The climate in Malaysia remains remarkably consistent throughout the year, with typical daytime temperatures of around 30°. However, the northeast monsoon brings torrential rains and heavy seas between September and February, concentrating its attentions on the west coast of the Peninsula in September and October, and on the east coast after that.
Anyone entering Malaysia from Thailand will find that costs are slightly higher – both food and accommodation are more expensive – whereas travellers arriving from Indonesia will find prices a little lower overall. Travelling in a group naturally helps keep costs down. The region affords some savings for senior citizens, and an ISIC student card might occasionally pay dividends.
Note that bargaining is routine throughout Malaysia when buying stuff in markets or small shops, though you don’t haggle for meals or accommodation.
In Peninsular Malaysia you can scrape by on £12/US$20/RM60 per day staying in dorms, eating at hawker stalls and getting around by bus. Double that and you’ll be able to exist in relative comfort without thinking too hard about occasionally treating yourself. Over in east Malaysia, where accommodation and tours tend to cost a little more, the minimum daily outlay is more like £16/US$25/RM80.
Crime and personal safety
If you lose something in Malaysia, you’re more likely to have someone run after you with it than run away. Nevertheless, don’t become complacent: pickpockets and snatch-thieves frequent Malaysia’s more touristed cities, and theft from dormitories by other tourists is fairly common. If you have to report a crime, be sure to get a copy of the police report for insurance purposes.
Sensible precautions include carrying your passport and other valuables in a concealed money belt, and using the safety deposit box provided by many guesthouses and hotels. Take a photocopy of the relevant pages of your passport, too, in case it’s lost or stolen. If you use travellers’ cheques, keep a separate record of the serial numbers, together with a note of which ones you’ve cashed.
It’s worth repeating here that it’s very unwise to have anything to do with illegal drugs of any description in Malaysia.
To report a crime in Malaysia, head for the nearest police station, where someone will invariably speak English. In many major tourist spots, specific tourist police stations are geared up to problems faced by foreign travellers.
Restrictions on contact between people of the opposite sex (such as the offence of khalwat, or “close proximity”) and eating in public during daylight hours in the Ramadan month apply to Muslims only.
Mains voltage in Malaysia is 230 volts, so any equipment using 110 volts will need a converter. The plugs in all three countries have three square prongs like British ones.
Nationals of the UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa do not need visas in advance to stay in Malaysia, and it’s easy to extend your permission to stay. That said, check with the relevant embassy or consulate, as the rules on visas are complex and subject to change. Ensure that your passport is valid for at least six months from the date of your trip, and has several blank pages for entry stamps.
Upon arrival in Malaysia, citizens of Australia, Canada, the UK, Ireland, US, New Zealand and South Africa receive a passport stamp entitling them to a 90-day stay. Visitors who enter via Sarawak, however, receive a 30-day stamp. Visa requirements for various nationalities are listed on w.
It’s straightforward to extend your permit through the Immigration Department, who have offices (listed in the Guide) in Kuala Lumpur and major towns. Visitors from the above countries can also cross into Singapore or Thailand and back to be granted a fresh Malaysia entry stamp.
Tourists travelling from the Peninsula to east Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah) must be cleared again by immigration; visitors to Sabah can remain as long as their original entry stamp is valid, but arriving in Sarawak from whichever territory generates a new 30-day stamp, which can be easily renewed.
When you arrive, you will normally be given a lengthy landing card to complete; hang onto the small departure portion of the card for when you leave Malaysia.
Embassies and consulates
Australia 7 Perth Ave, Yarralumla, Canberra, ACT 6000 t02 6120 0600, w.
Brunei No. 61, Simpang 336, Kg Sungai Akar, Jalan Kebangsaan, P.O. Box 2826, Bandar Seri Begawan t02 381095.
Canada 60 Boteler St, Ottawa, ON K1N 8Y7 t613 241 5182.
Indonesia Jalan H.R. Rasuna Said, Kav. X/6, No. 1–3 Kuningan, Jakarta Selatan 12950 t021 5224947.
Ireland Shelbourne House, Level 3A–5A, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 t01 667 7280.
New Zealand 10 Washington Ave, Brooklyn, Wellington t04 385 2439.
Singapore 301 Jervois Rd t6325 0111.
South Africa 1007 Schoeman St, Arcadia, Pretoria 0083 t012 342 5990.
Thailand 35 South Sathorn Rd, Bangkok 10120 t02 629 6800.
UK 45 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8QT t020 7235 8033, w.
US 3516 International Court, NW Washington, DC 20008 t202 572 9700.
Malaysia’s duty-free allowances are 200 cigarettes or 225g of tobacco, and 1 litre of wine, spirits or liquor. There’s no customs clearance for passengers travelling from Singapore or Peninsular Malaysia to East Malaysia, nor for people passing between Sabah and Sarawak.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Though Malaysia’s largest cities have long had a discreet gay scene, the public profile of gays and lesbians was until recently still summed up by the old “don’t ask, don’t tell” maxim. However, cyberspace has helped galvanize gay people in both countries, providing a virtual refuge within which to socialize and campaign. While the environment in Malaysia is always going to be conservative – illustrated by the fact that Brokeback Mountain failed to be screened there, and by occasional raids on gay saunas – the Malaysian government has no obvious appetite, Islamically inspired or otherwise, to clamp down on the existing, limited gay nightlife.
For all the general loosening up over the years, it’s very much a case of two steps forward and one step back. Colonial-era laws criminalizing anal and oral sex remains on the statute book in Malaysia, and what gay-related campaigning exists tends to be channelled into the relatively uncontentious issue of HIV AIDS. Needless to say, all this makes legal recognition of gay partnerships a distant prospect.
This mixed picture shouldn’t deter gay visitors from getting to know and enjoy the local scene, such as it is. A small number of gay establishments are reviewed in this guide, and more listings are available on w and the Bangkok-based w.
A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for the loss of bags, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Some policy premiums include dangerous sports; in Malaysia, for example, this can mean scuba diving, whitewater rafting or trekking (notably in the Maliau Basin of Sabah). Always ascertain whether medical coverage will be paid out as treatment proceeds or only after return home, and whether there’s a 24-hour medical emergency number. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.
Internet cafés and shops can be found in all Malaysian cities and large towns, often in malls or in upstairs premises along central streets, and most backpacker guesthouses have free wi-fi connections. While many serve the odd coffee or coke, the emphasis often isn’t on beverages or even getting online, but on networked gaming, the terminals swamped by kids playing noisy shoot-em-ups late into the night. Periodic crackdowns temporarily compel the internet cafés to keep sensible hours and, it’s hoped, the youths in their beds. At least the cafés do provide reliable internet access, costing RM3–6 per hour in practically all cases.
Most Malaysian towns have laundries (dobi) where you can have clothes washed cheaply and quickly, according to weight (typically RM3 a kilo), picking them up later in the day or early the next day. Some hostels and guesthouses have washing machines that guests can use for a small charge. Dry-cleaning services are less common, though any hotel of a decent standard will be able to oblige.
Living in Malaysia
Opportunities for non-residents to find short-term employment in Malaysia are few and far between. On an unofficial basis, helpers are often required in guesthouses; the wages for such tasks are low, but board and lodging are often included. On a more formal level, KL in particular is home to large communities of skilled expats with work permits, secured by their employer. In Malaysia expats can still expect elevated salaries,.
English-language-teaching qualifications are in demand by language schools in both countries, while qualified diving instructors can also find work in Malaysia. There are also a few volunteer schemes, mainly focusing on nature conservation fieldwork, though they’re seldom cheap to join.
Study and work programmes
AFS Intercultural Programs w. Community service schemes in Malaysia.
Earthwatch Institute w. A range of nature-conservation projects; past projects include bat conservation and climate-change studies in Malaysia.
Fulbright Program w. Regular opportunities for US citizens to spend several months teaching English in rural Malaysia, without requiring teaching experience.
Wild Asia wwildasia.org. Conservation group working to protect natural areas and promote responsible tourism and resource use across the region; offers internships.
W-O-X w. Orang-utan conservation in Malaysia, mostly at rehabilitation centres or upriver locations in Borneo.
Malaysia has a well-organized postal service operated by Pos Malaysia (t1300 300 300, w), whose website details postage rates, express mail and courier (“PosLaju”) services and so forth. Expect airmail delivery to take one to two weeks depending on the destination.
The best commercially available maps of Malaysia are the city and regional maps published by the Johor Bahru-based World Express Mapping, sold in many local bookshops. Online mapping offered by the usual internet giants tends to be littered with inaccuracies, especially with regard to Malaysian road names. Most Malaysian tourist offices have their own free maps of the local area, though these are of decidedly variable quality and offer little that the maps in this guide don’t already include. Whichever maps you use, be aware that the high rate of highway construction and road alterations in rural and urban areas alike means that inaccuracies plague most maps almost as soon as they appear..
Malaysia’s currency is the ringgit (pronounced ring-git and abbreviated to “RM”), divided into 100 sen. Notes come in RM1, RM5, RM10, RM20, RM50 and RM100 denominations. Coins are currently minted in 5 sen, 10 sen, 20 sen and 50 sen denominations, with 1 sen coins still in circulation. You sometimes hear the word “dollar” used informally to refer to the ringgit.
At the time of writing, the exchange rate was around RM3 to US$1 and RM5 to £1. Rates are posted daily in banks and exchange kiosks, and published in the press.
Major banks in Malaysia include Maybank, HSBC, Citibank, Standard Chartered, RHB Bank and CIMB Bank. Banking hours are generally Monday to Friday 9.30am to 4pm and Saturday 9.30 to 11.30am (closed on every first and third Sat of the month), though in the largely Muslim states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, Friday is a holiday and Sunday a working day. Banks in all sizeable towns and most tourist areas have ATMs; details are given through the Guide.
Licensed moneychangers’ kiosks, found in bigger towns all over the country, tend to open later, until around 6pm; some open at weekends and until 9pm, too. Some hotels will exchange money at all hours. Exchange rates tend to be more generous at moneychangers, though they don’t generally exchange travellers’ cheques.
You’re only likely to be really stuck for accessing money in remote rural areas; if, for example, you’re travelling upriver through the interior of Sabah or Sarawak, it’s a wise idea to carry a fair amount of cash, in smallish denominations.
Credit and debit cards have limited uses in the region, except to pay for goods and services in upmarket locations – you won’t, for example, be able to use your Visa card at a local kedai kopi, though a café chain in Kuala Lumpur will likely accept it, as indeed might a guesthouse in either place. Watch out too for an ongoing spate of credit card fraud in Malaysia, involving data swiped in genuine transactions being extracted and used to create a duplicate of your card.
Opening hours and public holidays
In Malaysia, shops are open daily from around 9.30am to 7pm, though outlets in shopping centres and malls are typically open daily from 10am to 10pm. Government offices tend to work Monday to Friday from 8am to 4.15pm or 9am to 5pm, with an hour off for lunch, except on Friday when the break lasts from 12.15 to 2.45pm to allow Muslims to attend prayers. Note that in the states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, the working week runs from Sunday to Thursday, with Friday and Saturday as days off.
Opening hours for temples and mosques are given in the text where they keep to a formal schedule (often not the case).
Public and school holidays
As a guide, public holiday dates for 2012 are given here (the relevant government websites issue new lists for each year a few months in advance). Note that Muslim holidays (marked with an asterisk) move earlier by ten or eleven days each year, and that precise dates depend on the sighting of the new moon, which determines when each month of the Muslim calendar begins. Note also that each Malaysian state has its own additional holidays, which could be to do with its sultan’s birthday or an Islamic (in states with a largely Muslim population) or tribal event, such as Gawai in June in Sarawak. Some of the holidays here are marked by special festivities.
It pays to be aware of not just public holidays but also local school holidays, as Malaysian accommodation can be hard to come by during these periods. In Malaysia, schools get a week off in mid-March and late August, and two weeks off at the start of June, with a long break from mid-November to the end of the year.
Public holidays (2012)
January 1 New Year’s Day
January 23 Chinese New Year
February 5 Birthday of the Prophet Muhammad*
May 1 Labour Day
May 5 Vesak Day
June 2 Yang Dipertuan Agong’s Birthday
August 19 & 20 Hari Raya Puasa*
August 31 National Day
September 16 Malaysia Day
October 26 Hari Raya Haji (or Korban)*
November 13 Deepavali
November 15 Maal Hijrah (the Muslim New Year)*
December 25 Christmas Day
Malaysia has a comprehensive mobile network. If your phone is unlocked and GSM compatible (likely unless you’re from the US), you can buy a local SIM card from corner shops and 7–11 stores, which will of course give you a new number. Top up value at the same outlets; you either get a receipt with a pin number on it for you to dial and activate the recharge, or the shop staff will do this for you. If you need to buy a mobile (known locally as “hand phones”), outlets specializing in them are easily found, even in small towns.
There are public phones in most Malaysian towns. Local calls are very cheap at just 10 sen for three minutes, but for long-distance calls, it can be more convenient to buy a phonecard, from service stations, 7–Eleven outlets and newsagents. Your best bet is to use a card such as iTalk (w; from RM10), which enables you to make discounted calls from the line in your hotel room as well as from payphones.
The two big players in the mobile phone market are Hotlink/Maxis (w) and Celcom (wcelcom.com.my), with the smaller DiGi (w) bringing up the rear. On the Peninsula you’ll usually get a signal on both coasts, along highways and major roads, and on touristy islands. In the forested interior, as a rule your phone will work in any town large enough to be served by express trains (as well as at the Taman Negara headquarters). Sabah and Sarawak coverage is much patchier, focusing on cities and the populated river valleys, though even in the Kelabit Highlands mobile calls are possible.
Mobile tariffs can be complex, though you can expect calls made to other Malaysian numbers to cost no more than RM0.50 per minute.
Malaysia is eight hours ahead of Universal Time (GMT), all year. This close to the equator, you can rely on dawn being around 6.30am in the Peninsula, dusk at around 7.30pm; in Borneo both happen roughly an hour earlier. Not taking into account daylight saving time elsewhere, Malaysia is two hours behind Sydney, thirteen hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time and sixteen hours ahead of US Pacific Standard Time.
Tipping is seldom necessary in Malaysia. When eating out at a proper restaurant, it’s customary to tip if a service charge isn’t included, though note that you are never required to tip in kedai kopis or kopitiams. It’s not necessary to tip taxi drivers either, unless they have gone out of their way to be helpful. Otherwise you might want to offer a modest tip to a hotel porter or hairdresser, or a tour guide who has been exceptional.
Tourism Malaysia (w) has offices in most state capitals. These are complemented by tourist offices, sometimes called Tourism Information Centres, run by state governments and again found in most state capitals. Such offices are generally helpful, if not widely knowledgeable: they have plenty of glossy brochures to hand out, but information here (and on websites) is often patchy, if not downright inaccurate. For out-of-the-way attractions you’re better off contacting local accommodation or tour operators – phone is best, as emails often elicit slow responses.
Malaysian state tourism contacts
Johor t07 223 4935, w.
Kelantan t09 748 5534, w
Labuan t087 422622, wlabuantourism.com.my.
Melaka t06 281 4803, w.
Pahang t09 516 1007, w.
Penang t04 262 0202,
Sabah t088 212 121, w.
Sarawak t082 423 600, w.
Selangor t03 5511 1122, w.
Terengganu t09 622 1553, w.
Other tourist information sources
w Excellent tourism compendium put together by The Star newspaper, featuring travel-related news stories, state-by-state accounts of sights and background articles on culture and events.
w Comprehensive, if patchy, coverage of just about everywhere and everything for tourists to see and do in Malaysia. Especially strong on outdoor activities.
w Run by an enthusiastic expat, this site provides thumbnail sketches of popular destinations around Malaysia, including some out-of-the-way locations. Practical info isn’t always current, but it’s a useful resource with plenty of photos.
w The tourism portal of Malaysia’s Ministry of Tourism, with coverage of sights, tourism-related directories and assorted packages on sale.
wwildasia.org Dedicated to sustainable and responsible tourism, this Malaysia-based site features numerous articles on Southeast Asia with plenty on Malaysia itself, of course, including descriptions of forest reserves and dive sites, plus a list of the more environmentally aware resorts.
Travellers with disabilities
Malaysia makes few provisions for travellers with disabilities. Life is made a lot easier if you can afford the more upmarket hotels, which usually have disabled provision, and to shell out for taxis and the odd domestic flight. Similarly, the more expensive international airlines tend to be better equipped to get you there in the first place: MAS, British Airways, KLM, Singapore and Qantas all carry aisle wheelchairs and have at least one toilet adapted for disabled passengers. However, few tour operators in the region accommodate the needs of those with disabilities.
In Malaysia, wheelchair users will have a hard time negotiating the uneven pavements in most towns and cities, and find it difficult to board buses, trains, ferries and the LRT metro system in Kuala Lumpur, none of which has been adapted for wheelchairs. The situation is similar if not worse in east Malaysia, with little provision for disabled travellers.
Contacts for travellers with disabilities
Malaysian Confederation of the Disabled t03 7956 2300, e[email protected] A member of Disabled Peoples International, working for equal opportunities for disabled people in Malaysia.
Travelling with children
Malaysia is a very child-friendly country in which to travel. Disposable nappies and powdered milk are easy to find (fresh milk is sold in supermarkets), and bland Chinese soups and rice dishes, or bakery fare, are ideal for systems unaccustomed to spicy food. Many restaurants and the slicker kedai kopis have high chairs, though only upmarket hotels provide baby cots or a baby-sitting service. However, rooms in the cheaper hotels can usually be booked with an extra bed for little extra cost. Children under 12 get into many attractions for half-price and enjoy discounts on buses and trains.