This very quick guide is a condensed introduction to Malaysia. We have listed basic information and quick tips to help you understand the costs and practicalities of travelling around this diverse land.
In our experience getting into Malaysia could not be easier. Most countries are visa exempt and get an entry stamp on arrival at no cost. Nationalities will be granted a pass for the following amount of days.
- 90 Days Australia, UK, USA, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Norway UAE
- 30 Days Singapore, Thailand, Malta, Portugal, Cyprus, Greece, Solvenia, Phillipines, Russia, Switzerland, Holland
- 14 Days Macau, Palestine, Libya, Iraq. Iran* *Iran is 15 days – Other Nationalities may require a visa.
The currency is Malaysia is the Ringgit, there is 100 Sen (or cents) in 1 Ringit. 1 Ringgit is worth roughly 20p GBP or 30 cents USD. The best way to convert from pounds is to remember 5 Ringgits = £1 and from dollars that 3 Ringgits = $1. Although anything of value is usually in paper money, you will often get smaller coins as change. Locals may call the ringgit dollar so don’t be confused if they ask you for $5 for your cheap noodles. Generally only local currency is accepted but there are plenty of currency exchange shops throughout the country.
Malaysia is often described as a melting pot of culture and rightly so. The mix of races and religions and a history of colonialism gives the country a unique feel. The majority of Malaysians are Muslim (61%) although the country does have a secular constitution. As the are a large amount of Buddhists (18%), Christians (9%) and Hindu’s (6.3%) cities can often be decorated with an array of beautiful religious buildings. Although some religions are more prominent in certain areas its very common to have a mosque, church and temples (Buddhist & Hindu) all in close proximity. This array of backgrounds manifests in one of the finest aspects of Malaysia – the food. We found ourselves spoilt for choice for authentic foods from all over.
I love Indian food and there was plenty of it. Kelly is a huge fan of the Chinese broths and noodle dishes. One of our favourite dishes was the traditional spicy Malaysian dish Nasi Lemak, which is served up in restaurants all over the country. We soon found out that there is an unlimited amount of ways to cook amazing different variations of chicken and rice. Malaysia is food heaven.
The official language of Malaysia is Malaysian, a standardised form of the Malay language. There are many people in Malaysia from Indian and Chinese heritage so English is commonly used to communicate between communities. If you speak English you should get by without any language problems within Malaysia. However, if you enjoy learning some local words you can take a look at some basic words and phrases. (Keep in mind that not everyone speaks Malaysian so these phrases might not apply everywhere)
In general prices in Malaysia are pretty cheap, yet perhaps a tiny bit more expensive than Thailand. The cost of living in Malaysia for travellers can suit every budget from luxury to basic.
You really don’t need to spend that much money on food in Malaysia. Some of my favourite Indian feasts cost only 5RM (£1, $1.60) and the best Samosas I have ever tasted cost just 1RM each in Penang. I found when eating out you pay more for the decor than the food. The basic place with plastic chairs and tables will often be just as good food or better than the more expensive alternatives. KFC is everywhere and works out around half the price than you would pay in western countries.
There is a lot of buffet style places where you just serve yourself and the waiter will charge you by how much you have taken. They seem to make a rough guess but often these places are by far the best value (Never had a plate over 7RM) so don’t be shy. On average expect to pay in the region of 5RM – 15RM for local food and 10RM to 30RM + for western food.
Alcohol is heavily taxed in Malaysia and the shops sell canned beer from 5RM+ each. In bars the beer will start around 10RM. A not-so-well-kept secret is that many places will sell you alcohol without the tax. You can easily find places willing to sell 4 cans for 10RM. I found these places tended to be the Chinese canteens. As a rule, if a place was busy with locals drinking beer who did not look to be the richest of people it was worth asking how much their beer was for take away. Because of the high tax on alcohol the duty free islands are hugely popular. (Langkawi, Labuan) Soft drinks will cost on average 1-3RM.
Malaysia has plenty of choice when it comes to accommodation. A bed in a dorm would be around 30RM, with basic private rooms usually between 50RM and 100RM with nicer hotel rooms usually starting from 100RM. On average for double rooms we paid around 70RM (£14, $22) which is around 25% higher than we would expect pay in Thailand for the same quality.
Buses are usually the cheapest way to get around Malaysia and the price usually depends on the comfort level. A bus from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka can cost anywhere between 12RM and 22RM. I figured that most bus journeys cost around 6RM per hour of travel. The most we spent on a bus ticket was 80RM each but that journey was 15 hours.
There is a pretty extensive train system in Malaysia, we found the train would usually cost us around 25% more than the bus for 3rd class or around double for 2nd class. There is an extensive guide to taking the train in Malaysia written better than I ever could by The Man in Seat 61. Click Here
The country is split into two regions, Peninsula Malaysia (Connected to the continent just south of Thailand) and Malaysian Borneo (A Large island to the east which is split between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei).
- Kuala Lumpur – The capital, a little bit of a rat race at street level but full of malls, museums and big cool buildings. Read our Post on Kuala Lumpur
- Penang – Food heaven and home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site city of Georgetown. Penang also has its fair share of beach but maybe not the best beaches in the country. Read our post about Georgetown.
- Melaka – Pretty historical city on the river not too far from KL. A great break from the big crazy city but still with lots to do. Read Our Post About Melaka
- Langkawi – Duty free Island great for soaking up sun on the beaches and drinking a few beers. Very pretty.
- Cameron Highlands – A place to cool off. Nice little highland towns with a jungle setting and large tea plantations. Read our post about the Cameron Highlands.
- Perhentian Islands – Very pretty beaches still quiet enough to remain unspoilt -for now.
- Sarawak – Massive jungle which is home to amazing Orangutans. Here you will find some of the best national parks in Malaysia.
- Sabah – Home of Mount Kinabalu, a popular climb for the more adventurous type, as well as plenty more jungles and national parks.
Good to Know When Travelling Malaysia
They have a ton of them. With the amount of religions across the country is probably no surprise there are lots of days of celebration. This will not always mean things shut down as most businesses seem to operate normally. You do have to be careful booking hotels in the more popular areas though. We could not get a hotel (that was not $300) for 4 days in the Cameron Highlands because it was towards the end of Hari Raya and people flock there from Kuala Lumpur. Full list of holidays here
Although we found the country to be very safe, the general attitude towards women could be better. A girl walking along the street can occasionally find herself the target of kissing noises and unwanted male attention. This sometimes happened to Kelly when I was standing right next to her. It can be intimidating, but Kelly found that a nasty glare or simply ignoring them was the best option. Some cities have really bad lighting so can be pretty scary at night. If travelling alone I would stick to public areas at night and use common sense.
Malaysia has very good mobile coverage. Local calls and texts are pretty cheap but as always International calls can get pricey. I usually only use data so I bought myself a Data Only sim card from Celcom. The first month was unlimited internet (3GB uncapped) for 30 Ringgit and then 50 Rinnggit per month in the following months. (or 20 Ringgit per week)
Respect Malaysia is pretty laid back but try not to forget it is also a Muslim country. We were there during the month of Ramadan so we tried not to eat in obvious public places in the day, but overall it really did not affect us (apart from being invited to an enormous feast!). Being drunk in public is looked down upon and dressing appropriately is appreciated. If you are at the beach, wearing a bikini is fine. If you are at the airport or the mall wearing a bikini is not fine (It should really go without saying). If visiting a religious site be sure to dress respectfully or you may be denied entry or at least show a lack of respect.