Of the places I visited in Southeast Asia, Malaysia was one where I experienced the most intense culture shock. This was likely intensified by factors like illness and jetlag, which are not directly related to Malaysia. None the less after reflecting on my time, I noted a few things that made Malaysia very accessible for me and a few factors that made backpacking this region a bit more difficult. It should also be noted that we only visited Kuala Lampur and a few areas outside when in Malaysia & our experiences may not be reflective of the rest of the country.
Disclaimer: This list is far from all-encompassing in terms of factors that make a country accessible to travel. I am writing this from the perspective of a white, able-bodied, English speaking woman with an American passport. Except for the safety issues that often accompany being a woman traveling abroad, I did not encounter many barriers to travel that others sometime do, and I cannot provide much insight into some of these issues. I have tried to stick to the topics on which I feel I can share my experiences without extensive research, but I am not an expert and encourage everyone to research safety tips for your personal situations before visiting any region.
The USD fares very well in Malaysia and this was one of the factors that made Malaysia easiest to travel. When we were there the exchange rate was $1 USD = $4.44 MYR (Malaysian Ringgit) or 1MYR = $.023 USD. We spent three nights in the Back Home Hostel there and paid 364 MYR total which is about 60 MYR per person per night or $15 USD for a bed in a 6 person dorm with breakfast included. Our flight from Singapore into Kuala Lampur was $45 USD each, and our time at the KWC shopping mall resulted in a lot of items (skirts, jewelry, makeup) being put in our bags that were 10-15 MYR. The only place our dollar stretched further in this trip was Thailand.
EASE OF NAVIGATION
Generally speaking, directions are not my strong suit. I can get turned around walking in a straight line, so my opinion on the ease of navigating an area should be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, I struggled a bit getting around Malaysia but it was nothing too terrible. Maps were fairly accurate and I used our google maps GPS to guide us often. There were a few times we wandered aimlessly in search of a mosque or restaurant and never found our way, settling for something else we stumbled across instead, but after a bit we got our bearings in our “neighborhood” and managed to navigate the subway system and get around with only minor detours. I think a less navigationally challenged travel duo would have a much easier time than Marie and I did. Aside from personal navigation, we were able to get taxis and Ubers from the airport and our hostel with no real issue and relatively inexpensively inside Kuala Lampur.
The official language of Malaysia is Bahasa Malaysian, which I do not speak (shocker, I know.) English is fairly widely spoken, widely enough to get by from my experience. As is typical, hostel staff speak English and there are maps available in English as well. The language barrier did present a challenge in some places, but it really felt like it was easier than I would have expected to get by with no Malaysian.
*Looking back on our time this leg of the trip, we spent a lot of our Malaysian adventure in museums, parks, butterfly gardens, etc. where we did not often interact much with others after we entered the facility. We were also primarily in Kuala Lampur, the capital city with a lot of tourism which equates to more English being spoken. I would imagine that if you stayed in more local accommodations or you were in more rural regions of Malaysia, English may be less widely spoken and an understanding of basic Malaysian may be more essential.
**It is always a considerate act to try and learn the basics of a language before visiting a country “hello/goodbye, yes/no, please/thank you”. As you can see from this section, I am not always successful in this endeavor (it’s hard to do when backpacking several countries for a few days at a time) but still something I am striving for in the future and would recommend to anyone. Knowing how to say hello and thank you can go a long way to getting your polite point across.
ABILITY TO WORK (WI-FI/INTERNET ACCESS)
The hostel we stayed in had decent Wi-Fi. I was able to access and reply to emails without too much problem, but I think a video chat or Skype call would have been unreliable from our hostel. Wandering the city, it was pretty difficult to get Wi-Fi even though I had unlimited data through T-mobile. I think it would be fairly easy to work remotely from Kuala Lampur, provided you just need basic Internet access. If you need more than that it is definitely important to test your connection before your big work meeting because it’s can be spotty. Kuala Lampur is a big city and there are a lot of business people working digitally through the city so Wi-Fi should be easily accessible with a bit of research – I cannot speak to how widely available it is throughout the rest of Malaysia.
I think Malaysia fell about middle of the road in terms of ease of navigating the country with physical limitations. Most of the museums/hostels had elevators or rooms on the bottom floors and the subways are fairly efficient and helpful to get around, but the streets in Kuala Lampur are extremely busy and challenging to cross and might be difficult for those restrained to wheelchairs or other walking devices.
We got stuck a few times walking to an attraction and found ourselves in the middle of a busy road with no great way to cross, sometimes requiring a little climibing or otherwise retracing a half-mile journey to get where we meant to go. Sometimes the sidewalks are not really treated as sidewalks, and are occupied by shops, stalls, construction, or storage which leaves you little space designated to walk. Other sites like the Batu Caves, which have 272 stairs to get to the temple at the top, don’t have alternative means of access. In all accounts it seemed pretty on par for a big city – accessible but not without its challenges. Oh, and it’s HOT!!!! If you don’t like the heat, aim for the public transportation because you will get sweaty quickly walking around anywhere (we visited in March, for reference).
On the whole, I felt decently safe traveling around Malaysia. There were a few occasions where men stopped us asking to take photos with us, and one where an older man in the restaurant we’d been dining grabbed us by the face telling us that we were beautiful and should visit Kuala Lampur again (I assume if he found us less attractive we would not be welcome to return?!). We encountered some mansplain-y hostel goers too who had an awful lot of unsolicited advice to give Marie and me about our trip plans. However, aside from the male-dominated gender dynamics I was sensing, I didn’t feel unsafe.
Scratch that – crossing the street made me feel VERY UNSAFE. At one point, we were struggling to cross and a resident noticed us, and wordlessly chauffeured us through the busy intersection, pausing when we paused and motioning us along until we’d crossed safely. But as this incident suggests, we met a lot of helpful people. More than once, a stranger approached us to offer us directions when they noticed our dismayed faces staring blankly at a map in the subway station. (Yes, I know ideally you’re supposed to look like you know where you’re going to be safe, but alternatively I’ve found when you look hopelessly lost and desperate, sometimes people are inclined to help!!!!)
We did get some uncomfortable looks when we told those who inquired that we were American – I suspect that it has a lot to do with the political climate of the US at the moment, the rhetoric about Muslims that has often come from our citizens and politicians, and the inequity in the fact that we had no issues entering Malaysia for vacation where Muslim tourists from Malaysia would likely have a much more challenging time gaining tourist privileges in the United States and unfortunately, may not be treated with a warm reception in many regions. None of these reactions made me feel unsafe – it seemed the overwhelming reaction when a Malaysian would ask where we were from and we’d reply “the United States” was a look of skepticism. They usually stopped asking us questions after that and would continue checking us out or doing whatever they were doing before we started chatting, leaving me feeling far more guilty and sheepish than unsafe.
Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, with just over 60% of its citizens practicing. Buddhists make up another nearly 20% with Christianity and Hinduism making up most of the remaining population. Be aware of this – there are many attractions which have a specific dress code for entrance, and many other places where there may not necessarily be a mandatory dress code but where you might stand out to wearing a crop top and short shorts. The religious aspect of Malaysia is hugely important to the nation and you will hear calls to prayer throughout the city, which I really enjoyed. Do a little research into Islam before you go and you’ll get a lot more out of the many beautiful mosques and Islamic arts centers around the city.
Overall, I think most people would be fine navigating Malaysia once arrived – especially in Kuala Lampur. Again, our experiences are limited to the main city and we were there for just a few days – I may have missed things or had vastly different experiences than others. This is not an official safety guide – just one wandering woman’s reflections that hopefully you’ll find helpful.