Malaysia Travel Guide
With such an interesting history and so much influence from neighboring Asian countries and colonial rulers, you can expect much diversity – from architecture and religion to ethnicity of the country’s people. No wonder, tourism contributes more than 7% to the economy and the country is ranked 9th in all the world for tourist arrivals! With your expert local guides on hand, tailor your trip specifically to match your interests.
People & Language of Malaysia
The people of Malaysia are a mosaic of Chinese, Indian and native Malay influence. The Malays make up the largest ethnic group, and tend to practice both Islamic and Malay traditions, and speak in the native Malay language. The Malaysian Chinese make up about 25% of the population, with three main dialects of Chinese languages being spoken: Hokkien, Cantonese and Mandarin speakers. The Malaysian Indians – who make up 10%, tend to be descendants of Tamil-speaking South Indians who were brought in under British colonial rule.
The traditional Malay people speak Bahasa Malaysia, which has its roots in an Austronesian language. The indigenous people of Malay, known as the Orang Asli or original people, are found in the Peninsular region and have several different groups with their own language and cultural traditions. The largest ethnic groups tend to live in Sabah, including the Kadazan Dusuns, who are typically farmers in hilly regions; Bajaus, a sea-faring community; and the Murut, who also make their living from hunting, fishing and cultivation.
In Sarawak, you can find major ethnic groups known as Dayaks, the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu. Meanwhile, the Penang people are traditional nomadic people who move around the rainforest.
Religion & Festivals
Most world religions are prevalent in the country including Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. Islam is the largest and official religion of the country. The Penang people used to practice animism although many have converted to Islam or Christianity.
All major festivals from Eid, Chinese New Year, Diwali, and Christmas are celebrated, as are several Malay festivals such as Hari Raya Aidilfitr, and Awal Muharram, as well as state specific festivals such as Sabah Kaamatan Festival and Sarawak Gawai Festival. In addition, the country also hosts several smaller religious festivals, such as the Hindu Thaipusam festival, which includes a procession from the heart of Kuala Lumpur that ends at the Batu Caves to the north of the city.
Much of Malaysia’s architecture was influenced by colonial rulers (British, Dutch and Portuguese). Head to George Town and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building in Kuala Lumpur to witness excellent examples of British architecture; and Melaka Town for 17th century Dutch and 16th century Portuguese influences. Chinese architecture can be found in many Chinese temples and heritage homes that date back to the 17th century, especially in Melaka and Penang.
Many modern buildings have Moorish design elements due to Islamic influence and beautiful mosques can be explored throughout the length and breadth of the country. The indigenous communities in Sabah and Sarawak boast wonderful examples of traditional Malay architecture that is constructed on stilts, to ensure houses are cooled and floods are avoided. Some traditional houses can still be seen that were built out of wood without any nails, such as the Old Palace of Seri Menanti in Negeri Sembilan.
Some communities continue to live in traditional longhouses that can house from 20 to 100 families, and water villages built along riverbanks and linked by walkways, with sampan or canoe being the local mode of transport.
The booming handicrafts industry is influenced by Islam, and much of the designs are influenced by nature. It is easy to purchase pottery, wooden crafts, bronze and brass work in most regions, and you can find everything from traditional silver jewelry to tribal head dresses! The native Orang Ulu are particularly noted for their artistic ability, with woodcarvings, murals, and intricate beadwork, as well as spirit sculptures. Handwoven crafts made from local plant fibers, and traditional textiles such as batiks (dyed materials) and songket (woven with gold thread) are offered for everything from designer clothing to simple and colorful homewares.
Music & Dance
Our private Malaysia vacations offer a host of opportunities to tourists for enjoying the diverse music and dance of the country. We highly recommend you discover gamelan and the nobat, the two traditional orchestras, as well as the rebana uni drums, the kompang (similar to a tambourine), and the sape, a traditional flute, for enjoying the native music of the region.
Popular music and dance of Malaysia:
- Datun Julud: Hornbill dance performed by Sarawak’s Kenyah women
- Joget: traditional lively dance with quick tempos
- Kuda Kepang: traditional dance from Indonesia
- Lion dance / dragon dances: energetic dance performed to celebrate Chinese New Year
- Bharata Natyam / Bhangra: traditional Indian classical and folk dances respectively
- Mak Yong: Thai-influenced dance to entertain the royal ladies, with much dance and dram.
- Silat: Malay martial arts
- Sumazau: Traditional dance of Sabah’s Kadazan people
- Tarian Lilin: Delicate dance performed by women balancing candles
- Zapin: Islamic devotional chanting
Top Malaysia Travel Tips – Culture:
- Greetings: Malay women do not shake hands with men, only women, while the Malay Chinese shake hands lightly and for a prolonged period. In terms of who to greet first, it is usually considered polite to greet the older people of a family first.
- Gift giving: Bring chocolate or pastries when invited home, and do not give toy dogs or pigs to children, alcohol or flowers and avoid leather products. Only offer gifts with the right hand or both hands, and don’t expect the gift to be opened in front of you. A gift may be refused before it is accepted by Malay Chinese.
- Communication: Non-verbal communication is a major part of the culture, and so you should always look for these non-verbal clues that can at times be subtle. Silence is considered important, so always pause before responding to any questions you are asked. If your host is laughing at an inappropriate time, this may be because they are uneasy. Always remain calm and polite and avoid direct confrontation, which is considered hostile.
- Dress code: Western clothing is popular and acceptable, and there are no rules to be followed but do be respectful and we recommend you avoid clothes that are overly revealing when leaving urban cities and venturing into more rural and traditional regions.
- Tipping: Tipping in Malaysia is not a common or mandatory practice, however, if you would like to reward individuals for good service, you are most welcome do so. Most restaurants, cafes and bars already add a 10% service charge onto your bill, but for excellent service, you are welcome to tip extra.
From eating seafood in all the coastal regions, including Kota Kinabalu, Penang and Langkawi, to a street food paradise in Kuala Lumpur and Kuching, you will be surprised by the diversity in the country.
Due to the multi-ethnicity of the country, you can expect a huge array of culinary influences on the food – from the native ethnic groups of Indonesia and Malaysia to the colonial rulers of Portugal, the Netherlands and the UK. The country shares a similar history with Singapore so you can expect similar dishes in these must-visit tourist destinations. In major cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Langkawi and Georgetown, major hotels serve everything from local cuisine to Western favorites. However, in the rural areas of the country, especially in the forests that make up the national parks, except simple and hearty local fare.
The staple ingredients of most Malay meals include shrimp paste (known as balacan), which incorporates garlic, and ginger. The spice of chili peppers, including the pungent bird’s eye chili, gives the food a kick, while coconut is used in all its forms – from coconut oil to milk. You can also expect a lot of soy sauce, lemongrass, tamarind, turmeric and pandan leaf (South East Asia’s answer to vanilla). Fish stock and dried seafood are used to add extra flavor, while candle nuts (similar to Macadamia nuts) add crunch.
Most of the meat is made to Halal standards due to the dominant and official religion of Islam. You will also find tofu in many dishes. Rice is at the center of any meal and can be found in an assortment of dishes, but there is a vast array of vegetables that are grown throughout the country, and especially used in stir fries.
Fruits are also popular, especially as a dessert. Feast on fresh strawberries that grow in the Cameron Highlands and other parts of Sabah, or the notable durian fruit, which boasts several different species of varying colors. Pickled fruits are also widely available and are often encountered during your private street food tour in Kuala Lumpur or Penang with Enchanting Travels.
While predominantly a Muslim country, traditional liquor made from rice is also popular in the eastern parts.
Why not try a few typical and popular dishes in Malaysia?
- Air bandung: cold and pink milk drink, flavored with rose syrup and very refreshing!
- Ambuyat / linut: sago starch popular along the ethnic communities in East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), which is dipped into soup, sampal or other sauces.
- Ayam goreng: deep fried and deliciously marinated chicken.
- Bao/ pau: Chinese-influenced staple wheat based steamed bun, served with either a sweet or savoury filling such a lotus seed paste, or custard, or chicken and pork. Found at night markets.
- Congee / bubur: rich porridge favored by Malaysia’s indigenous communities, and even on the menu at McDonald’s restaurants in the country!
- Edible seaweed: popular in all dishes in East Malaysia.
- Fish head curry: South Indian influenced thick and spicy curry featuring a braised fish head and vegetables.
- Gulai: typical Malay curried meat and vegetable stew.
- Ikan bakr: translating as burnt fish, this is usually barbecue or char-grilled fish marinated in a chilli sauce and accompanied with a belacan dip, and a great sharing platter.
- Ketupat: delicious dumplings, made by weaving a palm leaf around rice that can be dipped in your curry, often rendang, or served to accompany satay. Popular during festivals.
- Kuih: Chinese-influenced bite-sized foods often related to pastries, sweetmeats and confectionery, and popular for afternoon tea and festive occasions.
- Laksa Laksam / Lasang: thick flat rice noodle rolls prepared in a rich and sweet white minced fish, coconut milk and aromatic sauce. Asam Laksa is the signature dish of Penang.
- Mee rebus: A Chinese and Javanese influenced egg noodle dish, flavored with a spicy and aromatic sauce of lemongrass and ginger, and often served with prawns, mutton or dried anchovies, as well as sprouts and boiled eggs.
- Nasi Lemak: rice steamed with coconut milk and pandan leaves, and the national dish of Malaysia, it is often served with sambal, a type of chill sauce, as a breakfast dish.
- Rendang: spicy meat (often buffalo, beef, or chicken) stew made with coconut milk and influenced by Indonesia.
- Rojak: fruit and vegetable salad made with belacan and toasted peanuts, and popular in Penang.
- Roti canai / roti kosong: Indian influenced flaky and thin unleavened bread, served with accompaniments such as egg (telur), onions (bawang) or banana (pisang).
- Satay / sate: marinated meat (chicken or beef) skewered onto wooden sticks and cooked on a charcoal grill, served with spiced peanut dipping sauce.
Top Malaysia Travel Tips – Cuisine:
- Most appetizers and main courses are served at the same time during a meal. Fixed price dining experiences (help yourself buffets) are also a popular way of eating in Malaysia – these are known as nasi campur or “mixed rice” and nasi ambang (shared platters) locally, and popularly available at a mamak stall (an eatery opened 24 hours a day).
- If you are feeling adventurous, try wild edible ferns, such as pucuk paku pakis that the indigenous peoples of Sarawak have been foraging and using for centuries to supplement their meals in East Malaysia!
- Head to a kopitiam, a traditional coffee shop, or try the tarki (pulled tea), a frothy tea sweetened by condensed milk, for unique and local Malay beverage experiences.
Enchanting Travels is happy to help you plan one of our tailor-made Malaysia vacations!
Imagine a fascinating confluence of ancient Chinese, Indian and South Asian Muslim cultures, liberally sprinkled with colonial influence! Our destination experts have traveled high and low in search of unique experiences to bring a slice of authentic history and incredible heritage to your Enchanting Travels tour.
Strategically located in the heart of the ancient spice route, it is no wonder that the archipelago has played host to thousands of sailors, adventurers, conquerors and immigrants over the centuries, and you could be next!
The story of Malaysia began nearly a million years ago when hunter gatherers roamed the rainforests of Borneo and settled near elaborate cave systems. Take a day tour in the heart of this tropical jungle where the famous skull of the ‘adolescent girl’ – the oldest, modern human skull, was discovered.
Bronze and Iron age people who settled near the coast are considered the forefathers of Malaysian Malays. In the following centuries, trade flourished and the Srivijaya empire controlled most of the coast. Hinduism and Buddhism greatly influenced the daily life and culture. An Enchanting Travels tour of Kedah and Langkawi offers unique insights into the traditional way of life, through visits to historical monument, museums and religious shrines.
In the 14th century, the Sultanate of Malacca became the most prominent Islamic empire. Since then, Islam has had a profound effect on the country. Some years later, the Portuguese annexed wealthy Malacca which was later lost to the Dutch. Our heritage Malacca tours include visits to medieval monuments and historical tourist attractions, Baroque architectural wonders, bustling night markets and the colorful Chinatown, offering incredible insights into this UNESCO World Heritage site.
In 1824, the country was officially declared British colonial territory, bringing in thousands of Indians and Chinese driven by the demands of the ever-increasing Empire.
Embark on a private heritage tour of Penang, to see the UNESCO Heritage site of George Town, where Fort Cornwallis – the largest standing fort built by the British East India Company, tells tales of British colonialism and military influence. Or set out to discover a hegemony of cultural influences with a Heritage Walk in Kuching, another British trading port where White Rajah era buildings vie for attention alongside with gold-domed mosques and Chinese temples. Visit rubber plantations in Malaysia, which were introduced during the colonial era and today, produce nearly 46% of the rubber in the world!
After World War II and the popular nationalist movement, the Federation of Malaysia was established in 1948. Today, Kuala Lumpur, is an ideal example of harmonious existence between the past and the present. On your Kuala Lumpur city tour, our local experts will take you past busy streets where various ethnic communities rub friendly shoulders, and colonial buildings exist alongside ancient mosques and gigantic skyscrapers.
Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? Be it popular sights or off the beaten path experiences, tell us your travel dream through our trip planner.
Our destination experts will get in touch with you to craft a completely tailor-made, obligation-free itinerary to match your interests and budget.
Once you have booked your trip, sit back and relax – we’ll take care of everything else. With our exceptional local team & 24/7 support, priceless memories await you!