First-Timer’s Guide to Travelling in Malaysia

Places of Interest, Things To Know, Travel Tips , , , ,

masjid putra in putrajaya

A melting pot of cultures, Malaysia is a wonderful destination for those wishing to have a good balance between modern creature comforts and a bit of the unfamiliar. As a rapidly industrializing country, Malaysia may not be as exotic as other Southeast Asian nations such as Myanmar or even its neighbour, Thailand, but its natural attractions, colonial towns and accessible street food are a major draw for most travelers.

HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?

Malaysia is not an expensive destination. Although it is the third most prosperous country in Southeast Asia, prices here are generally kept low by subsidies and the country’s abundant natural resources.

Food: If you stick to hawker centers, a typical meal of char kwey teowwanton mee or chicken rice usually won’t cost more than US$3, and even less if you move out of the major tourist centers. I was shocked to find my hot bowl of kolo Mee (a specialty in Kuching) for less than US$1.

Lodging: Malaysia offers great value for hotels and other lodging at both ends of the spectrum. It is normal to find dorm beds in hostels for less than US$10. A respectable 3-star hotel can cost as little as US$30. If you decide to opt for luxury accommodations, you will find that Malaysia offers great value, with hotel rooms in 5-star hotels going for less than US$150! You can find many great deals across budgets here.

Transport: Getting around in Malaysia is very cheap, thanks to fuel subsidies!

traveling in style!

  • Intercity bus trips: As a general rule, long-distance intercity bus trips have a going rate of about 4 to 5 ringgit for every 1 hour journey. For example, a journey between the popular Malacca to Singapore route by bus can go as little as 25 ringgit
  • Taxis: Malaysia is a heavily motorized society which means that the local transportation system within the cities (except for KL and major tourist centers) may leave much to be desired. Local buses exist but you may find yourself waiting very long for the next bus to arrive. An alternative is to take taxis which are very inexpensive. However, a major irritant is that most drivers refuse to use the meter which means that fares will have to be negotiated in advance. Make sure you clearly agree to a price before boarding the cab.
  • Trains: It’s a feasible option for those traversing the western side of Peninsular Malaysia, though it’s slower than taking the bus or a hired car. The domestic railway system connects major points in Singapore, Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang.

Daily Budget

  • Low ($8 for dorm-style lodging + $5 for street food meals + $10 for intercity/local transport + $5 buffer) – $28 / per day
  • Mid ($15 for 2-star or 2-star private rooms on double occupancy + $10 for street food/eatery meals + $17 for intercity/local transport and some taxi rides + $5 buffer) = $50 / per day
  • High ($50 for 4-star or 5-star hotel rooms on double occupancy + $30 for restaurant meals + $20 for intercity/local transport and some taxi rides / hired car) = $100 / per day

WHAT TO EAT?

The food in Malaysia is a melting pot of indigenous as well as Indian and Chinese flavors. Here’s a rundown of some of the most popular dishes you will come across:

  • Chicken rice – steamed chicken with flavored rice, you can’t miss it
  • Satay – grilled lamb, chicken or beef cubes on barbecue sticks. This is personally my favorite food in Malaysia. If you find yourself in Negeri Sembilan, try the local Minangkabau version of the satay with extra spice!
  • Murtabak – stuffed pancake or fried bread filled with any filling one can imagine! This can range from cheese to an array of meats and vegetables.
  • Nasi Lemak – coconut flavored rice, some peanuts, dried anchovies, sambal and a meat dish which is usually fried chicken wing wrapped in pandan leaf
  • Bak kut teh – a complex soup made up of various herbs and spices with pork ribs used for the meat component
  • Char kway teow – stir-fried flat rice noodles with a sprinkling of shrimp paste, shrimps, beansprouts and chives. Aside from chicken rice, this is the other ubiquitous dish that travelers will come across in Malaysia

PLACES TO GO

gleaming twin petronas towers in kl

Kuala Lumpur – the capital and usual starting point for any trip around Malaysia. Highlights include the Petronas Towers, Batu Caves and the ethnic quarters like Brickfields for some subcontinental flavors or Jalan Petaling which is Kuala Lumpur’s version of Chinatown. If you have an extra day to spare, a trip to the ultramodern Islamic-flavored capital of Putrajaya is recommended.

Malacca – the quintessential weekend destination for that even locals flock to, Malacca has a UNESCO World Heritage old town filled with shops, boutique hotels and restaurants serving a fusion of Peranakan and Portuguese cuisine . When the sun sets, Jonker Street comes alive as a night market venue, and is perhaps Malaysia’s most fascinating night market with a myriad of trinkets on offer.

Penang – has a UNESCO World Heritage old town. This is another good place to get a bit of colonial vibe, with the city’s many Peranakan mansions and elaborately decorated shophouses.

Perhentian Islands – arguably the best beach destination in Malaysia, the islands here boast of fine white sand beaches with waters perfect for snorkeling and diving.

the riverfront of kuching in sarawak

Kuching – jumping point for eco-tourism attractions. This is where visitors can have close contact with headhunting tribes as well as orangutans, all without leaving the comforts of urban life. Kuching also boasts of a small but bustling downtown and a charming riverfront.

Sabah – The eastern tip of Malaysia is paradise for nature-lovers. Whether it be a climb up Mt Kinabalu or a diving trip to islands off Sempornah, the colors seem to be a lot more vivid this side of Malaysia. The waters off Sipadan Island for example, is famed for being crystal clear and the diving resorts there can almost be mistaken for a resort in the Maldives due to the shallow translucent waters set beneath the bungalows.

shophouses in ipoh

Ipoh – heavily understated when compared to Malacca or Penang. Ipoh is another town where visitors can find excellent remnants of British colonial rule. Locals also swear by the food here, including chicken with beansprouts, the local selection of dimsum as well as the famed Ipoh white coffee.

tea plantations in cameron highlands

Cameron Highlands – locals come here to escape the punishing heat of the lowlands but other than that, the undulating slopes around the tea plantations here serve as an excellent and scenic backdrop and are a photographer’s delight. There are also several hiking trails here to explore catering to various durations and difficulty levels.

Kota Bharu – The place to go to witness traditional Malay customs like puppet shows. A highlight is the busy central market which mimics the setup to those found in Central Asia.

BEST TIME TO VISIT MALAYSIA

It can rain at any time of the year in Malaysia but by far the wettest time is during the months of December to February in most places and even more so in Sabah and Sarawak. This being said, it’s still possible to come to Malaysia in these months and have a good time, if you spend your time in the western portion of Peninsular Malaysia. It may still rain a lot in these parts, though it’s quite unlikely that it will rain the entire day.

The best time to come is from May to September for the maximum amount of sunshine.

HOW MANY DAYS TO SPEND IN MALAYSIA

It all depends on your reason for visiting. Those on a gap year are most likely to stay longer. But for most people planning to reasonably do Malaysia in one trip, allow for about two weeks.

Sample Itinerary

Peninsular Malaysia (one week)
Kota Bharu (1 day)
Penang (2 days)
Ipoh (1 day)
Kuala Lumpur (2 days)
Malacca (1 day)

Sabah and Sarawak (one week)
Kuching (2 days)
Kota Kinabalu (3 days)
Sipadan (2 days)

Enjoy your stay at Malaysia Truly Asia.

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