinese, and indigenous people are all spread throughout the country, adding to its complexity. But diversity spreads beyond the people and the landscape changes from pristine beaches to dense rainforests and picturesque islands. With beauty everywhere, visitors can explore both the urban and natural landscapes, while getting to know the people, for a day filled with adventure.
Selamat Datang – Welcome to Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, which houses the federal government and is a central hub for the country’s cultural, business, and financial institutions. But the city, like many Asian cities, perfectly blends the past with the present. Historical monuments and dispersed throughout the streets, while busy street markets are backed by towering skyscrapers. In fact, Kuala Lumpur is known for their gorgeous modern skyline with the Petronas Twin Towers the main centerpiece.
Culture and Language
Malaysia has an extensive history, like many Asian countries that spans from prehistoric times through medieval periods and then the modern day. Prehistoric Malaysia was ruled by pre-hominids, which date back 1.83 million years. The early kingdoms were built by the first millennium CE, which were influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, and eventually Islam. Borneo even ruled over the area before Malaysia fell under British influence, which saw the rise of the East India Company.
But Malaysia struggled through wars and race relations to be united into one country. Both World War I and World War II were difficult on the country and it struggled to unite as one. It wasn’t until well after the wars in 1963 that Malaysia became an independent country, which included other states like Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak. But Singapore is no longer a part of Malaysia and became independent in 1965.
Now, Malaysia has a parliamentary government and constitutional monarchy. It is classified as also having representational democracy. The prime minister holds the highest power in the government and rules the nation with their Cabinet. With a relatively stable government, the country has grown to become a hotspot for travelers.
While Malaysia has a mix of cultures with influences from China, India, and Europe, strong customs within the culture include being kind and courteous. The people are welcoming, and they enjoy drinking Milo, shopping, and eating. Unique customs within Malaysian culture include no shoes indoors, which can be seen in other Asian countries and eating with only your right hand. But public displays of affection are often frowned upon and it is best to stick to just hand holding while out and about.
Visitors are also welcomed into the country and can partake in their big celebrations. Malaysians love to celebrate many different occasions with parties and good food. So, expect to to have a good time when you visit the country, especially if your trip falls around a holiday.
Visitors will also see that pride is shared with the family, who live as a unit. Similar to many Asian cultures, family is heavily integrated into one’s life and they always come first. While families may not always live together, modern technology keeps them connected and you’ll find busy travel times during the holidays as many return home to celebrate.
Malay is the national and official language of Malaysia, which has ten different dialects. Malay is not only spoken in Malaysia, but also in Brunei, Indonesia, and Singapore. Bahasa melayu is the most popular of the dialects that is spoken in Malaysia, which is spoken by people in their daily life and used by the government.
However, due to Malaysia geographic location close to China, Mandarin Chinese is one of the foreign languages that may be heard throughout the country. English is also very popular throughout Malaysia both because of its strong ties in business and tourism. Travelers may find that English is widely spoken if they stay in the big cities and tourist hotspots, which can make the issues of a language barrier less stressful.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Malaysia, you do not need a tourist visa prior to your arrival in the country, if you are staying for less than 90 days. Instead, an entry stamp will be provided upon your arrival and give you up to 90 days to enjoy the country. But you will need to meet a few other requirements for legal entry.
The requires for an entry stamp include a valid US passport that is valid for 6 months past your date of arrival to the country. Your passport should also have one blank page available for the entry stamp. There is a $10,000 US dollar currency restriction, which means that anything over that amount will need to be properly declared to the authorities.
The 90-day tourist entry stamp should also allow you to complete business meetings, but you cannot earn any money within the country during your stay. If you wish to work or stay for longer than 90 days, you will need to seek the appropriate visa with help from the Malaysian Embassy.
While it is essential that you have valid entry into the country, it is important that you consider your spending budget while you are planning your trip to Malaysia. Malaysia is not as affordable as other Asian countries, so you should expect to pay higher prices. People with a backpacker’s budget will find it harder to visit Malaysia because many places off the beaten path may not be the safest option. But you can still find an affordable budget to visit the country with the most important considerations being your airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
Malaysia is far away. Really far away. Most non-stop flights from the United States to Malaysia will take 25 hours to complete, which also means that plane tickets will be expensive because of the long distance covered. The average cost of plane tickets is about $900 US dollars, but you can expect prices to rise about $1,000 US dollars during certain times of the year. Budget tickets are harder to find but may be available for about $500 US dollars. Most of these prices will be for a round trip ticket in economy.
But other factors like when you travel and how far in advance you book your ticket can affect the price. The tourist high seasons in Malaysia are from December to January and the other runs from June to August. During these months, you will find that plane tickets will be more expensive as more people are traveling to the country for tourism or to celebrate the holidays with their family. It is also always better to book your ticket further in advance than wait. If you wait too long, plane can be filled, and ticket prices will rise.
Plane tickets are always the first crucial step to planning a trip, but they aren’t the only part of your budget. You will also have to decide on your accommodation, and it is best to make bookings before you arrive in the country. The most affordable accommodation options in Malaysia will cost about $12 US dollars per night but would be a shared room situation. Private accommodation options would be about $36 US dollars per night in a hostel style accommodation.
If you wish to stay in a hotel setting, a nicer location and style would cost about $60-$80 US dollars per night. Many of these hotels will be 3 or 4 stars and have excellent reviews. They are affordable and a great place to stay when you don’t want to blow your budget. If you are looking for a luxury resort or accommodation, you should expect to spend hundreds or thousands of US dollars per night.
Another option for private accommodation is Airbnb. Many nice apartments can be rented for the night or several nights with average costs being $30-$40 US dollars per night. Larger residences will be $60 US dollars or more per night and may have an entire suite, apartment, or house for your choosing. Airbnb can be a great option for travelers who are staying as a couple or group, as it minimizes the stress of finding multiple hotel rooms or locations with adequate room for everyone in the group.
Once you’ve decided on how to fly to Malaysia and where to stay, the next most important budget considerations will be food and drink. Malaysian cuisine may not be as internationally famous as their neighboring country, Thailand, but they still make exceptional dishes that honor their tradition. Most Malaysian cuisine can be divided by three large ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese, and Indian.
The cuisine reflects the diversity of the country and there are endless dishes to try. Nasi karabu is one of Malaysia’s most famous dishes, which features blue rice with fried chicken, egg, and keropok. Beef rendang is also well-known and became famous when the world-renowned chef, Gordon Ramsey visited Malaysia to learn how to prepare this tasty dish. Assam laksa is a dish that packs a bit of heat with a spicy flavor added to rice noodles and mackerel. Kaya pau is a snack dish that turns coconut milk into a butter consistency that is served with bread or cooked into buns. Finally, a little bit of sweetness is added with gula melaka, which is a sugar syrup that is often featured in a variety of desserts.
While flight and accommodation costs are expensive, food is affordable, and most people will eat happily off of a daily budget of about $15 US dollars. Nice meals for a couple will cost about $5 US dollars at local restaurants, while street food is even more affordable with prices usually under $4 US dollars for a dish. Nicer restaurants would cost about $10 US dollars for a meal for two people, while the most touristy areas will see prices increase up to $20 US dollars for a meal.
For travelers who also enjoy heading out to the bars and sipping a few drinks, you’ll need to add the cost of drinking to your budget. Drinks can be expensive, depending on where you go. Local markets will be the most affordable place to buy alcohol with bottles of beer costing about $2 US dollars. In other establishments, a beer would increase in price up to about $4 US dollars. Mixed drinks will be the most expensive option with prices starting at $10 US dollars and increasing. The touristy areas will have the highest prices, so if you are looking to stay on budget you should avoid the big hotels or bars and choose something more local.
Overall, an affordable and realistic budget for traveling Malaysia would be to spend about $75 US dollars per person and per day. A mid-level budget may see you spending up to $200 US dollars per day, depending on your accommodation and dining choices. While a luxury vacation could have you spending hundreds or thousands of US dollars per day.
How to Get Around
Malaysia rests on a peninsula and many will often say that there are two major divisions within the country by East and West. Kuala Lumpur is considered to be close to the center but more in West Malaysia with the small island destinations residing in East Malaysia. Traveling around Malaysia will likely be on your bucket list. After all, there’s much more to see than just the capital of Kuala Lumpur. But it is important that you consider how you will travel and what it will cost to visit different destinations throughout the country.
Flying will be the most time efficient way to see all your bucket list locations, but you will have to increase your budget. Malaysia Airways and AirAsia are the two biggest airlines that provide domestic service throughout Malaysia. Most plane ticket prices will range from $25-$75 US dollars for a one-way ticket.
A more affordable way to travel around the country, but one that will take longer is to use a bus. Bus tickets are extremely affordable with most prices costing $1-$4 US dollars per hour. Longer rides could cost up to $12 US dollars, but that is still half the price of the most affordable plane ticket. Transnasional and Plusliner and the two big bus companies that service Malaysia, but there is also Aeroline and Super Nice to choose from for your travel needs.
Trains are another way to travel around Malaysia and the surrounding areas like Singapore. Most Malaysians trains come in two types – express and local. Express trains are the nicer option and they will have three different class options with the nicest providing air conditioning. Local trains are slower but will be the most affordably as they usually only have the option for economy class. Long distance trains are still affordable, and most tickets will cost $19-$42 US dollars for a one-way ticket.
If you are looking to explore a specific city and aren’t traveling for long distances, public transportation is a safe and affordable option. Public transportation may come in the form of a bus or train, but they should be on schedule and have inexpensive tickets. Most journeys will cost less than $2 US dollars for a ticket.
Trishaws are another option to travel around the city that are an alternative to taxis. They can be affordable and a great way to see the city, but you should always negotiate the price before your trip. The same rule also applies to taxis. You should always negotiate and settle on a price before your trip because many taxis are shared. This means that you may stop to pick up additional riders on the way and if you can’t find anyone the driver may ask that you pay the fare for four people.
Finally, you can always walk around a concentrated area to experience the locals and see new sights. Walking is free and in many of the populated and touristy areas it is completely safe. However, you should always be aware of your surroundings and keep your belongings close, just in case. It is also best to avoid walking alone at night.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
While Kuala Lumpur is the main city destination, there are lots of other places to explore in Malaysia too. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Malaysia.
As the central hub of the country, Kuala Lumpur is dominated by modern architecture and the Petronas Twin Towers. This lively hub is awake 24/7 and eager to entertain visitors. With plenty of restaurants, cafes, shopping locations, and heritage sites, visitors can experience Malaysia first-hand. With modernity quickly growing, you’ll have to travel to the city’s heart to experience the past in villages like Kampong Bharu, which rests on the riverbanks and showcases old tradition.
George Town is the second largest city in the country with the same chaos that fills the capital, though the modern architecture has been traded for stunning mosques and temples. The colorful streets do have modern skyscrapers and shopping centers, but it is in the quieter areas that you can find hip cafes and street art.
Malacca has been influenced by the British, Dutch, and Portuguese who all once settled in the area. Now, the city is filled with colonial architecture, which gives it a unique appearance. The city is well-known for their night market and providing visitors with a large range of diversity with its cuisines.
Ipoh is a smaller city on the list, which is often used as a transportation point to Thailand as it rests closely with the Thai border. But the city has a few hidden gems to offer. Temples are scattered throughout the streets, while the Perak Tong Cave and Cameron Highlights rest just outside its boundaries for a little trip into tranquility.
This city is located in the Malaysian part of Borneo and sits against the South China Sea. A pleasant waterfront provides stunning sunset views and the markets are always fun to explore. While not filled with skyscrapers, you can still find plenty to do with shopping, dining, and entertainment areas. Just outside the city is Mount Kinabalu, which is a great place for a hike.
Kuching is Borneo’s largest city and it rests on the Sarawak River. The waterfront promenade is the place to go with museums, restaurants, bars, and cafes. Colonial architecture is mixed with modern skyscrapers, which gives the city a unique appearance. Also closely located next to the jungle, you can go off and have yourself a grand adventure.
Often used as a stopover place to Thailand or the Perhentian Islands, the city should not be overlooked because it is one of the best places where you can experience the local Malay culture in the Buddhist temples and colorful markets.
Points of Interest
While the cities draw the most crowds, you may find that a specific point of interest is on your must-see list too.
Located in the Gunung Mulu National Park, these caves are known for the Sarawak Chamber, which is one of the largest in the world. The large entrances are lined with green moss and if you visit at dusk, you can view a large colony of Wrinkle-lipped bats.
Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre
The center is located within the larger Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve and was opening in 1964 to save, rehabilitate, and release orangutans. Now, a large group of orangutans live within the reserve boundaries and you can visit for your chance to sneak at peak at these gentle giants.
For the budget travelers, these islands are the place to go because of their affordable accommodation and gorgeous beaches. The area is known for its clear water, which brings flocks of people to relax in the white sand or take a look under the waves with an afternoon of snorkeling.
Redang is the place to go if you want to dive crystal clear water. This is one of the largest islands off of Malaysia’s East Coast and it provides visitors with white sand beaches and plenty of underwater wildlife to explore.
The Batu Caves are the most popular Hindu shrine outside of India. Three caves are the host and there is also a large, golden statue situated at the entrance. With hundreds of steps, visitors can take in the amazing landscape and also see a few happy monkeys who enjoy playing in the area.
Gunung Gading National Park
For anyone who has ever wanted to see the world’s largest flower in its natural habitat, the Gunung Gading National Park is the place to go. Rafflesia blooms throughout the year and can grow to have a diameter of up to 3 feet. But besides the flower, the park also offers beach, jungle, and mountain views.
Get Out and Go
With a stunning beauty capturing the land, Malaysia is the place to go when you want to experience busy urban cities and sit back in the tranquility of nature. This country has an adventure for everyone, and you can see history come alive when you visit the old colonial buildings, Buddhist shrines, or religious temples. Malaysia will draw you in and leave you with unforgettable memories.