Malaysia Halal Travel Guide
Malaysia is a country in Southeast Asia, on the Malay peninsula, as well as on northern Borneo. The country is one of Asia’s new tiger economies, having seen great economic and human development during the last decades. While the capital Kuala Lumpur is a cosmopolitan city, deep jungles cover some of the land.
Malaysia is divided into two main geographical regions, commonly known as Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia. See Geography for more information.
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|West Coast (Perlis, Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Putra Jaya, Negeri Sembilan, Malacca)
The more developed region, offering the modern capital, Kuala Lumpur, UNESCO World Heritage cities with colonial flare and the Langkawi archipelago.
|East Coast (Kelantan, Pahang, Terengganu)
The more traditional Muslim region, home to Taman Negara (National Park), numerous unspoilt islands and the Jungle Railway, which winds through the rural hinterlands.
Comprising just one state, two coastlines, endless palm oil plantations and the gateway to Singapore overland.
Superb scuba diving in Sipadan island plus muck diving at Mabul, nature reserves, the federal enclave of Labuan and the mighty Mount Kinabalu.
The southern state of East Malaysia. Home to traditional longhouses, lush jungles and national parks in contrast to the state capital, Kuching.
- Kuala Lumpur — the multi-cultural capital, home of the Petronas Twin Towers
- George Town — the capital of Penang and Malaysia’s second largest city, famed for its colonial-era architecture, multi-cultural populace, food and arts scene
- Malacca — the historical city of Malaysia with colonial-style architecture
- Ipoh — the capital of Perak, with a historic colonial old town
- Johor Bahru — capital of Johor, and the gateway to the neighbouring city-state, Singapore
- Kuantan – capital of Pahang and commercial Centre of the East Coast
- Kota Kinabalu — close to tropical islands, lush rain forest and Mount Kinabalu
- Kuching — capital of Sarawak
- Miri — resort city of Sarawak located near the border of Brunei and gateway to UNESCO World Heritage List, Gunung Mulu National Park
- Cameron Highlands — famous for its tea plantations
- Perhentian Islands (Pulau Perhentian) — glittering jewels off the East Coast still undiscovered by mass tourism
- Taman Negara — a large area of rainforest National Park spanning Kelantan, Pahang and Terengganu
- Mount Kinabalu — home of Mount Kinabalu
- Langkawi — an archipelago of 99 islands known for its beaches, rainforest, mountains, mangrove estuaries and unique nature. It’s also a duty-free island
- Sipadan (Pulau Sipadan) — one of the best dive spots in the world
- Redang (Pulau Redang) — popular island destination for scuba divers
- Tioman (Pulau Tioman) — once nominated one of the most beautiful islands in the world
- Fraser’s Hill — a time warp to the colonial era
Introduction to Malaysia
Malaysia is a mix of the modern world and a developing nation. With its investment in the high technology industries and moderate oil wealth, it has become a rich nation in Southeast Asia. Malaysia, for most visitors, presents a happy mix: there is high-tech infrastructure and things generally work well and more or less on schedule, but prices remain more reasonable than, say, Singapore. The demographics between the rich and poor can also be quite apparent: for example, a high rise luxury condominium building built right across the street from old, rundown shop lots or flats. However, you will not find extreme rural poverty or gigantic slums as in other places in Southeast Asia.
In terms of attractions, peninsular (West) Malaysia contains islands with gorgeous beaches and a fraction of visitors found in Thailand’s most popular beaches, mountain retreats surrounded by tea plantations, interesting historical cities, World-famous food, and the highly modern, multi-cultural capital of Kuala Lumpur. East Malaysia contains lush jungles with diverse native population and wildlife, as well as stunning natural attractions such as giant caves, beautiful mountains and fantastic diving sites. Notably, however, Malaysia is not as popular among backpackers as other Southeast Asian destinations such as Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, partly due to the relatively higher costs, and partly due to the more religious and conservative, albeit generally tolerant, culture.
Before the rise of the European colonial powers, the Malay peninsula and the Malay archipelago were home to empires such as the Srivijaya (whose capital was near modern Palembang, Sumatra, but which included the entire Malay Peninsula and lands further north at its greatest extent), the Majapahit (Centred in Java, now part of Indonesia, but believed by most scholars to have included the entire Malay Peninsula and most of coastal Borneo among its vassal states) and the Malacca Sultanate. The Srivijaya and Majapahit empires saw the spread of Hinduism to the region, and to this day, despite the fact that Malays are Muslims, many Hindu legends and traditions survive in traditional Malay culture. Mass conversion to Islam only occurred after the arrival of Arab traders during the Malacca Sultanate.
During the 16th century the Portuguese established the first European colony in Southeast Asia by defeating the Malacca Sultanate. The Portuguese were religiously intolerant and cruel, so the Sultan of Johor assisted the Dutch in defeating them, and the Netherlands took control of the city. The British also established their first colony on the Malay peninsula in Penang when it was ceded by the Sultan of Kedah in 1786. Finally, the area was divided into Dutch and British spheres of influence with the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1824. With this treaty, the Dutch agreed to cede Malacca to the British and in return, the British ceded all their colonies on Sumatra to the Dutch. The line of division roughly corresponds to what is today the border between Malaysia and Indonesia.
Before World War II, the Malay Peninsula was governed by the British as the Federated Malay States (Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang), which were governed as a single entity, the Unfederated Malay States (Johor, Kedah, Perlis, Terengganu and Kelantan), which were each governed as separate protectorates, and the Straits Settlements (including Malacca, Penang and Singapore), which were crown colonies. These colonies and protectorates were collectively referred to as “Malaya”. British Borneo consisted of the British colony of North Borneo, the Kingdom of Sarawak, which was ruled by a British family known as the “White Rajas”, and the British protectorate of Brunei.
World War II was disastrous for the British Malayan Command. The Japanese swept down both coasts of the Malay Peninsula and despite fierce fighting, much of the British military was tied down fighting the Germans in Europe and those that remained in Malaya simply could not cope with the Japanese onslaught. The British military equipment left to defend Malaya was outdated and no match for the modern technology used by the Japanese, and the only two British battleships based in the region, the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, were sunk by Japanese bombers off the East Coast of Malaya. By 31 January 1942, the British had been pushed all the way back to Singapore (then considered to be part of Malaya), which also fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. The situation was no different on Borneo, which fell to the Japanese on 1 April 1942 after months of fierce fighting. The Japanese occupation was brutal, and many, particularly the ethnic Chinese, suffered and perished during the occupation. Among the most notorious atrocities committed by the Japanese were the Sandakan Death Marches, with only 6 out of 2,345 prisoners surviving the war.
After World War II, the Federated Malay States, Unfederated Malay States and the Straits Settlements of Malacca and Penang were federated to form a single British colony known as the Malayan Union, with Singapore splitting off to form a separate colony. In the Malayan Union, the sultans of the various states ceded all their powers except those in religious affairs to the British crown. However, widespread opposition to the Malayan Union led the British to reconsider their position, and in 1948, the Malayan Union was replaced by the Federation of Malaya, in which the executive positions of the sultans were restored. In Borneo, the White Rajas ceded Sarawak to the British crown in 1946, making it a crown colony of the United Kingdom.
On 31 August 1957, Malaya gained independence from the British. At midnight, the Union Jack was lowered, and the Malayan flag raised in its place at what is today Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) in Kuala Lumpur. The crowd, led by the first Prime Minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman, then proceeded to chant “Merdeka” seven times. On 16 September 1963, Malaysia was formed through the merging of Malaya with the British colonies of North Borneo (now known as Sabah), Sarawak and Singapore, with Brunei deciding not to join. The first several years of the country’s history were marred by the Confrontation (Konfrontasi) — actually a series of acts of aggression by Indonesia that ultimately ended in her defeat and a formal peace that has held ever since — and claims to Sabah from the Philippines. On 9 August 1965 Singapore was officially expelled from the federation after several bloody racial riots as Singapore’s majority Chinese population and the People’s Action Party, led by Lee Kuan Yew (later the long-ruling Prime Minister of Singapore), were seen as a threat to Malay dominance. There were further racial riots in 1969, which led to the forced resignation of Tunku Abdul Rahman; his replacement by Tun Abdul Razak; changes in the Malaysian Constitution that sought to prevent the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) from ever being defeated in a future national election; and the start of the New Economic Policy, which sought to aggressively promote the economic interests of the generally poorer Malay community (and also the non-Malay indigenous peoples of East Malaysia) over those of the generally less poor Chinese community (with the poorest major ethnic group, the Indians, and also to a very large extent the Orang Asli [aboriginal people] in the Peninsula mostly ignored in the process).
In 1975, boat people from across the South China Sea in Vietnam started coming, and Malaysia became one of the most important places of first refuge for Indochinese refugees, but in general, only those of the Muslim Champa minority were invited to stay permanently. Later, during the period of tremendous economic development under the long premiership of Mahathir Mohammed, a large number of immigrant workers were invited from Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, and several other countries in the area, and even more immigrated illegally. This further increased the diversity of the population, and quite a number of the workers were reported in local newspapers to have intermarried with local women, but it also led to social strife as many Malaysian men resented the competition, and while the economy depended on immigrant workers to do jobs most Malaysians were no longer willing to do, now that their standard of living was higher, most Malaysians also did not want to permanently absorb a large and potentially almost limitless number of poor people from the much more populous countries in the region. Some immigrants were expelled and even caned for immigration violations, but the issue has never been really resolved.
Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy consisting of 13 states and 3 federal territories, nominally headed by the king (Yang di-Pertuan Agong, lit. Paramount Ruler), whose position rotates among the rulers of the 9 royal states of Malaysia every five years, giving Malaysia a unique political system of rotational monarchy. The current king, Tuanku Abdullah from Pahang, was sworn into office on 31 Jan 2019 and his term ends on 31 Jan 2024.
Malaysia’s government is largely based on the British Westminster system, consisting of a bicameral national parliament, with each of the states also having their own unicameral Dewan Undangan Negeri (State Legislative Assembly). The lower house, known as the Dewan Rakyat (Hall of the People) is elected directly by the people. The upper house, known as the Dewan Negara (National Hall), consists of 26 members elected by the state governments, with each state having 2 representatives, while the remaining members are appointed by the king. The head of government is the prime minister, who is the party leader of the winning party in the lower house. In the 2018 election, the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, scored a shock victory over the long-incumbent United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which had been in power continuously since 1973, succeeding another UMNO-led coalition that had governed since independence.
In practice, the king is only the nominal head of state, while the prime minister is the one who wields the most authority in government.
Malaysia comprises two geographic regions, Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia, which are separated by the South China Sea.
Peninsular Malaysia (Semenanjung Malaysia) occupies all of the Malay Peninsula between Thailand and Singapore, and is also known as West Malaysia (Malaysia Barat) or the slightly archaic Malaya (Tanah Melayu). It is home to the bulk of Malaysia’s population, its capital and largest city Kuala Lumpur, and is generally more economically developed. Peninsular Malaysia consists of plains on both the East and West Coasts, separated from each other by a mountain range known as the Banjaran Titiwangsa, with the West Coast being more densely populated and generally more well-developed than the East Coast.
Separated some 800 km to the east of Peninsular Malaysia is East Malaysia (Malaysia Timur). East Malaysia occupies the northern third of the island of Borneo, shared with Indonesia and tiny Brunei. Much of the development on East Malaysia is Centred around the cities of Kuching, Miri and Kota Kinabalu. Outside of the major cities and smaller towns are impenetrable jungle where head hunters once roamed and coastal plains rising to mountains. East Malaysia is rich in natural resources and is very much Malaysia’s hinterland for industry and tourism.
Malaysia is a multicultural society. While Malays make up a 52% majority, 27% of Malaysians are Chinese (who are especially visible in the cities), 9% are Indians, 12% are members of aboriginal peoples (often called Orang Asli, Malay for “Original People”), and there is a miscellaneous 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 Malays, as well as a significant minority of Indians) adhere to Islam, the official religion, and there are substantial minorities who practice Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Animism.
Culture & Tradition of Malaysia
Malaysia shares many cultural similarities with its neighbours, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei due to their common history. As the first great kingdoms to emerge in the region were Hindu kingdoms with much influence from India, Malay culture has substantial Indian influences. This is most visible in Malay cuisine with its relatively heavy use of curries, albeit using local instead of Indian spices, meaning that Malay curries often have a unique local flavour that is different from their Indian counterparts. Malaysia’s minorities also continue to maintain their own distinct cultures, with the Chinese and Indian communities continuing to preserve the traditions brought from their ancestral homelands.
One of the significant characteristics of Malaysian culture is its celebration of various festivals and events. The year is filled with colourful, exhilarating and exciting activities. Some are religious and solemn but others are vibrant, joyous events. One interesting feature of the main festivals here is the ‘open house’ custom. This is when Malaysians celebrating the festival invite friends and family to come by their homes for some traditional delicacies and fellowship.
Multicultural Malaysia celebrates a vast range of festivals, but the ones to look out for nationwide are Islamic holidays, most notably the fasting month of Ramadan. During its 29 or 30 days, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex from dawn to sunset. Not all Muslims follow the tradition, or sustain the full period of Ramadan fasting, but most do make a very serious effort. Pregnant, breast feeding or menstruating women are not expected to fast, nor are the elderly, the infirm, or travellers. People get up early before sunrise for a meal (sahur), and take off early to get back home in time to break 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 one to two weeks off to ‘balik kampung’ or return to their home towns to meet family and friends. Accordingly, this is one of the many times in a 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. It is during this festival that Muslims perform the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca. In local mosques, cows and goats are donated by the faithful and sacrificed, after which the meat is distributed to all. Family reunions are also celebrated during other main festivals when locals usually put on traditional costumes and finery as these festivals are an integral feature of Malaysian society.
During the month of Ramadan, non-Muslims are expected to be considerate of those fasting. Non-Muslims, as well as Muslims travelling (musafir), are exempt from fasting but it is polite to refrain from eating or drinking in public. Public school systems also require non-Muslims to refrain from eating in front of those who are fasting. Many restaurants close during the day and those that stay open maintain a low profile. Business travellers will notice that things move rather more slowly than usual. The upside for foreign travellers are the Ramadan bazaars in every city and town, bustling with activity and bursting at the seams with great food. Hotels and restaurants also pull out all stops to put on massive spreads of food for fast-breaking feasts. During the month of Ramadan, meals at the end of fasts are usually considered grand feasts. Worldwide fast-food chain McDonald’s is known for holding several all-you-can-eat Ramadan feasts during the month.
Other major holidays include Chinese New Year (around January/February), Deepavali or Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights (around October/November), the Buddhist holiday of Wesak (around May/June), and Christmas (25 December). During Chinese New Year, George Town and Ipoh become the major cities as many local Chinese working and living in KL originated from there. However this situation is changing gradually, as more and more people are making Kuala Lumpur their home town. While visiting during such festivals, travellers will be able to experience many wonderful celebrations, but the downside is many ethnic shops/eateries will be closed. The best option is to visit during the period just after the first two days of the major festival (Hari Raya/Chinese New Year), when shops will open, and the festive mood has still not died down.
Another major celebration is Deepavali, celebrated by the Malaysian Hindus as the festival of light originating from classical India and one of the main cultural celebrations. In Malaysia, locals practice this tradition by wearing new clothes and receiving token gifts of money. This practice has been adapted 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.
Some uniquely Malaysian festivals of note include the Harvest Festival at the end of May each year and the ‘Pesta Gawai’ in early June, both thanksgiving celebrations held in 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 at Batu Caves, north of Kuala Lumpur. Male devotees carry decorated altars or kavadi up a flight of 272 steps towards the temple, all this while also having religious spears and hooks pierced through external surfaces of their bodies. The ability is attributed to divine intervention and religious fervour. Female devotees join the procession carrying pots of milk on their head instead.
Climate & Weather
The climate in Malaysia is equatorial. The north-east monsoon (October to February) deluges Borneo and the East Coast of the Peninsula in rain and often causes flooding, while the West Coast (particularly Langkawi and Penang) escapes unscathed. The milder south-west monsoon (April to October) reverses the pattern. The southern and central parts of Peninsular Malaysia, including perennially soggy Kuala Lumpur, are exposed to both but even during the rainy season, the showers tend to be intense but brief.
Malaysia is close to the equator, so warm weather is guaranteed. Temperatures generally range from 32°C (90°F) at noon to about 26°C (79°F) at midnight. But like most Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia’s sun-shining days are interrupted by monsoon season every year, and night temperatures can hit a low of about 23°C (73°F) on rainy days.
Temperatures tend to be cooler in the highlands, with the likes of Genting Highlands, Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill having temperatures ranging from about 17°C (63°F) at night to about 25°C (77°F) in the day. Mount Kinabalu is known to have temperatures falling below 10°C (50°F).
Entry will be refused to citizens of Israel with an Israeli passport unless holding a letter of approval from the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs. Additionally citizens of Israel require an onward ticket and will be asked to purchase one or be refused entry. Malaysia is no longer concerned about other nationals’ passports that show entry stamps and/or visas from Israel.
Most nationalities can enter Malaysia without a visa and can reside in Malaysia for 14 to 90 days, depending on their nationality. Refer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for current information regarding visa requirements and stay periods. The East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak each maintains its own immigration system and separate controls: even Malaysians from other states require a passport or MyKad on arrival.
Those who wish to enter Malaysia for purposes other than for a Social or Business visit still require a visa for any period (except for US citizens who enter for the purpose of studying) but see here for “loopholes”.
Those requiring a visa to enter Malaysia may be able to apply for one at a British embassy, high commission or consulate in their own country if there is no Malaysian diplomatic post. For example, the British embassies in Belgrade, Guatemala City, Pristina and Sofia accept Malaysian visa applications (this list is not exhaustive). British diplomatic posts charge £50 to process a Malaysian visa application and an extra £70 if the authorities in Malaysia require the visa application to be referred to them. The authorities in Malaysia can also decide to charge an additional fee if they correspond with the applicant directly.
Overstaying a visa will result in a US$10, €7.50 or RM30 fine per day. However it’s fairly simple to avoid overstaying a visa by doing a “visa run” to a neighbouring country overland or via a cheap flight. Malaysia may impose caning as a punishment for overstaying a visa.
Even though citizens of Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka normally require a visa, they can transit the same airport for up to 120 hours provided they arrive and depart on the same airline, land at Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, Penang or Senai (near Johor Bahru) and present a genuine air ticket.
National carrier Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has extensive coverage within Asia, as well as intercontinental flights to Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and regularly ranks high in airline quality assessments. Low-cost carrier AirAsia and its sister company, AirAsia X, now connects an ever-expanding set 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 from most cities to Kuala Lumpur via Dubai, flights to Perth, Australia, make a brief stop 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 Airlines ☎ +60 36 207 4999
Most international flights land at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) (). KLIA’s predecessor, the Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in Subang near Kuala Lumpur handles chartered and turboprop aircraft for regional operators Firefly and Berjaya, ☎ +60 3 7846 8228 (ticketing only);, ☎ +60 3 2145 2828. See the Kuala Lumpur Get in section for detailed airport information.
Other airports which have significant numbers of flights to regional destinations are Kota Kinabalu (Sabah), Penang, Kuching (Sarawak), Langkawi and Johor Bahru. Many major Malaysian cities have services to Singapore-Changi via AirAsia or Firefly.
Travel by train to Malaysia
- To/from Thailand: Direct sleeper train services operated by the State Railway of Thailand connect Bangkok (Thailand) and Butterworth, while Keretapi Tanah Melayu (Malaysian Railways) runs trains between Hat Yai (Thailand) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). Both trains cross the border at Padang Besar where Thai and Malaysia immigration formalities are all conveniently done in the station. There is also a less used eastern route from Hat Yai to Thai border town Sungai Kolok, but there are no through trains to the nearby Malaysian station at Wakaf Bahru (near Kota Bharu).
- To/from Singapore: There’s a shuttle train service which runs seven times each way during the morning and evening periods from Woodlands Train Station (in the north of Singapore) to JB sentral in Johor Bahru, costing MYR5 from the Malaysian side and SGD5 on the Singapore side. Conventional intercity trains then connect Johor Bahru with Gemas and Tumpat, near Kota Bharu. They don’t always match up to the shuttle times, so be prepared for long waiting times or get a backup plan by bus should you miss the shuttle. Early morning trains to Singapore and late evening trains to Malaysia are usually packed on the weekdays and the traffic flow reverses on the weekends. Booking online at the KTMB website may reserve a precious seat without hassle. When travelling from Singapore into Malaysia, both Singaporean and Malaysian immigration checks are conducted at Woodlands Train Station before boarding the train for Malaysia. In the reverse direction, Malaysian immigration checks are conducted at JB Sentral before boarding, while Singaporean immigration checks are conducted on arrival in Woodlands.
Long-distances buses/coaches into Malaysia run from Brunei, Indonesian Borneo, Singapore and Thailand. Please see the relevant city pages for more details.
- Brunei – there are buses to Miri and Kota Kinabalu, leaving from the waterfront in downtown Bandar Seri Begawan. There are also buses to Limbang.
- Indonesia – direct buses operate between Pontianak in West Kalimantan and Kuching in Sarawak.
- Singapore – a multitude of bus companies operate direct routes from Singapore to various destinations in Malaysia, including Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, East Coast cities and even the Kuala Lumpur suburbs of Petaling Jaya and Subang Jaya. Frequent buses make the short run between Singapore and Johor Bahru, and you can save a few bucks by changing at JB’s Larkin terminal to a cheap domestic bus instead of taking a more expensive direct bus.
- Thailand – several companies operate services from Kuala Lumpur and other cities in Malaysia to Hat Yai in southern Thailand, where direct connections are available to Bangkok and many other Thai destinations.
Land crossings are possible from southern Thailand and Singapore into Malaysia, as well as from Brunei and Kalimantan (the Indonesian side of Borneo) into Sarawak. An International Drivers Permit (IDP) is required. See the respective city or state pages for more detailed information.
- Brunei – the main crossings are at Sungai Tujoh on the Miri, Sarawak, to Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei) road, and the Kuala Lurah-Tedungan checkpoint which is used for traffic travelling between Bandar Seri Begawan and Limbang in Sarawak. You can also access the Bangar district of Brunei by road from Limbang via the Pandaruan (Puni on the Brunei side) checkpoint and Lawas via Trusan (Labu on the Brunei side).
- Indonesia – the main crossing is at the Tebedu-Entikong checkpoint on the main Kuching-Pontianak road. Various other minor border crossings used by locals are not necessarily open to foreigners.
- Singapore – the two crossings are the Causeway which links Johor Bahru with Woodlands in Singapore, and the Malaysia-Singapore Second Link which links Iskandar Puteri with Tuas in Singapore. See Johor Bahru Get in section and Singapore Get in section for more details.
- Thailand – international checkpoints (with the Thai towns in brackets) include 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. Thai immigration has long been known to demand a bribe of RM2/20 Thai Baht per person to stamp you in or out, though there have been some crackdowns on this.
Particularly if entering from Singapore, make sure that your passport has been stamped by Malaysia Immigration before you drive off from the checkpoint. There have been reports of immigration officers “forgetting” to stamp the passports of travellers upon arrival, and such travellers being subject to arrest, imprisonment and fines of several thousand ringgit when trying to depart Malaysia.
Ferries connect various points in Malaysia 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 run from Singapore and sometimes Phuket (Thailand) to Malaysia.
- Brunei – ferries daily between the Muara Ferry Terminal in Brunei and Labuan island and Lawas in Sarawak. Speedboats, mostly in the morning, also run between Bandar Seri Begawan jetty and Limbang, Sarawak.
- Indonesia – the main jumping-off points from Indonesia are the Riau Islands of Batam, Bintan and Karimun; Dumai, Medan and Pekanbaru on the Sumatra mainland as well as Nunukan in East Kalimantan. Ferries link Batam with Batu Pahat and Johor Bahru;Bintan with 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 link Nunukan with Tawau in Sabah. There are also minor crossings like 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 run between the Zamboanga Peninsula and Sandakan, Sabah.
- Singapore – daily passenger boats run between Changi Point and Pengerang, between Tanah Merah and Sebana Cover Resort, as well as between Changi and Tanjung Belungkor, all in Johor. See the Singapore Get in section for details.
- Thailand – four ferries daily (reduced to three during Ramadan) between Tammalang at 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 run between Ban Buketa in Narathiwat province and Bukit Bunga in Kelantan.
It is possible to enter Malaysia from Thailand by foot at Wang Kelian and Padang Besar (both in Perlis), Bukit Kayu Hitam (Kedah), Pengkalan Hulu (Perak) and Rantau Panjang (Kelantan). Crossing from Singapore into Malaysia on foot by crossing the Causeway or Second Link is now illegal.
Largely thanks to budget carrier AirAsia, Malaysia is crisscrossed by a web of affordable flights with advertised “promotional” prices starting at RM9 for flights booked well in advance. Flying is the only practical option for traveling between peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, as well as reaching some of the more remote outposts of Borneo. State carrier Malaysia Airlines also has competitive fares which now offers equal or even lower priced tickets if booked in advance through the internet, with sustaining class of hospitality. And their offshoot Firefly has a handy network radiating out of Penang previously, has also began operating from the Subang (Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah) airport.
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. Prices are steep (from RM214 plus fees one way), but this is by far the fastest and more comfortable way of reaching any of these.
In Sabah and Sarawak, MASWings, operates turboprop services linking interior communities, including those in the Kelabit Highlands, with coastal cities. MASWings took over the rural air services network from FlyAsian Express on 1 October 2007, which in turn took the service over from Malaysia Airlines 14 months before that.
Travel by train to Malaysia
Long-distance trains in Malaysia can rarely match road transport in terms of speed, but state operator Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB) provides relatively inexpensive and generally reliable services around Malaysia (but not Sabah/Sarawak in Borneo). The main western line connects Butterworth, 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 KTMB’s fleet is the ETS (Electric Train Service) from Butterworth to Gemas, running modern air-conditioned trains daily at 140 km/h. The rest of the network, though, is mostly single-track, with slow diesel locos and all too frequent breakdowns and delays. In May, 2016 KTMB ceased all sleeper trains on the western line, following the electrification of the track to Gemas. An air conditioned 2nd class only, diesel shuttle train now connects the section from Gemas to JB Sentral. KTMB hopes to have full ETS service on the western line by 2020.
The Jungle Railway is the apt description for the eastern line between Kota Bharu (close to 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 daytime service which stops at every station (every 15-20min or so). It’s 3rd class only, meaning no air-con and no reservations, and some stops may be lengthy as it’s a single line and all other trains have priority – hence the “Jungle Train” waits in side loops along the way so that oncoming or overtaking trains can pass. Some find it to be a fascinating and stunningly scenic ride; others feel there’s not much to see when you’re in the jungle. The eastern line also has one night express train (for which reservations are possible and recommended) going in each direction. In addition to air-con seats, these trains have Superior Night (ADNS) sleeper cars, which have upper and lower berths along each side, each bunk having a solid partition at each end and a side curtain for privacy. The carriages shake and rattle quite a bit but are comfortable and clean.
Tickets can be booked and even printed online at KTMB’s site. Enquiries and reservations can be made by phone at KTMB’s call Centres, ☎ +60 3 2267-1200 (Malaysia) or, ☎ +65 6222-5165 (Singapore).
In East Malaysia, the only railway line is run by Jabatan Kereta Api Negeri Sabah (JKNS) (Web-site in Malay only), running from Tanjung Aru near Kota Kinabalu to the town of Tenom.
Malaysia has an excellent highway network, culminating in the North-South Expressway along the West Coast from Singapore all the way to the Thai border. Gasoline or locally known as Petrol is slightly cheaper than market prices at RM1.90/litre (Ron 95) (in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak). Tolls are payable on expressways, but these are priced at varying degrees, ranging from expensive to reasonable: driving the length of 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 considerably less developed on the East Coast, with no expressways, and even less so in Sabah and Sarawak, so be sure to factor in additional travel time if travelling in those areas. Toll prices for highways and causeways inside major cities, especially Kuala Lumpur, is priced exorbitantly ranging from RM4.00 to RM7.00 for each exit.
While driving quality and habits in Malaysia are better than in most of the rest of Southeast Asia, they are not necessarily great, especially compared to what visitors from most Western countries are used to at home. Traffic in Malaysia drives on the left, a legacy left by the British. Beware reckless motorcyclists, especially at night, and especially if you are a pedestrian: locals typically disregard a red light for left turns, putting pedestrians at risk. As a motorist, at traffic lights, motorcyclists will accumulate in front of you – let them drive away first to avoid accidents.
Care is needed when driving in larger cities, such as Kuala Lumpur and George Town. Problems include apparently suicidal motorcyclists, congested traffic lanes throughout the day, and bewildering roads especially in the older parts of the city where planning was virtually nonexistent by the then British colonial occupiers. Out of town, however, cars and motorcycles are the best and sometimes the only way to explore the country. Some of the more rural areas have motorcycles and scooters to rent for as little as RM25/day, a great way to explore the local area or larger islands like Langkawi. As expected, most rental agencies will require a valid drivers licence to be presented upon rental. Fuel levels are often compared before and after rental, as well as for damage, so ensure everything is documented, and request a refund of any excess fuel if possible. The bigger car rental companies like Hertz and Avis may also require you to have a valid credit card where a deposit will be authorised but not deducted from (unless there is damage to the car).
Taxis are available in all cities and larger towns, although in smaller places you may have to call one (ask any shopkeeper or consult the yellow-pages). You will generally need to negotiate the fare in advance, although prepaid coupon taxis are usually available at airports. RM5 should suffice for a short cross-town trip, while RM100 is enough to hire a taxi for a full day.
In Kuala Lumpur, the budget taxis are usually coloured Red and White (City taxi – these taxis are not allowed to travel out of the city e.g. to another state) or Yellow. Taxis are usually small saloons such as Proton Wira and run on NGV (Natural Gas). The Blue taxis are larger saloons or MPVs (Multi Purpose Vehicles) and more luxurious. These cost typically 25-30% more than the budget taxis & are normally available at taxi stands all over Kuala Lumpur including the major malls & hotels. The Red & White taxis can be hailed off the roads & are metered. Ensure that the taxi driver is a Malaysian (all drivers must have a taxi permit & license with their photo on it) before you board, as unscrupulous taxi owners have been known to rent their taxi out to unlicensed stand-ins. Like in most other countries, a foreigner on a work visa are only allowed to work in the job/industry specified in the visa. All taxi drivers must be Malaysian or a PR holder as the Malaysian government does not issue work visa to foreigners to drive taxis.
Additionally, beware of unlicensed taxis (taxi sapu) at the airports. They can literally take you for a ride. There will be touts at the airports offering travellers their taxi service, even pretending to be legitimate. As unbelievable as it may sound, some have been known to rob first time visitors hundreds of ringgit for a single trip into the city, charging 100 times more than the correct fare. At the airports always get your taxi from the authorised operators’ booths set up in the airport itself & never from anyone that solicits directly. They will always claim to be legitimate but are rarely licensed and may be unsafe. The taxi operator booths can provide you with receipts. Another tip is to book your taxis in advance. All good hotels’ concierge will be able to assist you with this. If travelling in an unlicensed taxi you may not be covered by your travel insurance should that taxi be involved in a mishap.
The most popular ride hailing apps are Grab and Uber. On Grab, you can pay with cash—drivers have change.
The cheapest way to travel in Malaysia is by bus. All towns of any size have a bus terminal offering connections to other parts of the country. There are many companies of varying degrees of dependability, but two of the largest and more reliable are Transnasional and NICE/Plusliner. 24-seater “luxury” buses are recommended for long-distance travel.
If travelling on holidays or even over the weekend, it is advisable to reserve your seats in advance. Many bus companies allow for you to book online directly through their website. However, some only allow online booking for individuals with Malaysian credit cards, which is not really convenient for international visitors. Luckily, most bus operators have banded together into two booking portals and 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 require a nominal fee for their service (usually RM1-2).
- catchthatbus.com (catchthatbus.com), .
- redbus (redbus), .
- Easybook (Easibook), .
- Bus Online Ticket, .
Air conditioning on some buses can be extremely cold so don’t forget to bring a good sweater, pants and socks, especially for overnight journeys on luxury buses!
The sole official language of Malaysia is Malay (officially Bahasa Malaysia, sometimes also 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. Some parts of Malaysia near the Thai border, most notably Kelantan, have dialects of Malay which are nearly incomprehensible to speakers of standard Malay, though most people in these areas will be able to converse in standard Malay if needed.
English is compulsory in all schools and widely spoken in the larger cities, among the well-educated upper class, as well as around the main tourist attractions, although in rural areas a little Malay will come in handy. There is also a colloquial form of English spoken among Malaysians in urban areas, not inappropriately known as Manglish, which involves code switching between English, Malay and/or other languages, and takes a bit of getting used to if you intend to join in the conversation on local topics. Almost all Malaysians will not pronounce the letter, “h” for e.g. “Three” and “Tree” is spoken as “tree”. Malaysians will almost always try to speak ‘standardized English’ (British) when approached by Western travellers. In general, police stations and government offices will 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 will have a functional command of Arabic. However, it is not widely spoken, though the Malay language does have a large number of loan words from Arabic. You also might notice some examples of Malay written with Arabic letters. This is called Jawi, and it 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 wide variety of Chinese dialects including Cantonese, Mandarin, Teochew phrasebook, Hakka phrasebook, Hainanese phrasebook, Hokchew and Hokkien. Mandarin is taught in most Chinese schools while Cantonese is commonly heard in the mass media due to the popularity of TVB serials from Hong Kong among the Chinese community, so many are conversant in both, in addition to their native dialect. The most commonly spoken Indian language is Tamil; others include Malayalam, Punjabi and Telugu.
In the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia bordering Thailand, there are various ethnic Thai communities, known locally as the Orang Siam, who speak various dialects of Thai. Malacca in the south is also home to a Portuguese community which speaks a Portuguese based creole. The remote forest areas of Peninsular Malaysia are also home to various tribal people known as 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.
Malaysia is a fascinating country with many faces. It’s multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, and its attractions vary from the iconic Petronas Towers in bustling Kuala Lumpur to perfect sandy beaches lined with palm trees and dense jungles with orangutangs and tigers.
There are various impressive national parks. Expeditions range from those where you hardly lose sight of the hotel to those where you are fully immersed in the jungle for weeks, with only the guide and yourself. To spot a tiger or wild elephant in its natural habitat you might have to spend more than a few days in the wild, but you’ll 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, just like the remote but gorgeous Gunung Mulu National Park, a World Heritage Site famous for its limestone karst formations, stone pinnacles and huge caves. To escape from the muggy tropics, do as the English did and head up to the cool tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands, the quaint Tudor-style village on Fraser’s Hill or climb Mount Kinabalu in Sabah.
For many people, Malaysia brings pictures of pristine beaches with great diving opportunities to mind – and for good reason. Sipadan off the coast of Sabah, and the beautiful Perhentian Islands Islands are among the best (and most popular) places. Coastlines in the less industrialized parts of the country, in general, are well worth driving through for their natural beauty and relaxing seaside kampung (villages). Follow the crowds to the postcard perfect sands of the Langkawi Islands, where you can have a cocktail on the beach and stay in one of the many resorts.
If you’re most interested in taking the pulse of a city, don’t miss Kuala Lumpur’s crazy quilt ultra-modern skyline, including the famous Petronas Twin Towers. George Town, the capital city of Penang, is known for its great food, colonial architecture, and relatively long-standing and institutionalized Chinese, Peranakan and Indian communities, who share the city with ethnic Malays, Thais and Eurasians. Ipoh is a good choice if you enjoy a somewhat slower paced city that features elegant colonial-era buildings from about 100 years ago, and Malacca is for those who want to trace the colonial and imperial history of Malaysia several hundred years further back. For a completely different experience, head to Kota Bharu to discover a unique conservative Islamic regional culture influenced by Thailand, only a few kilometres away, or visit the diverse cities of Malaysia, like Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. Especially when travelling with children, consider visiting one of the country’s excellent zoos, such as Taiping Zoo, Kuala Lumpur’s Zoo Negara and Malacca’s Zoo.
Malaysia has excellent scuba diving. The most popular spots are the islands off the East Coast of peninsular Malaysia (Perhentian Islands, Redang, Tioman and many more), although the dive 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 Malaysian Borneo. There are many other less well known sites, like Layang Layang.
You can find tame Grade I to incredibly difficult and dangerous Grade V rapids in Malaysia’s many national parks:
- Jeram Besu – Grade I-III – Pahang
- Cameron Highlands – Grade V – Pahang
- Kuala Perahu – Pahang
- Lipis River – Pahang
- Anak Jelai River – Grade I-II – Pahang
- Tembeling River – Grade I-II – Pahang
- Sedim River – Grade III-IV – Kedah
- Sungai Selangor – Grade I-III – Selangor
- Kiulu River – Grade II – Sabah
- Padas River – Grade III-IV – Sabah
- Sungai Itek (Kampar River) – Grade I-III – Perak
- Sungkai River – Grade I-II – Perak
- Singoh River – Grade V – Perak
- Endau River – Johor
- Nenggiri River – Grade I-III Kelantan
- Kuala Kubu Bharu, Selangor
Malaysia is home to a uniquely Malay style of martial arts known as silat. Silat tournaments are held between different schools in the country, and the Southeast Asian Games is the premier international tournament in silat, with competitors from the neighbouring countries as well. There is also an equally traditional stylised dance version of silat called silat gayung, which is quite worth seeing if you have the chance.
In addition, there are also many kung fu masters among the ethnic Chinese community, and Malaysia is consistently one of the top performers in international wushu competitions.
Malaysia is home to a uniquely Malay form of singing called dikir barat. Dikir barat is typically sung by a choir, though there may also be solo parts, and is also either sung a capella, or accompanied only by percussion instruments. Dikir barat competitions are fairly popular among the Malay community, and are frequently broadcast on Malaysian national television.
The Malaysian currency is the Malaysian ringgit, abbreviated as RM (ISO code: MYR). It is divided into 100 sen (cents). The ringgit is sometimes informally 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) as well as bills of RM1 (blue), RM5 (green), RM10 (red), RM20 (orange), RM50 (green/blue) and RM100 (purple). 5 sen coins are mainly given as change in large establishments or supermarkets whereas peddlers and street vendors might be reluctant to accept them. The Singapore and Brunei dollars are also known as ringgit in Malay, so when near border areas you might want to check to be sure which currency they are quoting the price in.
Foreign currencies are not generally accepted, although you might get away with exchanging some US dollars or euros even in more remote areas, but do expect a lot of stares and some persuasion. The major exception is Singapore dollars, which are accepted by KTMB and toll roads, but at a highly unfavorable 1:1 exchange rate (an anomaly dating back to when the ringgit was interchangeable with the Singapore dollar, prior to the 1970s).
Currency exchange counters can easily found in major shopping areas and have a better exchange rate than in banks and airports. Be sure to say the amount you wish to exchange and ask for the ‘best quote’ as rates displayed on the board are often negotiable, especially for larger amounts. Large foreign banknotes, such as €500, are almost impossible to change for a good rate in some areas, especially in Sabah or Sarawak, where the banks offer a much lower rate comparing to the one you’d get if changing a banknote of smaller amount. Some money exchangers in Kota Kinabalu or Kuching even may refuse your business if you have large foreign banknotes, so the best option is to bring smaller notes unless you are willing to shop around.
ATMs are widely available in cities, but do stock up on cash if heading out into the smaller islands or the jungle. Credit cards can be used in most shops, restaurants and hotels, although skimming can be a problem in dodgier outlets. For credit card usage, make sure your credit/debit card is chip based as most merchants no longer accept magnetic strips based cards.
Banks in Malaysia do handle international transactions. These ranges from a nominal fee if you are an account holder to a slightly more expensive amount if you are only walking in to use a certain service. International banks such as Citibank & HSBC have their presence in Malaysia, with the latter having branches throughout the country. Local banking giants are Maybank, Public Bank & CIMB Bank, & they are a very good alternative to the earlier mentioned banks, especially in terms of pricing, local knowledge & presence as well as international services available e.g. money transfers. For any enquiries and transactions, get a number, sit down and wait for your turn to be served. (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 Saturday 09:30-11:30 except on the first and third Saturdays of each month. In the states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, they are open Sunday-Thursday from 09:30-16:00.
Due to fraud risk, many Malaysian ATMs do not allow you to withdraw using foreign debit cards. If your card is rejected, try another ATM. This is unique to Malaysia and is not applicable to Thailand, Singapore, or Indonesia. If you call your bank or even Visa/MasterCard, they are often not aware because the transaction is declined by the Malaysia bank. Make sure to bring cash or other forms of money in case your debit card is rejected.
Most Western visitors will find Malaysia quite cheap, although it is noticeably more expensive than neighbouring Indonesia. You can live in hostel dorms and feast on hawker food for less than RM50 per day, but you’ll wish to double this for comfort, particularly if travelling in 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 air fares are comparatively affordable, with even the fanciest 5-star hotels costing less than RM400/night.
Tipping is not customary in Malaysia. However, a small tip is typically appreciated if you have been provided with exemplary service. Service charge of 10% is included in total bill in most air conditioned restaurants. Most expensive restaurants, bars and hotels may indicate prices in the form of RM19++ (“plus plus”), meaning that sales tax (6%) and service charge (10%) will be added to the bill. Hotel tax of 5% may also be added to this.
Kuala Lumpur is a shopping mecca for clothes, electronics, watches and computer goods, 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 wood-based) is in Kuching, East Malaysia, and the most expensive place is in the major, posh Kuala Lumpur shopping Centres.
In general shops are open 10:30-21:30/22:00 in the large cities. They open and close for business earlier in the smaller towns and rural areas. Some shops may also be closed on certain days, such as in Malacca where many shops and restaurants close on Tuesday.
If you buy too much while shopping in Malaysia (which is quite easy to do), surface postage rates are very reasonable. Excess luggage at the airport is still high but not as high as in many other countries. Check first with your airline.
The crossroads of Malay, Chinese and South Asian cuisine, Malaysia is an excellent place to makan (eat in Malay). Look out for regional specialities and Nyonya (Peranakan) cuisine, the fusion between Malay and Chinese cooking. There is even unique Eurasian cooking to be found in the Portuguese Settlement in Malacca, the heartland of the Eurasian community of Portuguese descent.
Malaysians are very proud of their cooking and most towns or even villages have their own delicious specialities such as Penang char kway teow, Kajang satay, Ipoh bean sprout chicken, Sarawak laksa, Kelantanese nasi dagang, Sabahan hinava, and many, many more. Most of them rely on word of mouth for advertising and are frequently located in the most inconvenient, out-of-the-way places so you might want to try asking the locals for their personal recommendations.
If you intend to travel around Malaysia trying out the local food, don’t be fooled by the names. Sometimes two entirely different dishes from different parts of the country can be known by the same name. For example, laksa refers to completely different noodle dishes in Penang and Sarawak.
Generally, you can eat pretty much anywhere in Malaysia. Food outlets are comparatively clean – the only thing you should avoid when you frequent the street or hawker stalls is ice for your drinks, since the blocks of ice used there might not be up to your hygienic standards. In actual restaurants this is not a problem. Also you might want to avoid ordering water from hawker stalls or the mamak restaurants as you will usually be served unboiled tap water.
Cheaper places often do not display prices; most will charge tourists honestly, but check prices before ordering to make sure.
Eating habits run the gamut, but most foods are eaten by fork and spoon: push and cut with the fork in the left hand, and eat with the spoon in the right.
As eating is a favourite ‘pastime’ of Malaysians, the majority are adept at using chopsticks, regardless of background. Noodles and Chinese dishes typically come with these, while Malay and Indian food can be eaten by hand, but nobody will blink an eye if you ask for a fork and spoon instead.
If eating by hand, always use your right hand to put your food in your mouth, as Malays and Indians traditionally use their left hand for dirty things like washing up after using the restroom. When eating with chopsticks at Chinese restaurants, take note of the usual etiquette and most importantly, do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. This is reminiscent of incense sticks burning at the temple and has connotations of wishing death on those around you. If eating in a group, serving dishes are always shared, but you’ll get your own bowl of rice and soup.
For information about individual dishes in Malaysia, please see the Malaysian cuisine article.
Where to eat
The cheapest places to eat are hawker stalls and coffeeshops, known as kedai kopi in Malay or kopitiam in Hokkien. These shops sell, besides coffee, many other types of food and drinks. Particularly popular and tasty are mamak stalls, run by Indian Muslims and serving up localized Indian fare like roti canai. Most hawker stalls stay open till late and some even operate on shifts so you can find the same stall offering different food at different points throughout the day. You can also do take away from any stall, just ask for bungkus (Malay) or ta pao (Cantonese). A hawker meal will rarely cost you over RM5. Hygiene standards in Malaysia, while not up to that of neighbouring Singapore or Western countries, is still reasonable and much better than say, China or most of the rest of Southeast Asia. Just be observant, and generally speaking, if a stall is patronised by locals, it should be safe to eat there.
One step up on the scale is the kedai makanan or the more Western-style restoran. A type to look out for is the nasi kandar restaurant (also known as nasi campur or nasi padang), with a vast range of curries and toppings to ladle on top of your rice.
Seafood restaurants (makanan laut) are comparatively pricy but still excellent value by most standards; do check prices before ordering though. Local prawns are gigantic, Chinese-style steamed fish is a treat and crab served with sticky chilli sauce is particularly popular.
Last but not least, some less adventurous options. Food courts in shopping malls are a good way to sample local delicacies in air-conditioned comfort, paying only a small premium over hawker prices. And yes, you can also find McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and the usual suspects plus imitators throughout Malaysia.
Being a Muslim-majority country, finding halal food in Malaysia is easy, but most Chinese stalls and restaurants are not halal. Ask if in doubt. Meals at Malay restaurants and Western fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut are halal. Restaurants at major hotels are not certified ‘Halal’ as they serve alcohol as well, but with the exception of Chinese restaurants, they generally don’t serve pork. Local Muslims will eat at Western, Chinese and Indian eateries if there is a halal sign on the walls. Most of the restaurants tend to display their halal certification or halal sign on their places. Halal certification is awarded and enforced by a government agency, usually JAKIM.
There are no kosher establishments in Malaysia, so Jewish visitors will have to bring their own food with them. Kosher grocery stores and restaurants can be found in neighbouring Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, so you might want to stop in one of those countries to stock up before entering Malaysia.
Vegetarianism is well-understood by the Chinese and Indian communities (not so by the Muslim Malays and other indigenous minorities) and many restaurants or hawker stalls will be able to come up with something on request (DO state “no meat, no fish, no seafood – ASK for vegetables and/or eggs ONLY”), but don’t rely entirely on menu descriptions: innocuous-seeming dishes like “fried vegetables” etc. will often contain pork bits in non-halal Chinese restaurants, shrimp paste (belacan, commonly used in Malay and spicy Chinese dishes), fish sauce, etc. Indian restaurants usually have very good vegetarian selections – the roti (Indian flat bread – any kind; including roti canai, roti naan, capati, tosai) are good choices, and DO insist on being given dhal (lentil-based curry dip) lest you’ll be given a fish curry dip. Purely vegetarian Chinese restaurants (often serving remarkable “mock meat” products made from tofu, gluten etc.) are quite easy to find in big urban areas with a large ethnic Chinese population. Getting vegetarian food in rural areas, especially those near fishing villages or in Muslim/Malay-dominated regions, may be more difficult, but learning some basic Malay vocabulary will go a long way to help you get your message across — see the Malay phrasebook. Upmarket Western restaurants, such as those serving Italian cuisine will normally have some good vegetarian options.
Veganism is rarely understood in this part of the world and is largely mistaken as a synonym for vegetarianism, yet the safest bet for a vegan is to patronize a Chinese Buddhist vegetarian restaurant (most Chinese vegetarian restaurants are essentially vegan and operated on Buddhist principles of non-killing and compassion, and thus they abstain from using dairy products, eggs, and the 5 fetid vegetables [onions, garlic, leeks, etc.] discouraged in Mahayana Buddhism). And if you’re still feeling uneasy or unsure, do not hesitate to ask.
Malaysians like both coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), especially the national drink teh tarik (“pulled tea”), named after the theatrical ‘pulling’ motion used to pour it. By default, both will be served hot, sweet and with a dose of condensed milk; request teh o to skip the milk, teh ais for iced milky tea, or teh o ais for iced milkless tea. Drinking with no sugar at all is considered odd, but asking for kurang manis (less sugar) will ease the pain. However, if you really want no sugar at all, you can try asking for “teh kosong.”
Another peculiar local favourite is the kopi tongkat ali ginseng, a mixture of coffee, a local aphrodisiacal root, and ginseng served with condensed milk that’s touted as an alternative to viagra and red bull combined and is usually advertised with a picture of a bed broken in half.
Other popular nonalcoholic options include the chocolate drink Milo and lime juice (limau). Freshly made 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 comprised of white soya milk and black grass jelly (cincau) called soya cincau. It can be ordered at most hawker Centres and local roadside cafes (kedai kopi/kopitiam).
Where to stay in Malaysia
Hotels and hostels are required to charge a tourism tax on international visitors: RM10 per room per night, which may not be included in the advertised rates.
Budget hotels and youth hostels are available in most cities and around most tourism destinations. As with most budget accommodations, some are more reliable than others. Be cautious when selecting budget accommodation to avoid places that house illegal vice activities.
Larger cities will have YMCAs that are safe bets. Another noticeable budget hotel chain is Tune Hotels, an affiliate of the budget airline, Air Asia. They are expanding and have hotels at numerous locations throughout the country
Mid-range hotels are readily available just about anywhere. Prices of 3-4 star hotels are upwards from RM100 and are generally reliable in terms of quality.
5-star hotels, service apartments and resorts are found in larger cities like Kuala Lumpur, George Town, Johor Bahru, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching. Also, almost all islands have upscale resorts and spas for the wealthy traveller.
Malaysia’s universities are generally well-regarded and draw exchange students from near and far. Among Malaysia’s universities, the undisputed most prestigious one is the University of Malaya (UM), located in Kuala Lumpur. In addition, several foreign universities have established campuses in Malaysia.
Obtaining a working visa takes some effort. The easiest way to work in Malaysia is probably to work for an overseas company and get posted to Malaysia. In order to obtain a work permit, you need to have an offer from your future employer who will have to do the paperwork for you. It’s very expensive and comes with many restrictions if a company wants to hire a foreigner and as such next to impossible. As stated above, a feasible way is to get transferred. Finding a job is otherwise unlikely unless you are married to a local and even then it remains difficult.
Working days in the states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Johor are from Sunday to Thursday, while in most other states, the working days are from Monday to Friday. Weekend holidays are on Saturday and Sunday, while in the states of Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Johor are on Friday and Saturday.
The crime rate is much higher than in neighbouring Singapore. Crimes towards tourists are usually restricted to bag-snatching, pickpocketing and petty theft. It is important to keep a close eye on valuable items. Theft is more common in crowded places, such as markets and on public transport. Generally, if you avoid deserted areas, get back to your hotel before midnight and use your common sense, you’re unlikely to be assaulted. Homosexuality is a crime and gay bars may be raided by police; gay and lesbian tourists should be self-aware and careful.
While Singaporeans often tell stories about the “Wild Wild North”, Singapore’s crime rate is remarkably low, and the crime rate in the border city of Johor Bahru is particularly high by Malaysian standards. Any comments you hear about the Malaysian crime rate should be taken in that context, and the vast majority of visitors to Malaysia have a pleasant and incident-free stay.
There have been some reports of pickpockets and snatch-and-run thieves in some of the major cities like Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya and Johor Bahru. As a general precaution, never carry your bags on the side facing the road and always walk facing the oncoming traffic. Additionally, walk a few feet deeper away from the roads. Women travellers should take extra precautions at night.
Johor Bahru is known for having a relatively higher crime rate compared to the rest of Malaysia, and armed robberies and snatch thefts could happen at night in run-down areas of the city. Travel documents and valuables are best deposited in a hotel safe.
In Malaysia, some crimes are punished with caning. Being convicted of rape, vandalism, illegal entry, bribery, overstaying your visa, and certain other crimes could get you caned. This is no slap on the wrist! Strokes from the thick rattan cane are very painful, will take some time to heal and probably leave you a permanent scar. This technique is also applied in Singapore.
Credit card fraud is a growing problem in this country, especially if you order in an on-line store during your stay. Use credit cards only in reputable shops. If you are not sure about the reputation of a certain shop or service, there are several services available that can help to identify fraud and scams such as Trustedcompany.com for any online service they want to use.
Never bring any recreational drugs into Malaysia, even as a transit passenger. Possession of even minimal amounts can lead to a mandatory death sentence.
While not as bad as the likes of Thailand, Vietnam or Indonesia, corruption remains a significant issue in Malaysia. Traffic police have been known to pull over motorists to demand bribes of RM100-200; this tends to happen somewhat more often to those driving Singapore-registered cars (recognisable by the licence plates). Nevertheless, there have been some crackdowns on this, and bribery is punishable by up to 20 years in jail. Anyone who tries to bribe public officials may be arrested on the spot and placed in a lock-up overnight to be charged for the offence in the morning. If this happens on a Friday or on eve of public holidays, you will find yourself spending a few nights in the lock-up as the courts are only open Monday to Friday. Do not let this dissuade you from requesting help – generally Malaysian police are helpful to tourists.
Customs and immigration officers are generally fairly clean, and unlike in other mainland Southeast Asian countries, being asked to pay a bribe to get your passport stamped is virtually unheard of, even at land border crossings. (Thai immigration on the other side of the border is another story though). Do check your passport before driving off when entering by land from the Singapore border though, as immigration officers have been known to “forget” to stamp people in, and you will be subject to fines of several thousand ringgit for illegal entry when you try to leave Malaysia if your passport was not stamped on entry.
Drink-driving is a serious offense and breathalyzer tests by the police are common.
When on foot, be careful when crossing the street. Vehicles will often ignore pedestrian (zebra) crossings. However, reports of road bullying during accidents are still common, so if you are involved in an accident be very careful when negotiating or dial 999 for help.
Many taxis will refuse to use the meter, even though there is an official rate. Most taxis now have a sticker on the rear door informing tourists that haggling is not allowed. Taxi drivers, sensing that you are a tourist, may drive around and take a very long route to reach your destination.
If using a taxi late at night, it is best to use the dial-a-taxi service as there have been incidents where taxis flagged down during those hours being fake/unregistered. The unregistered taxi driver might then rob or assault their victims with the help of assailants. You are also more likely to get a metered taxi by flagging one at a street than a taxi stand.
Is it advisable to study maps and compare fares on the internet before visiting the country. Knowing distances between places is helpful when negotiating with taxi drivers. They won’t try to fool even a foreigner who demonstrates clearly that he knows the distance from point A to point B is 50 km and not 150 km.
Do not accept the first rates for inter-city travels by car offered by hotels, as these could be as much as double normal prices. In this case, negotiate with a taxi driver directly for a better and fair price (for example, a hotel near Balok Beach, not very far from Kuantan, asked 800 RM for a ride to Johor Bahru, while a negotiated price with a taxi driver who could be found in downtown Kuantan came down to a normal 400 RM). But for all this you need to know the exact distance and if possible even the exact itinerary between your departure and arrival point.
Public demonstrations are uncommon in Malaysia due to police crackdowns. Should one occur it may be dealt with in a heavy-handed manner, so avoid them at all costs.
Finally, it is generally not allowed for non-Muslims or non-Sunnis to proselytize. In particular, attempting to persuade Muslims to convert out of their religion is illegal, and if you are caught doing this, you will at best be expelled from the country.
Water is drinkable straight off the tap, as it is treated, but even locals boil or filter it first just to be on the safe side. When travelling it is best to stick to bottled water, which is very inexpensive.
Ice in drinks might be made from tap water but nowadays, most restaurants and even roadside stalls use the cylindrical variety with a hollow tube down the middle that are mass-produced at ice factories and are safer to consume.
Heat exhaustion is rare, but do consume lots 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 inland and rural areas. Dengue fever occurs throughout Malaysia in both urban and rural areas, and can be avoided only by preventing mosquito bites. The mosquito that transmits dengue feeds throughout the daytime, and is most active at dawn and dusk. If you experience a sudden fever with aches 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 widely available. Be careful with mosquito coils, which can easily start fires: set them on a plate or other non-flammable surface and extinguish them before going to sleep.
Haze from burning vegetation in neighbouring Indonesia may come and go without warning from the months of May to August so travellers with respiratory ailments should come prepared.
Most public washrooms make a small charge (generally between RM0.20-RM2.00, usually depending on the standard of the facilities) so keep some loose change to hand. If the condition of the sitting toilets is questionable, use the squatting toilets instead – both are usually available, and some believe that the latter are more hygienic and (if you can get used to them) are just as easy to use as sitting toilets.
Peninsular Malaysia is largely free from earthquakes as there are no nearby faultlines, though tremors can occasionally be felt when a major quake occurs in neighbouring Indonesia. East Malaysia, on the other hand, especially the area around Mount Kinabalu, does experience occasional earthquakes (such as the fatal one occurring in 2015). Typhoons also generally do not occur. However, the Nov-Jan monsoon season often results in flooding due to torrential rains, and landslides are known to occur, most notably on the East Coast. Tsunamis are a rare occurrence, though Penang and a few islands on the north of the West Coast were hit by the infamous tsunami in 2004.
The standard of healthcare in Malaysia is generally high, and Malaysia is rapidly emerging as a popular destination for medical tourism, with treatment costs in general far cheaper than in neighbouring Singapore and Western countries. Almost all Malaysian doctors are able to speak English fluently, while most other medical staff are able to converse in at least basic English.
Government healthcare facilities are cheap but good, though they tend to be understaffed and consequently, waiting times are long. Due to the shorter waiting times and sometimes hotel-like levels of comfort, most expatriates and visitors prefer to seek out private medical care. Malaysia’s largest private healthcare groups are Parkway Pantai, which operates the well-known Gleaneagles and Pantai hospital chains, and KPJ Healthcare. Private medical costs can be high and having travel insurance is a very good idea.
The HIV rate in Malaysia was 0.5% of the population in 2014.
It is advisable to dress respectfully, particularly in rural areas (wearing trousers or a long skirt, not shorts and covering your shoulders is recommended but not essential). In more cosmopolitan cities such as Kuala Lumpur, George Town, Malacca and Ipoh, as well as East Malaysian states (Sabah and Sarawak) attitudes are more liberal. Women are not legally required to wear the hijab, known locally as the tudung, except when entering mosques, where it is required for both Muslims and non-Muslims.
As in many countries, it is best not to criticise the government or the Malaysian royal families as a visitor. You may hear Malaysians criticise their own government, but you do not need to take sides; just listen and feel free to talk about your feelings about your own government. The bumiputera policy (laws granting ethnic Malays special rights not granted to the other races) is a very polarising and sensitive issue, and best avoided as a conversation topic.
When entering a home or a place of worship, always take off your shoes (this is often required at hostels too). Also, never eat with your left hand or give a gift with your left hand, and never point with your forefinger (you may use a closed fist with the thumb instead). Do not point with your feet or touch a person’s head either.
Swastikas are commonly seen in Hindu and Buddhist temples, and are regarded as a religious symbol by these communities. They emphatically do not represent Nazism or anti-Semitism, so Western visitors should not feel offended when seeing them in the homes of their hosts.
As a predominantly Muslim country, Malaysia tends to be conservative about sexuality. Public showing of affection in the more diverse, larger cities is tolerated but might invite unnecessary attention from the public. In more rural areas and in very conservative states like Kelantan and Terengganu on the East Coast of the Peninsula it is frowned upon and is best avoided.
Big cities like Kuala Lumpur have a fairly active gay scene and gay bashing is rarely heard of. However, same-sex relationships are a taboo subject and “Carnal intercourse against the order of nature” is punished by up to 20 years jail and whipping (men only) under colonial era laws not usually enforced against consenting adult heterosexuals. Different states may also impose consecutive sharia law punishments of up to 3 years and six lashes against Muslims of all genders.
Telecommunications in Malaysia
Connecting to the internet in Malaysia is easily accessible 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 hot spots in almost all restaurants and fast-food outlets and shopping malls. Prepaid internet cards are also available to access wireless broadband, in some cafes.
Customers usually pay RM1-5 per hour for internet services in cybercafes (depending on which city you’re in). Internet connections offered in restaurants and cafes are usually free, and more and more food outlets are offering this. These include all Starbucks and Coffeebean, some McDonald’s and Subway, and an increasing number of smaller places.
The country code for Malaysia is +60.
Malaysian landline phone numbers have either seven or eight digits. The country is also divided up into areas which have been assigned two or three digit area codes, which have to 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 for Muar)
- 082 – Sarawak (Kuching and Samarahan districts)
- 083 – Sarawak (Sri Aman and Betong districts)
- 084 – Sarawak (Sarikei, Sibu and west Kapit districts)
- 085 – Sarawak (Miri and Limbang districts)
- 086 – Sarawak (Bintulu districts and Belaga)
- 087 – Sabah (Interior Division), Labuan
- 088 – Sabah (West Coast and Kudat Division)
- 089 – Sabah (Sandakan and Tawau Division)
- 09 – Kelantan, Pahang (all districts except Genting Highlands), Terengganu
Area code 02 has been assigned for calls made from Malaysia to Singapore. This means there’s no need to call Singapore’s country code 65 when calling from Malaysia. International direct dialing (IDD) calls from landlines to all other countries should use the prefix 00 followed by the country code.
To call a Malaysian number:
- From overseas 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 phone number. There are no exceptions to this rule, except when using a mobile phone.
- From within the local area just dial the phone number without any code.
Malaysia also has four mobile telephone service providers, Maxis , DiGi , Celcom , and U Mobile which utilise codes 012, 013, 014, 016, 017, 018, 019. Network connection in Malaysia is excellent. Mobile number portability has been implemented in Malaysia, meaning a code like 012 that traditionally belonged to Maxis, can now be a DiGi subscriber. Mobile networks utilize the GSM 900 and 1800 systems. 3G (WCDMA), EDGE & HSPDA networks available in larger towns. International roaming onto these networks is possible if your operator allows it. Prepaid SIM cards for sale at airports are pretty affordable; a one-week SIM card with a good amount of data might cost about RM20-30 (2019).
To call a Malaysian mobile number:
- From overseas dial the international access code, the country code for Malaysia, the mobile telephone provider’s code without the “0”, and then the telephone number.
- From within Malaysia dial the provider’s code with the “0”, and then the telephone number.
- From mobile phone to mobile phone within Malaysia dial the provider’s code with the “0”, and then the telephone number. Although you can drop the provider’s code if the two phones share the same provider, you will still get through if the provider’s code is dialled.
To call from Malaysia to another country:
- From a landline dial the international access code “00” followed by the country code and the phone number. For example, dialing the United States from Malaysia you would dial 001 followed by the US area code and phone number. On the Maxis network, take advantage of 50% IDD rates via IDD132, which doesn’t require any registration, just dial “132” prior to the “00”.
- From a mobile phone same as from a landline (above). An alternative, and simpler, approach on many mobile phones is to press & hold the zero button to enter a “+” (plus sign) before the country code and phone number. The “+” represents (in any country) the appropriate international access code. On the Maxis network, take advantage of 50% IDD rates via IDD132, which doesn’t require any registration, just dial “132” prior to the “00”, and do not use the “+” symbol using this method.
Postal services in Malaysia
Many international courier services like Fedex, DHL and UPS are available in towns and cities but the main postal service provider is Pos Malaysia which reliably provides postal services to most countries in the world.
Postage rates in Malaysia are cheap. Much much cheaper than Thailand, Singapore or Vietnam, and surface post is available as well. In addition the mail is reliable and trustworthy. When posting, do not seal the box. This is to allow for inspection in case illegal items are posted this way.
A local alternative to the international courier companies mentioned above is the Pos Laju, which provides just as reliable a service but at a fraction of the costs!
Non-urgent letters and postcards can be dropped in postboxes inside postal offices or red postboxes found outside postal offices and along main roads. If there are two slots in a postbox use the one that says “lain lain” for international post.
Post offices are open M-Sa 08:00-17:00 except public holidays, although a few in Klang Valley stay open until 22:00. In the states of Kedah, Kelantan, Johor and Terengganu they are closed on Fridays and public holidays.
Top Halal Destinations in Malaysia
Last Updated on Sun 26 Rabi Al Thani 1444AH 20-11-2022AD