Travel guide to Malaysia and Singapore
I’ve just returned from a captivating 3-week trip through Malaysia and Singapore, marking my first ever adventure in both Southeast Asia and Asia at large—and let me tell you, it was love at first sight. These two Southeast Asian powerhouses offer a remarkable blend of modernity and natural splendor. If you’re keen on discovering the best spots in Kuala Lumpur, traversing the lush landscapes of the Cameron Highlands, diving into the underwater paradise of the Perhentian Islands, trekking through the tropical rainforest to uncover Mulu National Park’s hidden caves, or experiencing Singapore’s futuristic skyline, you’ve landed on the right page. Whether you’re basking in post-trip nostalgia, actively curating your next adventure, or simply daydreaming about exotic escapes, stay tuned as we explore the must-see destinations and hidden treasures in Malaysia and Singapore.
Why Malaysia Should Be on Your Bucket List
If you’re seeking an authentic travel experience, Malaysia effortlessly delivers. This is not just another Southeast Asian country; it’s a kaleidoscope of cultures, landscapes, and sensations that leaves a lasting impression. What captured my heart was the sheer contrast—Kuala Lumpur may be a cosmopolitan playground, but venture just a bit further, and you’ll find an enchanting world teeming with diversity. From the colorful tapestry of religions to a culinary scene that’s a melting pot of flavors, Malaysia is the epitome of contrast and harmony. And let’s not forget the landscapes: pristine beaches, colonial architecture that whispers tales of the past, vibrant Chinatowns, and awe-inspiring tropical rainforests that invite you to reconnect with nature.
What’s more, the people here exude a kind of warmth that’s instantly inviting. It’s so easy to navigate conversations and places since most people speak English. The laid-back vibe that permeates every corner of the country. Surrounded by so much natural beauty and the smiles of locals, it’s hard not to feel the stress of everyday life melt away. For all these reasons and more, Malaysia isn’t just a travel destination—it’s a feeling, an experience that you’ll carry with you long after you’ve left its shores.
Best Time To Visit Malaysia
Located close to the equator in Southeast Asia, Malaysia enjoys a tropical climate, characterized by two distinct seasons: dry and wet. Geographically speaking, Malaysia is divided into two strips of land: Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia (or Malaysian Borneo). Both regions experience tropical weather year-round, but their monsoon (rainy) seasons differ. Knowing when and where the monsoons strike can help you plan your trip.
In general, I’d recommend visiting during the dry season, which spans from March/April to October. The wet season, which lasts from November to February/March, is marked by heavy afternoon and evening rainfalls. So, if sandy shores and sunbathing is your thing, perhaps save the beach holidays for the dry season. But let’s go into more detail:
Bordered by Thailand in the north and Singapore in the south, it’s home to the majority of the population and includes the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Here are the best times to visit Peninsular Malaysia:
- East Coast (e.g., Perhentian Islands, Redang, Tioman, Terengganu, Kelantan): The monsoon here runs from November to February. It’s best to avoid this season as the seas can be rough and most resorts close.
- West Coast (e.g., Penang, Langkawi, Port Dickson, Malacca): This side is more sheltered and can be visited year-round. So if you’re visiting in December/January, these are the only spots you’ll be able to visit. While there are rains, they usually are in the form of short, heavy showers in the afternoon.
- Highlands (e.g., Cameron Highlands, Genting Highlands): These hill stations have cooler climates and can be visited year-round. While they do get rain, it’s not as seasonal, and they can be a refreshing escape during any time of the year.
Note: If you’re visiting Malaysia during the wet season, you will only be able to visitn western Peninsular Malaysia (i.e. Penang, Langkawi etc.). But bear in mind, if you come to Malaysia just to see this, I don’t think it’s worth the trip from the other side of the world.
Located on the island of Borneo and sharing borders with Indonesia and Brunei, it consists of Sabah, Sarawak, and the Federal Territory of Labuan. Here are the best times to visit Malaysian Borneo:
- Sabah (e.g., Kota Kinabalu, Mount Kinabalu, Sepilok, Sipadan Island): Sabah experiences rains from November to February, but showers can happen year-round. Dive sites like Sipadan might be less affected by seasonal weather.
- Sarawak (e.g., Kuching, Mulu Caves, Bako National Park): The wettest months are from November to February. However, like Sabah, rain can occur at any time of the year but it’s usually short-lived in the dry season.
Recommendation: If visiting during the wet season, prioritize inland attractions that aren’t as affected by the rains, such as the Kinabalu Park or the cultural attractions in Kuching.
Places to See in Malaysia: My Itinerary
In 3 weeks, you can indeed cover significant ground in Malaysia. Our travel philosophy leans towards spending more quality time in fewer places to truly immerse ourselves in the local culture and scenery. Here’s a closer look at our 3-week Malaysia and Singapore itinerary:
KL (Kuala Lumpur)
The metropolitan heartbeat of Malaysia, KL is more than just its iconic Petronas Towers. From the old-world charm of the Sultan Abdul Samad building at Merdeka square to the bustling street food in Jalan Alor, it’s a city of contrasts. Take advantage of the wonderful food scene, from food courts and hawker centers to fine-dining restaurants. While you’re here, make sure to reserve your spot at some of the rooftops to get in the view of the skyline. Don’t forget to go on a tour of Chinatown, going on a tour will completely make the difference. Check out my complete guide to Kuala Lumpur for all the detailed information.
- Ideal for: Urban explorers, foodies, and culture enthusiasts.
- Recommended stay: 3 nights
This is Malaysia’s refreshing contrast to the heat and humidity of the lowlands. With lush tea plantations, strawberry farms, and gentle treks, it offers a peaceful retreat just four hours away from Kuala Lumpur. Check out my full guide to Cameron Highlands for all my tips.
- Ideal for: Nature lovers, photographers.
- Recommended stay: 1-2 nights
A slice of paradise for beach bums and diving aficionados. Imagine crystal clear waters, turtles, sharks, and stunning sunsets. We stayed in Kecil Perhentian island, which I would absolutely recommend. I was struck by how uncrowded these islands were, coming from Italy where boats and beach-goers occupy every available square meter! Check out my complete guide to Perhentian Islands to get the most out of your experience.
- Ideal for: Beach-goers, snorkelers, nature lovers and scuba divers.
- Recommended stay: 6-7 nights
Mulu National Park
A UNESCO World Heritage Site tucked away in Sarawak, Borneo, this national park boasts remarkable karst formations, vast cave systems, and diverse ecosystems. You’re essentially wandering through a lush tropical rainforest. While it was my first experience with such stunning landscapes, those familiar with Southeast Asia might find it less surprising—yet still undeniably awe-inspiring.
- Ideal for: Adventure seekers, hikers and nature enthusiasts.
- Recommended stay: 3 nights (5 nights if you want to reach the pinnacles, which requires camping for 3 days)
This city-state is not just a visual marvel with its futuristic skyline and world-class shopping districts; it’s also a gastronomic paradise. The hawker centers here are legendary, offering an incredible array of diverse, delicious, and affordable food options that epitomize the city’s multicultural fabric. Life in Singapore is impeccably organized and remarkably clean, setting a global standard for urban living. While Singapore is not part of Malaysia, its geographical closeness makes it an effortless extension to any Malaysian journey. It’s worth noting that Singapore was part of Malaysia until 1965, when it became an independent nation. Despite its separation, the city-state has maintained a unique blend of cultures that mirrors the diverse ethos of its larger neighbor.
- Ideal for: Shoppers, architecture lovers, urban explorers, and foodies.
- Recommended stay: 2-3 nights
More Destinations for a 3-Week Malaysia Trip
We stayed in Kuala Lumpur for a total of 8 days, leveraging it as a convenient home base for our broader Malaysian adventures. But that’s just because my parents are currently living in the city, so it was a dual-purpose stay that let us spend quality time with them. This family connection allowed us to travel super light, taking only a carry-on for our various side trips. Even if you’re not fortunate enough to have a “home away from home” in KL, I can’t stress enough how beneficial it is to travel with just a carry-on—it truly streamlines the entire experience.
Given that my suggested ideal stay in KL is three nights, this frees up an additional 6 days to explore other exciting destinations in Malaysia. While I haven’t personally visited the following recommended destinations, I’ve thoroughly researched them and sought advice from my parents’ local Malaysian friends, making them highly recommended additions to your itinerary. So depending on your interests, you can tailor your itinerary to include more of what you love, from bustling city life to tranquil natural paradises.
Imagine swimming alongside turtles, encountering rare nudibranchs, and being enveloped by schools of fish. But Sabah is more than just its underwater world. Hikers can ascend Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest peak, while wildlife enthusiasts can venture into the heart of Borneo’s rainforests to spot orangutans and pygmy elephants. However, it’s essential to be aware of some risks. While Sabah is generally safe, the eastern coast near the Philippines has had instances of kidnapping and piracy. The government and private resorts have upped security measures, but it’s wise to stay informed and perhaps avoid those areas unless absolutely necessary.
- Ideal for: Diving aficionados, nature lovers, hikers, and wildlife enthusiasts looking for a slice of paradise both above and below water.
- Recommended stay: 4-5 nights
Steeped in history and culinary delights, Penang offers a blend of East and West in its architecture and cuisine. Don’t miss George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its British colonial buildings, Chinese shophouses, and mosques. Explore Kek Lok Si Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, and indulge in some of the best street food, especially at hawker centers like Gurney Drive. While you’re there, check out the The Habitat.
- Ideal for: Culture vultures and gastronomy aficionados.
- Recommended stay: 2-3 nights
Ipoh is a hidden gem located midway between KL and Penang. You’ll find a plethora of local dishes that are hard to come by elsewhere—think succulent bean sprout chicken and flavorful flat noodles. Discover the Perak Cave Temple, a stunning Buddhist temple set within a limestone cave, and unwind at the Lost World of Tambun, a theme park that also features rejuvenating hot springs. For a real splurge, stay at the Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat.
- Ideal for: Culinary explorers and history buffs.
- Recommended stay: 2 nights
While Langkawi’s beaches may not boast the crystal-clear waters found in other tropical paradises, the island’s true beauty reveals itself inland. Take a scenic cable car ride to the top of Gunung Mat Cincang and walk across the Sky Bridge for breathtaking views of the island’s interior. A boat tour through the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park offers a glimpse into a diverse mangrove ecosystem populated by eagles, fiddler crabs, and monkeys. You can also indulge in some duty-free shopping, making this island a diverse travel destination.
- Ideal for: Nature lovers seeking inland adventures rather than pristine beaches, and shoppers looking for duty-free deals
- Recommended stay: 2 nights
Home to one of the world’s oldest tropical rainforests, Taman Negara is a haven for adventurers. Journey into the jungle for a multi-day trek, observe exotic birds and rare mammals, and traverse one of the world’s longest canopy walkway at 530 meters. For a unique experience, go on a night safari to catch a glimpse of the forest’s nocturnal inhabitants.
- Ideal for: Intrepid hikers and wildlife watchers.
- Recommended stay: 2-3 nights
Things to Know Before Going to Malaysia
Before embarking on your Malaysian adventure, it’s crucial to be prepared. Below are some key considerations, from what to pack to navigating the region.
What to Pack
- Daywear: Casual, breathable clothes like T-shirts, tank tops, and lightweight trousers or skirts are ideal for daytime excursions. Given the hot and humid weather, opt for moisture-wicking fabrics. When visiting religious sites like temples or mosques, modest attire that covers your shoulders and knees is required. In places like the Batu Caves, you can purchase sarongs to cover yourself for usually 15RM (about 3 €) if you’re not dressed appropriately.
- Cocktail Attire: The upscale rooftop bars and restaurants in cities like KL demand a certain level of sophistication. Bring cocktail dresses or smart casual outfits for such occasions.
- Hiking Gear: Durable hiking shoes (possibly waterproof) and breathable shorts are essential for treks in places like the Cameron Highlands or Taman Negara. We purchased our directly at Decathlon at KL.
- Insect Repellent: With tropical climates come tropical insects, although to be honest, we didn’t see many. Still, keep the mosquitos at bay with a good insect repellent. We purchased an insect repellent patch for Mulu National Park that we would attack to our shorts. No bugs ever approached us.
- Bathing Suits: Essential for your time in beach destinations like the Perhentian Islands.
- Blazers/Sweaters: Air-conditioning can be surprisingly strong indoors and in cars. If you’re not accustomed to heavy AC, a light blazer or sweater can be a lifesaver.
- Medicine: My second to last day in Perhentian Island I got a really bad UTI. I rarely get them but when I do a single dose of Monuril (called Monurol in Malaysia) does the trick. But guess what? I forgot to pack it this time. I went to a local doctor who prescribed me another antibiotic that didn’t do much for me. I spent five days missing out on swimming, sipping cocktails, and eating awesome spicy food. It was a bummer, to say the least. So here’s some advice: don’t forget to throw some antibiotics, probiotics, and other meds in your bag. Trust me, you don’t want to learn this lesson the hard way.
Average Cost of 3 Weeks in Malaysia
Depending on your travel style—whether you’re a budget traveler, backpacker, or luxury aficionado—your average expenses in Malaysia will differ significantly. Budget travelers can find hostels and modest accommodations ranging from $10 to $30 per night, making Malaysia a cost-effective option for those looking to save. On the other hand, if upscale travel is more your speed, you’re in luck; luxury accommodations in Malaysia are competitively priced between $100-250 per night, a rate that might only fetch you mid-range lodging in many European countries.
Our 3-week vacation was on the upscale side, featuring luxury stays coupled with authentic local experiences. Budgeting for a trip of this caliber is intricate: for 21 days, you can expect to spend between $2,100 to $5,250 on accommodations alone (or €1050 – €2125 per person). Adding in meals, transportation, activities, and other miscellaneous costs will set you back around €50 – €100 per day, per person. A reasonable total budget would fall in the range of $2,100-$4,225 per person, giving you the liberty to enjoy both high-end and authentic local experiences. This estimate doesn’t include international airfare; for instance, our Emirates round-trip tickets cost us €1,386 per person. Our flight itinerary included a layover in Dubai, conveniently breaking the journey into manageable segments of 5 and 7 hours.
Recommendation: as usual, to get the best rates book your accommodations in advance, not last-minute. We booked some of our accommodations last minute and paid much more than we could’ve if we had booked a few months in advance.
How to Get Around
- By Air: Domestic flights are an efficient way to cover long distances, especially when heading to Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo. Within Malaysia we always traveled with Malaysia Airlines, but you can also opt for AirAsia for cheaper options. Again, get your tickets in advance to save money on airfare.
- Train: Good for intercity travel on the Peninsula, but options are limited in East Malaysia.
- Buses: Affordable and comfortable for intercity trips, but not the fastest.
- Private Transfers: For convenience and comfort, consider private transfers for shorter routes or if you’re traveling in a group. For example, we took a private transfer to Cameron Highlands and we also took a private transfer from Khota Baru to Kuala Besut to then get the boat to go to Perhentian islands.
- Metro: Available in major cities like KL.
- Grab: This ride-sharing app is widespread in Malaysia and it’s super convenient. We’re taking €1-3 per ride, depending on where you’re going. We didn’t use taxis but we were told that they often rip you off and don’t use the meter.
Note: If you’re not accustomed to driving on the right side of the road or can’t cope with Malaysia’s unique driving style, it’s best to avoid renting a car.
Visa requirements vary depending on your nationality. Many Western countries enjoy visa-free entry for up to 90 days, but always check the latest information before planning your trip.
It’s always smart to have comprehensive travel insurance that covers medical emergencies, trip cancellations, and lost belongings. With the variety of activities you’ll be engaging in, better safe than sorry. We had a smooth trip but we heard of some travelers who got food poisoning.
Ethnicities and Religions
Malaysia is home to a myriad of ethnicities, primarily:
- Malays: The indigenous Malay people, who form the majority, follow Islam and have played a significant role in shaping the nation’s identity.
- Chinese: Brought in during the British colonization for tin mining, they predominantly follow Buddhism, Christianity, and Taoism.
- Indians: Also brought in by the British for plantation work, they primarily practice Hinduism, with sizable communities of Sikhs and Christians.
- Indigenous Tribes: The Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia and the diverse ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak, each with unique customs, languages, and traditions.
Religion in Malaysia is diverse, but Islam is the state religion. However, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, allowing various faiths such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and traditional animist beliefs to flourish. Malaysia places a strong emphasis on harmony and unity among its multi-ethnic and multi-religious populace. Festivals from various cultures, such as Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Deepavali, and Christmas, are celebrated nationwide. The government promotes the concept of ‘1Malaysia’, emphasizing national unity and societal harmony.
Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, comprising 13 states and three federal territories. Nine of these states have hereditary rulers or Sultans. The unique rotation system sees the position of the King or Yang di-Pertuan Agong rotate among these nine Sultans every five years. The states with Sultans are:
- Negeri Sembilan
The other four states have Governors instead of Sultans. They are Penang, Malacca, Sabah, and Sarawak. If you are traveling from Peninsular Malaysia to the states of Sabah or Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo, you will be required to show your passport upon arrival, even though it’s a domestic flight. This is because Sabah and Sarawak have a certain level of autonomy and their own immigration controls.
- Language: English is widely spoken, and even road signs are in the Roman alphabet, making navigation easier for English-speaking tourists.
- Cultural Sensitivity: Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country. Being respectful of local customs and religious practices is advised, especially during Ramadan.
- SIM cards: For a hassle-free communication experience, I highly recommend using Airalo. Airalo is a virtual SIM service that allows you to easily obtain a local SIM card right from your smartphone. This service is a true lifesaver for travelers, giving an affordable and reliable mobile data access without the need for physical SIM cards. Super easy and they have various plans based on the number of days you’re staying in the country. I purchased one for three weeks in Malaysia and one for 7 days in Singapore. Super recommended.
By arming yourself with this knowledge, you’re well on your way to having a safe, enjoyable, and enriching Malaysian adventure.