Malaysia travel guide
With reefs and rainforests, mountains and minarets, skyscrapers and sampans, Malaysia certainly lives up to its slogan: “truly Asia.” One of the world’s great cultural melting pots, Malaysia is a nation where Chinese joss houses, Hindu temples and gold-domed mosques jostle for space with towering skyscrapers. The British once presided over this fascinating sampling platter of Asian culture, leaving behind a legacy of hill stations, polo fields and high tea.
In fact, Malaysia offers two countries for the price of one; Peninsular Malaysia, bordering Thailand at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula; and East Malaysia, the northern half of the island of Borneo, nuzzling up against Indonesia and Brunei. This opens up some spectacular opportunities for nation-hopping across Southeast Asia.
Malaysia’s supercharged capital, Kuala Lumpur, resembles a crystal garden that has grown miraculously in the jungle. Indeed, pockets of virgin rainforest still survive amongst the towering skyscrapers, multi-storey shopping malls and monorail tracks. If you do nothing else, devote a day to sampling KL’s street food; from Chinese noodles and Indian dosas (rice pancakes) to aromatic and spicy Malay curries and seafood.
Away from the cities, untamed nature awaits, in the form of jungles dripping with rare and exotic species and coral reefs thronged by turtles, sharks and tropical fish. Malaysia’s national parks and wildlife reserves are well-organised and well looked after, and you might be lucky enough to meet Malaysia’s most charismatic resident, the orang-utan (literally, “forest man”).
Then there are the islands; tropical resorts such as Langkawi, Tioman and the Perhentian Islands have become almost legendary for fans of swaying palms, sparkling sand and scuba diving on pristine reefs. Malaysia’s dive sites – particularly those reached on live-aboard safaris – rank amongst the best in the world.
Peninsular Malaysia is where people go for bustling cities and colonial history, but the states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo are the gateway to another world. Lush rainforests are inhabited by isolated indigenous tribes, whose traditional way of life is vanishing fast as the modern world encroaches; catch it now before they put up a parking lot.
329,847 sq km (127,355 sq miles).
30,751,602 (UN estimate 2016).
92.5 per sq km.
King Muhammad V ibni Sultan Ismail Petra since 2016.
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak since 2009.
240 volts AC, 50Hz. British-style plugs with three square pins are used.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Local travel – Sabah
In February 2013, around 100 armed men from the Sulu archipelago landed on the eastern coast of Sabah and occupied the small village of Kampung Tanduo approximately 100 km east of Lahad Datu. On 1 March 2013 there was an exchange of fire and a number of fatalities. On 3 March 2013 there were reports of further incidents on the coast between Lahad Datu and Semporna. Additional Malaysian security forces were sent to the area on 4 March 2013 and on 5 March 2013 airstrikes and other military action was reported against locations held by the armed group from Sulu around Kampung Tanduo.
The Malaysian authorities have designated some areas of eastern Sabah as coming under the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM). The Malaysian security forces have strengthened their presence in this area and introduced measures to reduce the risk of unauthorised boat landings. Transit points have been unaffected.
Take sensible precautions to protect yourself from petty crime. Avoid carrying valuables and take particular care of your passport whilst walking, in aircraft, cafes, airport and railway terminals, and hotel rooms. Don’t open your hotel room door to strangers, especially late at night. This applies particularly to women travelling alone. Credit card and ATM fraud is widespread. Take great care when using your card.
Incidents of bag snatching are common, including by thieves on motorbikes. Bags with shoulder straps should either be carried with the bag towards the pavement rather than the road, or tucked under the arm. Don’t wrap the strap around your arm or shoulder and do not try to hold on to your bag. People have been injured or killed by being pulled to the ground by their bag straps.
Taxi coupon systems are in place at airports and the larger shopping centres; in other areas taxis should use a meter.
Be careful if you’re offered a drink by a stranger, even in a reputable bar or restaurant. These approaches can involve spiked drinks, and have resulted in cases of robbery and assault.
If you are a victim of crime, inform the local police and get a police report.
You can drive in Malaysia using a valid UK driving licence.
Road conditions in Peninsular Malaysia are generally good, but less so in East Malaysia. Vehicles (particularly motorcycles) don’t always stop at traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. If you are involved in a road accident you are obliged by law to stay at the scene until the police have arrived. If a crowd gathers, it may be safer to leave the scene and report to the nearest police station.
There have been a number of fatal bus crashes, particularly on overnight journeys. Choose a reputable operator for your journey.
If you rent a motorbike you should take the same safety precautions as in the UK. Malaysian law states that helmets must be worn.
Driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious offence and the traffic police regularly carry out breath tests. Anyone over the legal limit can face a heavy fine or a jail sentence.
Sea and river travel
Piracy in South East Asian waters is an ongoing problem. There have been a number of attacks against ships in and around Malaysian waters, particularly in the Strait of Malacca and the waters between Sabah and the southern Philippines. Be vigilant and take appropriate precautions. Reduce opportunities for theft, establish secure areas on board and report all incidents to the coastal and flag state authorities.
Some passenger boats have sunk due to overloading and/or poor maintenance. Take care at all times when travelling by passenger ferry or speedboat and avoid travelling on vessels that are clearly overloaded or in poor condition. Make sure life jackets are available.
Water sports and scuba diving
If you rent jet skis or any other type of water sports equipment, make sure adequate safety precautions are in place. Only use reputable licensed operators, insist on training before use and make sure you’re insured.
Check dive operators’ credentials carefully and make sure you’re insured. Check that safety equipment is available on the boat, including oxygen. Ask about contingency plans, which should include the ability to call for help while at sea and to evacuate divers to the nearest hyperbaric chamber if necessary.
The sites of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, which lie in international waters off Kuantan, have been declared ‘protected places’ under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. You should only dive there on a ‘look not touch’ basis. Don’t attempt to penetrate the wrecks, which lie in deep water. You should also take great care. A British diver died in November 2011 while diving on HMS Repulse. Make sure any boat operator you use holds a licence for diving at the wreck site.
Police have sometimes used tear gas and water cannons to control public protests. Monitor local and international media and avoid all demonstrations. Under Malaysian law it’s illegal for foreign nationals to take part in demonstrations.