We have spent almost half the year in Malaysia during 2019 and visited this one country more than any other destination, so we've been asked a lot - why choose Malaysia?
Well why, or rather HOW we chose Malaysia was with a pin in the map (actually our then 4 year old did)
We had never heard of Malaysia, and in fact we had never even visited Asia, but we always travelled for 4 to 6 weeks at the beginning of every year and, just as we had done before we chose our destination based on the map in the kids bedroom, this year chosen by Dexter.
Malaysia is a Southeast Asian country occupying parts of the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo. It's known for its beaches, rainforests and mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai and European cultural influences.
January 2019 was going to be our longest trip so far and we planned just over 6 weeks, and after due diligence, worked out a rough idea of where we wanted to go.
We figured 2 months would be enough to tour the west coast plus possibly Singapore and a visit to Legoland.
Our itinerary included:
Fly in to Singapore
Fly out of Kuala Lumpur
We didn't plan much before we got there other than the cities we wanted to hit, and the sites worth visiting within those places.
We booked the first 4 days accommodation, the flights in and the flights home - and that was it.
10 tips for visiting Malaysia -
We travel on a tight budget, which is usually just about achievable if we choose long stays in any one place.
We primarily use Airbnb and lots of hosts offer a huge discount for rentals of over 30 days - which we are usually able to capitalize on.
In some places in the world we have booked our accommodation for a full week longer than we ever intended to stay, because it made the overall rate lower.
With our plan to spend just a week(ish) in any one place on our tour round Malaysia we couldn't utilise this little hack and so, the capital city - KL, in particular was difficult to keep on budget.
In the end we managed to get a private room in a hostel for £35 per night (£5 over our usual budget)
Now some parents reading this might recoil at the thought of a hostel with young children (ours were 5 and 3 now) but we have since stayed in a few hostels around Malaysia and all have been more like a clean budget hotel in Europe.
But it wasn't until we reached Penang that we found our love for Malaysia's amazing high rise condo's.
Imagine an apartment building with almost hotel standard features; like swimming pools, gyms, saunas, Jacuzzi, and play park, with a friendly community, lots of families and 24/7 security.
Now imagine that within our budget, in fact sometime if you book the month, as little as a third of it - yes £10 - £12 per night for a 2 - 3 bed, Wi-Fi, washing machine, full kitchen
Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it.
Now again to get these deals we have to book longer term and during our tour of the west coast of Malaysia we actually cancelled our return flight and extended our stay to allow for a little slower travel.
Still, with a 2 - 3 week stay in any one place we could usually get a condo for £15 - 20 per night easily.
The reason we were able to extend our stay in Malaysia was because Brits get a free, automatic 3 month tourist Visa upon entry to the country, and in fact because we travelled out of Malaysia (for 6 hours) during our stay, to Singapore, we got a fresh 90 days on our return.
Now I am not advocating doing this indefinitely, but with Kuala Lumpur being convenient and one of the cheapest places to fly to the rest of Asia, it's good to know that we can stop off in Malaysia for a decent length of time before flying off again.
Malaysia also shares a land border with Singapore and Thailand with a train line which can take you across both, so for those families wanting to travel more slowly and avoid flying it's an ideal destination.
I wish I knew this one before we landed in Malaysia - so listen up...
Once you reach the KLIA (Malaysians love acronyms - Kuala Lumpur International Airport) use the free Wi-Fi to download and setup the "Grab" app.
Grab is Asia's version of Uber, and it's so so much better!
This one app can be used to hire a car, order food, deliver your groceries, book hotels, hire a cleaner, pay a bill, deliver a parcel and of course grab a ride.
Ok ok so why not just jump in a taxi? Well firstly grab is cheaper, especially from the airport with a fixed maximum price of 65RM (£13) in to Central KL and secondly, the app guides the driver directly to your door, which from our experience taxis are often more difficult.
There were some changes to the e-hailing regulations whilst we were here in November 2019 and this caused the amount of grabs on the road to drop and the price to almost double - however it's still pretty easy to get a ride within 10 minutes and really cost affective.
It's not just grabs though, Malaysia is so easy to get around by bus, train or even boat.
With everything bookable online and simple to understand, we were able to easily travel by train between KL and Penang (ferry at the end), boat from Penang to Langkawi, plane from Langkawi to Singapore, bus from Singapore to JB and again to Malacca and finally a long grab from Malacca back to KL.
The only time this was difficult was during Chinese New Year.
There are more than 50 public holiday days each year in Malaysia celebrating over 14 festivals including:
Tadau Ka’amatan Harvest Festival
Chinese New Year
Hari Raya Aidil Fitri
Sarawak Gawai Festival
Mooncake Festival & Hungry Ghost Festival
Hari Raya Haji
Not that you would want to but escaping these celebrations is near impossible if you are in Malaysia at the time, with decorations, music and well-wisher’s in abundance.
The reason that avoiding the celebrations of any one festival is impossible is because no one race, religion, sect or area will miss out on celebrating another ones festival.
This is the uniqueness of Malaysia; inclusion and celebration of everyone - and it is humbling to be part of it - especially as a visitor from a part of the world where this type of inclusivity only highlights the exclusivity that still exists back home.
We witnessed this first hand on our Wedding Anniversary, which happened to be Chinese New Year. Whilst in Penang we were invited to a Indian families celebration for their one year old sons Birthday.
We became special guests to a family we had met only moments before, with the kids welcomed into the games and encouraged to try all the food and us introduced to every family members (of which there were around 100)
The diversity of cultures, traditions, religions and history in Malaysia is as rich as the highly spiced food on every corner.
Let's get this out the way first off - Sambal; it's like Marmite - you either love it or you hate it, and it comes with national pride
In fact Sambal - a very spicy sauce made with fermented shrimp paste - is not Malaysian's only version of Marmite, it is served (along with many dishes) upon the top of the Nasi Lemak - a rice and chicken dish sprinkled with nuts and dried anchovies.
The smell of Sambal is also very unique and something we still haven't gotten used to yet.
Just like perhaps the most prominent and well-loved food of the nation; Durian fruit.
Durian is a watermelon sized green fruit with bright yellow, brain like innards, it has a pungent taste and odour, which is very difficult to wash from your hands or anything it touches.
Hotels in fact include "no-durian" signs next to no-smoking signs in most rooms.
To us the taste reminds of childhood penicillin.
Ok so as a westerner - that's the bad - now the good.
As with the mix of cultures in Malaysia, the mix of foods is immense, none more than a visit to a food court.
Known in Malaysia as "Hawkers" after their origins as street food sellers "Hawking" their wears, and these independent food stalls often surround a central seating area from which you can choose which ever origin of meal you wish.
In any one food court you could choose from Malay, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Italian, English, French etc
There are of course restaurants that would be more recognisable to a European (and in fact with far better food, furnishings, service and price then their western counterparts) but we prefer to eat where the local do so often choose the busiest restaurants on street corners.
Our go to cuisine here in Malaysia is Indian and in these street restaurants you can find a morning speciality called Roti Canai.
Roti Canai (flying bread) is a flat pancake like breakfast somewhere between a naan and a croissant. It's far more dramatic cousin Roti Tisu is the preferred choice of our daughter (maybe because it is drizzled in honey)
It's served usually with a curry and dal dip and often Sambal. We team it up with teh halia (Ginger Tea made with condensed milk) and the savoury, sweet and slightly spicy combination is heaven for breakfast – just probably not healthy for every morning.
Our kids LOVE the stuff though and would eat it morning, noon and night. Fortunately it is hard to find a restaurant that will make this round the clock and it is usually served at breakfast and dinner time only.
For in between the street corner restaurants will have a buffet of dishes and a la carte options.
Typically, the buffet will be dished for you and if so just go ahead and start eating but if not you simply take what you want then head to a member of staff to price up your meal. Payment is still done at the end.
Another delicous option if you really don't know what you might like is to head to a banana leaf restaurant - here you will have a large banana leaf placed in front of you and filled with steamed rice, then an assortment of curries spooned around the circumference.
Eat the curries you like and leave the ones you don't, you can even ask for more, included in the price and to give you an idea on price; a meal for the four of us very rarely costs more than 25RM (£5)
If you want more of a fine dining experience then head to a mall.
Where ever you find yourself in Malaysia there is always plenty to see and do and nowhere is that more true than in the capital city.
Kuala Lumpur is perhaps one of the most thriving, exciting and diverse cities we have ever stayed in.
There is no end of activities to take part in; but as with the rest of Malaysia, just stepping foot in any one of it's 700 malls (no really!) you can expect to find at least a play area, or rock climbing walls, or bowling alley, or diving centre, or surfing or indoor sky diving – or like one of our nearest malls ALL OF THE ABOVE.
As well as all this of course you will find an abundance of shopping and food outlets to tickle the fancy of every type of visitor.
These malls act like central hubs for the local communities and they are IMMENSE.
Three of the KL malls rank in the top 50 biggest in the world.
Now in some ways this is awesome, you could spend forever and a day in any one of these malls - but be aware - because of their scale finding anything in particular can be like finding a needle in a 400,000m2 mall.
For this reason we tend to find a mall we like and stick to it, otherwise relearning the layout of a new mall can be heart-breaking.
Of course they are a great place to spend some time, eat really good food, shop for expensive and inexpensive merchandise and escape the heat.
Malaysia is thick with jungle rainforest, some of which is older than that of the Amazon, and even in the city centres you can see some it trying to reclaim highways and bridges where it would have once been plentiful flora and fauna.
Of course there is still much of that greenery around; many hours can be spent trekking through hot sticky jungle, and up mountainous ridges, reaching into the blue sky above the tree line, just about anywhere throughout Malaysia.
This Jungle thrives because of the humid climate, which to a visitor can be pretty uncomfortable at times.
Unfortunately there is no avoiding the heat if you have to be outdoors, and if you want to explore the peninsular 11 states properly then, that you will be the vast majority of the time.
However you begin to feel a little less uncomfortable about your sweat stained t-shirt when you realise that, even the local find it hot - this one fact also brings the added benefit of having most building heavily air-conditioned.
Before traveling to Malaysia I read blogs warning of "freezing temperatures" inside malls, but the truth is they are very comfortable and a welcome refreshment if you have been out in the sun for some time.
Also Grab driver's keep their cars at a comfortable cool level (another reason for opting for them over a taxi)
The only times I would recommend the need for an extra layer are on trains and cinemas - basically where you will be sitting still for some time.
Of course the time of year you visit will affect the temperature and also more over the weather, as Malaysia in monsoon territory.
Twice per year you will encounter thunder storms every evening on the West Coast, and at which time you may want to avoid the East all together.
From late May to September and October to March Malaysia officially faces a Southwest Monsoon and Northeast Monsoon respectfully.
The storms are spectacular, and I for one love to witness the power of nature, and sometimes, particularly between October and September they do cut your day short by a fare few hours, but they are not all that bad.
During January to March we witnessed only 4 or maybe 5 storms and it never affected our day apart from getting a little wet.
Talking of getting a little wet...
There are certain etiquettes to try to stick to in Malaysia; like never pointing with a finger (use your thumb instead) as it's considered rude, showing the soles of your feet or touching the top of another person's head mean the same.
Giving, receiving, and eating should all be done with the right hand, as the left is reserved for....bathroom duties.
This is why when in Malaysia, you should be prepared to be greeted in any public toilet by a very wet cubical.
Not unclean in any way, just wet.
European style toilets are also the norm but you will still be met sometimes by a squat toilet (hole in the floor) and usually it will be when you really need to go.
Next to the toilet will be a hose - my children call it the bum hose - and this is used in a certainly more eco-friendly yet messy way to clean whatever needs cleaning.
This action causes a fair bit of splash and due to the lack of toilet roll, which is simply not needed; there would be no way for the previous person to clean up - apart from spraying more water!
So you have a few choices;
1. Embrace the culture and just "go with the flow".
2. Be prepared and carry tissues around with you.
3. Hope that even though there is no toilet roll there will be "hand tissues" which you can grab before you go in.
We opt for number 2 unless we forget, in which case we hope for number 3.
Ok so embracing a nation's toilet habits is probably not what you had in mind when it came to being a traveling spirit but even if that's where you draw the line; make sure you jump with both feet into the rest of it (also been done with the squat toilet)
This is a hard too to write because I believe you should engulf yourself in a countries traditions and way of life in order to truly appreciate it - however Malaysia does not force this upon you.
More than any other country we have visited; you could visit here and never change a thing.
You could visit Langkawi and stay in a plush beach side hotel, with overpriced westernised food, and your only culture being the Oriental Village.
You could stay more locally but easily jump in a taxi each morning and head to Starbucks, drink overpriced coffee and eat New York bagels and fast food from McDonalds or KFC for dinner.
And you could base yourself in completely westernised vicinities with never the need to venture out from the familiar shops and restaurants.
But you wouldn't experience Malaysia and all it has to offer.
My point however is that a short or long trip to Malaysia could come with as many or as little of the home comforts as you wish; allowing any level of traveller visit this unique, and exciting country whilst feeling relaxed and at home.
Malaysia is in fact the perfect destination for families, looking for an easy travel destination, with rich history, idyllic beaches, relaxation, luxury and all that jazz.
For us though – it’s more about the activities.
There is a time and a place for a relaxing holiday but I for one want to know where the nearest theme park, splash pool, Zoo, play park, Science Museum, trekking jungle are for if the kids get bored (solely for the kids – it’s all about the kids)
Malaysia is full of them and in the most part they are awesome.
Even the play parks, like the KLCC. Overlooked by the famous Petronas Towers is a HUGE play area, with climbing frames, swings, seesaws, monkey bars etc as far as the eye can see. Plus, a pool and waterfall and all free to use in the centre of KL.
The Theme Parks in Malaysia are epic too and you will find one just about everywhere around the country. Now we love a Theme Park, but I know many families do not, and I get it – they are packed, stressful, expensive and you spend all day queuing!
Except in Malaysia that’s not the case – midweek the Theme Parks are empty, pretty good value for money and a pleasure to be at – we went so often to Legoland that the staff greeted us each day by name!
It’s not just about the parks though; just walk down any street in KL, Malacca or Penang and you will usually find something cool to do, a temple to explore, a clan house to admire, a street seller to watch – there is activity on every corner, of every town.
For us the perfect travel destination for our young family, is a place where we can relax, indulge, play, learn, discover and be surprised – and for that Malaysia ticks every box.