Over the years, and amongst my many travel destinations, I’m fortunate to have covered a fair amount of the countries in South East Asia. I’ve always enjoyed my time in this part of the world. The combination of laid back island life versus hectic cities, the depth of culture and array of different religions you find, are just some of the elements that make it such an interesting area to explore. It also helps that it’s cheap, the food is delicious and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world can be found here.
When I decided to go travelling after my year in New Zealand, I was keen to return to South East Asia again and visit some of the places I hadn’t made it to yet. It was hard to decide where to go because there’s so many interesting countries to choose from. Malaysia was one of those countries that, despite not knowing much about it, I was intrigued by so I was determined to give it some time on my itinerary this time around.
The Charm of Malaysia
In the lead up to my time in Malaysia, I heard many mixed reports from other travellers on how they found peninsular Malaysia (where I was heading) and what they thought of it. Some of their views left me with not so high expectations for this country, but I did not let this sway me from my plan. I was keen to see it for myself to make my own evaluation based on my experiences there; now I’ve been, I’m so glad I did! It has a charm unlike many of the other countries I’ve visited in South East Asia. Here’s why.
Malaysia is very Multicultural
Malaysia is unlike many of the other South East Asia countries because it’s so multicultural and multiconfessional. While the predominant religion is Islam, you will come across a strong Hindu presence because there’s a large Indian community here. Other religions like Buddhism and Christianity are also prevalent because of the amount of people from a mixture of other Asian countries like china, Thailand, Indonesia etc.
What was so amazing about the variety of religions and cultures here was how every single one was accepted. They worked together, lived together and socialised with each other. I didn’t come across any prejudice against another culture or religion in my time here, which unfortunately I have experienced in other places.
This multiculturism added a lot of depth to the country. Every place you go to in Malaysia there are many different elements that spring from the people who have settled there from various parts of Asia. For example, in Singapore, you have different regions of the cities that are dedicated to different cultures or religions such as Little India, Chinatown, and Kampung Glam. Each of these areas is unique, with their own story to explore and their own nuances to discover. It’s fascinating.
Malaysian food is delicious
An added benefit of this multiculturism is the expansive food options this brings to Malaysia. Malaysian food itself is delicious (as long as you understand what you’re ordering), but if you’re fed up of Keow Tow noodles or Rendang curry, you can easily find Indian food, Thai or Chinese to ignite your taste buds instead. You’ll always find some western options too if you can’t face anymore Asian food -haha – but it won’t be nearly as good as the array of Asian food on offer.
Some of the must-try foods are the Rendang curries – we had a great one at Wild coriander café in Melaka. Generally, the Melaka food was delicious and a good place to try some of the local favourites. Their national dish is Nasi lemak which is coconut rice served with sambal, dried anchovies, peanuts and cucumber which, for me, was more of a snack or something to have with another dish. Then if you’re a noodle fan like me you should try Keow tow which is the big fat, flat noodles stir-fried with meat and veg. And finally, to cure your sweet tooth, anything coconut or banana related.
I became obsessed with coconut and coconut flavoured things in Malaysia. My best friend from home was travelling with me in Malaysia and if we ever saw a banana or coconut related pudding on the menu, we just couldn’t resist. We had a cooked banana with coconut and rum in Penang that was so damn good, we almost wanted to extend our stay there so we could get it again. We also adored coconut dumplings after discovering them in the food market in Kuala Lumpur. It became a mission whenever we went by a market to find them or at least something similar. If anyone knows how to make them, please share…I’d be your new best friend!
If you’re brave and enjoy trying local favourites that are not always to a tourist’s taste, then try the fruit called durian. Personally, I think it’s revolting, the smell is bad enough; you’ll even see signs everywhere banning it! But I’ll let you make your own evaluation once you’ve had a taste.
The cities and towns of Malaysia are so colourful
Malaysians certainly aren’t afraid of using colour and for two people that love street art, the Malaysian cites were a dream to explore.
We started off our street art journey by visiting Jalan Alor in the Bukit Bintang area of Kuala Lumpur. The streets are covered in various colourful images. According to this article, the large prevalence of street art in Kuala Lumpur is a testament to artists across Malaysia. Give it a read to find more graffiti street art across the city.
Melaka quickly became one of our favourite places in Malaysia. It’s a scene of colour all along the river, with every building holding its own unique, colourful imagery. A visit to Orangutan house to find out about artist Charles Cham provided us with a bit more context on why so many boutique art galleries and stores can be found here. We loved Melaka so much we bought ourselves a couple of watercolour paintings of the town as mementoes.
Georgetown in Penang is even more famous for its street art and you can find yourself following a trail around the town to explore the paintings that decorate the walls. The art represents many facets of Malaysian history and culture. It’s always fun to find those you can relate to, whether it’s a favourite animal, a quote that resonates with you or a character you love – and yes there is Harry Potter related artwork!
Malaysia has such diverse terrain
I love beaches and being by the ocean so would quite happily hop from place to place exploring the coastlines of a country, but I also love hiking, exploring waterfalls or jungle and seeing an expanse of lush green too.
This is something that makes Malaysia an interesting place to visit because it has it all. From beaches on the islands, to the Jungle of the Taman Negara through to the vast tea plantations and lush green trekking you can do in the Cameron Highlands, there is such diverse terrain to explore that you’ll find something that appeals to you.
Generally, their beaches aren’t the best you’ll find in Asia – with the exception being on the Perhentian Islands – yet you can still find some gems. On Langkawi island the beaches were lush but the water was quite murky, potentially from being polluted by a lot of boat traffic. We did manage to come across skull beach though, a local’s favourite, where we found crystal clear water that I could have floated around in all day – I almost did in fact! This find followed pinging about the island on a moped, taking the cable car up to the sky bridge to get 360 views over Langkawi’s hilly, jungle scenery and splashing around in some waterfalls. We got it all that day!
It was the same for the Perhentian islands. Although this was primarily a beachy place, if you could bear to drag yourself away from the turquoise water and white sand beaches, you could go trekking up to some spectacular viewpoints. For me, the contrast of lush greenery with turquoise blue is one of my favourite views. Nature like this is the epitome of beauty.
Just driving from place to place in Malaysia will show you the diversity of terrain and opportunities for exploration. It’s really just down to you to take your pick on what gets you excited, find the place and get going on your adventure. If you’re expecting the best of the best, then your expectations may not be met, but I definitely don’t think you can knock Malaysia for what it does have to offer.
The friendly Malaysian people
My final point for this post on what gives Malaysia its charm is the people. No matter where we went, we always had locals asking if they could help or striking up conversation asking where we are from and how we find Malaysia. Any encounters we had with the locals in taxis, shops or restaurants were positive.
We had a wonderful experience in our Grab taxi to the bus station in Kuala Lumpar. Our driver told us all about his family, his grandchildren and his life there and he asked us many questions about ourselves too. Having built this rapport with him, we thought we’d ask him about the local’s love of Durian. Which to us seemed obscure. Once we’d mentioned Durian, there was no shutting him up. He loved it! He even told us a few of his durian stories where he’d been chased out of hotels for bringing it in. They may love the taste but they hate the smell just as much as we do!
There were other encounters and other amazing gestures of hospitality in our time in Malaysia that made me a fan of the people, but one other I want to mention in detail is a little Japanese man called Tan.
Tan had lived in Malaysia for most of his life and lived in the Cameron Highlands. We came across him when my friend Becky found on online what we thought was a park and we headed there to explore. When we arrived, we realised it was actually this man’s private garden. He said normally people passed by when they were on route to do some trekking, but not one many went purely to visit the garden. Once he realised we were there just to see his beautiful array of plants and flowers, he spent an hour taking us around, telling us all about the individual flowers, where they had come from and about his work in the industry. He has a love of camellias and had over 250 different types in his garden amongst the many other plants he had there. It was absolutely stunning and a wonderful experience to hear him talk with so much passion for his garden and the work he has done with flowers over the years. He clearly had a big reputation for his work, but he was so humble and so sweet. He was charming.
Overall, if you can’t tell, I really enjoyed my time in Malaysia and I’m one hundred percent happy I made it one of my destinations for this trip.
I’m generally positive about anywhere I visit, which might not be everyone’s style. I seek the positive elements of a place because, for me, it’s not about comparing all these places to each other and looking for the best of the best all the time. It’s about learning about that culture, understanding what that country has to offer, who their people are and enjoy immersing yourself in someplace new. There’s something positive in every place you go to (even if you don’t actually like it) because you will no doubt be learning something from that experience, which is what travel is all about in the end, right!?
I hope you enjoyed this post and have now added Malaysia to your own list. Watch this space for the three week itinerary we followed there.
Wonder Seeking Sarah