Most visitors to Malaysia stick to the insane headlong rush of Kuala Lumpur, the colonially soothing Cameron Highlands Hill Station or the hedonistic torpor of Langkawi. However, the island of East Malaysia offers spectacular wildlife, longhouses and the awe-inspiring Mt Kinabalu.
Malaysia is one of the most pleasant, hassle-free countries to visit in South-East Asia. It’s buoyant and wealthy, and has moved towards a pluralist culture based on a vibrant and interesting fusion of Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous cultures and customs.
In April and September 2000, the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf militants took hostages – some foreign tourists – from the islands of Sipadan and Pandanan. The guerilla group is currently being targeted by military forces in the Philippines, and there is concern that the group may strike again. Visitors are advised to be extra vigilant when traveling in eastern Sabah and to altogether avoid the islands off Sabah’s east coast, including Sipadan and Pandanan.
Language: Malay, English, Tamil
Religion: 52% Muslim, 17% Buddhist, 12% Taoist, 8% Christian, 8% Hindu, 2% tribal
Currency: Ringgit (RM) = 100 sen. Notes are in denominations of RM1000, 500, 100, 50, 10, 5, 2 and 1. The RM1000 and RM500 notes are now being phased out. Coins are in denominations of RM1, and 50, 20, 10, 5 and 1 sen. There are also many commemorative coins in various denominations which are legal tender. The Ringgit is often referred to as the Malaysian Dollar.
Malaysia is hot and humid all year. Temperatures are usually between 20-30�C (68-86�F); humidity is usually 90 per cent. The region has a monsoonal climate, but only the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia has a real rainy season. The wettest season on the west coast of the peninsula is between September and December; on the east coast and in Sabah and Sarawak it’s between October and February. Rain, when it comes, generally interrupts the sunshine only briefly; most of it falls in short, strong bursts.
When to Go
Malaysia is hot and humid all year so you’re going to have sunshine and sweat pretty much whenever you visit. It is, however, best to avoid the November to January rainy season on Peninsula Malaysia ‘s east coast if you want to enjoy the beaches. The time to see turtles on the east coast is between May and September
Kuala Lumpur is an Asian tiger that roars: in 130 years, it has grown from nothing to a modern, bustling city of almost two million people. Take in its high-flying triumphs from the viewing deck of the world’s tallest building and explore its cultural depths in the back lanes of Chinatown.
KL’s boom periods have produced an intriguing mix of architecture throughout the city, elegant colonial buildings contrasting with soaring modern edifices such as the twin Petronas Towers. Add the ground level bustle of the numerous street markets, and you have a city that rewards exploration.
The Cameron Highlands, in the centre of Peninsular Malaysia, comprise a series of hill stations at altitudes between 1500 and 1800m (4920 and 5904ft). This fertile area is the centre of Malaysia ‘s tea industry and it’s the place where locals and visitors come to escape the heat of the plains. Attractions include jungle walks, waterfalls, tours of tea plantations, beautiful gardens and plenty of wild flowers. The cool weather tempts visitors to exertions normally forgotten at sea level – like golf, tennis, and long walks – but this is really Malaysia ‘s R ‘n’ R capital par excellence for those who don’t like the beach and enjoy a bout of colonial nostalgia. Most of the budget hotels are in the village of Tanah Rata. The more expensive options are scattered between Tanah Rata and Brinchang.
Georgetown – Penang Island
The 285-sq-km (177-sq-mi) island of Penang, off Peninsula Malaysia ‘s northwestern coast, is the oldest British settlement in Malaysia and one of the country’s premier resort areas. The island’s beaches are touted as the major drawcard but they’re somewhat overrated. What makes Penang Island really tick is the vibrant and intriguing city of Georgetown on the island’s northeastern coast. This city has more Chinese flavour than either Singapore or Hong Kong, and in its older neighbourhoods you could be forgiven for thinking that the clock stopped at least 50 years ago. Georgetown is a compact city and it’s a delight to wander around. Set off in any direction and you’re certain to see beautiful old Chinese houses, vegetable markets, temple ceremonies, trishaws, mahjong games and all the other to-ings and fro-ings of Asian street life.
You can still see the time-worn walls of Fort Cornwallis in the centre of Georgetown where the first Briton, Captain Light, set foot in 1786 on what was then a virtually uninhabited island. He established a free port here and the stone fort was finished a few decades later. The area within the fort is now a park liberally sprinkled with cannons, many of them retrieved from local pirates. Seri Rambai, the largest and most important cannon, has a chequered history dating back to 1600. It’s famed for its procreative powers, and childless women are recommended to place flowers in the barrel of ‘the big one’ and offer special prayers.
Penang has many kongsis (clan houses that operate partly as temples and partly as meeting halls for Chinese of the same clan or surname), but Khoo Kongsi is easily the finest. The original building was so magnificent and elaborate that no-one was surprised when the roof caught fire on the very night it was completed. This misfortune was taken merely as a sign that the building had been too grandiose, so a marginally less magnificent structure was built. One wonders at the opulence of the original, since the present structure is a dazzling mix of dragons, statues, paintings, lamps, coloured tiles and carvings.
Kuan Yin Teng Temple right in the centre of the old part of Georgetown is nowhere near as impressive, but it’s one of the most popular temples in the city and there are often worshippers burning paper money at the furnaces, night-time puppet shows or Chinese theatre performances. For the best view of the city and the island, catch the funicular railway up Penang Hill which rises 830m (2722ft) above Georgetown and provides cool relief from the sticky heat below. There are pleasant gardens, a hotel, a Hindu temple and a mosque at the top. The view is particularly good at dusk when Georgetown, far below, begins to light up.
Most of the popular budget hotels in Georgetown are along Lebuh Chulia; more expensive options line Jalan Penang. There are plenty of Chinese and Indian restaurants, but be adventurous and try the succulent local dishes on offer from the street stalls, which appear at night along the Esplanade behind the Penang Library.
Melaka is an interesting blend of Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences and is considered Malaysia ‘s most historic city. It was once the most important trading port in the region, but is now little more than a sleepy backwater. Ancient-looking junks still sail up the river, imbuing the waterfront with a timeless charm, and the city remains full of intriguing Chinese streets, antique shops, temples and nostalgic reminders of the now-departed European colonial powers.
The most imposing relic of the Dutch period in Melaka is the massive pink town hall, Stadthuys, built between 1641 and 1660. It’s believed to be the oldest Dutch building in Asia and displays all the characteristic features of Dutch colonial architecture (read incredibly weighty doors and pleasant louvred windows). The building houses government offices and an excellent Ethnographic Museum, which highlights aspects of local history and culture. The imposing ruins of St Paul’s Church, built by the Portuguese over 400 years ago, stand in a beautiful setting atop St Paul’s Hill. It was regularly visited by St Francis Xavier, who was buried here for a short period before being transferred to Goa in India . The church fell into disuse when the Dutch arrived, but is still surrounded by old Dutch tombstones. The Brits, with great sensitivity, used the church as a gunpowder store.
For those who prefer their religious architecture to be a little more colourful, the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in the old part of the city is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia . It was founded in 1646, and all of the materials and all of the artisans who built it were imported from China . The old part of Melaka is a fascinating area to wander around, and this is where you’ll find many of Melaka’s famous antique shops; a stroll along Jalan Hang Jebat will pass the best of them.
This picture-postcard island lies off the eastern coast of Peninsula Malaysia in the South China Sea. It boasts beautiful beaches, clear, coral-filled water, technicolour marine life, virtually unpopulated jungle highlands, crystal-clear streams, and the dramatic peaks of Batu Sirau and Nenek Semukut. Tioman has been blessed with exotic place names like ‘Palm-Frond Hill’ and ‘ Village of Doubt’ and is generally quoted as the setting for the mythical Bali Hai in the film South Pacific . The permanent population on Tioman is low, and locals are usually outnumbered by tourists. June and August are the peak tourist months, but during the heavy November to January monsoon the island is almost deserted.
The island’s west coast is dotted with villages and is home to a classy resort. Pulau Tioman is the most popular travellers’ destination, while Kampung Nipah is the place to go if you really want to get away from it all. You can get to Tioman by boat from Mersing and Singapore . The island’s largest village, Kampung Tekek, has an airstrip.
Diving and snorkelling enthusiasts can take their pick of several excellent east-coast islands, including Tioman Island, Pulau Kapas, Pulau Redang and the Perhentian Islands. For the landlubber, the favourite bicycle touring routes are up the east coast of the peninsula and a cross-peninsula route from Butterworth to Baling. There is great trekking, fishing and bird-watching in the Taman Negara National Park in Pahang, and jungle treks, canoeing and fishing trips can be organised at beautiful Tasik Chini in Pahang.
In Sarawak, Gunung Mulu National Park has a number of spectacular caves , including the 51km long Clearwater Cave, one of the longest in the world. Adventure-caving expeditions can be arranged. The park also has good trekking , especially the four-day hike to the summit of Gunung Mulu (2377m).
In Sabah, Pulau Tiga National Park off Kuala Penyuh has good walking trails across the volcanic island and several snorkelling spots. Many visitors to Sabah climb Mt Kinabalu. Turtle Islands National Park, 40km (25mi) north of Sandakan, is a good place to see green turtles between July and October, when they come ashore to lay their eggs. The Terengganu coast, in north-eastern Peninsular Malaysia, Pulau Pangkor off Lumut, and Selingan Island, north of Sabah, are other favoured turtle-watching locations.
Good buys include Thai silks and cottons, batiks, silver, pottery with celadon green glaze, precious and semiprecious stones, dolls, masks, lacquerware, pewterware, bamboo artefacts and bronzeware. The weekend market at Chatuchuk Park in Bangkok is a regular cornucopia with items ranging from genuine antiques to fighting fish. Tailor-made clothes are also good value and can be made in a matter of days.
Shopping hours: Mon-Sun 1000-2100; department stores 1000-2200.
It’s not easy to find authentic Malay food in Malaysian restaurants, though you can take your pick of Chinese, Nyonya (a local variation on Chinese and Malay food – Chinese ingredients, local spices), Indian, Indonesian or (sometimes) Western cuisines. Satays (meat kebabs in spicy peanut sauce) are a Malaysian creation and they’re found everywhere. Other dishes include fried soybean curd in peanut sauce, sour tamarind fish curry, fiery curry prawns and spiced curried meat in coconut marinade. Muslim Indian dishes have developed a distinctly Malaysian style. The variety of wonderful tropical fruits and fruit juices available is huge, and strange sweet concoctions include cendol (sugar syrup, coconut milk and green noodles) and ais kacang (beans and jellies topped with shaved ice, syrups and condensed milk).
Kuala Lumpur has a selection of reputable nightclubs and discotheques, most belonging to the big hotels. Nightclubs generally stay open until 0500 or 0600 and usually request a cover charge which includes the first drink. Many of Kuala Lumpur’s bars have a ‘Happy Hour’, offering two drinks for the price of one, between 1700-2000 or 2100. Bintang Walk is a lively spot and has a good selection of al fresco bars and coffee shops. Penang is also lively at night, larger hotels having cocktail lounges, dining, dancing and cultural shows. There are night markets in most towns, including both Kuala Lumpur and Penang Chinatown. Malay and Chinese films often have English subtitles and there are also English films. The national lottery and Malaysia ‘s only casino at Genting Highlands are government approved and visitors are not supposed to gamble elsewhere. Keno and Chinese Tai Sai , roulette, baccarat, french bull and blackjack are played at the casino. Dress is relatively formal and visitors must be over 21 years of age.
Shopping in Malaysia ranges from exclusive department stores to street markets. Bargaining is expected in the markets, unless fixed prices are displayed. Kuala Lumpur is a popular shopping destination, rivalling Singapore and Hong Kong. Suria KLCC, a shopping mall with a spectacular fountain, gardens and a beautiful piazza, houses a great selection of leading couture outlets. Star Hill and Lot 10 are popular shopping malls and there were plans underway to develop and finish an additional mall – Times Square. The islands of Labuan and Langkawi are duty-free zones. Cameras, pens, watches, cosmetics, perfume and electronic goods are available duty free throughout Malaysia . Malaysian speciality goods include pewterware, silverware and brassware; batik; jewellery; pottery and songket. Enquire at Malaysian Royal Customs and Excise about claiming cashback on duty-free goods. Shopping hours: Most shops keep their own opening hours, usually within the range of 1000-2200.
Don’t be surprised to see U.S. television shows or movies in Malaysia , and don’t be surprised if a lewd joke or kissing scene is missing. Many Malaysians are enamored of Western films and television, but the more conservative government censors all programs for any behavior it deems inappropriate in relation to traditional Islamic values. Shows like Sex and the City are banned in some parts of the country.
Don’t kiss anyone in public – not romantically anyway. It has become fashionable in Kuala Lumpur (but not in other parts of the country) to kiss friends hello and goodbye as is done in Europe.
Do remove your shoes when entering someone’s home and never take a gift of alcohol.
Don’t touch the head of an adult.
Don’t point the bottom of your feet at anyone.
Do wait until you’re in Malaysia to convert most of your currency. A special permit is needed to bring large amounts of ringgit ( Malaysia ‘s currency) into or out of the country. There are no restrictions for foreign money.
Don’t offer to shake hands unless you know that your acquaintances are fairly Westernized. Even then, let them offer to shake first. Never shake hands with women unless they offer to do so first.
Don’t bring up the topic of ethnic relations in Malaysia or the political system: They are both sensitive subjects.
Don’t even think about buying or transporting illegal drugs – there’s a mandatory death penalty for trafficking (possession of 200 grams of marijuana is considered to be trafficking).
Do try to attend a puppet show or cultural performance.
Don’t try to ride or disturb sea turtles attempting to nest on beaches, and don’t toss your trash in the water, especially plastic bags – turtles can mistake them for tasty jellyfish and suffocate.
Do help preserve reefs and beaches by leaving coral and shells where you find them.
Do pay careful attention to your attire if you’re female: Wearing hot pants and vests on the islands where Malaysians are used to foreigners is fine, but it may invite harassment elsewhere. At mainland beaches, bring a wrap-around as well as a swimsuit so you won’t feel conspicuous; Malay women usually go swimming fully dressed and some keep their scarves on. While you wouldn’t be expected to do the same, it’s best not to draw attention.