Traveling in Malaysia is easy, affordable, and exciting! As with any destination, knowing a few essentials before you go will save time, stress, and money.
Thailand, Malaysia's big neighbor to the north, often gets more attention from tourists. A lot of travelers skip Malaysia altogether during their trips to Southeast Asia. Sadly, they're missing out: Malaysia is blessed with a diverse mix of cultures that makes it different from anyplace else.
Traveling in Malaysia, particularly Kuala Lumpur, provides an opportunity to enjoy a mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and indigenous culture all in one place. You'll get to experience food, festivals, music, and traditions from many different ethnic groups all in one place!
- Time Difference: UTC + 8 hours (13 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time)
- Country Phone Code: +60
- Capital City: Kuala Lumpur (population: 7.2 million in metro area)
- Primary Religion: Islam
What to Expect While Traveling in Malaysia
Malaysia is very easy to travel. English is widely spoken; communicating rarely poses a problem in the top destinations around Malaysia. Roads and travel infrastructure are generally in good condition.
Malaysia can certainly be traveled on a tight budget, however, accommodation costs are slightly more expensive than those in Thailand and Indonesia. Budget guesthouses in Kuala Lumpur feel a bit "past their prime" unless you're willing to pay a little more for a higher standard.
As when traveling in neighboring Singapore, delicious food is inexpensive at street carts and in food courts, but consuming alcohol is significantly more expensive than in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
East and West Malaysia
Malaysia as a nation is split between two places. "Peninsular Malaysia," also referred to as "West Malaysia," includes Kuala Lumpur and other places on the mainland as well as the islands on both sides of the peninsula.
"East Malaysia" refers to the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah along with the federal territory of Labuan located on nearby Borneo, the third largest island in the world. This part of Malaysia is commonly referred to as "Malaysian Borneo."
The People in Malaysia
- Population: 32.8 million (2019 census data)
- Ethnic Groups: 68.8 percent Malay; 23.2 percent Chinese; 8 percent indigenous groups and other
- Life Expectancy: 74.7 years (per the U.N. 2018 data)
While traveling in Malaysia, travelers get to interact with people from a diverse mix of different ethnic backgrounds. In any given situation, you'll often find Malay, Indian, and Chinese doing business and speaking English together.
The indigenous groups in Malaysian Borneo, collectively referred to as the Dayak people, are made up of over 200 tribes and subgroups. Many have their own dialects and customs.
Money in Malaysia
- Currency: The Malaysian ringgit (MYR)
- Abbreviation: The local abbreviation of "RM" is often placed before the amount. (e.g., "RM5" for something that costs 5 ringgit)
- Division: Each Malaysian ringgit is divided into 100 sen that are seen as coins.
- Nominal GDP Per-Capita: US $11,338 (2019 estimate)
ATMs on all the major networks are reliable and can be found throughout Malaysia. For safety and to avoid card-skimming devices, stick to using ATMs located in bank branches or in places guarded by security.
All primary currencies can be exchanged in cities and tourist destinations. Credit cards are accepted only in large hotels and shopping malls, although a fee may be added. Visa and Mastercard are the two most accepted types of credit cards. Traveler's checks are becoming more obsolete, although they can be cashed for a fee inside of banks.
Malaysian ringgit is available in denominations of RM1, RM5, RM10, RM20, RM50, and RM100 notes. ATMs usually only dispense denominations of RM50 and RM100. Breaking large denominations can sometimes be a hassle; when possible, opt for machines that give smaller banknotes.
Tipping is not customary in Malaysia, however, a small tip may be expected by staff in hotels who have grown accustomed to tipping by Westerners. A service charge of 10 percent is already added to the bill in nicer hotels and restaurants.
- Official Language: Bahasa Melayu (simply called "Malaysian" or informally just "Bahasa" in Malaysia)
- Secondary Language: English
When compared to some tonal Asian languages such as Thai, Vietnamese, and Mandarin Chinese, the Malaysian language is relatively easy for travelers to speak and learn.
Bahasa Melayu doesn't use tones, and the rules of pronunciation are mostly straightforward and predictable. Convenient for many travelers, the English alphabet is used. You'll be able to read signs and menus a lot easier than when trying to decipher an unfamiliar script.
Although the official language is Malaysian, a majority of the population also speaks English due to the large mix of ethnic backgrounds. Business is often conducted in English with plenty of regional slang thrown in. English often serves as the working language at universities and in government offices.
Greetings in Malaysia are based on the time of day. Knowing how to greet local people is fun and will certainly produce a smile.
Malaysia's generous visa policy gives travelers from the United States, Canada, and European Union up to 90 days to explore Kuala Lumpur, the rainforests (including a side trip to Borneo), and the many beautiful islands on both sides of the country. Even better, the 90-day visa exemption is free!
Unless you have special requirements (e.g., work), no need to apply for a travel visa before visiting Malaysia. U.S. citizens are granted free entry for up to 90 days upon arrival.
Sarawak, one of the two Malaysian states in Borneo, maintains its own immigration controls. Although a visa is free, travelers receive a separate stamp for Sarawak that may be of a shorter duration.
Popular Places to Visit in Malaysia
Although hardly exhaustive, a few of the top places to visit in Malaysia include:
- Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia's capital city can be a little hectic and appear grungy to the uninitiated, but it has a unique character that will definitely win you over! Hidden delights abound in the big city.
- Penang: Penang is a large island off the west coast of Malaysia. Made a UNESCO World Heritage city because of its colonial history, the settlement of Georgetown is famous for a thriving food scene and multicultural heritage.
- Borneo: Malaysia shares the world's third largest island with Indonesia and Brunei. On Borneo, you'll find a nature-lover's dream with wild orangutans and plenty of national parks teeming with rainforest. Flights from Kuala Lumpur to Borneo are tantalizingly cheap.
- The Islands: Langkawi and Tioman Island are very popular islands to visit, as are the two Perhentian Islands; each has their own distinct personality and plenty of perfect beaches. The diving in the Perhentian Islands is inexpensive and excellent.
- Cameron Highlands: If you're getting burned out from sweating through urban sprawl, the much cooler Cameron Highlands are a green, peaceful escape with trekking through tea plantations.
- Malacca: Colonial history and a pleasant charm draw visitors to this small, clean UNESCO World Heritage city. Malacca is a convenient escape not far from Kuala Lumpur.
Holidays and Festivals
With such a mix of ethnic groups and religions comes plenty of holidays. There's often something getting celebrated somewhere in Malaysia!
The Rainforest World Music Festival held each summer in Sarawak, Borneo, is one of the most cultural music festivals in Asia. The three-day event is a celebration of indigenous culture and daily workshops followed by bands from around the world who hit the stages at night.
Getting to Malaysia
A majority of international flights come through Kuala Lumpur International Airport (airport code: KUL) into either KLIA or the KLIA2 terminal, hub for Air Asia and other low-cost airlines. A shuttle service and train connect the two terminals, however, you should verify from which terminal you'll be departing before you arrive for a flight.
Comfortable five-hour buses (some even have Wi-Fi on board) run daily between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, allowing you to visit both cities without needing to fly!
The Best Time of Year to Visit Malaysia
The best time to visit Malaysia depends upon where you are going. Weather often differs between the islands on either side of the peninsula. Kuala Lumpur is pretty much hot and wet throughout the year. The region receives plenty of rain. Afternoon thunderstorms are common, but July is typically the driest month.
The best time to visit Langkawi is during the dry months of December, January, and February. On the other hand, the Perhentian Islands are best during the summer months of June, July, and August.
June and July may be the best months to visit Sarawak, however, February and March are usually drier for Sabah.