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Untamed beauty abounds in the tropical rainforests of Borneo, while mainland Malaysia dazzles in a different way…

Malaysia is, quite literally, a country of two halves divided in two by the South China Sea. The Malaysia Peninsula has a land border with Thailand and Singapore sitting on its southern tip. Across the water it shares the giant island of Borneo with Indonesia and Brunei… sounds complicated doesn’t it? But the simple part is that Malaysia is one amazing place for an adventure.

With so much variety packed into such a relatively small area, you’ll feel like you’ve had several holidays in one here. On the mainland the ultra-modern capital Kuala Lumpur keeps pace with the biggest and the best of them, while sleepy colonial towns and cool tea plantations ease on the brakes. Borneo, jungle clad and garlanded by coral reefs and tropical beaches, is home to a veritable kaleidoscope of creatures great and small.

 

Culture and history

You’ll encounter a dizzying array of dialects, languages, customs and traditions in Malaysia, which has long been a crossroads for the peoples and cultures of Asia and beyond. The official religion is Islam, and it’s important to conform to local customs. When you are out and about, especially in towns, dress should be modest, so no shorts or strappy tops. If you visit a mosque you’ll be expected to remove your shoes, and women must cover their heads. Shoes should also be removed if you visit someone’s home.

Food in this culturally-rich state is a glorious fusion of Asian, Indian and Chinese. There is a delectable selection of vegetarian and fish dishes, as well as plenty of meat options, though pork is used infrequently, this being a predominantly Muslim country. The adventurous may like to taste the startlingly pungent tuhau – a pickled and fermented ginger, onion and chilli concoction. Then there’s the custardy durian, which according to your palate is either the king of fruits or inedible – it certainly has a distinctive smell…

Thought to have been inhabited for more than 20,000 years, Malaysia was largely made up of tribal societies until the 1900s, although traders from China, Indonesia and the Philippines jostled for power and settled over the centuries, all of them contributing to Malaysia’s striking diversity. Islam arrived in the early 1400s and spread quickly throughout the country.

With its strategic position for trading, the region grew ever more wealthy, and by the 1500s, as you’d expect, it began to attract the attention of Europe. First came the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British in 1795. Over the following century the British government gradually gained power over Sabah and then Sarawak followed after WWII. In 1957 the then Malaya mainland became independent and was joined by Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore in 1963 to create Malaysia (Singapore branched out on its own just two years later).

Things to do

On Saga’s Malaysia holidays you’ll discover a world of tropical jungles, mangrove swampland and soaring mountain peaks. Take a trip to meet Borneo’s orang-utans, see the largest flower in the world and spot butterflies the size of your hands. Head into the rainforest canopy and look for orchids on a guided Kinabalu Park tour or simply relax on a perfect stretch of golden beach.

Over on the mainland you can travel between buzzing cities and tranquil tea plantations, stay in the best hotels and take a scenic train journey to the Dim-Sum capital of Ipoh. Malaysia offers a world of experiences, and if you can’t choose which part to visit, don’t fret – you can always combine tours and get the best of both worlds.

Mainland Malaysia

Glimpse Malaysia’s traditional heart among the verdant tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands and the colonial gems of Penang’s George Town. Elsewhere on the mainland you’ll find the buzzing cities of Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, as well as sleepier towns along the east coast.

Crowned by the Petronas skyscrapers, the world’s tallest twin towers, Malaysia’s capital doesn’t do things by halves. Home to a true melting pot of cultures, from Malay and Chinese to Indian and Thai, everyone has their place in Kuala Lumpur, and they’re all cooking up a storm – prepare your palate for the culinary ride of your life.

Borneo

The states of Sabah and Sarawak make up the Malaysian portion of Borneo. Both are compact and full of traveller-friendly sites. In Sarawak you can stay in the dynamic city of Kuching and take daytrips into the rainforest national parks of Gunung Mulu and Batang Ai, or along the Batang Rejang River.

In next-door Sabah over 55% of the land is swathed in pristine rainforest alive with tropical birds and beasts. The conservation areas of the Danum Valley and Kinabalu Park are here, and this is where you’ll find some of Malaysia’s famous orang-utans. The mighty Mount Kinabalu rises over 4,000 metres above it all, while tropical islands gather around the sun-soaked coastline and marine life flourishes beneath its turquoise waters.

Flight time

The approximate flight time from London to Kuala Lumpur is around 13 hours, and to Kota Kinabalu it’s 14 hours and 30 minutes, so you’ll need a couple of books in your hand luggage!

Currency

MYR - The currency unit is the ringgit (RM), which is divided into 100 sen. The ringgit is often referred to as the Malaysian dollar.

Passports and visas

British nationals do not need a visa to visit Malaysia.

Visit GOV.UK for more advice on passports and visas.

Phrases

A few Malay phrases to get your tongue around…

Good morning - Selamat pagi

Goodnight - Selamat malam

How are you? - Apa khabar?

Excuse me - Maafkan saya

Thank you - Terima kasih

Timezone

Malaysia is eight hours ahead of GMT.

Electricity

Most mains sockets are British-style (13-amp with three square holes), so you shouldn’t need an adaptor. Mains voltage is 220 volts, 50 cycles.

Language

Bahasa Malay - Bahasa Malay is the official national language but English is widely spoken: it’s taught as the second language in schools and is also the means of communication between over 30 different racial groups, which together account for over 80 dialects. Manglish (Malaysian English) is commonly spoken in cities and tourist establishments.

Tipping

Tipping is not customary in Malaysia, but spare change is always appreciated by restaurant and service staff.

Climate

The climate is tropical, with warm weather all year round ranging from 21°C-32°C. On mainland Malaysia, the west coast has its wettest period from May to October, and its driest months are January and February.

The east coast is wettest between September to December, with June and July being the driest. In the Sabah area of Borneo the northeast monsoon brings heavy rain showers from November to March, but it rarely rains all day and the weather remains warm.

Sabah is also known as ‘the land below the wind’ as it’s not in the path of the annual typhoon season that sweeps towards the Philippines.

Health

We’d advise you to drink only bottled water during your stay and also warn you about the pesky insects: mosquitoes, sand flies and lots of other flying insects can be a nuisance in this part of the world so it’s certainly worth using mosquito repellent on exposed areas of skin and keeping your arms and legs covered.

As health information can change at any time, we’d advise you to consult your GP at least 12 weeks before departure.

Country-specific information and advice on possible health risks is also published by the National Travel Health Network and Centre, and The British Foreign and Commonwealth Travel Advice Unit provides important health and safety information for British nationals travelling abroad.

Population and size

The overall population of Malaysia is about 30,500,000 – a little less than the population of Canada.

Peninsular Malaysia is just 50,424 square miles – a fraction the size of Borneo, which is the world’s third largest island. But since Borneo is actually shared by three countries and only the states of Sabah and Sarawak belong to Malaysia, it measures in at a more comparable 76,479 square miles.

Smoking

Smoking is banned on public transport and in bars, restaurants and hotels



Climate