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Malaysia, the Road Less Traveled

I hadn’t thought of visiting Malaysia until an internship brought me there, and since then, I’ve been back twice, and can’t help but suggest it to travelers thinking of visiting Thailand. The two countries border, but there are definite advantages to taking the road less traveled on an Asia & South Pacific vacation. The ringgit (Malaysia’s currency) is at a friendly conversion rate, and daily costs like food are quite low. But more than that, Malaysia’s regions, food and activities are as diverse and accommodating as its people.

Most flights are to the capital city Kuala Lumpur, which grew outward from the fork of two rivers. “KL," as the locals know it, continues to grow in arts and culture, economic activity, and culinary offerings, with contributions from each of three major ethnic groups: Malay, Straits Chinese and Indian. With KL as the central hub, this former British colony is coming of age after a half-century of independence.

The Petronas Twin Towers is probably the most famous icon of this emerging world city, combining Islamic-inspired architecture with a glimmering dose of glass and steel. Catherine Zeta-Jones scaled the skybridge between the two towers in the film "Entrapment," but visitors can take a significantly safer walk from one side to the other on an official tour. Admission includes access to the observation deck. Crowds are thinnest in the morning.

Whether in bustling KL or the slower-paced Penang in the north, take refuge from short-lived but powerful afternoon rains with a snack in a “mamak” stall. My favorite treats cost no more than 2 ringgit apiece: roti canai (a stretched, Indian-style bread served with daal) and iced white coffee (made from coffee beans roasted in margarine and served with condensed milk).

If street food is your thing, a trip to Penang is a must. This island off the northwest coast is quickly attracting expats from Australia and Europe because the cost of living is low while quality of life is high. In some parts of George Town, the streets are literally lined with stalls serving hot congee, satay skewers, noodles in Chinese or Malay styles, curries and tropical fruit. I didn’t know what mangosteen was until my third visit -- a regret I continue to live with.

A key difference between beaches in Malaysia and Thailand is the availability of real estate for towels and sun umbrellas. Take as much space as you need at a beachside resort on Redang, Langkawi or one of the Perhentian Islands. These resort destinations are close to Thailand and share similar weather. As a bonus, shopping in Langkawi is duty-free, and a hilltop cable car ride gives visitors the chance to see the ocean from way up.

More clues indicate that popularity and economic prosperity are on the way: this January, Malaysia Airlines joined major airlines like British Airways and Qantas in the Oneworld frequent-flier alliance, boosting the alliance’s coverage across Southeast Asia. Visit now while the weather is just right and while the dollar can buy as much roti canai as you can eat.

Malaysia 101:

How to get there/ international airport name:
Most flights are to KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport), which connects to the city’s central transit hub via an express train.
Air Asia and other regional discount airlines fly to LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal), which connects via an express bus.

Best months to visit:

Currency type:

  • Malaysian Ringgit (RM), 1 USD is worth approximately 3 RM

How to get around:

  • Malaysia has a relatively well-developed network of ground transportation, as well as air and boat, which connects peninsular Malaysia to Borneo. In Kuala Lumpur, a monorail and high-speed train connect parts of the city, and taxis are plentiful and inexpensive; just be sure the driver uses the meter or have the hotel make arrangements.

Other tips:

  • Don’t be alarmed by the afternoon rains; they pass quickly and cut the humidity.
  • As a former British colony, most people speak English in addition to Malay, Tamil, or Mandarin. This makes getting around a lot easier.
  • With three major religious groups, festivals abound all year long. Check out the festivities during the annual Mooncake Festival, Hari Raya or Deepavali.

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Tips by
Brendan

Deal Expert, Toronto
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
See more Tips from
Brendan McGeagh