Geographically divided into two, Malaysia has a peninsula stretching from Thailand to Singapore, where most of the country’s 13 states and Federal Territory can be found. Sabah and Sarawak occupy 60 percent of land mass in the northern part of Borneo south-east of the peninsula.
Rich in history and diverse in culture, Malaysia is blessed with enchanting islands, beautiful mountains, tropical flora and fauna, as well as modern, thriving metropolises, adding much to Malaysia’s tourism appeal.
A quick glance at Malaysia’s map shows you six major regions with Kuala Lumpur (KL) as the capital city. Peninsular Malaysia’s central region is made up of the states of Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Malacca, while the north is occupied by Penang, Perlis, Perak and Kedah. Terengganu, Kelantan and Pahang make up the east coast, and in the south is the state of Johor. The states of Sabah and Sarawak are on the northern third of the island of Borneo.
Each region has unique qualities in terms of features, local culture, food and historical sites.
The people of Malaysia comprise of a fascinating mix of ethnicities, ranging from the Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous Orang Asli (Original People) of Peninsular Malaysia to the diverse tribal communities of Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia.
Although the national language is Bahasa Melayu (Malay), English is widely spoken amongst the population of around 29 million.
Non-Malays are usually fluent in both Bahasa Melayu as well as their mother tongue. Apart from Mandarin, Malaysian Chinese commonly communicate in dialects such as Cantonese (especially in capital of Kuala Lumpur and its surrounding areas) and Hokkien, while the Indian community speaks primarily Tamil as a second language.
Design & Architecture
Penang – the oldest British settlement in Malaysia, is one of the country’s top holiday attractions, known its historical capital of George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to colonial buildings, settlements and some of the oldest religious buildings in Malaysia.
Beautiful Islamic architecture is also seen in the mosques of Malaysia, ranging from traditionally influenced design as seen in the elaborate Safavid-era Persian theme of the Putra Mosque to the stark lines and intimidating facade of the Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin Mosque (or Iron Mosque), built mainly out of steel and cooled from the tropical heat by a state-of-the-art water cooling system.
One of the largest Hindu religious temple complexes outside of India can be found in the Batu Caves just outside of KL. This series of temples, shrines and museums is housed in 400 million year old limestone caves – a breathtaking site to behold.
Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country with Islam being the official religion. Islamic Sharia Law is enforced by the Sharia Courts upon Malays and Muslims. Homosexuality and sodomy are still criminalised by the Penal Code.
While Malaysia is relatively modern and open to global influence, it is still recommended to dress conservatively and according to the largely conformist culture. Should you intend to visit religious places of interest in Malaysia or Muslim homes, you are encouraged to wear long sleeved tops and long bottoms. Women are also advised to cover their heads and hair before entering mosques.
Shopping in Malaysia
Shopping in KL is one of the major attractions in Malaysia with a variety of fashionable products and handicrafts available from shopping complexes like The Curve and Berjaya Times Square, to department stores and smaller boutiques and markets, all at great value.
The Central Market in Chinatown is a centre for traditional handicrafts, antiques and art where you can also employ your bargaining skills to get the best prices on ‘branded’ merchandise. There is also the Chow Kit Market, a Malay market with many roadside vendors lining Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman (also known as Jalan TAR). On Saturday nights, some streets are closed to traffic and host lively night markets. Prepare to negotiate a good price and go home with a bargain!
Step away from the city to get a taste of Malaysia’s rich heritage by visiting the old fortresses, temples, churches and burial grounds in Malacca (or Meleka) which project an elaborate display of Dutch, Portuguese, French and Chinese influence against a modern Malaysian backdrop.
Malaysia’s other major tourist attractions are a delightful mix of national parks and wildlife reserves, beaches and mountains.
Langkawi’s archipelago offers stunning beaches and resorts while you can also watch for turtles in season on the beaches of Cherating in Pahang.
More than 60 percent of the country is under rainforest cover, home to over 8000 species of flora in Peninsular Malaysia alone. The fascinating natural wildlife in the country includes elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, leopards, tapirs, sun bears, orangutans and gibbons.
Get a closer encounter with Malaysian wildlife set in the virgin equatorial rainforest of the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, home to rare plants, animals and birds. Taman Negara National Park is one of the world’s oldest tropical rainforests while in Borneo, the Gunung Mulu National Park in North Sarawak is home to an extensive limestone cave system – including the largest cave chamber in the world – the Sarawak Chamber.
For added adventure, scale Mt. Kinabalu the highest mountain in Southeast Asia and watch the sunrise from beneath the clouds that surround the peak before taking a dip in the Poring Hot Springs of Kinabalu Park.
The diving and snorkelling off Tioman Island and Redang Island is superb, both islands boast underwater caves and incredible coral reefs that are home to blue spotted rays, black tip sharks, lion fish, moray eels, turtles and pufferfish.
Sipadan Island, off the coast of Sabah, is said to have some of the best diving in the world for advanced divers. Big fish like barracuda, reef sharks and even manta rays come out to play with lobsters, octopus, scorpion fish and clownfish.
Nyonya cuisine is probably the most famous of these fusions and is a blend of Chinese ingredients and Malay spices. Malay-style food comprises of seafood, meats and vegetables cooked with sweet, savoury and spicy sauces, and served with rich coconut milk infused rice or nasi.
Street stalls or hawkers are where the best local cuisines can be enjoyed cheaply. The theatrical ambience of these hawkers is like no other – with continuous demonstrations of wok tossing, teh tarik (tea pulling), the artful skill of flipping rotis (Indian bread), and barbecuing of satay sticks. You can enjoy most of these sights, sounds, smells and tastes at the neighbourhood mamak (or Indian food) stall.
As a Muslim nation, there are restaurants offering halal food prepared in religiously approved conditions. Malaysia is known for its wide variety of tropical fruits, including rambutans, mangosteens, jackfruit and durians. Roadside vendors selling fruits and other snacks are commonplace and the prices are usually cheaper than in supermarkets – especially when the special skill of bargaining is employed.
Although Malaysia is a Muslim country, alcohol is still widely available in bars and nightclubs, especially in capital cities and tourist areas.
Nightlife in Malaysia is anything but boring. Kuala Lumpur offers a wide choice of nightspots with entertainment ranging from cultural shows and cabarets to Western-style bars and discos. Hot spots include Petaling Street, Jalan Alor, the Asian Heritage Row, Bangsar and many neighbouring suburbs.
Flights to Malaysia are served by most major airlines and land at eight international airports all over Malaysia. The Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), Malaysia’s main international airport, is located in Sepang (about 45 km away from KL’s city centre) and is also Asia’s fastest growing airport.
Entering peninsula Malaysia by land via Singapore and Thailand is easily done via public and tour buses.
Accommodation in Malaysia
There are plenty of serviced apartments, holiday beach resorts and hotels in Malaysia. A wide range of budget accommodation such as traditional Chinese hotels, backpacker hostels and dormitory style guesthouses are available for booking in most cities. The homestay concept is still relatively new, but is a great way to learn first hand the Malaysian way of life.
Getting around Malaysia
Taxis are very common in Malaysia, and although meters are often used, it is always helpful to agree on a price beforehand if the taxi driver is not going by the meter.
For trips from the airports and railway stations, you can purchase coupons at the taxi counter stationed at both places. Several car rental agencies offer self-drive and chauffeur-driven cars should you want to rent a car in Malaysia.
The national KTM train runs from Kuala Lumpur to Padang Besar in the north, Singapore in the south, and up to Tumpat on the east coast. Buses are fast and economical, and seats can be reserved fairly easily.
The Malaysian Ringgit is written as RM. Tipping is not expected, although much appreciated.
All visitors to Malaysia require a valid passport/travel document with minimum validity of six months beyond the period of intended stay. Visa requirements vary for different countries of origin so be sure to check.
Temperatures range from 21°C to 32°C with cooler temperatures in the hills, particularly during the evenings. Cool, lightweight summer clothing is best to endure the heat and high humidity with medium-weight woollens at night in the cooler highland areas.
Weather in Malaysia is generally sunny and wet. The east coast, Sabah and Sarawak see heavy rainfall from November to February while the west coast of the peninsula is wet from April to October.
As with all tropical territories, you should always carry your umbrella with you.