5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling to Malaysia

Nomad Gavin shares the five things he wishes someone had told him before visiting Malaysia, from culture to food to how to get around.


Street food in Malaysia Photo © Getty Images/Punnawitsuwuttananun

Malaysia is a melting pot of cultures, a vibrant destination for a bit of urban exploration in one of the major cities, relaxation on the beaches, hiking in Borneo, or scuba diving around one of 800+ islands. Here's what you should know before you visit.

1. Cultural heritage in Malaysia

Malaysia may be governed by (and for) Muslim Malays, but that doesn't mean other religions and cultures don't thrive here. Chinese, Indians and Indigenous ethnicities all contribute to the cultural diversity, making Malaysia an incredibly multicultural place to travel. 

2. Is English widely spoken in Malaysia?

As Nelson Mandela said "Speak to me in a language I understand and you speak to my head. Speak to me in my language and you speak to my heart." Having said that, English is widely spoken in Malaysia; much more so than in most other Asian countries, so reasonable English is enough to get you around.

If you're venturing beyond the major cities, learn a few words of Bahasa for a better chance of connecting locally.

3. Cheap flights in Malaysia

Air Asia has made air travel easy and affordable. This budget airline based in Malaysia flies all over Asia and beyond from its two main hubs, Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu. It is a low cost airline, so beware of baggage limitations and don‘t expect much sympathy if you miss your flight for any reason.

Find out about travel restrictions in Malaysia related to COVID-19.

4. Food in Malaysia

Food is often regarded as one of the best things about Malaysia. From cheap roadside food stalls to deluxe fusion restaurants, there's something for everyone. Often pork is not on the menu, but just about every other protein is available – including bull penis.

Penang is considered the gastronomic capital of Malaysia, and it showcases influences from India, China, Thailand and beyond with an intoxicating blend traditions and spices.

Health standards are higher in Malaysia than elsewhere in Southeast Asia, even for street food. But, it's still a good idea to follow these simple tips for good food hygiene.

5. Don't miss Malaysian Borneo

Go beyond Penang and Kuala Lumpur on peninsular Malaysia to explore Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

In the state of Sabah, experience some of Malaysia's best scuba diving on Sipadan Island and Layang Layang Island, hike to the top of Mayalsia's highest mountain – Mt Kinabalu at 13,435ft (4,095m), or visit Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre to see the largest sanctuary of its kind in the world. Here, illegally captured, orphaned, and injured orangutans are rehabilitated to survive in the wild – a process that could take up to seven years. 

In the state of Sarawak, explore Gunung Mulu National Park to see incredible rock formations, walk inside Niah National Park's limestone caves, or for a bit of urban exploration check out the colonial buildings and street food in the city of Kuching.

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  • MARIANNA said


  • mohd hisham said

    beach holiday is in terengganu, the state in malaysia that has the longest beach. terengganu face south chinese sea so it is cleaner compared to penang or other states facing malacca straits since the strait are the busiest sealane in the world. you can reach terengganu by plane (50 minutes) from kuala lumpur which cost you not more than usd40. malaysia has many types of food but to get the best you need to know where to get it, like nasi dagang or keropok lekor the best place to get it is in terengganu. kelantan which is neighbouring it is considered as heaven for food lover. cleanliness is an issue in most of the restaurant so to get the clean place to eat you just need to ask for an A rated restaurant, B rated sometimes not so bad. this rating are given by the ministry of health n usually they put it where customer can see. it also happen to hawkerstall but the weakness of this system is that they are not compulsory, only food provider that request for the review will be revised by the ministry but surely you can rule out those without the rating...

  • MattyCurnow said

    In May last year I travelled through Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. I spent 2 weeks in Penang and I loved it. Eating with locals and enjoying my time in completely different surroundings. I am from Australia living in London (with the million others) I can not wait to pass back around and go to Malaysia. But first its off to work on a farm in Iceland! <br>Peace

  • Tazzie said

    Been back 6 weeks from Malaysia and Borneo in particular, as a Muslim country what a lovely, friendly, happy people they are, helpful and welcoming both in the cities as well as in the remote areas, felt safe and secure the whole time (more than at home in AUS). Great food in Hawker Street KL, great culture and to top it all off saw up close a small herd of wild elephants crashing thru the jungle only meters away, Orangs, Proboscus and Silver leaf monkeys, crocodiles just to mention some of the wildlife in remote Borneo (the Sandakan side of the island) Have been to most of Sth East Asia and it stacks up with the best. Be aware alcohol is not readily available in some areas, if drinking and partying is your thing.

  • Lynette said

    Going to Boreo in December with two teenagers but not sure whether to venture over to Sandakan & DanumValley in light of the current travel warning by the Australian Gov't. Anyone out there have any advice?

  • PhilSylvester said

    The warnings were downgraded a little at the end of August, and from my position I haven't seen much in the way of news about continuing trouble.
    But, perhaps the best place to ask this question is our Ask A Nomad Q&A forum.
    Lots of travellers interacting there, and more visible than the comments here - although I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.
    Phil from the safety hub

  • Adam said

    I've been all over Asia; Malaysia is easily the safest country in all of Asia to travel and be a tourist in. Pretty much like Singapore. I've determined this after several trips there. The people have good behaviour, especially noticed this in the Malays. It is relatively well off, and people don't hustle on the streets or hassle passer-by, much unlike many other countries. I saw ONE beggar there, in all of my trips there, and I went to many non-touristy locations. Great place to travel.

  • Catherine said

    Following on from Marianna's comment about the food: I've travelled all over South-East Asia and Malaysia is the only country in Asia I've visited where I haven't had a stomach problem from local food. Not one single bit of cramps or diaorrhea! The hawker markets have some of the best and safest food you'll find in Asia, Penang and KL especially. Things don't look like you'd find in 'the west' and so you have to alter your expectations but often the hotel kitchens are far more prone to giving you problems than the hawkers as everything is on show to their customers: not the case in hidden away kitchens in mid-range or even upper class hotels. I'm talking from experience! KL is currently undergoing a big overhaul and there's a lot of building and development work going on, but I still love it. It's a diverse, beautiful, always changing country with a deep history and culture that always has something to offer, whoever you are or whatever your interests. I have been to Malaysia twice in the last 2 years, plan to go back again in the next 12 months and would like to potentially relocate there in the future. "Malaysia, truly Asia" as the adverts say!

  • ratatat said

    Marianna is definitely a troll and we all know what nationality she is. Capital letters and one sided perspective? We totally need more people like her on the internet. She didn't even spell the hotel right, it's called Rasa Senang Hotel. I would assume if you're from the west with non-Malay background, you wouldn't have typed as senang as sayang. Which means that you have a background in the Malay language. I bet are you are one of those butthurt indonesians i bumped into on travelling websites making dumb comments in an attempt to put tourist away with total disregard of factual accuracy and total disregard of other users' feelings.

  • Wout said

    We have traveled to and through Malaysia many times, but lately people seem much less friendly (shops, restaurants) than before. Particularly Malay people are reluctant (refusing ) to serve, i.e the restaurant at the bus station at KLIA, a female bus ticket seller claiming that there was no bus that day, though there were many. A general trend of rudeness towards Westerners seems to prevail. Obviously we have also experienced kindness and helpfulness. We love Malay food.

  • Riaan said

    MARIANNA why are you screaming at us. Your comments about Penang and Langkawi is total rubbish. I have been travelling to Malaysia for the past 15 years and never experienced any problem with food. And for you comment about the average Western traveller please keep your trap shut as you definitely do not represent me. I have travelled to various international destinations and never experienced what you are talking about. (58 trips) including 8 to Malaysia.

    So my advice to you is stay Home and forget about travelling as its definitely not for you.

  • Alec Hodges said

    Just returned from a tour of Malaya which basically involved a six day car tour staying at quality hotels. All was fine but not at all what I was expecting. Maybe at 68 years of age I am not ready for such "civilized holidaying".

  • Yu Sung Guk said

    very good

    we are trading company here South Korea.

  • Kshodha Nagum said

    Dear Readers,

    I am Malaysian. And I agree with some of your comments, however I will try to defend my people ( although I don't usually). Malaysia is not a first world country and so obviously not all its people are fully educated. This is why the streets, food stalls, restaurants etc etc are not as clean as it should be. Sadly ,Malaysian's either don't care enough or don't understand why it is important to give a good first impressions to not only tourists but those from other states. I have been to other countries and yes, Malaysia is not exactly up to par. But we make up for it in our yummy ( sometimes not exactly healthy to be eaten) and multi-racial food selection ( I think).

    There are many destinations in Malaysia, yes. Most are beautiful. I've been to many. On the way to your destination however you will encounter many stretches of Palm Oil Plantations. What do you expect? Palm oil is our number one profit income. Hopefully you will be happy with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When you are traveling ( not only in Malaysia ), it is important to have a smile and a respectful greeting. Saying " Hi, Pak Cik/ Bang/Adik ( elder male/ male youth/a male child) or Mak Cik/Kak/Adik ( elder female/female youth/a female child)." Don't be surprised if they do not exactly acknowledge it the first time, they have probably had a long day. It is good to be soft spoken and you will get results such as help and smiles.

    The language barrier is something very common. Malaysians have a basic understanding of English, some are fluent (like me). But because Malaysia is a multi-racial country, the main languages you will hear would be Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. It is good to know a few Malay/Mandarin/Tamil words as it will help you get around.

    I will tell you that people from Sabah and Sarawak are more friendlier that those from the peninsular ( I am Sabahan). The rule of smiles and respect apply. If you are looking for a beautiful beach, Kudat (The Tip of Borneo) must be in your to-do-list. The water is blue and the beaches are clean. The seafood in Sabah is cheaper when compared to the peninsular as well as fresher.

    I hope this gives you a better view on my country. If not well then you should come to Malaysia and see for yourself.

  • nik. said

    db is obviously a fool or pushing another cause with the lies. I have lived in S.E. Asia for over 20 years and travelled everywhere as i love all the countries but Malaysia is the best of the best. I have visited Penang more than 30 times. A rubbish dump? The best place on the planet and as clean as anywhere in Asia. Please keep your lieing propaganda off the net.

  • LP said

    I was living in KL for 12 years, moved to Australia this year. I moved for a better quality of life, better air, better infrastructure, higher standard of living. I think it is all that, but I am missing Malaysia alot. It's a very laid back and relaxed county, sun all year round, no cold weather, a relatively low cost of living, amazing food. I would say it's the retirement life style. Stress free as an expat. Are the pressures and stresses of a western life style worth it.

  • Rizky said

    I'm Malaysian, to foreigners don't expect to have beautiful luxury west English-style or Paris style ammenities in a place you want to eat, although there are quite a number of British-colonial buildings during the colonization eras that now been taken over by the likes of KFC and Mcdonalds so you can still enjoy that there are still though many places offer such thing but at a different price rates, while the local restaurants and hawkers with no air condition,they are simple enough like you see in any Asian countries, but the foods are far more delicious there than the 4-5 star hotel or restaurants you can find here in Malaysia. The people of all races here are nice mostly to foreigners, irrespective of race but they can treat their own people like crap. Don't ask me why. So if you are foreigners you should have no hatred towards you at all.

    Dear Wout,
    yes you are correct about the Malaysian people attitudes has become I would say slightly less friendly and helpful then like 5 to 10 years ago. I dont exactly know why because This probably has to do with the racial tension that has escalated since then, and due to the high cost of living and economic problem then causing stress amongst the people. If you follow Malaysia politics, The Malays are becoming more and more religious and some are extreme at it and would not tolerate or respect inproper dressings. So make sure you or your girl or child dress up decently and watch your manners. if you are going to an all-out Malay restaurants with all the women wearing hijabs. that should be a safe indicator. Still if you are a tourist, I wouldn't worry too much just be normal and don't bring pets like dogs to restaurants please.

  • David from travelscams.org said

    Great article, thanks for the tips! In Malaysia, you can visit beautiful beaches, enjoy great diving, explore vibrant metropolis, commune with nature or explore the amazing street food. However, there are a number of crimes and scams to watch out for http://travelscams.org/asia/common-tourist-scams-malaysia/

    Do be wary of the snatch thefts, pickpockets, flower sellers, fake monks, spiked drinks, fake goods, smash and grab car robbery, rogue cab drivers, ATM skimming, fake police, gambling invitation scams and many more!

  • adam said

    True, before I go to Malaysia I have to know how and what is in Malaysia, this is good information and useful. Thank you! My holiday with my friend after Malaysia is Bali island, and while in Bali I will choose Theapartmentscanggu.com when will break

  • Mahdi said

    Ive been forced to live in malaysia for 7 years this country is bullshit people , please dont travel they will disrespect you and rob your money, they worship to money thats it, weather is shit, culture is shit and everywhere is dirty as hell , honestly the most hated region ive been in my lifetime is Malaysia and the people are far from humanity.

  • Melvard00 said

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  • Julianaky Chan said

    Hi Everyone,
    I personally haven't visit Malaysia before but I am very interest in looking forward to going to Malaysia and see for myself what is it like to live there and feel like.
    i was thinking of going there in the second half of this year if i could take my annual leave.

  • Steve Skrobot said

    Lots of lively talk about Malaysia. Well, as a foreigner who is white and western, from Canada. I was there for two months last year to visit my girlfriend and I fell in love with the place. Yes, it is authoritarian, yes, it is austere in many ways and different from the west, but why should we be silly enough to expect it to be catering to our whims as outsiders? It is their country, the good the bad and the ugly, and although I feared going, it being muslim majority, I had a very safe and lovely time there, and only on one instance in Terengganu did I feel that it was eerie, but that was because of a long ride from KL to Kuala Terrenganu, with the sun going down, being very tired, hearing the muezzin and feeling very much out of place. Malaysians were overall very nice, well-behaved people, and I recommend it as a great country to visit. I would not want to live there year-round, it is a little too autocratic for my taste, but you only notice this if you pay attention, or if you do something wrong. It has beautiful weather, and is an exotic location, my favourite places being Malacca, Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Be more open-minded, you foreign visitors. I was scared of Islam, but believe me, the place was not filthy, nor a dump, nor did anybody try to cut my head off. I recommend the place highly, just be careful and don't be stupid and you will do fine.

  • Brain Dean said

    I Iove Malaysian Food and culture. You are right dear. I love to travel in Malaysia! When i first visit Malaysia i was nervous>> But now my free time I spend in Malaysia. I got Malaysia visa from Keymalaysia website! Thanks for helping post!

  • Wong said

    Yes Malaysia is the best in Asia, low cost of living whereby you can get filled with foods less than 10USD a day! In Singapore, probably you need at least 30USD to keep yourself filled with good foods.

    Hotels and accommodation are cheap as well, petrol prices are low, you can easily rent a car using SOCAR app.

    Therefore, what are there to shout for? Malaysia is all you need, please note that foreigners are only able to purchase property in Kuala Lumpur at the price of RM1,000,000.00 above. Which means roughly 250K USD for a nice house in KL for retirement.

  • Mika said

    I've traveled around SE Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia and Malaysia) a few times. After visiting the Western part of Malaysia the first time, I returned to visit Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo. In my opinion, I agree with the author. I found many Malaysians spoke English and were very friendly when I asked for directions. Mass Transit around KL and using the long distance buses within the Western part of Malaysia worked well. Flying to Borneo was smooth. Transportation on Borneo was less organized in some areas, but I appreciated the taxi coupon at the airport so I didn't have to question whether my driver was overcharging me or not.

    If you want to make friends with a Malaysian, ask them about food advice! They will share which stall or even which city has the best laksa or custard tarts. I miss the food courts in Malaysia and only wish the food courts in my city were anywhere near as good.

    The national parks I visited in Penang and on Borneo were beautiful. I hope Malaysia continues to care for their national parks and protect their wildlife.

  • YO-C said

    For political bravado the Malaysian Premier just announced that he wd bar all Israeli tourists from entering his country — shame on him

    In solidarity with all tourists whose passport’s issuing state is a cause to bar them from entering another country, though they themselves are no threat to anyone, I will not seek to visit Malaysia on my next trip to SE Asia

  • Sulaiman said

    I'am really amaized of all these iinformations i had,by the will of Allah i will be coming through this year to see this beautiful Country Myself.

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