Malaysia is a modern-day breadbasket. Portuguese, Dutch, British, Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures intertwine to form the thread of contemporary Malaysia, which today stands among Asia’s most promising nations. The country spans both the Malay Peninsula and northern territories of Borneo, with hundreds of glistening islands sprinkled along the coast for good measure. Visitors have a tremendous array of marvels to take in when on a Malaysian holiday.
Kuala Lumpur is the center of the country and the capital, which makes a great starting or ending point to a vacation. Much of modern Malaysia was British or Dutch controlled until the 20th century, so colonial splendors are common in cities like Georgetown, Malacca and Ipoh, whereas the peninsula region is home to many fascinating old towns. Several magnificent scuba diving and snorkeling spots dot the coast and islands like Perhentian, Tioman and Langkawi offer magnificent respites from the stresses of the real world.
The eastern states of Malaysia, which include Sabah and Sarawak, are home to stunning islands, and thick bastions of untouched rainforest. River cruises and white-water rafting are the top activities in Borneo-Malaysia. However, Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest peak, is also a popular attraction. Package tours are the easiest way to explore both regions.
Despite the presence of long wet seasons, the heaviest rainfall is experienced during the months of October and November on the east coast and April and May in the western regions. Even though this period is considered to be the low season and therefore cheapest time to visit Malaysia, the heavy downpours tend to ruin any beach, water, or sightseeing activities. If you plan to visit during these months, plan on indoor attractions.
There are two periods of the year to avoid in Malaysia. The first is the Christmas/New Year holiday, which results in huge crowds, low vacancy rates, transportation issues and high prices. Another is between the months of June and July, which see the country’s best attractions overrun by travelers on their break from school, especially those from the Middle East.
Currency: Ringgit Malaysia (MYR)
Official language: Bahasa Melayu
Long before European colonial powers dreamed of occupying Southeast Asia, modern day Malaysia was ruled by several empires, the Srivijaya and Majapahit kingdoms, followed by the Melaka Sultanate. The earlier reigns saw the spread of Hindu influences across the peninsula and archipelago. Islam, the primary religion today, was introduced by Arab traders during the height of the Melaka Sultanate.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese were the first country to establish settlements throughout the Malay Peninsula, primarily around Malacca. However, the Dutch took control soon after, which spread their stronghold of Southeast Asia even further. In 1786, British forces set up a colony on the island of Penang, and eventually obtained many other parts of the Malay region, including Singapore by 1819. The Dutch eventually ceded much of the area the British. In response, British forces ceded all colonies in Sumatra (Indonesia) to the Dutch, which was the agreement forged in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. As a result, a line was drawn between British Malay colonies and the Dutch East Indies. Malaysia saw a huge influx of Chinese and Indian laborers when Britain took charge.
Before WWII, the regions of Malaysia were mostly governed by Britain, including the Federated and Unfederated Malay States, Northern Borneo, Kingdom of Sarawak and Brunei. However, some of these were actually protectorates instead of crown colonies, like Brunei. During WWII, British forces quickly fell to the technologically advanced Japanese armies, and lost the region until the Japanese surrendered in 1945, when Britain took back control of the Malay states. The Malayan Union was formed in 1946, which limited the states sultans’ powers, creating local upheaval. Eventually, some control was returned to the former state leaders in 1948, and the Malayan Union once again changed its title to the Federation of Malaya.
Malaysia first gained independence from Britain in 1957, just 12 years after WWII. For the first six years, the country was known as Malaya. However, this changed in 1963, as the nation of Malaysia as born, adopting states like Sabah, Singapore, and Sarawak. Just two years following though, Singapore was expelled as a result of large ethic riots due to the growing threat of Chinese influences on the land and Singapore became an independent nation.
Travelers can learn more about the ancient and modern history of Malaysia at the National Museum (Jalan Damansara, City Center, Kuala Lumpur). Penang’s War Museum (Mukin 12, Batu Maung, Penang) is a great place to explore British colonial war tactics and influences. Information about the British settlement in Penang is also available at the Penang State Museum (Lebuh Farquhar, Pulau Pinang, Penang).
Modern Malaysia is characterized as a melting pot. Aspects from ancient Malay, British, Dutch, Portuguese, and Hindu culture still prevail throughout many parts of the country, which has led to vast diversity in local architecture, religion, language, and cuisine. Britain’s labor-migration policies of the 19th century created a large wave of Chinese and Indian migrant workers. Today, descendants of these laborers make up over 30 percent of the population, which is only surpassed by the 52 percent Malay population.
Despite the diversity that exists, the Malaysian government released a controversial policy known as the ‘National Cultural Policy’ with the goal of developing a united national cultural identity, in which the government has accepted Malay as the official culture. This has caused upheaval at times, especially in the non-Malayan communities like the Indian and Chinese citizens.
Malaysia enjoys tropical weather year round however due to its proximity to water the climate is often quite humid. Despite this, the weather is never too hot and temperatures range from a mild 20°C to 30°C average throughout the year; however the highlands experience cooler temperatures.
Citizens of the US and most other Western nations receive a 90-day visa upon arrival, but nationals of some countries are only permitted a 30-day or 14-day visa. Tourists have to have at least six months’ validity and space on their passport to be granted entry.
Public transport in Malaysia is reliable and inexpensive. Much of your travelling, particularly in Peninsular Malaysia, will be by bus, minivan or, less often, long-distance taxi. Budget flights are a great option for hopping around the region, especially given that no ferries connect Peninsular and east Malaysia.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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