Malaysian flag on Pulau Langkawi

8 Things I Learned Travelling in Malaysia

In January of this year, I set foot in Malaysia for the first time with a sense of adventure and a desire to go exploring.  What I found was a country which felt familiar, yet challenged my western sensibilities. I fell in love with Malaysia’s people, its natural beauty, and its unique place in history.

Not everything about Malaysia is perfect.  There are infrastructure deficits – most notably open sewers in some communities which leave you gasping for air.  There is petty crime which – like anywhere – stems from some people just not having enough to get by.  And while a variety of religions can find acceptance in Malaysia, the country’s government is decidedly regressive on social policy like LGBT rights.

Looking back on Kuala Lumpur's skyline from the grounds of the Royal Selangor Club.
Looking back on Kuala Lumpur’s skyline from the grounds of the Royal Selangor Club.

Malaysia made a big impact on me during my month criss-crossing the nation.  Here are eight of my biggest takeaways from visiting the country.

A different kind of traveller visits Malaysia.

Historical Melaka is a great place for those who like to dig in to history.
Melaka is a great place for those who like to dig in to history.

When I arrived in Vietnam and started talking with other backpackers in Saigon, I was surprised at their reactions when I told them I had just finished spending a month in Malaysia.

“You spent a month there?  What is there to do for a month?  Isn’t it expensive?”

It was in this moment I realized I was a bit different from some of my fellow travellers.

While Malaysia has vibrant cities and magnificent beaches (I can’t say enough good things about Kota Kinabalu and Pulau Langkawi) – it doesn’t give off the same vibe as Thailand and its Full Moon Parties or the free-spirited anything-goes attitude of Indonesia’s Gili Trawangan.  Exorbitant tax on alcohol (compared to the rest of Southeast Asia) and a generally more conservative approach to life provide those looking to let loose a convenient excuse to avoid the country. But, they are missing out.

Many of the travellers I met and hung out with in Malaysia were more mature than what I’d expect the average backpacker to be – if not in age, in attitude. They are more curious about soaking up history, finding authentic experiences, and generally looking for a more calm atmosphere. On these points, Malaysia delivers.

S/he who travels slowly gets a better experience.

Put up your feet and stay a while.
Put up your feet and stay a while.

Malaysia is a big country, and to fully appreciate it you shouldn’t rush your way through.

During my month on the ground, I explored much of the west coast and made the trip to Malaysian Borneo (Sabah). If I spent another month, I would have made my way to the country’s east coast and had spent much longer in Kota Kinabalu and Langkawi.

Malaysia is a country best appreciated in slow, pensive sips – not in a big, quick gulp.

Making the case for KL as a home base.

Kuala Lumpur's KLIA2 airport is a well-serviced, modern facility which is a fantastic hub to base your Southeast Asian travels from.
Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA2 airport is a well-serviced, modern facility which is a fantastic hub to base your Southeast Asian travels from.

Kuala Lumpur is an incredibly affordable hub to base your travels from in Southeast Asia.

KLIA2 – the major airport you’ll rely on for getting around the region – isn’t shy when it comes to bragging about the low departure taxes it levies on airlines flying from it. They are some of the cheapest in the world. As a result, you’ll find flights from KL on a huge number of airlines to many places across Asia for low, low prices.

Just because you can fly doesn’t mean you should.

Air Asia has democratized air travel in Southeast Asia, and has given backpackers a cheap way to scoot around the region. But sometimes, flying isn't the best way to get somewhere.
Air Asia has democratized air travel in Southeast Asia, and has given backpackers a cheap way to scoot around the region. But sometimes, flying isn’t always the best way to get somewhere.

For some destinations in Malaysia, there is no better option than getting a flight on AirAsia.  Kota Kinabalu and Langkawi come to mind right away as places you want to fly to because any other method of transport is just not nearly as convenient.  But when it comes to getting around peninsular Malaysia, you really should use the right tool for the job.

Trains and buses are very affordable, clean, and convenient methods of travel in Malaysia.  For example, I made the 2 hour journey south from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka by bus for a mere RM10 (C$3.33). A slightly longer trip to Johor Bahru from Melaka didn’t cost much more. The train from Butterworth (Penang) to Kuala Lumpur was roughly RM30 (C$10), and a nice way to spend the morning.

Travelling by land gives you the opportunity to see the country in ways you never will be able to from the air, and will help you save money in the long run.

Cash is king.

Stopping for a coffee? Have cash on hand. It's just easier to deal with than wondering if a restaurant or cafe takes plastic.
Stopping for a coffee? Have cash on hand. It’s just easier to deal with than wondering if a restaurant or cafe takes plastic.

While you can use your credit card at major stores and restaurants, for the most part Malaysia runs on paper money.  You need cash on hand – there’s really no way of getting around this.

The good news is that ATMs are everywhere in Malaysia.  The bad news is that they can be inconsistent in operation.

My bank card works on the PLUS network, and so the Malaysian member banks I kept an eye out for were Maybank, CIMB and HSBC.  However, what I found was that not every ATM with these chains worked with my card. I ran in to issues with Maybank and CIMB ATMs which wouldn’t recognize my card (likely because it is a chip-enabled ATM card) in one city, yet an ATM of the same chain in another place worked just fine.

When you get to a destination, find out where the financial institutions connected with your bank card’s network are located, and always have a backup plan for getting cash.

Pay Up Front

Before you lay your head to rest for the night, you pay the hotel or hostel for your stay. This makes check-out very easy the next morning.
Before you lay your head to rest for the night, you pay the hotel or hostel for your stay. This makes check-out very easy the next morning.

In almost all my experiences while in Malaysia, the standard protocol when staying at a hostel is to pay on arrival for your stay. This actually made budgeting really easy while travelling across the country.

Also, be prepared to have a RM50 note on you at all times that you’ll never actually spend on anything. You’ll trade it in at hostel after hostel as a deposit on your room key.

Going beyond street eats.

I honestly have no clue what all was in this dish, but it was one of the cheapest and tastiest meals of my entire visit to Malaysia.
I honestly have no clue what all was in this dish, but it was one of the cheapest and tastiest meals of my entire visit to Malaysia.

One backpacker badge of honour is to be able to go home and tell your family and friends about all the fantastic street food you consumed – and watch them furrow their brow as you describe it to them.  Malaysia has no shortage of delicious and abundant street food, and in many places there is a festival atmosphere to mealtime.

However, I did deviate from the backpacker rulebook to try and see how average suburban Malaysians live (and shop), and as a result I often found myself in some decidedly non-touristy shopping malls and hypermarkets.

Now, yes – shopping malls are bastions of western food.  Those seeking a taste of home will find many options, regardless of where “home” is. When I was in Kota Kinabalu, new friends Catt and Kiera were overjoyed when I told them that Nando’s had a location at the shopping mall on the waterfront. Both had been living abroad from the UK for quite some time, and were stoked to have a small taste of home (even if it blew their backpacking budget for the day).

As a Canadian, I was surprised to see A&W restaurants all across Malaysia (serving up root beer – marketed in places as “A&W Sarsaparilla” to avoid any confusion about whether it contained alcohol).

A delicious beef pepperoni pizza at Malaysian pizza chain "Vivo." Malaysians make amazing pizza.
A delicious beef pepperoni pizza at Malaysian pizza chain “Vivo.” Malaysians make amazing pizza.

There are some fantastic Malaysian-only chain restaurants which are also worth visiting.

Vivo makes a delicious (and cheap) pizza which is hands-down better than any of the imported North American chains.  The tables are often full at Kenny Rogers Roasters (yes, that Kenny Rogers) chicken restaurants across the country (Malaysians love chicken). Secret Recipe offers really cheap casual dining with good-sized portions of Malaysian favourites.

Pizza, a Coke, and cheesecake for dessert for RM26.70 - or less than 10 Canadian Dollars.
Pizza, a Coke, and cheesecake for dessert for RM26.70 – or less than 10 Canadian Dollars.

I know some people feel chain restaurants are overpriced or aren’t great examples of a country’s cuisine, but I’m a big believer in dining as real locals do… and sometimes that means checking out the shopping mall food scene for a bit of comfort food.

Getting a crash course in Halal.

Speaking of food and culture, because Malaysia is a majority Muslim nation, most restaurants conform to the strict food handling and production guidelines known as Halal.

Halal presents a curious experience for us westerners who can’t get enough of bacon and pulled pork. At most restaurants, pork products aren’t on the menu (save for the occasional Korean barbeque which explicitly notes on their front door that customers will be dining in a non-Halal environment).

At fast food restaurants, hamburgers are dubbed “beef burgers” so there’s no question about what’s being served. For restaurants which cater to foreign visitors, bacon substitutes are abound – the best of which I experienced in Langkawi at a cafe called the Red Tomato (their “beef bacon” tasted like a fried beef jerky – and was a delicious alternative).

Also, it’s not uncommon to find in public food courts and dining halls signage encouraging patrons not to eat non-Halal food in specific areas in order to maintain the certification.

Non-Halal food is not allowed in this supermarket's cafe.
Non-Halal food is not allowed in this supermarket’s cafe.

If you’re planning a trip to Malaysia and are looking for advice, shoot me a question by e-mail.  If you want to share your own experiences visiting the country, share it with us in the comments below!

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