Malaysia is like the ignored middle child of Southeast Asian countries. Located inconveniently at the dead end of the Malay Peninsula, tipped by uber expensive Singapore, it frequently gets missed by many backpackers on the time-tested Banana Pancake trail. Adding to its woes, the federal government taxes alcohol heavily, leaving it priced just slightly below the level you’d pay back in the West.
So why should you make the effort to visit Malaysia? I mean, what could you possibly be missing?
A lot, it turns out. Beautiful, sugary white sand beaches that squeak when you walk on them. Religious and cultural monuments from not just one, but three major ethnic groups. A gluttonous buffet of world-class cuisine at shockingly low prices that will leave you foodgasming in the streets.
Oh, and if you’re looking for cheap booze, they have designated three tropical islands where alcohol, among other items, is tax/duty free.
Those who leave Malaysia off their travel itinerary are seriously missing out. With a rich history, gratifying meals at every turn, and a travel trail that is much less cluttered and overblown than neighbouring Thailand, you have a destination that you’ll be raving about to other travellers for a long time to come.
Currency: Malaysian Ringgit
Languages: Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin Chinese, English
What To Do
We’re going to assume that you’ve entered the country via Kuala Lumpur, as many travellers on visa runs from neighbouring Thailand arrive here to arrange another document for that country. Stay a while though: many nationalities receive 90 days VISA FREE on arrival! After taking care of your business at the Thai embassy, head over to the Petronas Towers (RapidKL: KLCC) for a photo op with one of the most photogenic skyscrapers in Asia. After this, head out of the city to the Batu Caves (KTM Komuter: Batu Caves) to check out a massive statue of Lord Murugan, the largest of its kind in the world at nearly 43 metres high! Come here during Thaipusam for some stomach-churning sights, as men stick skewers and spears into their skin to show their devotion to the religion of Hinduism.
Next, catch a bus to the Cameron Highlands, where you can drink tea and eat strawberries farmed from plantations in the high plateaus in this area. Take your warm clothes out of the deep recesses of your backpack, as overnight lows dip down to 15c, much cooler than most other areas in the tropics.
Following this, the island state of Penang should be your next destination. Book a guesthouse in the heart of UNESCO protected Georgetown, then enjoy stuffing your face with the multicultural mashup of foods that will have you grazing until you are ready to explode! When you are done chowing down, photograph the unique shophouses and mansions that are everywhere in Georgetown, in varying states of repair.
Ready to hit the beach? Hop on a bus in Butterworth (opposite Georgetown, on the mainland) or at Komtar Mall, and head for Kota Bharu. From here, take a local bus to Kuala Besut Jetty, and then board a ferry boat to the idyllic Perhentian Islands. This group of islands in the South China Sea is perfect for disconnecting from the modern world, as the existing internet connections here are either painfully slow or horrifically expensive. You won’t be complaining for long though, as the beaches and water approach Maldivian proportions when it comes to beauty. Chill out on the beach all day with a fruity drink in your hand and forget all your problems for a while!
Finally, Malaysia is more than just what you can find on the peninsula. The country also has territory on the northern half of Borneo. You can choose to fly to Kuching in Sarawak, and use it as your base to explore the dark green heart of the Borneo jungle, one of the most bio diverse environments on Earth. Or head to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, and use that city to stock up and prepare for an attempt on one of the easiest high peaks to scale in Southeast Asia, Mount Kinabalu, at 14,000 feet (4,095 metres). Additionally, take a bus ride to Semporna in Eastern Sabah, and SCUBA/snorkel off Sipadan/Mabul Islands in some of the most colourful and diverse diving grounds in the world.
What To Eat
So many choices. So little time. Let’s try though! First, tackle a Penang Laksa when in Georgetown, made from fresh seafood stock that is spicy and sour, noodles, fresh vegetables, with just a hint of prawn paste.
Next, tide over your hunger pangs between meals with a Char Siew Bao, or a steamed BBQ pork bun. This dish is just bursting with meaty sweetness that will fill you up until dinner comes around.
When it does, it’s time for some Indian food! Try some Nasi Kandar, which is a buffet line where you can top white steamed rice with a variety of chicken, beef, fish or lamb curries, fried chicken, and so on. You’ll go nuts stacking your plate with flavours that will leave you gasping with pleasure, long after your meal has been completed!
Compiling these three choices was very difficult, as there is a dizzying array of dishes available at your local hawker court in Malaysia. Simply put, there will be rarely a night where you’re left wanting something from what you just ate!