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Malaysia Travel Guide
Southeast Asia

 

 

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Malaysia Pictures | Malaysia Beaches | West Malaysia Tourist Map | Malaysia Map

Why holiday in Malaysia?

We can't honestly say that Malaysia is one of Southeast Asia's top tourist destinations. In fact it comes practically bottom of the list of Asian must-sees, especially the modernised, sanitised, affluent and fundamentally dull western region, a peninsula encompassing multicultural Kuala Lumpur and Penang and ending down south in Singapore (which is, of course, a different country).
Culturally Penang has a bit going for it and there are some brilliant beaches, especially along the mainland's east coast.

However, Malaysia does offer more interesting tourist activities 800kms (500 miles) across the water to the east, on Borneo island in the states of Sarawak and Sabah where the wild thing can still be found in a primitive environment, with exotic Dayak tribes, an ancient and endangered rainforest hosting other-worldly creatures such as the orang utan, as well as mountains, spectacular rock formations, fantastic scramble/climbing up Mount Kinabalu and brilliant coral and fish diving/snorkeling, particularly off Sipadan island.

Tourism in Malaysia is pricey compared to other southeast Asia countries but it's safe, easy to get around, many locals speak English and food is superb, a curious fusion of Indian, Chinese and Malay.

 

Downsides

• there's not much in the way of ancient sights or traditional native culture on the mainland, when compared to the neighbours.
• the weather is usually oppressively hot and humid.
• Kuala Lumpur makes for poor walking and holds little interest.

 

 

Climate

Malaysia is tropically hot and humid though the peninsula highlands are significantly cooler. Lowland average temperatures range from lows of 26C (79F) to 32C (90F) but can drop to 23C (73F) when it rains.
The highlands temperatures range from 17C ( 62F) to 25C (77F).
Different regions have different rainy seasons, which is awkward for travellers who want to see everything but don't like getting soaked on a regular basis.

Malaysia's best season
West Malaysia's mainland (peninsula)
west coast (e.g. Penang), October-February.
The mainland's east coast (e.g. Tioman and Redang beach resort islands) and Borneo island, May-September.

Worst: October-February on the east coast and Borneo, with cloud, rain and rough seas due to the heavy north-east monsoon.
Note that the southern peninsula, including Kuala Lumpur, is partially exposed to both monsoons so gets more than its fair share of rain, though showers tend to be short but heavy.
If you're planning to see the country quite thoroughly pick option 2, May-September.

 

Tourist attractions

The Mainland or just off the mainland

*Kuala Lumpur - a melting pot of Asian cultures, Malaysia's capital is humid, often smoggy and not so great for pedestrians but lively, friendly and serves great cuisine.
Highlights are the view from Petronas Towers, Chinatown and the Batu Caves in the north suburbs.

**Melaka (Malacca) - Malacca provides colonial history and artifacts, with Portuguese influenced architecture, Chinese junks and a shop culture.

**Cameron Highlands - this lush, cool, colonial, tea growing hill station is perfect for relaxed trekking - spotting orchids, butterflies and birds around the quaint little towns, with plenty of golf and tennis action. Photo and more information

**Taman Negara Reserve - one of the oldest rainforests in the world with massive trees, waterfalls and good tracks though not overloaded with wildlife - mostly birds, deer, tapir and our least favourite critters, leeches. Taman Negara Pehang, a 2,187m peak makes a good canopy view without huge effort, or try the canopy walkway if vertigo doesn't get to you first.
There are plenty of places to stay inside the park. Best February-September. Photo and more information

**Georgetown, Penang Island - This is Malaysia's most interesting town, awash with history, culture and the best street food in the country. It's at it's best during the Chinese New Year. There are some decent beaches, though not comparable to the east coast islands of Redang and Tioman. Photos and more information

***Tioman and Redang Islands off the peninsula east coast- classic lush islands with spectacular beaches with superb diving, snorkelling and windsurfing and some quaint villages and low-budget accommodation, though plenty of fancy resorts too. November-February. See Malaysia Beaches

 

Sabah province (northeast Borneo island):
Sabah gets direct international access via Kota Kinabalu. The nearby beaches are some of the best in Borneo, while the islands off the coast offer beautiful resorts and spectacular diving. This is the best wildlife safari destination in Asia with the possible exception of India, offering orangutans, proboscis monkeys, turtles, hornbills, leopard, Sumatran rhino and other exotic creatures on land and in sea. Sabah Photos and more information

***Kinabalu National Park - Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in south east Asia at 4,100m, rises dramatically from the jungle canopy and has an easy-to-follow 8km path to the summit.

**Kinabatangan River - with good prospects for seeing turtles and proboscis monkeys etc. by riverboat.

***Kabili-Sepilok Rainforest Reserve is a first rate sanctuary for rescued orangutans and an ideal way to see them up close and responsibly in their natural habitat. More Sepilok orangutan.

**Danum Valley - aerial walkways through an extensive protected wildlife habitat.

**North Borneo Railway - the real deal, colonial steam train style between Kota Kinabalu and Tenom in the south.

***Sipadan diving and snorkeling - sensational big fish and colourful coral off the eastern coast. Photo and more information

 

Sarawak province (west Borneo island):
This province also offers direct international access from Miri and has many national parks and the world's most extreme diversity of flora and fauna.
Mountains range above extensive jungle waterways, edged with gorgeous beaches. Tattooed Iban headhunters (they're not too keen on pasty tourist heads), birds and and other wildlife are in abundance. The traditional longhouses and planked walkways are a local speciality.
Sarawak Photos and more information

***Gunung Mulu National Park - has three eroded mountains, a buzzing rainforest and stunning, world-beating limestone cave systems - the biggest cave, the biggest chamber and the longest cave in the world. Millions of bats cloud from the entrance of Deer Cave in the evening.
Groups here are much more cost-effective than individuals. Photos and more information

**Kuching - on the Sarawak River offers lots of colonial heritage, is reasonably attractive and walkable.

**Matang and Semengok Wildlife Centres - best at feeding time to see rescued orang utans.

*Gunung Gading National Park - to see the world's largest flower (up to 1 metre) of the Rafflesia.

 

 

Activities

Scuba Diving and Snorkelling: some of best places for diving in the world. Pretty good east coast dives are around Tioman, Redang and Perhentian islands, while the east coast of Sabah (Borneo) at Sipadan is really outstanding.

Beach life: See Malaysia Beaches

Wildlife: Orang utans, Proboscis Monkey and other less bizarre monkeys and turtles, leopards, rhino, lots of plants and birds, especially the cute hornbill, and fish of all sizes depending where you go - all very diverse, but the big ginger ape of Borneo is definitely the jungle VIP.

Caving: there are some spectacular caves on Borneo at Gunung Mulu National Park. See right.

Trekking/Climbing: moderate trekking can be undertaken in the coolish Cameron Highlands or Taman Negara NP on the mainland, but for really sweaty jungle adventure and bigger views head for Borneo and try the area around Mt Kinabalu as well as the three peaks at Gunung Mulu NP in Sarawak.

Whitewater Rafting: many rivers range from moderate to extreme on the mainland, such as Sungai Selangor near KL, and Suingai Telom in the Cameron Highlands. In Borneo there's Sungai Pudas.

 

Festivals and Events:
Malay culture is one of the most accepting and diverse cultures in the world.
Check guide books for precise dates:
November: Hari Raya Puasa - Islamic celebration of the end of Ramadan.(Muslim fasting month, dates depend on full moon so may differ by one day depending on location. Ramadan in 2014 will start on 28th/29th June and will continue for 30 days until Sunday, the 27th/28th July. In 2015 Ramadan will start on the 18th/19th June and will continue for 30 days until the 17th/18th of July.
There's always a lively feast day, Idd al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan.
January: Chinese New Year. The first two days of the fifteen day festival are a national holiday, Penang is primo.
Jan-Feb: Thaipusam. Festival for a Hindu deity, featuring carrying of penance gifts (walking floats) and body piercing. KL penance makers walk to the Batu Caves at Selangor.
Tamu Besar - a foodie event with local produce sold and colourful tribes showing off their fashions. Kota Belud in north-east Sabah, Borneo.

 

Transport:
Road options are plentiful on the mainland with well-organised car hire, city-to-city taxis, buses and train services. Buses are cheapest, naturally, and peninsula coverage comprehensive.
Train transport is limited to two main lines.
Airlines in Malaysia are relatively expensive, and except for serious pond hopping, e.g. to Borneo island, probably not required. Deeper exploration of Borneo is usually by 4x4 and riverboats.

 

Visas:
Most nationalities (including USA, Canada, UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) can enter Malaysia without a visa and be issued 90, 60, 30 or 14 day entry permits. Israelis have a problem.

 

Money:
Costs are similar to Thailand but more than Indonesia.
Major currencies can be changed to Ringgit at banks or hotels and with authorised changers (who often offer better deals).
Credit cards and cheques are widely accepted; ATMs are generally found in major towns only.

 

Electricity:
240 volt three square-pin plugs (like the UK).

 

 

Language:
Bahasa Malaysia is official, but English is widely spoken, along with Chinese.

 

Health:
Take precautions against mosquitoes, including daytime in urban areas to avoid dengue fever, and night-flights by malarial critters.
Hepatitis A vaccine is also worthwhile.

 

Trains:
If you like rail transport consider taking a train from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand all the way south through Malaysia to Singapore.

 

Fridays:
Holy day off in this Muslim country, so plan cultural visits accordingly.

 

Food:
This sticky country is a hot-pot of superb cuisine with Malay, Chinese, and Indian styles well represented/fused, though superb Chinese seafood with noodles or dim sum are primary dishes.
Roadside and market stalls are plentiful in many towns but Penang and georgetown are renowned for street cuisine.
Prices are low but hygiene standards high.
Western food chains sit side by side with the more exotic offerings in the bigger towns.

 

Drinking:
In spite of the Islamic influence, alcohol is generally available - Tiger beer, for example, is a globally famous and tasty brand. Tap water is supposedly safe to drink but it's best to stick with the bottled stuff until you acclimatise to local bacteria.

 

Don't:
- think that the locals are thieving on buses and trains, it's probably other tourists most interested in robbing you !
- go without malaria protection if going into the jungle.

 

 

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