Through my years in Southeast Asia I have found myself travelling fairly extensively in the region, often on visa runs (Malaysia tourist visa requirements), but also to tick off various destinations that I’ve not reached before. But there is one country that keeps me coming back, you’re talking 10+ times more than any other Southeast Asian country (bar Thailand of course). And that is Malaysia.
Why Travel to Malaysia?
It has everything I seek in travel. It has the natural beauty with unspoiled rainforests, cooler climbs in highlands, and some of the most stunning beaches in all of Asia. The country is also culturally fascinating, with a mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures, each sharing and celebrating their own traditions and festivals. Not to mention the food that comes with. But the kicker with Malaysia is that it somehow manages to escape the mass backpacker trails elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Travel in Malaysia: Where to Begin?
Most of my visits will actually be for visa runs to Penang where I’d travel overland to Malaysia from Thailand by either train (Padang Besar) or bus (Dannok/Sadoa). But these routes are obviously long slogs, they were closed with the pandemic, and flights are just so cheap and easy these days. Anyway, here I share the better ports of arrival in Malaysia, and the benefits of each for onward travel. Note, Singapore is also a convenient port for travel in southern Malaysia, and Brunei is handy for reaching Malaysian Borneo.
Langkawi (North Malaysia)
Langkawi is an island found just next to the Thai-Malaysia border and within easy reach by ferry from the southern Thai town of Satun. Otherwise, as a big tourist destination, there is a relatively large international airport with regular flights through Southeast Asia. As a destination, it is mostly about the beaches and natural beauty of the island, with a UNESCO geopark (our guide here), and cable cars crossing the highest climbs of the island. It is also a duty-free island whereas alcohol is comparatively expensive in Asia.
Penang (North Malaysia)
A much more convenient base for travel is Penang, an island again in the north, connected to the mainland by a really long bridge. It is therefore easy to travel east for destinations like the Cameron Highlands, and the Perhentian Islands, as well as south towards the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. Otherwise Penang, as a former British colonial poet, is culturally fascinating, with a colourful mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay heritage. It is also one of the best foodie cities in the world.
Kuala Lumpur (Central Malaysia)
Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, is the obvious port of arrival, with a busy international airport covering most routes around Southeast Asia. It is also a decent tourist destination that focuses primarily on the central KLCC area and the ginormous Petronas Twin Towers. But there is a lot more to the city than shiny skyscrapers with a lot to explore in Chinatown and Bukit Bintang, and it’s just kind of fun to fly about on the monorail. Our guide here. It is also a convenient hub for travel to pretty much every destination in peninsular Malaysia.
Kota Kinabalu (Malaysian Borneo)
Kota Kinabalu is the capital of the Sabah region of Malaysian Borneo (aka East Malaysia) and is the main entry point for exploring this lesser travelled region (although Kuching, Sarawak is also an option). Borneo is a bit huge, and is fairly unspoiled with rainforests, so it is expectedly hard to get around. Unlike mainland Malaysia, it is also less multicultural, it is primarily Malay, with lots of ethnic tribal-type things going on. But most people are there for eco-tourism and to explore the rainforests. Brunei is also a handy entry point for the region.