Stunning, ethnically diverse Malaysia is Southeast Asia’s unsung holiday hero, offering travellers a huge range of attractions. Mix and match a trip that includes lush jungle trekking, chilling out on white-sand beaches, amazing snorkelling and diving, gastronomic adventuring and immersing yourself in a colourful cultural heritage.
With the bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur midway between the UNESCO-listed towns of Penang and Melaka, and also just a few hours by bus from the sprawling Taman Negara National Park, many of Malaysia’s highlights are both affordable and easy to reach.
Our Malaysia travel guide is here to help you get the most out of each of your trips to Malaysia, beginning with the simple guidelines below aimed at first-time travellers to the country.
Most first-time travellers to Malaysia stick to the peninsula, but if you have the time and are after a greater understanding of the country, a visit to Sabah and Sarawak is equally worthwhile. East Malaysia contains many of the country’s most beautiful national parks.
Penang: Malaysia’s second largest island, Penang is also its most developed, with the eastern coast dotted with high-rises and crammed with holiday resorts. Travellers who have experienced beaches elsewhere in Asia will probably be unimpressed with the most popular beach spots, but the island’s real attraction lies in its culture, history and cuisine—the food really is something.
Taman Negara: The superlatives come easy when it comes to Taman Negara National Park. The old-growth forest here, mostly untouched by humans, is believed to be more than 130 million years old, making it the oldest primary forest in the world.
Perhentians: Long renowned for their coral reefs and clear waters, the Perhentian Islands are a highlight for their snorkelling, diving, attractive beaches and remote, semi-untouched feel and appearance.
Langkawi: Nearly the size of Singapore, Langkawi is surrounded by beautiful beaches and towering limestone karsts. This beauty inspired their official 2012 tourism slogan, “Naturally Langkawi”.
Kuching: Situated in eastern Sarawak, Kuching is the most populous of all the cities in the state and, arguably, also the best place to be a tourist in the whole of Malaysia, due to its size, quality of accommodation, day trip options and museums.
Kuala Lumpur: The modern, bustling and lush-green capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is a testament to the Southeast Asian nation clawing its way in recent decades out of the developing world and into the WiFi-enabled modern one.
Kinabalu Park: Borneo is known for its abundant natural wonders, but Kinabalu Park may just be the most spectacular. The main attraction is Mount Kinabalu, a 4,095-metre monster of granite that takes the title of the tallest mountain in Malaysia by a long shot.
Melaka: Midway between the capital cities of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and at the mouth of the Strait of Melaka, a crucial shipping route connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans, Melaka has been a centre of trade and cultural exchange for more than 600 years.
Pangkor Island: The word Pangkor is said to be a derivative of the Thai “pang koh”, which means beautiful island—and yes, this gives a hint of what Pangkor Island is like, with sandy shores and surrounding emerald waters.
Sipadan: When you’re diving at Sipadan it’s not a question of whether you’ll see large pelagic species like manta rays, sea turtles, barracuda and sharks, but how many.
Kinabatangan River: For the most accessible wildlife adventure in Sabah, the Kinabatangan River, Sabah’s longest, offers easy packaged experiences. Known for its remarkable wildlife, you are almost guaranteed to see one or several of Borneo’s endemic species in the wild here.
Danum Valley: If Borneo conjures up images of pristine jungle filled with haunting sounds and hidden wildlife, the incredible Danum Valley Conservation Area is probably one of the reasons why.
Kuala Terenganu: If you have time up your sleeve, Kuala Terennganu is worth at the very least an overnight stay or, for some, far longer.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park: A short boat ride from KK, the five islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park offer squeaky white sands, azure waters and hiking trails though areas of old growth forest and mangroves, with an abundance of wildlife both below and above the waters.
Mantanani Islands: Three little blips on the radar form the Mantanani Islands, about 40 kilometres northwest of Kota Belud. Mantanani Besar, Mantanani Kecil and Lungisan are your quintessential alabaster-fringed tropical archipelago, reef ringed and sitting in crystal-clear aquamarine waters.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: Orange apes are Borneo’s big drawcard, and possibly why you’re in Sabah. Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre cares for “people of the forest” who have been orphaned or injured due to deforestation or previously illegally kept as pets.
What to do
Trek Taman Negara: The opportunity to go trekking for a few days in the oldest primary forest in the world is the reason you’ll be heading to Taman Negara.
Climb Kinabalu: There’s something about Mount Kinabalu—its awesomeness, its grace, its spirit—so it’s no wonder so many people are drawn to climbing Malaysia’s tallest mountain.
Dive Sipadan: The islands around Semporna hold a treasure trove of riches below their jewel-toned seas, with the biggest drawcard being Sipadan, one of the world’s best dive sites and made famous by Jacques Cousteau. Sipadan and the other islands are not only limited to divers—it’s possible to snorkel here, too.
North Borneo Railway: Confession time: we like trains. We have to admit we were a little bit excited to travel on the historical North Borneo Railway, but you don’t have to be a trainspotter kind of person to enjoy the romance of a steam train. The North Borneo Railway isn’t a regular train service, although a regular service does follow the same route, but rather a tourist attraction recreating the historical era of steam travel.
Surf Cherating: A sleepy seaside community, Cherating is known for its turtle population, surf and more recently kiteboarding. It will appeal to those seeking a no-frills, affordable beach break.
Cooking courses and food walks: When it comes to food and food walks, Malaysia is none too shabby.
When to go
Eastern Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo see their wettest period between November and February. The west coast of the Peninsula sees the wet between May and September. The climate is hot and humid year round—regardless of whether it’s raining or not!
How long to go for
With as little as two weeks you can take in some of the highlights of peninsular Malaysia—say Kuala Lumpur, Cameron Highlands, Penang and an island, but the peninsula really deserves three to four weeks as with that long you could take in both coasts plus Taman Negara.
If you are planning a longer stay, it pays to familiarise yourself with Malaysia’s visa rules.
What it will cost
Your budget will depend very much on your style of travelling. If you’re comfortable in simple accommodation, eating street food, not drinking too much alcohol, travelling using cheap transport and steering clear of heavily touristed (and so more expensive) destinations, you can survive on around US$20-25 per day—maybe a couple of dollars less if you’re especially frugal and travelling as a couple.
Most independent budget travellers tend to spend more. That air-con room is tempting, as is the pool and WiFi, latte and occasional VIP bus or short domestic flight. All these conspire to push daily budgets up to a more comfortable US$35-45 per day.
If your tastes veer more towards the luxurious, then Malaysia does offer good value — especially in the accommodation stakes, with resort-style and boutique hotels in the US$100-$150+ mark scattered across the country. Food and entertainment costs can rising accordingly. Likewise, you can also spend north of a thousand dollars per day for truly luxurious settings—think private pool villas and so on—flying everywhere and fine dining. We can’t speak of this personally though!
What to watch out for
Malaysia is a very safe country. While petty theft is a problem in the major tourist centres, violent crime against foreigners is rare. Use your common sense when out in the evening and stay in control. If you feel threatened, especially in a bar or club environment, leave. Credit card fraud is the most likely problem you may encounter—keep an eye on your credit cards at all times and while not always feasible, try not to let them out of your sight. Check your statements after your trips carefully.
When visiting the Semporna and Sipadan area in Sabah, you may be alarmed by the security presence. Over the last few years, terrorist incidents have occurred, and in response the Malaysian government has established military and police posts on islands and other tourist destinations. Most travellers enjoy the world-class diving here without peril. As with anywhere, check the current security situation with your government’s embassy before you plan and depart on a trip, and be sure to have comprehensive travel insurance.
Roads in Malaysia can be nerve-wracking at times. The roads are generally of a good standard, so people, even those who are not particularly talented drivers, tend to drive extremely fast. Penang in particular seems to be home to a resident population of drivers who care little (if at all) for pedestrian safety. Keep your wits about you and do not assume a driver has seen you, nor that they will necessarily slow down even if they have seen you.
Always, always, always wear a helmet when on a motorbike in Malaysia.
Having adequate travel insurance cover is essential.
Malaysia has extremely strict anti-drug laws yet it is not unusual to see locals smoking weed—especially in Kuala Lumpur. Pot along with a raft of other drugs are illegal in Malaysia and you do not want to be caught with them. Complete strangers offering to sell you drugs should be treated with the upmost suspicion. Duh!
If you wouldn’t do it in your home country because it is stupid, why do it in Malaysia?
Malaysia’s currency is called the Malaysian ringgit (MYR). One ringgit is made up of 100 sen, the later come only in coin form. Malaysians often refer to the curency in dollars (its old name) — they’re talking about ringgit — not US dollars. It’s around MYR3.5 to US$1. International access ATMs can be found across the country. You will be expected to use ringgit for all cash purchases. Credit cards are widely accepted, though small businesses may not accept them.
Malaysia is a very safe country. While petty theft is a problem in the major tourist centres, violent crime against foreigners is particularly rare. Use your common sense when out in the evening and stay in control. If you feel threatened, especially in a bar or club environment, leave. Credit card fraud is the most likely problem you may encounter — keep an eye on your credit cards at all times and while not always feasible, try not to let them out of your sight.
Malaysia has Tourist Police who have been specifically trained to help tourists. They can be recognised by their dark blue uniforms and the letter “I” (information) on a red and blue badge on their shirt pocket. The nation-wide emergency number for the police is 999.
Malaysia’s healthcare, while not as good as that of neighbouring Singapore is nevertheless pretty good — especially in the urban centres. Upcountry and in rural areas, medical care is, not surprisingly, more basic. We certainly recommend travel insurance for travel in Malaysia.
Malaysia has a very comprehensive public transport system. Peninsular Malaysia is served by both a rail and bus network, while Malaysian Borneo has buses. There is also a comprehensive domestic flight network. Transport is cheap and safe.
Compared to ever-changing Thailand, the visa system in Malaysia for tourists is dead simple. Most nationalities do not require a visa for a stay of under one month. The one standout exception to this are Israelis, who, in most cases are not permitted to enter Malaysia. For more information see our Malaysia visa page.
The Malay language is Bahasa Malaysia and it is very similar to Bahasa Indoensia. The script is Roman and, well, you say it how you read it — even the worst language learner will struggle not to pick up some local lingo while in Malaysia. In tourist centres many Malaysians will speak some English, but many will speak none. Don’t expect taxi drivers to speak English.
Malaysia’s weather is pretty hot and humid year round — the hottest months being March, April and October. Malaysia is affected by two monsoon seasons — the northeast monsoon and the southwest monsoons. The former brings most of the rain with the west coast wettest between September and October, the east coast from October to February and Malaysian Borneo between November and February. For detailed weather info, see our Malaysia weather page.
Malaysia is almost developed
Malaysia is well developed, but it’s not Singapore. The urban and tourist centres are very well developed, but in the countryside, services can still be pretty basic. This can be good as you’re able to experience comfort and a bit of challenge in the same trip, but don’t come expecting first world services in a remote village — you will leave disappointed and perhaps frustrated.
Malaysia is a conservative country
A predominantly Muslim nation, Malaysia and Malaysians can be quite conservative — especially when compared with their northern Thai neighbours. Use your comon sense — dress appropriately, don’t insist on drinking alcohol in guesthouses that would prefer you don’t, don’t sunbath in the nude and don’t, whatever you do, bring any pot with you from Thailand — the penalties for drug use and/or possession in Malaysia are fierce.
The indigenous people of Sarawak
Other than being famed for its jungle, Sarawak is also known for its indigenous communities and for good reason; there are more than 45 recognised ethnic groups. Between them they make up more than half of the overall population and it is this diverse range of cultures that makes Sarawak one of the most fascinating places to visit in Malaysia.
The catergorisation of these indigenous communities is a little confusing. Where some people use the collective term ‘dayak’ to describe all the indigenous communities; others eschew this term as it is too broad for such a diverse range of people. So to clear up any confusion, here we will only use the term dayak for two indigenous groups, the Iban and the Bidayuh.
The Iban, or Sea Dayaks, are the largest indigenous group in Sarawak and it is likely that you’ll have heard of them as they are infamous for three things; tattoos, raucous celebrations and headhunting. In reality, their culture is much more complex than this and life isn’t just one massive party.
The Bidayuh, also known as the Land Dayaks, are not actually one tribe; Bidayuh is a collective term for a group of indigenous communities who often have no common language. In fact, it’s pretty common for Bidayuh of differing communities to communicate in either English or Malay as their languages are so different.
The remaining group are the Orang Ulu, or upriver people. This term encapsulates 27 very different ethnic groups that live (you’ve guessed it) upriver in the remote regions of the interior of Sarawak. Included in this group are the Kayan, Kenyah, Penan, Kelabit and Lun Bawang, all of whom traditionally resided in the interior although many have now migrated to towns such as Miri and Bintulu to find work. It is not uncommon to find Orang Ulu who are polyglots, such is the closeness of their existence in the interior.
While we do not claim that this is a comprehensive list of all the indigenous people who live in Sarawak, it should shed some light on the rich array of cultures that populate it and provide a good starting point for further reading and research in preparation for you travels here.
The river photo was taken in the 1960s or 1970s by Christian missionary Phyllis Webster; thanks to her for letting us use it here.
Festivals & events
Deepavali (Diwali) in Malaysia
Well over a thousand years before Islam first came to what is now Malaysia, Hinduism was a well established belief system in the peninsula. Even more than Buddhism, that other great Indian religious export, Hinduism influenced all aspects of life, from marriage ceremonies to concepts of divine kingship.
The founding of the Malacca Sultanate at the turn of the 15th century began the long process of Islam becoming the dominant religion in Peninsular Malaysia. But even the growth of Islamic fundamentalism over recent decades has failed to remove completely the influence of Hinduism over the Malay way of life.
The second great wave of Indian influence started in the early 19th century, with the arrival of thousands of immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent. These days about 7% of Malaysians are ethnically Indian. Some of them are Christians, others are Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, but the vast majority are Hindus.
For Hindus, the most important religious event of the year is Diwali, the “festival of lights”. Known as Deepavali in Malaysia and Singapore, the five-day festival celebrates the victory of good over evil, and light over darkness. The third day of Deepavali marks the official start of the Hindu New Year. The festival is also celebrated by Jains and Sikhs.
Of all the world’s major religions, Hinduism tends to have some of the most exuberant and colourful festivals. So it should come as no surprise that anyone whose visit to Kuala Lumpur coincides with Deepavali stands to experience a feast for the senses.
Although many of the practices associated with Deepavali, such as house cleaning and special family meals, are centred on the home, many of the ceremonies are public, such as processions and firework displays. Probably the most visible sign of the festival, particularly in Little India and Brickfields (the two areas most associated with the KL’s Indian community), is special street bazaars.
Buying new clothes is an important part of marking Deepavali, as it is with Lunar New Year, and the Muslim festival of Hari Raya. Not that most Malaysians, whatever their race or religion, need an excuse to go shopping.
It should not come as a surprise that Indian food also plays a big part in this festival, with savoury snacks known as murukku particularly popular. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Deepavali “open house” party, best to starve yourself beforehand, and wear loose clothing.
Lunar New Year in Malaysia
No sooner is Christmas over in Malaysia than preparations start for Lunar New Year, arguably capital Kuala Lumpur’s most important festival. Also known as Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival, it marks the start of the first month of the lunar calendar. Rotating cycles are used to name the year after an element and an animal — the next one, which starts on February 16, 2018, being the Year of the Earth Dog.
The festival officially lasts for 15 days, with different traditions ascribed to each day, although only the first two days are public holidays in Malaysia. Signs appear everywhere with new year greetings in a variety of languages (and spellings), including gong hei fat choy in Cantonese; gong xi fa cai in Mandarin; and selamat tahun baru Cina in Malay.
According to Chinese legend, villagers who were terrorised by a mythical creature called Nian the first day of every year found they could scare off the beast with the colour red and loud sounds. This is why everything, from greeting cards to home decorations, is red at this time of year, and why firecrackers play such a big part in the celebrations.
Many of the most important customs associated with the festival are carried out at home, such as a thorough spring clean (to brush away bad luck); the traditional New Year’s Eve family dinner; making offerings to ancestors; and giving ang pows (red envelopes with cash inside, also known as lai see), to kids and younger unmarried relatives.
Some events are more public though, such as the frenzy of clothes shopping in the run-up to the festival (part of making a fresh start to the year); lighting incense candles at Chinese temples; firework displays; lion and dragon dances; and “open house” parties for relatives, friends and workmates.
Although the festival is celebrated in much the same way around the world, certain aspects are peculiar to Malaysia and Singapore. The eating of yusheng/yee sang (raw fish salad) is one such custom. The word for fish, yu, sounds like “surplus”, one of the many play-on-words that are a feature of the festival. Other foods are eaten because they symbolise something auspicious, like noodles and long life.
In terms of numbers, KL’s ethnic Chinese community is only slightly smaller than its Malay counterpart. Many of these people do not come from KL originally though, meaning they have to go back to their home towns at new year, to be with their families. This process, known as balik kampung (return to village), is not restricted to Chinese Malaysians. Many Malays and Indians take advantage of the holidays to visit their home towns too. All this means travelling in Malaysia around CNY is highly inadvisable, particularly on the traffic-clogged roads. Public transport needs to be booked as far in advance as possible.
Thaipusam in Malaysia
It’s a bit like waiting for a bus: you hang round for ages for a major festival, and then five come along in quick succession. First up is Deepavali, then Christmas, (Western) New Year, Chinese New Year, and last but not least, Thaipusam—and while the latter may not be well known outside southern India, for the Tamil community of Malaysia and Singapore, it is hugely important.
The three-day festival, which next kicks off on January 31, 2018, commemorates the victory of the Hindu deity Lord Murugan (also known as Lord Subramaniam) over a powerful demon, Surapadman—a feat made possible by the gift of a sacred vel (lance or spear). Thaipusam celebrates the triumph of good over evil, and truth over falsehood.
The largest and most spectacular celebration of Thaipusam outside India takes place in and around Kuala Lumpur. In the early hours of the morning, a procession sets off from Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Chinatown, KL’s most important Hindu place of worship. At its head is a golden chariot, carrying an idol of Lord Murugan.
Tens of thousands of devotees do the whole 15 kilometre walk, from Sri Maha Mariaman to Batu Caves, a large Hindu temple complex, to the north of KL. For those taking part in the procession, it is either an act of thanksgiving for a past or future favour, or alternatively, an act of penance for a misdeed. Many of the devotees have a kavadi (offering) attached to their body by metal hooks or spikes, while others carry a pot of milk on their head.
The final part of the procession is a climb up the 272 steps to the main grotto at Batu Caves. Once at the temple, the kavadis are offered to Lord Murugan, while priests chant prayers. Those devotees with metal implements attached to their body have them removed, and their wounds are treated.
If you are going to experience one festival in Malaysia, then Thaipusam is hard to beat. But with up to one million people thronging Batu Caves over the course of the celebrations, it’s not recommended for anyone with a fear of crowds. Smaller, though no less colourful processions, take place in Georgetown (Penang), Ipoh (Perak), and the west coast island of Pulau Pangkor; culminating respectively at the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple, Kallumalai Arul Migu Subramaniar Temple, and Sri Pathirakaliaman Temple.
The Mid-Autumn Festival
Up until a few decades ago, Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur had a Chinese majority, and it was only very recently that Malays became the city’s largest single community. The Chinese presence is still strong, and keenly felt during the second most important Chinese event of the year: the Mid-Autumn Festival.
The festival falls on the 15th day of the eight month on the lunar calendar, when the moon is at its fullest and brightest. The origins of the festival are at least 3,000 years old, and tied to the worship of the moon Goddess, Chang’e.
As the festival approaches, pastry shops and bakeries will start to display mooncakes, one of the main features of the festival. Why mooncakes? It’s said that rebels passed notes within them to organise an uprising that led to the establishment of the Ming Dynasty in China back in the 14th century.
Traditionally, the mooncake’s filling was made out of red bean paste, lotus seed paste, or salted duck egg yolk. But traditions evolve; these days more exotic flavours are available—think pandan leaves, durian, mocha, tiramisu or sambal chilli paste.
One twist in Malaysia, compared to mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, is that children parade round with colourful paper lanterns, many in the shape of animals. This has given rise to a popular local name for the celebration: the Lantern Festival.
This can lead to some confusion, as the name is most commonly associated with the final day of the Lunar New Year celebrations, at least outside Malaysia and Singapore.
On the festival evening, offerings of mooncakes, various meats, fruits and Chinese tea are made to deities and ancestors at the family altar. Beautifully lit lanterns are also hung as joss-sticks and red candles are lit. After prayers, there is feasting and children parade lit lanterns around the streets. Here they are sometimes joined by their non-Chinese friends in celebrating with lanterns. In Kuala Lumpur, the Thean Hou Temple is a popular place to see a procession.
Whether even the brightest moon of the year will be visible through the city’s light and air pollution is of course far from guaranteed.
Wesak (Vesak) in Malaysia
Malaysia is often described an Islamic country, but Muslims make up at most 60% of the population, which leaves a hefty 40% of people who practise a whole range of other religions, from animism to Zoroastrianism. The largest minority, comprising one in five Malaysians, are Buddhists, most of them ethnic Chinese.
Although a majority of Chinese Malaysians identify themselves as Buddhists, many practise a syncretic belief system which also includes elements of Taoism and Confucianism, known as San Chiao. Indeed, many local temples have shrines to all three faiths, such as the Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur (pictured above) and the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Melaka (Malacca).
While most Malaysian Buddhists are descendants of 19th and 20th century immigrants from China and Sri Lanka, the Buddha’s teachings first came to the Thai-Malay peninsula some 2,200 years ago. Islam is a comparative newcomer, only becoming the dominant religion in the 15th century.
All three major schools of Buddhism — Mahayana (the Great Vehicle); Theravada (the Ancient Teaching); and Vajrayana (the Diamond Vehicle) — are represented in Malaysia. For all three schools the most important festival of the year is Wesak.
Wesak commemorates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, and by tradition takes place on the full moon in the Indian lunar month of Vesakha. In the Western calendar, it normally falls in April or May, but not all countries calculate the lunar month in the same way. This year’s Wesak in Malaysia is on May 5, the same as most of Southeast Asia, but one month ahead of Thailand.
Many practices are associated with Wesak, including charitable donations and other acts of kindness; lighting candles, incense and joss sticks at temples; meditating on the Eight Precepts (core beliefs of Buddhism); and eating vegetarian food.
The central message of the festival is to pay homage to Buddha by recommitting oneself to his teachings. Not surprisingly, Wesak is celebrated with particular gusto in areas with large ethnic Chinese, Sri Lankan or Thai populations, such as KL, Penang, Perak and Selangor, but it will be marked in every Buddhist temple around the country.
Food & drink
For any traveller to a predominantly Muslim country such as Malaysia, the rules on alcohol availability and consumption are handy to know — not only for accessibility but for insight into cultural sensitivities as well. In Malaysia, people from the various non-Muslim cultures represented throughout the country also abide by certain rules so as not to insult their Muslim friends.
Though Malaysian law forbids Muslims from imbibing alcoholic beverages, the rest of the population is free to do so. Licensing laws for the sale of alcohol are regulated by local municipal councils, however, and will vary from state to state. Major tourist and metropolitan hubs, such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Johor Baru and Melaka, generally have a more concentrated availability of retail sales of alcohol, but in more remote areas you may find that Chinese-Malaysian businesses are more apt to stock a selection of alcoholic beverages than others.
This is particularly the case in the northeastern states like Kelantan and Terengganu, where even a bottle of beer may be few and far between — and when you find it, don’t be surprised if the price is significantly more than you are used to. Chinese restaurants and supermarkets are your best bet — and they’ll often happily sell you takeaway as well — though not all guesthouses will allow you to bring alcohol into your room.
Licensed establishments, from neighbourhood minimarts to five-star hotels, will carry retail selections of beer, wine and spirits, but depending on the area, the ‘supply’ might actually be out of immediate sightand require a discreet inquiry. Although most Muslim-owned restaurants do not serve alcohol, a rare few bend the rules a bit by allowing customers to bring it in for personal use — this is more common in touristy regions. For etiquette’s sake, use common sense and decide for yourself whether it’s really a mealtime necessity.
The government of Malaysia has designated the islands of Tioman, Langkawi and Labuan as duty-free. Duty-free status extends to the import of cigarettes, chocolates and electronics as well as alcohol, and was never intended to encourage the masses to “party on”.
If you head to one of the duty-free islands, you may still be in for a bit of a shock by the sticker price for cocktails (as well as with normal retail sale prices on the mainland). The Malaysian alcohol tax is one of the highest in the world; it brings in all-important tax revenue to the various states but has done little to stem or reduce consumption — Malaysia is the tenth largest consumer of alcohol worldwide.
A traditional local brew you may come across in Malaysia is tuak, made from fermented rice, and toddy, made from the sap of the flower of the coconut tree. These drinks are primarily used for festivals and special occasions and not with the intention of inebriation; some Muslims may drink them. Fortunately, unlike in Indonesia, there have been no cases reported in Malaysia of any alcohol poisoning of tourists. If offered any ‘special beverages’, especially if not part of a traditional gathering, however, do trust your instincts.
What to eat in Sarawak
Hugely diverse Sarawak is home to rural indigenous peoples as well as city-dwelling yuppies, with a whole range of subcultures in between. This makes for some very interesting cultural dialogues and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Sarawak’s food. Here’s a rundown of foods you should try while in Sarawak.
Sarawak laksa is a deliciously spicy noodle concoction laced with galangal. In Sarawak you will find thin vermicelli rice noodles floating in a soup base of sambal belacan (shrimp paste), sour tamarind, coconut milk and lemongrass with perhaps shredded chicken and shredded omelette or prawns on top. The sour, savoury flavour taste is entirely different from other laksa variants from Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia, which are curry based and use thick rice noodles, or Penang laksa, which is distinctly fishy and fruity and again comes with thick rice noodles. Word on the street is that the best Sarawak laksa is to be found in Kuching but this does not mean that you should rule out eating it elsewhere; each town will claim that their laksa is the original and best.
Another favourite is kolok mee, another noodle dish, but this time dry. Heaped into a bowl with slivers of roasted pork and sprinkles of chive and garlic flakes, this can be found anywhere and makes for a brilliant breakfast, especially if you are suffering from the night before. More adventurous palates should try adding some pickled chillies into the mix — it will clear your head and might even perk you up more than a coffee.
A good foodie souvenir to take home is kek lapis Sarawak, or Sarawak layer cake. This intricate cake is made up of many different layers of coloured sponge, all put together to create different designs. Each colour is supposed to have a different flavour, which makes for an interesting taste melee when you get a particularly sophisticated cake. My advice: eat the ones made up of one or two colours and admire the patterned ones from a safe distance.
If you end up in the interior you will no doubt eat some indigenous cuisine. The most common ingredients in this style of food are jungle ferns and wild boar. Although these can be bought in the cities, the freshest and best will always be found in remote areas. The local Iban cook their food in bamboo over an open fire, giving the dishes a tender and singular taste. Do exercise a little caution when in the interior — you don’t want to end up eating an endangered animal.
How to save money while travelling in Borneo
Travellers coming through Malaysian Borneo often complain that it is much more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia. Travel and accommodation can often be double the prices of West Malaysia and public transport in Borneo is often non-existent, forcing travellers to use taxis. However with a little bit of know-how and forward planning, it can be easy to bring down the cost of travelling in Borneo, although admittedly not to say Thai or Cambodian prices.
The first to follow is to book your flights ahead as far as possible. I realise that this may make you recoil in horror — after all, the backpacking ethos is all about going where the wind takes you. However backpacking for long distances can also require careful saving of the pennies so, I say again, book ahead. The three main airlines in Borneo are Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia and MasWings and often their tickets will be cheaper than travelling by bus — if you book in advance, say by one to two months.
Next up, know your holidays. The great thing about living in Malaysia is its ethnic diversity; this also means that there are public holidays galore: Hari Raya, Chinese New Year and Gawai, to name but a few. During these times, travelling can be incredibly difficult. This year during Gawai, airplane tickets from East Malaysia to West Malaysia were harder to come by than a herd of unicorns frolicking in a field of four-leaf clover. Bus travel was a smidgen easier, but only if you were travelling solo. Even if do get your hands on that golden ticket, then it will probably cost you the best part of your offsprings’ inheritance. I exaggerate a little bit but it is notoriously difficult and expensive to travel during holiday periods. It’s instead best to settle in one place and enjoy the festivities and if you’re lucky, as happened to a friend of mine, you may get invited back to someone’s kampung (village) and feast on barbecued python while lounging in the equatorial sun.
Which brings me to my next point: manage your expectations. Many come to Borneo expecting swathes of lush jungle creeping over the walls of the airport while orang utans puzzlingly gaze at their hairless cousins alighting their loud, shiny flying machines. Let me tell you that this romanticised version of Borneo no longer exists. Rapid development of the Malaysian economy has led to much of the jungle in Sarawak, and especially Sabah, to be cut down and turned into palm oil plantations.
Development has also brought with it cities. And I’m going to be honest: with the exception of Kuching, the cities in Borneo are a bit rubbish. The architecture languishes somewhat especially when compared to neighbouring Indonesia, so do not expect your National Geographic moment as soon as you head out of the airport.
To fulfil your dreams of misted canopy panoramas you need to head to a national park — this is the cheapest way to see rainforest in Borneo, but it may not be the isolated idyll that you had hoped for. Unless you have 200?300 ringgit per day to spend, this may be the only rainforest that you’ll be able to see. Travelling into the interior is pretty expensive due to poor infrastructure, but this is where you’ll find the Borneo of coffee table books and expensive magazines.
And as you work out how to get around, try not to use travel agents if possible. Some travel agents organise trips to national parks, especially Mulu, however with a little more effort you can easily save 200 to 300 ringgit on a trip if you book everything yourself. Most people in Borneo speak a good level of English, so there should be no difficulty in making yourself understood.
Do, however, try to travel in a group. As always, the bigger the group, the more you can spread the cost around and nowhere is this advice more pertinent than in Borneo. As mentioned above, public transport is sometimes hard to come by, which will force you to take a taxi that may blow out the budget of a solo traveller. Even if you are not travelling in a group, you can often ask the staff at your guesthouse if anyone is going your way, and more often than not, there will be someone. Failing that, it’s worth ringing round the backpacker lodgings in your area to get an ad hoc group together.
Do consider travelling by night bus. There are two notable night bus journeys in Borneo run by various companies for 90 ringgit each; one runs between Kota Kinabalu, in Sabah, and Miri in Sarawak, and the second runs between Miri and Kuching. The beauty of these bus services is that they last between 10 to 15 hours, meaning that you arrive at your destination at a sensible time and you will have saved on a night’s accommodation.
An introduction to Malaysian English (Manglish)
One of the near universal truths of travelling is that taking the time to learn a few words of the local language easily repays the effort. Kuala Lumpur is somewhat of an exception to that rule, as apart from helping to decipher some obscure menu items, English is so widely spoken that a knowledge of bahasa Melayu (Malay) is about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
The main reason for this is that for roughly half the population of KL — everyone who is not Malay basically — bahasa Melayu is not the “local” language at all. For ethnic Indians, the mother tongue is often Tamil; while for ethnic Chinese, it’s commonly Cantonese or Hokkien. And that’s ignoring the large number of households where English is the primary language.
I say “English”, but over the years it has taken on board so many local characteristics as to be quite distinct from the original. The result is Malaysian English, or Manglish. As with many creoles, tenses and plurals are simplified, as is sentence construction. Conversely, words are added from other languages, which may have no direct translation. Here are a few of the main quirks:
Lah: means everything and nothing, used mostly to add emphasis, such as “so funny lah you”.
Like that lah!: used generally to sum up an imperfect situation which you cannot do much about.
Mah: used in much the same way as “lah”, but mostly by Cantonese speakers.
Is it?: a catch-all tag, for example, “you go out later, is it?”
Can (or not): denotes possibility, either a positive response to a request, or question, such as “I wanna go shopping, can or not?”
Cannot: the evil twin of “can”, the all too common response to a request in Malaysia.
Got: used instead of “have”, as a question often phrased as “got or not?”
What!: used to affirm or add emphasis, “I got what!”
OK: often linked with “lah”, it means moderately good rather than mediocre.
Not bad: means quite good; add “at all”, and it’s even more positive.
Take: in terms of food, it means “like”, for example “I don’t take spice”.
Already: used rather than “now”, so “he’s fat already”.
Stay: Malaysians will say “where do you stay?”, instead of “where do you live?”
Boss: a common form of address, particularly in eateries, such as “order drink boss”.
Uncle/auntie: an informal but respectful term for anyone older than you.
Outstation: any long trip out of the city, for example “wanna go outstation next week?”
Convoy: to travel in a group of cars, as “let’s convoy to restaurant”.
Send: to give someone a lift, such as “I send you home lah”.
One (wan): hard to translate, it’s generally used as emphasis, for example “why you so like that one?”
Friend: often used as a verb, such as “can I friend you?”
Aiyoo/aiya!: a term of exasperation, not always to be taken completely seriously.
All the above is mainly for the purposes of comprehension rather than repetition. While Manglish is athoroughly charming creole when used by Malaysians, it tends to be deeply embarrassing when foreigners try their hand at it. For anyone who still wants to try their hand at bahasa Melayu, the best place to learn in KL is the YMCA in Brickfields.