Malaysia: A tropical state of mind

Malaysia shares a peninsula with Thailand and part of the island of Borneo with Indonesia and Brunei. In between the large island and the peninsula are numerous islands that are also part of Malaysia and round out this tropical paradise.


Getting in, out, and about


If you’re a traveler with a valid US passport, you can get into Malaysia without the need for a special visa, provided you’re traveling for tourism or business and staying for no more than 90 days. Your passport must remain valid for up to six months beyond your scheduled date of departure.


While you can officially stay for up to 90 days within Malaysia, in practice, your passport will be stamped with an official number of days that you are allowed to stay in the country. This may be for less than the total 90 days allowed. It is possible, however, to extend your visa for up to two additional months.


US travelers with dual citizenship in Israel should use their US passport for entry into Malaysia. In the past, dual citizens presenting an Israeli passport have been denied entry. The presence of Israeli entry or exit stamps on a US passport will most likely not be a reason for Malaysian officials to bar you from the country.


The US Centers for Disease Control recommend travelers be up to date on the common vaccinations when traveling to Malaysia. Additional vaccinations against typhoid and Hepatitis A are also recommended. The tap water in Malaysia is generally not safe to drink. Travelers should drink only from sealed bottled water and avoid using ice cubes made from tap water.


In addition to the recommended vaccines, some travelers may find it advantageous to take additional vaccinations and treatments, although this largely depends on the extent of your vacation plans. Such vaccinations include those against Hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, and rabies.


There is no risk of yellow fever in Malaysia, but if you are traveling from a country that is a designated yellow fever country, even if you’re only passing through that country’s airport, you should consider getting a yellow fever vaccination. Failure to provide proof of a yellow fever vaccination when arriving from a yellow fever country may keep you barred from entering Malaysia.


While the risk for contracting malaria in peninsular Malaysia is relatively low, if you travel to the island of Borneo, you will likely be more at risk. Malaria is transferred through mosquito bites, and the only absolutely surefire way to avoid contracting malaria is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes altogether. You can take medicine to make you more resistant to malaria, but if you choose to do so, make sure you discuss your intentions with your local doctor well in advance of your trip. The anti-malaria medication involves treatments before, during, and after your trip, so you would have to plan accordingly.

Getting around the mainland area of Malaysia is not particularly difficult by automobile. You have numerous options for car rentals in the country and the road system is well developed throughout this part of the country. US drivers are able to drive legally with only a valid, state-issued driver’s license, although the US State Department recommends that you get an International Driver’s Permit before traveling to Malaysia.


Traffic in Malaysia flows along the left side rather than the right side common in the US. This makes Malaysia similar to Australia and the United Kingdom in this respect. However, you cannot make a legal left turn during a red light. Aside from the usual spate of aggressive driving that you find in many Asian countries, drivers must also contend with motorcyclists who tend to weave in and out of traffic and will sail through a red light whenever possible. Both drivers and pedestrians should maintain extreme caution when entering an intersection.


Malaysia has a zero tolerance policy regarding drunk driving. You cannot have any alcohol in your bloodstream whatsoever. The police set up sobriety checkpoints throughout the cities and countryside where all drivers are stopped and must submit to a Breathalyzer. In addition, driving after dark can put you in danger of road rage and car-jacking incidents, so it’s better to avoid night time travel when possible.


If you cannot afford to rent a car, bus and train travel are viable alternatives. Buses will be your cheapest option, but avoid night travel on them because there is a history of passenger bus fatalities due to reckless driving at night. Trains can be an interminably slow option for travel through peninsular Malaysia, which can be great for those who want to take in the tropical sights of the surrounding landscape.


To travel to the Borneo part of Malaysia or to other islands in the archipelago, your best option is to use regional airlines. Not only will this be relatively inexpensive but a quick way to get around as well. You can also travel via boats and ferries, but this can be dangerous for tourists who put themselves in danger of kidnappings particularly as they close in on the Sabah region of Malaysia in northern Borneo. The US State Department recommends that US travelers avoid Sabah because of heightened crime and terrorist operations in the area.


While Sabah may not be a safe area for US travelers, the rest of Malaysia is relatively safe. You may run into common issues of petty thefts and con-jobs that are common in many high tourist areas, but violent crime in the western part of the country is not prominent.


Although Malaysia has highly diverse religious communities, the country is officially an Islamic country. Since it is located in the tropics, you will find numerous beaches where you can sunbathe, but keep abreast of the local sensibilities in whatever area you’re in because they may be more conservative than what you are used to in the US.


Travelers must take care to leave the country on time. If you overstay the date stamped on your passport, you may be detained until a hearing has been held, and this can take weeks. In addition, both the Malaysian police and other paramilitary organizations conduct anti-immigration sweeps. You should carry a copy of your stamped passport with you at all times to avoid any issues with immigration.


The traveler’s tongue


The official language spoken in Malaysia is Malay. It is similar to Indonesian, and speakers of that language may be able to converse with and understand Malay speakers. In addition to standard Malay, there are regional dialects that are not necessarily intelligible to someone who understands standard Malay, but usually those dialect speakers can also speak the standard Malay.


English speaking in Malaysia is common, particularly in the cities. English is taught early on in schools as a second language, so most people in the country speak it well. In some urban areas, you may experience Manglish, which is a kind of slang language mix of English, Malay, and often additional languages. If the people around you know that you are an English speaker, they will most likely address you in English rather than Manglish.


Arabic is another language that you will find spoken in Malaysia, particularly within Islamic communities. Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese are also languages commonly spoken by portions of the Malaysian population, as well as other Chinese dialects. In parts of southern Malaysia, there are Portuguese groups who speak a creole form of Portuguese as well.


Money matters in Malaysia


One of the great aspects about vacationing in Malaysia is that it’s fairly inexpensive even though the country has become well developed. The Malaysian unit of currency is the ringgit. It is divided into 100 sen, which you can find in coins of 50, 20, 10, and 5. The ringgit is written RM, followed by the price, and paper currency comes in denominations of RM 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100.


You can convert money into ringgits using designated money changers found throughout the country. If you can, avoid using those at the airports and train stations because they tend to charge exorbitant fees or give bad exchange rates. However, you can find money changing stations in the malls and at banks. In addition, ATM machines are fairly ubiquitous in the cities. When withdrawing from ATMs, take care to do so in secure areas and look for any devices that might be attached to the ATM. Electronic devices that record PIN identification allows some criminals to withdraw money from your account.


Most businesses in Malaysia accept major credit cards, but credit card skimming is a common scam. To avoid being a target for skimming, make sure that all credit card transactions take place in your presence.


It is not a common practice to tip in Malaysia. Many restaurants will already include a service charge. You can tip hotel porters and taxi drivers, but tipping your change is usually appropriate.


Budget travelers can get by in Malaysia on very little money per day. For instance, you can find a hostel room in Kuala Lumpur quite easily for less than $10 USD per person per night. For more of a high end vacation, you don’t have to spend much. Three star hotels average around $30 to $40 USD per person per night, and it’s not outrageous to find five star accommodations for less than $100 USD per night. Budget travelers can expect to get by easily in Malaysia for under $50 USD a day so long as they engage in thrifty practices such as making use of public transportation.


Highlights of a vacation to Malaysia


A vacation in Malaysia can provide all the highlights that you normally associate with tropical island vacations, but without the heavy expenses. Since the country is located near the equator, you can expect warm temperatures throughout the year. However, there are also monsoon seasons that affect various parts of the country. The north east monsoon runs from Oct through February and tends to flood the eastern part of peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, while leaving the west coast of the country relatively intact. Meanwhile a south west monsoon affects the western side of the country from April to October, and this includes the capital as well as many tourist destinations. Here are some highlights for your vacation to Malaysia:


  • Kuala Lumpur. The capital of Malaysia is a thriving metropolis that features the iconic Petronas Towers, for many years the largest buildings in the world. In addition, the Old Town center is another great place to explore and includes a large Chinatown. Party down in the Bangsar district south of the main city and enjoy the vibrant nightlife.
  • Redang Island. This island is surrounded by crystal clear waters and reefs and is a perfect place for relaxing on the beach or snorkeling or scuba diving.
  • Taman Negara National Park. This national park takes you into the jungle where there are numerous activities to enjoy including hiking, bird watching, cave exploring, and white water rafting.


This is a limited selection of all that there is to see and do in Malaysia. If you like adventure or simply relaxing on a sandy beach, you will love a vacation in Malaysia.