Malaysia often gets overlooked or only gets a cursory glance as a stopping point between Singapore and Thailand. It isn't really on the tourist radar to the same degree that Thailand, Bali and Vietnam are. Which we think is a real shame for a lot of reasons.
We came here on a short holiday in 2009 when our children were 1 and 3. We weren't really sure what to expect but flights from Australia were cheap and the multiculturalism, level of development and diversity of Malaysia seemed to offer what we were looking for - developed enough to be easy with young kids but fascinating and diverse enough to satisfy our wanderlust.
We quickly fell in love with Malaysia on that trip and our experiences there, as well as a lot of conversations with other expat and travelling families around a pool in Sabah one afternoon were what inspired us onto grander travel plans. When we first embarked on our big trip two years ago and were looking for a place to stop for a month or two we chose Malaysia. A year later we ended up setting up a house here. And here's why ...
As a travelling family you probably already know that visa fees can really add up and they can be a pain to organise if you have to arrange it in advance outside your country of origin. Particularly if it means dragging kids into immigration offices and waiting around. Are we the only ones that get just a little excited when we find a country that not only provides a visas on arrival that's free and is valid longer than 30 days?
Most nationalities can get a free 90 day visa for Malaysia upon arrival. When you compare that to Thailand where the free visa on arrival is only for 30 days visas, and that's only if you come in by air otherwise you get 15 days, 90 days looks pretty attractive right? Then compare that to Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia where visas cost over 25 USD per person for 30 days and add in the fact that Cambodia and Indonesia often charge departure fees of at least 10 USD ... why wouldn't you consider Malaysia?
Free 90 day visa on arrival ... need I say anymore?
If you want to stay longer than 90 days it's also usually quite easy to extend it by another 90 days by just leaving the country for a few days and then returning. At least a couple of times anyway, after that it can become more challenging.
Minimal language barrier
We love the challenge and reward of travelling in countries where you need to learn at least some of the local language to get by. Give me a new script or alphabet to get my head around and I'm in heaven. Part of our reason for travelling with our children is to expose them to different cultures and languages.
But when we're looking for a spot to stop for a month or more and need to set up things like Internet, cell phone accounts, rent an apartment, find out about dentists or doctors and maybe even organise a playgroup or tuition lessons for the kids, choosing a location where there's minimal language barrier certainly makes life easier.
Malaysia is really not the place to come if you want a full language immersion experience because almost everyone speaks fluent English. You can enrol in language classes, even send your children to local schools or tuition centres to pick up Mandarin or Bahasa Melayu but outside of the classroom even three year old local children generally speak enough English to facilitate play. I'm sitting in a local McDonald's at this very moment writing this article as three separate Malaysian families sit next to me all speaking in English to their children. So you can see, it's a bit hard to come to Malaysia for a full language immersion experience. But as a place to easily set up a house or apartment for a month or more, while still experiencing a new culture and country it's perfect.
Bahasa Melayu utilises the roman alphabet so it really doesn't take long to be able to read the basic words for foods, directions, street signs etc. It makes navigating your way around a strange city or trying decipher a local menu a lot easier if it only takes you a day or two to be able to read the basic words!
Malaysia is fantastic if you have fussy eaters. Thanks to the diverse cultures who call Malaysia home, it's not like Thailand where anything other than Thai food can be a bit tricky to find outside of tourist strips. If your children don't like Malay food, there's always Indian or Chinese. If none of that is to their liking it's never hard to find plain fried chicken and rice, Indian breads like rotis or naans, or even toast with jam or a fried egg.
And of course if you are in a mid-sized town KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonald's is never far away.
Cheap but developed
Malaysia is cheap. Not quite Thailand or Cambodia cheap, but not far off it. Take a look at our cost of living in Penang and cost of living in Phuket articles - you can see that Phuket is slightly cheaper than Penang for most items but the cost difference isn't that great. We generally find daily expenses like food, Internet, sightseeing and transport cost 1/3 of what they would cost back home.
So why would you choose Malaysia over Thailand or another location in South East Asia then if you are looking for a cheap place to stop for a few months?
Well Malaysia is more developed than most countries in this region. Internet is usually fast and reliable, roads are good, shopping malls are easy to find, as are supermarkets stocked with familiar brands from home. Quality health-care is easy to find, whether it's a doctor, pharmacist, hospital, chiropractor or dentist. Most practitioners speak impeccable English and almost everyone we've ever been to see gained their qualifications overseas in the UK, USA or Australia. Bookstores are filled with English language books, inexpensive cinemas play most films in English.
We could live a slightly cheaper life than we do here by basing ourselves in Thailand BUT when you look at the cost difference VS level of development, we're happy to pay a little extra to live in Malaysia. Add in the free 90 day visa and what you pay more for in expenses you save on in not having to leave the country every few weeks or pay for longer visas.
Choose the experience that suits you
Malaysia sits halfway between Singapore and the rest of South East Asia in terms of development, but of course there's a wide range within Malaysia from region to region in terms of development, lifestyle and culture.
A nice apartment in an expat area with a swimming pool just a few minutes walk to either a local markets and food stalls or a shopping centre filled with Starbucks and familiar name-brands ... that's easy. Base yourself in Kuala Lumpur or Penang and you can have that. Want to live like a local in a smaller apartment or house but still have access to malls and the other trappings of modern life if you want to see it out - that's even easier. Fancy a more local experience in a smaller rural town but still like access to a reasonable amount of infrastructure and be less than an hours drive to a city with all those western luxuries from home you might miss ... no problems. I could name over 40 towns and cities that offer this. Or if a tiny village filled with local families and goats wandering along the sides of the road, or even a town where they use boats not cars is more your thing than that's easy too.
With such a diverse population of Chinese Malaysians, Indian Malaysians, Malay Malaysians and expats from all around the world, Malaysia is one of the most multicultural nations on earth. Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism all coexist peacefully with the major celebrations from each religion being celebrated nationally.
It's of course not perfect. There are ingrained stereotypes that each race believes of the other and for the most part people marry within their own cultural group and religions. But in day to day interactions everyone are friends. They do business together, go to school together, eat out together and live side by side. When we walk down the street, sit in a restaurant or hop on a bus we see more positive signs of respect towards other culture, religions and nationalities, and an acknowledgement of the benefits of multiculturalism, here in Malaysia than we have seen anywhere else in the world.
I also love the fact that we can expose ourselves to so many cultures and religions in the once country. In the one day we can eat Chinese, Malay and Indian foods. On the one street in Georgetown, Penang, we can visit a Christian Church, two mosques, three Buddhist temples and a Hindu temple. Just a few streets away are British colonial forts and cemeteries, Thai and Burmese temples, Little India, Chinatown and local wet markets. In the past two years our children have celebrated Christmas and Easter, Deepavali, Ramadan and Chinese New Years, just to name a few. They've seen giant gleaming shopping malls, eaten at fancy restaurants and played at modern indoor playgrounds. But just a day later we can show them traditional fishing villages, eat in street stalls, shop at a locals market and give them the opportunity to kick a ball around in a local park with children from a huge range of backgrounds.
If you want your children to grow up believing that everyone is a person no matter their race, colour, background or religion, Malaysia is a pretty good place to start. Like I said, it's not perfect by any means but Malaysians are doing a much better job of being tolerant and inclusive than most countries we've visited.
It's safe, particularly for families
Malaysia is safe. Petty crimes like bag snatching do exist, mainly in tourist areas, and home break-ins where purses are targeted aren't unheard of, but violent crimes towards foreigners are almost non-existent. As a family we receive nothing but positive attention. Like the rest of Asia, children are loved and we usually feel so safe here that we allow the children more freedom than we would back home. Walking down the street with my kids I've never once felt in danger nor experienced any time of crime.
In the past month my husband has left my laptop in a change room in a busy mall and his laptop behind in a restaurant (I just have to point this out because it's usually me that leaves stuff behind but twice recently it wasn't and both times were LAPTOPS!!!). On both occasions when we went back to get look for them the laptops were being looked after by the staff. Of course it's not always the case - a friend recently lost her iPhone when she accidentally left it in a toilet at an airport in Kuala Lumpur and didn't realise for 5 minutes. When she went back it was gone. But generally speaking, most Malaysians are honest to the point of insisting that you take that 5c of change they owe you.
Like most of Asia, Malaysians place a strong emphasis on their children's education. After school tuition centres are plentiful offering everything from sports to music to language and maths. If you have been travelling for a long time and feel like the kids could do with some catch up or even just have the chance to experience a classroom with other children to make friends and learn some language, Malaysia is certainly a place you might want to consider.
Classes are also very cheap. A 1hr Tae Kwon Do class costs less $3 per child. A music class or maths lesson less than $5. It's very affordable and most places are happy for your children to attend for even just one month.
Finding Nemo and beach escapes
You may need to go a little further afield to find spectacular beaches to rival those you see in Thailand, but when you do find one it's usually less developed, less touristy and better managed in terms of sustainability and preservation! Quiet islands with no roads, minimal development and quiet palm lined beaches with shallow waters.
Just a few kilometers off the eastern coastline of peninsular Malaysia are several islands with some of the best snorkeling in the world. The Perhentians, Redang and Tioman all offer great snorkeling in calm blue waters. Then there's Sabah with all it's many spectacular islands. Most of these locations offer beaches where the coral is 3-5m offshore.
At our favourite location in Asia, the Perhentian Islands, we regularly find clown fish at every snorkeling site we've been too. Whole families of clown fish usually in 2m of water just a few meters offshore. Does it get any better for young kids?
Playgrounds galore for the littlies
Malaysia has some of the best playgrounds we've seen anywhere in the world. Outside you'll find Lake Gardens in Kuala Lumpur with it's giant fairytale playground and Penang's enormous Youth Park. Let's not forget the giant playground sprawling across the gardens at the base of the Petronas Towers. The largest playground we've ever seen to accompany one of the world's tallest buildings!
Giant shopping malls can be found in most large cities, many with great indoor playgrounds. Mid Valley in Kuala Lumpur, 1Borneo in Kota Kinabalu and Queensbay in Penang are some of the best. Each have fantastic indoor playgrounds at reasonable prices where kids can happiily loose themselves for half a day in tunnels, slides and jumping castles.
Something for the teens
Malaysia is fantastic for kids of all ages. There are endless opportunities for adventure holidays for teenagers - jungle treking in Taman Negara or in search of the worlds largest flower, volunteering at the Kuala Gandah elephant sanctuary, canopy walks and caves.Learning to dive in Malaysia is relatively inexpensive and most schools run courses for children over 10 years of age, with some even offering a children's discovery dive for any child over 8 years of age.
Or how about theme parks? Malaysia has some fantastic theme parks. From indoor theme parks like Cosmos World in Kuala Lumpur to theme park resort towns like Genting Highlands, the attractions are world class for a fraction of the price you'd pay elsewhere.
And then there are the malls. Malaysia has incredible malls. You'll find familiar western fast food chains, giant bookstores like Popular and MPH that have the best range of young adult fiction I've come across anywhere in the world (all in English!), huge arcades and very inexpensive cinemas with movies in English.
Or how about a night time cruise through quiet rivers in search of fireflies. It might not compare to northern lights tours in search of the Aurora Borealis, but Malaysia has a number of spots where you can take boat cruises at night to see fireflies. Kuala Selangor, under 2 hours from Kuala Lumpur is one of the most popular but you'll also find them just south of Penang at Nibong Tebal and in Sabah.