Malaysia Travel Guide
Malaysia has much to offer the senior traveller. From relaxing beach breaks to rainforest adventures, it provides a relatively safe environment for the holiday of one’s choice. English is widely spoken. The country often ranks high on lists of best places to retire to, an indication of its generally welcoming approach to older foreign visitors.
The country is equatorial and the constant tropical heat and humidity can be draining, especially for those not used to it. Older visitors may find it particularly exhausting, and should keep out of the sun during the day. However, most hotels, restaurants and shops are air-conditioned, providing a welcome escape from the heat.
Most of the country is considered safe for travel. An exception is the east coast of the East Malaysian state of Sabah, where there have been kidnappings of local people and foreigners. Anyone visiting this area needs to be vigilant. Petty crime is common in Kuala Lumpur, as in any modern city - bag snatchings and the like.
Seniors should take the usual precautions, especially if they are travelling alone rather than in a group. Credit card fraud is common too. The New Zealand government, for instance, recommends that its citizens take extra care when using credit cards in Malaysia, and check their statements carefully for fraudulent charges.
Malaysia generally provides visitors with bang for their buck. Kuala Lumpur has a lower cost of living than neighbouring Singapore or other Asian cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong or Shanghai.
Eating out is a pleasure. The range of food available is second to none, from spicy local dishes – Chinese, Malay, Indian - to western cuisine and everything in between, and is reasonably priced. Seniors who wish to stick to the food of their home country, for health or other reasons, are likely to find themselves well catered for. Those who choose to eat at Malaysia’s many food stalls should satisfy themselves that the food is clean and properly cooked.
The capital, Kuala Lumpur, is the starting point for most visitors to Malaysia. It’s a bustling, modern city with a constantly changing skyline and some of the tallest buildings in Asia. Much of its old architecture and way of life has been lost along the way but it’s home to a fascinating mix of cultures, with Malaysians of various differing ethnic backgrounds living and working together. In recent years, growing numbers of migrant workers have made the city their home, fuelling its growth with their hard work, and adding their own ingredients to its colourful cultural mix.
Senior travellers in search of history and tradition may find more to interest them outside Kuala Lumpur. But they’ll probably find it worth their while to spend a few days here before venturing further afield. The city has many attractions, and an excellent range of hotels, shopping centres and places to eat.
The Petronas Twin Towers, in the city centre, were once the world’s tallest buildings and remain an impressive sight. Rising 88 stories, they symbolise Kuala Lumpur’s dramatic growth over the past two decades. An observation deck on the 86th floor and a sky bridge linking the two buildings on the 41st floor are open to visitors, although queues can be long. Nearby is Suria KLCC, one of the city’s leading shopping malls. From here it’s worth taking the 1.2 km pedestrian walkway to Bukit Bintang, another of the city’s main commercial areas. It’s air-conditioned and an easy, enjoyable walk.
For anyone wanting to get out of the city centre, the Batu Caves 13 km to the north make for a colourful day trip. A popular Hindu shrine, the complex consists of three main caves and a number of smaller ones. To reach the biggest cave, one has to climb a steep flight of 272 steps, something senior travellers should attempt only if they are reasonably fit and are wearing comfortable walking shoes.
The island of Penang, in northwest Malaysia, has long been considered a holiday-maker’s dream. The beach resorts in Batu Ferringhi along its northern coast are a good place to put one’s feet up. The capital, George Town, is an intriguing blend of old and new. Unlike Kuala Lumpur, George Town has preserved many of its old buildings, even as new buildings have sprouted; its narrow lanes with their traditional shophouses are fascinating to explore. And the funicular railway from near George Town to the top of Penang Hill, with its cooler air and nature trails, is a must for any visitor.
Senior travellers who wish to immerse themselves in tropical greenery have several options including Penang National Park, the Tropical Spice Garden, where one can wander through terraced gardens, and the Habitat, a beautiful nature trail along the top of Penang Hill. None of these is too physically taxing, even for older visitors, as long as they avoid trying to cram too much into a day. Essentials are a hat, sunscreen, a bottle of water and comfortable shoes.
The city of Malacca, southeast of Kuala Lumpur, was once a major trading port and has a rich colonial history. Generations of Portuguese, Dutch and British lived, worked, worshipped and died here, all leaving their mark. Add to this the rich Peranakan culture of the Straits Chinese, descendants of Chinese who settled in the area centuries ago and adopted many of the local ways.
Malacca can be visited as a day trip from the capital but older visitors may wish to make an overnight stop for a more relaxing trip. It’s easy to explore on foot. Attractions include the ruins of the 16th century Portuguese A’Famosa fort, Jonker Street and its vibrant night market, St. Paul's Hill and Church with its old colonial gravestones, and the historic Red Square in the city centre with its Dutch-era buildings.
Malaysia’s hill resorts
The hill resorts offer an escape from the country’s heat and humidity, and a chance to enjoy life at a slower pace. Senior travellers who want to unwind may wish to add one or more of them to their itinerary. All the main hill resorts are in peninsular Malaysia; the older ones date from colonial times.
Fraser’s Hill is within easy reach of Kuala Lumpur and remains small enough to offer a relaxed, unhurried atmosphere. There are plenty of walking trails and several hotels.
Further north, the Cameron Highlands is the largest and most popular hill resort. It includes three towns, Tanah Rata, Brinchang and Ringlet, and draws tens of thousands of visitors a year. While the towns are becoming over-developed, it’s still possible to get away from it all on the many walking trails. One can also visit a tea estate. There are a number of good hotels.
Genting Highlands, in the hills northeast of Kuala Lumpur, is a different kind of hill resort. It’s newer and brasher, with a casino and other attractions including a roller coaster, a cable car and pop concerts. It offers noisy fun rather than peace and quiet.
The oldest and most northerly hill resort is Bukit Larut, still widely known by its old name of Maxwell Hill. It can be reached from the nearby town of Taiping only by government four-wheel drive vehicles (private cars are banned) or on foot, although the seven-hour round trip walk is likely to be too much for most older visitors.
About an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur is the newest hill resort, Bukit Tinggi, also known as Berjaya Hills. It includes a reproduction of an old French village, along with hotels, a golf course and a large Japanese garden and tea house, all surrounded by tropical greenery.
For senior travellers with an interest in history, Malaysia’s third-largest city, Ipoh, is well worth a visit. Many of the old, colonial buildings in this tin-mining town have been preserved and restored. Some are now museums. The city is surrounded by attractive limestone mountains, some of which have interesting caves. Recent years have seen a boom in chic eating places and new hotels, including excellent top-end hotels. The city also serves as the gateway to Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s largest hill resort.
The East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, offer a huge range of adventure holidays, with their rainforests, wide rivers, mountains, caves and unique wildlife. Senior travellers can enjoy these as much as anyone, provided they tailor their itinerary to their age and energy levels.
While some adventures, such as climbing Malaysia’s highest mountain, Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, would probably be beyond all but the fittest senior traveller – it takes a day and a half - there are memorable rainforest trails to explore in Kinabalu National Park below the mountain.
Rainforest lodges in several parts of the state offer opportunities for wildlife-spotting, river cruising and night safaris. And for those who want a more relaxing time, there are comfortable resort hotels along the South China Sea near the state capital, Kota Kinabalu. The sunsets are often spectacular.
Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state, has a lot to offer too. The capital, Kuching, has many fine old buildings; unlike Kota Kinabalu, it escaped heavy bombing during World War II. Cat lovers will enjoy the many cat statues around the city, and there is even a cat museum (the word ‘kuching’ means cat in Malay).
Sarawak’s top attractions include Gunung Mulu National Park and Niah National Park, both of which have large caves and forest trekking trails. However, senior travellers would need a high level of fitness to make the most of these.
Best months to visit Malaysia
Malaysia lies near the equator, and the weather is hot, humid and rainy all year round. There is little monthly variation in temperatures, which generally range from around 24° at night to 35°C during the day. The wettest months are usually October to January, while June and July are least wet, but climate change is blurring these differences. In any case, rainfall patterns vary in different parts of the country. The rain often takes the form of short, intense thunderstorms, mostly in the afternoon, so there is always plenty of sunshine.
There are two main tourist seasons. One is December-January, when people in Europe and the US take their winter holidays. The second is June to August, which marks school holidays in many Middle Eastern countries. Senior travellers who are not bound by family school or work timetables may wish to visit Malaysia at other times of the year, when it’s less crowded.
Currency and exchange rates
The Malaysian currency, the ringgit, is divided into 100 sen (cents). You can exchange foreign currency at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and at most hotels. There are also money changers at most shopping malls, which are likely to offer better rates.
Credit cards are widely accepted at hotels, shops and restaurants.
Header image: Izuddin Helmi Adnan