Affordable STAR CLASS Holidays

Affordable STAR CLASS Holidays

Affordable STAR CLASS Holidays


Populated by a blend of Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous groups, Malaysia boasts a rich cultural heritage, from a huge variety of annual festivals and wonderful cuisines, to traditional architecture and rural crafts. There’s astonishing natural beauty to take in too, including gorgeous beaches and some of the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, much of which is surprisingly accessible. Malaysia’s national parks are superb for trekking and wildlife-watching, and sometimes for cave exploration and river rafting.

As part of the Malay archipelago, which stretches from Indonesia to the Philippines, Malaysia became an important port of call on the trade route between India and China, the two great markets of the early world, and later became important entrepôts for the Portuguese, Dutch and British empires. Malaysia has only existed in its present form since 1963, when the federation of the eleven Peninsula states was joined by Singapore and the two Bornean territories of Sarawak and Sabah. Singapore left the union to become an independent country in 1965.

Today, the dominant cultural force in the country is undoubtedly Islam, adopted by the Malays in the fourteenth century. But it’s the religious plurality – there are also sizeable Christian and Hindu minorities – that is so attractive, often providing surprising juxtapositions of mosques, temples and churches. Add the colour and verve of Chinese temples and street fairs, Indian festival days and everyday life in Malay kampungs (villages), and the indigenous traditions of Borneo, and it’s easy to see why visitors are drawn into this celebration of ethnic diversity; indeed, despite some issues, Malaysia has something to teach the rest of the world when it comes to building successful multicultural societies.

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.

Customs allowances
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 Community service schemes in Malaysia.
Earthwatch Institute A range of nature-conservation projects; past projects include bat conservation and climate-change studies in Malaysia.
Fulbright Program Regular opportunities for US citizens to spend several months teaching English in rural Malaysia, without requiring teaching experience.
Wild Asia Conservation group working to protect natural areas and promote responsible tourism and resource use across the region; offers internships.
W-O-X 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 (; 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 ( and Celcom (, with the smaller DiGi ( 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.

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.

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.

Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur (usually referred to as KL), is the social and economic driving force of a nation eager to better itself, a fact reflected in the relentless proliferation of air-conditioned shopping malls, designer bars and restaurants in the city, and in the continuing sprawl of suburbia and industry around it. But KL is also firmly rooted in tradition, where the same Malay executives who wear suits to work dress in traditional clothes at festival times, and markets and food stalls are crowded in among high-rise hotels and bank towers, especially in older areas such as Chinatown and Little India.

Just a couple of hours’ drive south of the capital lies the birthplace of Malay civilization, Melaka, its historical architecture and mellow atmosphere making it a must on anybody’s itinerary. Much further up the west coast, the island of Penang was the site of the first British settlement in Malaysia. Its capital, Georgetown, still features beautifully restored colonial buildings and a vibrant Chinatown district, and is, together with Melaka, recognized for its cultural and architectural diversity as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For a taste of Old England, head for the hill stations of Fraser’s Hill and the Cameron Highlands, where cooler temperatures and lush countryside provide ample opportunities for walks, birdwatching, rounds of golf and cream teas. North of Penang, Malay, rather than Chinese, traditions hold sway at Alor Star, the last major town before the Thai border. This far north, the premier tourist destination is Pulau Langkawi, an island with international-style resorts and picture-postcard beaches.

The Peninsula’s east coast is much more rural and relaxing, peppered with rustic villages and stunning islands such as Pulau Perhentian and Pulau Tioman, busy with backpackers and package tourists alike. The state capitals of Kota Bharu, near the northeastern Thai border, and Kuala Terengganu, further south, showcase the best of Malay traditions, craft production and performing arts.

Crossing the Peninsula’s mountainous interior by road or rail allows you to venture into the majestic tropical rainforests of Taman Negara. The national park’s four thousand square kilometres hold enough to keep you occupied for days: trails, salt-lick hides for animal-watching, aerial forest-canopy walkways, limestone caves and waterfalls. Here you may well also come across the Orang Asli, the Peninsula’s indigenous peoples, a few of whom cling to a semi-nomadic lifestyle within the park.

Across the sea from the Peninsula lie the east Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. For most travellers, their first taste of Sarawak comes at Kuching, the old colonial capital, and then the Iban longhouses of the Batang Ai river system. Sibu, much further north on the Rajang River, is the starting point for trips to less touristed Iban, Kayan and Kenyah longhouses. In the north, Gunung Mulu National Park is the principal destination; many come here to climb up to view its extraordinary razor-sharp limestone Pinnacles, though spectacular caves also burrow into the park’s mountains. More remote still are the Kelabit Highlands, further east, where the mountain air is refreshingly cool and there are ample opportunities for extended treks.

The main reason for a trip to Sabah is to conquer the 4095m granite peak of Mount Kinabalu, set in its own national park, though the lively modern capital Kota Kinabalu and its idyllic offshore islands, Gaya and Manukan, have their appeal, too. Beyond this, Sabah is worth a visit for its wildlife: turtles, orang-utans, proboscis monkeys and hornbills are just a few of the exotic residents of the jungle and plentiful islands. Marine attractions feature in the far east at Pulau Sipadan, pointing out towards the southern Philippines, which has a host of sharks, other fish and turtles, while neighbouring Pulau Mabul contains hip, but often pricey, diving resorts.

  • With 28 million inhabitants, Malaysia is divided into two distinct regions. Peninsular Malaysia, where the capital, Kuala Lumpur, is situated, is separated by more than 600km of the South China Sea from East Malaysia, comprising the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
  • Malaysia is a British-style parliamentary democracy, with a ceremonial head of state known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agung (the post rotates among the sultans from each state of the federation).
  • The world’s largest flower, Rafflesia, is a Malaysian rainforest plant measuring a metre across and smelling of rotten meat. It’s named after the naturalist and founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles.
  • Malaysia’s economy, historically dominated by agriculture and mining, now features a healthy manufacturing sector.

Temperatures vary little in Malaysia, hovering constantly at or just above 30°C by day, while humidity is high year-round. Showers occur year-round too, often in the mid-afternoon, though these short, sheeting downpours clear up as quickly as they arrive. The major distinction in the seasons, and worth bearing in mind when considering the best time to visit, is the arrival of the northeast monsoon (ushering in what is locally called the rainy season). This particularly affects the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia and the western end of Sarawak, with late November to mid-February seeing the heaviest rainfall.

On the Peninsula’s west coast and in Sabah, September and October are the wettest months. Monsoonal downpours can be heavy and prolonged, sometimes lasting two or three hours and prohibiting more or less all activity for the duration; boats to most islands in affected areas won’t attempt the sea swell at the height of the rainy season. In mountainous areas like the Cameron Highlands, the Kelabit Highlands and in the hill stations and upland national parks, you may experience more frequent rain as the high peaks gather clouds more or less permanently.

The ideal time to visit most of the region is between March and early October, when you will avoid the worst of the rains and there’s less humidity, though both ends of this period can be characterized by a stifling lack of breezes. Despite the rains, the months of January and February are rewarding, and see a number of significant festivals, notably Chinese New Year and the Hindu celebration of Thaipusam. Visiting just after the rainy season can afford the best of all worlds, with verdant countryside and bountiful waterfalls, though there’s still a clammy quality to the air. Arrive in Sabah a little later, in May, and you’ll be able to take in the Sabah Fest, a week-long celebration of Sabahan culture, while in Sarawak, June’s Gawai Festival is well worth attending, when longhouse doors are flung open for several days of rice-harvest merry-making, with dancing, eating, drinking and music.

Public transport in Malaysia is reliable and inexpensive. Much of your travelling, particularly in Peninsular Malaysia, will be by bus, minivan or, less often, long-distance taxi. Budget flights are a great option for hopping around the region, especially given that no ferries connect Peninsular and east Malaysia. Although the Peninsula’s rail system (there’s also a small stretch in Sabah), has to some extent been superseded by highways and faster buses, it still has its uses, particularly in the interior and on the express run north from Butterworth to Bangkok. Sabah and Sarawak have their own travel peculiarities – in Sarawak, for instance, you’re reliant on boats, and occasionally planes, for some long-distance travel.

The transport system is subject to heavy pressure during any nationwide public holiday – particularly Muslim festivals, the Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Christmas and New Year. A day or two before each festival, whole communities embark upon what’s called balik kampung, which literally means returning to their home villages (and towns) to be with family. Make bus, train or flight reservations at least one week in advance to travel at these times; if you’re driving, steel yourself for more than the usual number of jams.

And finally, bear in mind that chartering transport – longboats, or cars with drivers – to reach some off-the-beaten-track national park or island, is always an expensive business.

By bus
Malaysia’s national bus network is comprehensive and easy to use, with regular express coaches between all major cities and towns, and much slower local services within, usually, a 100-km radius.

Peninsular Malaysia
Buying a ticket at any sizeable Malaysian bus station is like wandering into a street market: routes can be served by dozens of companies, each with their own ticket booths and staff vying for your attention. The atmosphere is never aggressive, however – touts won’t grab your bags as hostage or hustle you into the wrong bus – and in practice things work reasonably well. The plethora of bus companies also means departures are pretty frequent (in practice, hourly or every other hour during daylight hours). Much of the time you can just turn up and buy a ticket for the next bus, though you might want to do this a day in advance on popular routes, such as those involving the Cameron Highlands. While comprehensive timetables are never available, bus station staff (and even staff for competing bus companies) can fill you in about schedules and connections.

Most intercity buses are comfortable, with air conditioning and curtains to screen out the blazing tropical sun, though seats can be tightly packed together. Buses rarely have toilets, but longer journeys feature a rest stop every couple of hours or so, with a half-hour meal stopover if needed. On a few plum routes, notably KL–Penang, additional luxury or “executive” coaches charge double the regular fares and offer greater legroom plus on-board TVs and toilets.

Fares are cheap, but note that if you want to leave the bus at a small town en route, you may be charged the full fare or the fare until the next major town. Local buses, where available, are more cost-effective for such journeys, but take much longer.

Express and local buses usually operate from separate stations; the local bus station is often fairly central, the express-bus station a little further out. In some towns, buses may call at both stations before terminating. A handful of well-established bus companies give reliable service in Peninsular-Malaysia. The largest is Transnasional (, whose services have the entire Peninsula pretty well covered. Alternatives include Plusliner ( and Konsortium Bas Ekspres (

Sabah and Sarawak
In Sabah and Sarawak, modern air-conditioned buses ply the various long-distance routes, including Sarawak’s trans-state coastal road between Kuching and the Brunei border, serving Sibu, Bintulu and Miri en route. In addition, local buses serve satellite towns and villages; these are particularly useful when exploring southwestern Sarawak and for the cross-border trip to Pontianak in Indonesian Kalimantan.

By train
The Peninsula’s intercity train service is operated by KTM (short for “Keretapi Tanah Melayu” or Malay Land Trains; w The network is shaped roughly like a Y, with the southern end anchored at Singapore and the intersection north inside Malaysia at the small town of Gemas. The northwest branch travels into Thailand via KL, Ipoh and Butterworth, crossing the border at Padang Besar; the northeast branch cuts up through the interior along a stretch known as the Jungle Railway, to terminate at Tumpat, outside the port of Kota Bharu.

There are two main classes of train. Express services call mostly at major stations and are generally modern, fully air-conditioned and well maintained; local trains, often not air-conditioned and of variable quality, operate on various segments between Singapore and Tumpat, and call at every town, village and hamlet en route.

Unfortunately, not even the express trains can keep up with buses where modern highways exist alongside. The 370km journey from KL to Johor Bahru, for example, takes the train five and a half hours; on a good day, buses are roughly an hour quicker. Until the rail tracks themselves are modernized, you’re unlikely to rely heavily on trains for journeys along the west coast and in the south.

The rail system does, however, retain a couple of advantages. Sleeper services – between KL and Singapore, KL and Hat Yai in Thailand, and Singapore and Tumpat, not to mention the international service from Butterworth to Bangkok – can save on a night’s accommodation. Express trains also remain the quickest way to reach some parts of the forested interior, while local trains through the interior can also be handy for reaching small settlements. Moreover, there’s still a certain thrill in arriving at some of the splendidly solid colonial stations, built when the train was the prime means of transport.

Seats and berths
Seats on the trains divide into economy, superior and premier class, though not all are available on all services – local trains on interior routes tend to be economy only. In reality there’s very little difference between them anyway, besides slight increases in padding, seat size and legroom.

Some night services also offer sleeper berths, which come in superior, deluxe and 2plus. Superior are two tiers of twenty bunks in an open carriage, with a curtain for privacy on each tier, while deluxe and 2plus are private cabins – only deluxe has its own washroom.

Buying tickets
While tickets can be bought up to 30 days in advance for any train, you can only book seat and berth reservations on express services – and you’ll need to for these popular trains. Make bookings at major stations, by phone on t1300 885 862, or online at Timetables and fare tables are available online, and at major train stations.

Long-distance taxis
Most towns in Malaysia have a long-distance taxi rank, usually at or around the express bus station. Taxis run between cities and towns throughout the country, and can be a lot quicker than buses. The snag is that they operate on a shared basis, so you have to wait for enough people to show up to fill the four passenger seats in the vehicle. In most major towns this shouldn’t take too long, especially early in the day; afternoon journeys can involve a bit of thumb-twiddling. Fares usually work out at two to three times the corresponding fare in an express bus. Note that long-distance taxi fares, in particular, may jump when fuel prices are rising rapidly.

For visitors travelling in small groups, the real advantage of these taxis is that you can charter one for your journey, paying for the vehicle rather than per person. Not only does this mean you’ll set off immediately, but it also allows you to reach destinations that may not be served directly by buses, or even by normal shared taxis. There’s little danger of being ripped off: charter prices to a large number of destinations, both popular and obscure, are set by the authorities, and usually chalked up on a board in the taxi office or listed on a laminated tariff card (senarai tambang), which you can ask to see.

Some taxi operators assume any tourist who shows up will want to charter a taxi; if you want to use the taxi on a shared basis, say “nak kongsi dengan orang lain”.

Ferries and boats
Ferries sail to Langkawi, Penang, the Perhentians, Tioman and Pangkor islands off Peninsular Malaysia. Vessels are either modern speedboats or, occasionally, converted penambang, compact motorized fishing craft. You generally buy your ticket in advance from booths at the jetty, though you can sometimes pay on the boat.

Within Sarawak, the only scheduled boat services you’re likely to use are those between Kuching and Sibu and on up the Rejang River to Belaga. To head up smaller tributaries, it’s often necessary to charter a longboat.

Sabah has no express-boat river services, though regular ferries connect Pulau Labuan with Kota Kinabalu, Sipitang and Menumbok, all on the west coast.

By air
Thanks to some low-cost carriers, flying around the region is fairly inexpensive. Malaysian domestic flights are operated by Malaysia Airlines (MAS) and the budget carriers AirAsia and Firefly. If you’re flying within Malaysia, note that many connections between regional airports require a change of plane in KL, making flying less of a time-saver than it might seem.

Airfares throughout this section are for one-way tickets (return fares usually cost double) and include taxes and any fuel surcharges. Check all fares online with competing airline websites; huge discounts are sometimes available.

MAS, MASwings and Firefly
MAS (Malaysia t1300 883 000, flies from KL to most state capitals, as well as Langkawi and Labuan. Its subsidiary MASwings ( operates flights within East Malaysia, some services using propeller-driven Twin Otter planes that are something of a lifeline for rural communities.

MAS’s budget arm, Firefly (, mostly serves smaller destinations around the Peninsula, but has recently added services to Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan in Sabah, and Sebu and Kuching in Sarawak.

Short hops within the Peninsula start at around RM150 on MAS; going with Firefly can halve fares if they operate on the same route. As for Borneo flights, MASwings’ fare for Kuching to Kinabalu is around RM100 if booked early. Note that many Malaysian cities no longer have a downtown MAS office; book online.

The no-frills carrier AirAsia ( offers a network of internal flights rivalling those of MAS, though flights are prone to short delays. Most of its services originate at KL airport’s low-cost-carrier terminal, though conveniently it also flies between Senai airport near Johor Bahru and Penang, Kuching, Miri, Sibu and Kota Kinabalu.

AirAsia’s fares for short hops within the Peninsula are as low as RM40, while the very longest domestic route offered, from KL to Kota Kinabalu in eastern Sabah (2hr 30min), weighs in at around RM133 one-way if booked early enough. Note, however, that hefty surcharges apply if your checked-in baggage weighs more than 15kg, and that the lowest fares are hard to come by for travel on or close to public holidays, and during the school holidays.

Other airlines
Two Malaysian resort islands, Redang and Tioman, are served from KL by Berjaya Air (Malaysia t03 7845 8382;; both host resorts owned by the conglomerate Berjaya Corporation. Reckon on S$110–180 each way.

Driving and vehicle rental
The roads in Peninsular Malaysia are good, making driving a viable prospect for tourists – though the cavalier local attitude to road rules takes some getting used to. It’s mostly the same story in Sarawak, though in Sabah a sizeable minority of roads are rough, unpaved and susceptible to flash flooding.

Driving is on the left, and wearing seat belts is compulsory in the front of the vehicle. To rent a vehicle, you must be 23 or over and need to show a clean driving licence.

Malaysian roads
Malaysian highways – called expressways and usually referred to by a number prefixed “E” – are a pleasure to drive; they’re wide and well maintained, and feature convenient rest stops with toilets, shops and small food courts. In contrast, the streets of major cities can be a pain, regularly traffic-snarled, with patchy signposting and confusing one-way systems. Most cities and towns boast plenty of car parks, and even where you can’t find one, there’s usually no problem with parking in a lane or side street.

Speed limits are 110kph on expressways, 90kph on the narrower trunk and state roads, and 50kph in built-up areas. For intercity journeys, expressways are almost always quicker than using a trunk road, even if the latter passes through the town where you’re starting out while the expressway is a little way away. Whatever road you’re on, stick religiously to the speed limit; speed traps are commonplace and fines hefty. If you are pulled up for a traffic offence, note that it’s not unknown for Malaysian police to ask for a bribe, which will set you back less than the fine. Never offer to bribe a police officer and think carefully before you give in to an invitation to do so.

All expressways are built and run by private concessions and as such attract tolls, generally around RM20 per 100km, though on some roads a flat fee is levied. At toll points (signed “Tol Plaza”), you can pay in cash (cashiers can dispense change) or by waving a stored-value Touch ‘n Go card in front of a sensor ( Get in the appropriate lane as you approach the toll points: some lanes are for certain types of vehicle only.

Once out on the roads, you’ll rapidly become aware of the behaviour of quite a few Malaysian motorists, which their compatriots might term gila (Malay for “insane”). Swerving from lane to lane in the thick of the traffic, overtaking close to blind corners and careering down hill roads are not uncommon, as are tragic press accounts of pile-ups and road fatalities. Not for nothing does the exhortation “pandu cermat” (drive safely) appear on numerous highway signboards, though the message still isn’t getting through.

If you’re new to driving in Malaysia, the best approach is to take all of this with equanimity and drive conservatively; concede the right of way if you’re not sure of the intentions of others. One confusing local habit is that some drivers flash their headlights to claim the right of way rather than concede it.

Car and bike rental
Car rental rates begin at around RM120 per day for weekly rental of a basic 1.5-litre Proton, including unlimited mileage and collision damage waiver insurance. The excess can be RM1500 or more, but can be reduced or set to zero by paying a surcharge of up to ten percent on the daily rental rate. Fuel is subsidized: at the time of writing, petrol cost RM1.9 per litre, diesel was RM1.8 per litre and gas about RM48 per tank.

Motorbike rental tends to be informal, usually offered by Malaysian guesthouses and shops in more touristy areas. Officially, you must be over 21 and have an appropriate driving licence, though it’s unlikely you’ll have to show the latter; you’ll probably need to leave your passport as a deposit. Wearing helmets is compulsory. Rental costs around RM20 per day, while bicycles, useful in rural areas, can be rented for a few ringgit a day.

City and local transport
Local bus networks in most Malaysian cities and towns serve both urban areas and hinterland; details are given in the text. Fares are always low (typically under RM2), though schedules – particularly in KL – can be unfathomable to visitors (and to some locals). KL also has efficient commuter rail, light rail and monorail systems.

Taxis are metered in KL and some other large cities, though Malaysian drivers often prefer to turn off the meter illegally, and negotiate a fare. If you encounter this, simply get straight out of the cab and flag down another. At a few taxi ranks you can pay a sensible fixed fare at a booth before your trip.

Outside the largest cities, taxis neither use meters nor ply the streets looking for custom. In these places, whether you want to make a standard journey within town or charter a cab for a specific itinerary, you should head to a taxi rank and will probably have to bargain if you’re doing an unusual route. Your accommodation might be able to charter a vehicle for you, or at least provide an idea of likely prices; reckon on at least RM30 per hour.

Trishaws (bicycle rickshaws), seating two people, are seen less and less these days, but they’re still very much part of the tourist scene in places like Melaka and Penang . You’re paying for an experience here, not transport as such.

Like pretty much everywhere else in the Gulf, Dubai only really gets going in the cooler evening and night-time hours. As dusk falls, the streets light up in a blaze of neon and the pavements begin to fill up with a cosmopolitan crowd of Emiratis, Arabs, Westerners, Indians and Filipinos. The city’s vibrant nightlife takes many forms. Western expats and tourists tend to make for the city’s restaurants, bars and clubs, while locals and expat Arabs can be found relaxing in the city’s myriad shisha cafés. Souks and shopping malls across the city fill up with crowds of consumers from all walks of Dubai society – most remain remarkably busy right up to when they close around midnight; bars and clubs meanwhile kick on until the small hours.

Dubai has a reasonably busy clubbing scene, driven by a mix of Western expats and tourists along with the city’s large expat Arab (particularly Lebanese) community. Music tends to be a fairly mainstream selection of house, hip-hop and r’n’b (perhaps with a splash of Arabic pop), although a healthy number of visiting international DJs help keep things fresh. The emphasis at more upmarket places still tends to be on posing and pouting – expect to see lots of beautiful young things from Beirut or Bombay quaffing champagne and inspecting their make-up – although there’s more fashion-free and egalitarian clubbing to be had at places like Zinc and N’dulge, the latter being Dubai’s nearest equivalent to an Ibiza-style superclub.

In terms of more cultural diversions, there’s significantly less on offer. Dubai is widely derided as the city that culture forgot – and in many ways the stereotype is richly deserved. The city has five-star hotels, luxury spas, celebrity chefs and shopping malls aplenty, but until a few years back lacked even a single functioning theatre. Even now, the city’s musical life is largely limited to Filipino cover bands and the occasional big-name visiting rock act.

Yet things are changing – albeit slowly. Dubai now hosts a decent range of cultural festivals, including good film and jazz events, although outside festival time the city’s cultural calendar can feel decidedly undernourished. Where Dubai has scored a major success, however, is in establishing itself as the Gulf’s art capital, boasting a remarkable number of independent galleries; many of these are set up in unlikely places around the city by expats from around the Arab world and showcase a healthy spread of cutting-edge work by a range of international artists.

Accommodation in Malaysia is good value: basic double rooms start at around RM45 (£9/US$14), while mid-range en-suite rooms can go for as little as RM100 (£20/US$32), including breakfast. With a little shopping around, you may well turn up a plush, four-star hotel room for RM250 (£50/US$80).

The cheapest form of accommodation is a dormitory at a hostel, guesthouse or lodge. These generally exist in well-touristed spots, such as Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown, Kota Bharu, Cherating, Kuching, Miri, Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. At the other end of the scale, luxury hotels offer a level of comfort and style to rank with any in the world. Many mid-range and top-bracket hotels also offer promotional discounts that slash twenty percent or more off the rack rate; either check online or simply ask if you turn up without a reservation. Discounted long-term rates – anything over two weeks – are also often available.

Advance reservations are essential to be sure of securing a budget or mid-range room during major festivals such as Chinese New Year, Hari Raya and Deepavali, or school holidays. Rates remain relatively stable throughout the year, rising slightly during these popular periods.

At the budget end of the market you’ll have to share a bathroom, which in most cases will feature a shower and Western-style toilet. Air conditioning is standard in hotels, and is increasingly common at the budget end of the market. Note that a single room may contain a double bed, while a double can have a double bed, two single beds or even two double beds; a triple will usually have three doubles or a combination of doubles and singles. Baby cots are usually available only in more expensive places.

Guesthouses, hostels and chalets
The mainstay of the travellers’ scene in Malaysia are guesthouses (also sometimes called hostels, B&Bs or backpackers). Located in popular tourist areas, these can range from simple affairs in renovated shophouses to modern multistorey buildings complete with satellite TV, DVD players and internet. Their advantage for travellers on a tight budget is that almost all offer dorm beds, costing anywhere between RM10 and RM30. Basic double rooms are usually available, too, with a fan and possibly a mosquito net at the cheaper end of the market, from RM35 upwards.

In national parks, islands and in resort-style compounds you’ll find accommodation in so-called chalets, ranging from simple A-frame huts to luxury affairs with a veranda, sitting area, TV, minibar, etc. While the cheapest chalets cost the same as a basic double in a guesthouse, at the top end you could pay over RM1000 for a two-night package at the dive resorts off Sabah’s east coast.

Malaysia’s cheapest hotels tend to cater for a local clientele and seldom need to be booked in advance: just go to the next place around the corner if your first choice is full. Rooms are usually divided from one another by thin partitions and contain a washbasin, table and ceiling fan, though never a mosquito net. In the better places you may be treated to polished wooden floors and antique furniture. That said, showers and toilets are often shared and can be pretty basic. Another consideration is the noise level, which as most places are on main streets can be considerable. Note that some of the hotels at the cheaper end of the scale also function as brothels, especially those described using the Malay term rumah persinggahan or rumah tumpangan, or those that allow rooms to be paid for by the hour.

Mid-range hotels, often the only alternative in smaller towns, are rarely better value than a well-kept budget place. The big difference is in the comfort of the mattress – nearly always sprung – and getting your own Western-style, but cramped, bathroom. Prices start at around RM60, for which you can expect air conditioning, en-suite facilities and relatively decent furnishings, as well, sometimes, as a telephone and refrigerator. In these places, too, a genuine distinction is made between single rooms and doubles.

High-end hotels are as comfortable as you might expect, and many have state-of-the-art facilities, including a swimming pool, spa and gym. Some may add a touch of class by incorporating kampung-style architecture, such as saddle-shaped roofs with woodcarving. While rates can be as low as RM200 per night, in popular destinations such as Penang and Kota Kinabalu they can rocket above the RM300 mark, though this is obviously still great value compared to equivalent hotels in Western cities. Many five-star hotels adjust their rates on a daily basis depending on their occupancy level; check websites for the latest rates.

Despite the rural nature of much of Malaysia, there are few official opportunities for camping, perhaps because guesthouses and hotels are so reasonable, and because the heat and humidity, not to mention the generous supply of insects, make camping something only strange foreigners would willingly do. Where there are campsites, typically in nature parks, they are either free to use or charge around RM10 per person per night; facilities are basic and may not be well maintained. A few lodges and camps (at Taman Negara, for example) have sturdy A-frame tents and other equipment for rent, but you generally need to bring all your own gear .

If you go trekking in more remote regions, for example through central Taman Negara National Park in Peninsular Malaysia and parts of the Kelabit Highlands in Sabah, camping is about your only option. Often, visitors find it easier to go on package trips organized by specialist tour operators who will provide tents and equipment, if necessary.

A stay in a longhouse, de rigueur for many travellers visiting Sarawak, offers the chance to experience tribal community life, do a little trekking and try activities such as weaving and using a blowpipe. It used to be that visitors could simply turn up at a longhouse, ask to see the tuai rumah (headman), and be granted a place to stay, paying only for meals and offering some gifts as an additional token of thanks for the community’s hospitality. While some tourists still try to work things like this, for example at longhouses along the Rejang River, these days most longhouse visits are invariably arranged through a tour operator.

More expensive packages put visitors up in their own section of the longhouse, equipped with proper beds and modern washing facilities; meals will be prepared separately rather than shared with the rest of the community. More basic trips generally have you sleeping on mats rather than beds, either in a large communal room or on the veranda, and the main washing facilities may well be the nearest river. For meals the party will be divided up into smaller groups, each of which will eat with a different family.

It can be fantastic to visit a longhouse during the annual Gawai Dayak festival at the start of June and witness traditional celebrations, though don’t expect to get much sleep: the merry-making, generally fuelled by copious consumption of tuak (rice wine), will continue long into the night, and the place may be so crowded that people end up sleeping sardine-fashion in the communal areas.

In certain areas homestay programmes are available, whereby you stay with a Malaysian family, paying for your bed and board. Though facilities are likely to be modest, homestays can be a good way to sample home cooking and culture. Tourist offices can usually furnish a list of local homestays if requested; the main things to ask about are whether a special programme will be laid on for you – not necessarily a good thing if you simply want to be left to relax – and whether your hosts are able to speak English, without which you may find yourself somewhat cut off from them and the community.

One of the best reasons to come to Malaysia is the food, comprising two of the world’s most venerated cuisines – Chinese and Indian – and one of the most underrated – Malay. Even if you think you know two out of the three pretty well, be prepared to be surprised: Chinese food here boasts a lot of the provincial diversity that you just don’t find in the West’s Cantonese-dominated Chinese restaurants, while Indian fare is predominantly southern Indian, lighter and spicier than northern food.

Furthermore, each of the three cuisines has acquired more than a few tricks from the other two – the Chinese here cook curries, for example – giving rise to some distinctive fusion food. Add to this cross-fertilization a host of regional variations and specialities, plus excellent seafood and unusual tropical produce, and the result is – if you dare to order enterprisingly – a dazzling gastronomic experience.

None of this need come at great expense. From the ubiquitous food stalls and cheap street diners called kedai kopis, the standard of cooking is high and food everywhere is remarkably good value. Basic noodle- or rice-based one-plate meals at a stall or kedai kopi rarely cost more than a few ringgit. Even a full meal with drinks in a fancy restaurant seldom runs to more than RM50 a head. The most renowned culinary centres are Georgetown, KL, Melaka and Kota Bharu, although other towns have their own distinctive dishes too.

Places to eat
One myth to bust immediately is the notion that you will get food poisoning eating at street stalls and cheap diners. Standards of hygiene are usually good, and as most food is cooked to order (or, in the case of rice-with-toppings spreads, only on display for a few hours), it’s generally pretty safe. Note also that tipping is not expected in restaurants where bills include a service charge (as they usually do) – and is never the practice in kedai kopis or food courts.

Food stalls and food courts
Some of the cheapest and most delicious food available in Malaysia comes from stalls, traditionally wooden pushcarts on the roadside, surrounded by a few wobbly tables with stools to sit at. Most stalls serve one or a few standard noodle and rice dishes or specialize in certain delicacies, from oyster omelettes to squid curry.

For many visitors, however, there is a psychological barrier to having a meal by the roadside. To ease yourself into the modus operandi of stalls, take advantage of the fact that nowadays many are assembled into user-friendly medan selera (literally “appetite square”) or food courts. Usually taking up a floor of an office building or shopping mall, or housed in open-sided market buildings, food courts feature stall lots with menus displayed and fixed tables, plus toilets. You generally don’t have to sit close to the stall you’re patronizing: find a free table, and the vendor will track you down when your food is ready. You generally pay when your food is delivered, though payment is sometimes requested when you order.

Stalls open at various times from morning to evening, with most closing well before midnight except in the big cities. During the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, however, Muslim-run stalls don’t open until mid-afternoon, though this is also when you can take advantage of the pasar Ramadan, afternoon food markets at which stalls sell masses of savouries and sweet treats to take away; tourist offices can tell you where one is taking place. Ramadan is also the time to stuff yourself at the massive fast-breaking buffets laid on by most major hotels throughout the month.

The kedai kopi
Few downtown streets lack a kedai kopi, sometimes known as a kopitiam in Hokkien Chinese. Although both terms literally mean “coffee shop”, a kedai kopi is actually an inexpensive diner rather than a café. Most serve noodle and rice dishes all day, often with a campur-style spread (see Cuisine) at lunchtime, sometimes in the evening too. Some kedai kopis function as miniature food markets, housing a handful of vendors – perhaps one offering curries and griddle breads, another doing a particular Chinese noodle dish, and so on.

Most kedai kopis open at 8am to serve breakfast, and don’t shut until the early evening; a few stay open as late as 10pm. Culinary standards are seldom spectacular but are satisfying all the same, and you’re unlikely to spend more than small change for a filling one-plate meal. It’s worth noting that in some Malaysian towns, particularly on the east coast, the Chinese-run kedai kopis are often the only places where you’ll be able to get alcohol.

Restaurants, cafés and bakeries
Sophisticated restaurants only exist in the big cities. Don’t expect a stiffly formal ambience in these places, however – while some places can be sedate, the Chinese, in particular, prefer restaurants to be noisy, sociable affairs. Where the pricier restaurants come into their own is for international food – anything from Vietnamese to Tex-Mex. KL and Georgetown all have dynamic restaurant scenes, and the five-star hotels usually boast a top-flight restaurant of their own. The chief letdown is that the service can be amateurish, reflecting how novel this sort of dining experience is for many of the staff.

Most large Malaysian towns feature a few attempts at Western cafés, serving passable fries, sandwiches, burgers, shakes and so forth. It’s also easy to find bakeries, which can represent a welcome change from the local rice-based diet – though don’t be surprised to find chilli sardine buns and other Asian Western hybrids, or cakes with decidedly artificial fillings and colourings. For anything really decent in the café or bakery line, you’ll need to be in a big city.

A convenient and inexpensive way to get acquainted with a variety of local dishes is to sample the food spreads available at many of the kedai kopis, particularly at lunchtime. The concept is pretty much summed up by the Malay name for such spreads, nasi campur (“mixed rice”), though Chinese and Indian kedai kopis, too, offer these arrays of stir fries, curries and other savouries, set out in metal trays or plates. As in a cafeteria, you simply tell the person behind the counter which items you want, and a helping of each will be piled atop a largish serving of rice. If the plainness of the rice soon palls, ask for it to be doused with a scoopful of gravy (kuah in Malay) from any stew or stir fry on display.

Campur food is not haute cuisine – and that’s precisely the attraction. Whether you have, say, ikan kembong (mackerel) deep-fried and served whole, or chicken pieces braised in soy sauce, or bean sprouts stir-fried with salted fish or shrimp, any campur spread is much closer to home cooking than anything served in formal restaurants.

Nasi campur and noodle dishes are meals in themselves, but otherwise eating is generally a shared experience – stir fries and other dishes arrive in quick succession and everyone present helps themselves to several servings of each, eaten with rice, as the meal progresses.

Breakfast can present a conundrum in small towns, where the rice and noodle dishes that locals enjoy at all times of day may be all that’s easily available. If you can’t get used to the likes of rice porridge at dawn, try to find a stall or kedai kopi offering roti bakar, toast served with butter and kaya. The latter is a scrumptious sweet spread, either orange or green, not unlike English lemon curd in that it’s made with eggs, though coconut is the magic ingredient that accounts for most of the flavour.

Malay food
In its influences, Malay cuisine looks to the north and east, most obviously to China in the use of noodles and soy sauce, but also to neighbouring Thailand, with which it shares an affinity for such ingredients as lemon grass, the ginger-like galingale and fermented fish sauce (the Malay version, budu, is made from anchovies). But Malay fare also draws on Indian and Middle East cooking in the use of spices, and in dishes such as biriyani rice. The resulting cuisine is characterized by being both spicy and a little sweet. Naturally there’s a particular emphasis on local ingredients: santan (coconut milk) lends a sweet, creamy undertone to many stews and curries, while belacan, a pungent fermented prawn paste (something of an acquired taste), is found in chilli condiments and sauces. Unusual herbs, including curry and kaffir-lime leaves, also play a prominent role.

The cuisine of the southern part of the Peninsula tends to be more lemak (rich) than further north, where the Thai influence is strongest and where you’ll thus find many a tom yam stew – spicy and sour (the latter by dint of lemon grass) – on offer. The most famous Malay dish is arguably satay, though this can be hard to find outside the big cities; another classic, and this time ubiquitous, is nasi lemak, standard breakfast fare. Also quintessentially Malay, rendang is a dryish curry made by slow-cooking meat (usually beef) in coconut milk flavoured with galingale and a variety of herbs and spices.

For many visitors, one of the most striking things about Malay food is the bewildering array of kuih-muih (or just kuih), or sweetmeats, on display at markets and street stalls. Often featuring coconut and sometimes gula melaka (palm-sugar molasses), kuih come in all shapes and sizes, and in as many colours (often artificial nowadays) as you find in a paints catalogue – rainbow-hued layer cakes of rice flour are about the most extreme example.

Chinese food
The range of Chinese cooking available in Malaysia represents a mouthwatering sweep through China’s southeastern seaboard, reflecting the historical pattern of emigration from Fujian, Guangzhou and Hainan Island provinces. This diversity is evident in popular dishes served at any collection of stalls or kopitiams. Cantonese char siew (roast pork, given a reddish honey-based marinade) is frequently served over plain rice as a meal in itself, or as a garnish in noodle dishes such as wonton mee (wonton being Cantonese pork dumplings); also very common is Hainanese chicken rice, comprising steamed chicken accompanied by savoury rice cooked in chicken stock. Fujian province contributes dishes such as hae mee, yellow noodles in a rich prawn broth; yong tau foo, from the Hakka ethnic group on the border with Guangzhou, and comprising bean curd, fishball dumplings and assorted vegetables, poached and served with broth and sweet dipping sauces; and mee pok, a Teochew (Chaozhou) dish featuring ribbon-like noodles with fishball dumplings and a spicy dressing.

Restaurant dining tends to be dominated by Cantonese food. Menus can be predictable – including standbys such as sweet-and-sour pork, lemon chicken, steamed sea bass, claypot rice (rice cooked in an earthenware pot with sweet lap cheong pork sausage) and so forth – but the quality of cooking is usually very high.

Many Cantonese places offer great dim sum lunches, at which small servings of numerous savouries such as siu mai dumplings (of pork and prawn), crispy yam puffs and chee cheong fun (rice-flour rolls stuffed with pork and dredged in sweet sauce) are consumed. Traditionally, all are served in bamboo steamers and ordered off trolleys wheeled by waitresses, though these days you might well simply order off a menu.

Where available, take the opportunity to try specialities such as steamboat, a sort of fondue that involves dunking raw vegetables, meat and seafood into boiling stock to cook (the stock itself is drunk as part of the meal), or chilli crab (served at some seafood places), in which crab pieces are served in a spicy tomato sauce. It’s also worth sampling humdrum but very commonplace stomach-fillers such as rice porridge – either plain, with salted fish and omelette strips added for flavour, or already flavoured by being cooked with chicken or fish – and pow, steamed buns containing a savoury filling of char siew or chicken, or sometimes a sweet filling of red bean paste. Both porridge and pow are widely available as breakfast fare, while pow is sold throughout the day as a snack.

Nonya food
Named after the word used to describe womenfolk of the Peranakan communities, Nonya food is to Penang and Melaka as Creole food is to Louisiana, a product of the melding of cultures. Here the blend is of Chinese and Malay (and also Indonesian) cuisines, and can seem more Malay than Chinese thanks to its use of spices – except that pork is widely used.

Nonya popiah (spring rolls) is a standard dish: rather than being fried, the rolls are assembled by coating a steamed wrap with a sweet sauce made of palm sugar, then stuffed mainly with stir-fried bangkwang, a crunchy turnip-like vegetable. Another classic is laksa, noodles in a spicy soup flavoured in part by daun kesom – a herb fittingly referred to in English as laksa leaf. Other well-known Nonya dishes include asam fish, a spicy, tangy fish stew featuring tamarind (the asam of the name); and otak-otak, fish mashed with coconut milk and chilli paste, then put in a narrow banana-leaf envelope and steamed or barbecued.

Indian food
The classic southern Indian dish is the dosai or thosai, a thin rice-flour pancake, often stuffed with a vegetable mixture. It’s usually served accompanied by sambar, a basic vegetable and lentil curry, rasam, a tamarind broth; and perhaps a few small helpings of vegetable or dhal curries. Also very common are roti griddle breads, plus the more substantial murtabak, thicker than a roti and stuffed with egg, onion and minced meat, with sweet banana versions sometimes available. At lunchtime many South Indian cafés turn to serving daun pisang (literally, banana leaf), a meal comprising rice heaped on a banana-leaf “platter” and small, replenishable heaps of various curries placed alongside. In some restaurants you’ll find more substantial dishes such as the popular fish-head curry (don’t be put off by the idea – the “cheeks” between the mouth and gills are packed with tasty flesh).

A notable aspect of the eating scene in Malaysia is the “mamak” kedai kopi, run by Muslims of South Indian descent (and easily distinguished from Hindu Tamil places by the framed Arabic inscriptions on the walls). Mamak establishments have become de facto meeting places for all creeds, being halal and open late. Foodwise, they’re very similar to other south Indian places, though perhaps with more emphasis on meat in mamak joints and some attempt at northern Indian dishes as well.

The food served in northern Indian restaurants (only found in big cities), is richer, less fiery and more reliant on mutton and chicken. The most famous style of North Indian cooking is tandoori – named after the clay oven in which the food is cooked; you’ll commonly come across tandoori chicken marinated in yoghurt and spices and then baked. Breads such as nan also tend to feature rather than rice, though just about every restaurant has a version of biriyani.

Borneo cuisine
The diet of the indigenous groups living in settled communities in east Malaysia tends to revolve around standard Malay and Chinese dishes. In remoter regions, however, or at festival times, you may have an opportunity to sample indigenous cuisine. Villagers in Sabah’s Klias Peninsula still produce ambuyat, a gluey, sago-starch porridge; then there’s the Lun Bawang speciality of jaruk – raw wild boar, fermented in a bamboo tube and definitely an acquired taste. Sabah’s most famous dishes include hinava, raw fish pickled in lime juice. In Sarawak, Iban and Kelabit communities sometimes serve wild boar, cooked on a spit or stewed, and served with rice (perhaps lemang – glutinous rice cooked in bamboo) and jungle ferns. River fish is a longhouse basic; the most easily available, tilapia, is usually grilled with pepper and herbs, or steamed in bamboo cylinders.

Tropical fruit
Markets feature a delightful range of locally grown fruit, though modern agricultural practices are leading to a decline in some varieties. Here are some of the more unusual fruits to watch out for.

Bananas (pisang) Look out for the delicious pisang mas, small, straight, thin-skinned and aromatically sweet; pisang rastali, slightly bigger, with dark blotches on the skin and not quite so sweet; plus green- and even red-skinned varieties.
Cempedak This smaller version of the nangka (see jackfruit) is normally deep-fried, enabling the seed, not unlike a new potato, to be eaten too.
Ciku Looks like an apple; varies from yellow to pinkish brown when ripe, with a soft, pulpy flesh.
Durian One of Southeast Asia’s most popular fruits, durians are also, for many visitors, the most repugnant thanks to their unpleasant smell. In season (March–Aug & Nov–Feb), they’re the size of soccer balls and have a thick green skin covered with sharp spikes. Inside, rows of large seeds are coated with squidgy yellow-white flesh, whose flavour has been likened to vomit-flavoured custard.
Jackfruit Like some kind of giant grenade, the jackfruit (nangka) grows up to 40cm long and has a coarse greenish-yellow exterior, enclosing large seeds whose sweet flesh has a powerful odour, vaguely like overripe pineapple. The unripe fruit is sometimes served as a savoury stir fry that’s a bit like bamboo shoots.
Langsat Together with its sister fruit, the duku, this looks like a small, round potato, with juicy, segmented white flesh containing small, bitter seeds.
Longan Not unlike the lychee, this stone fruit has sweet, juicy translucent flesh inside a thin brown skin.
Mangosteen Available June–Aug & Nov–Jan, mangosteens have a segmented white flesh with a sweet, slightly tart flavour. Be warned: the thick purple rind contains juice that stains clothes indelibly.
Pomelo Much grown around Ipoh, this pale green citrus fruit is slightly smaller than a soccer ball and, at its best, is juicier and sweeter than grapefruit. Slice away the rind with a knife, then separate and peel the giant segments with your hands.
Rambutan The shape and size of hen’s eggs, rambutans have a soft, spiny exterior that gives them their name – rambut means “hair” in Malay. To get at the sweet translucent white flesh coating the stone inside, simply make a small tear in the peel with your nails and twist open.
Salak Teardrop-shaped, the salak has a skin rather like a snake’s and a bitter taste.
Soursop Inside the bumpy, muddy-green skin of this fruit, the smooth white flesh is like blancmange. Margaret Brooke, wife of Sarawak’s second rajah, Charles, described it as “tasting like cotton wool dipped in vinegar and sugar”.
Star fruit This waxy, pale green fruit, star-shaped in cross section, is said to be good for high blood pressure. The yellower the fruit, the sweeter its flesh – though it can be rather insipid.

Appropriately, given the steamy climate, stalls offer a range of desserts that often revolve around ice milled down to something resembling slush. More jarringly, desserts often include ingredients such as pulses, sticky rice or even yam and sweet potato, all of which can be turned into a sweet stew or porridge.

At their best, local desserts are certainly a lot more interesting than most ice-cream sundaes ever get. Easy to find and worth trying is eis kacang (also known as air batu campur – “mixed ice” – or ABC), comprising a small helping of aduki beans, sweetcorn and bits of jelly, covered with a snowy mound doused in colourful syrups. Even better, though high in cholesterol, is cendol, luscious coconut milk sweetened with gula melaka and mixed with green fragments of mung-bean-flour jelly. You’ll even find delicious red-bean ice cream on sale, its flavour dominated by coconut milk rather than the beans.

While tap water is generally safe to drink, bottled water is widely available at around RM2 a litre. Among freshly squeezed juices, watermelon, orange and carrot are pretty common, as is the faintly sappy but invigorating sugar cane, extracted by pressing the canes through mangles. Some street stalls also offer cordial-based drinks, nowhere near as good. Rather better are lychee and longan drinks, made with diluted tinned juices and served with some of the fruit at the bottom. The usual fizzy soft drinks are available everywhere for around RM1.50 a can or carton, with the F&N and Yeo companies providing more unusual flavours. Sweetened soya milk in cartons or – much tastier – freshly made at stalls is another popular local choice, as is the refreshing, sweet chin chow, which looks like cola but is in fact made from a seaweed and comes with strands of seaweed jelly.

Tea (teh) and coffee (kopi) are as much national drinks as they are in the West. If ordered with milk, they’ll come with a generous amount of the sweetened condensed variety or sometimes evaporated milk (only large hotels and smarter Western-style cafés have regular milk). If you don’t have a sweet tooth, either ask for your drink kurang manis (literally “lacking in sweetness”), in which case less condensed milk will be added, or have it black (use the suffix “o”, eg kopi o for black coffee).

Locals adore their tea or coffee tarik, literally “pulled”, which in practice means frothing the drink by repeatedly pouring it out of a container in one hand to another container in the other hand, and back. Occasionally this can be quite an entertaining feat, the drink being poured from head height with scarcely a drop being spilled.

Alcohol is not generally hard to find in Malaysia. Most big cities have a bar scene, though in Malaysian towns drinking is limited to non-Muslim eating places, drinks stalls at food courts (which usually have beer and perhaps stout) and Chinese-run bars – sometimes little more than tarted-up kedai kopis, the walls perhaps plastered with posters of Hong Kong showbiz poppets. However, in strongly Muslim areas, particularly Kelantan and Terengganu, only a small number of establishments, usually Chinese kedai kopis and stalls, will have alcohol.

Anchor and Tiger beer (lager) are locally produced and easily available, though you can also get Western and Thai beers as well as the Chinese Tsingtao and various stouts, including Guinness. Local whisky and rum are cheap enough, too, though they’re pretty rough and benefit from being mixed with coke. More upmarket restaurants and bars serve beer on draught, cocktails and (generally pricey) imported wine. In the longhouses of Sabah and Sarawak, you will probably be invited to sample tuak, a rice wine that can be as sickly as sweet sherry; it’s about the same strength as beer.

Where bars exist in numbers, fierce competition ensures happy hours are a regular feature, bringing the beer price down to around RM10 a glass, though spirits still remain pricey. While some bars open from lunchtime till late, most tend to open from early evening until the small hours.

No inoculations are required for visiting Malaysia, although the immigration authorities may require a yellow-fever vaccination certificate if you have transited an endemic area, normally Africa or South America, within the preceding six days.

It’s a wise precaution to visit your doctor no less than two months before you leave to check that you are up to date with your polio, typhoid, tetanus and hepatitis inoculations. Tap water is drinkable throughout Malaysia, although in rural areas it’s best to buy bottled water, which is widely available.

Medical problems
Levels of hygiene and medical care in Malaysia are higher than in much of Southeast Asia; with any luck, the most serious thing you’ll go down with is an upset stomach.

Heat problems
Travellers unused to tropical climates may suffer from sunburn and dehydration. The easiest way to avoid this is to restrict your exposure to the midday sun, use high-factor sun screens, wear sunglasses and a hat. You should also drink plenty of water and, if you do become dehydrated, keep up a regular intake of fluids. Rehydration preparations such as Dioralyte are handy; the DIY version is a handful of sugar with a good pinch of salt added to a litre of bottled water, which creates roughly the right mineral balance. Heat stroke is more serious and can require hospitalization: its onset is indicated by a high temperature, dry red skin and a fast pulse.

Stomach problems
The most common complaint is a stomach problem, which can range from a mild dose of diarrhoea to full-blown dysentery. The majority of stomach bugs may be unpleasant, but are unthreatening; however, if you notice blood or mucus in your stools, then you may have amoebic or bacillary dysentery, in which case you should seek medical help.

Stomach bugs are usually transmitted by contaminated food and water, so steer clear of raw vegetables and shellfish, always wash unpeeled fruit, and stick to freshly cooked foods, avoiding anything reheated. However careful you are, food that’s spicy or just different can sometimes upset your system, in which case, try to stick to relatively bland dishes and avoid fried food.

Dengue fever and malaria
The main mosquito-borne disease to be aware of – and the chief reason to take measures to avoid mosquito bites – is dengue fever. The disease is caused by a virus spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito (which has distinctive white marks on its legs) and there are periodic outbreaks, not just in rural areas but also in the major cities. Symptoms include severe headaches, pain in the bones (especially of the back), fever and often a fine, red rash over the body. There’s no specific treatment, just plenty of rest, an adequate fluid intake and painkillers when required.

Although the risk of catching malaria is extremely low, consider protection against it if you think you might be staying in remote parts of Borneo for some time. Most doctors will advise taking antimalarial tablets which, though not completely effective in protecting against the disease, do considerably lessen the risk and can help reduce the symptoms should you develop the disease. Bear in mind you have to start taking the tablets before you arrive in a malaria zone, and continue taking them after you return – ask your doctor for the latest advice.

Altitude sickness
Altitude sickness (or acute mountain sickness) is a potentially life-threatening illness affecting people who ascend above around 3500m. Symptoms include dizziness, headache, shortness of breath, nausea; in severe cases it can lead to a swelling of the brain and lungs that can prove fatal. In Malaysia it’s only likely to be relevant to those climbing Mount Kinabalu (4095m), and most people report only mild symptoms at this altitude. If you’re affected, there’s little you can do apart from descending to lower altitude, although certain prescription drugs may temporarily control the symptoms.

Cuts, bites and stings
Wearing protective clothing when swimming, snorkelling or diving can help avoid sunburn and protect against any sea stings. Sea lice, minute creatures that cause painful though harmless bites are the most common hazard; more dangerous are jellyfish, whose stings must be doused with vinegar to deactivate the poison before you seek medical help.

Coral can also cause nasty cuts and grazes; any wounds should be cleaned and kept as dry as possible until properly healed. The only way to avoid well-camouflaged sea urchins and stone fish is by not stepping on the seabed: even thick-soled shoes don’t provide total protection against their long, sharp spines, which can be removed by softening the skin by holding it over a steaming pan of water.

As for mosquitoes, you can best avoid being bitten by covering up as much as is practical, and applying repellent to exposed flesh. Note that most repellents sold locally are based on citronella; if you want a repellent containing DEET, which some say is more effective, it’s best to buy it at home. Rural or beachside accommodation often features mosquito nets, and some places also provide slow-burning mosquito coils which generate a little smoke that apparently deters the insects.

For many people, the ubiquitous leech – whose bite is not actually harmful or painful – is the most irritating aspect to jungle trekking. Whenever there’s been rainfall, you can rely upon the leeches to come out. Always tuck your trousers into your socks and tie your bootlaces tight. The best anti-leech socks are made from calico and available in specialist stores. If you find the leeches are getting through, soak the outside of your socks and your boots in insect repellent (see Combating leeches).

Venomous snakes are not that common, and any that you might encounter will usually slink away. If you are unlucky enough to be bitten then remain still and call for an ambulance or get someone else to summon help. If it’s one of your limbs that has been bitten, ideally a pressure bandage should also be applied to slow the spread of any venom present.

Pharmacies, clinics and hospitals
Medical services in Malaysia are excellent; staff almost everywhere speak English and use up-to-date treatments. Details of pharmacies and hospitals are in the “Directory” sections of the Guide for cities and major towns.

Pharmacies stock a wide range of medicines and health-related items, from contraceptives to contact lens solution; opening hours are the same as for other shops. Pharmacists can recommend products for skin complaints or simple stomach problems, though it always pays to get a proper diagnosis.

Private clinics can be found even in small towns – your hotel or the local tourist office will be able to recommend a doctor. In Malaysia a consultation costs around RM30, not including the cost of any prescribed medication; keep the receipts for insurance-claim purposes. Finally, the emergency department of each town’s general hospital will see foreigners for a small fee, though obviously costs rise rapidly if continued treatment or overnight stays are necessary.

Despite the obvious openness to influences from around the globe, and the urbanity of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Kuching, society in Malaysia remains fairly conservative and conformist. Behaviour that departs from established cultural and behavioural norms – basically, anything that draws attention to the individuals concerned – is avoided.

Though allowances are made for foreigners, until you acquire some familiarity with where the limits lie, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Get the balance right and you’ll find locals helpful and welcoming, while respectful of your need for some privacy.

For both men and women, exposing lots of bare flesh is generally a no-no, and the degree to which you should cover up can seem surprisingly prim. Islamic tradition suffuses the dress code for locals, Muslim or otherwise, and dictates that both men and women should keep torsos covered; shirt sleeves, if short, should come down to the elbow (for women, long-sleeved tops are preferable), while shorts or skirts should extend down to the knee (long trousers are ideal). Figure-hugging clothes are often frowned upon, particularly for women.

Dress codes are more liberal in most cities (Kota Kinabalu in particular), on the beach, and when pursuing sporting activities, but it’s surprising how often the minimum standards mentioned above are complied with. Also, remember that in Muslim tradition, the soles of shoes are considered unclean, having been in contact with the dirt of the street. Thus before entering any home (Muslim or otherwise), it’s almost universal practice to remove footwear at the threshold or before stepping onto any carpeted or matted area.

Discretion and body language
Two things to avoid in this moderately conservative, Muslim region are public shows of affection (holding hands is OK, kissing is not) and drinking alcohol outside designated bars or clubs – even in resort areas frequented by foreigners. In a situation where you need to make a complaint, the most effective approach is not to raise your voice but to go out of your way to be reasonable while stating your case.

As for body language, note that touching someone’s head, be they Muslim or otherwise, must be avoided, as the head is considered sacred in Eastern culture. Handshakes are fairly commonplace when meeting someone; Muslims often follow this by touching the palm of the right hand to their own chest. Some Muslims may be reluctant to shake hands with the opposite sex; however, in this case a smile, nod and that same right-hand-palm gesture will suffice. Muslims and Indians also avoid using their left hand for human contact or eating, while polite Chinese wait staff or shop owners might hand over your change with both hands.

Visiting places of worship
It’s common to see various temples and mosques happily existing side by side, each providing a social as well as a religious focal point for the corresponding community. Architectural traditions mean that the Chinese and Indian temples, built out of brick, have long outlasted the timber Malay mosque, and some are among the oldest structures you’re likely to see in the region. Many such buildings are worth a look around, though only at the largest temples might you get a little tour, courtesy of the caretaker.

When visiting mosques, men should wear long trousers and a shirt or top with sleeves coming down to the elbows (long sleeves are even better); women will also have to don a long cloak and headdress, which is provided by most mosques. You’ll be required to remove your shoes before entering. No non-Muslim is allowed to enter a mosque during prayer time or go into the prayer hall at any time, although it’s possible to stand just outside and look in.

Most Chinese and Hindu temples are open from early morning to early evening; devotees go in when they like, to make offerings or to pray. Hindu temples also expect visitors to remove shoes.

Women travellers
Women who respect local customs and exercise common sense should have few problems travelling alone or with other women.

Some Western women have been known to find the atmosphere in largely Muslim areas, such as Kelantan or Terengganu, off-putting. Arriving there from Thailand or from a more cosmopolitan part of Malaysia, some women still find themselves being stared at or subjected to wolf-whistles or lewd gestures, despite observing local dress codes. This is all the more annoying if you spot local Chinese women wandering around in skimpy tops with no one batting an eyelid. Though it’s no consolation, it’s worth noting that the ground rules are different for locals; the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities, having lived together for generations, have an unspoken understanding as to how the respective communities can behave in public.


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