Most interesting ethnic mixes

Despite having turquoise-ringed tropical islands, misty rainforests, cosmopolitan and arty cities, colourful festivals and one of the world’s most interesting ethnic mixes, Malaysia remains Southeast Asia’s most unsung destination.

In 2017, the country turns 60 years old. With a new hi-speed train system, comfortable buses and low-cost air connections to most of Asia and beyond, backpacking in Malaysia today is quicker and easier than ever. Here are our top tips to help you make a trip.

 

1. Don’t rush

Most travellers visit Malaysia too quickly, making a beeline between Penang, the Cameron Highlands, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and exiting to Singapore. But it’s by getting out of the well-worn trail that you’ll experience the best Malaysia has to offer.

Consider going to the east coast for island-hopping, stopping in Kota Bharu to experience a blend of Thai Buddhist and Malay Islamic culture. Or stop at Taman Negara, the world’s oldest rainforest, visiting the quaint little towns that surround it. Cheap flights can get you over the South China Sea to Sarawak and Sabah, in Borneo, where you may see orangutans, meet former headhunting tribes, and experience a side of Malaysia that feels like another country.

 

2. Ever considered hitchhiking?

Back in the 1970s, travellers on the Hippie Trail considered Malaysia the easiest country to hitchhike in Southeast Asia. Today, this adventurous way of travelling is less common, but it’s still very rewarding. Malaysians are very fond of foreigners (Western tourists, especially), and hitchhiking can be a great way to reach off-the-grid places that are poorly served by public transport. And since English is widely spoken, you will also make interesting connections that may end up in invitations to visit local homes.

 

3. Don’t try to speak Malay to everyone

Bahasa Malaysia may be one of the easiest languages to crack in the world. But remember that in this multicultural nation, the predominantly Malay Muslim government is well known for giving preferential rights to the Malay group. As a consequence, ethnic tensions are everyday issues, and addressing non-Malays in Bahasa may trigger unpleasant reactions.

On top of that, to most Malaysian Chinese and Indians, Bahasa Malaysia is a second, or even third language. Stick to English: as a foreigner, everyone will expect you to do so. Practise your Bahasa only in Malay-dominated regions, such as the Peninsula’s east coast, or in Malaysian Borneo, where it really helps befriend locals.