10 Reasons to Visit Malaysia
Malaysia: My favorite country in Asia!
Up until 6 months ago, the country of Malaysia had never crossed my mind. My university Chinese professor was married to a Malaysian but otherwise, I never thought about the country, didn't know exactly where in Asia it was located, and had no idea what to do in Malaysia once I could find it on the map. Thank goodness for Scott's Cheap Flights, which sent out a fare alert for a $550 round trip flight deal that included flights to/from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok. I booked a flight into Singapore, where I would have an absolutely incredible time (Singapore blog post here), and booked my return ticket out of Bangkok, deciding to figure out the rest later.
Nearly everyone I talked to advised me to skip Malaysia and just go to Thailand since it's such a popular destination. Given how crowded, touristy, and over-hyped I found Thailand, I couldn't be happier with my decision to spend three weeks in Malaysia instead. Here are what I consider to be the top 10 reasons to visit Malaysia and top sites to see in Malaysia...
#1 Malaysia's Diverse Culture
Adding to my ignorance of Malaysia's location and history, was my ignorance of it's cultural and ethnic make-up. I assumed everyone would be "Malay", just like China is populated by mostly Chinese people, and Thailand is populated by mostly Thai people. In fact, only about half of Malaysia's population is ethnic Malay, with two other primary ethnic groups - Chinese (25%) and Indian (~10%). This cultural diversity means that you can walk from Little India to Chinatown in most major cities, listening to different languages and music, and munching on samosas or dumplings while enjoying varied types of architecture.
#2 Incredible & International Cuisine
With a mixture of three dominant ethnic groups, all of which offering spectacular cuisine, Malaysia is one of the best places to dine in Asia. Local Malay specialties include nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (spicy noodles), and countless varieties of rich and flavorful soups. Many Indian restaurants offer buffets, which let you mix and match and proteins, starch, and veggies, and are especially good for vegetarian and vegan travelers. For fun, order a thali platter (many small metal bowls filled with different dishes) served on a banana leaf!
For desert, try cendol, an iced sweet dessert that contains droplets of worm-like green rice flour jelly (made green with pandan leaves), coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. It is often topped with jackfruit or sweet red beans.
To learn more about Malaysian cuisine, check out my Malaysian Food Primer!
Cities across Malaysia are full of beautifully decorated Chinese and Hindu temples, and larger cities, such as Kuala Lumpur, offer the modern architecture and contemporary skyscrapers that create some of Asia’s most iconic skylines. Within the modern metropolis of Kuala Lumpur or Melaka (also spelled "Melacca"), you can visit a traditional Malay village, kampung, a striking juxtaposition of the new and the old. Previously ruled ruled by the British, Dutch and Portuguese, Melaka's architecture includes the ruins of a 16th century Portuguese fortress, the oldest Protestant church in Malaysia and the largest Dutch colonial building in the region.
Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Twin Towers, once the tallest buildings in the world, are connected by a sky bridge, and are just a short walk from other incredible structures like the KL Tower (and its viewing deck!). Head to the SkyBar at night for a stunning view of the towers lit up. Get there early to avoid crowds or come later if you want to dance and take selfies in front of the pool with 20- and 30-something party goers.
#4 Religious Sites + Festivals
Whether you practice a religion or not, some of the best places to visit in Malaysia are religious sites. If you're able to, try to make your visit coincide with one of their festivals. One of Malaysia's most famous attraction are the, Batu Caves, in Kuala Lumpur, where the world's tallest statue of the Hindu deity, Murugan (43m/140ft) stands guard. Tourists can climb 272 steps into the limestone caverns to visit Hindu shrines but beware of monkeys eager to snatch your food or camera!
Each January-February, the Batu Caves transform into a massive Hindu pilgrimage site during the annual Thaipusam festival. I chose to celebrate Thaipusam in Penang, my favorite city in Malaysia. (Blog post coming soon to details Penang's spectacular Thaipusam festival)! Anywhere in Malaysia, especially Kuala Lumpur, Malacca (also spelled "Melaka"), and Penang are also great places to visit during Chinese New Year (usually around February). If you plan your visit right, you can catch both Thaipusam and Chinese New Year in the same trip!
#5 Tea Plantations
The tea industry has long been a major contributor to development and trade in Malaysia, particularly in the Cameron Highlands. Near the highest point of the country, the Cameron Highlands offer cooler temperatures, perfect for thriving tea plantations - and a welcomed and refreshing escape from the heat that blankets the rest of the country. In the Cameron Highlands, you can take a guided tour of the nation’s largest tea company, hike through the plantation itself, and sample local teas at various smaller plantations in the area.
#6 Museums + Gardens
As a very frequent traveler, I'm no longer exited by basic history or art museums, but rather, I enjoy seeking out niche and boutique museums or especially interesting gardens. Malaysia has plenty. Culture buffs and antique enthusiasts can wander through the Malay Living Museum in Melaka, where 100 traditional kampung houses are decorated the same as they were in the 1920s while foodie travelers will enjoy visiting the Wonderfood Museum in Penang to learn about local and regional delicacies. While in Penang, be sure to visit the stunning Penang Butterfly Farm and Spice Garden.
#7 Street Art
Malaysia's street art scene may not offer the brilliantly colorful, multi-story murals that I include during my New York City Graffiti Tours, but the country's dedication to street art is obvious across the country and particularly in the cities of Ipoh and Penang. Ipoh is a smaller, sleepier city where you can easily explore the best street art by foot in one afternoon, whereas Penang requires a city-wide map (available at the info center!) and at least two-full days to sufficiently explore.
#8 Wildlife + Diving
Malaysian Borneo is home to tigers, elephants, and rhinos, and orangotans, all of which can be viewed up-close during guided nature tours. Just off the tip of Malaysian Borneo is Sipidan, considered to be one of the world’s best dive sites, where turtles, barracudas, sharks, and parrot fish abound. If diving is a priority, plan your visit between April - October and also consider visiting Redang, Tioman Islands, or the Perhentian Islands.
Without a doubt, Langkawi Island is Malaysia's most popular beach. It's easy to get to by ferry from Penang Island or from southern Thailand, or via plane, with daily international and domestic departures. In addition to beautiful beaches and abundant ferries offering daily "island hopping tours", Langkawi also offers jungle trekking experiences and waterfall hikes. It's the perfect place to rent a scooter to check out various beaches but don't forget to ride the cable car, which offers impressive views of the rain forest and waterfalls. For a less-touristy option, head east to Redang, a more secluded and pristine beach getaway that's also home to a turtle sanctuary.
#10 Few Tourist
Given it's lower profile, touring Malaysia offers travelers an opportunity to engage one-on-one with locals, and enjoy beaches, streets, museums, and forests that are much less crowded than more popular destinations. I also found the Malay people to be much friendlier and eager to learn from and share with tourists than in nearby Thailand, where I found many locals so accustomed to large-scale tourism that I felt like little more than a pocket book.
Need help planning a trip to Malaysia? Contact me!