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.
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.
• 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.
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.
West Malaysia's mainland (peninsula) west coast (e.g. Penang),
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.
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
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
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
***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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Festivals and Events:
Malay culture is one of the most accepting and diverse cultures
in the world.
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. 9 July-7 August 2013. 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,
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.
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.
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.
240 volt three square-pin plugs (like the UK).
Bahasa Malaysia is official, but English is widely spoken, along
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.
If you like rail transport consider taking a train from Chiang Mai
in northern Thailand all the way south through Malaysia to Singapore.
Holy day off in this Muslim country, so plan cultural
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.
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.
- 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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