Friday, April 12, 2024
Malaysia travel guide - Travel S helper


travel guide

Malaysia is a Southeast Asian federal constitutional monarchy. It is made up of thirteen states and three federal territories and has an area of 330,803 square kilometers (127,720 square miles), divided by the South China Sea into two almost equal-sized areas, Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia (Malaysian Borneo). Peninsular Malaysia is bordered by Thailand on both land and sea, as well as by Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia on the sea. East Malaysia is bounded on land and sea by Brunei and Indonesia, as well as by the Philippines and Vietnam. Kuala Lumpur serves as the capital, while Putrajaya serves as the federal government’s seat. Malaysia is the 44th most populated nation in the world, with a population of over 30 million. Tanjung Piai, Malaysia, is the southernmost point of continental Eurasia. Malaysia, located in the tropics, is one of the world’s 17 megadiverse nations, home to a significant variety of endemic species.

Malaysia derives from the Malay kingdoms that existed in the region prior to the country being annexed by the British Empire in the 18th century. The Straits Settlements were the first British possessions, and their creation was followed by the Malay kingdoms becoming British protectorates. Peninsular Malaysia’s territories were initially united in 1946 as the Malayan Union. Malaya was reorganized in 1948 as the Federation of Malaya, and gained independence on 31 August 1957. On 16 September 1963, Malaya was unified with North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore. Singapore was ejected from the federation less than two years later, in 1965.

The nation is ethnically and culturally diverse, which plays a significant influence in politics. The majority of the population is Malay, with significant minorities of Malaysian Chinese, Malaysian Indians, and indigenous peoples. The constitution proclaims Islam to be the official religion while allowing non-Muslims religious freedom. The political system is heavily influenced by the Westminster parliamentary system, while the judicial system is founded on common law. The monarch, also known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, is the head of state. Every five years, he is elected king from among the nine Malay states’ hereditary rulers. The prime minister is the head of government.

Malaysia has had one of the finest economic histories in Asia since independence, with its GDP increasing at an average of 6.5 percent per year for almost 50 years. Historically, the economy has been fueled by natural resources, but it is growing in areas like as research, tourism, trade, and medical tourism. Malaysia now boasts a newly industrialized market economy, ranking third in Southeast Asia and 29th globally. It is a founding member of ASEAN, the East Asia Summit, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as well as a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Commonwealth of Nations, and the Non-Aligned Movement.

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Malaysia - Info Card




Ringgit (RM) (MYR)

Time zone



330,803 km2 (127,724 sq mi)

Calling code


Official language


Malaysia | Introduction

Weather & Climate in Malaysia

The climate in Malaysia is equatorial. The northeastern monsoon (October to February) floods Borneo and the east coast of the peninsula in rain and causes frequent flooding, while the west coast (especially Langkawi and Penang) is unscathed. The gentler southwest monsoon ( from April to October) reverses the pattern. The southern and central parts of the Malaysian Peninsula, including the constantly humid Kuala Lumpur, are both exposed, but even during the rainy season, showers are usually intense but short.

Since Malaysia is close to the equator, warm conditions are guaranteed. Temperatures generally range from 32°C (90°F) at noon to about 26°C (79°F) at midnight. But as in most Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia’s sunny days are interrupted by the monsoon season every year, and night temperatures can reach a low of about 23°C (79°F) on rainy days.

Highland temperatures tend to be cooler, with Ghenting Highlands, Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill having temperatures between about 17°C (62°F) at night and about 25°C (77°F) during the day. Mount Kinabalu is known to have temperatures below 10°C (50°F).

Geography Of Malaysia

Malaysia comprises two geographical regions, the Peninsula Malaysia and East Malaysia, separated by the South China Sea.

The Malay Peninsula (Semenanjung Malaysia) encompasses the entire Malay Peninsula located between Thailand and Singapore and are also known as West Malaysia (Malaysia Barat) or slightly archaic Malaya (Tanah Melayu). It is home to the majority of Malaysia’s population, the capital and largest city of Kuala Lumpur and is generally more economically developed. The Malaysian peninsula consists of flat areas on the east and west coast, separated by a mountain range called Banjaran Titiwangsa.

About 800 km east of the Malaysian Peninsula lies East Malaysia (Malaysia Timur). East Malaysia occupies the northern part of the island of Borneo, which is shared with Indonesia and tiny Brunei. Much of the development in East Malaysia is concentrated in the cities of Kuching, Miri and Kota Kinabalu. Outside the big cities and small towns there is an impenetrable jungle where once headhunters roamed and coastal plains rose to mountains. East Malaysia is rich in natural resources and the hinterland of Malaysia is rich in industry and tourism.

People In Malaysia

Malaysia is a cosmopolitan and multicultural society. While Malaysians form a 52% majority, 27% of Malaysians are Chinese (who are particularly visible in the cities), 9% are Indian, 12% are members of the indigenous people (often called Orang Asli, Malay for “original people”) and there is a diverse grouping of 1.5% “others”, including Thai communities in northern border states and the Portuguese clan in Malacca. The majority of the population (including virtually all Malaysians and a significant minority of Indians) adheres to Islam, the official religion, and there are significant minorities practicing Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sikhism and animism.

Malaysia shares many cultural similarities with its neighbors Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei due to its common history. Since the first great kingdoms in the region were Hindu kingdoms with much influence from India, Malay culture has significant Indian influences. This is most evident in Malay cuisine with its relatively heavy use of curries, although local rather than Indian spices are used, meaning that Malay curries often have a unique local flavor that is different from their Indian counterparts. Malaysia’s minorities continue to cultivate their own culture, with Chinese and Indian communities continuing to preserve the traditions that originated in their ancestral homelands.

Demographics Of Malaysia

In the 2010 census, Malaysia counted 28,334,135 people, making it the 42nd most populous country. 91.8 percent of the population are Malaysian citizens. Malaysian citizens are divided according to ethnicity, with 67.4 percent being considered bumiputera. The largest group of bumiputera are Malaysians, who are defined in the constitution as Muslims who practice Malay customs and culture. They play a dominant political role. Bumiputera status is also granted to certain non-Malayan indigenous peoples, including ethnic Thais, Khmer, Khams and the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak. Non-Malayan bumiputera represent approximately half of the Sarawak population and approximately two-thirds of the Sabah population. Indigenous groups also exist in significantly smaller numbers on the peninsula, from where they are collectively recognized as Orang Asli. The laws on who gets bumiputera status vary between states.

Other minorities lack bumiputera status. 24.6 percent of the population is of Chinese descent, while those of Indian descent make up 7.3 percent of the population. The Chinese have historically been dominant in the business and trade community and make up a large part of the population of Penang. Immigrants from India, most of them Tamils, came to Malaysia in the early 19th century. Citizenship of Malaysia is not granted automatically for those who were born in Malaysia, but is given to a child who is born outside Malaysia from two Malaysian parents. Dual national citizenship is not permitted. Citizenship in the states of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo is different from citizenship on the Malaysian peninsula for immigration purposes. Every citizen receives a biometric smart chip ID card called MyKad at the age of 12 and must carry it with them at all times.

The education system provides non-compulsory kindergarten education, followed by six years of compulsory primary education and five years of optional secondary education. The schools in the primary school system are divided into two categories: national elementary school that teach in Malay and elementary school that teach in Chinese or Tamil. Secondary education lasts five years. In the last year of secondary education, students take the Malaysian Education Certificate exam. Since the introduction of the enrollment program in 1999, students who have completed the 12-month program at enrollment colleges can enroll in local universities. However, only 10 percent of places in the enrollment system are open to non-Bumiputera students.

Infant mortality in 2009 was 6 deaths per 1000 births, and life expectancy at birth in 2009 was 75 years. With the goal of making Malaysia a medical tourism destination, 5 percent of the development budget of the state social sector is spent on health care. Population is mostly concentrated on the Malaysian peninsula, which is home to 20 million out of roughly 28 million Malaysians. About 70 % of the population is urban residents. Kuala Lumpur is the capital and largest city of Malaysia and the most important trade and financial center. Putrajaya, a specially built city built in 1999, is the seat of government, as many executive and judicial departments of the federal government have been relocated there to reduce the growing congestion in Kuala Lumpur. Due to the growth of labor-intensive industries, the country is estimated to employ over 3 million migrant workers. About 10 percent of the population. NGOs based in Sabah have estimated that out of the 3 million people that comprise the population of Sabah, approximately 2 million can be considered illegal immigrants. There are approximately 171,500 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. Approximately 79,000 of this population were born in Burma, while 72,400 of them came from the Philippines and approximately 17,700 from Indonesia.

Religion In Malaysia

The Malaysian constitution clearly indicates that they guarantee freedom of religion and at the same time make Islam the state religion. According to the 2010 population and housing census, ethnicity and religious beliefs correlate strongly. About 61.3% of the country’s population practice Islam, 19.8% of the population practice Buddhism, 9.2% are Christians, 6.3% are Hindu and 1.3% are practicing Confucianism, Taoism and other Chinese traditional religions. 0.7% declared no religion and the remaining 1.4% practiced other religions or gave no information. Sunni Islam of the Shafi’ischool of Jurisprudence is the predominant sector of Islam in Malaysia, compared to 18% non-denominational Muslims.

The Malay Constitution clearly defines the meaning of “Malay”, considering the fact that Malaysians are Muslims, regularly speaking Malay, practices Malay customs and lives or has ancestors in Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore. Statistics from the 2010 census show that 83.6% of the Chinese population identify themselves as Buddhists, with a significant number of followers belonging to Taoism (3.4%) and Christianity (11.1%), as well as small Hui Muslim communities in areas such as Penang. The majority of the Indian population follows Hinduism (86.2 %), with a significant minority identifying themselves as Christians (6.0 %) or Muslims (4.1 %). The predominant religion of the non-Malayan Bumiputera population is Christianity (46.5 %), and the remaining 40.4 % identify themselves as Muslims.

Muslims are obliged to follow the decisions of the courts of Syariah in matters affecting their religion. Islamic judges are expected to follow the Shafi’i School of Law of Islam, which is Malaysia’s main Madh’hab. The jurisdiction of the courts in Syariah is limited to Muslims, including in matters such as marriage, inheritance, divorce, apostasy, religious conversion and custody. No other crimes or civil offences fall under the jurisdiction of the Sharia courts, which have a similar hierarchy to the civil courts. Although the civil courts are the highest courts in the country, they do not hear matters related to Islamic practices.

Language In Malaysia

Malaysia’s only official language is Malay (officially Bahasa Malaysia, sometimes known as Bahasa Melayu). The Indonesian language spoken across the border in Indonesia is similar to Malay, and speakers of both languages can generally understand each other. In some parts of Malaysia near the Thai border, especially in Kelantan, there are dialects of Malay that are almost incomprehensible to speakers of Standard Malay, although most people in these areas are able to converse in Standard Malay when necessary.

English is compulsory in all schools and is widely spoken in the larger cities, among the educated upper classes and near the main tourist attractions, although a little Malay is very useful in rural areas. There is also a colloquial form of English spoken among Malaysians in urban areas, not inappropriately known as Manglish, which involves switching between English, Malay and/or other languages. Note that almost all Malaysians do not pronounce the letter “h”, e.g. “three” and “tree” is pronounced as “tree”. Malaysians will almost always try to speak “standard English” (British) when approached by Western travellers. Police stations and government offices usually have English-speaking staff on duty.

Arabic is taught to those who attend Islamic religious schools, and many clerics as well as other very observant Muslims have a good command of the Arabic language. However, it is not widely spoken, although the Malay language has a large number of loanwords from Arabic. You will also see some examples of Malay with Arabic letters. This is called Jawi and is still used for religious publications and inscriptions, especially in states like Kelantan, although the Latin alphabet is much more commonly used throughout the country.

The Chinese community in Malaysia speaks a variety of Chinese dialects, including Cantonese, Mandarin, Teo-Kau, Hakka, Hainanese, Hok-Kau and Hokkien. Mandarin is taught in most Chinese schools, while Cantonese is commonly heard in the mass media due to the popularity of Hong Kong TVB series, so many know both languages in addition to their native dialect. The most commonly spoken Indian language is Tamil, others are Malayalam, Punjabi and Telugu.

In the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia, which border Thailand, there are several ethnic Thai communities known locally as Orang Siamese, who speak different dialects of Thai. Malacca in the south is also home to a Portuguese community that speaks a Portuguese-based Creole. The remote forest areas of Peninsular Malaysia are also home to several tribal peoples, the Orang Asli, who speak various indigenous languages such as Semelai, Temuan and many others. In East Malaysia, several indigenous languages are also spoken, especially Iban and Kadazan.

Films and television programmes are usually shown in their original language with Malay subtitles. Some children’s programmes are dubbed into Malay.

Internet & Communications in Malaysia

Internet in Malaysia

Internet connectivity in Malaysia is readily available in most cities and towns. It was one of the first countries in the world to offer 4G connectivity. Broadband internet is available in most hotels, internet cafes and some restaurants. Wi-Fi is usually available in hotspots in almost all restaurants, fast food outlets and shopping centres. Prepaid internet cards for access to wireless broadband are also available in some cafés.

Customers usually pay RM1-5 per hour for internet services in cybercafes (depending on which city you are in). Internet connections offered at restaurants and cafes are usually free, and more and more eateries are offering this. These include all Starbucks and Coffeebean, some McDonald’s and Subway, and an increasing number of smaller venues.

Telephone numbers in Malaysia

The country code for Malaysia is +60.

Malaysian landline telephone numbers are either seven or eight digits. The country is also divided into areas that have been assigned two- or three-digit area codes that must be dialled when calling from outside the area. The area codes are:

  • 03 – Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Selangor (all are Klang Valley), Pahang (Genting Highlands only)
  • 04 – Kedah, Penang, Perlis
  • 05 – Perak, Pahang (Cameron Highlands only)
  • 06 – Malacca, Johor (Muar district only), Negeri Sembilan
  • 07 – Johor (all districts except Muar)
  • 082 – Sarawak (Kuching and Samarahan Districts)
  • 083 – Sarawak (Sri Aman and Betong Districts)
  • 084 – Sarawak (Sarikei, Sibu and Western Cape Districts)
  • 085 – Sarawak (Miri and Limbang Districts)
  • 086 – Sarawak (Bintulu and Belaga Districts)
  • 087 – Sabah (Inner Division), Labuan
  • 088 – Sabah (West Coast and Kudat Division)
  • 089 – Sabah (Sandakan and Tawau Division)
  • 09 – Kelantan, Pahang (all districts except Genting Highlands), Terengganu

The area code 02 has been assigned for calls from Malaysia to Singapore. This means that it is not necessary to dial the Singapore country code 65 when calling from Malaysia. For International Direct Dialing (IDD) calls from landlines to all other countries, the prefix 00 followed by the country code should be used.

How to call a Malaysian number:

  • From abroad except Singapore, dial the international access code, the country code for Malaysia, the area code without the “0” and then the phone number.
  • From Singapore, dial 02, the area code with the “0” and then the phone number.
  • From outside the local area, dial the full area code followed by the telephone number. There are no exceptions to this rule, except when using a mobile phone.
  • From the local area, simply dial the number without the area code.

Mobile phones

Malaysia also has four mobile phone operators, Maxis , DiGi , Celcom and U Mobile, which use the prefixes 012, 013, 014, 016, 017, 018, 019. Network connectivity in Malaysia is excellent. Mobile number portability has been introduced in Malaysia, which means that an area code such as 012, which traditionally belonged to Maxis, can now be a DiGi subscriber. Mobile networks use GSM 900 and 1800 systems. 3G (WCDMA), EDGE & HSPDA networks are available in major cities. International roaming on these networks is possible if your operator allows it.

How to call a Malaysian mobile number:

  • From abroad, dial the international access code, the country code for Malaysia, the mobile operator code without the “0” and then the phone number.
  • From Malaysia, dial the provider’s area code with the “0” and then the phone number.
  • From mobile phone to mobile phone within Malaysia, dial the provider’s area code with the “0” and then the phone number. Although you can omit the provider code if the two phones have the same provider, you will still get through if the provider code is dialled.

To call another country from Malaysia:

  • From a landline, dial the international access code “00” followed by the country code and the phone number. For example, if you want to call the US from Malaysia, dial 001 followed by the US area code and the phone number. On the Maxis network, benefit from 50% IDD rates via IDD132, which does not require registration, just dial “132” before the “00”.
  • From a mobile phone in the same way as from a landline phone (see above). An alternative and simpler procedure on many mobile phones is to hold down the zero key to enter a “+” (plus sign) before the country code and the phone number. The “+” stands (in each country) for the corresponding international dialling code. On the Maxis network, you can use the 50% IDD rates via IDD132, which does not require registration. Simply dial “132” before the “00” and note that you do not use the “+” symbol with this method.

Postal services in Malaysia

Many international courier services such as Fedex, DHL and UPS are available in the cities, but the main postal service provider is Pos Malaysia, which offers reliable postal services to most countries in the world.

Postal rates in Malaysia are cheap. Much cheaper than Thailand, Singapore or Vietnam, and surface mail is also available. In addition, the post is reliable and trustworthy. When posting an item, do not seal the box. This is to allow inspection in case illegal items are sent this way.

A local alternative to the international courier services mentioned above is Pos Laju, which offers an equally reliable service, but at a fraction of the cost!

You can put non-urgent letters and postcards in the letterboxes in the post offices or in the red letterboxes in front of the post offices and on the main roads. If there are two slots in a letterbox, use the one that says “lain lain” for international mail.

Post offices are open M-Sa 08:00-17:00, except public holidays, with some in the Klang Valley staying open until 22:00. In the states of Kedah, Kelantan, Johor and Terengganu, they are closed on Fridays and public holidays.

Entry Requirements For Malaysia

Visa & Passport for Malaysia

Visa restrictions
Citizens of Israel with Israeli passports will be denied entry unless they have a letter of approval from the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs. In addition, Israeli nationals need an onward travel ticket and are asked to buy one or they will be denied entry. Malaysia no longer cares about the passports of other nationals who have entry stamps and/or visas from Israel.

Most nationalities can enter Malaysia without a visa and stay in Malaysia for between 14 and 90 days, depending on their nationality. For up-to-date information on visa requirements and length of stay, contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When travelling to the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, note that both states maintain their own immigration systems and separate checks, so Malaysians from other states will also need a passport or MyKad on entry.

Those wishing to enter Malaysia for purposes other than a social or business visit will still need a visa for any period (except for US citizens entering for study purposes).

Those who need a visa to enter Malaysia may be able to apply at a British embassy, high commission or consulate in their own country if there is no Malaysian diplomatic mission. For example, British embassies in Belgrade, Guatemala City, Pristina and Sofia accept visa applications for Malaysia (this list is not exhaustive). British diplomatic missions charge £50 for processing a Malaysian visa application and an additional £70 if the authorities in Malaysia require the visa application to be forwarded to them. The authorities in Malaysia may also decide to charge an additional fee if they correspond directly with the applicant.

Overstaying the visa will result in a fine of US$10, €7.50 or RM30 per day. However, it is relatively easy to avoid overstaying the visa by making a “visa run” to a neighbouring country by land or cheap flight. Malaysia may also impose caning as a penalty for overstaying the visa.

Transit visa

Although citizens of Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka normally require a visa, they can transit for up to 120 hours at the same airport, provided they arrive and depart on the same airline, land in Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, Penang or Senai (near Johor Bahru) and present a genuine air ticket.

Fingerprinting at immigration

Malaysian immigration authorities have recently started taking fingerprints from visitors entering and leaving the country. These fingerprints may well find their way to the authorities of other countries or other non-governmental agencies.

How To Travel To Malaysia

Get In - By plane

The national carrier Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has an extensive global route network and regularly ranks high in airline quality ratings. Low-cost carrier AirAsia and its sister airline AirAsia X now connect an ever-growing number of countries, including Australia, China, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Laos, Macau, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. Emirates Airlines also flies to Kuala Lumpur from most cities via Dubai, with flights to Perth, Australia, making a short stopover in KLIA.

  • AirAsia, +60 3 8775-4000 (Hotline within Malaysia: 1 300 88 9933)
  • Malaysia Airlines, +60 3 7846-3000 (Hotline within Malaysia: 1-300-88-3000)
  • Emirates Airline +60 36 207 4999

Most international flights land at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) (IATA: KUL). KLIA’s predecessor, Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport (IATA: SZB) at Subang near Kuala Lumpur, handles charter and turboprop aircraft for regional operators Firefly and Berjaya, +60 3 7846 8228 (ticketing only);, +60 3 2145 2828.

Other airports that have a significant number of flights to regional destinations are Kota Kinabalu (Sabah), Kuching (Sarawak), Penang, Langkawi and Johor Bahru. Many major Malaysian cities are served by AirAsia or Firefly to Singapore Changi. Berjaya Air also flies from Singapore to the popular dive sites of Tioman and Redang.

Get In - By train

To/from Thailand: Direct sleeper trains operated by the State Railway of Thailand connect Bangkok (Thailand) and Butterworth near Penang (Malaysia), while Keretapi Tanah Melayu (Malaysian Railways) trains run between Hat Yai (Thailand) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). Both trains cross the border at Padang Besar, where entry formalities for Thailand and Malaysia can be conveniently completed at the station. There is also a less-used eastern route from Hat Yai to the Thai border town of Sungai Kolok, but there are no through trains to the nearby Malaysian station of Wakaf Bahru (near Kota Bharu).

To/from Singapore: There is a shuttle train service that runs seven times each way from Woodlands Train Station (in northern Singapore) to Johor Bahru in the morning and evening, costing MYR5 on the Malaysian side and SGD5 on the Singaporean side. Convenient overnight trains and somewhat misnamed daytime “express” trains then connect Johor Bahru with Kuala Lumpur and Tumpat, near Kota Bharu. They don’t always coincide with shuttle times, so be prepared for long waits or get an alternate bus schedule if you miss the shuttle. Early morning trains to Singapore and late evening trains to Malaysia are usually full on weekdays, but the traffic flow reverses on weekends. Booking online on the KTMB website can reserve a valuable seat without hassle. When travelling from Singapore to Malaysia, both Singaporean and Malaysian immigration checks are conducted at Woodlands station before boarding the train to Malaysia. In the opposite direction, Malaysian immigration checks are conducted before boarding at JB Sentral, while Singaporean immigration checks are conducted upon arrival at Woodlands.

Get In - By bus

Long-distance buses to Malaysia operate from Brunei, Indonesian Borneo, Singapore and Thailand. You can find more details on the respective city pages.

  • Brunei – there are no direct buses to Brunei. However, there are buses from Miri and Limbang that go to the border where there are connections to Bandar Seri Begawan.
  • Indonesia – Direct buses run between Pontianak in West Kalimantan and Kuching in Sarawak.
  • Singapore – a variety of bus companies offer direct services from Singapore to various destinations in Peninsular Malaysia, including Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, east coast cities and even the Kuala Lumpur suburbs of Petaling Jaya and Subang Jaya. Frequent buses run the short distance between Singapore and Johor Bahru, and you can save a few dollars by transferring to a cheap domestic bus at the Larkin terminal in JB instead of taking the more expensive direct bus. If you need an entry visa, you will need to enter Malaysia via link 2.
  • Thailand – several companies offer flights from Kuala Lumpur and other cities in Malaysia to Hat Yai in southern Thailand, from where there are direct connections to Bangkok and many other Thai destinations.

Get In - By road

Land crossings are possible from Southern Thailand and Singapore to Peninsular Malaysia, and from Brunei and Kalimantan (the Indonesian side of Borneo) to Sarawak. An International Drivers Permit (IDP) is required. More information can be found on the pages of the respective city or state.

  • Brunei – the main crossings are at Sungai Tujoh on the road from Miri, Sarawak, to Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei) and the Kuala Lurah-Tedungan checkpoint used for traffic between Bandar Seri Begawan and Limbang in Sarawak. You can also reach Temburong district in Brunei by road from Limbang via Pandaruan checkpoint (Puni on the Brunei side) and Lawas via Trusan (Labu on the Brunei side).
  • Indonesia – the main border crossing is at the Tebedu-Entikong checkpoint on the main road between Kuching and Pontianak. Several other smaller border crossings used by locals are not necessarily open to foreigners.
  • Singapore – the two crossings are the Causeway, which connects Johor Bahru with Woodlands in Singapore, and the Malaysia-Singapore Second Link, which connects Tanjung Kupang in Johor with Tuas in Singapore. See the Johor Bahru Get in section and the Singapore Get in section for more details.
  • Thailand – international checkpoints (with Thai cities in brackets) are Wang Kelian (Satun) and Padang Besar (Padang Besar) in Perlis, Bukit Kayu Hitam (Sadao) in Kedah, Pengkalan Hulu (Betong) in Perak and Rantau Panjang (Sungai Kolok) in Kelantan.

Especially when entering from Singapore, make sure that your passport has been stamped by the Malaysian Immigration Department before you leave the checkpoint. There have been reports of immigration officials “forgetting” to stamp travellers’ passports on arrival and such travellers being arrested, detained and fined thousands of ringgit when trying to leave Malaysia.

Get In - By Boat

Ferries connect various points on the Malaysian peninsula with Sumatra in Indonesia and southern Thailand, Sarawak with Brunei and Sabah with East Kalimantan in Indonesia and Mindanao in the Philippines. Luxury cruises also operate from Singapore and sometimes Phuket (Thailand) to Malaysia.

  • Brunei – Ferries operate daily between Muara Ferry Terminal in Brunei and Labuan and Lawas Island in Sarawak. Fast boats, mostly in the morning, also run between Bandar Seri Begawan Jetty and Limbang, Sarawak.
  • Indonesia – the main departure points from Indonesia are the Riau islands of Batam, Bintan and Karimun; Dumai, Medan and Pekanbaru on the mainland of Sumatra; and Nunukan in East Kalimantan. Ferries connect Batam with Batu Pahat and Johor Bahru; Bintanwith Johor Bahru; Karimun with Batu Pahat and Kukup in Johor; Dumai with Malacca, Muar in Johor, Port Dickson (in Negeri Sembilan) and Port Klang, the port for Kuala Lumpur; Pekanbaru with Malacca. Daily ferries also connect Nunukan with Tawau in Sabah. There are also smaller crossings such as between Bengkalis in Riau and Batu Pahat; Sumatra and Malacca and Muar in Johor; and Tanjung Balai Asahan in North Sumatra with Port Klang, the port for Kuala Lumpur.
  • Philippines – Ferries operate between Zamboanga Peninsula and Sandakan, Sabah.
  • Singapore – Daily passenger boats operate between Changi Point and Pengerang, between Tanah Merah and Sebana Cover Resort, and between Changi and Tanjung Belungkor, all in Johor.
  • Thailand – four ferries daily (reduced to three during Ramadan) between Tammalang near Satun and Kuah on Langkawi, Malaysia. Vehicle ferries operate between Ban Taba near Tak Bai in Narathiwat province and Pengkalan Kubur in Kelantan, Malaysia, while passenger boats operate between Ban Buketa in Narathiwat province and Bukit Bunga in Kelantan.

Get In - On foot

It is possible to enter Malaysia on foot from Thailand at Wang Kelian and Padang Besar (both in Perlis), Bukit Kayu Hitam (Kedah), Pengkalan Hulu (Perak) and Rantau Panjang (Kelantan). Crossing from Singapore to Malaysia on foot via the Causeway or Second Link is now illegal.

How To Travel Around Malaysia

Get Around - By plane

Thanks largely to budget airline AirAsia, Malaysia is criss-crossed by a network of affordable flights, with “special fares” starting as low as RM9 if booked early. Flying is the only practical option for travelling between Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, as well as reaching some of Borneo’s more remote outposts. State-owned Malaysia Airlines also has competitive fares, now offering equivalent or even cheaper tickets if booked in advance over the Internet, while maintaining the class of hospitality. And its offshoot, Firefly, has a convenient network that radiates out from Penang and also operates from Subang Airport (Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah).

Berjaya Air also flies small Dash-7 turboprops from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to its own airports on the resort islands of Pangkor, Redang and Tioman. Fares are steep (from RM214 plus fees each way), but this is by far the fastest and most convenient way to reach any of these islands.

In Sabah and Sarawak, MASWings operates turboprop services connecting inland communities, including those in the Kelabit Highlands, with coastal towns. MASWings took over the rural air network on 1 October 2007 from FlyAsian Express, which in turn had taken over the service from Malaysia Airlines 14 months earlier.

Get Around - By train

Long-distance trains in Malaysia can rarely match road transport in terms of speed, but state operator Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad(KTMB)provides relatively cheap and generally reliable services around Peninsular Malaysia (but not Sabah/Sarawak in Borneo). The main western line connects Butterworth (near Penang), Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru, while the eastern line runs through Gua Musang and the Taman Negara to Kota Bharu, near the Thai border and the Perhentian Islands.

The pride of the KTMB fleet is the ETS (Electric Train Service) from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, on which modern, air-conditioned trains run ten times a day at a speed of 140 km/h and a journey time of just over 2 hours. However, the rest of the network is mostly single-track, with slow diesel locomotives and all too frequent breakdowns and delays. First and second class are air-conditioned, third class has fans instead. For sleeper trains, KTMB’s epitome of luxury is the Premier Night Deluxe (ADNFD – only between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur) with single cabins sleeping two and a private shower/toilet. More economical are the Superior Night (ADNS) sleeper cars, which have upper and lower berths on each side, with each berth having a solid partition at each end and a side curtain for privacy. The carriages shake and rattle a little, but are comfortable and clean.

The Jungle Train is the apt name for the eastern route between Tumpat (near the Thai border) and Gemas, including stops at Gua Musang, Kuala Lipis, Jerantut (for Taman Negara) and Wakaf Bahru (for Kota Bharu and the Perhentian Islands). The original “Jungle Train” is the slow day train that stops at every station (every 15-20 minutes or so). It is 3rd class only, i.e. no air-conditioning and no reservation, and some stops can be lengthy as it is a single line and all other trains have priority – so the “Jungle Train” waits in side loops along the route to allow oncoming or overtaking trains to pass. Tourists can use this service to travel to Some find the journey fascinating and scenically breathtaking, others find that there is not much to see when you are in the jungle. The overnight trains on the Eastern line (for which reservations are possible and recommended) also have sleeping berths and seats in 2nd class, some also have sleeping cars in 1st class.

Tickets can be booked online on the KTMB website and even printed out. Enquiries and reservations can be made by calling KTMB’s call centres at +60 3 2267-1200 (Malaysia) or +65 6222-5165 (Singapore).

In East Malaysia, the only railway line is operated by Jabatan Kereta Api Negeri Sabah(JKNS)(website in Malay only), which runs from Tanjung Aru near Kota Kinabalu to Tenom town.

Get Around - By car

Malaysia has an excellent highway network, culminating in the north-south highway along the west coast from Singapore to the Thai border. Petrol or locally known as petrol is slightly cheaper than market prices (in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak) at RM1.90/litre (Ron 95). Tolls are payable on the motorways, but they vary from expensive to cheap: Driving across the country (734 km) from the Thai border to Singapore costs RM108 (~US$25). While you can drive from Singapore to Thailand within a day on the west coast, the highway system is much less developed on the east coast, where there are no motorways, and even less so in Sabah and Sarawak, so you should allow extra travel time when travelling to these areas. Tolls for highways and causeways within major cities, especially Kuala Lumpur, are exorbitantly high, ranging from RM4.00 to RM7.00 per exit.

For those thinking of using GPS (Garmin, Papago, Galactio and Mio-Polnav), Malaysia maps can be downloaded for free from Garmin users are lucky to have another choice from Both parties’ maps are contributed by an amazing non-profit group of people who share a common passion for creating GPS maps of Malaysia.

While the driving quality and habits in Malaysia are better than in the rest of Southeast Asia, it is not necessarily great, especially for travellers coming from a Western country. Traffic in Malaysia drives on the left, a legacy of the British. Beware of reckless motorcyclists, especially at night, and especially if you are a pedestrian: Locals typically disregard a red light to turn left, putting pedestrians in danger. As a motorist, motorcyclists will pile up in front of you at traffic lights – let them move away first to avoid accidents.

Caution is advised when driving in larger cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Problems include seemingly suicidal motorcyclists, crowded lanes all day and confusing roads, especially in the older parts of the city where planning by the then British colonial occupation was virtually non-existent. Outside the city, however, cars and motorbikes are the best and sometimes the only way to explore the country. In some of the more rural areas, motorbikes and scooters can be rented for as little as RM25/day, a great way to explore the local area or larger islands like Langkawi. As you would expect, most rental companies require you to show a valid driving licence at the time of rental. Fuel levels are often compared before and after rental, as well as in case of damage, so make sure everything is documented and ask for a refund of the excess fuel if possible. The larger car rental companies such as Hertz and Avis may also require a valid credit card from which a deposit will be authorised but not deducted (unless there is damage to the car).

Taxis are available in all cities and larger towns, although in smaller towns you may need to hail one (ask any shopkeeper or consult the Yellow Pages). You will usually need to negotiate the fare in advance, although prepaid coupon taxis are usually available at airports. RM5 should be enough for a short ride across town, while RM100 is enough to hire a taxi for a whole day.

In Kuala Lumpur, budget taxis are usually red and white (city taxi – these taxis are not allowed to go out of the city, e.g. to another state) or yellow in colour. The taxis are usually small sedans such as Proton Wira and run on NGV (Natural Gas). The blue taxis are larger sedans or MPVs (Multi Purpose Vehicles) and more luxurious. These usually cost 25-30% more than the budget taxis and are usually available at taxi ranks throughout Kuala Lumpur, including major shopping malls and hotels. The red and white taxis can be hailed on the streets and are chargeable. Make sure the taxi driver is a Malaysian (all drivers must have a taxi licence with photo) before getting in, as unscrupulous taxi owners have been known to hire out their taxis to unlicensed substitute drivers. As in most other countries, foreigners with a work visa are only allowed to work in the profession/industry specified in the visa. All taxi drivers must be Malaysian citizens or PR visa holders, as the Malaysian government does not issue work visas to foreigners to drive taxis.

Also, beware of unlicensed taxis (Taxi Sapu) at the airports. They can literally rip you off. There are touts at the airports offering their taxi service to travellers, even pretending to be legitimate. Incredible as it may sound, some have been known to rob first-time visitors of hundreds of ringgit for a single ride into town and charge 100 times the correct fare. At airports, always take a taxi from one of the authorised operators set up in the airport itself, and never from someone who approaches you directly. These will always claim to be legitimate but are rarely licensed and can be unsafe. The taxi driver stands can give you receipts. Another tip is to book your taxis in advance. The concierge at all good hotels will be able to help you with this. If you take an unlicensed taxi, you may not be covered by your travel insurance should the taxi be involved in an accident.

Get Around - By bus

The cheapest way to travel in Malaysia is by bus. All cities of any size have a bus terminal offering connections to other parts of the country. There are many companies with varying degrees of reliability, but two of the largest and most reliable are Transnasional and NICE/Plusliner. 24-seater ‘luxury’ buses are recommended for long-distance travel.

If you are travelling on public holidays or even over the weekend, it is advisable to book your seats in advance. Many bus companies allow you to book directly online through their website. However, some only allow online booking for people with Malaysian credit cards, which is not really convenient for international visitors. Fortunately, most bus companies have joined together to form two booking portals, which are particularly handy if you have specific destinations but are not sure which bus company to use. Both allow payment with any credit card and charge a small fee for their service (usually RM1-2).

Note that the air conditioning in some buses can be extremely cold. So don’t forget to bring a good jumper, trousers and socks, especially for overnight trips in the luxury buses!

Destinations in Malaysia

Regions in Malaysia

Malaysia is divided into two main geographical regions commonly known as Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia.

Peninsula Malaysia

  • West Coast (Kedah, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Penang, Perak, Perlis, Putrajaya, Selangor).
    The more developed region with the modern capital Kuala Lumpur, UNESCO World Heritage Cities with colonial flair and the Langkawi archipelago.
  • East Coast (Kelantan, Pahang, Terengganu).
    The more traditional Muslim region, home to Taman Negara (national park), numerous pristine islands and the jungle track that winds through the rural hinterland.
  • South (Johor)
    Consisting of only one state, two coastlines, endless palm oil plantations and the gateway to Singapore by land

East Malaysia

  • Sabah
    Excellent diving on Sipadan Island as well as muck diving in Mabul, nature reserves, the federal enclave of Labuan and the mighty Mount Kinabalu.
  • Sarawak
    The southern state of East Malaysia. Home to traditional longhouses, lush jungles and national parks in contrast to the state capital Kuching.

Cities in Malaysia

  • Kuala Lumpur – the multicultural capital, home of the Petronas Twin Towers
  • George Town – the cultural and culinary capital of Penang
  • Ipoh – capital of Perak with historic colonial old town
  • Johor Bahru – capital and former royal capital of Johor, and gateway to Singapore
  • Kuantan – capital of Pahang, and commercial centre of the east coast
  • Kota Kinabalu – near tropical islands, lush rainforest and Mount Kinabalu
  • Kuching – Capital of Sarawak
  • Malacca (Malay: Melaka) – the historic city of Malaysia with colonial-style architecture.
  • Miri – resort in Sarawak, near the border with Brunei and gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Gunung Mulu National Park.

Other destinations in Malaysia

  • Cameron Highlands – famous for its tea plantations
  • Fraser’s Hill – a journey back in time to the colonial era
  • Kinabalu National Park – home of Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia
  • Langkawi – an archipelago of 99 islands known for its beaches, rainforests, mountains, mangrove estuaries and unique nature. It is also a duty-free island
  • Penang (Pulau Pinang) – once known as the “Pearl of the Orient”, now bustling island with excellent cuisine that retains more colonial heritage than anywhere else in the country
  • Perhentian Islands (Pulau Perhentian) – glittering jewels off the east coast, still undiscovered by mass tourism
  • Redang (Pulau Redang) – popular island destination for divers
  • Taman Negara – a large area of rainforest national park stretching across Kelantan, Pahang and Terengganu.
  • Tioman (Pulau Tioman) – once voted one of the most beautiful islands in the world

Accommodation & Hotels in Malaysia


Cheap hotels and hostels are available in most cities and around most tourist destinations. As with most cheap accommodation, some are more reliable than others. Be careful when choosing cheap accommodation to avoid places that harbour illegal vices.

Larger cities have YMCAs, which are a safe bet. Another notable budget hotel chain is Tune Hotels, a subsidiary of the low-cost airline Air Asia. They are expanding and have hotels in numerous locations around the country


Mid-range hotels are available pretty much everywhere. Prices for 3-4 star hotels are from RM 100 upwards and are usually reliable in terms of quality.


5-star hotels, serviced flats and resorts are located in major cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Johor Bahru, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching. Almost all islands also have upscale resorts and spas for the affluent traveller.

Things To See in Malaysia

Malaysia is a fascinating country with many faces. It is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, and its attractions vary from the iconic Petronas Towers in bustling Kuala Lumpur to perfect, palm-fringed sandy beaches and dense jungles with orangutans and tigers.

There are several impressive national parks. Expeditions range from those where you barely take your eyes off the hotel to those where you are completely immersed in the jungle for weeks with just your guide and yourself. To see a tiger or a wild elephant in its natural habitat, you may need to spend more than a few days in the wild, but you will have no trouble seeing smaller wildlife. Bako National Park is the oldest national park in Malaysia and one of the best places to see proboscis monkeys. The vast jungles of Taman Negara have become a popular destination for ecotourists, as has the remote but beautiful Gunung Mulu National Park, a World Heritage Site famous for its limestone karst formations, stone spires and huge caves. To escape the sultry tropics, do as the English do and drive up to the cool tea plantations of Cameron Highlands, the picturesque Tudor-style village on Fraser’s Hill or climb Mount Kinabalu in Sabah.

For many people, Malaysia brings to mind images of pristine beaches with great diving – and for good reason. Sipadan off the coast of Sabah and the beautiful Perhentian Islands are among the best (and most popular) places. The coasts in the less industrialised parts of the country are generally worth cruising for their natural beauty and relaxing coastal camping (villages). Follow the crowds to the postcard-perfect sandy beaches of the Langkawi Islands, where you can sip a cocktail on the beach and stay at one of the many resorts.

If you’re most interested in feeling the pulse of a city, don’t miss Kuala Lumpur’s crazy, quilted, ultra-modern skyline, including the famous Petronas Twin Towers. Ipoh is a good choice if you like a slower-paced city that features elegant colonial-era buildings from around 100 years ago, and Malacca is for those who want to trace Malaysia’s colonial and imperial history back a few hundred years further. Penang is known for its great food and the relatively long-established and institutionalised Chinese and Indian communities that share the city with Malay and Thai communities. For a completely different experience, head to Kota Bharu to discover a unique conservative Islamic regional culture with Thai influences just a few kilometres away, or visit the diverse cities of East Malaysia, such as Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. Especially if you are travelling with children, visit one of the country’s excellent zoos, such as Taiping Zoo, Zoo Negara in Kuala Lumpur and Malacca Zoo.

Things To Do in Malaysia

Malaysia has excellent diving opportunities. The most popular spots are the islands off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia (Perhentian, Redang, Tioman and many more), although the diving season is limited to April to September. However, the most famous dive site – often ranked among the best in the world – is Sipadan, off the easternmost tip of Malaysia’s Borneo. There are many other lesser-known sites, such as Layang Layang.

Malaysia is home to a uniquely Malay martial arts style known as silat. Silat tournaments are held between different schools in the country, and the Southeast Asian Games is the most important international tournament in silat, with competitors from neighbouring countries also taking part. There is also an equally traditional, stylised dance version of silat called silat gayung, which is well worth watching if you get the chance.

In addition, there are also many kung fu masters among the ethnic Chinese community, and Malaysia is consistently among the top performers in international wushu competitions.

Food & Drinks in Malaysia

Food in Malaysia

At the crossroads of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisine, Malaysia is an ideal place to make makan (to eat in Malay). Discover the regional specialities and cuisine of Nyonya (Peranakan), the fusion of Malay and Chinese cuisine. You can even find unique Eurasian cuisine in the Portuguese colony of Malacca, the heart of the Eurasian community of Portuguese origin.

Malaysians are very proud of their cuisine and most towns or even villages have their own delicious specialties such as Penang char kway teow, Kajang satay, Ipoh bean sprout chicken, Sarawak laksa, Kelantanese nasi dagang, Sabahan hinava, and many more. Most of them are based on word of mouth and are often found in the most difficult to reach places, so you can try asking locals for personal recommendations.

If you plan to travel to Malaysia and sample the local food, don’t be fooled by the names. Sometimes two completely different dishes from different parts of the country can be known by the same name. One example is laksa, which refers to completely different noodle dishes in Penang and Sarawak.

In general, you can eat just about anywhere in Malaysia. Grocery shops are relatively clean – the only thing you should avoid is ice for your drinks if you go to the street or street vendors’ stalls, as the blocks of ice used there may not meet your hygiene standards. This is not a problem in today’s restaurants. You should also avoid ordering water from hawkers’ stalls or mamak’s restaurants, as it is usually unboiled tap water.

Often the cheapest places don’t display prices; most of them charge tourists honestly, but check the prices before ordering to be sure.

Eating habits vary a lot, but most foods are eaten with a fork and a spoon: The fork in the left hand is used to push and cut, and the spoon in the right hand to eat.

Food being the favourite “pastime” of Malaysians, most of them are adept at using chopsticks, whatever their origins. Noodles and Chinese dishes are usually eaten with them, while Malay and Indian dishes can be eaten by hand, but no one will bat an eyelid if you ask for a fork and spoon instead.

When you eat by hand, always use your right hand to put your food in your mouth, as Malaysians and Indians traditionally use their left hand for dirty things like washing up after going to the toilet. When eating with chopsticks in Chinese restaurants, follow the usual etiquette and don’t stick your chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice. This is reminiscent of the incense sticks that are burned in temples and the smell of wishing death to your neighbour. If you eat in a group, the serving bowls are always shared, but you receive your own bowl of rice and soup.

Where to eat in Malaysia

The cheapest places to eat are street vendors and cafes known as kedai kopi in Bahasa Malaysia or kopitiam in Chinese. These shops sell coffee as well as many other types of food and drinks. Particularly popular and tasty are the mamak stands, run by Indian Muslims, which offer local Indian dishes such as roti canai. Most of the stands are open late at night and some even operate on a rotating basis, so you can find the same stand offering different foods at different times of the day. You can also pick up something from each stall, just ask for bungkus (Bahasa Malaysia) or ta pao (Chinese). A hawker’s meal rarely costs more than RM5. Hygiene standards in Malaysia, although not as high as those in Singapore or neighbouring Western countries, are still reasonable and much better than those in China or most other Southeast Asian countries. Just be careful, and in general, if a stall is frequented by locals, it should be safe to eat there.

The kedai makanan, or more western-style restorer, is a further step. One type of restaurant to watch out for is the nasi kandar (also known as nasi campur or nasi padang), with a wide choice of curries and toppings to spoon over your rice.

Seafood restaurants (makanan laut) are relatively expensive, but are still very good value for money by most standards; however, check prices before ordering. The local prawns are huge, Chinese steamed fish is delicious, and crab in sticky chili sauce is particularly popular.

Finally, some less adventurous options. Shopping centre food courts are an excellent way to sample local delicacies in air-conditioned comfort, paying only a small premium over the prices charged by street vendors. And yes, you can also find McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and the usual suspects and imitators all over Malaysia.

Dietary restrictions in Malaysia

As Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, it is easy to find halal food, but most Chinese stalls and restaurants are not halal. If in doubt, ask. Meals in Malaysian restaurants and Western fast food outlets such as McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut are halal. Restaurants in large hotels are not certified “Halal” because they also serve alcohol, but they do not usually serve pork. Local Muslims eat in Western, Chinese and Indian restaurants if there is a halal sign on the walls. Most restaurants tend to display their halal certification or a halal sign on their premises. Halal certification is granted and enforced by a government agency, usually JAKIM.

Vegetarianism is well understood by Chinese and Indian communities (which is not the case for Muslim Malays and other indigenous minorities) and many restaurants or hawkers’ stalls will be able to offer something on request (specify: “no meat, no fish, no seafood – ask for vegetables and/or eggs ONLY”), but don’t rely solely on menu descriptions: dishes that seem harmless such as “fried vegetables”, etc. often contain pieces of pork, crab paste (belacan, often used in spicy Malay and Chinese dishes), fish sauce, etc. in non-halal Chinese restaurants. Indian restaurants generally offer very good vegetarian choices – roti (Indian flat bread – all kinds; including roti canai, roti naan, capati, tosai) are a good choice, and insist on dhal (lentil curry sauce), otherwise you will get fish curry sauce. Purely vegetarian Chinese restaurants (which often serve remarkable “meat imitations” based on tofu, gluten, etc.) are fairly easy to find in large urban areas where there is a large population of Chinese origin. In rural areas, especially near fishing villages or in areas with a predominantly Muslim or Malay background, vegetarian food may be harder to come by, but learning some basic Malaysian Bahasa vocabulary will go a long way in getting your message across. High-end Western restaurants, such as those serving Italian cuisine, usually offer good vegetarian options.

Veganism is misunderstood in this part of the world and widely misunderstood as a synonym for vegetarianism, but the safest place for a vegan is to visit a Chinese Buddhist vegetarian restaurant (most Chinese vegetarian restaurants are essentially vegan and operate according to Buddhist principles of non-killing and compassion, and therefore refrain from using dairy products, eggs and the five fetid vegetables (onions, garlic, leeks, etc.), which are rejected in Mahayana Buddhism). And if you still feel uncomfortable or unsure, don’t hesitate to ask.

Malaysian cuisine

Subtlety is not a priority in Malaysian cuisine, which is characterised by a generous use of spices (the main ones being star anise, cinnamon/cassie, cardamom and cloves – called rempah empat beradik or the four sister spices), spicy edible rhizomes (mainly galangal, ginger and turmeric), coconut milk (santan in Bahasa Malaysia) and sometimes fresh herbs (lemongrass, fresh coriander, pandan leaves and various kinds of wild herbs or ulam). Most Malaysian dishes are curries, stews or dips of one kind or another, but all full of flavour.

  • Nasi lemak (literally “fat rice”) is the ultimate Malaysian breakfast. In its simplest form, it consists of rice cooked in light coconut milk or coconut cream, a little fried “ikan bilis” (anchovies), peanuts, sliced cucumber and a hint of chilli pepper on the side. Originally, “ikan bilis” were cooked with the chilli and spices to make “sambal tumis ikan bilis”, but it makes more sense for the businessman to have them separately as they are easier to prepare and the fried anchovies last longer. Larger fried fish or chicken wings are common accompaniments. They are also often combined with various curries and/or sambal (see below).
  • Rendang, sometimes called “dry curry”, is meat that is simmered for hours in a refined and spicy (but rarely hot) curry paste until almost all the water is absorbed. Beef rendang is the most common, although relatively recent variations with chicken and mutton are not uncommon.
  • Sambal is the generic term for many types of chilli-based sauces. Sambal belacan is a common condiment made by mixing chili with belacan shrimp paste, while the popular sambal sotong dish is made of squid (sotong) cooked in a red chili sauce. Sambal ikan bilis, a common side dish with nasi lemak, consists of small dried fish with onions, chili and sugar.
  • Satays are skewers of grilled meat, usually chicken or beef. What distinguishes satay from a regular kebab is the slightly spicy peanut-based dipping sauce.
  • Kangkung belacan is a mixture of boiled spinach sautéed in shrimp paste (belacan) and hot peppers.
  • Mee rebus are egg noodles served in a mildly spicy sweet potato sauce, usually with a slice of hard-boiled egg and a little lime.
  • Lontong consists of vegetables, tempeh and soohoon cooked in a yellow (turmeric-based) coconut sauce, eaten with nasi himpit (diced overcooked rice) – one of the few vegetarian dishes in Malaysian cuisine!
  • The acar (achar) is a vegetable and fruit (cucumber, carrot, pineapple) cut into thin slices and lightly marinated with vinegar, chili and peanuts, a common side dish. Not as spicy as Indian pickles, which have the same name.
  • Sup kambing is a goat or sheep soup, cooked slowly with aromatic herbs and spices and garnished with fried shallots and fresh coriander.
  • Keropok lekor, a speciality of the state of Terengganu on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, is a tasty cake made from a combination of batter and chopped fish. Sliced and fried just before serving, it is eaten with a spicy sauce.
  • Tempoyak is a fermented durian paste served as an accompaniment to a main meal.

Malaysian desserts

Malaysian desserts, especially pastries and sweet jellies, are usually made with coconut and palm sugar (gula melaka, named after Melaka). Kuih (or kueh) refers to a plethora of steamed, cake-like desserts, usually made with coconut milk, grated coconut, sticky rice or tapioca. They are very labour-intensive to make, often highly coloured (using natural or synthetic food colouring agents) and cut into fanciful shapes. Try wave waves, small round balls of sticky rice flour coloured and flavoured with pandan leaves, filled with palm sugar and rolled in grated coconut. A delight when they burst in your mouth with the sweet sensation of oozing palm syrup.

  • Ais kacang literally means “ice bean” in Bahasa Malaysia, or in another name ABC means Air Batu Campur, is a good indication of the two main ingredients: crushed ice and red adzuki beans. But more often than not, gula melaka (palm sugar), grass jelly, sweet corn, red beans, black-eyed peas, attapalm seeds and whatever else you have on hand are also added. The whole thing is then sprinkled with canned condensed milk or coconut cream and coloured syrups. The final result has a very interesting and refreshing taste.
  • Apam balik, also called “terang bulan” in some states, is a rich pancake-like dish, spread with a generous amount of butter or margarine and sprinkled with sugar, large nuts and sometimes corn.
  • Bubur cha-cha is made of diced yam, sweet potato and sago added to a coconut milk soup infused with pandan. It can be served hot or cold and can be a breakfast or a dessert.
  • Cendol is made from green pea noodles and served in a sweet broth of palm sugar and coconut milk. It is usually served chilled and is an excellent refreshment in the stifling tropical heat.
  • Pisang Goreng literally means “fried bananas wrapped in dough”. It is a common street food that can be eaten for afternoon tea, as a dessert or as a snack at any time of the day.
  • Pulut Hitam is a rice pudding made from sticky black rice sweetened with brown palm sugar. The creamy coconut milk is shaken over the rice pudding before serving.
  • Pulut Inti is a type of rice cake made from sticky rice and coconut milk. It is steamed and topped with fresh coconut flakes sweetened with palm sugar. It is traditionally wrapped in pyramid-shaped banana leaves.
  • Sago gula melaka is a simple sago pudding, served with gula melaka syrup (palm sugar) and coconut milk.

The cuisine of Peranakan/Nonya

The region’s most recognizable cuisine is Peranakan or Nonya, which comes from the mixed Malay and Chinese communities of the former British colonies of the Straits Settlements (now Singapore, Penang, and Malacca).

  • Ayam pongteh is a chicken dish flavored with fermented soy paste, dark soy sauce, sugar, and other ingredients. This mild and slightly sweet dish is prepared daily in some households in Nyonya.
  • Ayam Buah Keluak is a distinctive dish that combines pieces of chicken with black nuts from the Pangium edule or Kepayang tree to create a rich sauce.
  • Pepper crab, originally a Malaysian specialty now available in Singapore, is a whole crab drizzled with a good amount of spicy, sticky pepper sauce. It is notoriously difficult to eat, but irresistibly delicious: don’t wear a white shirt! For a less messy but equally tasty alternative, ask for crab with black pepper.
  • Enche Kabin are bites of fried chicken marinated in soy sauce, five-spice powder, black pepper, ginger and green onions.
  • Itek Tim is a soup based on duck, tomatoes, green peppers, salted vegetables and candied sour plums that simmer gently together.
  • Kaya is an egg and coconut jam, a strange but tasty combination. It is served on toast for breakfast, canonically accompanied by liquid eggs and strong, sweet coffee (kopi).
  • In Malaysia, Laksa comes in many different styles, and each state seems to have its own style. Laksa lemak is a noodle soup flavored in a coconut curry broth and garnished with coconut shells or shrimp, while Penang laksa assam is made with tamarind broth instead of coconut and has a sour and spicy taste. Kelantan laksa, on the other hand, is prepared with wide, flat rice noodles and a broth very rich in coconut.
  • Mee Siam are rice flour noodles served with a sour sauce made of tamarind, dried shrimps and fermented beans. It is usually served with cubes of tau pok (bean curd) and hard-boiled eggs.
  • The popiah or spring rolls are fresh or fried. They consist of boiled beets, fried tofu, fried shallots and garlic, chopped omelet, sautéed long beans and (optional) chilli sauce, all wrapped in a thin rice skin and eaten like a fajita.
  • Rojak, in Bahasa Malaysian, means a mixture of everything, and there are two very different types. Chinese rojak is a salad of pineapple, white beetroot, cucumber, tau pok (fried bean curd) with thin, tiny slices of bunga kantan (ginger flower buds) mixed with crab paste sauce and sugar, then sprinkled with crushed peanuts. Indian rajak consists mainly of fried fritters of flour and various legumes with cucumber and tofu, with a sweet and spicy peanut sauce.

Chinese cuisine

Chinese food as eaten in Malaysia generally comes from southern China, particularly from Fujian and Guangdong. While authentic dishes, relatively unchanged from their origins in mainland China, are certainly available, especially in high-end restaurants, everyday street food has absorbed a number of tropical influences, including the fairly extensive use of chili and belachan (crab paste) as condiments. Noodles can also be served not only as soup (湯 tang), but also “dry” (干 kan), which means that the chili and spice noodles are served in one bowl and the soup in a separate bowl.

  • Bak chor mee(肉脞麵)is mainly noodles with minced pork in a chili sauce with lard, ikan bilis (fried anchovies), vegetables and mushrooms.
  • Bak kut teh (肉骨茶), literally “pork bone tea”, is a simple-looking soup made from pork ribs that are simmered in broth for hours until they are ready to fall off the bone. It is usually eaten with white rice, mui choy (pickled vegetables) and a pot of strong Chinese tea, hence the name – the broth itself contains no tea. To impress the locals, order You Tiao Fritters from a nearby stand, cut them into bite-size pieces, and dip them in your soup. The port city of Klang is considered the place of origin of the dish.
  • Char kway teow (炒果条) is a very popular type of noodle in Penang. A flat egg noodle, it is fried with bean sprouts, shrimp, cockles, bean sprouts, chives and bak you (lard), although the latter ingredient is sometimes omitted due to the popularity and demand for this dish among Malaysians and Indians who traditionally avoid pork.
  • Chee cheong fun (豬腸粉) is a popular breakfast consisting of lasagne, rolled rice noodles and various types of fried meat, including fish balls and fried tofu. The dish is usually topped with a generous amount of sauce.
  • Chwee kway (水粿) is a dish of rice cakes topped with chai po (fermented salted turnips), usually served with a little chili sauce.
  • Fish ball noodles (魚丸麵) come in many forms, but the most common type is mee pok, which consists of flat egg noodles mixed with chili sauce, with the fish balls floating in a separate bowl of soup on the side.
  • Haitian Chicken Rice (海南鸡饭) is a poached chicken served with rice cooked in broth and chicken fat and delicious ginger and chili sauces. The chicken has a delicate flavour, but it is the quality of the rice and the dipping sauces that makes the connoisseur happy. Perhaps best known in Singapore, there is an interesting local variation in Malacca and Muar, Johor, where the rice is cooked until it is sticky and then rolled into balls.
  • Hokkien mee (福建麵) refers to at least three different dishes. In Kuala Lumpur, it is made from thick noodles fried in a dark soy sauce, in Penang a very spicy crab soup. It is interesting to note that the two dishes do not resemble the dish of the same name from neighbouring Singapore.
  • Kway chaps (粿汁) are essentially sheets of rice flour served in a kind of brownish soup, accompanied by a plate of braised pork and pork organs (usually offal).
  • The Lok-lok (乐乐) consists of skewers of fish, meat and vegetables cooked in boiling broth and eaten with sauces. The most popular is “kuah kacang”, a Malaysian peanut-based sauce traditionally served with satay and ketupat (pressed rice cubes eaten during Eid).
  • Steamboat (火鍋), also known as hot pot, is a do-it-yourself Chinese style soup. You boil a pot of broth on a table burner, choose meat, fish and vegetables to your taste from a menu or buffet, and then cook it to your liking. When you’re done, add noodles or ask for rice to fill you up. It usually takes at least two people, and the more the better.
  • Wantan mee (雲吞麵) are fine noodles topped with wantan balls made from seasoned minced pork. Unlike the soupy version from Hong Kong, it is usually served dry.
  • Yong tau foo (酿豆腐) literally means “stuffed tofu”, but it’s more exciting than it sounds. Guests choose their favourite dishes from a wide selection of tofu, fish paste, seafood and vegetables. They are then cut into bite-size pieces, cooked briefly in boiling water and served either in a broth in the form of soup or “dried” with the broth in a separate bowl. The dish can be eaten on its own or accompanied by pasta of your choice. The essential accompaniments are hot chilli sauce and a characteristic sweet brown sauce for dips.

Indian cuisine

The smallest of Malaysia’s “Big 3”, the Indians have acquired a disproportionate influence on the culinary scene, with the mamak (Muslim Indian, see below) stand in every town and village in Malaysia, and the nasi kandarrestaurants offering a variety of these on your rice with a spoon. Authentic Indian cuisine in Malaysia includes typical South Indian specialities such as dosaiidlisambhar, uttapam; as well as some North Indian dishes such as naan bread, korma and tandoori chicken. However, a number of Indian dishes have been “uneasy” and adopted by the whole population, including

  • Fish head curry, as the name suggests, is a huge fish head curry cooked whole until it falls apart. The head itself is not eaten, as there is a lot of meat inside and around it. Note that there are two different kinds, the fiery Indian kind and the softer Chinese kind (the latter is sometimes served as a broth for vermicelli).
  • Mamak-style mee goreng is an ubiquitous dish found in mamak shops, a fried noodle dish that Malaysians love.
  • Nasi briyani (sometimes spelled nasi beriani) is obtained by superimposing spicy rice on tender pieces of spicy lamb, mutton or chicken. In nasi kandar restaurants, it is cooked rice without meat and a simple choice of rice [rather than steamed rice] to be eaten with the curries and side dishes of your choice.
  • Roti canai is the Malaysian adaptation of the South Indian parotta, a flat bread that is thrown up in the air like a pizza, fried in oil and dipped in curry. It is eaten plain, with dal sauce, curry sauce or both, and is usually called roti kosong. Variations include roti telur (with an egg) and murtabak (stuffed with chicken, mutton or fish), roti boom (with condensed milk) and roti tisu (very thin like tissue paper and sprinkled with caramelised sugar).
  • Putu mayam is made of rice vermicelli, usually mixed with grated coconut and a little jagging.

Fruits in Malaysia

Malaysia still has much of the local agriculture, so it’s easy to find fresh and ripe fruit in day and night markets all over the country. Apart from durian, the most popular fruits in Malaysia are rambutan, mangosteen and bananas (native to the country and available in sweet and sour varieties), mango (in three varieties called manggakuini and pauh in Malay), papaya, guava (especially the jambu which is crispy and a bit tart), pineapple, watermelon, belimbing (star fruit/carambola), pomelo, langsat, duku, mata kucing and jackfruit.

Drinks in Malaysia

Malaysians like both coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), especially the national drink teh tarik (“pulled tea”), named for the theatrical “pull” movement with which it is poured. By default, both are served hot, sweet and with a dose of condensed milk; ask to omit the milk, to have an iced tea with milk or to have an iced tea without milk. Drinking completely without sugar is considered strange, but asking for kurang manis (less sugar) will relieve the pain. However, if you really don’t want sugar at all, you can try asking for “teh kosong”.

Kopi tongkat ali ginseng, a blend of coffee, a local aphrodisiac root and ginseng, served with condensed milk and presented as an alternative to a combination of Viagra and Red Bull, is another particular local favourite, usually advertised with a picture of a bed broken in half.

Other popular non-alcoholic options include the chocolate drink Milo and lime juice (limes). Freshly prepared fruit juices are also widely available, as well as a wide range of canned drinks (some familiar, some less so).

There is also a local drink made from white soy milk and black grass jelly (cincau) called soy cincau. It can be ordered at most street vending centres and local street cafes (kedai kopi).

Alcohol in Malaysia

Although Malaysia has a Muslim majority, alcohol is available in licensed outlets for consumption by its non-Muslim citizens (Chinese, Sabahan natives, Sarawakians and Indians) and non-Muslim foreigners. However, in some states (notably Kelantan and Terengganu) the consumption of alcohol is prohibited. With the exception of duty-free islands (Labuan, Langkawi, Tioman) and duty-free shops (e.g. in Johor Bahru), prices are relatively high, with a can of beer costing RM 7.50 or more, even in supermarkets or 7-Eleven shops. However, alcohol smuggling is widespread in East Malaysia.

In East Malaysia, especially in Sarawak, Tuak is a common occurrence for any celebration or festival such as Gawai Dayak and Christmas. Tuak is made from fermented rice to which sugar, honey or other various spices are sometimes added. It is usually served lukewarm, without ice. Visitors can choose between “strong” tuak (which is usually fermented for years) and “soft” tuak (which is sometimes prepared a week or even a day in advance). In Sabah, cheap alcohol can be found in most supermarkets and mini-markets in the state. Other alcoholic drinks such as beer and whisky are also widely available. On the other hand, Kelantan tuak can also be considered a liqueur because it contains traces of fermented nipah or juice. The alcohol content of the Tuak in Kelantan can easily reach 50% after 3 days from the time of extraction.

Tapai consists of cassava (more rarely rice) which is fermented and consumed as food (although the liquid from the soil can also be drunk). As it is usually consumed during Hari Raya Puasa, the main Muslim holiday celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, it is interesting to note that Islamic legal authorities associated with the opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) have granted Muslims a special exemption from the laws against alcohol consumption in the case of tapai.

Money & Shopping in Malaysia

Currency in Malaysia

The Malaysian currency is the Malaysian ringgit, abbreviated RM or MYR, divided into 100 sen (cents). The ringgit is sometimes unofficially referred to as the dollar and you may see the ‘$’ symbol on older notes. There are coins of RM0.05 (silver), RM0.10 (silver), RM0.20 (silver or gold) and RM0.50 (silver or gold), and notes of RM1 (blue), RM5 (green), RM10 (red), RM20 (orange), RM50 (green/blue) and RM100 (purple). 5-sen coins are mainly issued as change in large shops or supermarkets, while hawkers and street vendors may be reluctant to accept them. Note that Singapore and Brunei dollars are also known as ringgit in Malay. So if you are near border areas, make sure you know which currency the price is in.

Foreign currencies are generally not accepted, although you could get away with exchanging US dollars or euros in more remote areas, but expect lots of stares and some persuasion. The big exception is the Singapore dollar, which is accepted by the KTMB and toll roads, but at a very unfavourable exchange rate of 1:1 (an anomaly from the time when the ringgit was interchangeable with the Singapore dollar, before the 1970s).

Money exchange counters are easy to find in larger shopping centres and have a better exchange rate than in banks and airports. Be sure to state the amount you wish to exchange and ask for the “best rate” as the rates shown on the board are often negotiable, especially for larger amounts. Note that large foreign banknotes, such as €500, are hard to change at a good rate in some areas, especially in Sabah or Sarawak, as banks will offer a much lower rate than if you were to change a banknote with a smaller amount. Some money changers in Kota Kinabalu or Kuching will even refuse you if you have large foreign notes, so it is best to bring smaller notes unless you are willing to buy.

Banking in Malaysia

ATMs are widely available in the cities, but you should stock up on cash if you go to the smaller islands or into the jungle. Credit cards can be used in most shops, restaurants and hotels, although skimming can be a problem in dodgier shops. When using credit cards, make sure your credit/debit card has a chip, as most merchants no longer accept magnetic stripe-based cards.

Banks in Malaysia handle international transactions. These range from a small fee if you are an account holder to a slightly more expensive amount if you only go there to use a particular service. International banks like Citibank & HSBC have their presence in Malaysia, with the latter having branches all over the country. Local banking giants are Maybank, Public Bank & CIMB Bank, & they are a very good alternative to the aforementioned banks, especially in terms of pricing, local knowledge & presence, and available international services such as money transfers. For all enquiries & transactions, get a number, sit down & wait your turn. (There is no need to queue while you wait in air-conditioned comfort!).

Banks are open Monday-Friday from 09:30-16:00 and selected banks are open on Saturdays from 09:30-11:30, except on the first and third Saturday of each month. In the states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, they are open Sunday-Thursday from 09:30-16:00.

Due to the risk of fraud, it is not possible to withdraw money with foreign debit cards at many Malaysian ATMs. Numerous travellers have noted this on travel forums. Choosing a different ATM or area can help so that your cash supplies are not depleted too far. This is only the case in Malaysia and does not apply to Thailand, Singapore or Indonesia. If you call your bank or even Visa/MasterCard, they often don’t know about it because the transaction is declined by the bank in Malaysia. Make sure you bring cash or other forms of money in case your debit card is declined.

Prices in Malaysia

Most visitors will find Malaysia quite affordable, although it is significantly more expensive than neighbouring Indonesia. You can live in hostels and feast on hawker food for less than RM50 a day, but you should budget double that for comfort, especially if you are travelling in the more expensive East Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur is also generally more expensive than the rest of the country. At the other end of the spectrum, luxury hotels and airfare are comparatively affordable, with even the poshest 5-star hotels costing less than RM400 per night.

Tipping in Malaysia

Tipping is not customary in Malaysia. However, hotel porters and taxi drivers are happy to receive a small tip if you have been served in an exemplary manner. In most air-conditioned restaurants, a service charge of 10 % is included in the total bill. Most expensive restaurants, bars and hotels quote prices in terms of RM19++ (“plus plus”), which means that VAT (6%) and the service charge (10%) are added to the bill. Hotel tax of 5% may also be added.

Shopping in Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur is a shopping mecca for clothing, electronics, watches, computer goods and much more, with very competitive prices by any standard. Local Malaysian brands include Royal Selangor and British India. Traditional Malaysian fabrics (batik) are a popular souvenir. The cheapest place to easily buy ethnic souvenirs (especially wooden ones) is in Kuching, East Malaysia, and the most expensive place is in the big, posh shopping malls of Kuala Lumpur.

Generally, shops in the big cities are open from 10:30-21:30/22:00. In the smaller towns and rural areas, they open and close earlier. Some shops may also be closed on certain days, such as in Malacca, where many shops and restaurants close on Tuesday.

When shopping in Malaysia, if you buy too much (which is quite easy), postage costs are very cheap on the surface. Excess baggage at the airport is still high, but not as high as in many other countries. Check with your airline first.

Festivals & Events in Malaysia

One of the significant features of Malaysian culture is the celebration of various festivals and events. The year is filled with colourful, exhilarating and exciting activities. Some are religious and solemn, but others are lively, joyous events. An interesting feature of the main festivals here is the custom of the “open house”. This involves Malaysians celebrating the festival inviting friends and family to their homes to enjoy traditional delicacies and fellowship.

Multicultural Malaysia celebrates a variety of festivals, but the ones to look out for across the country are Islamic holidays, especially the fasting month of Ramadan. During its 29 or 30 days, Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset. Not all Muslims follow the tradition or keep the full Ramadan fast, but most make a very serious effort. Pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating women are not expected to fast, nor are the elderly, infirm or travellers. People get up early before sunrise to have a meal (sahur) and set out early to be back home in time to break the fast (buka puasa) at sunset.

At the end of the month is the festival of Eid ul-Fitr, known locally as Hari Raya Puasa or Aidilfitri, when many locals take a week or two off to “balik kampung” or return to their hometowns to meet family and friends. Accordingly, this is one of the many times of the year when major cities like Kuala Lumpur have virtually no traffic congestion.

Another important festival is the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Adha, known locally as Hari Raya Haji or Aidiladha. During this festival, Muslims perform the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca. Cows and goats are donated and sacrificed by the faithful in local mosques, after which the meat is distributed to all. Family reunions are also celebrated during other important festivals, where locals usually dress up in traditional costumes and robes, as these festivals are an integral part of Malaysian society.

During the month of Ramadan, non-Muslims are expected to show consideration for those who are fasting. Non-Muslims, as well as travelling Muslims (musafir), are exempt from fasting, but it is polite not to eat or drink in public. Public schools also require non-Muslims not to eat in the presence of fasting people. Many restaurants are closed during the day and those that remain open keep a low profile. Business travellers will notice that things move a little slower than usual. The advantage for foreign travellers is the Ramadan bazaars in every city and town are bustling with activity and bursting at the seams with good food. Hotels and restaurants also pull out all the stops to serve up huge quantities of food for the fast-breaking festivities. During the fasting month of Ramadan, the meals at the end of the breaking of the fast are usually considered a big feast. The global fast food chain McDonalds is known to host several all-you-can-eat feasts during the month of Ramadan.

Other important holidays are Chinese New Year (around January/February), Deepavali or Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights (around October/November), the Buddhist holiday Wesak (around May/June) and Christmas (25 December). During Chinese New Year, Penang and Ipoh are the most important cities as many Chinese working and living in KL are from there. However, this situation is gradually changing as more and more people are making Kuala Lumpur their hometown. When visiting during such festivals, travellers can experience many wonderful celebrations, but the downside is that many ethnic shops/restaurants are closed then. The best option is to visit during the period immediately after the first two days of the big festival (Hari Raya/Chinese New Year), when shops are open and the festive mood has not yet subsided.

Another major festival is Deepavali, which is celebrated by Malaysian Hindus as the festival of light originating in classical India and is one of the most important cultural festivals. In Malaysia, locals practice this tradition by wearing new clothes and receiving symbolic gifts of money. This practice has been adopted by all Malaysians, regardless of their religion. They distribute red packets or ang pow during Chinese New Year, green packets or “duit raya” for Hari Raya Aidilfitri and multi-coloured packets during Deepavali.

Special Malaysian festivals include the Harvest Festival at the end of May and the “Pesta Gawai” in early June, both harvest festivals celebrated in East Malaysia.

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival that falls in January or February and is one of the must-see events. The largest procession in the country takes place in Batu Caves, north of Kuala Lumpur. Male devotees carry decorated altars or kavadi up a staircase of 272 steps to the temple, while simultaneously having religious spears and hooks pierced through the outer surfaces of their bodies. This ability is attributed to divine intervention and religious zeal. Female devotees join the procession carrying pots of milk on their heads instead.

Traditions & Customs in Malaysia

It is advisable to dress respectfully, especially in rural areas (wearing trousers or a long skirt, not shorts, and covering the shoulders is recommended but not essential). In urban areas such as Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Penang and Ipoh, and in the East Malaysian states (Sabah and Sarawak), attitudes are more liberal.

As in many countries, it is best if you, as a visitor, do not criticise the government or Malaysian royalty. You may hear Malaysians criticising their own government, but you don’t have to take sides; just listen and feel free to talk about your feelings about your own government.

When entering a house or place of worship, always remove your shoes. Never eat with your left hand, never give a gift with your left hand and never point at anyone with your index finger (you can make a closed fist with your thumb instead). Do not point with your feet or touch a person’s head.

Swastikas are often seen in Hindu and Buddhist temples and are considered a religious symbol by these communities. They explicitly do not represent Nazism or anti-Semitism, so Western visitors should not feel offended if they see them in the homes of their hosts.

As a predominantly Muslim country, Malaysia is rather conservative when it comes to sexuality. Public displays of affection are tolerated in the more diverse, larger cities, but could attract unnecessary public attention. In more rural areas and in very conservative states such as Kelantan and Terengganu on the east coast of the peninsula, it is frowned upon and best avoided.

In big cities like Kuala Lumpur, there is quite an active gay scene and you rarely hear of gay bashing. However, same-sex relations are a taboo subject and “sexual intercourse against the order of nature” is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and flogging (for men only) under colonial-era laws that are not usually enforced against consenting adult heterosexuals. Various states can also impose consecutive Sharia penalties of up to 3 years and six lashes against Muslims of all genders.

Culture Of Malaysia

Malaysia has a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual society. The country’s original culture comes from the indigenous tribes that inhabited it, along with the Malays who moved there later. There is a significant influence of Chinese and Indian culture dating back to the beginning of foreign trade. Other cultural influences include Persian, Arab and British culture. Due to the structure of government and the social contract theory, there has been minimal cultural assimilation of ethnic minorities.

In 1971, the government created a “National Cultural Policy” that defined Malaysian culture. This stated that Malaysian culture must be based on the culture of the indigenous peoples of Malaysia, that it may contain appropriate elements from other cultures, and that Islam must play a role. It also promoted the Malay language above others. This government interference in culture has led to resentment among non-Malays who feel their cultural freedom has been curtailed. Both Chinese and Indian associations have submitted memoranda to the government accusing it of formulating undemocratic cultural policies.

There are some cultural disputes between Malaysia and neighbouring countries, especially Indonesia. The two countries have a similar cultural heritage and share many traditions and objects. Yet disputes have arisen over everything from culinary dishes to Malaysia’s national anthem. In Indonesia, there are strong feelings about protecting national heritage. The Malaysian and Indonesian governments have met to defuse some of the tensions resulting from cultural overlap. In Malaysia, feelings are not as strong as most recognise that many cultural values are shared.

Fine arts

Traditional Malaysian art focused mainly on carving, weaving and silversmithing. Traditional art ranges from hand-woven baskets from rural areas to the silverwork of Malay courts. Common artworks include ornamental kris, beetle nut sets and woven batik and songket fabrics. The indigenous East Malays are known for their wooden masks. Each ethnic group has its own performing arts, with little overlap between them. However, Malay art shows some North Indian influences due to the historical influence of India.

Traditional Malay music and performing arts seem to have their origins in the Kelantan-Pattani region, with influences from India, China, Thailand and Indonesia. The music is based on percussion instruments, of which the gendang (drum) is the most important. There are at least 14 types of traditional drums. Drums and other traditional percussion instruments are often made from natural materials. Music is traditionally used for storytelling, celebrating life cycle events and occasions such as a harvest. In the past, it was also used as a form of long-distance communication. In East Malaysia, gong-based music ensembles such as agung and kulintang are often used in ceremonies such as funerals and weddings. These ensembles are also common in neighbouring regions such as Mindanao in the Philippines, Kalimantan in Indonesia and Brunei.

Malaysia has a strong oral tradition that existed before the arrival of writing and continues to this day. Each of the Malay Sultanates created its own literary tradition, influenced by pre-existing oral histories and by the stories that came with Islam. The first Malay literature was written in Arabic script. The earliest known Malay script is on the Terengganu Stone, dating back to 1303. Chinese and Indian literature spread as the number of speakers in Malaysia increased, and locally produced works based on languages from these areas began to appear in the 19th century. English also became a common literary language. In 1971, the government took the step of defining the literature of the different languages. Literature written in Malay was referred to as ‘National Literature of Malaysia’, literature written in other Bumiputera languages was referred to as ‘Regional Literature’, while literature written in other languages was referred to as ‘Sectional Literature’.Malay poetry is highly developed and uses many forms. The hikayat form is popular, and pantun has spread from Malay into other languages.


Malaysia’s cuisine reflects the multi-ethnic composition of the population. Many cultures from within the country and from surrounding regions have greatly influenced the cuisine. Much of the influence comes from Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Javanese and Sumatran cultures, largely due to the country being part of the ancient spice route. The cuisine is very similar to that of Singapore and Brunei, and also has similarities with Filipino cuisine. The different states have different dishes, and often the food in Malaysia is different from the original dishes.

Sometimes foods not found in the original culture are assimilated into another; for example, Chinese restaurants in Malaysia often serve Malay dishes. Food from one culture is also sometimes cooked with styles adopted from another culture. For example, sambal belacan (shrimp paste) is often used by Chinese restaurants as ingredients in stir-fried water spinach (kangkung belacan). This means that many Malaysian dishes, while harking back to a particular culture, have their own identity. Rice is popular in many dishes. Chilli is common in local cuisine, although this does not necessarily make it spicy.


Malaysia’s main newspapers are owned by the government and the ruling coalition political parties, although some major opposition parties also have their own, which are openly sold alongside the regular newspapers. There is a divide between the media in the two halves of the country. The peninsula-based media give low priority to news from the east and often treat the eastern states as colonies of the peninsula. The media is accused of raising tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia and giving Malaysians a bad image of Indonesians. The country has Malaysian, English, Chinese and Tamil dailies.

Freedom of the press is restricted, there are numerous restrictions on the right to publish and disseminate information. The government has previously tried to crack down on opposition newspapers before elections. In 2007, a government agency issued a directive to all private television and radio stations not to broadcast speeches by opposition leaders, a move condemned by politicians from the opposition Democratic Action Party. Sabah, where all but one tabloid is independent of the government, has the freest press in Malaysia. Laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act have also been cited as restricting freedom of expression.

Stay Safe & Healthy in Malaysia

Stay safe in Malaysia

The crime rate is higher than in neighbouring Singapore. Crimes against tourists are usually limited to pickpocketing, purse snatching and petty theft. It is important to keep a close eye on valuable items. Thefts are more common in busy places such as markets and public transport. In general, if you avoid deserted areas, return to your hotel before midnight and use common sense, you are unlikely to be robbed. Homosexuality is a crime, so gay and lesbian tourists should be confident and careful.

While Singaporeans often tell stories about the “wild north”, keep in mind that the crime rate in Singapore is remarkably low and the crime rate in the border town of Johor Bahru is particularly high by Malaysian standards. Any comments you hear about Malaysian crime rates should be seen in this context, and with the exception of Johor Bahru, tourists from the US would not find Malaysia particularly more dangerous than back home.

Many taxis will refuse to use the meter, although the official fare has recently changed and most taxis now have a sticker on the back door informing tourists that haggling is prohibited. Be aware that taxi drivers who sense that you are a tourist may drive around and take a very long route to reach your destination.

If you are using a taxi late at night, it is best to use the Dial-a-Taxi service as there have been incidents of taxis hailed at these times being fake/unregistered. The unregistered taxi drivers could then rob their victims or use assailants to rob them. You are also more likely to get a metered taxi if you hail it on a street than at a taxi rank.

It is advisable to study maps and compare fares on the internet before visiting the country. Knowing the distances between places is helpful when negotiating with taxi drivers. They will not try to deceive even a foreigner who clearly shows that he knows that the distance from point A to point B is 50 km and not 150 km.

Do not accept the first prices for travel by car between towns offered by hotels, as these can be up to double the normal prices. In this case, negotiate directly with a taxi driver for a better and fair price (for example, a hotel near Balok Beach, not very far from Kuantan, charged RM800 for a ride to Johor Bahru, while a negotiated price with a taxi driver found in downtown Kuantan came down to a normal RM400). But for all this, you need to know the exact distance and if possible even the exact itinerary between your departure and arrival points.

Public demonstrations are uncommon in Malaysia due to the police crackdown, but there have been a number of anti-government demonstrations recently. Should one occur, they may be dealt with harshly, so avoid them at all costs.

Finally, it is generally not allowed for non-Muslims or non-Sunnis to proselytise. In particular, trying to persuade Muslims to leave their religion is illegal, and if you are caught doing so, you will at best be expelled from the country.

Crime in Malaysia

Malaysia treats drug offences extremely harshly. The death penalty is mandatory for those convicted of trafficking, manufacturing, importing or exporting more than 15 g of heroin, 30 g of morphine, 30 g of cocaine, 500 g of cannabis, 200 g of cannabis resin and 1.2 kg of opium, and possession of these quantities is sufficient to be convicted.

Illicit consumption can lead to up to 10 years in prison or a heavy fine, or both. You can be charged with illicit consumption as long as traces of illegal drugs are found in your system, even if you can prove they were consumed outside the country, and you can be charged with trafficking as long as drugs are found in bags that are in your possession or in your room, even if they do not belong to you and regardless of whether you are aware of them – so be vigilant about your possessions.

In major cities such as Kuala Lumpur, George Town and Johor Bahru, there are occasional reports of pickpockets and thieves on the run. As a general precaution, never carry your bags on the side facing the road and always walk towards oncoming traffic. Also, walk a few metres lower away from the roads. Female travellers should take extra precautions at night.

Johor Bahru is known to have a relatively high crime rate compared to the rest of Malaysia. Armed robberies and kidnapping thefts could happen at night in the city’s run-down neighbourhoods. Travel documents and valuables are best left in a hotel safe.

Note that in Malaysia, certain crimes are punishable by caning. You can be caned for rape, vandalism, illegal entry, bribery, overstaying your visa and certain other offences. This is not a slap on the wrist! The blows with the thick rattan cane are very painful, it will take some time to heal and will probably leave a permanent scar. This technique is also used in Singapore.

Credit card fraud is a growing problem in this country, especially if you order from an online shop while you are there. Only use credit cards in reputable shops. If you are unsure about the reputation of a particular shop or service, there are several services that can help identify scams and frauds.

Never bring any recreational drugs into Malaysia, even as a transit passenger. Possession of even minimal amounts can result in a mandatory death sentence.

Traffic safety in Malaysia

Drunk driving is a serious offence and alcohol tests by the police are common. You should definitely not offer bribes – if found guilty you can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison! Anyone who tries to bribe officers can be arrested on the spot and locked in a cell overnight to be charged with the offence the next morning. If this happens on a Friday or the eve of public holidays, you will spend a few nights in jail as the courts are only open from Monday to Friday. Don’t let this deter you from asking for help – in general, Malaysian police are helpful to tourists. You should just accept whatever traffic summons you receive.

If you are on foot, be careful when crossing the road. Vehicles will often ignore pedestrian crossings (zebra crossings). However, reports of road bullying in accidents are still common. So if you are involved in an accident, be very careful when negotiating or dial 999 for help.

Stay healthy in Malaysia

Tap water is drinkable straight from the tap as it is treated, but even locals boil or filter it first to be on the safe side. When travelling, it is best to stick to bottled water, which is very cheap.

Ice in drinks can be made from tap water, but nowadays most restaurants and even street stalls use the cylindrical variety with a hollow tube in the middle, which is mass produced in ice factories and safer to consume.

Heat stroke is rare, but drink plenty of fluids, use a hat and sunscreen and shower often!

Peninsular Malaysia is largely malaria-free, but there is a significant risk in Borneo, especially in the interior and rural areas. Dengue fever occurs throughout Malaysia in both urban and rural areas and can only be avoided by avoiding mosquito bites. The mosquito that transmits dengue fever feeds throughout the day and is most active at dawn and dusk. If you experience sudden fever with pain and lethargy, seek medical attention immediately. Aspirin and ibuprofen should not be used until dengue fever has been ruled out. Mosquito repellents (ubat nyamuk) are available everywhere. Be careful with mosquito coils, which can easily start fires: place them on a plate or other non-flammable surface and extinguish them before going to bed.

Haze caused by burning vegetation in neighbouring Indonesia can come and go without warning from May to August, so travellers with respiratory conditions should be prepared.

Most public washrooms charge a small fee (usually between RM0.20-RM2.00, mostly depending on the standard of the facilities), so have some change ready. If the condition of the sit-down toilets is questionable, use the squat toilets instead – both are usually available, and some believe the latter are more hygienic and (if you can get used to them) just as easy to use as sit-down toilets.

Peninsular Malaysia is largely earthquake-free as there are no fault lines nearby, although occasional tremors are felt when a major quake occurs in neighbouring Indonesia. In East Malaysia, on the other hand, especially in the area around Mount Kinabalu, earthquakes occasionally occur, most recently in 2015 with a fatal outcome. Typhoons also generally do not occur. However, flooding from torrential rains is common during the monsoon season from November to January, and landslides have been known to occur, especially on the east coast. Tsunamis are a rare occurrence, although Penang and some islands on the north of the west coast were affected by the infamous tsunami in 2004.

Government health facilities are cheap but good in the larger cities, but many visitors prefer to seek private medical care. The cost of private medical care can be high and travel insurance is a very good idea. The standard of medical care tends to drop sharply once you leave the big cities and travel to rural areas.

The HIV rate in Malaysia was 0.5% of the population in 2014.



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