I’ve spent a lot of time in Malaysia over the years (about 6), both on business and for tourism, and I genuinely like the country. In some ways, I kind of see it as my adoptive South East Asian home, or at least a base of operations whenever I’m in SE Asia. My wife is Malaysian Indian, so I am a bit biased, but I think that puts me in a unique position to review the country’s qualities as a tourist destination.
Malaysia Is Great Because…
- It’s 50 years old this year. On the 31st of August Malaysia makes it to half a century as a nation, and they have a lot of parties and activities planned to celebrate the milestone. And when Malaysia does something, they do it big. They’re already on the books for quite a few world records, including tallest flag pole, and largest pizza. And I think the Petronas Towers hold some record also. (I once worked in an office in the second tower. Above the bridge. Seriously.) Who knows what records they’ll be breaking this year.
- It’s inexpensive. At the time of this writing, $1 USD buys you 3.42 in Malaysian currency (the Ringgit). To give you an idea, it’s very easy to great food all day for under $10 USD. A warning though, they tax the heck out of alcohol. Even a bottle of the local beers will cost you at least $3.50 USD or more. And don’t think you’re gonna luck out at the Starbucks, your venti Frappuccino may blow your food budget for the day. But if you play your cards right, your time in Malaysia will cost you a lot less than your airfare.
- You can smoke cuban cigars in the Havana Club. If I’ve read the laws correctly, the legality of Americans smoking cuban cigars even in foreign countries is questionable, but happily, they don’t check your passport when you smoke one. (Just don’t try to bring them back with you.) The Havana Club isn’t necessarily better than any other cigar bar, but with the tropical Malaysian climate, you can imagine you’re there… pre-embargo, of course! 😉
- Your inner pirate captain will be satisfied. This one is a bit controversial, piracy is rampant in Malaysia, but they have taken steps to crack down on it. When I was there earlier this year, much of the pirated software I remember had disappeared. But there was no end of the “special edition” game boy games, and to a lesser extent, DVD’s that you could buy if you went to the right places.
- There’s exotic fruit like Guava, Rambutan, and Durian. I think Rambutan has got to be one of the world’s coolest fruits. It’s red or yellow, covered with with a thick almost spiny hair and tastes great. Durian on the other hand is just an interesting, odoriferous experience. And it’s been in the news a lot recently too (a few articles here and here). Beyond these, fresh fruit juice is in inexpensive abundance. It’s hard to beat watermelon or guava juice first thing in the morning.
- There’s a lot of monkeys. I love monkeys. When was the last time you were eating at an Italian restaurant and were entertained by the antics of a frolicing group of wild monkeys?
- It has a good mix of westernization and the exotic east. The nice thing about Malaysia is that it is westernized enough that you won’t be completely out of your comfort zone (yep, they have flush toilets in the hotel rooms), but eastern enough that you’ll know you’ve escaped the western world. For example, in the same day you can enjoy ornate Chinese temples and Thaipusam festivals in the Batu Caves, and return to your hotel room and catch up with CNN, buy big name Italian designer clothes and/or go smoke a cigar in the Havana Club. You can tailor your visit to be as exotic as you can handle.
- You can haggle to get to the fabled “best price”. I love that about Malaysia. In any shop that isn’t part of an large national or international chain, you can bargain the price down. The price you pay is really up to you, as price stickers generally display the heavily marked up tourist price. And they expect you to haggle. In one classic example, my argument based on a little bit of nutty Numerology was convincing enough to lower an already reduced price on one item by another 36 Ringgit. And let me tell you, this merchant drove a hard bargain. I know I was his most profitable sale of the day.
Malaysia is Not So Great Because…
- There is a small lunatic fringe element. I’ve never, ever had a problem with anyone in Malaysia (well, excluding some taxi cab drivers, but that’s different). But there there is at least one state on the east coast of the peninsula that has imposed some very strict islamic laws forbidding such naughty things as women and men vacationing together or the wearing of swimsuits on the beach. You also want to avoid the Malaysian-Thai border. The good news is that these areas are extremely easy to avoid (it’s actually a challenge as a tourist to get to these areas), and have very little to do with life elsewhere in the saner parts of Malaysia.
- Your freedom of speech is in question. Though you’re not likely to be hassled in any way by the authorities (they love tourists), I’d advise against doing your Che Guevara impersonation and loudly announcing your anti-establishment leanings. If you have them. You’re a guest, be cool and Malaysia will treat you well. Just know that the TV and movies you watch, and the newspapers you read have passed through the Malaysian Censor-matic.
- Your inner pirate captain will be satisfied. Yep, this is in both the positive and negative columns. I can have my cake and eat it too, especially on my blog. Piracy is stealing and stealin’ ain’t cool. Unless you’re drinking rum and saying things like “Avast ye!” and “Shiver me timbers!” (For more information on the stress it causes me to hold conflicting view points, check out my post Can You Be A Good Person And Do Bad Things?) As I said before, the situation is improving. And as a tourist, there’s a good chance you won’t see any at all. (You don’t know where to look, and I won’t tell you. 🙂 )
- The taxi drivers will gouge you. This is a weak one, but I’m all out of bad things to say about Malaysia. And this is a very common complaint. (There is even a hotline for tourists to complain about dishonest taxi drivers.) If it’s raining, you will pay a premium, if you can get a taxi to stop. If there’s heavy traffic (and there usually is), you’ll pay a premium. If the taxi driver uses his meter, look to the sky and thank the deity of choosing. I am exaggerating a bit here, but this is the single most common scam I have encountered in all my travels to Malaysia.
Hopefully this has peaked your interest in Malaysia a bit. It’s a great place to visit and I think some growth in tourism will help it to make even more improvements. I’m sure I’ll be back there sooner or later… maybe I’ll see you there. Check for me in the Havana Club. 🙂
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