10 Reasons to Visit Malaysia
Updated: May 22, 2020
We came for the food and had the trip of a lifetime!
We just returned from a trip to Malaysia and it was incredible! We headed there to escape the rain, cold, and grey skies of the Seattle winter for a couple of weeks. We spent time on Penang Island and in Kuala Lumpur. Not only did we get a serious dose of vitamin D – and an extra 3 hours of daylight each day – we had a range of amazing experiences that hit nearly every sense.
With that in mind, here are the 10 reasons you should visit Malaysia soon.
1. THE FOOD
Malaysia’s food is a reflection of its people. Its culinary landscape combines 3 major cuisines – Malay, Chinese, and Indian – with hints of a colonial past. While Ethnic Malays have been living in this region for a couple of thousand years, Indian traders arrived in 200AD and Chinese traders arrived in 800AD. Additionally, Portuguese colonists arrived in the 1500s, Dutch colonists arrived in the 1600s, and British colonists arrived in the 1700s. Chinese workers looking for a better life flocked to Malaysia in the 1800s to work in the tin mines and agriculture. During the early 1900s, many Chinese and Indian immigrants came to Malaysia as the Brits were seeking labor to work in the tin mines and plantations.
All this goes to say that the Malaysia’s food reflects its diverse history. Additionally, today, you can also find global food trends like Korean fried chicken, American fast food, global coffee chains, and European-inspired pastries.
Pictured above: top photo = fresh grilled satay in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown; not pictured here is the tasty peanut sauce served with it / bottom photo = large bamboo steamers filled with delicious dim sum in George Town, Penang Island
Some of the items we found especially tasty include:
Char siu pork: Cantonese pork that’s marinated in a sweet barbecue sauce and then roasted (you may have seen long pieces of it hanging on hooks in the windows of Chinese restaurants)
Assam laksa: a fish-based soup that’s both sour and spicy and made with unique ingredients like tamarind, shrimp paste, and the torch ginger flower – I know, it sounds strange, but somehow, all the flavors work well together
Dim sum: this was like dim sum on steroids; there were so many more dishes on offer that what we’ve had back home, and the food was so delicious
Satay: marinated and grilled meat on skewers served with delicious a peanut sauce
Nasi lemak: often served for breakfast, this triangular packet of goodness features rice, sambal, a hard-boiled egg, and fried anchovies all wrapped in a banana leaf (note: we never had a version with peanuts in it, as is featured in the link)
Samosas: these are not the bland potato-filled ones I’ve experienced in the U.S. Instead, the samosas in George Town came in wonderfully tasty varieties including chicken curry, anchovy, and many more. The chicken curry one was so good!
Note: I’ve provided links to recipes, information, or photos of each dish above.
2. VARIETY OF THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Whether you’re looking for big city vibes, island vibes, or just sitting by the pool with a book and a cold drink, you can find all of these. Malaysia is a big place with skyscrapers, rooftop bars, and old-school markets like Chow Kit in Kuala Lumpur (also called “KL”), as well as historical buildings, beaches, and boats on Penang Island. We stayed for just over a week in George Town (on Penang Island) and 5 days in Kuala Lumpur. We enjoyed the diversity of experiences each place offered. Also, for those new to Malaysia (like us on this trip), George Town was a good entry point before taking on the big city and capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Sadly, we did not visit Malaysian Borneo. However, it’s on our list for the future!
Pictured above: top = one of the many produce vendors at the Chow Kit Market in Kuala Lumpur / bottom = street food at New Lane Road outside the historical area of George Town; this place was the place to be at night
Note: we plan to write posts on both Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Thanks for reading and stay tuned!
3. THE PETRONAS TOWERS
Malaysia’s most famous structure is the Petronas Towers, a stunning pair of skyscrapers connected by a bridge 41 stories up. These buildings are really beautiful and unique. The Petronas Towers are the most beautiful part of KL’s skyline and they are especially beautiful at night.
The Petronas Towers opened in 1999 with the intention of putting Malaysia on the world stage. To that end, they were built to be taller than the Sears Tower in Chicago, at that time, the world’s tallest building. And this was just 40 years after Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957! Wow!
Fun fact: the Petronas Towers are featured in the movie “Entrapment” with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones. If you are an architecture buff or would like to know more about the Petronas Towers, here’s an interesting article, “Building [the] Petronas Towers,” written by their architect, Cesar Pelli.
4. NATURE AND WILDLIFE
Malaysia offers much more than the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur, its largest city. We experienced quite a bit of nature and wildlife as we hiked through forests, fished off the coast where there’s a national park, and took in the views from palm-tree lined beaches. We also saw many kinds of monkeys, birds, and lizards. Malaysia has many national parks, botanical gardens, and parks, as well as a bird park in KL. The primary reason for a visit to Borneo is nature! The tropical rainforest and wildlife there are world-famous (and we hope to see it one day). For instance, Borneo is home to the Borneo orangutan, “the largest tree-climbing mammal and the only great ape found in Asia” according to the World Wildlife Fund.
If you are coming from a place like the Pacific Northwest in the U.S., Malaysia’s tropical climate offers all kinds of different vegetation and wildlife.
Pictured above: top = a grey crowned crane at the KL Bird Park / bottom = heliconias growing at the Perdana Botanical Gardens in Kuala Lumpur
5. OUTDOOR SPORTS AND ACTIVE ADVENTURES
We’re not the sit by the pool for a week type of vacationers. One of us comes from a very energetic family, so we were destined to want to see and do a lot, even on vacation. And since we are outdoor enthusiasts in our Pacific Northwest home, we enjoy incorporating some element of active or adventure travel into our holidays.
We did a fair amount of research online and booked tours before departure. This way we could spend our trip exploring and relaxing. In sum, we did these outdoor tours: an all-day bicycle tour on the western side of Penang Island, a fishing trip off the north coast of Penang Island, and a half-day bicycle tour of Kuala Lumpur.
Note: we will cover these in more detail in our posts on Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
Like the food, the architecture reflects Malaysia’s history and the various people that spent time here in the past, as well as the current population. We found a great variety of temples and shrines from Malaysia’s various religions including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.
Pictured above: top = Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan Temple, a colorful Hindu temple, atop Penang Hill / bottom = sunset over Masjid Kapitan Keling (the Kapitan Keling mosque) on Harmony Street in George Town
There are plenty of colonial era buildings including mansions and shophouses. You can still find many of these buildings in George Town on Penang Island. In 2008, George Town and Melaka together became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Some of these mansions have been painstakingly restored and turned into boutique hotels. We stayed at The Edison in George Town, and it was beautiful, had great service, and was in a great location. The famous Blue Mansion was featured in “Crazy Rich Asians” (remember the mahjong scene at the end where Constance Wu tells off Michelle Yeoh?) and now offers tours as well as a boutique hotel experience. There is also quite a bit of Mughal architecture in Kuala Lumpur; this northern Indian style was constructed during the British colonial era.
Note if you are wondering what the “Mughal” is, here’s a great post on Malaysia’s architectural styles that includes Mughal architecture and has lots of photos.
7. TROPICAL FRUIT
There are so many kinds of fruits available in Malaysia that are either absent from North America or really hard to find. Not only do all these colorful fruits make great trip photos, they are also delicious!
We found mangosteen, dragon fruit, rambutans, jackfruit, dragon eyes, many varieties of mango, many varieties of banana, snake fruit, and more. (And yes, there really is a snake fruit.) Traditional markets like Chow Kit in Kuala Lumpur are a great place to find a vast array of fruits, vegetables, and all kinds of food for sale.
8. WIDE RANGE OF LODGING OPTIONS
There are plenty of nice places to stay in Malaysia, plus lots of variety. In our case, we decided to spring for a boutique hotel in George Town (The Edison, as it was recommended by a friend and highly rated) and put our hotel loyalty points to work in Kuala Lumpur (Hilton Kuala Lumpur). Both of these places were quite lovely. Actually, the Edison was quite phenomenal with its digs in a beautifully restored historic mansion and very kind and attentive staff that welcome you and help you sort out anything you need during your stay.
In Malaysia, your money is likely to go farther than it would at similar places in neighboring countries like Singapore and Thailand. Plus, there are accommodations for every budget and style including: vacation rentals (like Airbnb), hostels, international hotel chains, etc.
Pictured above: top = the extensive breakfast buffet at the KL Hilton (there is too much to fit into a single photo!) / bottom = a night time view of the fancy long pool at the KL Hilton. This pool is over 100 meters long and has a waterslide and a hot tub.
Note: Nerd Nomads, a blog we like, has great posts on where to stay in both Kuala Lumpur and Penang: see Where to Stay in Kuala Lumpur- Our Favourite Areas & Hotels and Where To Stay In Penang, Malaysia – Our Favorite Areas & Hotels. They offer an incredibly detailed and organized view of the different neighborhoods in each place, the pros and cons of each neighborhood, and hotel recommendations for a few budget levels. We found this especially helpful and it convinced us to stay by KL Sentral, the central train station in Kuala Lumpur.
While there are many parts of the country that we didn’t visit on this trip, we enjoyed the wide range of transportation options in George Town and Kuala Lumpur. This allowed us to get around easily and to visit more places.
In George Town, we did a lot of walking within the city. We also used Grab (a ride-hailing service similar to Uber) to go farther afield in George Town or on Penang Island. Other options we saw included pedicabs and public buses. We also took the free Penang Ferry from George Town to Butterworth where we caught the ETS train to Kuala Lumpur.
While it’s only an hour flight from Penang International Airport to KL, we opted to take the train. This allowed us to see more of peninsular Malaysia. Also, our hotel in KL was right across from the station (KL Sentral). This seemed easier than hassling with getting to and from both airports, which were about an hour drive from each of our hotels.
In Kuala Lumpur, we stayed across the street from KL Sentral, Malaysia’s largest transportation hub. We took the monorail and other trains all over the city and purchased a reloadable fare card. We liked the monorail since you were high enough up to have views of the city as you crisscrossed it. Unlike a car, the train doesn’t get stuck in KL’s heavy traffic. Because of the great public transit, we used Grab a lot less in KL. To fly back home from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, we took the KLIA express train from – yes, you guessed it! – KL Sentral. This train goes directly to the airport – it doesn’t make any other stops on the way. Now only if we had an express airport train in Seattle…
We never used taxis in either city. While sometimes you have to wait up to 10 minutes for a Grab driver (especially during a holiday like New Year’s Eve), we liked the ease of being able to specify where you are going in the app, as well as the transparency of knowing exactly what the fare is before you depart.
10. ENGLISH IS WIDELY SPOKEN
Part of the allure of traveling overseas is navigating a new culture, eating new things, and experiencing the architecture and sights of a new place. With that comes the adventure of figuring out how to communicate in another language. While it’s possible to pick up a few phrases in French or Portuguese, attempting this with an Asian language is more difficult. Given Malaysia’s history with the Brits, English is widely spoken. Plus, Malay is written with the roman alphabet (the same as English). These 2 things made it easier for us to explore on our own. That being said, our hotels were kind enough to teach us a couple polite phrases: thank you = terima kasih and good morning = selamat Pagi. For next time, we would cruise YouTube for some free videos on key phrases in Malay before our trip.
11. BONUS REASON: THE "CRAZY RICH ASIANS" CONNECTION:
If you still feel like Malaysia is a mystery, watch “Crazy Rich Asians.” A lot of this movie was filmed in many parts of Malaysia, and you can visit many of these places. Plus, it’s been 10 years since the cities of George Town and Melaka became UNESCO World Heritage sights. The word is out, but people are not yet coming in droves. Given that, now is the time to go!
Thanks for reading and we hope this inspires your travels!
P.S. For additional travel inspiration, check out this post, "Travel inspiration: where should I go on a bike tour?" We briefly cover Singapore and Bangkok, as well as bike touring in Asia and Europe.