Often ignored by travellers favouring neighbouring Thailand or Indonesia, Malaysia is a unique and often underrated travel destination. From sprawling urban jungles, historical cities, enormous mountains, and vast areas of tropical rainforest, Malaysia has something to offer everybody. It is a melting pot of different cultures that you will not experience anywhere else in the world, and although it is dwarfed by its neighbouring countries, it is among the most diverse countries in the world – especially when it comes to its incredible rainforests and coral reefs.
Malaysia is split into two distinct parts that are separated by the South China Sea – the Malay Peninsular which borders Thailand to the North and Singapore to the south, and East Malaysia, which is located on the island of Borneo.
The Malaysian ringgit (MYR) is the counties official currency, although on the Thai border, some shops will accept baht, and on the Indonesian border, rupiah is often traded. It uses a mix of notes and coins, with the largest commonly used note being RM100 (roughly 20 GBP as of November 2018), and the smallest being RM1 (roughly 20 pence).
Currency exchange offices are common in all cities and large towns, and the exchange rates are among the fairest in the world. Changing 100 USD will often give you 99.5 USD worth of Malaysian ringgit – this even applies to areas where you would expect to get ripped off with currency exchange, such as airports or train stations.
Malaysia has a rich blend of different cultures, and as such, there are a variety of different languages spoken in different regions of the country. The official language is Bahasa Malay throughout the country, while the state of Sarawak also considers English to be a second official language.
There are a further 137 living languages spoken throughout Malaysia – with 41 of these being spoken on the Malay Peninsular. As Malaysia was a British colony until it reached full independence in 1957, English is widely spoken throughout the country. Most Malaysians can hold a full conversation in a Malay English dialect, and Malaysia is ranked 13th in the world for English comprehension as a second language.
Much like neighbouring Indonesia, Malaysia is a Muslim majority country, with roughly 61% following Islam. A further 20% follow Buddhism, 9% Christian, 6% Hindu, and the rest being split between traditional Chinese religions or Sikhism.
Islam is incorporated into government law, and despite being a multi-religious society, the Malaysian constitution does not guarantee freedom of religion, and the government has come under fire for discrimination against atheists, with cabinet ministers being quoted “the freedom of religion is not the freedom from religion”.
Generally, the different religions and ethnic groups are tolerant of each other, and as a visitor it is best not to engage in conversations regarding religion.
British citizens do not require a visa to enter Malaysia, and are permitted to stay for up to three months without any form visa. Should you wish to stay longer, you must apply for a long stay visa at the consulate or embassy.
Malaysian authorities are cracking down on illegal immigration, so overstaying your welcome could result in a large fine, deportation, and a ban from entering the country for several years.
More information regarding Malaysia foreign travel and visa advice can be found here.
Best Things to do in Egypt (Non-Diving)
Explore Kuala Lumpur
Despite having a population of city population of just under 1,800,000, Kuala Lumpur is one of the most important financial cities in south east Asia, and is home to a number of unique landmarks.
Here you can find the Petronas Twin Towers – the tallest twin towers in the world – and the Exchange 106 – the tallest building in south east Asia – will be completed by 2019. It is also home to three of the top ten largest shopping malls in the world.
Kuala Lumpur is an excellent mix of old and new architecture, and is one of the fastest growing shopping destinations in the world. Street food is very popular in the Bukit Bintang district, and because of the mix of different cultures, there will be something to suit everybody.
See Wild Orang utans
Borneo is one of only two islands in the world that you can see wild Orang utans, with the other being Sumatra in Indonesia.
There are a number of national parks and sanctuaries where they can be found, however your best chance of seeing them in their natural habitat is Danum Valley, in Sabah. This 400 km2 rainforest reserve has an estimated 500 resident orang utans, and with excellent local guides, you wont have a better chance of seeing them anywhere else in Malaysia.
Georgetown is the capital of Penang state, and the old town has been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site since 2008.
It was established in 1786 by the British East India Company, and was the first British settlement in south east Asia. Because of the old colonial architecture and with road names such as Green Lane, Northam Road or Victoria Street, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a British town with an unusually pleasant climate.
All new development must comply with strict regulation as to not interfere with the historical aspects of the city, and the mixture of cultures brought here by the British Empire make Georgetown an extremely unique city. There are amazing street food stands and restaurants to sample – especially Indian food.
Climb Mount Kinabalu
Standing at an enormous 4,095 metres, Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak in the Malay Archipelago. It is protected by the Kinabalu National Park – a world heritage site – and with between 5,000 and 6,000 species of plants, 326 bird species, and over 100 species of mammals, it is considered one of the most important biological sites in the world.
Hikers must be accompanied by a local guide, and the mountain can be climbed in a single day trip, however two days is more common – resting close to the ridge so the second day is a short hop to the summit for the sunrise before decent.
Scuba Diving in Malaysia
Sipadan and Mabul
Lets start off with the best shall we? Not only do these small islands off East Sabah contain the best diving in Malaysia, Sipadan Island is frequently regarded as the best dive site in the world!
Sipadan is the product of thousands of years of coral growth over an extinct volcano, and the result is a spectacular reef surrounded by deep walls. The visibility is on average 30 metres, and the swift currents attracts enormous schools of barracuda, bump head parrotfish, eagle rays, and it is considered one of the best places in south east Asia to spot sharks. Turtles are also extremely common, with more than 20 often being sighted on a single dive.
You cannot stay overnight on Sipadan, and you can only dive there via a lottery system. Most people will either stay on Mabul or Kapalai (which is not so good for diving). Mabul is as amazing as Sipadan, however the diving here is very different. The gentle mud / sand slopes surrounding the island makes Mabul a muck diving hotspot. Frogfish, seahorses, snake eels and mandarin fish are all very common, so make sure you bring both your wide-angle and macro lens for this trip!
Lying 300km north west off the coast of Sabah is a ring of 13 coral atolls that are seldom dived compared to Sipadan or Mabul. This is not a beautiful atoll that you might see in the Maldives – rather a shallow reef that has been reclaimed from the sea by dumping concrete onto the shallow reef. Its original purpose was as a Malaysian naval base, which is still used to this day, although you are allowed to visit the atoll as long as you keep away from the base.
The atoll is sat in extremely deep water, with the reef edge dropping to over 2000 metres. Fishing is not permitted in the region, and with a naval base so close by, this rule is enforced. Because of the distance from land, and the lack of fishing activity, the reef is extremely healthy with a huge diversity of reef fish.
Due to the depth of the water, this spot is one of the best in the coral triangle for seeing pelagic species. The most famous visitors here are enormous schools of scalloped hammerheads, which are frequently spotted in relatively shallow water. Many other pelagics are commonly spotted here too, such as tuna, thresher sharks, and whale sharks.
This small island island situated 32 km from the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsular is often referred to as the most beautiful island on the planet, and has has been showcased to the world in the 1958 blockbuster ‘South Pacific’.
It may not be as diverse or beautiful as the previously mentioned sites, but Tioman has beautiful and varied diving to suit all levels of divers. The shore diving is among the best in Asia, which is great for beginners looking to explore the underwater realm without having to join day trips.
For the more advanced divers, boats can take you to some of the neighbouring islands where the stronger currents have enabled the growth of huge amounts of soft corals and gorgonians. At these sites, there is an abundance of reef fish, which in turn attracts the larger, pelagic species.
While the Perhentian islands might not offer enough to attract serious divers, it is often regarded as the best place in Malaysia to get certified as an Open Water Diver and gain experience as a new diver. The islands are on the west coast of the Malaysian Peninsular, so you can expect some similarities to diving in the southern parts of Thailand’s Andaman Sea.
Both shore and boat diving are possible, with the later often heading out to deeper pinnacles where pelagic fish are known to gather, as well as reef sharks and bamboo sharks. The shore dives are great for beginners looking to improve on their diving skills without having to deal with strong currents, and for those who are interested in macro life.
When to Visit Malaysia
Because Malaysia is spread over quite a large area with multiple coastlines, you can dive the country year round as when one side is having its rainy monsoon, the other coast will be enjoying the dry season.
January and February can be characterised by rough seas, strong winds, and lots of rain, although Mabul and Sipadan are often spared much of the rain that falls on the mainland. During these months, viability will be reduced, however many divers still visit during these months and say it is excellent.
The peak season for diving Sipadan is between June and August, when the seas are almost always calm, and visibility can easily reach 40 metres. The island can get very busy during holiday seasons, so it may be better to visit during May or September to try to avoid the summer rush.
Diving off Sabah’s west coast is not a year round venture. It generally has much rougher seas than the east coast - even during peak season. Most of the resorts close between September and February as the region is almost undiveable during these months. The best time for seeing the scalloped hammerhead sharks (what this area is famous for) is March to April, when the seas are a little calmer but still cooler.
The west coast of the Malay Peninsular experiences very similar weather to the west coast of Thailand. Most of the resort and dive companies close between May and October, when the rain can be extremely heavy and the ocean conditions may not be safe for small boats.
The dry season runs from November until April, and during these months you can expect beautiful clear skies, flat seas, and great visibility.
A few things to Beware of..
Malaysia is infamous for its strict drug policies, and as a tourist it is something you should avoid getting involved with at all costs. You will be warned about this as soon as you approach the country via aircraft, with the PA system reminding you that importing any drugs into the country is punishable with by death – and this punishment is enforced.
It is regarded as one of the toughest countries in the world when it comes to drug trafficking and possession, with even possession of small amounts of cannabis seeing users locked away for many years.
Back in 2000, 19 people were taken hostage on the island of Sipadan by Philippine pirates, and taken to the Philippines for ransom. All hostages survived the ordeal, and because of the kidnappings, the Malaysian government stationed a permanent naval base on Sipadan.
Although Sipadan and the surrounding islands are now completely safe, there is still friction between the Philippine insurgents, and there is still a risk of piracy and kidnapping on some of the more remote islands off the east coast of Sabah. It is generally advised that you only visit islands that have well established resorts, or where the army/navy are actively protecting.
While Kuala Lumpur may be an excellent city to explore Malay culture, it is seriously failing when it comes to taxis. The city is consistently found on the ‘worlds worst taxi’ list, and it is not just tourists who receive appalling service. A minister even made a comment online saying they were “worse than our filthy public toilets”, and locals tend to avoid them at all costs.
There are many reasons why they are so bad. The cars are usually falling apart (unlike neighbouring Thailand and Indonesia, where taxis seem to always be new), the drivers are careless, and they often refuse to use the metre or drive you an absurd route. They are even known to take you to the wrong spot and demand more money to finish the journey.
Luckily, apps like Easy Taxi, My Teksi, or Uber make it much easier to get a decent ride, and Kuala Lumpur has a fantastic city wide public monorail/train system that makes getting around both easy and cheap.
41 Dive Centres in Malaysia
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