Malaysia is a country in Southeast Asia located partly on a peninsula of the Asian mainland and partly on the northern one-third of the island of Borneo. It shares borders with Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei and has a coastline on the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.
Peninsular Malaysia (Semenanjung Malaysia) occupies most of the Malayan Peninsula between Thailand and Singapore, and is also known as West Malaysia (Malaysia Barat) or the slightly archaic Malaya (Tanah Melayu). It is home to the bulk of Malaysia's population, including its capital and largest city Kuala Lumpur, and is generally more economically developed.
Some 500 kilometers to the east is East Malaysia (Malaysia Timur), which occupies the northern third of the island of Borneo, shared with Indonesia and tiny Brunei. Covered in impenetrable jungle where headhunters roam (on GSM networks if nothing else), East Malaysia is rich in natural resources but very much Malaysia's hinterland for industry and tourism.
Some of the most stunningly beautiful things about Malaysia are its tropical islands. And there's more to them than sun, sand and surf: particularly on the East Coast and Borneo's Sipadan there are coral reefs and hence excellent diving .
There are various beautiful national parks in Malaysia. There are many different types of expeditions available, ranging from those where you hardly lose sight of the hotel to those were you are fully immersed in the jungle with only the guide and yourself if you are willing to pay the money! Tours vary from about 4 days to 2 weeks or more. It is very unlikely in most of the national parks for you to see a tiger or an elephant, this is only really likely if you are going to be staying for longer than a few days, i.e. for a couple of weeks at least. One of the most common forms of wildlife that you will encounter in the jungle however are definitely leeches! In the rainforest it is very very humid but actually it is not incredibly hot. This is because of the large amount of shade afforded by the canopy created by the interlocking trees. Shop around for deals of getting into the jungle and make your decision based on what type of person you are. If you are going to enjoy a lot of hiking without seeing any other people for days or even weeks then you can have that choice, alternatively you can have a much more 'packaged' tour in which you will probably stay in a very built up tourist town which has probably just grown out of the demand for people wanting to stay in the jungle.
Malaysia was formed in 1963 through a merging of the former British colonies of Malaya and Singapore, including the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on the northern coast of Borneo. The first several years of the country's history were marred by Indonesian efforts to control Malaysia, Philippine claims to Sabah, and Singapore's secession in 1965.
Today, Malaysia is a mix of the modern world and a developing nation. With its investment in the high technology industries and moderate oil wealth, it has become a leader of the southeast Asian region. However, the development has been uneven leading to the often used description of Malaysia, "First world infrastructure, third world mentality." Contributing to this is the bumiputra policy, or Malay-first policy, which provides privileges to the ethnic Malays at the expense of the (traditionally wealthier) minority Chinese and (traditionally less-wealthy) Indian populations. The resulting inequity has posed challenges in moving the country forward.
The climate in Malaysia is tropical. The northeast monsoon (October to February) deluges Borneo and the east coast in rain and often causes flooding, while the west coast (particularly Langkawi and Penang) escape unscathed. The milder southwest monsoon (April to October) reverses the pattern. The southern parts of peninsular Malaysia, including perennially soggy Kuala Lumpur, are exposed to both but even during the rainy season, the showers tend to be intense but brief.
The terrain consists of coastal plains rising to hills and mountains.
Malaysia is a multicultural society. While Malays and other indigenous minorities make up a 58% majority, there are also 24% Chinese (especially visible in the cities), 8% Indian and a miscellaneous grouping of 10% "others", many of them tribes from the jungles of East Malaysia. There is hence also a profusion of faiths and religions, with Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sikhism and even shamanism on the map.
The locals are very very friendly especially towards foreigners and will usually go out of their way to help tourists find their way around.
Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, nominally headed by the Paramount Ruler (Yang di-Pertuan Agong), who is elected for a five-year term from among the nine sultans of the Malay states.
In practice, however, power is held by the Prime Minister. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party and its National Alliance (Barisan Nasional) coalition have ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since its independence, and while periodic elections are contested by feisty opposition parties, the balance has so far always been shifted in the government's favor by press control and use of restrictive security legislation dating from the colonial era.
Most visitors can obtain an extendable 30 or 60-day tourist visa on arrival. See Immigration Department of Malaysia for the current scoop.
Most international flights land at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, although there are also some direct flights to Penang, Langkawi, Johor Bahru and Kota Kinabalu. National carrier Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has an extensive network covering Asia and Europe and regularly ranks high in airline quality assessments, while Malaysia-based low-cost carrier Air Asia now covers an ever-expanding set of neighboring destinations including Bangkok and Jakarta.
Comfortable night sleeper and somewhat misnamed daytime "express" trains also connect Singapore to Johor Bahru, running on to either Kuala Lumpur or Kota Bharu. Bizarrely, tickets from Singapore are twice as expensive as those to Singapore; you can save quite a bit by taking the train from Johor Bahru instead, or buying two separate tickets for the legs.
Land crossings are possible from Thailand and Singapore in peninsular Malaysia, as well as from Brunei and the Indonesian side of Borneo. An international drivers' license is usually required.
Long-distances buses into Malaysia run from various points in Thailand, Singapore and Indonesian Borneo.
Largely thanks to budget carrier Air Asia, Malaysia is crisscrossed by a web of affordable flights with prices starting at RM 9 for flights booked well in advance. Flying is the only practical option for traveling between peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, as well as reaching some of the more remote outposts of Borneo.
State operator KTMB in Peninsular Malaysia is cheap and reasonably comfortable, but rarely a match for other forms of transport in terms of speed. The main western line connects Butterworth (near Penang), Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru, while the "Jungle Track" on the eastern coast runs through Gua Musang and the Taman Negara National Park to Kota Bharu, near the Thai border and the Perhentian Islands. Tickets can be booked and even printed online.
There is a rather bewildering and ever-expanding array of fare classes and train types, mutating rather rapidly as KTMB overhauls its aging equipment. In a nutshell, first class is very comfy and second class is decent enough, but third class has no air-con. For sleeper trains, KTMB's epitome of luxury is Premier Night Deluxe (ADNFD) between Singapore and KL only, featuring a private cabin with two beds and a shower/bathroom unit, which occasionally even works. More economical and still quite comfortable is the Superior Night (ADNS) sleeper, where the carriage has two rows of bunks on both sides, with a curtain for privacy. Do note that the trains shake and rattle quite a bit and are perhaps not the best introduction to sleeping on trains.
Malaysia has an excellent highway network, culminating in the North-South Expressway from Singapore all the way to the Thai border. Gas is cheap at a little over 1.52 RM per liter, but tolls are payable on expressways.
Traffic drives on the left.
Beware of reckless motorcyclists, especially at night. At traffic lights, they will accumulate in front of you - let them get away first to avoid accidents.
In general, cars and motorcycles might not always indicate line changes and often change from the far right to the far left at the very last minute. Always be aware of what the cars in front are doing!
Its definitely unadvisable for tourists to drive in the larger cities like Kuala Lumpur. Suicidal motorcyclists, massive traffic jams throughout the day, bewildering roads especially in the older parts of the city where planning is virtually nonexistent, its just not worth the bother. Out of town however, cars are the best and frequently the only way to explore the country. Some of the more rural areas have motorcycles and scooters to rent for as little as RM30, a great way to explore the local area or larger islands like Langkawi.
The cheapest way to travel in Malaysia is by bus. All towns of any size have a bus terminal offering connections to other parts of the country. There are many companies of varying degrees of dependability, but two of the largest and more reliable are Transnasional and NICE/Plusliner. 24-seater "luxury" buses are recommended for long-distance travel. If travelling on holidays or even over the weekend, it is advisable to reserve your seats in advance.
Warning: Bus drivers often drive carelessly, speeding like maniacs, overtaking in blind corners, etc. A series of horrific accidents has, however, led to a crackdown and a nationwide hotline for reporting (also by SMS!), whose numbers are helpfully plastered on the back of every single large vehicle in the country.
The sole official language of Malaysia is Malay (Bahasa Melayu). English is also taught in schools and widely spoken in the cities, although in rural areas a little Malay will come in handy. The Chinese community in Malaysia speaks a wide variety of Chinese dialects including Cantonese, Mandarin and Hokkien, while the most commonly spoken Indian language is Tamil. In East Malaysia several indigenous languages are also spoken, the largest of which are Iban and Kadazan.
The Malaysian currency is the ringgit, abbreviated RM or MYR. One ringgit is divided into 100 sen. Since 1997, the exchange rate to the US dollar has been fixed at RM 3.80 to 1, which due to the comparative strength of the Malaysian economy has made Malaysian products quite cheap overseas.
Tipping is not customary in Malaysia. More expensive restaurants, bars and hotels may use prices like RM19++, indicating that sales tax (5%) and service charge (10%) have to be added to the bill. Hotel tax of 5% may also be added to this.
ATMs are widely available in cities, but do stock up on cash if heading out into the smaller islands or the jungle. Credit cards can be used in most shops, restaurants and hotels, although cloning can be a problem in dodgier outfits.
Most visitors will find Malaysia quite cheap, although it is noticeably more expensive than Thailand to the north. You can live in hostel dorms and feast on hawker food for less than RM50 per day, but you'll wish to double this for comfort, particularly if travelling in more expensive East Malaysia. At the other end of the spectrum, luxury hotels and air fares are comparatively affordable, with even the fanciest 5-star hotels costing less than US$100/night.
Kuala Lumpur is a shopping mecca for clothes, electronics, computer goods and much more, with very competitive prices by any standard. Traditional Malaysian fabrics (batik) are a popular souvenir. The cheapest place to easily buy ethnic souvenirs (especially wood-based) is in Kuching, East Malaysia, and the most expensive place is in the major, posh KL shopping centres.
In general shops open from 10.30am till 9.30pm in the large cities and earlier in the more rural areas.
The crossroads of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine, Malaysia is an excellent place to makan (eat in Malay). See Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine for an overview of what's available. Look out for regional specialities and Nonya (Peranakan) cuisine, the fusion between Malay and Chinese cooking.
Malaysians are very proud of their cooking and most towns or even villages have their own delicious specialities such as Kajang Satay or the must-try Ulu Yam Loh Mee or the Ipoh chicken rice or the Kelantan Nasi Minyak among many others. Most of them rely on word of mouth for advertising and are frequently located in the most inconvenient, out-of-the-way places so you might want to try asking the locals for their personal recommendations.
Most hawker stalls stay open till late and some even operate on shifts so you can find the same stall offering different food at different points throughout the day. The mamak stalls are absolutely brilliant and offer fantastic local Indian fare for ridiculously low prices. Seafood is a must-try in Malaysia and are absolutely delicious and also ridiculously cheap. The array of local fare is so massive that I've spent over 3 years in Malaysia and STILL haven't tried all of it yet. In short, bring lots of stomach powder if you're traveling this way.
Generally, you can eat pretty much anywhere in Malaysia. Food outlets are comparatively clean - the only thing you should avoid is ice for your drinks, when you frequent the street or hawker stalls since the blocks of ice used there might not be up to your hygienic standards. In actual restaurants this is not a problem.
Also you might want to avoid ordering water (air/ais kosong) from hawker stalls or the mamak restaurants as they are usually unboiled tap water.
Malaysians like both coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), especially the national drink teh tarik ("pulled tea"), hence named after the theatrical 'pulling' motion used to pour it. By default, both will be served hot, sweet and with a dose of condensed milk; request teh o to skip the milk, teh ais for iced milky tea, or teh o ais for iced milkless tea. Drinking with no sugar at all is considered odd, but asking for kurang manis (less sugar) will ease the pain.
Another peculiar local favourite is the kopi tongkat ali ginseng, a mixture of coffee, a local aphrodisiacal root, and ginseng served with condensed milk that's touted as an alternative to viagra and red bull combined and is usually advertised with a picture of a bed broken in half.
Other popular nonalcoholic options include the chocolate drink Milo and lime juice (limau). Freshly made fruit juices are also widely available, as well as a wide range of canned drinks (some familiar, some less so).
Topically and perhaps, rather un-PC, is a local drink comprised of white soya milk and black grass jelly (cincau) called a Michael Jackson and can be ordered at most hawker centers and local roadside cafes ("mamak")
Malaysia is a self-proclaimed Islamic country but alcohol is widely available, although some states (notably Kelantan and Terengganu) place considerable restrictions on sale by and to Muslims. However, prices are comparatively high, with a can of beer prices at RM 4 and up even in supermarkets — only the tax-free island of Langkawi stands out. Besides that, there are several duty free shops (for example in Johor Bharu) where you get a cheap drink. Make sure to finish your drink before you leave though, otherwise customs might tax you for it.
The choice of accommodation in Malaysia runs the gamut, ranging from RM20 beds in tribal longhouses to Pavarotti's favorite, the US$1000+/night luxury resort of Pangkor Laut.
Obtaining a working visa takes some effort. The easiest way to work in Malaysia is probably to work for an overseas company and get posted to Malaysia. The Malaysian Immigration Department website has basic advice. In order to obtain a work permit, you need to have an offer from your future employer who will have to do the paperwork for you. It's very expensive and comes with many restrictions if a company wants to hire a foreigner and as such next to impossible. As stated above, a feasible way is to get transfered. Finding a job is otherwise unlikely unless you are getting married to a local and even then it remains difficult.
Crime levels are relatively low in Malaysia, but common sense precautions should be observed. Pickpockets and snatch-and-run thieves ply their trade in Kuala Lumpur and large cities, and the security of cheaper accommodations may have room for improvement.
Credit card fraud can be a problem, so use plastic only at large, reputable retailers, and do not let your card out of your sight.
Public demonstrations are almost unheard of in Malaysia - should any occur, they may be treated with heavy handed tactics, so avoid them.
Tap water is drinkable but even locals boil it first just to be on the safe side. Otherwise stick to bottled water.
Peninsular Malaysia is malaria-free, but there is a risk of malaria in Borneo. Dengue fever is found throughout Malaysia and avoiding mosquito bites is the only prevention.
As in any predominantly Muslim country, you should dress respectfully, particularly in rural areas (wearing trousers not shorts and covering your shoulders is recommended but not essential). In more metropolitan areas such as Kuala Lumpur, attitudes are more liberal. As a tourist, it is better not to criticize the Government and especially the various Royal Families. When you enter a Malaysian home or a place of worship, you must always take off your shoes as a sign of respect. Also never eat with your left hand or give a gift with your left hand. Never point with your forefinger because it is very impolite for Malays. Don't point your feet at a person or touch a person's head because it is considered rude in Malaysia.
Malaysia Travel Guide - http://www.virtualmalaysia.com