Malaysia is a warm, culturally rich bounty of astounding natural beauty, tropical rainforests, national parks, long stretches of white sandy beaches and is one of the last great natural wildlife havens in the region, if not the world.
Straddled on one side by the large peninsula heavily influenced by Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, and one the other the wild jungles, orang-utans and traditional tribes people of Malaysian Borneo, Malaysia is a cultural melting pot that fuses indigenous and imported cultures and religions into a relaxed, unique country that is often vastly underrated and overlooked in favour of its more popular and famous neighbours.
Malaysia is in part a conservationists dream. Taman Negara rainforest is one of the oldest and most pristine tropical rainforests in the world, the peninsula is home to coastal mangroves, peat swamps and a wide array of animal and plant species, and conservation projects are in place to stop the spread of palm oil plantations and protect animal habitats.
Malaysia has become increasingly popular with backpackers over the last decade or so – due in part to the rapid growth of package tourism in Thailand - after a long period of being overlooked on the traditional backpacker trail, and they are finding this amazing country offers a lot for the intrepid traveller. Travel infrastructure is excellent and getting around is cheap and easy, and the mix of cultures and range of trekking and adventure activities as well as the lure of the picture postcard tropical islands mean that Malaysia should be a firm stamp on your own backpacker route around the world.
Culture and etiquette.
Malaysia is a comfortable mix of predominantly Muslim, Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, with a wide range of beliefs and religions existing side by side quite easily. In many ways it can be seen as a model of multiculturalism, even if it hasn’t always been that way. Despite the heavy Muslim and Asian influences on its culture, peninsular Malaysia still retains a very strong colonial feel and European – particularly English – visitors will feel a close familiarity with the culture, buildings and atmosphere as they travel through, even down to the three pronged plugs and the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands. Malaysian Borneo retains a distinct feel all of its own, and although heavily Westernised in small cities such as Kuching and Kota Kinabalu, there are still strong local tribal influences.
The strong Muslim influences infuse the local psyche when it comes to social norms and decorum and Malaysia is surprisingly conservative for such a warm, welcoming country. Exposing a lot of flesh outside is generally frowned upon, and covering up – especially when visiting religious or public buildings – is expected. Public displays of affection are generally frowned upon too, holding hands is fine, but don’t expect to get away with kissing your partner or anything more than that!
What you need to know.
Visitors from the UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada get a passport stamp on arrival entitling them to 90 days stay, or a 30 day stay if you enter via Sarawak in Borneo. Other nationalities should check closely with the Malaysian embassy on specific entry requirements as they can differ wildly.
Even though they are technically part of the same country, Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo (further broken up into Sarawak and Sabah) will require separate passport stamps and checks at the border before you clear immigration.
The following list of vaccinations are recommended for visits to Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo by the Centre of Disease Control.
All travellers are strongly recommended to be up to date on their routine vaccinations including MMR, diptheria – pertusis – tetanus and varicella (chicken pox).
Hepatitis A and Typhoid are also strongly recommended.
Hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, Rabies and yellow fever are recommended for at risk groups. Discuss this with your physician, specialist nurse or travel clinic to see which vaccinations are suitable for you.
Malaria is low to no risk in all of peninsular Malaysia with the exception of the deep interior of the Taman Negara rainforest. The coastal area of Borneo is low to no risk of Malaria but antimalarials are usually advised for the interior jungle near to the Kalimantan border.
Crime and Safety.
Malaysia is one of the safest and most stable nations in South East Asia. Crime and safety concerns are not really a problem beyond reasonable common sense precautions.
Costs and money.
Malaysia’s currency is the Ringgit, and 1 Ringgit is divided into 100 sen. Sometimes you may hear ‘dollar’ in conversation, but they are still referring to the Ringgit, not any other currency.
Malaysia is generally more in the mid range price bracket than anywhere else in South East Asia, it is more expensive than Thailand and on par with parts of Indonesia but considerably cheaper than Singapore.
Accommodation costs are around £10 – £20 GBP for a comfortable guest house private room with air con and an en suite, depending which part of Malaysia you are in. Hostels cost a little less, and it is still possible to find a comfortable place for about £5 a night. In parts of Malaysia such as Taman Negara and on some of the beaches it is possible to camp for less than £1 a night. Hotel rooms can be from £20 – £30 GBP a night upwards.
Food costs are quite reasonable if you eat in local eateries and food courts and stay away from the high end restaurants or Western fast food places. Cheap local food courts will cost you approximately £1 to £2 GBP for a meal. Alcohol is almost prohibitively expensive on a backpackers budget due in part to the predominantly Muslim states distaste for it (they stopped short of an outright ban), so if you want a drink, be prepared to pay out.
Transportation is quite cheap if you stick to the extensive bus or rail network. Taxis however can be quite expensive. Note that it is illegal for taxi drivers to not use their meters, although many will try to say they are broke so they can charge you 3 or 4 times the normal rate.
Activities will set you back a good portion of your budget. Hiring a guide and trekking in Taman Negara or Borneo will set you back at least £10 a day plus additional expenses, diving costs are among the most expensive in the region.
When to go.
The climate in Malaysia is warm and often humid in most parts, and is generally consistent throughout the year with it being relatively close to the equator. September to February is the North East monsoon, but as with most countries in the region that is still no reason not to go. The monsoon generally concentrates on the West coast in September and October and then swings upwards to the East coast from November to February so is generally easy to avoid. Costs are generally cheaper during the monsoon season too.
Places to see.
Malaysia’s capital is one of the major travel hubs in the area and has frequent connections with major and budget airlines which makes it an ideal place for transit and jumping off to other parts of South East Asia, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is just a good transit city. Kuala Lumpur is a great place to spend a few days with enough to see and do to fit anyone’s tastes. The colonial architecture makes for pleasant surroundings as you head for any number of amazing shopping experiences in unique malls or vibrant traditional street markets, visit the iconic Petronas towers or relax in the pleasant Lake Gardens.
Taman Negara is one of the world’s oldest and most pristine rainforests but is surprisingly accessible for those who want to explore it. The area around Kuala Tehan national park is where most visitors end up, with the Taman Negara resort on one side of the river and a small village with a lot of cheap accommodation options on the other, there are a lot of safe, maintained and easy hiking trails into the jungle as well as the longest treetop canopy walkway in the world. For the more adventurous there are opportunities to trek deeper into the jungle for days or longer, with numerous hides dotted throughout for wildlife spotting and caves for exploring.
You don’ need any organised treks to get here, it is a lot easier than it initially looks. You can simply get a coach or a train to Jerantut from anywhere in Malaysia and then get the bus or the infinitely more interesting – if slower – boat from the Kuala Tembling jetty.
This pleasantly relaxing town is full of beautiful Dutch, Portugese and English architecture that reflects its colonial heritage and is a relaxing place to spend a few days. Explore the culture of old Chinatown and the wealth of museums.
The Perhentian Islands.
Beautiful white sand beaches, great snorkelling and diving opportunities and beautiful coral reefs and turquoise waters abundant in wildlife. They are becoming increasingly package tour operated but are still accessibly open to backpackers.
This relaxed, charming city is a complete surprise and not at all what you would expect from the gateway to Sarawak. The picturesque, lazy river meanders alongside the scenic waterfront and allows for an array of easy options to sit back and relax with a drink or a meal and take in the scenery.
The ‘cat city’, as Kuching is known, revels in its love of all things feline, with dozens of cat statues and monuments littered throughout the city and even an endearingly insane cat museum. Kuching is an excellent place to base yourself in Kuching to explore the world class national parks and jungle trekking opportunities in the area.
Things to do.
Malaysia and Borneo are perfect for jungle trekking opportunities and you cannot pass up the opportunity while you are here, even if it is just a short organised trek.
Malaysia and Borneo have some amazing diving and snorkelling opportunities, with Sipidan in Sabah being considered one of of the best dive sites in the world. If you don’t have your PADI certificate yet, it is more than easy to obtain here, it is a little more expensive than in countries such as Thailand but still very cheap by Western standards.
Revel in the era of grand colonialism and visit the vast tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands, the air is cooler and fresher up here and you can take tours around the plantations before indulging in elevenses with a cup of tea and a scone.
Get up close with wildlife.
Malaysia is abundant with wildlife on land and in the surrounding oceans, and there are a number of wildlife tours to take or conservation efforts to support. The Semenggoh wildlife centre near Kuching in Borneo is a haven for orang-utans and attempts to rehabilitate them back into the wild whilst educating the public about the plight of these amazing animals and the destruction of their natural habitat due to palm oil plantations.