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Malaysia is really like two countries in one, cleaved in half by the South China Sea. The peninsula is a multicultural buffet of Malay, Chinese and Indian flavours while Borneo hosts a wild jungle smorgasbord of orang-utans, granite peaks and remote tribes. Within and throughout these two very different regions are an impressive variety of microcosms ranging from the space-age high-rises of Kuala Lumpur to the smiling longhouse villages of Sarawak and the calm, powdery beaches of the Perhentian Islands. And did we mention the food? Malaysia (particularly along the peninsular west coast) has one of the best assortments of delicious cuisines in the world.

Start with Chinese–Malay 'Nonya' fare, move on to Indian banana leaf curries, Chinese buffets, spicy Malay food stalls and even some impressive Western food. Yet despite all the pockets of ethnicities, religions, landscapes and the sometimes-great distances between them, the beauty of Malaysia lies in the fusion of it all, into a country that is one of the safest, most stable and easiest to manage in Southeast Asia.

Getting there in malaysia

Sea;  There are no services connecting the peninsula with Malaysian Borneo.


You can travel by sea between Bandar Seri Begawan (Muara Port), Brunei, and Pulau Labuan, Sabah. You can also travel by boat between Limbang in Sarawak and Brunei.


The main ferry routes between Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra are Georgetown–Medan and Melaka–Dumai.

The popular crossing between Georgetown (on Pulau Penang) and Medan has services most days of the week. The boats actually land in Belawan in Sumatra, and the journey to Medan is completed by bus (included in the price).

Twice-daily high-speed ferries run between Melaka and Dumai in Sumatra. Dumai is now a visa-free entry port into Indonesia for citizens of most countries.

You can also take a boat from the Bebas Cukai ferry terminal in JB direct to Pulau Batam and Pulau Bintan, both in the Riau Islands.

Boats head between Tawau in Sabah and Tarakan in Kalimantan daily except Sunday. There are also daily boats between Tawau and Nunukan in Kalimantan, most of which continue on to Tarakan.


Passenger ferries run twice weekly between Sandakan in Sabah and Zamboanga in the Philippines.


Regular daily boats run between Pulau Langkawi and Satun in Thailand. There are customs and immigration posts here, but it’s an expensive entry/exit point.



You can catch buses and taxis between Miri in Sarawak and Kuala Belait in Brunei. Kuala Belait has easy bus connections with Bandar Seri Begawan; you can also cross from Lawas to Bangar (in Brunei), and then head on to Limbang.


In Borneo, regular buses run between Kuching and the Indonesian city of Pontianak via the Tebedu–Entikong crossing.


At the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia you can cross into Singapore via Johor Bahru by bus. Taking the train from JB is less convenient.


On the western side of Peninsular Malaysia, you can travel by bus from Alor Setar to the border crossing at Bukit Kayu Hitam. There are also two trains passing through Alor Setar to Padang Besar and then continuing north into Thailand; the first stops at Hat Yai, while the second terminates in Bangkok. Some visitors may not feel safe travelling through Hat Yai, which has been a hot spot for Muslim and Buddhist clashes in Thailand.

On the peninsula’s eastern side you can bus it from Kota Bharu to the border town of Rantau Panjang but at the time of writing this was not a safe place to cross due to violence in this area of southern Thailand.

There is also a border crossing between Keroh (Malaysia) and Betong (Thailand), but at the time of writing it was extremely inadvisable to travel here due to the violence in Yala Provinc, Thailand.


The gateway to Peninsular Malaysia is the city of Kuala Lumpur, although Pulau Penang and Johor Bahru (JB) also have international connections. Singapore is a handy arrival/departure point, since it’s just a short trip across the Causeway from JB and has more international connections. Malaysia Airlines is the country’s main airline carrier although Air Asia and Firefly flights are much cheaper. Air Asia connects KL to Europe, Australia, India, Indonesia, Thailand and China.

There are weekly flights between Kuching and Pontianak in Kalimantan (Indonesia), and between Tawau in Sabah and Tarakan in Kalimantan.

The following are some airlines servicing Malaysia; numbers beginning with 03 are for Kuala Lumpur.

Aeroflot (code SU; 03-2161 0231; ¬

Air Asia (code AK; 03-8775 4000;

Air India (code AI; 03-2142 0166;

British Airways (code BA; 1800 881 260;

Cathay Pacific Airways (code CX; 03-2035 2788;

China Airlines (code CI; 03-2142 7344;

Garuda Indonesian Airlines (code GA; 03-2162 2811;

Japan Airlines (code JL; 03-2161 1722;

Lufthansa (code LH; 03-2161 4666;

Malaysia Airlines (code MH; 1300 883 000, 03-2161 0555;

Qantas (code QF; 1800 881 260;

Royal Brunei Airlines (code BI; 03-2070 7166;

Singapore Airlines (code SQ; 03-2692 3122;

Thai Airways International (THAI, code TG; 03-2031 2900;

Vietnam Airlines (code VN;

Virgin Atlantic (code VS; 03-2143 0322;


You can fly from KL and Kota Kinabalu to Bandar Seri Begawan. Because of the difference in exchange rates, it’s cheaper to fly to Brunei from Malaysia than vice versa.


Flights between KL and Phnom Penh are available with Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia and Royal Phnom Penh Airways. Air Asia also flies from KL to Siem Reap.


It’s a short hop from Pulau Penang to Medan in Sumatra. To Java, the cheapest connections are from Singapore. There are also weekly flights between Kuching and Pontianak in Kalimantan (Indonesia), and between Tawau in Sabah and Tarakan in Kalimantan.


You can fly with Malaysia Airlines or Air Asia from KL to Cebu/Manila. Air Asia also has flights to Manila from Kota Kinabalu.


Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines have frequent services to KL. Malaysia Airlines also connects Singapore to Langkawi and Penang.


There are flights between Bangkok and KL or Kota Kinabalu, and between Phuket and Koh Samui with Penang.


Malaysia Airlines and Vietnam Airlines operate flights from KL to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Air Asia runs flights from KL to Hanoi.

Getting around in Malaysia


• Boat

• Hitching

• Bus & tram

• Car & motorcycle

• Train

• Local transport

• Air


Boats and ferries sail between the peninsula and offshore islands. If a boat looks overloaded or otherwise unsafe, do not board it. There are no ferry services between Malaysian Borneo and the peninsula. Travel on the larger rivers, such as the Rejang and Baram in Borneo, is accomplished in fast passenger launches known by the generic term ekspres, which carry around 100 people. Travel on smaller, squeezier Bornean waterways is mainly by costly motorised longboat. It’s best to organise a group to share costs.


Hitching is never entirely safe in any country and we don’t recommend it. True, Malaysia has long had a reputation for being an excellent place to hitchhike but, with the ease of bus travel, most travellers don’t bother. On the west coast, hitching is quite easy but it’s not possible on the main lebuhraya. On the east coast, traffic is lighter and there may be long waits between rides.

Bus & tram


Peninsular Malaysia has an excellent bus system. Public buses do local runs and a variety of privately operated buses generally handle the longer trips. In larger towns there may be several bus stations. Local and regional buses often operate from one station and long-distance buses from another; in other cases, KL for example, bus stations are differentiated by the destinations they serve.

Buses are an economical form of transport, reasonably comfortable and on major runs you can often just turn up and get on the next bus. On many routes there are air-conditioned buses, which usually cost just a few ringgit more than regular buses.

Ekspres, in the Malaysian context, often means indeterminate stops. To make up this time many long-distance bus drivers tend to think of the lebuhraya (highway) as their personal Formula One track.

The main highway routes in both Sabah and Sarawak are well served by buses. The main road in Sarawak winds from Kuching to the Brunei border and, although sealed, can be rough in parts. Roads in Sabah are better, but have unmarked hazards.

The main destinations in Sabah are linked by a reasonable system of roads. You can travel between Sabah and Sarawak by road via Brunei, but there are several immigration stops and no public transport on some sections – we recommend travelling by boat between Kota Kinabalu and Bandar Seri Begawan via Pulau Labuan for this section.

Car & motorcycle

Driving in Peninsular Malaysia is a breeze compared to most other Asian countries; the roads are generally high quality, there are plenty of new cars available and driving standards aren’t too hair-raising. Road rules are basically the same as in Britain and Australia. Cars are right-hand drive and you drive on the left side of the road. However, you should be constantly aware of the hazards posed by stray animals and numerous motorcyclists.

Unlimited-distance car-rental rates cost from around RM145/920 per day/week, including insurance and collision-damage waiver.

Be aware that insurance companies will most likely wash their hands of you if you injure yourself driving a motorcycle without a licence.


Peninsular Malaysia has a modern, comfortable and economical railway service that has basically two lines. One runs from Singapore to KL, then to Butterworth and on into Thailand. The other line, known as the Jungle Railway, cuts through the interior of Malaysia linking Gemas, Taman Negara with Kota Bharu, a transit town for Pulau Perhentian.

In Sabah on Borneo there’s a narrow-gauge railway line that runs from Kota Kinabalu south to Beaufort and then through Sungai Pegas gorge to Tenom.

Peninsular Malaysia has three main types of rail services: express, limited express and local trains. Express trains are air-conditioned and generally 1st and 2nd class only, and on night trains there’s a choice of berths or seats. Limited express trains may have 2nd and 3rd class only but some have 1st, 2nd and 3rd class with overnight sleepers. Local trains are usually 3rd class only, but some have 2nd class.

The privatised national railway company, Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM; 03-2267 1200, 2773 1430;, offers a tourist Rail Pass for five days (adult US$35), 10 days (adult US$55) and 15 days (adult US$70). This pass entitles the holder to unlimited travel on any class of train, although it does not include sleeping-berth charges. Rail Passes are available only to foreigners and can be purchased at KL, JB, Butterworth, Pelabuhan (Port) Klang, Padang Besar and Wakaf Baharu train stations. You have to do an awful lot of train travel to make it worthwhile.

Local transport

Local transport varies but almost always includes local buses and taxis. In many Peninsular Malaysian towns there are also bicycle rickshaws. While these are dying out in KL, they are still a viable form of transport in a few towns. Indeed, in places such as Georgetown, with its convoluted and narrow streets, a bicycle rickshaw is the best way of getting around.


Good luck finding a taxi with an operational meter in Malaysia. Except where prepurchased coupons are involved or where drivers have agreed on a standard route fare, you will inevitably have to negotiate with the driver about fares. On their worst days, taxi drivers will charge extortionate amounts. Don’t be afraid to turn down a fare you think is too high and walk over to the next taxi to negotiate a fairer price. Even better, ask at your hotel or a visitors centre about reasonable fares.

Compared to buses, long-distance (or share) taxis are an expensive way to travel around Malaysia. The taxis work on fixed fares for the entire car and will only head off when a full complement of passengers (usually four people) turns up. Between major towns you will have a reasonable chance of finding other passengers without having to wait around too long; otherwise, you’ll probably have to charter a whole taxi at four times the single fare.


With all airlines, it pays to check websites for specials.

Malaysia Airlines (code MH; 1300 883 000; is the country’s main domestic operator, linking major regional centres on the peninsula and on Pulau Langkawi and a network of Bornean flights, including a rural air service. Economical, five-city Discover Malaysia air passes are valid for 28 days but can only be purchased with an international Malaysia Airlines ticket.

Firefly (code FY; 03-7845 4543;, a subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines that began services in April 2007, has budget flights from Pulau Penang to Pulau Langkawi, Kuala Terengganu, Kuantan and Kota Bharu, and to Phuket and Koh Samui in Thailand. Services are ¬expected to expand.

Air Asia (code AK; 03-8775 4000; is a no-frills airline offering super-cheap flights. Air Asia flies to/from KL, Johor Bahru, Penang, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching as well as a handful of smaller Malaysian cities.

Tiny Berjaya Air (code J8; 03-2145 2828; has flights between KL, Pulau Tioman and Pulau Pangkor.

Money & costs & other in Malaysia


The Malaysian ringgit (RM) consists of 100 sen. Coins in use are one, five, 10, 20 and 50 sen, and RM1; notes come in RM1, RM2, RM5, RM10, RM50 and RM100. Locals sometimes refer to the ringgit as a ‘dollar’.

The ringgit, pegged to the US dollar until 2005, now floats against an undisclosed basket of currencies. At the time of writing, US$1 was RM3.50.


Business hours

Usual business hours in Malaysia:

Banks 10am to 3pm Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 11.30am Saturday

Department stores 10am to 8pm

Government offices 8am to 12.45pm and 2pm to 4.15pm Monday to Thursday, 8am to 12.15pm and 2.45pm to 4.15pm Friday, 8am to 12.45pm Saturday

Shopping malls 10am to 8pm

Shops 9am to 6pm Monday to Saturday

In the more Islamic-minded states of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu, government offices, banks and many shops close on Friday and on Saturday afternoon.

Exceptions to these hours are noted in ¬individual reviews.


Year-round travel is possible. Rain falls fairly evenly throughout the year and the difference between the main October to April rainy season and the rest of the year is not that marked. The exception is the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, which receives heavy rain from November to mid-February. During these months many east-coast resorts close and boat services dwindle or stop altogether. Travel along the west coast is not affected. The states of Sabah and Sarawak receive high rainfall throughout the year, but it is heaviest from October to March.

Wildlife Malaysia’s ancient rainforests are endowed with a cornucopia of life forms. In Peninsular Malaysia alone there are over 8000 species of flowering plants, including the world’s tallest tropical tree species, the tualang.

In Malaysian Borneo, where hundreds of new species have been discovered since the 1990s, you’ll find the world’s largest flower, the rafflesia, measuring up to 1m across, as well as the world’s biggest cockroach.

 Mammals include elephants, rhinos (extremely rare), tapirs, tigers, leopards, honey bears, tempadau (forest cattle), gibbons and monkeys (including, in Borneo, the bizarre proboscis monkey), orang-utans and scaly anteaters (pangolins).

Bird species include spectacular pheasants, sacred hornbills and many groups of colourful birds such as kingfishers, sunbirds, woodpeckers and barbets. Snakes include cobras, vipers and pythons. Once a favourite nesting ground for leatherback turtles, recorded landings now hover around 10 per year.

History of Malaysia


• Early influences

• European influence

• Independence to the current day

Early influences

The earliest evidence of human life in the region is a 40,000-year-old skull found in Sarawak’s Niah Caves. But it was only around 10,000 years ago that the aboriginal Malays, the Orang Asli, began moving down the peninsula from a probable starting point in southwestern China.

By the 2nd century AD, Europeans were familiar with Malaya, and Indian traders had made regular visits in their search for gold, tin and jungle woods. Within the next century Malaya was ruled by the Funan empire, centred in what’s now Cambodia, but more significant was the domination of the Sumatra-based Srivijayan empire between the 7th and 13th centuries.

In 1405 the Chinese admiral Cheng Ho arrived in Melaka with promises to the locals of protection from the Siamese encroaching from the north. With Chinese support, the power of Melaka extended to include most of the Malay Peninsula. Islam arrived in Melaka around this time and soon spread through Malaya.

European influence

Melaka’s wealth and prosperity attracted European interest and it was taken over by the Portuguese in 1511, then the Dutch in 1641 and the British in 1795.

In 1838 James Brooke, a British adventurer, arrived to find the Brunei sultanate fending off rebellion from inland tribes. Brooke quashed the rebellion and in reward was granted power over part of Sarawak. Appointing himself Raja Brooke, he founded a dynasty that lasted 100 years. By 1881 Sabah was controlled by the British government, which eventually acquired Sarawak after WWII when the third Raja Brooke realised he couldn’t afford the area’s up-keep. In the early 20th century the British brought in Chinese and Indians, which radically changed the country’s racial make-up.

Independence to the current day

Malaya achieved merdeka (independence) in 1957, but it was followed by a period of instability due to an internal Communist uprising and an external confrontation with neighbouring Indonesia. In 1963 the north Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, along with Singapore, joined Malaya to create Malaysia. In 1969 violent interracial riots broke out, particularly in Kuala Lumpur, and hundreds of people were killed. The government moved to dissipate the tensions, which existed mainly between the Malays and the Chinese. Present-day Malaysian society is relatively peaceful and cooperative.

Led from 1981 by outspoken Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s economy grew at a rate of over 8% per year until mid-1997, when a currency crisis in neighbouring Thailand plunged the whole of Southeast Asia into recession. After 22 momentous years, Dr Mahathir Mohamad retired on 31 October 2003. He handed power to his anointed successor, Abdullah bin Ahmad Badawi, who went on to convincingly win a general election in March 2004. Since this win, the new prime minister has increasingly been criticised by Mahathir for degrading the freedom of the press and for scrapping projects such as a new bridge between Malaysia and Singapore that would have replaced the existing causeway.
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