Having spent the last month in Malaysia I thought it might be helpful to put together my own guide to visiting for anyone thinking of travelling there in the future. There’s lots of reasons to go including amazing wildlife, vibrant cities and beautiful beaches. Apologies again it’s longer than I meant it to be, once I get typing, it’s like me eating a tub of Pringles and I can’t stop!
Malaysia is one of the most ‘westernised’ Asian countries I’ve been to. I hate using that word but it’s the most apt description I can come up with. It’s multicultural (probably the better word), multilingual with many foreign influences including Chinese, Indian and British intermingling with the Malay culture. I’d say this is more apparent than in say Vietnam or Cambodia whether it’s KFC and Dunkin Donuts as almost the only food outlets at Kota Kinabalu airport (because donuts are the ideal pre and post flight food?!), to the amount of international brands available in the shopping centres, to the choice of music played in bars (mostly American contemporary) to the choice of cuisines and beers on offer (Carlsberg is more frequently on the menu than say Tiger). It’s quite an easy place to travel to, especially if you haven’t been to South East Asia before as there’s lots of familiar places and many people speak English. Kuala Lumpur has a sizeable expat population and with expats comes Tescos supermarkets and Waitrose food (sold in Cold Storage supermarkets). It may not be for everyone but when we were feeling a little homesick it was so exciting finding some Tyrell’s crisps and Waitrose chocolate!
Generally people are really friendly, especially in Borneo and Langkawi where the staff at the hotels and restaurants we ate at were almost universally lovely and accommodating. Kuala Lumpur is more intimidating as most big cities are but it doesn’t feel unsafe once you get your bearings and you’re sensible with your bags as you have to be in many city centres.
However, throughout my time in Malaysia but especially in Kuala Lumpur I felt slightly uneasy. Without dwelling on this for too long as it wouldn’t affect my decision to travel there, it’s evidently a man’s world in Malaysia and gender inequality is obvious. From my own point of view I felt like I was stared at by men frequently and it wasn’t very subtle. As a petite blonde I guess I stand out. I’m not sure if that makes me really attractive to men there but I found the attention uncomfortable at times with taxi drivers brushing my legs to adjust the doors or men in the street staring at my breasts without trying to hide it (this is happening in Cambodia too.) I was warned men can be known to get touchy feely with women in a club in Langkawi. There are lots of groups of men hanging around the streets or out in together in bars and I’d advise caution to any women coming to Kuala Lumpur alone. Whereas I didn’t really see many groups of women without men, especially in bars and restaurants.
Without dwelling on this too long Malaysia does have a way to go to get anywhere near equality (it’s ranked 106/144 countries in the Global Index Gap 2016, behind Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia), with only 10% of women involved in politics or governance, and about 50% in employment. The religious landscape is complex but about 60% of Malaysians are Muslim and Sharia law runs in parallel to secular law for all Muslims and there are some very backward and degrading laws regarding acceptance of marital rape, women being possessions of their husbands, men being able to take four wives and divorce easily whilst a woman must appear in front of a judge to divorce etc. I know this isn’t an issue unique to Malaysia by any means but for a country with such ambitions for modernity and goals to be developed by 2020 it’s really behind in terms of its treatment of women and I could feel that misogyny just as a tourist. It wouldn’t put me off visiting (let’s face it where is it perfect) but I felt like it was important to mention.
I’ve spoken previously about my food diary whilst I’ve been travelling. My impressions of Malaysian food in Borneo were almost entirely limited to the food we had on the tour, most of which was buffets and not very impressive. The meat quality was lacking, the food was often cold and it didn’t really show off Malaysian food at its best.
However in Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur we got to experience the cuisine with far more choice and I enjoyed it. Malaysian specialities are often its curries, especially rendang – usually beef in a coconutty curry sauce with rice, it’s really rich and tasty. Chinese and Indian food are also influential with Malay food in Kuala Lumpur in particular fused with Chinese especially. Italian is also popular and we had many good Italian pasta and pizza dishes too. Malaysia was part of the British empire so you will find the odd British restaurant/tea room, apparently roast dinners can be found although we didn’t end up having one! Fast food chains are also popular there’s plenty of burger and chicken chains all over for a fast food fix.
Seafood is a big deal but there’s plenty of meat dishes. Meat quality was a bit of a bug bear for the pair of us so I’d recommend ordering meat off the bone as you’ll get very little on the bone as it’s generally not the best cuts.
When you think of drinking in South East Asia you assume it’s going to be beer for less than a pound, highly toxic cocktail buckets for less than a single vodka in London but unfortunately (or fortunately for my liver) that’s not the case in Malaysia. The government heavily tax booze, I assume for religion reasons and it makes it quite expensive to drink.
The average price for a glass of wine in Kuala Lumpur is upward of £5 and that’s usually for a small glass and in the supermarket you’ll struggle to find a bottle you can buy for less than £10, I’d say you’re looking at closer to £15 for most bottles and even then it’s a brand that you’d get at less than half the price in Tescos at home! You tend to find Aussie Chardonnay or Chillean Sauvignon are the most affordable wines on restaurant menus.
Malaysia doesn’t make its own beer and therefore imports it all and it’s surprisingly expensive given the proximity to Thailand. There’s some decent happy hour discounts to be had but it’s still going to be far more expensive than other Asian countries nearby. In Kuala Lumpur expect to pay anywhere from £4-6 for a pint (it’s cheaper in Langkawi).
Cocktails are probably the best value alcoholic drinks. We’ve found happy hour places doing £4 free poured cocktails – multiple long island iced teas equals hangover in the morning! If you want to buy alcohol I recommend buying it in Langkawi which is a tax free island. We saw Absolut flavoured vodka for less than £10 but didn’t have space to buy it but Langkawi is definitely the place to buy spirits in Malaysia if you can.
Malaysia loves its shopping centres. When I arrived in Borneo I didn’t really know what to expect but I was surprised to see so many premium shops in Kota Kinabalu. Ironically I was looking for cotton traveller pants for the rainforest and there were no traditional traveller stalls to be seen.. Instead I found Coach, Sephora (I can sniff them out!), The Body Shop and a vast array of other brands (in case you were wondering I ended up finding khaki trousers in H & M, reliable all over the world!). There were multiple shopping centres in Kota Kinabalu and more being built.
Langkawi was a different story. There were no premium shopping centres that we saw -instead we had traveller pants galore (after I needed them!), plenty of tshirts and tax free shops which looked like chaotic versions of the airport duty free. Finding what I wanted was surprisingly difficult – I wanted some fresh fruit for breakfast, only one store sold it and it didn’t open until the afternoon, I wanted some shampoo but pharmacies weren’t obvious. We didn’t have a supermarket near us and although there were plenty of little marts if we’d have wanted a bit more choice then it just wasn’t easy to get it.
Back in Kuala Lumpur and the shopping is a different story. It’s full of shopping centres. There were two near us, the Pavillion and Starhill. Star-hill was so premium it wasn’t obvious how to get in, it’s connected to a Marriott hotel and when we did find a way in it was very quiet and consisted of Cartier, Prada etc. We were hoping to find a bite to eat but we could onto see a tearoom that wouldn’t look out of place in Harrods. Unless you have money to burn I don’t think there’s much point going to Starhill as there’s the equivalent designer shops in Pavillion (opposite), along with cafes, restaurants, bars, a cinema and a wide variety of shops for all budgets.
Pavillion is beautifully laid out and currently really Christmassy. The one thing I didn’t notice in Malaysia was local boutiques or clothing, everything is international. In two days in Phnom Penh I’ve seen more Cambodian boutiques than I did in Malaysia but it could be that I wasn’t in the best area for more local shopping brands.
Unlike Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia the motorbike and tut tut are not popular in Malaysia. The car is king and generally as a tourist you’re reliant on taxis. The traffic is awful (especially Kuala Lumpur), and most of the day the roads are grid locked. Not only can this make travel slow but also expensive. We experienced the Malaysian equivalent of Uber, ‘Grab’ (bringing back memories of My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, probably I would think of that!). The drivers heavily relied on sat nav, worryingly our driver didn’t know where the large botanical gardens were and so sat nav directed us through Kuala Lumpur’s busiest streets, which some drivers may have known how to avoid.
There is a rail system in Kuala Lumpur but we didn’t use it as it didn’t seem to go to places we needed – eg the botanical gardens from where we were staying we would have had to take a train towards the outskirts of the city and then another to go in again and even then it didn’t stop close by. I assume it’s more useful for locals but the rail didn’t seem to cater for tourist attractions which was quite unusual.
Walking around was not always the easiest experience either, and this was equally apparent in all three of the Malaysian destinations that we visited. Building work is everywhere and as tourism continues to grow Malaysia tries to meet the demand by building bigger shopping complexes and 5 star resorts. Whilst the ambition is admirable at the moment nowhere feels quite finished. In Kota Kinabalu its premium shopping centre is almost impossible to get to on foot resulting on flying by the seat of our pants running across a motorway, through building work! The dedication to shopping is real! Unfortunately all this building made the surroundings dirty and polluted. Half the time there’s no pavement, workmen are digging up the entire road and pedestrians are zigzagging in and out of the way making it feel busy and at times unpleasant to walk around. I don’t think this would bother everyone but having come from New Zealand and Sydney it was hard not to notice the difference in the environment and ideally it would encroach less on the experience on foot.
Kuala Lumpur airport
Thought it was worth mentioning as it’s one of the most confusing airports I’ve been to and if you’re taking an international flight from there then I recommend allowing the full three hours. Admittedly we didn’t leave as much time as we should have but when we got to the airport at 7.10 for a 9am flight already checked in online we thought that should give us enough time without too much stress. Wrong! It depends on the airline you fly with but we flew with Malaysian Airlines and the queue for bag drop was the same queue as check in and it was very very long. There were multiple check in areas and they all had long queues, the check in staff were slow and there just weren’t enough people working for the amount of people queuing. However Emirates had virtually no queue at all. Once bags were checked in you go to immigration, then through machines that scan your bags, you assume it’s where you lose your water and take out your liquids which I did but it’s not. That comes when you get to the gate and you queue and scan your bags and liquids again. So we ended up in the gate at 8.30am which was our boarding time with literally no time to spare, waterless (you can fill up your empty bottles at the gate but it’s not advisable to have drinking water so it’s not really an option).
On the other side, when we flew in to Kuala Lumpur we queued for ages to get a train to immigration, then another long time to get through immigration and it was really frustrating and disorganised.
Final tip, if you are flying on a domestic flight out of Kuala Lumpur airport, don’t get there 3 hours early. You’ll be flying from a different terminal and if you happen to be flying from Gate K in particular there is almost nothing to eat there and very little seating. Sounds like a rant but navigating through Kuala Lumpur airport wasn’t always easy and as I’m quite an anxious traveller I would advise being as prepared as possible.
Highlights/things to do:
If you’re going to Malaysia you have to do Borneo. Yes it wasn’t always the most comfortable experience at times but it’s definitely worth it for the river cruises in the rainforest seeing wild orangutans, monkeys and birds and also for visiting Sepilok, the orangutan rehabilitation centre.
We went with a tour company, Amazing Borneo Tours, for a 7 day tour. There were plenty of options. I’d say they were good but not great. It was quite expensive, the accommodation was basic, as was the food (which was included in the tour price for the most part meaning you didn’t get much choice on what you ate, or where you stayed) and although some of the activities were amazing some I thought were ‘filler’. You’re paying for the ease and convenience of someone taking you round, driving you from place to place and imparting knowledge of the trees, flowers and wildlife. Our guides Belle and Vincent were both lovely although as we were the only ones on the tour it did feel a bit intense at times.
It is possible to do Borneo independently without a tour guide, (you could mimic existing tours itinerary, there’s plenty of options on the Internet). I think it would be cheaper but I’m not sure how easy it would be to get yourself around without hiring a car as public transport is basically not existent. But I’d recommend looking into it before deciding whether to take a tour or not.
Langkawi isn’t a must see… It’s a beautiful island if you have time for a few days relaxation in the sun (if you’re lucky enough to get sun!). I think 5-7 days is perfect. I wouldn’t recommend going in October/November just because the weather is temperamental and it’s the time of year when the island sees the most rain. That isn’t to say we didn’t get beautiful days of sunshine but we also got almost entire days of thunderstorms and downpours. January and February are better times to go weather wise.
There are beautiful resorts to stay in on the island, many consider it a honeymoon destination. However, a lot of the resorts are a bit out of the way from some of the more lively areas such as Pantai Cenang and Pantai Tengah which was the area we stayed in. This is where the majority of the traveller bars and restaurants were. The beaches are beautiful but busy as watersports takes over (especially parasailing).
If the weather is nice then I’d recommend the Sky Bridge for beautiful views on the city, exploring the Pantai Cenang strip, eating at our favourite Malaysian restaurant Fat Cupid, and dinner/a drink on the beach at a beachbar such as Thirstday bar or a posher restaurant at La Sal (Casa del Mar hotel).
Shopping -I haven’t been but Kuala Lumpur feels a bit Dubai-esque with large hotel resorts and designer brands a plenty. As mentioned above, if you like shopping then visit the Pavillion. Despite there being plenty of advertising for sales most things were most expensive than the UK or the US eg Michael Kors, Kat Von D makeup, Self Portrait (things I happened to look at for my birthday!). However Chanel and Dior makeup was similar value. So it varies by brand but if you’re like me you’ll enjoy browsing in Prada, Saint Laurent etc even if you can’t afford to make a purchase.
Bird park – one of the most popular attractions is Kuala Lumpur bird park in the botanical gardens. Unfornately it started pouring so we didn’t really see the botanical gardens themselves or work out how to get there aside from by taxi. If you enjoy photography or like walking around with birds all around you you’ll enjoy this (and I have some pictures to come of my favourites!)
The Patronas towers – there’s not much to do inside (I think you can go up there but it’s not obviously advertised) but they are Kuala Lumpur’s tallest towers and part of the famous skyline so well worth a picture. There’s also an urban park nearby with fountains (which apparently light up at night) and it’s just generally a nice part of the city, it feels surprisingly peaceful considering the tall buildings all around.
Go to a rooftop bar – there are a few of these depending on your budget, we went to Helibar which was a bar on a helipad on the 34th floor. It’s quite a casual place, it’s not really expensive (£5 for a gin and tonic, £6 for a cocktail in happy hour, from 6-9pm) and it has beautiful views of the city at sunset.
Jalan Alor and Bukit Bintang
The foodie and bar area. Jalan Alor is the home of street food of all varieties. It’s really a place for the evening, we tried to go on a Sunday for lunch and most of it was closed. Changkat Bukit Bintang, is close by and is where many of the bars and restaurants are found, with plenty of happy hour deals and cheap food along with some more expensive options too.